13. Scheherazade (The Thousand and One Nights)

In our thirteenth episode, we talk about Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights! We discuss orientalism, the act of creating one's own narrative, and the healing power of storytelling.


Strong Female Character—Scheherazade

One Thousand and One Nights—Wikipedia

,Metamorphoses of Scheherazade in Literature and Film

Transcript Below!

Lizzie: Hello! And welcome to Mytholadies, a podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all around the world! We're your hosts,

Zoe: I'm Zoe.

Lizzie: And I'm Lizzie. So, Zoe, you did the research this week, who are we talking about?

Zoe: So, today, we're gonna talk about Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights stories!

Lizzie: Oh my god! That's so exciting!

Zoe: Yeah! Scheherazade is one of my favorite characters from folklore ever, as we will get into and I think she's super cool, so let's begin!

Lizzie: I'm excited!

Zoe: Alright! So, first some etymology. So, the name Scheherazade likely originated as an Arabic form of the Persian name Čehrāzād,which is composed of two words; čehrmeaning lineage, and āzād, meaning noble, or exalted. So therefore her name means noble lineage, I guess. Other Arabic forms of her name were Shirazad from texts by a person named Al-Mas’udi, and Shahrazadin texts by someone named Ibn al-Nadim. The spelling that we know now in English is from a German spelling and it first appeared in 1801. So. Some background on the stories, the Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern folktales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, which was from approximately the 8th through the 14th century C.E. It was collected over centuries by many authors, translators, and scholars throughout West, Central, and South Asia as well as North Africa. And it's a super diverse collection of tales with like super different origins, tales can be traced back to Ancient and Medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Greek, Jewish, and Turkish traditions.

So, many of the original stories are from the Mamluk and Abbasid eras of the Islamic empire. And others likely originated from the Pahlavi Persian work Hezār Afsān which means "A Thousand Tales". And that's likely where the frame story originated from and that's where we meet our lady! So, Scheherazade is a storyteller and she serves as the framing device for this collection of stories. And so, basically, the background of that is that the ruler Shahryar found out that his wife was unfaithful to him. And, at the same time, his brother and ruler of another kingdom, Shah Zaman, found out the same thing, that his wife had been unfaithful to him. So, they discuss this together and decided that all women were inherently unfaithful and that they would never swear by a woman again.

Lizzie: That's a good solution.

Zoe: Yes, no problems there. And so, to make things even better, or worse, they both decided to each marry a virgin every day, and then behead the woman from the night before. So she couldn't be unfaithful to them.

Lizzie: Classic.

Zoe: Yeah. So, basically, they're marrying a new woman every night and killing them the next day. And so, after three years, basically, Shahryar has run out of virgins to marry and murder, and he's also lost, like, the support of his kingdom for obvious reasons. And then Scheherazade comes into the picture. So, to describe, Scheherazade, I have this quote, "Scheherazade had perused the books, annals, and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples, and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts, and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred." And that is from Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Thousand and One Nights. Which we will also discuss later, but. That's the quote for now.

Lizzie: So she's very learned and perfect.

Zoe: Yes! Basically, she's super smart, she knows everything, she's studied all these stories and histories really well, and now she's volunteering to spend the night with Shahryar against her father's wishes. So, her father was actually the vizier, which is basically sort of like an administrative militarial role in the Islamic Empire. And he was actually the one who executed the women every morning on Shahryar's orders and due to his position, he had been able to spare his daughters from marriage until now. He really didn't want Scheherazade to get married to Shahryar but she did it anyway. He'd been executing women for three years now and he'd seen it happen over and over again and he didn't think she would succeed. Which makes sense he would believe that, but also, she had a plan.

Lizzie: Oh!

Zoe: So, once she was in the bedchambers of Shahryar, Scheherazade asked him if she could say one last goodbye to her little sister, Dunyazad. Dunyazad had been instructed previously to ask her sister to tell a story, and so she did that. And so Scheherazade told Shahryar a very exciting and engaging story. But she stopped in the middle, claiming it was nearly done and there was no time to finish. And Shahryar was so eager to hear the end of the story that he spared her life for one day. And so, for the first time in three years, he didn't kill a woman after marrying her and she lived to see another day and that must have been so huge.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And very exciting.

