Shahnameh and ancient Iranian Legends

The Shahnameh is one of the definite classics of the world. It’s a collection of ancient Iranian legends, and tells the story of ancient Persia, since the first human being on the earth. The Shahnameh is the masterpiece of Ferdowsi (935?- 1020?), the great Persian poet who worked for 30 years to finish his masterpiece. The Shahnameh, that is the Persian national epic, is a collection of ancient Iranian legends about Iran and mankind. The Shahnameh recounts the history of Iran, beginning with the creation of the world and the introduction of the arts of civilization (fire, cooking, law, etc), and ends with the Arab invasion. The Shahnameh, a poem of nearly 60,000 couplets, is the story of Iran’s glorious past. It’s divided into three successive parts: the mythical, heroic, and historical ages. In fact, the Shahnameh and ancient Iranian legends can show us many things about Iran’s history and ancient Iranian traditions, including Nowruz. The experts say: “The Shahnameh has about 60 stories, 1000 chapters, and 60,000 rhyming couplets, making it more than three times the length of Homer’s Iliad”. In Ferdowsi’s era Arabic language was the main language of science and literature, but Ferdowsi used only Persian in his masterpiece. As Ferdowsi said he wanted to revived Persian language and Persian identity by his work. And it’s the main difference between Iran and Egypt. After the Arab invasion, Iranians kept their own identity (i.e. culture, including language, traditions, etc), but Egyptians lost their identity. The earliest and perhaps most reliable account of Ferdowsi’s life comes from Nezami, a 12th-century poet who visited Tus, 100 year after Ferdowsi’s death, to collect information about Ferdowsi’s life. The experts say: “Nezami, who himself is a great Iranian poet, worked as Ferdowsi’s biographer. Nezami tells us that Ferdowsi based his work on the Middle Persian work, the Khvatay-Namak (also written Khodai-Nama), a history of the kings of Persia complied under orders of Sassanian king Khosrow. The Khvatay-namak was based on information gathered from Zoroastrian clergymen and the accounts in the Avesta. A possible predecessor to the Khvatay-Namak could be the Chihrdad, one of the destroyed books of the Avesta (known to us because of its listing and description in the Middle Persian texts). The text was said to have been a history of humankind from the beginning down to the revelation of Zarathushtra. According to Diodorus (Library of History), Greek author Ctesias (5th century BCE) who wrote a history of Persia called Persica, consulted a Persian book he called Basilikai Diphterai meaning ‘Royal Records’ which has been royal stories from the past. Ctesias, was a Greek physician in the service of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE). Ctesias’ books are now lost, but are known to us through other Classical Greek authors: Photius, Athenaeus, Plutarch and Diodorus. Diodorus writes: ‘Now Ctesias says that from the Basilikai Diphterai, in which the Persians in accordance with a certain law of theirs kept an account of their ancient affairs, he carefully investigated the facts about each king, and when he had composed his history he published it to the Greeks’. We don’t know why almost all ancient books about Persia are now lost”. Some experts believe that the enemies of Persia, from the Greeks to the Arabs, destroyed almost all books about the ancient Persia, because they were jealous and wanted to change human history, so they destroyed almost all Persian books. It’s like what the modern dictators do in their Animal Farms. Orwell in ‘1984’ tells how the evil men have “Ministry of Truth”, and how they try to destroy the books and change history. In fact, the enemies of Persia had their own “Ministry of Truth” and thought they could change history by burning books and distorting the facts. “Thousand years ago during Ferdowsis lifetime, books were written and reproduced by hand, making book production labor-intensive and expensive. Adding illustrations increased the expense. A simple basic manuscript copy could cost as much as a horse -often an entire stable and sometimes the farm. Books therefore were not written for public consumption. But books were written for the history and the nobles”, the experts say. So, the bad people tried to destroy libraries and manuscript copies, and in this way they tried to change history. Do you know what was the first work of Alexander when he occupied Persia? He burnt the great libraries of Persepolis and other Iranian cities. And it’s exactly like what the Arabs did in Persia, 1000 years after Alexander. A manuscript of the Shahnameh, written in the poets own hand is not known to exist, as well. But the oral traditions in Persia and the works of other Persian writers in the past 1000 years, saved ancient Iranian legends. According to Nezami, Ferdowsi was a Dehqan (farmer/ landowner), deriving a comfortable income from his estates. He had only one child, and he wanted to keep the Persian identity safe. The Shahnameh and its ancient stories can show you many things, for instance, why Iran, the land of Aryans, and its ancient legends are the root of many legends in the Jewish culture and the Christian culture, and why today’s Iranians call the Mullahs “Zahak” and believe that the Iranian baboons, from the Mullahs to the Monarchists, are Ahriman’s puppets. So, Lets take a look at the mythical age in the Shahnameh [1][2]: (below picture is Ferdowsi’s tomb in Mashhad [Tus], Iran).


