Special: One Thousand and One Nights for One Thousand and One Deaths

3 comments July 27th, 2010 Headsman

July 26, 2010 marked the 1,000th consecutive consecutive day of fresh death content delivered since this here site debuted on Halloween 2007.

Since rounding the milestone of 500, traffic has grown (nearly 80% of this site’s pageviews have occurred during the second half of its existence to date), awards have been garnered, and many, many heads have been harvested.

Quite a journey.

To celebrate the start of Executed Today‘s second thousand days, we are pleased to welcome scholar Elizabeth M. Hull for a feature excursion into what we flatter ourselves is our literary mirror, One Thousand and One Nights … which is the story of 1,001 stories, each related by the wife of the sultan to stave off her own execution.

By the way: the post below checks in right at 1,001 words.


1,001 Arabian Nights, when no one (real) was executed.

Once there was a young girl named Shahrazad who outwitted death and an angry king. But like all stories, this one begins long before that.

It is said that Shah Zamán returned home unexpectedly and found his wife asleep in the arms of their black cook slave. Naturally, Shah Zamán “drew his scymitar and, cutting the two in four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet and returned presently to his camp.”

Sick from dwelling “on the deed of his wife,” Shah Zamán witnessed the daily orgy between his brother Shahryár’s concubines and slaves, while Shahryár’s Queen’s “slobbering” slave “winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, … threw her and enjoyed her.”

King Shahryár’s greater power should have made him safe from women’s treachery; it did not. When the brothers discovered that even the wife of a powerful Jinn had cuckolded her husband 600 times, they concluded that “they all do it and that there is no woman but who cuckoldeth her husband.”

After slaying his wife, his ten concubines, and their lovers, Shahryár initiated his famous wedding policy, “marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning” before she could betray him. The slaughter went on every day for three years, until “there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation.”

The real story of Shahrazad is the story of damaged masculine honor and the holocaust it requires: 1,108 women and 11 men, until there is no one left to kill. The fundamental condition of this fictional world is men’s inability to control women’s sexuality — or even to control their own sexual desires. After all, the king does not give up sex; instead he kills his partners. His shame, jealousy, grief, rage, and power empty his city of life.

Shahrazad’s own story begins in this empty city.

The virgin whose father has carried out the executions volunteers to marry Shahryár. Her father warns her not to be like the Bull in the tale, and she eagerly asks for the story, which he frames in another cautionary tale. She still marries the king, but her father’s stories set the pattern for her stratagem: play upon natural human curiosity and the love of a good yarn, wrapped in another good yarn, rolled into a tangle of story threads.

Shahrazad tells her husband the story of the Trader who mistakenly killed his wife, and, famously, dawn comes just as he is about to kill his son, “knife in hand — And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day. … ‘What is this to that I could tell thee on the coming night, were I to live and the King would spare me?’ Then said the King in himself, ‘By Allah, I will not slay her, until I shall have heard the rest of her tale.’ So they slept the rest of that night in mutual embrace.”

The cliffhanger involves the trader’s love for his wife and his child, feelings Shahryár long ago killed in himself, since by executing his wives he has eliminated any children they might have borne. An empty city, and a sterile palace.

A complicated dance develops between Shahrazad and Shahryár, its rhythm set by the nights he spends with her between the setting and rising of the sun, metaphorical death and birth.

The classic Richard Francis Burton translations of the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night are also available free on Gutenberg.org.

The stories themselves are a kind of life, not just in the liveliness of adventure, love, sexual humor, and trade. Like life they are full of interruptions, new stories springing from old ones, proliferating, fertile, oozing the kindness and evil in the hearts of man and woman.

The tales reflect the conflict between men and women in Shahryár’s past. Often, women are adulterous, jealous, abusive, and rapacious; occasionally men are angry and brutally violent. Most especially, death fills the tales, thousands of deaths, mostly murders and executions. The famous hero Sindbad, for example, cast into the tomb with his dead wife, murders other widows and widowers for their food and water, takes their valuables, and becomes rich. Sharazad’s world is Darwinian: survival justifies killing.

Sometimes, women govern better than men. In the final story, Ma’aruf finds a ring that controls a Jinn, loses it to his father-in-law, who loses it to his Wazir, who loses it to Ma’aruf’s wife. When her husband tells her to give the ring to him or to her father, she says: “I will keep the ring myself, and belike I shall be more careful of it than you. … So fear no harm so long as I live.” Indeed, they remain happy until she dies.

The point could have been that Shahryár’s life will be happy as long as Shahrazad lives –- if her story ended there. Instead, Ma’aruf’s jealous first wife tries to steal the ring; she is killed by his son in one last conflict with a wicked stepmother. The story ultimately suggests that good women protect their husbands, but so do children.