Lizzie: That's already like a huge feat I'm guessing.

Zoe: Yeah. And this continues throughout the tales for one thousand and one nights, and one thousand and one stories. Many of the stories are actually in themselves frame stories within her greater story, so, for example, The Tale of Sinbad the Seaman and Sinbad the Landsman is a story of two men telling stories to each other. So, basically, within her stories, she also has the stories being told, so she's layering story upon story in order to create more stories and more time. And more excitement and themes. And at the end of these nights, Scheherazade tells Shahryar that she has no stories left to tell. But, he has fallen in love with her and spares her life and takes her as his queen.

Lizzie: Its been like, three years, right? 'Cause a thousand and one.

Zoe: Yeah, that's like, a little less than three years, I think.

Lizzie: Okay.

Zoe: So, yeah. So, they've been together for three years, she's been telling these stories every night and he's fallen in love with her and seen, basically, the mistakes he's been making in, you know, killing women for every day and he takes her as his queen and he also convinces his brother Shah Zaman to do the same and spares the lives of all the women in his kingdom as well. So, basically, through her work and her storytelling, Scheherazade has managed to save literally hundreds, probably thousands of women's lives. In both kingdoms.

Lizzie: That's amazing.

Zoe: It's really incredible. So, first of all, I want to know if you have any more thoughts about Scheherazade.

Lizzie: Well, 'cause she probably could have been spared if she had wanted to be, like, 'cause of the position of her father, but she decided to do it anyway.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: 'Cause she was like, well, I could probably not do this but I'm gonna, to save all these women. And that's amazing.

Zoe: Definitely, yeah. It's so brave and it's so impressive.

Lizzie: Yeah, for sure.

Zoe: And it's really inspiring.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Uh huh. Yeah, so Scheherazade basically has total agency over her story from beginning to end. Like you said, she's the one who makes the choice and self-preservation would have her not do that. Like you said, she could very easily stay in her comfortable position as the daughter of the vizier. And not have to suffer the fate of so many women in the city before her. But, instead, she saw these women being killed and no one doing anything about it. And she said, "that's not right," and she figured out a way to stand up to him that would work, that would make sense, that would be less directly threatening and violent so that he would want to— he would immediately respond to her, it works so well that she basically, you know, sat there and wormed her way into his subconscious and into his life to convince him that what he was doing was wrong and to break that pattern and that cycle of abuse.

Lizzie: That's amazing. And also, like you said, she did it in a nonviolent way, like she could have snuck in with a knife or something like that, I don't know, but she decides-

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: To do it in like a really cunning and smart way.

Zoe: Mm hmm. And it would have made sense if she'd chosen to do it in a violent way but it just probably wouldn't have worked as well. And so, through her storytelling, that was the thing that really got to him. And then that really shows the power of stories.

Lizzie: Yeah, for sure.

Zoe: Which I think is so cool.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: Even though she, it's shown in the story that this is her decision and no one else wanted her to do this. Like, her father really tried to convince her not to do it, he even threatened to beat her, but she went against his wishes anyway. And, also, it shows that she's been very prepared for this, she's been planning it for a long time. And that quote I read from all those descriptions, all the books she's read, all the histories, all the philosophies that she's studied. She's been prepared, she's been learning for a really long time, and so, this isn't just a spur of the moment decision, she's planned this, she's come up with this idea and she's come with a very detailed plan of how to do it. And, so, it's precisely her personality and traits that allow her to be the hero of the story and accomplish her mission. Anyone could not have done what she did, so her extensive knowledge and study of folklore, history, and literature is the key to her success. So, this is specifically her traits, her knowledge, and her skills that allow her to achieve what she achieved. And it actually shows the benefits of education and study in particular in humanities and in particular women's education and study which I thought was really cool.

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: A really cool message.

Lizzie: Like, the power that you can have when you are educated.

