Monday, July 18, 2011

The Shah Namah: The Persian Epic of Kings

Book Review: The Shah Namah: The Persian Epic of Kings by Hakim Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi – translated by Helen Zimmern (Forgotten Books 1833, 2008)

A fine saga was this, with all the joys and sorrows of the best of sagas. As in many of the stories of Indo-European ilk there is a strong emphasis on battle etiquette, blood feuds, and the keeping of oaths of vengeance. The epic sort of tracks the royal history of Persia from some early kings to perhaps the beginning of the Islamic times. The importance of the Zoroastrian view is stressed as the veneration of Ormuzd (Ahura Mazda) as God and the personification of evil and treachery as Ahriman. Indeed a dualistic element seems to pervade as much of the feuding is between the kingdom of Iran and that of Turan (the Turks). The Persian kingdoms were rather vast in these time periods stretching through deserts and mountains including Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrghistan, Kazakhstan, and even parts of China. The cities of Cabul (in Afghanistan) and Balkh (in Kazakhstan) are often mentioned. These are tales really beginning in the Iron Age but most seem to be from about 100 – 500 AD as a guess – during the Sassanid Empire of Persia. There is no mention of kings of presumably earlier empires such as Darius I and II, Xerxes, and Cyrus the Great. Ideals and customs from pre-Islamic Persia come through in the book and one can also sense the Indo-Aryan connections as well as the Zoroastrian connections. As the publisher’s preface notes the hero of these stories is often the nation of Persia, or Iran itself.  There is more story than lore but I will try to pluck out some of the lore. Ferdowsi (935-1020 A.D.) compiled earlier versions in prose form and set it in poetic form. He then was said to have presented the poetic work to a Ghaznavid Turk king and did not get much interest possibly due to jealousy from other poets. He is said to have died in poverty but was post-humously declared an Iranian hero as his work kept alive and revived Persian nationalism and identity to some extent. A mausoleum was built for him in 1925. Below is basically a summary of the whole book as I read it.

The first king of Persia given is Kaiumers and it is said that people then were clad in tiger skins. He was said to be kind and just but the evil Ahriman (the adversarial principle in Zoroastrianism) and his lot – the Deevs (equivalent to the Sanskrit devas – good guys there but bad guys here – which likely represents some very early Aryan-Iranian philosophical split) – became jealous of the king and plotted against him. But the angel Serosch warned these children of Ormuzd (the Zoroastrian principle of good (similar to the Indian asuras – demonic there but angelic here.) Kaiumers’ grandson Husheng is said to have given men fire and taught them to water and fertilize the land. Husheng’s son Tahumers is said to have taught spinning and weaving. He overcame and captured some Deevs. In return for sparing their lives they taught men the art of writing. His son Jemshid was said to have ruled for 700 years and parceled men out into classes – priests, warriors, builders, and husbandmen. He is said to have instigated the practice of Nerouz, or the feast of the new day at autumnal equinox. Eventually though Jemshid succumbed to pride setting himself up as a god and the Mubids, or wisemen astrologers, despaired and the warriors and nobles rose against him. Meanwhile the son of a king from the Arabian desert was said to have made a pact with Ahriman and had to follow through by killing his father and becoming a powerful king named Zohak. Zohak joined the Persian nobles and became Shah and eventually Jemshid was found and killed. Ahriman is said to have manifested vicious serpents who could not be killed and required human brains for food. Two men were killed each day for them. Zohak is said to have ruled with the help of the Deevs for 1000 years. Then one day a blacksmith named Kawah came in complaining that 16 of his 17 sons had been offered to the serpents and he had had enough so Zohak spared his last son. Even so Kawah went and roused the people against him – setting his leather blackmith apron on a lance as a banner for the movement. Meanwhile a grandson of Jemshid was born called Feridoun. He was hidden in forests and among distant hermits. When Kawah’s movement found Feridoun the apron flag was bedecked with roum (silk?) and jewels. Zohak had gone east to Ind (India?) to look for Feridoun but Feridoun rode with an army to Bagdad and Jerusalem where the people accepted him for they hated Zohak. He overcame Zohak in battle when he returned and was about to kill him but the angel Serosch came and bid him chain Zohak to a rock in a distant desert to die of thirst in misery. Feridoun had three sons: Silim, Tur, and Irij. He tested them by appearing before them in the form of a fierce dragon. As is illustrated in the book several times – kings and princes must be skilled in the arts of magic. Irij reacted best to the dragon by fearing him not but also not being so foolish to attack him. Irij was given the kingdom of Iran while the other two were given distant kingdoms. Later the distant brothers became jealous and sought to conquer Iran. Irij was killed by his brothers but avenged by Minuchihr, the grandson of Feridoun with the help of Kawah and his son Karun and mighty Saum. The leather smith apron flag (the Kawanee) was again the flag of Iran. After this Feridoun died of old age. Young Minichihr was given to Saum, the Pehliva, (this term is not defined but seems to refer to the king’s or the Shah’s champion warrior) as a fosterling to be trained.

