Shahnameh’s Heroes and Kings
Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is to Persia what the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid are to Greece and Rome and what the Mahabharata and Ramayana are for India. They are epic poems and stories that use folk history and intricate storytelling.
The Epic is rich with options for stories, but we decided what better way to begin a series on Heroes than the great Heroic dynasty spanning the generations with Sam, Zal, Rostam and Sohrab.
The Epic itself starts from the beginning of inception and carries through 50 different monarchs, so at times we might refer to a character mentioned previously throughout the book. For example, we start our story with Sam. Sam was the dynastic head of the Nariman family which ruled Sistan, but he had close ties to the Persian kings of the Kayanids, including King Manūchehr. Check out the episode here!
The Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) by Hakim Abu al-Qasim Mansur is one of the world’s greatest Epic poems, detailing the history of Iran’s Kings and Heroes. He is known as “Ferdowsi Tusi,” which is actually a title meaning “The Tusi Poet from Paradise”. The work has morphed with every retelling, and the stories have existed prior to Ferdowsi penning them down. In the poem, Ferdowsi says that his book is a collection of stories that he painstakingly collected. To see a list of the author’s sources and a brief history, click here.
Now I shall tell an astonishing tale taken from the stories our ancestors told. Sam, the most renowned knight and hero of Iran, had everything he wanted, except for a son. He prayed and longed for one, and at last, he received one, but for all his beauty, the baby was born with a shock of white hair.
For a week, no one dared to tell Sam. Finally, a maid went to him, praising the beauty of the baby. However, upon seeing the baby’s hair, Sam panicked. He complained bitterly to God about this turn of fate and wondered which great sin he had committed. His baby was like a leopard, of two skins and two worlds.
Sam did what almost every father of an ill-omened Prince does. He abandoned his child in the mountains. Except, he chose to have the boy sent to where the mythical bird, the Simurgh, lived.
The Simurgh is a legendary bird from Persian mythology that is large enough to carry an elephant or a whale. It appears as a peacock but sometimes has the head of a dog with a human face. It is written that the bird has seen the destruction of the world three times over, and like a phoenix, it will combust after about a thousand years.
When the Simurgh left her nest in the Alborz mountains to feed her chicks, she spotted the crying boy left in the scorching sun. Thinking she could feed her chicks with him, the mighty bird grasped the child in her claws and returned him to her children. However, God had other plans, and when the birds looked upon the child, they were astonished to find themselves pitying the creature. She named the boy Dastan.
Over time, he grew into a young, noble man, and travellers began spreading the word of a wild, white-haired man in the mountains.
An interesting bit of trivia is that Jordan Mechner, the creator of the Prince of Persia series, named his protagonist “Dastan” (دستان / dastān) after he found it in the Shahnameh. It is very similar to another Persian word, داستان / dāstān which means story.
Meanwhile, as the years passed, Sam had trouble sleeping, and in his dreams, various riders accused him of abandoning his child and expressed God’s displeasure with him. Sages and Clerics in his dreams berated him for calling himself a Knight when his only child was in the wild. Sam couldn’t bear it, so he gathered his army and headed for the mountains to claim his son, but seeing the great, impenetrable mountains and the fantastical Simurgh, he bowed before them and called for divine intervention to retrieve his son.
Zal-Dastan Goes Home
The all-knowing Simurgh looked below and knew it was time. She asked Dastan to go to his father and meet his fate. Dastan was displeased and said he wanted to keep her cooper feathers as his only crown. However, they both knew it was time.
The Simurgh could not part with him just like that, so she gave him two of her feathers and told him to burn them if he needed her, and she would appear as a black cloud. She would never forsake his protection. With her parting gifts, she flew him down to meet his father.
When Sam saw his son, he swelled with pride and glory. Here was a youth that- while he had no hand in raising and with the whole abandoning thing aside- was worthy as a Shah from the line of Nariman. He gave Dastan an elephant to ride, and the men rode back to Sam’s kingdom.
In the not-so-distant land of Persia, King Manuchehr heard of Sam’s retrieval of his son and bid Sam come straight away. He wanted to see this new youth and analyze his prowess. The line of Sam was heroic after all, and this new boy could very well be another Champion of Persia.
When they arrived at the Persian court, Sam’s son, now named Zal, which means those with albinism, was presented to the King. The King had Zal’s horoscope read, and the astrologers declared that Zal would be a great hero and champion. Manuchehr gave Zal all sorts of riches and lordship over all the land from Kabol to the sea of China.