“Shahnameh begins with the story of the first man, Keyumars, who also became the first king in the world. His grandson Hushang, son of Siyamak, discovered fire and established the Sadeh Feast in its honor. Keyumars first sat upon the throne of Persia, and was master of the world. Men and beasts from all parts of the earth came to do him homage and receive laws at his hands, and his glory was like to the sun. But when Ahriman, the Evil, saw how Keyumars’s honor was increased, waxed envious, and bade his son, a mighty Deev (devil /monster), gather together an army to go out against Keyumars and his beloved son Siyamak and destroy them utterly. The Serosch (Soroush), the angel who defended men from the snares of the Deevs (devils /monsters), and who each night flied seven times around the earth, learned this and appeared like a Peri and warned Keyumars. So when Siyamak set forth at the head of his warriors to meet the army of Ahriman, he knew that he was contending against a Deev, but the Deev was mightier than he, and overcame him, and crushed him under his hands. When Keyumars heard the news of mourning, he was bowed to the ground. For a year did he weep without ceasing, and his army and the beasts and the birds wept with him. Sorrow reigned in the land, and all the world was darkened until the Serosch bade the Shah (king) lift his head and think on vengeance. And Keyumars obeyed, and commanded Hushang, the son of Siyamak , ‘Take the lead of the army, and march against the Deevs’. Now there were in the host Peris; also tigers, lions, wolves, and other fierce creatures, and when the black Deev heard their roaring he trembled for very fear. Neither could he hold himself against them, and Hushang routed him utterly. Then when Keyumars saw that his beloved son was revenged he laid him down to die, and Hushang reigned in his stead. Now Husheng was a wise man and just, and the heavens revolved over his throne. Justice did he spread over the land. He first gave to men fire, and showed them how to draw it from out the stone; and he taught them how they might lead the rivers, that they should water the land and make it fertile; and he bade them till and reap. And he divided the beasts and paired them and gave them names. And when he passed to a brighter life he left the world empty of a throne of power. But Tahmures, his son, was not unworthy of his sire. He too opened the eyes of men, and they learned to spin and to weave; and he reigned over the land long and mightily. But of him also were the Deevs right envious, and sought to destroy him. Yet Tahumers overcame the Deevs and cast them to earth. Then some craved mercy at his hands, and sware how they would show him an art if he would spare them, and Tahmures listened to their voice. And they taught him the art of writing, and thus from the evil Deevs came a boon upon mankind. “When Tahmures had sat upon the golden throne for the space of thirty years he passed away, but his works endured; and Jamshid, his son, whose heart was filled with the counsels of his father, came after him”. (below pix are Kaweh and his army’s flag known as “Derafsh Kawiani”).


