Survey of Eastern Literature


The Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) - Firdausi

The Shahnameh (Shanameh on Wikipedia) is a largely historical account of the kings of Persia, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Arab invasion of the Sasanian empire in the 7th century A.D. It is based on an oral tradition, and most feats and descriptions of its characters are the product of myth and legend. It is considered the national epic of Iran, and Firdausi, in many respects, the Persian Virgil. (Wikipedia biography) He based his epic poem on a prose translation from a Pahlavi history of the heroes and leaders of pre-Islamic Iran which he discovered in Tus.

Firdausi begins the epic with praise of God and with an invocation to Wisdom. He then tells the creation of the world per Sasanian belief: In the beginning, God created matter and the substance of the four elements (fire, wind, water, earth), which rushed together to form the earth, the master of the stars and planets in a spherical universe, much like that which Aristotle propounded. Firdausi explains the creation of the celestial bodies, praises the prophet Muhammed, and tells of the heavenly-sanctioned creation of the Shahnameh before beginning his epic of Persian kings.

The first age of kings continues in the myths surrounding the beginning of the Persian empire. Keyumars was the first king, who lived in the mountains and introduced civilization to the world through clothing and order. His grandson, Husheng, discovered fire, and taught the arts of husbandry. Jemshid, grandson of Husheng, divided the year into months, organized society and constructed Persepolis. And so the epic continues, cataloguing wars and advancements, revealing the heroic deeds of kings, and their fatal vices.

The selection included in the Anderson anthology deals primarily with the king Bahram. Bahram was born under a favorable star to the greedy and merciless king, Yazdeherd. In his youth and adolescence it was obvious he would be a powerful warrior and wise leader. Most of the Bahram legends follow the same pattern: problem is presented to Bahram; Bahram succeeds; Bahram spends evening with many beautiful women. Bahram says that happiness is the source of health and well-being--this mindset caused problems for him when he assumed the rule of the kingdom. He was given to seeking pleasure rather than creating and keeping order within his kingdom. He was eventually defeated by a Chinese force and lost his empire. Though he regained his throne, he was a man who valued happiness and pleasure more than prosperity, and by the end of his rule, the treasury was depleted. At that point, he gave his crown to his oldest son and devoted himself to God.

Firdausi does not judge the kings he presents, but he does use their stories to impart a moral education to readers. For instance, readers learn from the example of Bahram's "calling out against his father's tomb" and dishonoring his name that Yazdeherd, with his ruthless and torturous order, was more culpable that Bahram with his free-spirited emptying of the coffers.

The picture above is a painting found in the Shahnameh of Bahram siezing his crown. It was found at the website for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, under the Materpieces of Persian painting exhibition (link).


Post a Comment

<< Home