The Age of Heroes 

From Ferdowsi's Shahnama, the Persian Book of Kings 

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. 

  • Faridun: Shah of Iran for 500 years and the exemplar of a wise and virtuous ruler
  •  Salim: Eldest son of Faridun, he inherited the rule of "Rum" (generally, lands to the west of Persia). Characterized as one who flees from danger, and is "frantic, not brave." 
  • Tur: second son of Faridun, he inherited the rule of Turkestan and "Chin" (Central Asia). Characterized as one whose "courage is more ardent than a flame." His kingdom is known as Turan and its inhabitants Turanians 
  • Iraj: Youngest son of Faridun, he inherited the rule of the heartland of Persia (modern Iran, Iraq, and Arabia). Characterized as "one that can bide his time and yet be prompt," when faced with danger he responds prudently and with growing courage. Assassinated by his brothers

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. 

  • Kai Kaus: She of Iran for 150 years, the greedy and thoughtlessness Kai Kaus serves as the "negative model" of kingship. On the basis of a false accusation by his concubine, he subjected his son and heir Siyawush to trial by fire; and against the council of his advisers, he waged war repeatedly against neighboring kingdoms, with devastating results
  • Siyawush: Son of Kai Kaus and a Turanian princess who was a granddaughter of Garsiwaz, brother of Afrasiyab, king of Turan. He was wrongly accused by one of Kai Kaus' wives of disloyalty and forced to undergo trail by fire. Exasperated at his father's willful behavior, Siyawush decamped to Afrasiyab's court, where he married Afrasiyab's daughter Farangis. Later, he was slandered by Garsiwaz and beheaded at Afrasiyab's command. Many years later his son Kai Khusrau would win revenge. 
  • Kai Khusrau: Son of Siyawush and Farangis, and thus descended from the royal houses of both Iran and Turan. In the course seeking revenge for his father's assassination, he slew his uncle Shida in personal combat and also had his maternal grandfather Afrasiyab and his great-great-grandfather Garsiwaz from his paternal side put to death. After a relatively brief reign as Shah, he abdicated his position and ascended to heaven. Khusrau represents the best of kingly virtues: filial piety, selfless patriotism, military valor, and faith in divine guidance.  

The earth became more radiant than the sky,
The people shouted and the flames ascended.
All that were on the plain were scorched and wept
To see the cheery face of Siyawush,
Who came before his sire with golden helmet,
And raiment all of white.
“Be not discomfited,” said Siyawush,
“That fortune taketh such a turn as this.
I am dishonoured: such a state is ruin.
If I am innocent I shall escape. …”
From every side the flames closed o’er his head,
And none could see his helmet or his horse. …
The noble hero nathless reappeared,
With rosy cheeks and smiles upon his lips.
A roar went up as men caught sight of him:
They cried: “The young Shah cometh from the fire!”
Warner, II, 219–20

One night the king spake thus to Siyawush:
“Tomorrow morning let us play at polo;
I hear that none among the warriors
Can face thy mall on thine own ground.
Let us be opposites,
Select our partners, and make up our sides.” …
Then Siyawush urged on his steed and smote
The ball, or ever it could reach the ground,
So stoutly that it disappeared from sight.
He mounted a fresh steed, threw up the ball,
And drove it out of sight to see the moon.
Thou wouldst have said: “The sky attracted it.”
There was not on the ground his peer, and none,
Had such a beaming face. The monarch laughed …
“Siyawush hath bettered all report.”
Warner, II, 263–65

The Shah dismounted from his night-hued steed, 
Removed his royal helmet and, entrusting 
The noble charger to Ruhham, advanced...
When Shida saw
From far Khusrau approaching him on foot
That warlike Crocodile dismounted likewise, 
And there upon the plain the champions closed 
Like elephants, and puddled earth with blood.
When Shida saw the stature of the Shah, 
The breast, the Grace divine, and mastery, 
He sought some shift whereby he might escape;
Such is the purchase of a shifty heart!
Khusrau, when ware of this, though not expressed 
In words, reached out, strong in the strength of Him
By whom the world was made--the Omnipotent--
And, as a lion putteth forth its paws
Upon an onager and flingeth it, 
Clutched with left hand the necl, with right the back 
Of Shida, raised him, dashed him to the ground, 
And break his legs and back-bone like a reed.

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." 

  • Luhrasp: Descendant of the ancient Shah Faridun, and appointed by Kai Khusrau as his successor to the throne 
  • Gushtap: Son of Luhrasp who demanded that his father yield the throne and, when chastised, went into exile in the West. He formed a martial alliance with Rum and returned a hero, and not long after Luhrasp did abdicate in his favor. Gushtasp ardently embraced Zoroastrianism and sent his son Asfandiyar to spread the new faith across Asia through military conquest. 
  • Asfandiyar: Son of Gushtasp. Falsely accused of plotting to depose his father. Imprisoned and later released to lead the Iranian armies against the Turanians. After his victories against supernatural forces and on the battlefield, he asked in earnest to be made shah. Gushtasp promised to do so if Asfandiyar could capture Rustam, knowing that the request was tantamount to his son's death sentence.