Saum ruled Seistan to the south of Iran. Saum sought a son and when one was finally born he was perfect except that his hair was white like that of an old man. Saum feared ridicule so he cast him out into the far wilderness. He was laid at the base of Mount Alberz and taken in the talons of the magical dragon-like bird called the Simurgh. (There is a peculiar note that the Simurgh’s house-nest could keep out the evil sway of Saturn suggesting that Ahriman is associated with Saturn, with binding, and possibly even with Varuna). The Simurgh had gathered the babe to feed her young but then decided to raise him as one of her babes. After he was raised to young adulthood his father Saum had a dream of him being alive and with birds and decided to go and meet him with apologies and repentance for his behavior. He named him Zal and he was brought before the Shah – Minichihr and the Shah told him what other would-be Pehliva’s were told: “And teach him forthwith the arts of war, and the pleasures and customs of the banquet, ...” Before Zal left the Simurgh gave him one of her breast feathers and told him that if he was ever in great danger to burn the feather and she would come to remove him from danger. Zal then traveled to Cabul and met Rudabeh, daughter of the king – but descended from the evil Zohak. They fell in love and he brought her back whereby Saum met with the Mubids to seek their fate in the stars. The stars said a great son was to be born from Zal that would be the greatest warrior of Iran. Minichihr the Shah was angered and sought to invade Cabul but Saum and Zal worked for peace. The Shah’s Mubids also saw great feats from the future son of Zal. When Zal returned the Mubids questioned him in riddles. He was asked six philosophical and astrological questions by six Mubids and the questions and answers are a beautiful poetry. Here is the dialogue for the fourth Mubid:

“See a green garden full of springs; A strong man with a sickle keen Enters, and reaps both dry and green; No word thine utmost anguish wrings.”

And Zal bethought him and replied-

“Thy word was of a garden green, A reaper with a sickle keen, Who cuts alike the fresh and the dry Nor heedeth prayer nor any cry: Time is the reaper, we the grass; Pity nor fear his spirit has, But old and young he reaps alike. No rank can stay his sickle’s strike, No love but he will leave it lorn, For to this end all men are born. Birth opes to all the gate of Life, Death shuts it down on love and strife, and Fate, that counts the breath of man, Measures to each a reckoned span.”

Rustem, the son of Zal and Rudabeh, was then born. Much of the rest of the saga involves the deeds of this mighty Pehliva. He kills a raging elephant at a young age and develops great warrior prowess. Several of the future battles are against a powerful king of Turan named Afrasiyab. Rustem found his steed Rakush (meaning lightning) in Cabul and Rakush was to be his mighty companion through all his days. Meanwhile Afrasiyab had killed A Shah and reigned in Iran for a short time but was thrown out by the people and by the army of Zal of Seistan. After Zew and Garshasp of the blood of Feridoun ruled for awhile there was then no Shah in Iran and Afrasiyab again gathered an army. Rustem sought out Kai Kobad of the blood of Feridoun to be enthroned as shah. They were able to make peace and Kai Kobad ruled for a hundred years and transferred power to Kai Kaous, his son.

