Literature / The Shahnameh
is a 50,000 verse epic poem
written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi
, started in 977 and finished in 1010. Its name translates as Book of Kings
, and that's basically what it is
: A recounting of the Persian kings from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest. Most of these kings are mythical, though. The closer the narrative gets to the time of Ferdowsi's writing, the more historically accurate it becomes.
Ferdowsi made a point of writing his poem in Persian when most literature at the time was in Arabic. He also refused to adapt the pre-Islamic legends to accommodate Muslim beliefs
. The popularity of The Shahnameh
pretty much revived the Persian language, and it continues to be revered as a classic of Persian literature.The Shahnameh
is Older Than Print
, having been written a few centuries before the printing press. However, since a good chunk of it comes from Sassanid-period historiographies (224-651 CE), many episodes of the work are probably Older Than Feudalism
, at least in outline.
This work provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Numerous examples and almost always the father:
- Sahm Abandons his infant son Zal in the mountains because Zal was born with platinum white hair.
- Goshtasb Tries to get his son Esfandiar killed so he can remain king.
- Siavash's (unnamed) mother had run away from home because her father was a violent drunk, before marrying Key Kavous.
- Afrasiab disowns his daughter Manijeh when he finds out she'd been fooling around with Bijan.
- The Ace: Rostam obviously. Esfandiar and many other heroes qualify as well, but especially Siavash who is at the same time strong, brave, athletic, virtuous, humble, considerate, intelligent, patriotic, charming, and on top of all that incredibly handsome.
- Achilles' Heel: Esfandiyār bathed in a pool of invincibility, except he closed his eyelids, leaving him vulnerable to Eye Scream. The Persian expression for 'Achilles Heel' is literally "Esfandiar's eye".
- Action Girl: Gordafarid, who manages to stalemate Sohrab.
- Always Chaotic Evil: The Divs, Ahriman's monstrous children.
- And This Is For...: Two examples involving Rostm are:
- Rostam cuts queen Soodabeh in half, for her role in Siavash leaving Iran for Turan and his eventual death.
- Rostam impales his half-brother Shoqad to the tree he's hiding behind with an arrow for essentially killing Rostam himself! That's right, Rostam is so badass he avenges his own death right before he dies!
- Bad Boss: Afrasiab decapitates his soldiers who won't fight against Key Khosrow with a dagger when it's become evident that the Persians Roaring Rampage of Revenge is unstoppable. The Turanians Mostly know that Key Khosrow is a just king and he's only after Afrasiab and those directly responsible for Siavash's death.
- Badass Boast: Appropriately for an epic, the Shahnameh is full of these. See the quotes page for specific examples.
- Big Bad: Three of the most famous examples would be:
- Zahhak, a tyrant with two snakes growing out his shoulders whom Zahhak must feed human brains to.
- The White Demon, a cave-dwelling albino who rules Mazandaran.
- Afrasiab and his brother Garsivaz who commit many atrocities including the execution of Siavash, which sends Rostam and the Persians on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Bigger Bad: Ahriman, the source and representation of all evil.
- Blatant Lies: Years after killing their brother Iraj, Salm and Tur send a message to their father Feridoun, claiming that they're both ever so sorry for the whole fratricide thing, and ask that Iraj's grandson Manuchehr be sent to them so they can properly express their contrition. Feridoun, not being an idiot, doesn't take the bait, and responds with a pointed "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
- Body Horror: The devil disguised as a young cook, asks Zahhak permission to kiss him on the shoulders and when Zahhak grants the request, the disguised devil vanishes and from Zahhak's shoulders grow two hideous snakes! They try cutting the snakes off but they just grow back and would only leave Zahhak alone if they are fed the brain of young men! Eventually when Fereydoon defeats Zahhak, he decides the most fitting punishment for Zahhak is to lock him up in a cave in mount Damavand and let the snakes do the rest!
- Brain Food: What Zahhak's cursed shoulder snakes do, requiring sacrifices to prevent them from eating his.
- Cain and Abel: The person who is finally able to bring down Rostam is none other than his younger half-brother Shoqad.
- Carry a Big Stick: When he isn't wrestling his foes, Rostem prefers to carry around a mace.
- Cool Horse: Rakhsh, the only horse strong enough to carry Rostem, and wary as well.
- Cool vs. Awesome: Rostam vs. Esfandiar. Easily the most badass character in the entire epic versus the invincible prince!
- The Corrupter: Ahriman, in spades.
