Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

ShahnamehDuring the tenth century AD a Persian dynasty known as the Samanids ruled over much of Khorasan and Transoxiana. By that time the very survival of the Persian language was threatened by the expansion of Arabic and Iran’s pre-Islamic past was generally seen as a period of ignorance (Jahiliyya). The Samanids, however, sought to change all that. They reinstated Persian as the official language of the empire and they rehabilitated Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. They also financed various poets to compose a national epic on the pre-Islamic history of Iran. The most successful poet was Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1020), whose Shahnameh (Book of Kings) became the most famous of these epics. The Shahnameh contains over 50.000 verses and describes Iran’s history from the creation of the world up to the Arab Conquests in poetic form.

Ferdowsi’s sources
As stated above, Ferdowsi was not the only poet who wrote an epic. He may well have borrowed his material from his colleagues. In fact, it is well known that Ferdowsi incorporated verses of his friend Daqiqi (935-980) into his work. Daqiqi was also working on a national epic, but he died before he could finish his work. Ferdowsi and the other poets probably based themselves mostly on the Khwadaynamag, a late Sasanid chronicle dating back to the sixth or seventh century. The Khwadaynamag, a work that is now lost, was a standard work on Iranian history and many historians from the Islamic period used it as a source. Beside using written sources, Ferdowsi and the other poets also drew from oral tradition. They may even have been oral poets themselves. Greater Iran had a rich storytelling tradition dating back to at least the Parthian period and maybe even earlier. The Khwadaynamag itself probably contained a lot of material derived from oral tradition and even after the completion of the Khwadaynamag storytellers kept on adding material to its epic cycle. Concerning the exact sources of these oral traditions not much can be said with certainty, but there are reasons to assume that these oral traditions contained proto-Indo-Iranian, Zoroastrian, Mesopotamian, Achaemenid, Greek, Parthian and Scythian material, in addition to its Sasanid core. In order to illustrate this I will discuss various stories from the mythical and heroic parts of the epic.

The Pishdadi’s
According to the Shahnameh the world was first ruled by a dynasty of primordial culture heroes: the Pishdadi’s. Their names (Kayumars, Hushang, Tahmures, Jamshid) are all known from the Yashts of the Avesta. The Avesta is the holy book of the Zoroastrians and the Yashts are hymns refering to commonly known myths of the proto-Iranian people. Because the Yashts aren’t written in narrative form it is difficult to reconstruct the original background of the characters, but as for Kayumars, Hushang, Tahmures and Jamshid it seems that they were all at one point seen as the First Man. Jamshid is also known from Vedic tradition as Yama, the First Man and also the first one to die. As the first mortal he became king of the underworld. In the Shahnameh, however, Jamshid is a mighty king on earth who grows arrogant because of his power and starts attributing the blessings of his reign to himself, rather than to God. For this reason, God abandons Jamshid and an Arab tyrant named Zahhak kills him and takes over his kingdom. Although the name of Jamshid dates back to the proto-Indo-Iranian period (around 2000 BC), the depiction of him as a great earthly king is likely a more recent development, influenced by the existence of great Iranian dynasties like the Achaemenids. In Vedic tradition Jamshid has retained his original function as the first mortal.

Persian painting, depicting Zahhak ascending the royal throne.
Persian painting, depicting Zahhak ascending the royal throne.

Zahhak and Feraydun
Zahhak also appears in the Yashts as ‘Azhi Dahaka’, or ‘snake of the Daha’. Originally Zahhak appears to have been a mythical dragon, who was defeated by a dragonslayer named Feraydun (Thraetona). In later tradition Azhi Dahaka became an earthly king, with snakes growing from his shoulders who fed on human brains. Ferdowsi calls him an Arab and Zoroastrian commentaries on the Avesta say he ruled in Bawrish, which sounds very similar to Babirush, the Achaemenid Persian name for Babylon. According to Ferdowsi, Feraydun marched towards Zahhak’s palace from the Zagros Mountains and crossed the Tigris on his way to Zahhak’s palace, the same route that Cyrus the Great took when he was on his way to conquer Babylon. It therefore seems that what was originally a myth about a dragonslayer eventually got mixed up with Achaemenid history.