Kai Kaous was deceived through his pride by Deevs into foolishly invading the Deev land of Mazinderan. The Deevs war with magic and swords are said to have little power there. Kai Kaous would have many episodes of being foolish due to his pride and Zal and Rustem would have to fix his mistakes. Kai Kaous set off with horsemen and his warrior-chief Gew into the land of Deevs and began plundering. The king of Mazinderan called upon the powerful White Deev who sent a black cloud of darkness to confound the plunderers. At this they were both blind and captive. Somehow a message got through to Rustem and he set out to free them. Rustem had some difficulty in traveling to Mazinderan. Rakush killed an attacking lion. He was early on able to feast on his favorite meal of wild ass. They could not find water and readied to die but they saw a wild ram and followed it to a watering hole. The ram was said to be a gift from Ormuzd to guide them. They were also attacked by a dragon and it took both to slay the dragon. They also overcame magicians. Finally he met a king of a border region to Mazinderan and procured valuable information from him – promising him the kingdom of Mazinderan when he freed Kai Kaous and his men. Rustem forced this king Aulad to guide him. Rustem was able to slay the White Deev and find Kai Kaous and his men. There he poured the blood of the White Deev into their eyes to restore their sight. Rustem then went to the King of Mazinderan and battled the giants there by hand gripping – which Rustem won but the King would not give in so Rustem went back to get the men and the battle raged for several days. Then Rustem and the King of Mazinderan were in single combat. The king hid in a rock through magic and eventually was drawn out and killed.

Rustem then met Tahmineh, daughter of the King of Samengan (apparently Turks). They made a son Sohrab but then separated into their own areas. After Sohrab was grown he made an army to attack Iran with the idea of putting Rustem on the throne instead of the proud and foolish Kai Kaous. Afrasiyab the opportunist joined him. At a white castle on the borders of Iran Sohrab called out for a warrior for single combat and was beaten but not killed by Gurdafrid, a woman. He was confounded at her might. He fell in love with her but she and all in the castle escaped before he could enter. So it ended up that Sohrab sought Rustem but none would tell where and who was Rustem and finally they ended up in single combat and not so unlike the story of the Irish hero Cuchulain unknowingly slaying his son, Rustem also slays Sohrab. He was deceived by the ministers of Kai Kaous. He was grieved and gave the signs of mourning – tearing his clothes, covering his head with ashes, tearing at his flesh, etc. – as did Tahmineh and the king of Samengan.

Kai Kaous then found a woman from the kingdom of Daghoui and she bore a son called Saiawush. Saiawush was trained in the arts of war by Rustem who fostered him. When he went back to prepare for the throne he was pursued by Sudaveh, one of Kai Kaous’s wives who when he refused her then accused him of evil and unsavory deeds. Kai Kaous then made him prove himself by leaping with his horse through a mount of fire. This is reminiscent of a similar plunge by Sigurd (in disguise) in the Norse/Germanic Saga of the Volsungs. He came through unharmed and so was presumed innocent.

When again attacked by Afrasayib, Rustem and Saiawush overcame the forces of Tur and made a peace, but Kai Kaous wanted complete vengeance and decided to attack Afrasayib. Saiawush had made a pact with the Turans and did not wish to break his vow. Saiawush then sought refuge and was given a small kingdom in the far reaches of Turan and was hid away with the blessings also of Piran, the great Pehliva of Turan. Saiawush married a daughter of Afrasayib, called Ferangis. Later one of Afrasiyab’s ministers told lies about Saiawush so that the the knights rose up against him and eventually killed him. His wife was imprisoned but the Pehliva Piran bid Afrasiyab to let her go and be as a daughter unto him. And Ferangis soon bore a son of Saiawush. The boy was given unto shepherds in the mountains of Kalun. Later he was to return and live with Piran and his mother Ferangis. Afrasiyab, who had spared him initially became worried about ill omens and dreams predicting him to do harm to Turan and so sought to test him. Piran instructed him to disguise his wits and he was deemed too stupid to cause harm and given back to his mother.

