Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).
If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out this AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.
This week we are skipping The Death of Rostam and discussing the next chapter, The Story of Darab and the Fuller.
Why? you may ask. Because Tessa and I, with the assistance of the fabulous Renay of blog Lady Business and podcast The Fangirl Happy Hour, recorded a 30 minute conversation about our feelings about The Death of Rostam. We will post that for your listening pleasure as soon as Renay has edited it to her satisfaction so perhaps next week or the week after. Meanwhile, we forge onward.
THIS WEEK: The Story of Darab and the Fuller
Synopsis: “The story of King Darab, who was raised by a fuller and had an awesome mother.”
TG: All the stories about Homay, please.
Homay, daughter of Bahman, makes herself queen after her father dies. She “places the crown on her own head” and tells the whole world not only is she queen now, but she’s gonna be a great one: then she proceeds to do exactly that.
I love that this story gives her honor and glory, doesn’t try to undercut her power. And I love that she’s the first king to want to keep the throne for herself who then succeeds in doing so! The threat to her crown is her son, and instead of having him killed or banished or concocting a long-game scheme to get rid of him, she gives him to the river, with riches and guardians. It works! The people who find him raise him well enough, to be practical in addition to letting his farr develop and grow bright.
It was interesting to me that Darab’s farr shows up as beauty, a warrior’s glory and prowess, and a certain, shall we say, attitude. He feels that his parents are not his true parents, and he feels that he comes from elsewhere. His feelings make him a bit of an ass to his parents, but that’s in keeping with the behavior of famous princes and warriors like Rostam. I also see parallels to Zal a bit, who was raised by magic, because Darab WAS given to the river, and even though there’s no explicit magic there and his foster parents were humans (though humans who bend the river to their will by narrowing it), it seems like the land takes an interest in him, for it’s the wind itself protecting him from the ruins later in his life. That moment of earth magic was lovely and exciting. Of course, Zal would never turn a wife away bc she had bad breath! (I loved that story though, and really look forward to Sekandar, named after a semi-magical healing herb.)
Homay seems to change her tune when she realizes her son has come home–she’s happy to see him, according to the narrative, but tells a slightly different story. At first, when Darab was a baby, she “enjoys” the fact that she’s the queen of everything, but she tells Darab and the priests when he returns that she is so glad to turn the throne over to him because it and her wealth have “caused me such sorrow.” I want to think that she’s saving her own skin by acting apologetic and as if she did this because she HAD to, to save the kingdom for Darab. I wouldn’t put it past her.
My favorite moment of this entire section though, is when Darab forgives Homay for sending him away, because IT MAKES A BETTER STORY. He actually says to her that he’s glad she gave him to the river, because nobody will forget him now. That is delightful, and insightful of him. And also pretty meta, given that this is the Book of Kings and I’m certainly going to remember this section better than some of the others.
A last note: these kings seem to be living normal lifespans now. Growing old and sick, dying in time for their children to inherit, instead of living for hundreds of years and having to be ousted.
KE: Wow, I could write a hundred pages about this story alone because there is so much of interest here.
The story has a very folk-tale like feel to it, complete in itself and with the delightful element of the baby placed in water and recovered by people who adopt it (as also seen in the stories of Moses and of Mesopotamian king Sargon). As Tessa points out, Darab’s growth reflects elements of earlier stories. Of course Darab’s high birth asserts itself despite his lowly upbringing; of course he is recognized as superior to others, etc etc. This is a trope still beloved in our modern fiction complete with the mismatched family element (Harry Potter!). These days it might also be a random gifted person, not just a descendent of noble blood, who is plucked from obscurity and returned to their rightful status as someone on top of the heap (whether that heap be rulership, art, science, or what have you). Regardless, the trope of essentialism, of “blood tells,” of Chosen Ones and the hierarchy of “natural worth” is quite interesting for how long it has been with us and how it persists even in a supposedly democratic egalitarian society.
