One Thousand and One Nights (Part 2)
The book One Thousand and One Nights had an ancestor. Even that ancestor had much older forefathers, the old myth, and the story of Zahhak.
Maybe this is a wrong theory but, as we get to Zahhak, this becomes clearer. It is better not to forget that the main concepts in philosophy, psychology, and other human-related sciences, rose from ancient myths. As Mir Jalaleddin Kazzazi says, for people, there are only three ways to discover the world.
How do we get to Zahhak the demon? In the beginning, there was a myth. Myths created the whole world view for people and, it was their answer for everything. Then philosophy came through and, logic gained life and showed people the way. In modern times, the one we live in now, our world view is based upon science.
As much as the scientific methodology has permitted us, literals have done researches on One Thousand and One Nights. But, science could not tell us why or even how this act of courage, these short stories, and the book became so influential.
It seems that even the most prejudiced scientists turn to old myths when they cannot give a clear answer. Many psychological disorders or complexes have myth names.
There could be one named Zahhak, but Iran did not pursue psychology like that.
Long before Zahhak, when the whole Aryan tribe lived in Siberia, they had mutual myths and stories. That is why, after they separated, the matching figures, characters, and story patterns exist all around the world; In Iliad and Shahnameh, for instance.
Long story short, Carl Jung talked about the Collective Unconscious. One Thousand and One Nights is a written Collective unconscious, and it starts with a myth. A myth each tribe of the Aryans took with themselves. And when they created their unique civilization, it came back to them in the form of a book, which they all recognized unconsciously. Like how they re-wrote the Zahhak story, for instance.
Once upon a time, there were only gods and demons. Gods created life and, the demons killed the life. Gods decided to create something, a spirit, a goddess that could give life demons could not destroy her. All the creatures depended on that essence of life.
The demons were clever too. They captivated that soul or spirit and took her powers. Then, a hero rises, frees the goddess, and life comes back. Some parts of this old myth are told with assumptions. But there are signs to prove it. At least in Iran, there are similar stories that narrate the same myth in disguise. That is where Zahhak enters.
During the Sassanid dynasty, when scriveners started to write down everything, instead of just memorizing them, they wrote a book called One Thousand Tales. The book got lost when Arabs invaded the Persian Empire.
Later in history, we hear about an Arabic book with a familiar name, One Thousand and One Nights. We know that during the Abbasid caliphate, there was a time when translators got to work and translated countless books from Latin (Greek) and Pahlavi to Arabic. Ferdowsi says many times in Shahnameh that his sources were the tales heard from farmers and Khwaday-Namag. The name of Zahhak emerges only in Shahnameh, but in holy historical books, there was a demon with the same characteristics as Zahhak.
Again, somewhere around the 18th century A.C., One Thousand and One Nights was translated to French and entered Europa. It became wildly popular and famous, till finally it was translated back into Persian.
On one hand, we know there is this old myth, then we know for sure a book named One Thousand Tales existed. This book also contained stories to amuse and heal the readers. There are records of the book in Al-Fihrist, for example, and in other encyclopedia books.
After listing these facts, we look for other signs. As Bahram Beyzai believes, in other myths we can see the exact story pattern with familiar names. The most vivid one is the chapter about Zahhak in Shahnameh.
Zahhak is a demon but not like those who had enmity with gods. Zahhak was naive, and the Devil played him. The Devil kisses both of his shoulders, and two furious snakes come out of them. The only way to tame them was to feed them with human brains. So, each night, the slaughters brought two young men, and the chefs made brain stews for the snakes. Sounds familiar, right?
If we dig deeper, there are verses in Shahnameh about a night when Zahhak (Shahryar) wakes up frightened from a nightmare. He was guilty of murdering innocent men and askes his wife Shahrnaz or Shahrnavaz (like Shahrzad, Scheherazade) to interpret the dream. And from other verses, we learn that Shahrnaz and her sister kept Zahhak busy with storytelling.
Why? Did they enjoy the company of the snakes? No! there were people outside the court uprising against Zahhak. Each night, the chefs saved one life and led him out to join the others. In the end, a hero rises, and he captivates Zahhak, frees the girls who were of royal blood, who later give birth to Iran’s ancestors.
There are parts where Zahhak grew conscious and regretted his actions. The stories were working but, the narration of Zahak is told from only one angle.
All the elements of the old myth are right there. In One Thousand and One Nights, One Thousand Tales, the chapter of Zahhak, folk songs, and Persian nursery rhymes.
The Arabic translator was also a creative writer. He changed the stories to become the atmosphere of Bagdad. The short stories represent the main shape of the city as in costumes, allies, and bazaars. That is the reason for naming the book Arabian Nights as well.
The point is, where science draws strict lines between reality and fiction, where philosophy casts total certainty aside and doubts everything the mind reaches, we need a unique concept to gather around it. This concept should have the power to unify and live beyond time. We turn to myth for a strong reason. What Zahhak did, his fate, and the things that happened in between reflecting our fear of always being trapped.
One Thousand and One Nights is not just an amusing book. It is about our captivated souls, which either a hero from the outside could save or we could try treatments such as literature. Gather under the wings of written words and let them soothe our neuroticism. What if we took one thousand and one night to redeem ourselves?
Shahrzad (Scheherazade) did, aside from influencing many modern writers such as Haruki Murakami, Jorge Luis Borges, Goethe, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Marcel Purest, and others, was that she established or introduced a method of therapy.
This way of unrecognized psychology kept itself alive during the time. When King Bahram, the V, ordered many musicians to come on and sing for people in the street, he had such a concept in mind. There is also Persian Naqqali which is an old-style and form of storytelling in Iran.
Though One Thousand and One Nights book has deep roots in Iran (summarised under the myth of Zahhak), it is a transnational phenomenon in the literary world. Myths, if used in the right way, could bring people together and, the stories narrating these myths could help us save our souls.