Zoe: Yeah, when you're educated, and when you know things. And, in particular, I think when you know history. And being able to tell history or learn from history and apply it to current life and current situations, in particular in very clever ways like she did, is so important and I think that these tales in that sort of frame story really shows that. And so, something also interesting is that her father actually uses a tale to convince her not to go through with her plan. But she resists that tale and the lessons in that tale and does so anyway. So, to me, this shows that Scheherazade has total power over the stories. They do not have power over her. She creates them, interprets them, and manipulates them for her own whims and purposes. But she does not fall victim to their influence like other people in the story do. So, she basically is the one who creates the stories and other people's stories, she has power over them. So her father telling the story doesn't create power over her, she takes the power of that story and then sort of renders it powerless because she's the one, she's the storyteller, no one else is.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly. Which is very cool. Very powerful.

Zoe: And so her actions are incredibly powerful and impressive. Also, she's under the continuous threat of death and she manages to keep calm and tell thousands of fascinating stories that keep the attention of Shahryar nightly. Like, not just simple stories but really complex stories like those stories that have stories within them. So, she's not just telling, you know, fun, interesting stories that might not have a ton of depth but might be interesting to listen to, she's really weaving these really powerful and impressive narratives for the king to listen to. And she's doing all that while not even knowing if she's gonna make it to the next night. Constantly, for almost three years. And that's so incredibly impressive.

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: So, by telling the stories of many interesting and heroic characters, she creates a hero within herself. She's telling these stories, but she's also weaving her own story. Like I said, everything she's done before is deliberate, she created this role for herself as the person who was going to stop this king and his killings, and she goes through- she has her plan, she goes through with it, she creates this story for herself and she makes herself into a hero who tells tories and creates her own story. Which I think is so cool. And so, also, over the thousand and one nights, Scheherazade bears Shahryar three sons and so when she has run out of stories she suggests that as a reason her life to be spared. So, you know, she's created heirs, she's shown herself to be useful in a traditionally feminine way. However, Shahryar states that the actual reason is her ingenuity, piety, and purity.

Lizzie: Oh, that's nice.

Zoe: So he's convinced of this through her stories which often tell him to put things into perspective. As they often detail the lives of people with much greater difficulties than his own. And, so basically he's telling her that the reason why he loves her is not because she's fulfilling the traditional role of queen, you know, bearing heirs, like, you know, being there for the king, but because she's really challenged his ideas, she's changed his mind, she's changed his life, basically. And that's the reason why he values her. Which I think is really powerful as well.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I don't know, like, for me, I feel like, it's almost a part of her sacrifice was being with a man who was killing people, like that must be rough, that must have took a toll on her. Like, yeah this man has murdered like 300 women.

Zoe: Yeah, that's a really good point.

Lizzie: Or more than that. Three years.

Zoe: Yeah, it's probably close to 1,001 women. But, anyway. [laughter] Yes, like, it was a really huge sacrifice and even at the end she was sort of like, I don't expect him to appreciate it. She didn't expect appreciation beyond knowing that what she'd done had saved lives. And she just expected that he would acknowledge her worth because of what she had been able to do in a traditional sense. But. Actually he challenges that and says no, actually, I appreciate you for the incredible things that you've done with your stories and really changing the structure of this government and city.

Lizzie: Character development.

Zoe: Yeah!

Lizzie: That's nice. It's a happy ending.

Zoe: Yeah. So, yeah, she convinces him that he's wrong with his actions and then he convinces Shah Zaman as well, so therefore she saves hundreds of lives and really is the true hero of this story of stories. So, again, she creates the narrative where she is the hero and then follows it through to the end and achieves her goal. And that just, you know, also, so she has true autonomy all the way. She's created this role for herself, she sticks with it, and she has this- and she achieves the desired outcome. She's come up with what she wants herself to do. She's basically in control every step of the way. To the extent that you can be in control when you're living with a man who might kill you at any point in time.

Lizzie: Yeah, that's like, a high pressure situation.