But in the same stroke, Sam was sent to war, so their reunion was short-lived, but hey, people threw saffron and gold after him wherever he went. Seems like a fair tradeoff.
While travelling through his Kingdom, Zal happened upon Kabol, which was actually considered part of India at the time. There he met with the vassal king called Mehrab. Mehrab had heard of the Great Zal’s approach and had come to see the young hero with many riches as a greeting. Zal was pleased with his reception and with Mehrab as a whole. While feasting, one of the courtiers spoke to Zal and said:
“In purdah, and unseen by anyone,
He has a daughter lovelier than the sun.
Lashes like ravens’ wings protect a pair
Of eyes like wild narcissi hidden there;
If you would see the moon, it is her face;
If you seek musk, her hair’s its hiding place.
She is a paradise, arrayed in splendour,
Glorious, graceful, elegantly slender.”
Zal was intrigued and longed for the beautiful woman he had never seen. However, the next day when Mehrab asked Zal to come to his palace, Zal refused. He could not dine at the house of an idol-worshiper. It was not permitted. Yet, his longing for the King’s daughter did not subside.
So what if she was a little idle in her worship? Everyone slacks off at some point.
Idol-worshippers were those that prayed to or believed in idols like statues representing Gods which could mean the Hindu pantheon of Gods. Some heroes from our stories are preoccupied with cleansing the world of ‘idol-worshippers,’ but there are some like Zal who are happy to co-exist from a distance.
Love is Blind
The day after, Mehrab took the news of Zal to his wife, Sindokht, and his daughter, Rudabeh. His wife asked whether he truly deserved the crown or if he deserved the nest he grew up in. Mehrab sang nothing by the young Zal’s praises. He must have sung them well indeed because Rudabeh later confessed to her slaves that she was in love with Zal and needed a scheme to have him.
This reminds us of the story of Shirin and Khosrow, which we covered in an earlier episode. However, in that story, at least the two lovers saw portraits of each other.
The slaves rose like Ahriman and admonished her, but she was certain that this was the man she wanted, so her servants went to work on her plan. The five slaves donned their dresses and headed to pick flowers where Zal’s party was hunting. Zal took notice of the pretty girls, and when he found out they were Rudabeh’s slaves, he made a show of approaching them. Eventually, Zal figured out why they were there and sent the women off with jewels, a plan to meet that night and a warning that if they deceived him, he would have them trampled by elephants. And we thought sending love letters was hard.
The girls returned to Rudabeh and they all planned a lovely honeymoon chamber for the two lovers (if we can call two people who have never seen each other lovers). At least Shirin and Khosrow had portraits to fall in love over while these two just have random poems.
Later that night, when Zal arrived to see the beautiful Rudabeh, he found her standing on the roof with the full moon behind her. They exchanged sweet words, and Rudebeh literally let down her hair and implored him to climb it. Instead of taking her up on her strange offer, Zal kissed her hair and said he could never cause her harm. Instead, he tossed his lariat up 60 cubits and climbed up to the battlements.
Let me make sure I understand this correctly. Zal throws his lariat up 60 cubits up in the air, successfully hooks on to the tower and climbs his way up the tower. In other words, Mr Cowboy Zal lassoed up 90ft or 154 bananas high. Have you ever tried to throw a rope straight into the air? It does not go well.
I wasn’t able to find exact numbers on how high people can throw lassos, but I was able to find that an arborist, using a throw line and throw weight, can reach a stable tie in point up to 60ft.
The two spent the night together and in the morning, they set off their separate ways to begin the long, tedious process of getting married.
Love, Demons and Murder
Zal called his wisest men and gave them a hearty Ted Talk on couples and children being God’s will. He ended his tale by speaking of Rudabeh and asking if his father and King Manuchehr will agree to their union. Now, the wise men knew that King Manuchehr did not like Rudebeh’s grandfather who was- wait for it- a demon. Not just any demon, but Zahhak. A legendary demon-king!
Zahhak has many different backgrounds depending on what you are reading. In traditional tales and sources, like the Zoroastrian Avesta, he is a monster with three mouths, six eyes, and three heads, but human characteristics.