Feraydun and his descendants
After reclaiming Jamshid’s kingdom from Zahhak, Feraydun divides its territory among his three sons. Of course the motif of a king dividing his kingdom among his three sons is a very common motif in folklore and often serves to illustrate the relations between various nations. Salm (Sairima), the oldest son, receives Rome (sic) and the west, Tur (Tuirya) receives China and the lands north of the Oxus river, and Iraj (Airya) receives Greater Iran. As anyone with a basic knowledge of folklore could predict, the two oldest sons grow jealous of the youngest son and kill him. Eventually, however, Iraj’s great-grandson Manuchehr (Manu Chithra) kills Salm and Tur and reclaims Iraj’s kingdom. Manuchehr, by the way, means ‘resembling Manu’. Manu, again, is a First Man character from Vedic mythology. When Manuchehr dies, his son Nozar (Nautara) succeeds him. During Nozar’s reign Afrasyab (Franghrasyan), a descendant of Tur and king of his kingdom Turan, invades Iran and kills Nozar. With the help of the Sistani hero Rostam the Iranians manage to drive out Afrasyab. A new king, Kay Qobad (Kavi Kavata), is placed on the throne and a long feud between Iran and Turan is born. This feud between Iran and Turan is a reflection of the recurring raids and counterraids between tribal federations from the steppes and the armies of Iranian empires, that came to a climax during the invasion of the Gokturks in the late sixth century AD.

Introduction to the Kayanians
Kay Qobad starts a new dynasty, known as the Kayanians. The title ‘kay’ is derived from Avestic ‘kavi’, which means something like ‘seer’ or ‘sage’. Eight ‘kays’ appear in the Yashts, but again not much is known about them. Originally they were likely a group of unrelated legendary ‘shaman chiefs’. In Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, however, the ‘kays’ are presented as a dynasty ruling over a unified Iranian empire. This representation is of course anachronistic. The obscure ‘kays’ from the Avesta were equated with the mighty Iranian dynasties over the course of centuries and many heroic oral traditions were attributed to them and their knights. It’s interesting to note that many of the heroic knights at the Kayanian court bear the names of Parthian noble families. These historical actors were thus projected back into a legendary past.

Kay Kavus on his flying throne
Kay Kavus on his flying throne. Illustration from a Persian manuscript

Kay Kavus
Kay Qobad himself doesn’t play a very large role in the Shahnameh. The life of his son Kay Kavus (Kavi Usan), however, figures very prominently in the epic. Kavus is presented as the perfect example of a foolish king. He often gets himself into trouble by doing things like invading foreign countries and getting captured in the proces, or trying to conquer the sky with a flying throne drawn by eagles. Luckily, Rostam and a few other Iranian heroes are always ready to save him. Kavus had a son named Seyavash (Syavarshan), a very handsome man. Because of his handsomeness, Kavus’s favorite wife Sudabeh tries to seduce him. Seyavash refuses her advances, upon which Sudabeh accuses the prince of trying to rape her. This motif also appears in the Bible in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and in the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus of Greek mythology. It probably was a very widespread motif in the ancient world. Kavus, in his foolishness, believes Sudabeh, forcing Seyavash to flee. Afrasyab, upon hearing of this tragedy, decides to grant asylum to the son of his archenemy.  He receives Seyavash cordially and even gives his daughter Farigis to him in marriage.

Kay Khosrow
Despite the intimate relations between Afrasyab and Seyavash, they eventually grow to distrust each other and eventually Afrasyab decides to execute his new son-in-law. The fact that Afrasyab killed Seyavash is mentioned explicitly in the Yashts and the martyr’s death of Seyavash is known to have given rise to an Iranian mourning cult. After executing Seyavash, Afrasyab orders his servant Piran to lock up Farigis, who is pregnant with Seyavash’s child, and to kill the child upon birth. Piran refuses and instead brings the child, Kay Khosrow (Kavi Haosravah), to shepherds, who raise him as one of their own. Eventually Piran rediscovers Khosrow and tries to reconcile Afrasyab and Khosrow. Khosrow lives at Afrasyab’s court for a while, until he is brought back to Iran. Khosrow succeeds his grandfather Kavus as king of Iran and swears to avenge his father’s death. After a long war against Turan, Khosrow manages to capture and kill Afrasyab, thus avenging his father. This birth legend of Kay Khosrow is very similar to the birth legend of Cyrus the Great as presented in Herodotus’s Histories; not only in the plot structure, but also in the details. It seems that this Achaemenid legend eventually ended up in a Kayanid context. One of the main arguments that this birth legend has an Achaemenid origin is that it did not belong to the original corpus of legends surrounding Kay Khosrow, who is known in the Yashts only as the son of Seyavash who wants to avenge his father by killing Afrasyab.