- Crushing Handshake: Esfandiar gives one to Rostam. Rostam does not flinch but his hand is so badly crushed it bleeds! It does nothing to intimidate Rostam though.
- Curse: Whoever kills Esfandiyār is cursed to die and suffer in this life and the next. Fortunately for Rostem it can take into account Uriah Gambits.
- Defeat Means Friendship: On his fifth Labor to save the Persian king and army, Rostam fights multiple Mazandarani warriors and captures their leader, Oolad. He makes Oolad his guide in Mazandaran and gets information about the White Demon from him. Oolad comes to admire and respect Rostam and Rostam in turn warms up to his captive for his help and promises him Mazandaran. When it is all over Rostam keeps his promise and makes Key Kavous appoint Oolad as the ruler of Mazandaran.
- Determinator: Rostam undertakes seven labors to liberate Key Kavous and the Persian army, namely:
- Travels two days distance in one and Rakhsh kills a lion.
- Endures extended dehydration and desert heat.
- Slices a dragon in two, with some help from Rakhsh.
- Slices a seductive witch in two. More of a moral test than a physical one.
- Kills multiple warriors and captures their chieftain.
- Tears off a demon's head with his bare hands.
- Kills the White Demon in a long and bloody fight.
- The Dreaded: Zahhak and Afrasiab are this to the Persians. Zahhak is an abomination in appearance and deed and Afrasiab's name literally means the 'the terrifying one'.
- Sahm is this to the Turanians. As soon as Sahm dies Afrasiab suggests invading Iran because he was the only thing holding them back. Fortunately by the time they attack Rostam has matured and replaced his grandfather as the dreaded.
- Rostam is so dreaded among the enemy that when he finally meets an opponent he thinks can beat him, Rostam keeps his identity secret so that if he dies the Turanians will still have something to be afraid of.
- Rostam is this to foe AND friend! Bahman knows his father Esfandiar can rip through chains as if they were threads, kill wild animals and a dragon, that he has never lost a fight ever and is literally invincible, meaning weapons have little to no effect on him. Despite all this Bahman STILL fears for his father life in his battle against Rostam and tries to assassinate Rostam before he fights Esfandiar.
- Evil Uncle: Salm and Tur are evil great-uncles, who murder their brother Iraj and try later to do the same thing to Iraj's grandson.
- Evil Vizier: Jamasp, who serves king Goshtasp, conspires with him to get his son Esfandiar out of the picture so he can remain king. In Zoroastrian texts he is a good guy though.
- Fatal Flaw: Esfandiar's obsession with becoming king is how he's manipulated into fighting his tutor Rostam, even though he knows it's the wrong thing to do. Going up against Rostam of course, is as fatal as it gets!
- Femme Fatale: Soodabeh is the very attractive wife of Key Kavous who tries to seduce her stepson, Siavash. When Siavash turns her down twice, she claims Siavash sexually assaulted her. Even though the evidence is against her, she uses the aborted deformed babies of a witch to cast doubt on Siavash, who finally proves his innocence by riding through a huge fire and coming out unharmed. Even then she tries to frame Zal for losing the babies which doesn't work and Key Kavous sentences her to be hanged. Siavash knows his father will soon regret having her killed and will hold Siavash in contempt for her death, so he asks for Soodabeh to pardoned. Soon despite all she's done she bewitches her husband once again and starts poisoning his mind against Siavash. When Afrasiab wages war on Iran, Siavash volunteers to go to battle to get away from Soodabeh and her schemes and this ultimately leads to his tragic death.
- Foregone Conclusion: At Least for Persian readers. One of Ferdowsi's main sources for his material was oral traditions. The stories were passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years (hence the hyperbole), so when people read the Shahnameh for the first time, they already had a pretty good idea how the stories were going to end. Ferdowsi was aware of this and has no qualms about spoilers.
- Even today most Iranian children know the more famous stories before they're old enough to read the book.
- Founder of the Kingdom: Keyumars, the first king to rise among humanity, and Shah of Iran.
- Genius Bruiser: Rostam, Siavash, Esfandiar and many other heroes are not only strong fighters and good tacticians, they're quite eloquent, witty, and knowledgeable. Rostam is mentioned to have played the tanbour and he could sing.
- God is Good: The Zoroastrian creator god Ohrmazd and his angels care deeply about the world, and aid the righteous heroes in their struggles.
- God of Evil: Ahriman. His name is derived from the Avestan "Angra Mainyu", which means "destructive spirit".
