Culture

ShahnamehThe Shahnameh (“The Persian Book of Kings”) was written by Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010 CE. According to Wikipedia, it’s the longest epic poem ever written by a single poet, at around 60,000 couplets. Since I wasn’t feeling ambitious enough to read the original text, I borrowed one of the copies the library has, in which only a few of the stories are retold in English, in prose, by Elizabeth Laird and beautifully illustrated by Shirin Adl. The library copy also happens to be a children’s book.

Shahnameh (the library book) begins, of course, with the first king of Iran, Kayumars, who was a man given divine glory by God. King Kayumars taught people how to grow food, cook, make clothes, and build houses. Every human, and every animal, loved Kayumars – except the demon Ahriman.

Ahriman’s son killed Kayumars’ son. Kayumars’ grandson, Hushang, discovered fire after he threw a stone at a snake. Hushang also invented the domestication of animals.

Shahnameh (the library book) is filled with stories of Iran’s kings and their champions. There are tales of battles against demons, and against other kings. There are morality tales. Some kings are brave and noble. Some make mistakes, and seek forgiveness from God. Some kings are foolish and are tricked by demons.

The two exceptions in this book are Kaveh, the courageous blacksmith, who lead a citizens’ revolt against the bad King Zahhak (who was tricked by a demon into murdering his father, and then cursed with a snake head on each shoulder, which required killing two people per day to feed them), and Gordafarid, the warrior girl, who disguised herself as a man and proved to be a tough fighter.

Shahnameh (the library book) contains snippets of the Shahnameh (the epic poem) – in English, of course.

Dark is the night as a raven’s wing.
Low on his bed lies the fearful king.
The morning comes, and riding high,
The sun throws rubies at the azure sky.

This book was surprisingly hefty. I’m glad I didn’t try to read the original poem.

There is a brief biography of Ferdowsi at the end of this book. Little is known about him, or why he spent thirty years writing this poem. It is known that Ferdowsi came to a tragic end. A Sultan had promised to pay him a gold coin for each couplet, but paid him far less. Ferdowsi left Iran, bitter. The Sultan later had a change of heart, and tried to make good on his promise, but Ferdowsi had already died.

  • A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
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