Cast of Characters
The Persian Royal Family
Faridun and his sons: the story of Faridun's division of his empire among his three sons can be understood as a concise allegory of the ancient Persian worldview: All of known civilization shares a single familial origin, but has fractured into divisions over time. Persia lies at the geographic center of civilization and embodies the ideal balance of prudence and valor. Cultures sting to the west (Greece, Rome, Byzantium, cherish safety more than courage, while those to the north and east (Nomadic Turks and other tribes of Central Asia) relish warfare but are un-tempered by wisdom. Thus it is Persia's divine destiny to reunite East and West, restoring unity of the mythical past.
|The hearts of that insensate pair were eager
To do their deed of shame; they proudly strode
Toward their royal brother’s tent. …
Tur said to him: “Since thou art youngest born
Why shouldst thou take the crown of power?” …
Iraj made answer in a holier strain:
“O mighty chieftain, lover of renown! …
I am aweary both of crown and throne,
And yield to you the diadem and signet. …“
Tur heard the words and little heeded them,
But, angry that Iraj should speak and caring
No jot for peace, he rose up and with a cry
And then advancing suddenly and grasping
The massive seat of gold, he smote Iraj.
Warner, I, 199–200
Kai Kraus and his heirs
In the lives of these three generations, the Shahnama examines the gamut of royal behavior, as well as a complex set of ever-changing relations with Turanian (Turkish) tribes on Iran's northeast border.
The earth became more radiant than the sky,
One night the king spake thus to Siyawush:
The Shah dismounted from his night-hued steed,
Warner, IV, 175–76
Luhrasp and his descendants
The Passages of the Shahnama that deal with Luhrasp and his offspring introduce new preoccupations beyond the perennial Iranian-Turanian wars, including the first explicit reference to Zororastrianism (the official religion of the Achaemenid and Sassanian empires). Both the characters and their flaws seem more banal, however, and thus this section serves as a transition to the "Historical Age."
|Khusrau commanded that Luhrasp should come,
And said to him: “My day hath passed. Go thou,
Maintain the usage of the royal throne,
And in the world sow but the seed of good.” …
The warriors [who had followed Khusrau to the mountains] slept in pain, and when the sun
Rose o’er the hills the Shah had disappeared.
When from the troops escorting Kai Khusrau
Luhrasp had tidings how the Shah had fared
He sat with crown of gold upon the throne,
The heroes with their golden girdles came,
And, when the illustrious men and chief estates
Had ta’en their seats, Luhrasp looked round, arose,
Spake with good feeling and straightforwardness,
And said: “O leaders of the host! Ye all
Have heard the parting counsels of the Shah.
All that he said and bade me will I do,
Will strive for good, and carry out his will.”
Warner, IV, 305–11
|Now when the wolf beheld him from the wood
It sent a roar up to the darksome clouds,
And like a lion or a savage leopard
Tore with its claws the ground. Gushtasp, on seeing
The monster, took in hand and drew his bow,
And showering arrows from it swift as wind
He made it as it were a cloud in spring.
When wounded by the arrows of Gushtasp
The beast became yet fiercer for the pain.
It fell, but leaping to its feet came on—
A lusty monster, butting with its horns,
Stag-like, with smarting body and in wrath,
Closed with the charger, gored its sable loins,
And ripped it up from testicles to navel.
The atheling* drew from his waist the sword,
Dismounted, smote the beast full on the head,
And clave asunder back and breast and shoulder.
Warner, IV, 337–38
The Turanian Royal Family
The Turanians, or Turks, play the role of foil to the Persians in the Shahnama. Importantly, they are as morally complex as the Persians, capable of both great courage and cupidity. While Afrasiyab--who ruled for the entire legendary age--was sometimes credited with magical powers, he was more likely to resort to mere underhanded scheming, and he was a coward in warfare, often deserting his own knights. On the other hand, he sheltered Siwayush with gracious hospitality.
At his command some carpenters were fetched,
And therewithal some long and heavy beams.
He had a goodly wooden carriage built
All set about with swords and with a box, . . .
Wherein he sat, brought forth, attached two steeds
Of noble stock, and sped toward the dragon.
Afar it heard the rumble and beheld
The prancing of the battle steeds. It came,
Like some black mountain …
Its two eyes
Seemed fountains bright with blood, while from its gullet
Fire issued, and like some dark cavern gaped
Its jaws. It bellowed at Asfandiyar,
Who, seeing the monster, drew his breath and turned
To God for help. The horses strove to 'scape
The dragon's mischief, but it sucked them in,
Them and the break, and in his box dismayed
The warrior. In the dragon's gullet stuck
The sword-blades, and blood poured forth like a sea;
It could not free its gullet, for the swords
Were sheathed within it. Tortured by the points
And chariot the dragon by degrees
Grew weak, and then the gallant warrior,
Arising from the box, clutched his keen glaive*
With lion-grip and hacked the dragon's brains
Till fumes of venom rising from the dust
O'erpowered him; he tumbled mountain-like,
And swooned away.
Warner, V, 126–27
The Family of Rustam
|Why hast thou grown so wan?”
“By night and day I cry for help. I lie
Sleepless and withered like a living corpse.
My time hath come but not deliverance.” …
There came an archimage,* one deft of hand,
Who made the moon-faced dame bemused with wine,
Then pierced her side while she was all unconscious,
And having turned the infant’s head aright
Delivered her uninjured. None had seen
A thing so strange. The babe was like a lion,
A hero tall and fair to look upon.