Zoe: Yeah, so high pressure. And so, the stories she tells represents the power of storytelling to change lives, opinions, and worldviews and also represents the healing power of storytelling. Which I think is amazing and so powerful.

Lizzie: That's beautiful.

Zoe: Mm hmm. Like, stories are so important, telling stories is so- is like, basically what humans have been doing as long as they've been able to and this story basically just affirms the importance of storytelling in a really concrete sense.

Lizzie: Yeah!

Zoe: Like, in order to show those really greater ideas and it's so cool. So her stories help Shahryar heal from the betrayal of his wife's infidelity and understand the world and his situation in a much more objective and healthy light. I do think there's something to be said about the woman being the healer of a man who's been betrayed by other women in his life, but, I still think it's a very powerful story regardless of that.

Lizzie: Yeah, I feel you. I think it's cool that she's, like, the hero of the story where she's going up against misogyny, you know?

Zoe: Yeah, for sure!

Lizzie: Especially considering the time period. Like, that must have been quite revolutionary, I feel like.

Zoe: Yeah! I think it was definitely significantly a powerful and inspiring story. So, a bit more about the structure of the story and the history. The structure of The Thousand and One Nights follows a pre-modern Arabic tradition of storytelling called al-faraj ba’d al-shidda, and so al-faraj refers to openness, and it's a reference to the experience of relief after a time of difficulty or turbulence, or, al-shidda, which means "tightness" or "the difficult time". So, all the stories in this genre, including the Nights, follow the structure of hardship followed by relief. So, the hardship in The Nights is the period of wrath between two kings, threatening the very livelihood of the kingdom. So, one could potentially interpret the mass murder of the young women of their kingdoms as an attack on the future of their kingdoms. So, like, traditionally, they are the ones who would be giving birth to the future generations, so, by destroying all the young women in your kingdom, you're destroying the livelihood of your kingdom. You're destroying the future of your kingdom. So, when Scheherazade halts these murders, and gives birth to three sons, she ensures the livelihood of the kingdom in both physical and metaphorical ways. She's you know, created an heir that will be able to rule the kingdom for the future generations and she's also ensured that the other young women in the city will be able to survive, and therefore, contributed to the livelihood of the city for futures to come.

The stories are often about lessons of love, and also told as stories alongside the stories about the fates of nations. So, they follow both romances between people, and between countries. Basically, you might have a romance and also, alongside, the story of a king who has to figure out how to control his kingdom or something like that. And, these stories do involve romances that follow conventions and rules of propriety and class. Which, she says, that links to happy and healthy nations. So, basically Scheherazade is upholding the status quo. And she's doing that both in her stories and in her actual actions, you know, she's giving birth to heirs, that ensures that, like, the monarchy will be able to continue, but also it's better than the current alternative that's going on. So, there's that. And it also demonstrates how love and stories have the power to make or break nations, which, again, is super cool, the power of stories, again.

Lizzie: Once again.

Zoe: Really significant. Really important. And the power of love, too!

Lizzie: Yeah! That's beautiful.

Zoe: Mm hmm. I think that it's- when you talk about 1001 Nights, you must talk about how it's been adapted in Western cultures, in Europe and America, and its interpretations, and, essentially I think it's important to talk about orientalism.

Lizzie: Mm hmm.

Zoe: So, The 1001 Nights collection was likely never widely popular in the Middle East. So, there are no editions found from before the 18th century, and it was not mentioned in lists of popular literature. So, there are some reasons for this, poetry is generally more valued than prose fiction in the Islamic Empire, and, also, the tales were written off as fantastical pieces reserved only for children and women. [Lizzie laughs] So, I mean. I also think that, again, if you associate the stories with women, there's some very powerful messages in there for women, and so, I think that's very cool. So, the stories have had a much wider influence in Europe, and, some believe, going all the way back to the Medieval times and influencing works like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s ,Decameron. Both of those stories basically function as a collection of stories told within a lagrer frame narrative, which might be modeled after One Thousand and One Nights, and I see it. It makes sense.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: But, what happened in the 18th century? Basically, French author Antoine Galland created his first full European translation of the stories, forever cementing it into the cultural influence of European writers. There's a quote from Ken Mondschein, who wrote an introduction to a recent edition of these stories, he says: “there is no transmission without transformation, and in many ways, the reception of the Nightstells us more about our own culture than it does about the Muslim world.” So, in many translations of The 1001 Nights,European authors did not just directly translate the material they had, but added extra, as Mondschein says, quote, “salacious details” in order to fulfill common stereotypes about the Middle East in existence in Europe at the time.

