Great Epics: Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Epic of the Kings), With Two Magnificent Illustrations from the Aga Khan Museum

Written a thousand years ago, Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or The Epic of the Kings tells the story of the Iranian people from the time of the world’s creation. National epic, landmark in world literature and a profound expression of the Iranian soul, Ferdowsi’s masterpiece is still read and recited throughout Iran.

I. THE EPIC OF THE KINGS, AN INTRODUCTION

The statue of Ferdowsi in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran. Photo: Wikipedia.

The statue of Ferdowsi in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran. Photo: Wikipedia.

By Nahal Tadjadod

In a square in Teheran, the capital of Iran, there is a statue of Ferdowsi [or Firdawsi, Firdausi etc, Ed.) where the poet holds his Epic of the Kings (Shahnama or Shahnameh, Ed.) in his hand and gazes at the peaks of the Alborz mountains. When I was young, my parents often took me to this place and while they looked on attentively I recited these lines by Ferdowsi:

“I have toiled painfully these thirty years. I have restored Iran to life by my verse. Henceforth I cannot die; for I live, having broadcast the seeds of my verses.”

These words were engraved in the memory of the child I was then and I know that they have shaped my innermost identity. There is nothing astonishing in that. For a thousand years Ferdowsi’s poem has been read, recited and copied in Iran. Even today it is recited in the cafés. Early on it became our national epic.

Why has it always been so popular? Not because of the originality of its subject the history of ancient Iran from the time of its first mythical king to the last sovereign of the Sassanid dynasty in the seventh century AD nor because of the novelty of its content. “What I will say, all have already told,” Ferdowsi claimed. The poet transmitted; he invented nothing. He drew on old oral traditions and on ancient texts such as the Avesta, a holy book of the eighth century BC, or reworked somewhat earlier tales on the same theme.

The First Masterpiece of Persian Literature

This illustration is from Shah Tahmasp I’s Shahnameh, one of the most remarkable Persian manuscripts, which was started when Shah Tahmasp returned to Tabriz from Herat in 1522. This illustration shows Firdausi, the author of the written version of the Shahnameh, with the three poets of the court of Mahmud, the sultan of Ghazna, a city which is now in modern-day Afghanistan. Firdausi left Tus, his native city, in northeast Iran, to seek out the patronage of the sultan for his Shahnameh. Before meeting with the sultan, he was confronted by three poets of the court who cornered him before finally acknowledging his superior talent. In this miniature painting a small black servant roasts a bird on a spit while young fine-faced boys bring wine and delicacies to the three Ghazna poets, seated, in the centre of the picture, on the grassy bank of a stream of water. Firdausi’s isolation is emphasized by his position to the extreme left of the main group, just where the composition spills over into the margin. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

This illustration is from Shah Tahmasp I’s Shahnameh, one of the most remarkable Persian manuscripts, which was started when Shah Tahmasp returned to Tabriz from Herat in 1522. This illustration shows Firdausi, the author of the written version of the Shahnameh, with the three poets of the court of Mahmud, the sultan of Ghazna, a city which is now in modern-day Afghanistan. Firdausi left Tus, his native city, in northeast Iran, to seek out the patronage of the sultan for his Shahnameh. Before meeting with the sultan, he was confronted by three poets of the court who cornered him before finally acknowledging his superior talent. In this miniature painting a small black servant roasts a bird on a spit while young fine-faced boys bring wine and delicacies to the three Ghazna poets, seated, in the centre of the picture, on the grassy bank of a stream of water. Firdausi’s isolation is emphasized by his position to the extreme left of the main group, just where the composition spills over into the margin. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

This immense poem of 50,000 couplets appeared in the tenth century, at a key moment in the history of Iranian culture. Since the fall of the Sassanids, the literary language of Iran had been Arabic. Middle Persian, the main vehicle of Sassanid civilization, was disappearing. At this moment, a young literature in an Iranian idiom-Persian emerged in the east. Ferdowsi’s poem would be its first masterpiece.

The Epic of the Kings does not describe the deeds of a single hero or king nor even a long adventure. It begins with the creation of the world and relates the history of fifty reigns on three distinct planes: the mythical, the epic and the historical.

The first part relates civilizing myths. The Pishdadians, the “first created”, teach men to clothe themselves, to work metal, to master fire, to tame animals and to organize themselves in society. After ruling for 700 years, King Jamshid, succumbing to pride, has to yield his throne to a demoniac creature, the tyrant Zahhak who will rule for a thousand years. His malign power will finally be conquered by the justice-loving Faridun. These heroes, who personify the conflict between the forces of darkness and light, constitute a religious theme which is typically Iranian.