- Good Versus Good: Rostam versus Esfandiar is this. Esfandiar wants to arrest Rostam so that he can become king, because he thinks his time has come and he would do a good job and he's probably right. Rostam has dedicated his life to defending Iran and thinks it's unfair and unreasonable that he should be humiliated and he's definitely right!
- Green-Eyed Monster: Shoqad is this toward his half brother Rostam whom he thinks Zal favors, because Zal sends Shoqad away at a young age to Kabul and generally keeps him away from the rest of the family and Iran. In reality Zal loves Shoqad very much, but when Shoqad was born it was foretold that he would bring about the end of Zal's legacy and a great loss to Iran. Ironically this perceived favoritism and abandonment coupled with Rostam's achievements and standing is what fuels Shoqad's deep hatred and jealousy.
- Healing Potion: Key Kavous is in possession of this but refuses to share it with Rostam when he sends Giv to get it for the mortally wounded Sohrab. Key Kavous's paranoia sets in and he fears that if Sohrab is healed he will go through with his oath to kill Kavous and usurp his throne and now that Rostam knows Sohrab is his son they will join forces! Granted this was actually Sohrab's intent, Key Kavous should have known that Rostam was too loyal to ever let it happen, especially after all Rostam had done for Kavous.
- Heroic Albino: The prince Zal, rejected by his father because of his albinism. He was raised by the mystical bird the Simurgh.
- Hijacked By Mohammad: Deliberately averted. Other authors at the time tried to match up Persia's ancient legends with Muslim beliefs, but Ferdowsi let the original legends stand on their own.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: The second third of the book mostly concerns semi historical characters or characters based on historical people performing greatly exaggerated or outright fantastic feats, i.e., a strong and patriotic warrior named Rostam probably did live and rule in Sistan, but he sure as hell never killed a WHALE or behead a demon!!!
- Hot-Blooded: Sohrab fits the trope. He angrily smacks down a captured Persian when he (rightfully) suspects the soldier is giving him false information, then he rides alone to the Persian army, demands a single combat, and vows to hang their king!
- Hot Witch: On his fourth Labor, Rostam comes across a witch disguised as a beautiful woman who entices him with food and wine. Just as he's about to put the food in his mouth though Rostam gives thanks to Mitra. Upon hearing god's name the witch instantly revert to her true form.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Rostem is this to Kay Kavus, who keeps on getting the kingdom of Iran into problems and needing the ever-more reluctant Rostam to bail him out.
- Hypocrite: When he was a prince, Goshtasb is anxious to become king and gives his father Lohrasb who (rightfully) believes he is not ready a hard time for it, going so far as abandoning Iran and going abroad for years in protest. When he finally get's what he wants and has been king for many years and prince Esfandiar's turn to rule is overdue, Goshtasb makes false promises to him, locks him up, sends him on suicide missions and finally resorts to a Uriah Gambit to remain king.
- I Am X, Son of Y: On his third Labor, Rostam encounters a murderous talking dragon. When the Dragon asks Rostam's name so he knows who he's about to kill, Rostam proudly gives him not only his own name but also his father Zal, grandfather Sahm and great grandfather Nariman's name.
- It's All About Me: Goshtasp is willing to send his son Esfandiar to his death to stay king. Unfortunately the prince takes after his father in this regard. Esfandiar is willing to dishonor Rostam to become king, even after all Rostam has done for Iran. Esfandiar is decidedly the more honorable of the two though.
- It's All My Fault: Rostam feels this way about Sohrab's death — he is somewhat right. Losing his son like that is why he's so attached to Siavash and why he goes on a rampage when he is killed.
- It's Personal: Rostam has gone to war against the Turanians on many occasions, simply as a patriotic Persian defending his country. But when the Turanians kill the innocent Siavash (Rostam's surrogate son) he goes to war for the sole purpose of killing everyone responsible. Same can be said about king Key Khosro who was Siavash's son and the Persians in general.
- Kick Them While They Are Down: More like 'stab' them while they are down... Sohrab pins Rostam to the ground in their first wrestling match and takes out his dagger. Rostam tells him that the Persian custom is to kill one’s opponent the second time he is defeated. Sohrab accepts due to the affection he feels for the man, his naiveté and his code of honor. When they next fight Rostam gains the upper hand and does not hesitate to stab Sohrab in the side. Although he does this to save Iran, this the only instance in which Rostam resorts to trickery to win a fight.