Jamshid reigned over the land seven hundred years girt with might, and Deevs, birds, and Peris obeyed him. And the world was happier for his sake, and death was unknown among men, neither did they wot of pain or sorrow. And he first parcelled out men into classes; priests, warriors, artificers, and husbandmen did he name them. And the year also he divided into periods. And by aid of the people and the Deevs he raised mighty works, and the first Persepolis was built by him, and was called Takht-e-Jamshid (Throne of Jamshid). When these things were accomplished, men flocked from all corners of the earth around his throne to do him homage and pour gifts before his face. Jamshid prepared a feast for the New Year, and bade them keep it, and called it Nowruz. Jamshid’s power increased, and the world was at peace and the people were happy. Then it came about that the heart of Jamshid was uplifted in pride, and he forgot whence came his weal and the source of his blessings. He named himself God, and sent forth his image to be worshipped. But when he had spoken thus, the Mubads (the clergymen) and the wise men, hung their heads in sorrow, and no man knew how he should answer the Shah. And God withdrew his hand from Jamshid, and the nobles rose up against him, and removed their warriors from his court, and Ahriman had power over the land. Ahriman (the Evil) visited the deserts of Arabia disguised as a noble. In the deserts of Arabia, Ahriman found Zahak, the son of the main tribal chief, and tempted him that he should depart from the paths of virtue. The young Zahak swore into the Deev that he would obey him in all things. Then Ahriman bade him slay his father. Zahak killed his father and became chief. Then Ahriman took upon himself the form of a youth, and craved that he might serve Zahak as cook. Zahak granted his request, and the keys of the kitchen were given unto him. Hitherto men had been nourished with herbs, but Ahriman prepared flesh for Zahak. The flesh gave Zahak courage and strength like to that of a wolf, and he commanded that his cook should be brought before him and ask a boon at his hands. And the cook said: ‘If the King take pleasure in his servant, grant that he may kiss his shoulders’. Zahak granted the request, and Ahriman kissed him on his shoulders. And when he had done so, the ground opened beneath his feet and covered the cook, so that all men present were amazed thereat. But from his kiss sprang hissing serpents, venomous and black. Zahak tried to kill the snakes, but as often as the snakes were cut down did they grow again, and in vain the wise men and physicians cast about for a remedy. Then Ahriman came once again disguised as a learned man, and was led before Zahak, and he said: ‘This ill cannot be healed, neither can the serpents be uprooted. Prepare food for them, therefore, that they may be fed, and give them for nourishment the brains of men, for perchance this may destroy them’. Then the customs of good men were forgotten, and the desires of the wicked were accomplished” (The contemporary history is really like the story of Jamshid, Ahriman, Zahak, and Kaveh) .


“Persians heard that in the deserts of Arabia there reigned a man who was mighty and terrible to his foes. Then the nobles who had withdrawn from Jamshid, because he had rebelled against God, turned to Zahak and besought him that he would be their ruler, and they proclaimed him Shah. And the army of Persia and Zahak marched against Jamshid, and he fled before their face. So the beloved of Ahriman, Zahak the Serpent, sat upon the throne of Iran, the kingdom of Light. And he continued to pile evil upon evil till the measure thereof was full to overflowing, and all the land cried out against him. But Zahak and his councilors, the Deevs (monsters), shut ear unto this cry, and the Shah reigned thus for the space of a thousand years, and vice stalked in daylight, but virtue was hidden. And despair filled all hearts, for it was as though mankind must perish to still the appetite of those snakes sprung from Evil, for daily were two men slaughtered to satisfy their desire. Zahak had no mercy upon any man. Darkness was spread over the land because of his wickedness. Ormuzd (god) saw it and was moved with compassion for his people, and he declared they should no longer suffer for the sin of Jamshid. And he caused a grandson to be born to Jamshid, and his parents called him Fereydun. Now it befell that when he was born, Zahak dreamed he beheld a youth slender like to a cypress, and he came towards him bearing a cow-headed mace, and with it he struck Zahak to the ground. Then the tyrant awoke and trembled, and called for his Mubads, that they should interpret to him this dream. They said: ‘There will arise one named Fereydun, who shall inherit your throne and reverse your fortunes, and strike you down with a cow-headed mace’. Zahak bade the world be scoured for Fereydun. The mother of Fereydun feared lest the Shah should destroy the child if he learned that he was sprung from Jamshid’s race (it’s like the story of Moses, isn’t it?). So she hid him in the thick forest where dwelt the wondrous cow Purmaieh, whose hairs were like unto the plumes of a peacock for beauty. And she prayed the guardian of Purmaieh to have a care of her son, and for three years he was reared in the wood, and Purmaieh was his nurse. But when the time was accomplished the mother knew that news of Purmaieh had reached the ears of Zahak, and she feared he would find her son. Therefore she took him to a pious hermit who dwelt on the Mount Alborz. Zahak demanded of his people that they should certify that he had ever been to them a just and noble king. And the nobles obeyed for very fear. But while they swore they heard the cry of one who demanded justice. Zahak commanded that he should be brought in, and the man stood before the assembly of the nobles. The man said: ‘I am Kaweh, a blacksmith and I sue for justice, and it is against you, O King, that I cry out. Seventeen fair sons have I called mine, yet only one remained to me, for that his brethren were slain to still the hunger of your serpents, and now they have taken from me this last child also. I pray you spare him unto me’. Zahak feared Kaweh’s wrath and he granted him the life of his son and sought to win him with soft words. Zahak prayed him that he would also sign the testimony that Zahak was a just and noble king”.


“But Kaweh (that was not like Khatami and other Iranian baboons) cried, ‘No, you wicked and ignoble man, ally of Deevs (monsters), I will not lend my hand unto this lie,’ and he seized the declaration and tore it. And when he had done so he strode forth from the palace, and all the nobles were astonished, so that none dared uplift a finger to restrain him. Then Kaweh went to the market-place and related to the people all that which he had seen, and recalled to them the evil deeds of Zahak and the wrongs they had suffered at his hands. And he provoked them to shake off the yoke of Ahriman. And taking off the leathern apron wherewith blacksmiths cover their knees when they strike with the hammer, he raised it aloft upon the point of a lance and cried: ‘Be this our banner to march forth and seek out Fereydun and he could deliver us from out the hands of the Serpent-King’. The people set up a shout of joy and gathered themselves round Kaweh, and he led them out of the city. They marched thus for many days unto the palace of Fereydun. They found Fereydun and, then they set forth towards the West to seek out Zahak. First they came to Baghdad, and from there they turned their faces towards the city which is now called Jerusalem, for here stood the palace that Zahak had built. When they entered the city all the people welcomed them, for the people hated Zahak. They slew the Deevs that held the palace. When Zahak returned from his search after Fereydun and learned that he was seated upon his throne, he encompassed the city with his host. But Fereydun and the army of Kaweh marched against him, and the desires of the people went with them. The army of Kaveh defeated Zahak’s army, and Fereydun raised his cow-headed mace (the only tool that could kill Zahak, and Fereydun had it, and that’s why the army of Kaweh tried to find Fereydun) to slay the Serpent-King. But the Serosch swooped down, and cried: ‘Not so, strike not, for Zahak’s hour is not yet come’ Then the Serosch bade Fereydun bind the usurper and carry him far from the haunts of men, and there fasten him to a rock. And Fereydun did as he was bidden, and led forth Zahak to the Mount Demawend. And he bound him to the rock with mighty chains and nails driven into his hands, and left him to perish in agony. Then five hundred years did Fereydun rule the world, and might and virtue increased in the land, and all his days he did that which was good. He ordered the world like to a paradise, he planted the cypress and the rose where the wild herb had sprouted. Fereydun had three sons Salm, Tur, and Iraj. But finally Fereydun’s two eldest sons feel greed and envy toward their innocent younger brother and, thinking their father favors him, they murder him. The murdered prince’s son (Manuchehr ) avenges the murder, and all are immersed in the cycle of murder and revenge. And it’s the end of the mythical age in the Shahnameh”.

It should be added that almost two-thirds of the Shahnameh is devoted to the heroic age, extending from Manuchehr’s reign until the conquest of Alexander (Sekandar). In the historical age, you can read the story of Alexander and Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid Empire, and the fall of the Sassanids and the Arab conquest of Persia are narrated romantically. It’s interesting to know that Ferdowsi has one main message in the Shahnameh, and he says since the world is transient, and since everyone is merely a passerby, one is wise to avoid cruelty, lying, and other evils. And the wise humans should strive for justice, honor, truth, and other human values.

For further information:

[1] MIT Classics : The full stories of the Shahnameh . It’s English translation of the Shahnameh by Helen Zimmern (1846 – 1934).
[2] Zoroastrian Heritage: A good website about the Shahnameh, and the ancient Persia

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