The late Kayanians
Kay Khosrow rules Iran for 60 years and then decides to live out his days as a hermit. He appoints a distant cousin, Kay Lohrasp (Aurvataspa), as his successor. With him, a collateral branch of the Kayanian house takes over the throne. Lohrasp is the last ‘kay’ that appears in the Yashts. Lohrasp’s son is the famous and quite possibly historical Kay Goshtasp (Vishtaspa), the first follower and patron of the prophet Zarathustra. By making Goshtasp the son of Lohrasp and a distant cousin of Khosrow, this pious king was connected to the legendary Kayanians of old. A similar thing was done by Darius the Great, who claimed to be a distant cousin of Cyrus the Great upon usurping the Persian throne. Surprisingly, Goshtasp doesn’t have a good reputation in the Shahnameh, where he is portrayed as a tyrant. He orders his son Esfandiyar to capture Rostam, the legendary hero who had served the Kayanians well since the time of Kay Qobad. This leads to an epic fight between Rostam and Esfandiyar, in which the latter appears to be the stronger one. Only by using a magic arrow is Rostam able to kill Esfandiyar. Rostam dies soon afterwards as well, leaving Iran without a national hero. The cycle concerning Esfandiyar does not appear to have an Avestic origin and is probably derived from Parthian heroic traditions. Rostam himself, who rules over Sistan (Sakestan), is probably derived from Saka mythology. The Saka invaded Iran during the late second century BC.

Relief depicting Darius the Great. Photo taken byدرفش کاویانی
Relief depicting Darius the Great. Photo taken by درفش کاویانی

The Achaemenids
Goshtasp is succeeded by his grandson Kay Bahman (Vohuman), who does not appear in the Yashts. Ferdowsi claims that he was also known as Ardeshir, which is the Middle Persian from of Artaxerxes, a name carried by four Achaemenid kings. Bahman Ardeshir is succeeded by his wife Homay, who is succeeded by her son Kay Darab (Darius). This Darab bears little resemblance to the original Darius the Great, however. All that we known about him is that he was set afloat in a basket on the Euphrates upon his birth and that he was raised by a fuller, a story that is almost identical to the birth legend of Sargon of Akkad. All in all, it seems that most of the historical information about the Dariuses and Artaxerxeses had been lost over time and that the gaps of information were filled up by other stories, among which was an ancient Mesopotamian birth legend. Ferdowsi also claims that Darab fought against the Romans (Greeks) and eventually married the daughter of the Roman emperor Filqus (Philip II of Macedon). This is a clear case of historical fiction. The depiction of the Greek warlord Philip II of Macedon as a Roman emperor is an interesting case of anachronism. Kay Darab had a son with the daughter of Filqus, named Sekandar (Alexander), but he eventually decided to divorce his wife and send her and her son back to Filqus. Filqus then raised Sekandar as his own son. Kay Darab also had another son with a different wife, named Kay Dara, who succeeded him as king of Iran. During the reign of the younger Dara, Sekandar invades Iran and brings an end to the Kayanian dynasty.

The historical part of the Shahnameh
After the highly romanticized narrative about the conquests of Sekandar, the Shahnameh becomes more historically accurate. Sekandar first divides his kingdom among numerous petty kings, of which the Ashkanians (Arsacids AKA Parthians) became the mightiest. A certain Ardeshir, son of Sasan, deposes the last Ashkanian and founds the Sasanid dynasty. The Sasanid part of the epic generally agrees with what we know about Sasanid history, although the narrative is highly romaticized. The epic focuses a lot on the personal lives of the Sasanid kings and often leaves out important historical events. It also misattributes certain deeds to the wrong king. All in all, however, it is clear that the information on the Sasanid period is mostly derived either from Sasanid chronicles and state archives, or from Sasanid oral traditions.

Publication in Ancient History Magazine
If you liked this article you may also like my upcoming article about the same subject in the third edition of Ancient History Magazine. The third edition is about the Hellenistic kingdom of Pergamon, known from it’s troubled relation with the early Romans, and contains many other interesting articles as well.