- Know When to Fold 'Em: When confronted with a terrible dragon (really Feridoun in disguise) the son of Feridoun who would later be named Salm wasted no time in retreating. Unusually for this kind of story, this isn't portrayed as an act of cowardice: Feridoun outright says that anybody who charges blindly against monsters is foolhardy rather than courageous. At the same time, Tur is praised for his bravery in the face of the dragon, but Iraj is most highly regarded for warning the dragon away, thus demonstrating both prudence and courage.
- Manly Tears: Like most epics the Shahnameh contains many examples. Most prominent would be Rostam, the manliest character in the entire book, bitterly crying when he realizes he's just killed his own son.
- Bijan cries as he is led to the gallow to be hanged by the Turanians, but not because he's about to die... he cries because he was tricked into giving up his weapon and captured under the pretense of a parley, and he's worried that because his body is unharmed people will say he surrendered without a fight and he would bring shame to his family!
- Goodarz kills his long time rival and Turanian counterpart Piran, then sheds tears for him out of respect. Piran had been a decent and compassionate aversary. He had also previously saved Goodarz's grandson Bijan from hanging at the hands of Afrasiab's men.
- Meaningful Name: many examples in the early and middle parts of the book.
- Rostam: Tall and powerful
- Zal: White hair
- Sohrab: rosy complexion
- Siavash: (rider of the) Black stallion
- Afrasiab: The terrifying one
- Kioomars: The mortal
- Siamak: Black hair
- Hooshang: (builder of) Good houses
- The Mentor:
- Simorq for Zal: The giant mythical bird, Simorq finds the baby Zal abandoned in mountains and raises him. When they part ways he gives Zal three of his feathers and tells Zal to summon him by burning a feather in times when he's in desperate need of help.
- Piran is this to Afrasiab. His wisdom and compassion saves many good people from Afrasiab's wrath, including Bijan and Manijeh.
- Rostam is this to Siavash, Esfandiar, and later Bahman. He especially has a soft spot for Siavash, seeing him as a surrogate for his own son whom he never really got to know.
- Mix-and-Match Critters: The Simurgh is a bird with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion.
- My God, What Have I Done?: This is Rostam's reaction when he realizes he's killed his son Sohrab.
- Nerves of Steel: Rostam displays this on multiple occasions including:
- He goes to battle against the mounted and heavily armed Ashkboos with only a bow and two arrows. He shoots down Ashboos's horse with one arrow. The thoroughly rattled Ashkboos fires a barrage of arrows at Rostam who doesn't even move. Then Rostam shoots his only remaining arrow with dead accuracy.
- When Esfandiar arrives to arrest Rostam they shake hands and Esfandiar squeezes Rostam's hand so hard the veins under his nails pop and start to bleed. Not only does this not faze Rostam, he delivers some good humored badass boasts and goes home to prepare for battle.
- When he sneaks into the Div-e Sepid's cave, he finds the demon sleeping. Instead of taking the opportunity to slay the monster in his sleep, he let's out a battle cry and fights him only when he's fully awake.
- Bahman fearing for his father Esfandiar's life in his battle against Rostam, tries to assassinate him by hurling a boulder from a hill to crush Rostam. The hunting party accompanying Rostam drop what they're carrying and dive out of the way. Rostam simply kicks the rolling rock away from him!
- Obviously Evil: The wicked king Zahhak. He has a snake growing from each shoulder! Oh, and he feeds them human brains. See Squick under YMMV.
- One-Man Army: Rostam singlehandedly conquered the land of Mazandaran where Key Kavous fails to do so with an army and frees the captured king and Persians.
- Poor Communication Kills: Through a combination of accidents, deception, and well-intentioned mistakes, Rostem ends up killing Sohrab, an outcome neither of them wanted.
- Rated M for Manly: This is a book full of tough warriors battling each other, wild beasts and mythical creatures.
- optimized in Rostam, a towering muscular man with a long beard, who wears tiger skin under his armour plates, and (according to tradition not Shahnameh) the skull of a demon he killed as his helmet, while riding a huge horse and carrying a mace shaped like a bulls head!!!
- Real Men Love Ohrmazd: The heroes are all prominently pious, in direct contrast with the bad guys.
- Required Secondary Powers: Rostem actually had to pray to make his legs weaker so he wouldn't dig himself in the ground up to his waist with every step.
- Rescue Arc: Quite a few examples in the The Shahnameh. Rostam does his fair share of rescuing. The Seven Labors of Rostam is the most famous example wherein he saves the imprisoned Key Kavous and Persian army from the demons of Mazandaran.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Rostam will not rest until EVERYONE responsible for Siavash's execution is dead, even his own king's wife!
