sexual superheroes in the Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight

The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, an early-fifteenth-century Arabic text from North Africa, tells the story of three great sexual heroes.  A powerful king had seven beautiful, charming daughters.  They dressed in men’s clothes and fought in battle against men.  When the king died, the eldest daughter became ruler of the land.  But Zahra, the youngest daughter, was the most clever.  The daughters became renowned throughout the land.  Together they promised a long reign of matriarchy.

Zahra was an avid hunter.  One day when Zahra was out hunting with her slaves, she crossed paths with a horseman, Abu’l Hayja. Abu’l Hayja wasn’t sure if Zahra was a woman or a man.  He learned Zahra’s story from one of her slaves.  However, gazing upon Zahra’s hands, eyes, and figure, Abu’l Hayja fell in love with her.  They exchanged courtly rhymed prose.  Zahra refused Abu’l Hayja’s proposition for sexual union.  Then they parted.

After returning home, Abu’l Hayja decided to assail Zahra’s fortress palace.  He armed himself with his sword and rode off with his trusted slave Maymoun on the long day’s ride to Zahra’s palace.  Abu’l Hayja and Maymoun hid in a nearby cave.  That night, they heard noise and saw a light in the back of the cave.  Peering through a crevice, Abu’l Hayja saw Zahra frolicking lewdly with one hundred nymphs.  Abu’l Hayja then knew that he needed help.  He returned home and secured the help of his best friend, the Grand Vizier’s son Abu’l Hayloukh.  Abu’l Hayloukh was a much-honored warrior.  Abu’l Hayloukh brought along his most trusted slave Fallah.

The men returned to Zahra’s palace and sneaked in through the back of the cave.  They hid themselves in the palace’s inner room until night.  After nightfall, the girls entered to enjoy the elegant furnishing, lavish food and wine, and wanton revelry.  The men waited for the women to get somewhat inebriated.  Then armed and masked, the men stepped out from their hiding place and stood over the women reclining on cushions.  Zahra retained considerable wit despite the wine:

“And who might these night intruders be?” signed Zahra. “Have you sprung up from the ground or dropped down from the sky? What is it that you want?” {oh, these bothersome armed men!}

“A fuck,” demanded Abu’l Hayja. {men, always undertaking dangerous and unnecessary special operations}

“With whom?” {you ignorant man}

“With you.”

“How do you know me?” {you don’t actually know me}

“We met out hunting.” {tsh, I thought you’d turn out to be another creepy stalker}

“Who let you in here?”

“The Lord, in His Mercy.” {Lord have mercy on your pathetic soul!}

Zahra considered her position. She had by her side the girls — impregnable virgins one and all — and a companion, Mouna, who had never been aroused by a man in all her life. {they all enjoyed pleasures with each other}

“Why don’t I save myself and outsmart this gang by putting them to use?” she mused. {selfish, backstabbing of her fellow lesbians!}

“All right,” said she, “but only on my terms.”

“Accepted in advance,” they replied as one. {men, even armed men, are women’s pushovers}

“And if you fail, you will be my prisoners, to do with as I please.”

“Agreed.” {male penal fantasy triumphs over reality} [1]

Zahra unilaterally declared the terms of the wager.  She declared tasks that no ordinary men could perform.  Zahra commanded:

  • Abu’l Hayja:  “to deflower eighty of these virgins tonight, without coming once.”
  • Maymoun: have sex with Mouna for fifty nights in a row: “He can come if he wants to but he must not go limp.”
  • Abu’l Hayloukh: “you are going to stand in front of the women and girls for thirty days and thirty nights while maintaining a constant erection.”

In short, Zahra assigned the three men extraordinary labors of sexual servitude.[2]  Fallah, who perhaps was a eunich, was assigned the task of serving the women as a non-sexual servant.  If the men didn’t satisfy in these labors, Zahra would take all four men prisoners.