A day and night the mother lay asleep,
Bemused, unconscious. They the while sewed up
The wound and eased the anguish with the dressing. … Then they brought the babe
To her, extolling him as heavenly.
Warner, I, 320–22
|Shouts rose outside his door: “The chief’s white elephant
Hath broken loose, and folk are in its danger!”
He [Rustam] heard, and urged by hardihood ran forth,
Snatched up [his father] Sam’s mace and made toward the street.
The keepers of the gate opposed him, saying:
“We fear the chieftain, ‘tis a darksome night,
The elephant is loose! Who can approve
Thy going forth?”
Wroth at the speaker’s words
The matchless Rustam smote him on the nape:
His head rolled from him. Rustam turned toward …
The mighty beast and roared out like the sea.
He looked and saw a Mountain bellowing. …
And went courageously against the beast,
Which seeing him charged at him like a mountain
And reared its trunk to strike, but Rustam dealt it
A mace-blow on the head. …
Warner, I, 328
So Rustam paused till noon, then, having bound
|At noon of night, while Phospor crossed the sky,
There came mysterious whispers. Rustam’s door
Was softly opened, and a slave who bore
A taper savoring of ambergris
Walked stately towards the drunken sleeper’s couch.
Behind the slave there was a moon-faced girl
Sun-bright, all scent and hue, with arching eyebrows
And locks that hung in tresses lasso-like,
In stature like a lofty cypress-tree. …
The lion-hearted Rustam marveled at her
And calling on the Maker asked: “Thy name?
What seek’st thou midst the murk of night? Thy will?”
She said: “Tahmina: and thou well mayst say
That mine affliction teareth me in twain.
Sole daughter of the king of Samangan,
And by descent half lion and half pard,*
There is no mate for me among the kings,
Nor are there many like me under heaven.
But many and many a story have I heard
Of thee …
… And now if thou wilt have me I am thine. …”
Warner, II, 123–24
|That warrior-leopard [Suhrab] by the head and neck,
Bent down the body of the gallant youth,
Whose time was come and all whose strength was gone,
And like a lion dashed him to the ground;
Then, knowing that Suhrab would not stay under,
Drew lightly from his waist his trenchant sword
And gashed the bosom of his gallant son. …
Suhrab sank swooning till at length he cried:
“If thou indeed art Rustam thou hast slain me
In wanton malice, for I made advances,
But naught that I would do would stir thy love.
Undo my breastplate, view my body bare,
Behold thy jewel, see how sires treat sons!”
When Rustam loosed
The mail and saw the gem he rent his clothes,
And cried: “Oh! My brave son, approved by all
And slain by me!”
Warner, II, 172–74
A warrior named Ashkabus, whose voice
“Ye set your faces to lay waste Iran
|Manizha, joyful at the words and freed
From trouble, hastened to the mountain-top,
Where in the pit her lover was confined, …
Manizha went and set a-blaze a fire,
That scorched the eye of the pitch-black night. …
Then matchless Rustam led them toward the fire.
When he …
Approached that pit of sorrow, smart, and anguish, …
The lion-chief alighted, hitched his skirt
Of mail beneath his belt and, asking strength
From God its source, grasped, raised, and hurled the boulder
Back to the forest of the land of Chin. …
Then Rustam let his lasso down the pit,
And drew up thus Bizhan with fettered feet,
With naked body, with long hair and nails,
And wasted by affliction, pain, and want. …
Warner, III, 342–46
|Then Rustam quickly fitted to his bow
The tamarisk-shaft …;
He struck Asfandiyar full in the eyes,
And all the world grew dark before the chief;
The straight-stemmed Cypress [Asfandiyar] bent, intelligence
And Grace abandoned him. The pious prince
Fell prone, his bow of Chach dropped from his hands.
He clutched his black steed by the mane and crest;
The battlefield was reddened with his blood.
Said Rustam: “Thou hast brought this evil seed
To fruit! Thou art the man who said’st: ‘My form
Is brazen, and I dash high heaven to earth.’
Yet through one arrow hast thou turned from strife,
And fallen swooning on thy noble charger.”
Warner, V, 243–44
|Rakhsh sniffed fresh earth, spun like a ball, and shied,
Suspicious of the smell, and tore the ground. . .
Two of his feet went through;
He had no purchase; all below was spear
And sword; no pluck availed; escape was none;
And so the haunches of the mighty Rakhsh,
And Rustam’s legs and bosom, were impaled;
Yet in his manhood he [Rustam] uplifted him,
And from the bottom bravely gained the brim.
When Rustam wounded as he was looked forth,
And saw the hostile visage of Shaghad,
He recognised the author of the plot,
[Rustam then asked Shaghad to string his bow, so that he could protect himself from wild beasts as he lay dying.]
Shaghad drew near, uncased the bow, and strung it.
He drew it once, then laid it down by Rustam,
And laughed exulting at his brother’s death.
The matchless hero clutched it lustily,
Though tortured by the anguish of his wounds,
What while Shaghad in terror at those arrows
Made haste to shield himself behind a tree . . .
When Rustam saw this he put forth his hands,
Sore wounded as he was, and loosed a shaft.
He pinned his brother and the tree together . . .
Warner, V, 270–72