Lizzie: Wow.

Zoe: And this is particularly - Mm hmm.

Lizzie: So, basically, if you find a copy now, it's probably been modified by Western authors? At least if it's, like, in English.

Zoe: Yeah, almost definitely, I think it might depend on the translator, I couldn't find a ton of information, I'm wondering if there are some authors who are actually from the Middle East who translated it, might have more, a more interesting perspective to offer, but if it's a white author, white European author, or American author, and, like, from the 19th century, for sure. Definitely gonna be modified.

Lizzie: Gotta look out for that, then.

Zoe: And, yeah, that's particularly prominent in Richard Burton's translation. To discuss more of this, we turn to the expert on Orientalism, the man who coined the term himself, Edward Said. So, Said says that, quote, “In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as ‘the Orient.’” So, essentially, Western Europeans create their own, fictionalized ideas of what the East is like, based on racial stereotypes and exotification, and supports them using their own Western methods and writing - basically creating, essentially, a fictionalized, mystical version of the East.

And to quote where I'm getting most of this analysis from, which is the Strong Female Character blog post about Scheherazade, “It makes sense, then, that one of the abiding cultural icons that emerges from the Nights is a storyteller.” - one that takes her understanding of previously written stories, myths, and cultures, and shapes them into her own stories and ideas. So, Scheherazade is the storyteller of the stories that have helped create this imagined conception of the Middle East is in a sort of liaison role between Western Europe cultures and this imagined culture. So, despite her fictional status herself, her storytelling role legitimizes this fictitious view of the East, which allows the Western reader to pretend that the stories are genuine representations, despite the changes that can be made in translation.

Lizzie: Makes sense. And it kind of goes to show you the power of translators.

Zoe: Oh, for sure, yeah. Translation is so important. And, especially when you don't speak the language, you basically rely on what the translator has to say is the original text is. Even though they can definitely modify it heavily. And, basically, translators are acting as though Scheherazade is this authority on what it's like to live in the Middle East when she is not a real person, she is a fictionalized character. Then, that therefore validates their sort of fictionalization of the East and this creation of stereotypes and false cultures that don't really exist. And, so, I think it's really important to talk about orientalism when it comes to adaptations of the 1001 Nights, because basically all Western adaptations have played into orientalist themes to some extent. You can think again about Aladdin, by Disney, please don't sue us [Lizzie laughs], which basically creates this, like, monoculture of Middle Eastern cultures, like, throws a bunch of things together, creating this fictional country and doesn't really actually acknowledge the real cultures and really diverse groups of people and ways of life in the Middle East, it just kind of mushes it all together.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Yeah, so the film Hollywood adaptations of the Arabian Nights stories lead to an “Arabian Nights fantasy” which is generally informed by Burton’s exaggerated translation, and designed to entertain and fantasize rather than educate or provide a genuine view into a culture. So, yeah, again. Aladdin's a huge example, there are many others.

Lizzie: I bet.

Zoe: So, they often depict a bastardized amalgamation of, quote, “Eastern” cultures, based on mystification and exotification, rather than looking at the individual and diverse cultural settings of each story. So, like, for example, the original tale of Aladdinactually took place in China, which you have no idea if you watch the movie.

Lizzie: Oh, interesting.

Zoe: Also, it wasn't actually part of the original 1001 Nights tales, it was added later which I think is interesting because it's one of the main tales you think about when you're thinking about the stories. In the case of adaptations, they can sometimes take away Scheherazade's agency and intelligence. So, there's the example of the BBC's 2000 Arabian Nights short miniseries adaptation. Basically, in this story, Scheherazade has been in love with Shahryar for a long time, and for that reason chooses to marry him and try to save and heal him.

