Abolqasem Ferdowsi (932 - 1025 AD), the Shahnama (Book of Kings)

Nothing in Western literature quite prepares us for the Shahnama. We call it an epic because it is a long poem – some fifty thousand couplets – and is filled with heroic tales that are drawn from Iran’s history and mythology. Epic is the only descriptive term we have that seems to fit such a work. Yet for us "epic" really means Homer and the Homeric tradition – all those poems from Virgil’s Aeneid to Milton’s Paradise Lost that were written in conscious imitation of the Odyssey and the Iliad, or which, like The Song of Roland or Beowulf, were written to celebrate a particular historic moment or a "heroic" way of life. The Shahnama is a very different poem from any of these, and it developed independently from the Homeric tradition. It does not begin "in the midst of things" but with the creation of the world and the appearance of the first shah. It lacks the elaborate celestial machinery of gods and goddesses that one finds other epic traditions, from the Odyssey and the Iliad, to Gilgamesh in the ancient Near East, to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in India. It is a monotheistic epic like Paradise Lost, but its focus on the life of the royal court makes it seem closer to the tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table than to Milton’s great poem. It contains not one story but many, not a single climactic event, but a multitude of them, and not one hero but a long sequence of heroes and heroic princes. Rostam, who is the last and greatest of a family of heroes from the Iranian province of Sistan, and who dominates several of its finest stories, is no more than an off stage presence in other tales. He also dies when the poem is only two thirds finished. The events in Gilgamesh, Homer and the European epics are tailored to the limits of a single human life, but the events of the Shahnama stretch across many generations and a single hero may live for centuries.

Some of the stories that make up the Shahnama can be traced back well before the coming of Islam to at least the time of Cyrus and Darius some 2500 years ago. Other stories from later times were added to these and all were gathered together into comprehensive collections from time to time. Late in the reign of the Sasanians (third to seventh centuries AD), the last pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty to rule in Iran, a chronicle was compiled at the court and called the khuday namag or "Book of Kings". The orignal of this work has been lost, but Arabic translations of portions of it survive in the work of early Arab historians. During the first two centuries of the Islamic period, Iran’s rulers were Arab and interested only in Arabic culture. When an Iranian Muslim dynasty, the Samanids (819 - 1005), returned to power in Central Asia, interest in the national epic of Iran revived as well. Once more the court ordered that the old stories be gathered into a single chronicle, in prose. When it was complete they sought a poet to turn this prose into verse. The first likely candidate, Daqiqi, was killed by one of his slaves after he had completed only two thousand verse (later incorporated into the finished work) and so the way was opened for Abolqasem Ferdowsi.

Ferdowsi was consciously trying to make his poetic version a vehicle for preserving Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. He ends his tale by saying that he has given new life to stories that had begun to be forgotten. He also assumed that in giving poetic life to these tales he was assuring the survival of his won name as well.

And when this famous book shall reach its end,
Throughout the land my praises will be heard.
From this day on I shall not die, but live,
For I’ll have sown my words both far and wide.

In this he was successful beyond his wildest dreams. Since Ferdowsi completed the Shahnama it has remained a work of central importance in the Iranian cultural tradition.

The events narrated in the first two-thirds of the Shahnama consist of heroic and romantic tales that belong to a mythical or legendary time. In the last third the tales are peopled with figures from historical times. One portion draws heavily on a fictional biography of Alexander the Great, who conquered all of present day Iran and parts of Central Asia and North India in the fourth century BC. The last sequence of stories is a similarly fictionalized account of the history of the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties (247 BC. - 651 A. D.) who ruled in Iran between the time of Alexander’s death and the rise of Islam. The style of presentation does not change; however, and historical figures and events are presented as the stuff of myth and legend.

In the world of the Shahnama, humankind seems to have existed before the first shah, but as an undifferentiated species. The formation of human society required the shaping presence of a divinely appointed ruler. Other shahs, most notably the wise and just Jamshid, provided human society with those gifts – fire, tools, agriculture, and the various crafts – that raise men and women above the level of beasts. In other traditions these gifts that distinguish and sustain human society are gifts from the gods. In the Shahnama it is Iran’s shahs who provide them, or, rather, it is through them that Yazdan, the sole God of pre-Islamic Iranian religious belief, gives them to mankind. Indeed, while there are a number of recurrent themes in the Shahnama, such as the immortality of noble deeds, the malignancy and inevitability of fate, and the persistent hostility and envy of Iran’s neighbors, the theme that underlies all of these is that God prefers Iran to other nations and sustains it through the institution of the shah. So long as His chosen shah sits upon the throne, Iran will endure. When Shah Yazdegerd III is slain in 652 AD, the Iran of the Shahnama comes to an end. Other epics use a single dominant hero, like Odysseus, Aeneas, or Roland, or a single climactic event, such as the destruction of Troy, the founding of Rome or the defeat of the Saracens, to provide dramatic unity. In the Shahnama it is the enduring institution of monarchy that stitches all its stories together.

