One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic golden age, 7th – 13th century AD. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature. I detect some parallels with the Hebrew and Biblical account of the book of Esther and the origins of the Feast of Purim.
The versions of One Thousand and One Nights vary, but what is common throughout all the editions is the initial frame story of the ruler Shahryar (from Persian: شهريار, meaning “king” or “sovereign”) and his wife Schehrezade (from Persian: شهرزاد, possibly meaning “of noble lineage”). The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his shock to discover his wife’s infidelity. He has her executed and in his bitterness and grief, decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Schehrezade, the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights. It ends with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.
The biblical account of Esther is set during the reign of King Ahaserus [Xerxes, 5th C. BC] and the story was likely composed sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. It tells of the King of Persia whose wife refuses his command to appear before his banquet of noblemen and so he deposes her for fear that women throughout the kingdom would disobey their husbands. Not long after Xerxes seeks for a new wife by bringing virgins from all around the kingdom into the palace. The girls are prepared for the Royal House over one year and then are brought to the king for one night. After one night they are moved into the royal harem and not called again unless by name. The story tells of an orphaned Jewish girl in the kingdom, raised by her cousin Mordecai, who was brought in before the king. She is favoured her among all the virgins and chosen to be his bride.
Not long after this Haman, the vizier [Prime Minister] brings charges against the Jewish people for not honouring the customs of the nation. Haman requests the King decree the Jews should be exterminated. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, passes news of the decree to Esther in the palace and urges her that she will not be spared by the decree and must intercede for her people. She tells him that anyone who comes to the king unbidden will be executed, except those he extends his golden scepter to. She resolves to fast and pray and then approach the king without invitation. After three days, she approaches the king, who extends his sceptre to her and asks her what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Instead of laying her case before the king, she instead invites him and Haman to attend a banquet. During the banquet again the king asks what she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Again instead of laying forth her request, Esther invites them both to a second banquet.
The next day at the second banquet the king again asks what Esther’s petition may be up to half the kingdom. This time she asks for the lives of herself and her people be spared. The king seeing that it was Haman who had established the decree, is furious and he walks out onto the balcony. In the meantime Haman pleads with Esther by falling upon her couch. When the king returns he perceives Haman to be molesting the queen and immediately orders his execution. Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, is given Haman’s place as vizier and he promptly writes another decree for the Jews to defend themselves. The occasion is celebrated to the present day in the feast of Purim, the day the Jews were spared anhialation by a faithful womans’ courage and her ability to artfully delay the king.
While elements are conflated and details changed, in both stories, the clever queen saves her own life and the lives of others by knowing how to go about matters of national and international diplomacy with subtle grace. Both women engage in theatrical delays across a series of nights, creating intrigue and enticing the King to change policies and preserve lives.