Lizzie: Wow...

Zoe: So, this removes her agency of making a conscious choice to put her life on the line and save the women from the city and create her own hero in herself. Instead, she's just the lovestruck girl focused on a man without the level of strategic thought and planning that goes into her story.

Lizzie: It takes away the cunning and intelligence that go along with.

Zoe: Yeah. Also, in that adaptation, Scheherazade is shown to not have mastery of storytelling. When stuck in the stories, she turns to an older male mentor-

Lizzie: Wow.

Zoe: Which I think is pretty gross.

Lizzie: Yes.

Zoe: Like, the whole point of Scheherazade is that she knows all the stories and in this adaptation they're basically taking away all of her knowledge, all the studying that she's done, all the learning, all the research that she has. Oh, also, by the way, all this about adaptations is taken from an article called "Metamorphoses of Scheherazade" by Wen-Chin Ouyang. So, however, some adaptations can add more depth to her as a character, so in the example of the BBC adaptation, even though it has those flaws, in the original collection of stories we actually don't hear a ton about how Scheherazade feels about being stuck in this constant limbo of death and life and whether or not she's going to live to see the next night. And, they depict that in the miniseries, and you can depict that in adaptations, which is like, good, you can add some more depth to Scheherazade. And it also can show the decision-making process of Shahryar as he decides whether or not to kill her and the great stakes she's facing, so, like, it can add more emotional depth and intensity to the stories of the characters.

So, Scheherazade has been adapted and analyzed in much postcolonial Arabic literature as well. She's often depicted by male authors as a representation of Arabic selfhood, and by female authors as a symbol of Arabic womanhood. And, so, I sort of want to close with this quote from the article, this same article about the metamorphoses of Scheherazade in literature and film, "the questions of, quote, ‘authenticity’ and ‘influence’, or ‘whose story is it?’, become irrelevant; after all, the story is by and of its teller wherever the ingredients may come from.” So, I think that's basically a really good summation of how the story of 1001 Nights has been adapted and changed by European/American orientalist visions throughout the years. So, as someone who likes to write, I think that the story that shows the power of storytelling and influence of the power of stories to influence kingdoms and futures and save lives is so powerful, and the way that Scheherazade is, like, the female storyteller-

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: Like her name is literally a word for a storyteller, it's so cool and so powerful and I just think she's an amazing character.

Lizzie: And also, like you said before, like, it also shows you the power of knowing your own history.

Zoe: Mm hmm.

Lizzie: Which is also very beautiful. And, like you said, the healing power of storytelling. That's just.

Zoe: Yeah, like, through her stories she's able to save thousands of lives and she's able to basically heal Shahryar of the grief and pain he's been going through of having his wife be unfaithful to him. And, like, though there are definitely implications of that and women acting as the healer to a man who's shown himself to be quite misogynistic, I think it's still a very powerful story and a testament to her strength as a person and a character.

Lizzie: Yeah, it's quite beautiful. I really, really like Scheherazade. She's very cool.

Zoe: Yeah, I just think she's amazing.

Lizzie: And I also think it's cool that, to show, like, how much power she has but it's not through combat or anything like that. It's through like her own mind, and stuff.

Zoe: Yeah! It's absolutely through her mental skills and prowess. Which is really, super cool. And, to show her level of intelligence and quick thinking and basically cleverness of being able to come up with all these ideas and stories under such an intense shadow of death is really amazing and very inspiring.

Lizzie: Yeah, it's a testament to how amazing she is and her mind and her knowledge.

Zoe: Absolutely. Thank you for listening to our episode, if you liked it, please subscribe, leave a review, and tell your friends about it. And we'll see you again next week with another episode. Thank you! Goodbye.

[outro music]

Lizzie: Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today’s episode was researched and presented by Zoe Koeninger. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @Mytholadies, and visit us on our website at mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening! See you next week.