Although the Divinity’s support for Iranian monarchy is a central constant of the Shahnama, its ideology is not a naïve and enthusiastic monarchism. Ferdowsi was not a panegyrist who presented idealizations of the ruler for the admiration of the royal sponsors and their followers. He was as realistic about the limitations of individual monarchs as was Shakespeare about England’s kings. Many of the greatest tales in the epic are as much concerned with the dilemmas of the monarchical state as they are its inevitability. The Sohráb illustrates this by showing how God favors a foolish shah, Kay Kavus, who repeatedly and recklessly endangers himself and his people over a noble hero, Rostam, who as repeatedly rescues the nation from the shah’s folly.

The religion of the Shahnama is Zoroastrianism, but a Zoroastrianism that has been stripped of its fire temples, rituals and prayers. Ferdowsi was a Muslim as were his patron, Soltan Mahmud of Ghazna (d. 1030), and the members of his court. As a consequence either he or his sources have passed the stories of the Shahnama through a filter, eliminating what would have been most offensive to Muslim sensibilities. What remains is a vague but persistent dualism in which the powers of good, Ahura Mazda, and evil, Ahriman, are in perpetual conflict. Rostam and Kay Kavus pray to the supreme god, Izad or Yazdan, (Creator and Keeper of the World) who Zoroastrians believe presides over the struggle between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. Ultimately Yazdan will give victory to good, but in the course of the Shahnama it is Ahriman’s power that increases. The shahs who rule become progressively less worthy and "hunchbacked fate" spreads ruin and destruction where he will. The poem also ends with the conquest of the Arabs and Islam, a crushing defeat for Zoroastrian Iran.

Persian language

Persian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and has strong similarities to the major languages of Europe–the words for father, mother and brother, for instance are pedar, madar, and baradar. Old Persian, one of the court languages of Cyrus and Darius, was a contemporary of Sanskrit, which it closely resembled. Middle Persian was an Iranian language of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau that had wide currency from the time of Alexander to the rise of Islam. Modern Persian, which evolved in the Islamic period, is a further development of Middle Persian grammar and syntax that contains a large vocabulary of Arabic. The language of the Shahnama is a slightly archaized form of this language. That is, it is largely free of Arabic loan words and retains some Middle Persian vocabulary. Since the ninth century Modern Persian has been written in a modified form of the Arabic alphabet.

Persian and its literature first came to the West as a result of the European conquest of India. For centuries Central Asian Muslims whose literary and administrative language was Persian ruled in India. When European merchants and adventurers first became interested in India in the seventeenth century they learned Persian in order to trade and rule. Then as now the principal texts for teaching the language were literary and many of those who learned Persian for practical reasons came to value it as a source of pleasure and a focus of scholarship. One of the principal fruits of this scholarship was the "discovery" of the Shahnama, or "Book of Kings" and its translation into the major languages of Europe. In the nineteenth century the English rulers replaced Persian with English as the language of education and administration, but Persian continued as a major language until well into the twentieth century.

Further Reading: The only complete translation of the Book of Kings into English verse is that of Arthur George and Edmond Warner, The Sháhnáma of Firdausi. 9 vols. (London, 1905-25) Unfortunately, it is available only in large research libraries. There is also a one volume prose translation by Reuben Levy that summarizes many passages very briefly and skips others altogether (Chicago, 1967). Besides the present translation of Sohrab, the only modern poetic version of one of the stories from the Shahnama is Dick Davis’s fine verse translation, The Legend of Seyavash (Penguin Classics. New York 1992). Davis has also written the best study of the Shahnama in English, Epic and Sedition: the Case of the Shahnama. (University of Arkansas Press, 1992). There is an extended discussion of Sohrab in "The Tragedy of Sohrab," by Jerome W. Clinton, (Logos Islamikos/Studia Islamica, edited by Roger M. Savory and Dionisius A. Agius. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies: 1984, pages 63-71) Every literary history of Iran contains a chapter or so on Ferdowsi and the Shahnama, most recently, Persian Literature, edited by Ehsan Yarshater (Columbia Lectures on Iranian studies: no. 3. Persian Heritage Foundation, New York: 1988).