Kai Kaous, after much reprimanding by Rustem, roused an army to avenge the death of Saiawush with Rustem at its head. The Iranian army routed the Turanians and Piran counseled Afrasiyab to further hide the son of Saiawush in the far land of Khoten (near western Tibet). Rustem ruled in Turan for awhile then hearing that Kai Kaous was troubling things again went to be with his Shah to keep him in line. Afrasiyab came out of hiding and retook Turan and gathered armies again to threaten Iran. Gudarz, of the family of Kawah the smith, had a dream of being told by the angel Serosch, of a son of Saiawush hidden in the mountains. Indeed dreams and star omens form a big part of this saga. He sent his son Gew to find him. He found him and was in the process of bringing him back to Iran when Piran came after them as he feared the wrath of Afrasiyab. Gew overcame Piran but they could not kill him so they merely wounded him spilling blood from his ear to the ground thus Gew kept his vow and Piran was bound to a horse and sent off. When the son of Saiawush, Kai Khosrau, came to Iran there was strife among the nobles as some favored his other son Fiburz. So the Shah sent them both out to conquer a fortress of Deevs. Fiburz could not win with the sword. Kai Khosrau conquered the Deevs, proving himself skilled in the arts of magic, which was said to be a requirement of kings. Kai Khosrau then became Shah. There were two further wars with Afrasiyab and the Turanians, both lost by Iran due to deceits by their own men. Rustem was not called to fight in these battles. Rustem then avenged these wars and Afrasayib fled the throne again at the counsel of Piran. Back in Iran a Deev had taken the form of a wild ass and Rustem was called to deal with it which he did most wilefully.

In another story the fields of farmers were beset with wild boars wreaking havoc so the shah sent out Birzan, son of Gew, and he slew the boars but was tricked by his jealous companion into secretly visiting the daughters of Afrasayib – where he fell in love with Manijeh and was caught reveling in the house of the women by a knight of Afrasiyab. He was brought to be hanged but Piran intervened and bid Afrasiyab to confine him bound in a deep hole in the desert. Girgin, the jealous one who accompanied Byzun, returned to the Shah and said that Byzun was carried off by a Deev in the form of a wild ass but Kai Khosrau questioned him closely and determined that he was lying. He was able to determine that Byzun was alive and bound in a hole in the desert – by the magic of gazing into a crystal ball along with prayers to Ormuzd and wearing of a robe of roum (silk). Rustem was sent to get him. He went with a small troop disguised as merchants and found Manijeh and then Rustem released him but made him swear to forgive Girgin of his ill deeds. They then routed Afrasayib again causing him to flee and Byzum and Manijeh made it back to Iran for a happy life. Yet another war took place and the Turan Pehliva, Piran was asked to join the Iranians but refused saying he had oaths to Afrasiyab. Piran was slain in single combat by Gudarz. Then Afrasiyab sought truce through guile but he was without his main warrior and Kai Khosrau himself chased him for a few years before finally finding him and killing him. Then he decreed that the blood feud was ended, that vengeance was finalized. After ruling for 60 years Kai Khosrau decided that since he was descended from the race of Jemshid, that he could become too proud to rule so he undertook a sort of great spiritual retreat to pray to Ormuzd to take him from the earth. After praying and fasting for five weeks he had a vision of Serosch who told him to choose a successor and then prepare to be taken to be with Ormuzd. In the presence of Zal, Rustem, and Gudarz, the Shah passed his throne onto Lohurasp descended from the seed of the Shah Husheng and he was reluctantly accepted. Kai Khosrau went to the mountains and perished in an unknown place as did his nobles who did not heed his advice to return before a great snow storm would occur.