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. 

  • Asfandiyar: Son of Gushtasp. Falsely accused of plotting to depose his father. Imprisoned and later released to lead the Iranian armies against the Turanians. After his victories against supernatural forces and on the battlefield, he asked in earnest to be made shah. Gushtasp promised to do so if Asfandiyar could capture Rustam, knowing that the request was tantamount to his son's death sentence. 
  • Afrasiyab: Grandson of Tur, king of the Turanians, and mortal enemy of the Iranian shahs.
  • Garsiwaz: Brother of Afrasiyab, grandfather of Kai Kaus' wife, and key instigator of Siyawush's murder 
  • Farangis: Daughter of Afrasiyab, and wife of Siyawush
  • Shida: Son of Afrasiyab, he challenged Kai Khusrau to single combat and lost. 

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 

  • Sam: Ruler of Sistan, a province in northeastern Iran, he is a courageous warrior, wise counselor, and loyal vassal to the Iranian royal house. 
  • Zal: Sam's albino son, who was abandoned at both and raised by a Simurgh, a mythical bird. Reconciled to his father as a young man.
  • Rudaba: Daughter of Mihrab, the king of Kabul. Wife of Gal and mother of Rustam. 
  • Rustam: Son of Zal and Rudaba, and champion and loyal supporter of several generations of Iranian shahs. Described variously as "elephantine," "lion like," and "radiant like the sun," Rustam is the ultimate embodiment of the ideal hero. 
  • Tahmina: Daughter of the king of Samangan (Samarkand), wife of Rustam and mother of Suhrab. 
  • Suhrab: Son of Rustam and Tahmina, but raised by Tahmina away from his father. He unknowingly challenged Rustam to combat and lost.

Why hast thou grown so wan?”
Rudaba answered:
“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
Ulad fast with the lasso, mounted [his horse] Rakhsh,
Unsheathed his warlike Crocodile [his mace], and shouted
His name like thunder. …
Thence radiant as the sun he went to seek
The White Div, found a pit like Hell, but saw not
The sorcerer for the murk. …
He rubbed his eyelids, bathed his eyes, and searched
The cave till in the gloom he saw a Mountain
That blotted all within, with sable face
And hair like the lion’s Mane—a world to see! …
They wrestled, tearing out each other’s flesh,
Till all the ground was puddled with their blood. …
He reached out, clutched the div, raised him neck-high,
And dashed the life-breath from him on the ground,
Then with a dagger stabbed him to the heart …
Warner, II, 59–60

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
Was like a kettledrum’s, came forth to challenge
The Iranians, bent to lay some foeman’s head
In dust. He cried: “Which of you famous men
Will come to fight with me, that I may make
His blood to flow in streams?” …
Then peerless Rustam [cried]: “Senseless challenger!
Now I, foot-soldier as I am, will teach
Thee how to fight, O mounted warrior!
… Afoot one man
Is worth three hundred cavaliers like thee …”
He marked the pride
Of Ashkabus in his fine steed, and shot
An arrow at its breast; the charger fell
Headforemost. Rustam laughed and cried aloud:
"Sit by thy noble comrade! Prithee nurse
Its head and rest thee from the fight awhile."
Then Ashkabus, his body quivering,
… strung up his bow,
And showered shafts on Rustam, who exclaimed:
"In vain thou weariest thy wicked soul,
Thine arms, and body."
Choosing from his girdle
A shaft of poplar wood he [Rustam] drew it forth
Bright-pointed, feathered with four eagle-plumes;
Then too his bow of Chach in hand and …
…loosed and struck the breast
Of Ashkabus. …
Both the hosts
Beheld that fight.
Warner, III, 179–81

“Ye set your faces to lay waste Iran
What need is there for talk and blandishments?”
… Rustam … spurred on [his horse] Rakhsh and cried:
“I vanquish lions and apportion crowns,
Am strong, and have a lasso on mine arm. …
Whenas the Khan of Chin shall see my lasso,
When that fierce Lion shall behold mine armlet,
He will be taken and distaste e’en life.”
He flung the lasso coiled and took the heads
Of cavaliers, neared that white elephant,
And then the Khan of Chin, grown desperate,
Smote with the goad the creature’s head and, roaring
Like thunder …
Took and hurled forth at Rustam deft of hand
A double-headed battle dart, in hope
To worst him and to take his noble head;
But Rustam, scathless, flung his lasso high,
Dragged from his elephant the Khan of Chin
Noosed by the neck, and dashed him to the ground.
Warner, III, 229–30

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


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