The second, longest and most truly epic part of the poem evokes the reign of the Kaianid kings. Here, in the centrepiece of the poem, light has triumphed. Rostam is the champion of all the heroes who live at the Kaianid court. Prodigiously strong, loyal to his king and faithful to his country, he is the terror of the enemy. This period is marked by interminable wars against Turan, a central Asian country whose ruler Afrasiyab is the sworn enemy of Iran.

In the final part, the poet presents a number of historical figures but in a rather fantastic light.  He gives a notable account of the conquest of Alexander the Great (Sekandar), based on the  Alexander legend of the Orient. The ending, even closer to history, tells of the exploits of the Sassanid rulers until the end of the dynasty.

Faridun and Zahhak: The Just man and the Tyrant

The story of Zahhak the tyrant, told in the first and most brilliant part of the poem, extols the  sufferings of a martyred people.

The courageous but wayward son of King Mardas, Zahhak is led astray by Eblis, the devil. After making a pact with Eblis, Zahhak usurps the throne. Revealing himself to the king in various forms, the devil extends his power further each day. One day Eblis presents himself in the guise of a cook. “The diet is not varied,” he says, “for flesh is not eaten,” and he wishes Zahhak to eat all kinds of viands, both birds and quadrupeds. When the devil, who has gained Zahhak’s confidence, embraces him, a black serpent thrusts its head out of each of the tyrant’s shoulders. Whenever he cuts them off they sprout anew like two branches of a tree. Then Eblis appears again, this time disguised as a physician, and proposes as a remedy that Zahhak should eat two human brains each day.

Thus for a thousand years the demons cause evil to reign and no one dares talk openly of good. But one night Zahhak dreams that he is laid low by a young prince who strikes him with a bullheaded mace and drags him in chains to Mount Damavand. Plunged in darkness, the world was as black as a raven’s wing. The tyrant consults the Mubads, the Zoroastrian priests, who read the stars and tell him that his vanquisher, who is not yet born, will be called Faridun. “He will hate you, for his father will die at your hand and you will also kill the cow that will serve him as nurse. To avenge the cow he will take up the bull-headed mace.”

Mad with anxiety, the king hunts everywhere for traces of Faridun. The blessed child is born at the same time as the most marvellous of cows. He is entrusted by his mother to the keeper of the park where the nurse-cow lives, and is nourished with her milk. One day Zahhak hears of the park and the cow, kills the fabulous animal and rushes to Faridun’s house. He finds no one there. Overcome with fear, Faridun’s mother has taken her son to Mount Alborz.

At the age of sixteen Faridun learns of his origins from his mother and decides to fight the tyrant. In  anguish Zahhak convokes all the elders of the land to seek their support. “I desire you to subscribe to a proclamation on my behalf that as commander in chief I have sown no seed but that of uprightness…and that I would never fail to maintain justice.” All consent except one man, Kava the Blacksmith, who rises in protest. “I am Kava, seeking for justice. Most of the wrong done to me comes from yourself. It is you who constantly thrust the lancet into my heart. Why do you inflict harm on my children? I had eighteen alive in the world, and now only one remains.”

Overcome with astonishment and fear, Zahhak restores the man’s remaining son to him and asks him in exchange to add his testimony to the proclamation. Kava reads the proclamation, tears it into pieces, and tramples them underfoot.

Kava leaves the palace and the people crowd around him. Fastening a blacksmith’s leather apron to a spearhead, he calls on the people to free themselves from the tyrant’s yoke. Followed by a multitude of the stout-hearted, Kava the liberator sets out in search of Faridun, who agrees to lead the popular rising. The people of the city and the army mass before the palace, whose guards dare not resist. Faridun rides into the palace without striking a blow and seizes the royal crown. Attacked by Zahhak, the young prince shatters Zahhak’s helmet with his bull-headed mace. At that instant the angel Sorush appears and stops Faridun killing Zahhak. “Do not strike him down,” he says. “His time has not yet come. Tie him securely inside the mountain.” Faridun then drives the tyrant into the mountains and wishes to strike off his head, but the angel Sorush appears again and tells him to leave the captive in fetters on Mount Damavand to endure an eternal agony.

Ferdowsi: A Poet of Human Grandeur

In the person of Faridun, an era of enlightenment and justice succeeds a long period of obscurity and tyranny. Here Ferdowsi returns to pre-Islamic traditions; he takes this idea of an eternal combat between good and evil from Zoroastrian eschatology. The interminable wars between Iran and Turan are the reflection of this. But Ferdowsi does not profess a naive dualism. He shows that these two principles coexist in everyone: human beings can do good as well as spread evil.