I want to add that Darab was really a dick to his foster parents which I can in no way from the story detect that they deserved, except, I suppose, that it might be implied they should have never tried to pretend (to him) that he was really theirs. I did not like the way he treated them, and of course in a story of this kind he is never scolded, punished, or made to look bad for his rudeness and dismissiveness. Birth and farr give him the right to be the way he is.
I too loved Homay. What interested me most beyond the unusual aspect of a woman ruling alone and competently (that is, the story allowing it) was the unexplained and never explored aspect of her relationship to her father. Her father has sex with her. Because we are given a synopsis for this very unexpected situation rather than the full poetic treatment, we can’t know whether Homay is a willing participant. Is she okay with it because it gives her power? Why does her brother leave in anger? He must suspect that he’s about to get disinherited. Is there shame in Homay having a child by her father? Is that one reason for her to claim the child is dead and get rid of it (without killing it, since she seems too righteous to do that)? Is it purely ambition that drives her, knowing that she could be nothing but a regent as long as a boy child exists? And if so, then everyone would have to acknowledge that this is a child born through incest, even though there is a “custom called Pahlavi” which I looked up in iranica online:
In Zoroastrian Middle Persian (Pahlavi) texts, the term xwēdōdah (Av.xᵛaētuuadaθa) is said to refer to marital unions of father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister (next-of-kin or close-kin marriage, nuclear family incest), and to be one of the most pious actions possible. The models for these unions were found in the Zoroastrian cosmogony.
The pre-Alexander Achaemenid Empire, the one he conquered, includes marriages among the noble clans that may be quite close relation. I don’t know what it means in the Zoroastrian cosmogony but politically it can sometimes make sense to marry next of kin or close kin to keep power tied tightly within the hands of a single family.
I also have to wonder if Darab and Dara have any etymological link to the King Darius whom Alexander defeated, but I just don’t know. We are falling sideways into history, and it is so interesting to see the origins of the next story which we know from a different place in Western history.
Which leads me to the next interesting thing: Hey! Alexander! How fascinating to suggest Sekander (the Persian form of Alexander) is half Persian! Why not? His origin story is fascinating. I too was bemused by Darab putting his wife aside because she has bad breath. What a curious detail.
A couple of interesting mentions regarding Filqus, named here as the king of Greece. Is Filqus related at all etymologically to Philip (Alexander’s actual father)? I have no idea. Anyway, he’s said to be in league with the king of Susa, and now after all these stories about legendary kings I do feel we are stepping firmly into history. I don’t know where Amourieh is meant to be; I found one reference to it saying it is the district between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, in which case Filqus would not be the king of Greece (Hellas) or Macedonia but rather of what we now call Lebanon and Israel. How curious!
Narratively it feels as if Darab’s choice to send her back to her father reflects a long tradition within the Shahnameh of boys being brought up by their mother’s in their mother’s courts with no knowledge or interaction with their fathers. It’s just so interesting, and of course sets up the next story, which is Sekander’s conquest of Persia.
Randomly, as I searched for images of Homay, I found this image of the cover of a book about (as the title so clearly states) Women in the Shahnameh. Hmm. Could be interesting.
Next week: Either the podcast version of The Death of Rostam OR if that’s not ready yet, the first part of Sekander’s Conquest of Persia. JOIN US!
Ooooo that book Women in the Shahnameh! I’ll have to see if my library has it, or the university.
I started to go down the internet rabbit hole re: Filqus and historical parallels and then decided not to, in order to keep myself as pure as possible for THIS story.
That definition of Pahlavi makes it sound rather holy, as if it’s a thing for Homay to be proud of, not something to excuse her getting rid of the baby, BUT definitely a thing that might make her brother worried enough to leave.
I know so little about Zoroastrianism that I just have no idea. But it’s interesting to me to have it pop up now, not surprising since the conversion to the new religion comes in the last sequence. I just think it’s so interesting that Alexander (and the ancestor of the Sassanians) is the first “historical” figure that can be clearly identified, given the profoundly world-empire nature of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus.