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People and Their Heroes

The origins and basis of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (The Book of Kings)


Iranian people have had a rich memory of their past history since the invasion of their country by the Arabs in early 7th century AD. Although they were, compulsorily or voluntarily, converted to Islam, they did not want to let their culture and their language - the living memory of their spiritual identity - be destroyed by the will or the influence of foreign conquerors.

Long before their defeat by the Arabs, they were also defeated by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. This defeat led to the rule of the Seleucids, Alexander's successors, first over the whole of the Achaemenid empire and then, when the Parthians began to gradually come to power, over some parts of the country for more than two centuries. Yet the collective memory of the Iranian peoples first called the foreign conqueror Alexander the Wicked or the Accursed Alexander the Roman, and later made a story about his real ancestry through the marriage of Darab (Darius), the Iranian King, to Philip's daughter, who became pregnant, but because of the repugnant smell of her mouth she was soon sent back to her father. She gave birth to Alexander, but Philip, who had kept his daughter's pregnancy secret, declared Alexander as his own son. Therefore, the collective memory presumed Alexander as an Iranian royal son from a Macedonian woman. As a historical fact, Alexander himself married the daughter of the defeated and slain Achaemenid king. Thus, that long alien rule lost its disgraceful poignancy and was shelved in the museum of history among the unpleasant but forgettable events.

In the case of the conquest of Iran by the Arabs, the fighting missionaries of a new religion, the threat was so disastrous that nothing would be left of national culture and heritage if the Iranians did not make every possible effort to defy it. They preserved almost all their beliefs, traditions and customs in the guise of the principles of the victorious faith. Two elements essential to this achievement were the language and the national identity. Therefore, in the collective memory of the Iranian peoples, their history was mixed with legends and myths in order to revive the past in a new appearance not manifestly incompatible with the faith of the conquerors. From the early 9th century AD, most of the regional governors were Iranian and, although they were either appointed by the Arab caliphs, or they ruled with their consent, many of them founded their own regional dynasties. To back their right to rule, and to win the loyalty of the people, many of them showed nationalistic zeal by reviving and promoting the Iranian culture and traditions. One of these enthusiasts was Abu Mansour Abd-ur-Razzaq, the governor of Tus in Khorassan, by whose order his vizier commissioned a group of historians and scholars to compile a book of authentic as well as legendary history of Iran from the prehistoric times to the fall of the Sassanid dynasty. Their sources were Pahlavi texts, especially Khudaynmneh (Book of Kings) as well as oral epic stories and myths. This book which was written in prose, and today only its "Introduction" is extant, was later used by Ferdowsi as his main source for the versification of the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. His other sources, like the compilers of the prose version of the Shahnameh, were the narrative traditions, mostly memorized by the dehgans, or the noble landowners, who were the real preservers of the culture and the Persian language.

Ferdowsi who himself was a dehgan, by versifying the Shahnameh, not only safeguarded the epic stories and myths against oblivion, but also by limiting the use of Arabic words to a minimum gave a new power and glory to the Persian language, a pride-inspiring, vivid testimony to the Iranians' nationhood and independence. Now that Avesta, the Zoroastrian sacred writings, was replaced by the Holy Koran and the Fire-temples by the Mosques, it was the Shahnameh, the embodiment of the Iranian worldview, culture and history, which people came to regard as the document of their national identity. Prior to the Iranians' access to the printing machine in the 19th century, of books copied by calligraphers, the Holy Koran and the Shahnameh were on the top of the list, with the difference that the former remained completely safe from the slightest change or even error in the text, but the latter went through every kind of change, such as misreading of the archaic and unfamiliar words and replacing these words with some understandable but corrupted ones; many legends, which Ferdowsi had not deemed to be appropriate to the epic structure of his book were inserted into the Shahnameh, and here and there, some couplets expressing certain ideas and thoughts dictated to the scribes by either the political conditions of the time or by personal preference.

With the development of the printing industry in Iran the need arose for choosing the oldest and the least corrupted scripts and editing them through comparative and critical studies. For decades many Iranian academics and scholars worked diligently and sincerely in this field, and even in the time of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi a foundation was established under the supervision of Professor Mojtaba Minovi for the publication of an authentic and critically edited copy of the Shahnameh. But few attempted to open doors to the Shahnameh's epic, historical, mythical and philosophical world. However, in the past few decades a new generation of Iranian scholars, inspired by the systematic and enlightening studies of a number of foreign scholars and orientalists, began to take remarkable steps in this field. They not only have presented the results of their own studies of the different aspects of the Shahnameh, but have mentioned, with an appreciative attitude, the misunderstandings, incorrect interpretations, and other shortcomings they have observed in the foreign scholarship about the Shahnmneh...

Rostam & Kaveh

We know that in the Shahnamneh, besides Rostam there are many heroes or Pahlavans, but only Rostam is called Jahan-Pahlavan, meaning Champion of the World. These heroes, who served the kings, were in fact the generals or commanders of the army and at the same time, the heads or members of the noble and powerful families of the country. The greatest of them, in the time of Key Kavus, was Tus, son of Novzar, who had no choice but to acknowledge the power and the position of Rostam. Tus could not help resenting Rostam's glorious popularity and, particularly, the Shah's respectful reliance on him. The reason for the uniqueness of Rostam's position among all the other Pahlavans, especially those who officially served in the king's army, can be something more than his being the guardian of farr, the divine right of kingship of the Keyanids...

There are essential differences between the relationship of the people with God and King on the one hand and with their heroes, on the other. God is omnipotent and beyond comprehension and kings, considering the non-democratic aspect of kingship, were His shadows on earth and ascended the throne through His divine will. Benevolent or evil the kings did whatever they liked, and when a king was an "evil oppressor " like Zahhak, who fed the serpents grown on his shoulders with the brains of teenage boys, the people had to suffer in their vengeful silence and to wait for the miraculous rise of a simple blacksmith, like Kaveh from amongst themselves, a hero of the people, with no farr, who made a banner of his leather apron in his uprising against Zahhak. It is that piece of leather which becomes, as Edward G. Browne describes, "by a patriotic apotheosis", the Iranian national flag or their "standard of national liberty", and remains flying in the Shahnameh from the reign of Faridun, the Pishdadi king, to the fall of the Samanid dynasty. Even though many of the Iranists convincingly explain that the standard called Darafsh-e Kaviyani in the Shahnameh is not related to Kaveh the Blacksmith and Kaviyani means Keyani or imperial, yet the people, whose imagination creates their realities, want to believe that the national flag in the Shahnameh is the same leather apron of their own hero and it is not related to kingship.

Rostam in the Shahnameh is the people's hero of heroes. He is the preserver of the country's independence and the protector of the people against all their enemies...

It is true that he serves the kings unreservedly, even when a king like Kavus does not personally deserve such a service, but in performing his duty, Rostam is molded by the mythological principle to regard the king as the divine symbol of independence and national sovereignty. Therefore, in a study of the mythical character of a hero like Rostam, the relation between the people and their hero is as important as the hero's devotion to his duty, which, in its turn is perceived and determined by the people, i.e. the mythmakers.

Ferdowsi's Sources

Although Ferdowsi owes most of the materials of the Shahnameh to the oral poetic traditions, he himself was not something of a gosan, a minstrel, an oral poet, a performer of legends and myths, but a well-educated, intellectual member of a rather wealthy social class called dehgan (dehqn). He was a poet of the post-Islamic era who had learned the art of New Persian poetry like all his other contemporaries. He versified the Shahnameh as a pure literary work to be read and appreciated by educated people. As a consequence of this, reading and understanding his book has never been easy for ordinary people...

As Jalal Khaleqi Motlaq, a well-known scholar of the Shahnameh, has said in one of his essays about Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, in a book entitled The Flower of the Past Toils, - "the Khudaynamehs, compiled or written by the historians and the Zoroastrian priests (mobads) in the time of the Sassanian dynasty, consisted mainly of historical records about the kings and of dry reports of wars, with some differences, such as Keyumars (Gayumarth) being introduced by the Zoroastrian priests as the first man (Adam) and by the court historians as the first king. These Khodaynamehs did not include many of the epic stories, which we know through the Shahnameh or other sources; and these stories, especially the Sistan (Saka) narratives (about Rostam and his family), were independently narrated, or translated (from Pahlavi) by the Iranian dehgans, and later incorporated in the Shahnameh... Therefore, the epic narratives were primarily prevalent among and developed by the ordinary people who gathered round and listened to the gosans (minstrels), and also by the aristocratic dehgans, who had remained away from the effects of urban life and the influences of the Sassanian court. After the fall of the Parthians, (the most important promoters of the Persian epic literature), they preserved these narratives with faithfulness to the past and its traditions, basically a characteristic of rural life."

However, in comparison to dehgans, the Zoroastrian priests or mobads were more interested in scriptures and religious literature, and did not place much value on non-religious or worldly literature. Because of this, after the emergence of Islam in Iran, they remained loyal to their own religion and preserved their language and alphabet, through many Pahlavi texts, but saved almost nothing of the worldly literature. Yet, in the time of Ferdowsi nearly four centuries later, in addition to some of dehgans, these mobads were the only people who had broad knowledge of the Zoroastrian scriptures, and could also read the Pahlavi texts still in existence. Consequently it was obvious that Ferdowsi, for anything that he could not find in the Khodaynameh, had to turn to either a dehgan or a mobad; and this fact is mentioned by Ferdowsi whenever in the Shahnameh he versifies their version of a story...

Ferdowsi wants to be known as a poet who, in his versification of the legends, myths and historical accounts, has been thoroughly faithful to the original sources. Therefore, many times, especially at the beginning of the stories, he has emphatically stated that he simply "versifies" what is written in the Nameh-ye Khosrovan, or the Book of Kings (Khodaynameh) and what the learned, wise, honest, noble dehgans have related to him. We also know that Ferdowsi did not know the Pahlavi language. Therefore, if any of his sources had been in syllabic verse, it must have been translated into the conversational New Persian language...


(This article was written by Mahmud Kianush,
and it is part of a review published in Asian Affairs, Vol. XXVII Oct. 1996
about the book: "Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings"
By Olga M. Davidson)

19th June 1996

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Copyright © 2001 K. Kianush, Art Arena