In the Shahnameh, Zahhak is a human Prince led astray by Ahriman, a chaotic and evil spirit with many forms. After killing his father, Ahriman rewarded Zahhak by growing two snakes on his shoulders. The only way to satisfy the two snakes was to feed them human brains. He overthrew the Iranian King, Jamshid and imprisoned his daughters. His reign was bloody until Feraydun fought and trapped Zahhak in a mountain. Feraydun is the grandfather of King Manuchehr.
Later in the story, Rostam will say that this grandfather was five generations apart from the ruler Zahhak.
However, the men knew that a young man in love was the greatest force of stubbornness in the world, so they promised to do their best to help him. They advised him to write to his father, and so he did.
Now, Zal didn’t write an ordinary letter. His letter was one that even the most passive-aggressive “please see previously attached” email writers would be in awe of. He praised God and his father and then recalled how at one point, Sam was living in comfort in his silks while Zal was in the mountains. So what if Zal was raised in a nest? It was as God had wanted, right? Also, dad, since you are the greatest hero in the world, and promised never to oppose my desires after abandoning me…can you agree to marry me to the daughter of Mehrab? Thanks.
Content with his letter, Zal sent it to his father who was less than pleased with the predicament. You see, if he refused to indulge Zal’s desires then he would be painted as a man without a word of honour, but if he agreed, then he worried about what kind of child would be born from a father reared by a bird and a mother, the granddaughter of demons. He went to bed troubled, and in the morning, he summoned his great priests to look into the future.
Sam waited for many days while his astrologers consulted the stars and compared notes on the fate of the two lovers. Eventually, they returned and had fantastic news. They prophesied that the child born from the two will be a great hero, a man who will conquer the world and whose glory will survive with his name. He will extirpate the race of evil from the earth and close the pathways to evil. As we know, this great hero will eventually be Rostam, and we will circle back to this prophecy in our next episode when we cover Rostam. Sam was relieved and sent the good news to Zal before riding off to convince King Manuchehr of this affair.
Familicide is Always the Answer
Meanwhile, Rudabeh’s mother confronted her daughter and forced her to tell the truth. She, in turn, told her husband, King Mehrab. The King immediately decided that Rudabeh must die before she brought ruin to them, but his wife was able to speak some sense into him. Loving fathers, eh?
I don’t know what reaction Sindokht was expecting, but she quickly grabbed her husband and told him that news had already reached Sam and there was nothing they could do. Anyway, wouldn’t having Zal as a son-in-law be a good thing? The King demanded to see Rudabeh, and when he saw his beautiful daughter, he scolded her but did not harm her. Mehrab knew that the King of Persia, Manuchehr, would never accept this union, so he did the only thing he could. He prayed.
And rightly so that he did because as soon as Manuchehr learned of the lovers, he was furious. What offspring would they produce? He sent messengers to fetch Sam and bring him from the war front. They were to order Sam to march on Kabol to fight the dragon spawn, Mehrab.
Written in the Stars
News travels fast. Zal found out about the attack on Kabol and rode at once to meet his father. He greeted his father with all the fury of a young lion cub. He bellowed about his abandonment as a child, and how he had done everything his father had asked of him. He had done everything God had fated for him. How could Sam punish him?
Zal stood in front of his father and said that they would have to cut him in half before taking Kabol.
Sam, rightly upset, calmed his son by saying he would fix this with a letter. I am a fan of letters as much as the next person, and we need to remember that during these times, words were a greater tool than swords in diplomacy. Envoys sent with treasures and letters were the way to go when you had an enemy to placate. There were social rules in place to protect messengers, guests and visitors.
Now, in this letter, we finally get a glimpse of what heroism Sam achieved in his life. We hear about Sam being a hero, but we never really know why. Sam recounts his battle against the dragon of the Kashaf River and how he got the title “One-Blow Sam.” How he always fought for the glory of his King. He was old now, and his son would take on the banner of heroism if the King would listen to his one request. With the letter in hand, Zal went off to Persia.
Meanwhile, cut back to Kabol where Mehrab has discovered the plan to ravage Kabol and calls his wife to him. Furiously he declared the only thing to do was kill his wife and daughter publicly so that the Persians were satisfied. This man had a lot of issues, and his immediate familicide as an answer to his problems was a big one.
His wife, once again, came to him and proposed a solution that did not involve death. She would go to Sam’s camp with treasures and plead her daughter’s case. Mehrab, while a crazy family butchering man, was still wise and accepted her plan, sending her to Sam with a massive procession of slaves and treasures.