Thus, after a thousand years of tyranny, light and good seem to triumph: the new king, mandated by heaven, serves his people devotedly. But evil persists, it has not ceased to exist. This is what the angel means when he twice prevents the tyrant from being put to death. Zahhak is finally fettered on the summit of Mount Alborz as if to show by his existence that the victory of good over evil has not yet been won.

Ferdowsi bases his poem on the implacable force of destiny. This quintessentially epic theme echoes the sense of fatality which is so deeply anchored in the Iranian soul. And yet his characters are still men, torn and tortured by doubt and sensitive to the misfortunes of the age. They are to be pitied rather than condemned. Zahhak, the bloody tyrant, the symbol of cruelty, does not act freely; he has, after all, sold his soul to the devil. He is merely an instrument. As a great tragic epic poet, Ferdowsi thus creates terrible situations in which a man is led to kill his brother, or a father kills his son. Links of kinship add grandeur and resonance to the combat waged by the individual against higher forces.

The Epic of the Kings is still a living epic for Iranians because it is profoundly in tune with the Iranian soul. The Iranian peasant, even if he can neither read nor write, responds to the exploits of Rostam, the hero par excellence, and weeps to think of his sufferings when he is compelled to kill his own son to defend his country. Neither good nor ill will lastfor ever: the finest thing is to leave good deeds to be remembered by.

Ferdowsi’s voice still speaks to us across the ages.

_____________

The above piece has been adapted from the September 1989 issue of The Unesco Courier which was dedicated to “Great Epics, Heroic Tales of Man and Superman.” Please visit http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco-courier/.

Quotations from the Shahnama in this article are taken from the translation by Reuben Levy which was published as The Epic of the Kings by Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, 1967) and features in the Unesco Collection of Representative Works.

~~~~~~~~~~

II. THE STORY OF HAFTVAD AND THE WORM 

A folio from Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp depicting the story of Haftvad and the worm. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

A  folio from Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp depicting the story of Haftvad and the worm. Photo and caption credit: Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada. Copyright.

Story from the website of the Aga Khan Museum

In this tale the daughter of Haftvad is spinning cotton with her female friends one day outside the village and discovers a worm in her apple. She decides to keep the worm, regarding it as a lucky charm, and places it in her spindle case for safekeeping. She asserts that the worm will help her to spin greater quantities of cotton than she ever has before, and to her friends’ amazement her boast is realized. With each day she spins greater quantities of cotton and nurtures the worm by feeding it pieces of apple. When her father, Haftvad, learns of this, he takes the worm to be a good omen and over time it grows to fill a custom-made chest, and then a stone cistern. After five years, it is as large as an elephant and has to be housed in a fortress. As the worm grows, so do Haftvad’s fortunes. When King Ardashir learns of this, he becomes jealous and suspicious and plots to kill the worm. Eventually, Ardashir succeeds in penetrating the fortress and kills the worm by pouring molten lead down its throat. The tale ends with the deaths of Haftvad and his sons, vanquished by Ardashir’s army. This painting, one of a few signed works in the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp I, is among the last added to the book. A signature, reading “Dust Muhammad painted it” (savvarahu Dust Muhammad), combined with written sources, identifies the artist as Dust Muhammad Musavvir or Dust-i Divana. Although the implications of the signature remain unclear — did he design the composition and/or execute the painting in whole or in part? — the painting is one of the strongest in Shah Tahmasp I’s Shahnameh. The vignette of Haftvad’s daughter spinning cotton at the lower left activates the pictorial narrative, but the remainder of the painting is conceived as evidence of Haftvad’s good fortune. The village, an aggregate of many finely made buildings, bustles with the activities of daily life. A muezzin makes the call to prayer as two figures sit atop a building consulting books with the tools of a scribe set down beside them. Elsewhere in the village, figures transport bundles of wood gathered from the countryside and carry sacks of goods, while a butcher serves a customer. The painting is replete with many other details of the everyday and depicts the elements of its extra-urban landscape with equal depth and complexity.

Date posted: Monday August 17, 2015.

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For more on the Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh please also visit:

  1. http://www.agakhanmuseum.org; and
  2. Listen to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p7dcv

2 thoughts on “Great Epics: Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Epic of the Kings), With Two Magnificent Illustrations from the Aga Khan Museum

  1. Being illiterate in Farsi and classics of Iran, all I did was buy a card with some dozen fridge magnets from the Aga Khan Museum gift shop to give out as mementos on my return from Canada but it broke my heart to part from them! I have kept the back cover that describes each picture. This work is an illumination to know more about this Great Epic. Thank you Malik.

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