Lohurasp ruled well for awhile then gave the throne to his son Gushtasp. Lohurasp went to Balkh to be with Ormuzd (among the priests and prophets?) where he met the prophet Zerdusht who gave men the text of the Zendavesta, a main Zoroastrian text. Arjasp who had the throne of Afrasiyab thought little of this faith and urged Gushtasp to abandon it as well. But Gushtasp proclaimed that all should follow it and he sent his son Isfendiyar to Turan and other lands to enforce the faith by the sword. Then a man called Gurjam came before the Shah and told lies about Isfendiyar seeking to overthrow his father and Isfendiyar was imprisoned. Meanwhile Arjasp invaded Balkh and killed Lohurasp and captured the daughters of Gushtasp and burned the temples of Zerdusht. Gushtasp then released Isfendiyar to avenge them and first he routed Arjasp from his kingdom and demanded the throne from his now proud father. His father said that first he would have to free his daughters so he traveled a dangerous path overcoming seven dangers in seven days such as wolves, Deevs, a dragon, magicians, a great bird, a great snow, and a great flood. Then he entered the castle with wile disguised as a merchant with his warriors in wooden chests and overcame the enemy and killed Arjasp and freed his father’s daughters. But yet his father Gushtasp held the throne. The Shah then demanded that if he would succeed him that he should bring Rustem himself bound in chains before him since he was said by the Shah to have grown proud. Isfendiyar sent his son Bahman to find Rustem and give his demands. Rustem said that none would take him in chains but that after feasting he would go with his horse bound to Infendiyar’s horse and explain things to the Shah. Isfendiyar refused to send a messenger to Rustem which angered him yet they did feast together at Isfendiyar’s tents. Isfendiyar intended to fight Rustem the next day in single combat. Rustem was saddened for he would be reviled if he allowed the youth to put him in chains and he would be equally reviled if he killed the next Shah that he was sworn to protect. On the first day Isfendiyar sorely wounded Rustem and his steed Rakush with arrows but they swam back across the river ready to meet again the next day. Isfendiyar was said to be protected from harm by Zerdusht the prophet. But then Zal burned the feather of the Simurgh calling on the great bird to heal the wounds of Rustem and Rakush. She did this and then taught Rustem the secrets of fate bringing him far away to gather a branch from a tamarisk tree to make an arrow to slay Isfendiyar by shooting him in the eye. He shoots Isfendiyar in the eye fatally wounding him and Isfendiyar beseeches Rustem to train his son Bahman in the arts of war and the banquet.

A slave of Zal had a son who Zal named Shugdad and the star omens for him were very bad for the House of Zal and Rustem. He reared him gently and prayed to avert such evil and later sent him to Cabul where he and the King of Cabul made a pact to slay Rustem by making him and his horse fall into a hole fixed with sharp swords. This they did but Rustem as he lay dying asked for his bow and two arrows lest a lion come to eat him and with the first he shot through a tree killing Shugdad. Then he died. Feramorz, the son of Rustem, gathered an army and avenged his father and killed the King of Cabul. And as in moist of the deaths – he found the bodies of Rustem and Rakush and gave them full funerary honors and the people lamented for a long time for the great Pehliva was dead.

This book has many similarities with other Indo-European style sagas such as those of Germanic, Norse, Indian, Irish, Roman, and Greek origin. The emphasis on single combat and the rules of war and entertaining/hospitality are a similarity. Commitments to vengeance and the importance of keeping one’s word are both a matter of honor and perhaps the keeping of life energy. Courage is of course also highly valued but also valued is intelligence so mere courage by itself without being informed by intelligence is less valued as seen in the story where Irij wins the throne. Stories of both tragedy and just victory are kept in this collection as in others. Sagas were the histories, myths, and the movies of the day for each region and served to knit far tribes together in a more national unity. The magic of the benevolent Simurgh perhaps shows an ancient connection to the Near Eastern Neolithic Bird Goddess also venerated in old Europe.

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