The Demon-King Zahhak (The Shahnameh Reading Project 2)

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 Demon-King Zahhak (pages 9 – 27)

Synopsis: The rise of Zahhak at the hand of demons, his unjust and evil rule, and final fall when Feraydun is prophesized to overthrow him, and proceeds to do so.


Zahhak enthroned. Note the snakes growing from his shoulders. Original image at:

TG: While the introduction to the early kings was fun and interesting, this longer chapter about the rise and fall of the Demon-King Zahhak gave me pretty much everything I want: demons causing havoc for no apparent reason other than they feel like having some fun, wild prophesies, creepy demonic magic, ladies with names actually affecting the narrative, and oh yeah, the rainbow cow I never knew was missing from my life.

I’m pleasantly surprised how little we had to wait for the ladies to appear, and that the first turn out to be sorceresses and trusted counselors to the king (even if he’s a demon-king), instead of only being defined by their relationships to men (which, of course is how they’re initially introduced to us: sisters, mothers). Shahrnavas and Arnavaz are clearly very important to Zahhak, too, since he really only becomes infuriated enough to make terrible mistakes and be captured when he hears and then witnesses himself that they switched sides to Feraydun.  Arnavaz in particular is powerful, even (especially) within the constraints of her role.

On a more narrative note, the epic poem I’m most familiar with is Beowulf, and I’ve done a lot of reading in related Norse epic poetry and stories. One of the pieces of evidence that Beowulf was based on old oral stories that everybody knew instead of being an invention of a single poet(s) is the frequent introduction of quasi-historical characters without background explanation. It was assumed that the listener would be familiar with the famous mythological characters and heros and legends. I’m getting that same feel in the first part of The Demon-King Zahhak. The triggering event of this section is when Eblis appears to Zahhak in disguise. I have no idea who Eblis is initially, but Ferdowsi probably expected his audience to know the name  (just as later he expects us to know what Ahriman means). Especially because later Ferdowsi in a parenthetical explains that the River Arvand is also the Tigris, so clearly there were some things he DID feel the need to explain, the names he assumed everyone knew stand out even more. This sort of immersion makes me very aware of the poem as a living, breathing story, not just ancient history.

My favorite tidbit was the aside about the creation of the Kurdish people. I’ll think of that every time I read about them in the news.

KE: Yes, this section is fantastic. Besides the exciting action and the cool women, it contained all the little touches that make me fall in love with a writer.

How great is Ferdowsi’s sly aside “I heard a wise man say that, no matter how much of a savage lion a man might be, he does not shed his father’s blood, and if there is some untold secret here, it is the mother who can answer an inquirer’s question.”

Note how this is not phrased in a way that is apparently critical of the woman. It made me smile. When he introduces the sisters, they are (as you say) not what I expected, not passive but rather active within the constraints of their position. Also, both sisters as well as Feraydun’s mother, Faranak, have names, rather than being described purely via their relationships to the hero as in “wife” “mother” etc.

I do know the name Eblis, which makes me agree with your point about a larger oral cultural tradition from which Ferdowsi is drawing/collating to create his epic (as Davis discusses in his introduction). I appreciate Eblis as an antagonist. Something there is in my psyche that cannot help but adore the detail of the demon kissing the king’s shoulders, here and here, and then two snakes growing there. Who eat nothing but human brains. This is narrative catnip.

And, yes, how this ties into the origin of the Kurds is amazing, and also equally incredible to me (especially in light of current events in the Middle East) that the Kurds have maintained ethnic autonomy for so many years in a turbulent region that Fedowsi feels obliged to mention an origin story for them.


On that note, Tessa found this cool map.


Next week (January 29): The Story of Feraydun and His Three Sons

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings