The First Kings (The Shahnameh Reading Project 1)

Join Tessa Gratton and I as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The First Kings (pages 1 – 8)

Summary: “Here is our introduction to the establishment of civilization through a succession of glorious kings who ruled over people, animals, and the earth itself. They tamed the demons, discovered fire, invented irrigation, divided kinds of animals and kinds of human work all while honoring God.”

Sassanid king art

KE: A few things struck me immediately on reading this first section:

The story does not start with the creation of the world but rather with the creation of sovereignty, the “first man to be king, and to establish the ceremonies associated with the crown and throne.” I don’t know what traditions Ferdowsi is drawing on but given that this was written in the 10th century C.E. I thought the description of the piece by piece evolution of culture was fascinating. For one thing, the order makes sense. First people wear skins; then fire is discovered, and step by step more accoutrements of civilization are invented (by the kings).

Another element is how clearly stated the ethical theme is. Everyone, good or bad, will die. All that lives on after death is your deeds. Basically Ferdowsi sets up the morally good, just kings and their creation of civilization, and then we reach the pinnacle of glory and pride (symbolized by Jamshid commanding the demons to raise him into the heavens and his subsequent question “who would dare say that any man but I was king?” And so, the fall.

It’s refreshing to read an epic in which an expression of justice and morality sit front and center (even with the caveat that a monarchical system is not one I personally would consider the most just and moral).

No women so far, but the young men are, without exception, handsome or splendid.

TG: Yes! It makes sense to frame the narrative with the creation of civilization instead of the world, since this is literally the book of kings and kings require a civilization to rule – mortal men who are indebted to God for the farr that allows them to rule humans, animals, magical creatures, and even the earth itself. I was impressed by how concise the progression of invention was, and like you said, how clearly the theme was laid out.

If you don’t come to it knowing what farr is, by the end of the section you probably have a pretty clear idea that it’s essentially the grace of God – much like the “divine right of kings” in the West – without that ever being spelled out. Last year I read a book called THE PERSIANS by Homa Katouzian and the author emphasized the importance of understanding farr in understanding the pattern of thousands of years of revolution and rebellion in Persia and even Modern Iran – and here this fundamental epic poem is about the exact same thing.

The section even ends on a sort of cliff hanger that only works because of the tension created by the narrative leading us to understand that great kings must have farr to rule strongly and Jashid has lost it so… TURN THE PAGE TO FIND OUT THE DIRE CONSEQUENCES!

As a side note, I appreciated the practical details here and there, like using blue as a color of mourning, and the delightfully self-aware “There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in leopard skin.” Of course, soon after armor is invented!

I wonder if we should take bets on how long before the first lady is mentioned, and how much longer before there’s a lady who does anything?

KE: The “turn the page to find out” element of Jashid’s story places this classic firmly in the written tradition. Oral storytelling also uses cliffhangers but I think not quite in the same way.

Also, reading that specific detail–“There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in a leopard skin”–was the point where I knew I would love this. And for exactly the reason you cite, that it is such a self-aware comment. It’s like a glimpse of the poet himself peeking through.

TG: And the origin of the term farr, or at least a more in-depth discussion on Wikipedia. The etymology section alone makes me drool:

Next week: The Demon-King Zahhak

Link-back to the Introductory Post which includes the reading plan and links to each section as we complete it.