Abu’l Hayja successfully pushed through the eighty virgins.  “Everyone was highly impressed at this outstanding performance.”  That was not enough for Abu’l Hayja to receive his one true desire, Zahra.  All the men would fail if any one failed.

Indian painting of sexual instruction, c. 1725

What of Maymoun and his labor of displaying a continuous erection for thirty days?  This was prior to the modern development of erectile drugs.  Zahra viewed the event with eager anticipation:

Zahra was confident that they would soon be at her mercy and as each day passed and her anticipation grew, she seemed to become more radiant and lovely.  Until the twentieth day, when all that changed and she started getting worried.  On the thirtieth day, she burst into tears.  It was then that Abu’l Hayloukh discharged himself with honour and came to join his friend in a drunken feast of celebration.

It was a celebration feast with a crying non-bride and triumphant masturbation.

Zahra’s final hope was on Maymoun.  Every day she asked her companion Mouna about Maymoun.  Mouna again and again replied, “He gets stronger by the day.  I think they’re going to lick us!”  That didn’t buoy Zahra’s spirit.  Abu’l Hayja declared that he would kill Maymoun if he didn’t last the full fifty days and then add another ten.  The one who finally withdrew was Mouna:

Maymoun kept it up for fifty days and fifty nights at which point Mouna, worn out and exhausted, heaved a deep sigh of relief.  But when the fifty days had passed and he still kept going, she sent a distress call to Zahra.

“Mistress, he’s gone over the fifty days now but there’s no sign of him getting off me.  For God’s sake get me out of here!  I’ve been stretched apart so much I’m unable to sit down!”

However, not only did Maymoun carry on for the extra ten days but added a further ten of his own.  Everyone was enormously impressed.

Who wouldn’t be impressed with these three sexual heroes?  The story ends with an admirable display of brotherhood:

in the end, the four men took possession of everything in the palace — money, girls, women and servants — which they divided equally among themselves.

The four men were two freemen and two slaves.  One of the slaves, Fallah, did no sexual labor.  That didn’t matter.  They divided the winnings from their wager equally.  In the division of the women, Abu’l Hayja undoubtedly took Zahra.

This story of three sexual heroes is probably no more realistic than most representations in today’s media.  The story appears in the context of a chapter describing foods and drink to increase men’s sexual prowess.  The men in the story appear rather foolish.  But the story does show appreciation for men’s sexuality.[3]  That’s a starting point for appreciating men.

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Read more:


[1] Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi, The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, from Arabic trans. Colville (1999) p. 80.  Material in {} is my imagined spirit’s thoughts.  Id., translators n. 25, explains that “impregnable” translates the Arabic musaffahat.  That’s a ritual procedure in the Maghrib in which a young girl has small incisions made above her right knee, and she says an incantation.  That’s thought to make it physically impossible for a man’s penis to penetrate her vagina.  A few days before her marriage, another ritual undoes the effect.  In the post above, all subsequent quotes are from Ch. 21, trans. id.  Id., introduction, p. viii, describes The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight as “a practical guide for the ordinary married man.”  That’s ridiculous, as is readily apparent above.  Richard Burton’s alternate translation of the story is available online.

[2] Hercules (Heracles) reportedly undertook a similar labor. In a single night, Hercules had sex with forty-nine daughters of Thestius. Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.27.6. Other accounts indicate Hercules had sex with fifty daughters of Thestius over seven or fifty days. Cf. e.g. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.29.2-3. While such labors may be sexual abuse of men, imposing these hardships is much less abusive than violence against men in medieval French fabliaux.

[3] While the men redeem themselves with their penises, their persons are not reduced to penises.

[image] Painting illustrating a sexual position; Kotah, Rajasthan, India, c. 1725; F.277, Walters Gallery.


Colville, Jim, trans. 1999. Umar ibn Muḥammad Nafzāwī. The perfumed garden of sensual delight = Ar-rawd̲ al-ʻât̲ir fî nuzhatiʼl khât̲ir. London: Kegan Paul International.

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