Sindokht met Sam in his camp with all the presence of a respected noblewoman and presented him with gifts stretching for over 2 miles. The two spoke at length, and Sam was won over by her beauty and intelligence.
Back in Persia, Zal reached the King and was surprised to see that he had magically changed his tune and was willing to accept the petition from the father and son. He called upon another set of astrologers and heard a prophecy on the son of the two lovers. The astrologers called this future hero a protector of Persia. This hero would be prompt in his monarch’s service. The King was not completely sold on the idea though, so he ordered two tests to be given to Zal.
Zal’s test was to explain different sayings. Here are the situations given, each by a different sage:
- There are twelve flourishing cypress trees, each with thirty branches.
- There are two fine horses, one is black and one is white. They struggle and fight but can never overtake the other.
- There is another wonder: There is a group of riders that pass by the prince. Sometimes there are thirty and others twenty-nine. Sometimes you can see one and others you cannot.
- There is a beautiful meadow filled with green plants and a man with a scythe cuts down the plants, whether they are fresh or dead.
- There are two cypress trees in the ocean and a bird builds nests on each. When he leaves one, it dries up and when he enters the other it becomes fresh. In this way, one is always dried and the other is fragrant.
- The final sage said, in the mountains, there was a flourishing city that was abandoned by its people in favour of a thorny patch where they built a new towering city. When an earthquake came and toppled their new houses, they longed for their old home.
Zal responded with his answers. The twelve trees with thirty branches were the twelves months of the year. The two horses, one light and one dark are night and day which exist simultaneously in the heavens. The group of riders that sometimes appear to be thirty and sometimes appear to be 29 are the days of the month.
The man in the meadow was time, the reaper that strikes the old and young equally.
The bird with the two nests, Zal explained, was the sun as it flew from one section of the sky to the next. And finally, the flourishing city and the thorny cities are the eternal worlds and the fleeting worlds.
With this, he concluded his test, leaving the King and sages in astonishment. The next day, there was a massive tournament held, and the King asked which of his warriors would fight Zal in single combat. It was glaringly obvious from the moment Zal charged at the warriors that any of them would lose to him. He was considered not just a hero but a monster of war. The courtiers and the King were all pleased, and Zal was gifted with various treasures.
Given Zal’s wisdom, strength and the prophecy regarding his child, Manuchehr responded in good nature to Sam’s letter and sent the youth back to his father and his future bride in Kabol. The news reached Mehrab, and he praised his clever wife without any mention of how close he had come to killing her.
Zal and Rudabeh
The two families united, and Zal and Rudabah were married with everyone’s good wishes. It wasn’t long before Rudabah fell pregnant and had a difficult pregnancy. Their son, the hero of Persia, grew larger and larger, and as time passed, Rudabah grew weaker and weaker. But, that is a story for another day.
Persian Literature, Comprising The Shah Nameh, The Rubaiyat, The Divan, and The Gulistan by James Atkinson (1832).
The Epic of Kings by Helen Zimmern (1883).
The Shahnama of Firdausi by Arthur and Edmond Warner (1905-1925).
The Tragedy of Sohráb and Rostám: from the Persian national epic, the Shahname of Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi by Jerome W Clinton (1987).
Shahnameh. Art and production by Hamid Rahmanian and text by Ahmad Sadri (2013).
Shahnameh. Translation by Dick Davis and foreword by Azar Nafisi (2016).
Bahraman, Mostafa, and Leila Erfaniyan Qonsuli. “Metaphor and Translation a Case Study of the Story of Zal and Simorq in the Shahnameh.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2018. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3200904.
Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching, vol. 9, no. 5, 2016, p.46., https://doi.org/10.5539/elt.v9n5p46.
Motlagh, Djalal Khaleghi. Women in the Shahnameh: Their History and Social Status Within the Framework of Ancient and Medieval Sources. Translated by Nahid Pirnazar and Brigitte Neuenschwander, First, Mazda Pub, 2012.
Valadbeigi, Rahmatollah, and Tahereh Babakhani. “Connection between Epic and Play in Shahnameh: Comparative Study of Cognitive Drama Features in Two Stories of ‘Rostam and Sohrab’ and ‘Rostam and Esfandiar.’” Journal of Sociological Research, vol. 5, no. 2, 2014, p. 7. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.5296/jsr.v5i2.6167.