- Samus Is a Girl: When Sepid Dejh’s (the white fortress) champion Hojhir challenges Sohrab to single combat, is beaten and taken prisoner, the fortresses chief, Gazhdahm and his daughter Gordafarid realize that the fort will eventually fall. Gazhdahm sends a messenger to Key Kavus, the Shah of Persia through a secret passage and starts to evacuate the city through it, while Gordafarid wears armor, hides her hair under a helmet and challenges Sohrab to buy time. A fierce and long clash ensues and the fight gets closer and closer, culminating in hand to hand combat on horseback. Finally, in the heat of battle Sohrab tears the helmet from Gordafarid’s head and is astonished to realize he’d been fighting a beautiful girl.
- Saving the World with Art: Talhand and Gav, two half-brothers, vie for the throne of Hind, but Talhand dies in battle against a mutual enemy without a wound. Their mother suspects that Gav killed him and threatens to start civil war. But then the sages of the court invent the game of Chess and use the piece movements to reenact the battle, ending with the King capturing several pieces and then ultimately being checkmated, thus representing how the half-brother died of battle fatigue. In the end, the mother was appeased and the game of Chess averted civil war.
- In a Meta example, the Shahnameh essentially saved the entire Iranian culture from being completely subsumed by Arab traditions. Ferdowsi made it cool to write in Persian again.
- Scaled Up: King Faridun turns into a dragon. Notably, this isn't for fighting; it's to test his sons, and the son who he believes is worthy is the one who doesn't attack the dragon right away and talks to him instead.
- Take That!: The fact that Ferdowsi wrote in Persian instead of Arabic and that most of the villains in the tale (including the aforementioned brain eating Zahhak) come from Arabia might suggest Ferdowsi was a little peeved about the Arabs conquering his country.
- Then there's the other main villain, Afrasiyab the Turanian/Turk. The Turks had by this point overrun large parts of Persia, and had been enemies of the Persians since before Islam. Afrasiyab gets subjected to a near-endless Humiliation Conga all through the story of Rustam. This lead to trouble for Ferdowsi when he was taken prisoner by the ferocious warlord Mahmud of Ghazna, who was Turkish.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The Shahnameh features some of the most impressive verbal smackdowns in literature. Any villainous character will be called out and condemned for their crimes, in detail.
- Tragic Mistake: Being an epic, there are many examples. Some of the more famous ones are:
- Sohrab's naivete causes him to keep his identity and the armband that Rostam had given to his wife (Sohrab's mother) specifically so that he would be able to identify his child, hidden. This eventually leads father and son to unknowingly face each other in battle with tragic consequences.
- Rostam is cautious and untrusting to a fault when it comes to fighting the Turanian champion who unknown to him is his son. Considering Sohrab's immense strength and fighting prowess and considering his own age, Rostam denies his true identity even when Sohrab repeatedly asks him if he is indeed Rostam, because Rostam fears that he might lose and the Turanians would be unstoppable if they no longer feared the threat of Persia’s greatest warrior. Lying mortally wounded in Rostam's arms Sohrab tells his father, "I gave you every hint there was, your love did not budge an inch!"
- Esfandiar's obsession with becoming king causes him to ignore his mother's advice and play into his father's hand by fighting Rostam to gain the crown. It's never a good idea to fight Rostam, even if you are invincible like Esfandiar!
- Undying Loyalty: When Manijeh's father, Afrasiab learns of her relationship with the Persian warrior Bijan, she is degraded, roughed up, kicked out of her home and all her possessions are confiscated. The princess goes door to door each day begging for food so she can keep Bijan, who's chained at the bottom of a hole sealed by a giant boulder alive.
- No matter how much trouble and grief Key Kavous causes Rostam, including not helping him save Sohrab, Rostam is always loyal to his king even though he could easily abandon or even overthrow Key Kavous.
- Rostam and the Persian champions toward Persia. This is the most important theme of the whole book and applies to the author Ferdowsi too. Undying loyalty to Iran!
- The Uriah Gambit: What Gushtasp plans for his son Esfandiyār to avoid relinquishing the throne by sending him against Rostem.
- Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Zahhak was a guileless and well-meaning prince before Ahriman corrupted him.
- Salm and Tur were also decent people before their jealousy of Iraj got the better of them.
- World's Best Warrior: Rostam is a One-Man Army /Genius Bruiser who regularly kills wild beasts, monsters, multiple foes and seemingly unbeatable challengers and ALWAYS comes out on top.