Sharazad will base her appeal for clemency not just on her own value and but also on her children’s. By now, “Shahrazad had borne the King three boy children … one walking, one crawling and one sucking.” Connecting the stories to their sons, she says to Shahryár, “‘these thousand nights and a night have I entertained thee with stories,'” and asks him for her life: “‘for, an thou kill me, they will become motherless and will find none among women to rear them as they should be reared.’ When the King heard this, he wept and straining the boys to his bosom said, ‘… Shahrazad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste.'”

We never learn how he knows that she is chaste. Perhaps giving him life, life created just for him, not only through children but through the stories that restored his own desire for tomorrow, was enough.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages,Arts and Literature,Fictional,Guest Writers,Other Voices

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c. 560 B.C.E.: Aesop, fabulist

2 comments December 28th, 2009 Headsman

On an unknown date around the 560s B.C.E., the storyteller Aesop is supposed to have been executed in Delphi by being hurled from the Hyampeia rock.

The semi-legendary fable-fashioner is not quite so irretrievable to history as, say, Homer, although assuredly many or all of the tales that have accrued under the heading “Aesop’s Fables” trace to origins other than this man.

Supposed to have lived from the late 7th to mid 6th centuries B.C.E., Aesop is first referenced by history’s first historian, Herodotus.

But by way of summation, we cannot improve upon Plutarch‘s succinct description of Aesop’s fate in his essay, “On God’s Slowness to Punish Evil”. (Available here; a different translation is free online here.)

I’m sure you know the story of how Aesop came here bringing gold from Croesus. He meant to make a magnificent offering to the god,* and also to give every inhabitant of Delphi four minas, but apparently he got angry and fell out with the locals; so he made the ritual offering, but sent the money back to Sardis, because he didn’t think that the people deserved a windfall. They then engineered a charge against him of temple robbery and executed him by pushing him from the famous cliff called Hyampeia.** Subsequently, the story goes on, divine wrath afflicted them with failed harvests and with all kinds of strange diseases, and as a result they used to visit all the festivals where Greeks were assembled and make an announcement inviting anyone who so wished to claim compensation from them for Aesop. Two generations later Idmon of Samos arrived at Delphi; not only was he not a relative of Aesop, but he was in fact a descendant of the people who had bought Aesop as a slave in Samos.† It was only when the Delphians had compensated him that their troubles ceased.‡ (We are also told that this incident was the reason for moving the place of punishment for temple robbers from Hyampeia to Aulia.)

There are many books and media under the Aesop’s Fables branding available for purchase, but you can also find the same content in the public domain at Gutenberg.org and elsewhere.

In any format, they’re timeless. “The Mischievous Dog”, for instance, could have been written especially for bloggers.

[audio:http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19616/mp3/19616-04.mp3]

* Referring to the sacred shrine occupied by the Oracle of Delphi, of course.

** When visiting Delphi, look for Hyampeia marked on your tourist map as “Phleboukos”, one of the Phaedriades surrounding the sacred site. Hyampeia/Phleboukos towers above the Castalian spring. It’s high.

† Besides being a slave, Aesop (at least, the Aesop as legend accumulated) was afflicted with other disadvantages suitable to elevate his mythological wisdom. According to The Life of Aesop:

AESOP (according to Planudes, Cameraius and others) was by Birth, of Ammorius, a Town in the greater Phrygia; (though some will have him to be a Thracian, others a Samian) of a mean Condition, and his Person deformed, to the highest degree: Flat-nos’d, hunch-back’d, blobber-lipp’d; a long mishapen Head; his Body crooked all over, big-belly’d, badger-legg’d, and his Complexion so swarthy, that he took his very Name from’t; for Aesop is the same with Aethiop. And he was not only unhappy in the most scandalous Figure of a Man, that ever was heard of; but he was in a manner Tongue-ty’d too, by such an Impediment in his Speech, that People could very hardly understand what he said.

Be sure to check The Life‘s account of Aesop’s demise, with the undiplomatic Aesop having enraged his hosts with his poor opinion of their digs … and the fables he tells in his defense falling very flat: “He was speaking on, but they pushed him off headlong from the Rock, and he was dashed to pieces with the Fall.”

‡ The Delphians’ search for compensation is directly described by Herodotus’ Histories, written little more than a century after Aesop’s death. Though the execution story itself could be apocryphal, its presence in Herodotus at least makes Greeks’ belief in the event as a real one of their recent past about as credibly documented as anything from 2500+ years ago.

That Aesop belonged to Iadmon is proved by many facts — among others, by this. When the Delphians, in obedience to the command of the oracle, made proclamation that if any one claimed compensation for the murder of Aesop he should receive it, the person who at last came forward was Iadmon, grandson of the former Iadmon, and he received the compensation. Aesop therefore must certainly have been the former Iadmon’s slave.

Evidently, Aesop’s reputation for sagacious wit was well-established in the 5th century B.C. Aristophanes makes respectful references to Aesop in his plays The Wasps, Peace and The Birds — in the latter, the birds’ ignorance is underscored because they haven’t read their Aesop.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Greece,History,Myths,Popular Culture,Precipitated,Public Executions,Slaves,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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