Many lines of comparison could be drawn between One Thousand and One Nights and the Odyssey: their reliance on myth, their origins as oral storytelling, their fantastical cast of characters. However, the common thread of gender is perhaps one of their most interesting points of comparison. Both works feature dangerous women who betray, manipulate, and scheme against their male counterparts. The portrayal of these female characters is furthermore claimed to be representative of all women, the good and the evil alike (although, as we will soon discover, all women are inherently evil). Looking back on these ancient stories, it is important to acknowledge the misogynistic attitudes that they perpetuate, even as we appreciate other aspects of their legacy. This post will examine some of the most dangerous women in Arab and Greek myth, in order to understand the underlying gender politics that have influenced their creation.
Source: Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant, Art Renewal Center Museum.
The Wives of King Shahrayar and King Shahzaman
The prologue to One Thousand and One Nights includes the story’s first mentions of dangerous women, who are never named despite their important function in the story. King Shahrayar and King Shahzaman are brothers who ruled during the Sassanid dynasty, and their story begins with Shahzaman traveling to visit his brother’s kingdom. He arrives distraught — he has just discovered his wife sleeping with one of the kitchen boys, leading him to conclude “Women are not to be trusted” (and also causing him to throw both wife and kitchen boy from the top of his palace). His brother Shahrayar does not know the source of his brother’s unhappiness, and invites him to go hunting with him in hopes of cheering him up. Shahzaman declines though, and so Shahrayar goes hunting without him. While his brother is away, Shahzaman is sulking by the garden when he sees his brother’s wife and twenty slave girls walking from the palace gate. Inside the garden, they undress to reveal ten white slave girls and ten black slave men, who begin having sex. Shahrayar’s wife calls out to her own lover, who jumps down from a tree and begins makes love to her. Afterwards, they all dress and return to the palace as if nothing happened.
This scene is supposed to serve as commentary on both race and gender — women will always cheat on their husbands, especially with black men. Therefore, when Shahrayar finds out what his wife has done, he is not content to merely punish her. He must punish all women, for any women could do what she had done. He states:
“Take that wife of mine and put her to death.” Then Shahrayar went to her himself, bound her, and handed her over to the vizier, who took her out and put her to death. Then King Shahrayar grabbed his sword, brandished it, and, entering the palace chambers, killed every one of his slave girls and replaced them with others. He then swore to marry for one night only and kill the woman the next morning, in order to save himself from the wickedness and cunning of women, saying “There is not a single chaste woman anywhere on the entire face of this earth.” (12)
This drama serves as a framing device for the rest of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights. Shahrazad, the vizier’s daughter, marries Shahrayar so that she can tell him a story that continues from night to night, effectively tricking him into keeping her alive. Beyond this functional purpose, however, the scene of the wife’s adultery is meant to support a recurring theme throughout the rest of the stories: women cannot be trusted. And, as demonstrated by the next character in this list, this attitude towards women is not contained by cultural bounds.
Source: John Collier, Clytemnestra after the Murder of Agamemnon
Clytemnestra and Agamemnon
Turning now towards the Odyssey, the theme of adultery is picked up by the King Agamemnon when he meets Odysseus in the underworld. Asked how he died, he tells Odysseus about his wife Clytemnestra and how she had plotted with her lover Aigisthos to kill Agamemnon when he returned from the Trojan war. Recounting her betrayal, he states:
“..there is nothing more deadly or more vile than a woman who stores her mind with acts that are of such sort, as this one did when she thought of this act of dishonor, and plotted the murder of her lawful husband… but she with thoughts surpassingly grisly splashed the shame on herself and the rest of her sex, on women still to come, even on the one whose acts are virtuous. (11.421-434)
This last line echoes the feelings espoused by King Shahrayar, who takes his anger against his wife out on series of other women. It also reflects a cultural trend to attribute a woman’s actions to her gender, assuming that all women are fundamentally the same. From this belief, Agamemnon warns Odysseus to watch out for his wife Penelope, since even a seemingly virtuous woman like her could be unfaithful. While Penelope does in fact stay faithful, fending off her many suitors off while waiting for word from Odysseus, it is implied that she would have given in eventually if he hadn’t returned. Meanwhile, Odysseus and the other male characters are not condemned for their many affairs with women, nymphs, or sorceresses, and their actions are never described as a “shame” on their gender.
Source: Sir John Tenniel, The Sleeping Genie and the Lady
The Woman with Ninety-Eight Rings
Another story that takes place in the prologue to One Thousand and One Nights features yet another unnamed female character who sexually manipulates the men around her. After Shahrayar hears about his wife’s adultery (and before he slaughters her and all their female slaves), Shahrayar and Shahzaman decide to take a journey away from the palace. During their trip, they see an enormous demon walking out of the sea. After scrambling up a nearby tree, they watch as he pulls a woman out of a glass chest, before lying down to lie in her lap. While the demon does not notice the two brothers, the woman does, and once the demon is asleep she beckons for them to come down from the tree. When they refuse, she threatens “You must come down, and if you don’t I shall wake the demon and have him kill you.” Once they do this, she lies down and demands “make love to me and satisfy my need, or else I shall wake the demon.” With no choice, the two brothers obey. The scene that follows is included below:
When they were done and withdrew from her, she said to them, “Give me your rings,” and, pulling out from the folds of her dress a small purse, opened, it, and shook out ninety-eight rings of different fashions and colors. Then she asked them, “Do you know what these rings are?” They answered, “No.” She said, “All the owners of these rings have slept with me, for whenever one made love to me, I took a ring from him. Since you two have slept with me, give me your rings, so that I may add them to the rest, and make a full hundred. A hundred men have known me under the very horns of this filthy, monstrous cuckold…He has guarded me and and tried to keep me pure and chaste, not realizing that nothing can prevent or alter what is predestined and that when a woman desires something, no one can stop her.
This encounter provides yet another example of women deceiving men, solidifying the brother’s belief that women are naturally inclined to lie and cheat against their husbands. Afterwards, they return home and Shahrayar begins his nightly routine of sleeping with women only to have them killed in the morning. His action are almost a ritualistic repetition of the encounter with the demon’s wife, only this time he is the one in control. His justification for his actions is that they are retribution for the deceit of his wife, the woman with the 98 rings, and all women everywhere. This is sadly the common excuse used to justify violence against women throughout many mythologies, even if the punishment is vastly out of proportion with the woman’s original crime.
Source: John Williams Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses
Circe and Calypso
The final dangerous women I will mention are Circe and Calypso from the Odyssey, two sea witches who manage to seduce Odysseus at different points in his journey. When Odysseus and his men first arrive on Circe’s island, she responds by using sorcery to turn many of them into pigs. Odysseus is able to resist her magic, with the help of the gods, but ends up sleeping with her anyways. He stays with her for over a year of his own volition, before continuing his quest home to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. In comparison, his stay on Calypso’s island is based less on choice and more of necessity — Calypso simply refuses to let him leave. In either case, he commits adultery with the two women and even stays with them for a number of years.
It’s significant, yet not surprising, that Odysseus’s adultery is never criticized while Penelope’s virtue is subjected to constant scrutiny on the basis of her gender. One possible explanation for this is that Odysseus’s transgressions were caused by sexual coercion. Calypso essentially held him captive, after all, and Circe uses sex as a tool to “breed deep trust” between the two of them. Nonetheless, his relationships with these two women demonstrate the double-sided nature of misogyny: women are valued for their beauty and sexual appeal, but also dangerous if they use these charms against men. While both Circe and Calypso are romantic interests in the story, they are also obstacles that hinder Odysseus’ return to his faithful wife Penelope. Like the woman with the 98 rings, they represent the danger often associated with female sexuality, from the ancient world to the modern day.
There are many other female characters in both One Thousand and One Nights and the Odyssey who would be interesting to analyze, and feminist scholarship has already done a lot of this work. However, it is still important to remember that these characters are shaped by the attitudes and cultures that created them — especially as we continue to read and celebrate these works today.