Feraydun and His Three Sons (Shahnameh Reading Project 3)

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

SYNOPSIS: Feraydun’s three sons earn their names and marry the three daughters of the king of the Yemen.

3 daughters wedding

An illustrated page showing a king presiding over the wedding of his three daughters.

TG:  This story is very simple and straight-forward, and a story-type I’m very familiar with, and yet it surprised my by how technically well it’s told, and how self-sustaining it is.

I read the line that the princes could hold their own against elephants before they were named and assumed that was a delightful bit of hyperbole meaning they were big and strong even when babies. THEN the note that the princesses of the King of Yemen were “three unnamed daughters” came and I paused to think for a while about naming conventions. Clearly the daughters are marriageable age, so what does this mean? They have no names of their own? Why not? Are they only named in relation to their eventual husbands? How does this work? I remembered the line about the princes and decided maybe it was a detail I was never going to get the answer to, something I don’t understand because of a lack of exposure. Or it was a use of basic fairy-tale convention.


The three unnamed princes and three unnamed princesses coming together and only then earning their names from Feraydun – the most powerful character currently in the world, with the farr of God and magic of angels. This story is not about Feraydun dividing his land or fighting between the sons, it’s about how they got their names and, of course, foreshadowing.

I went back and read through the whole story again to see how the hints about the theme were dropped in so casually and gracefully that I – a very practiced reader – noticed them, but not how they were part of the internal scaffolding.

I continue to be impressed by the role and treatment of women. The princesses weren’t unnamed because they were women, and they are valued by their father for themselves and how they make him feel. Not political or monetary worth. He’s only concerned with enraging Feraydun, not gaining alliance with him through the means of his daughters. All the women so far, though ruled and sometimes even controlled entirely by the men, aren’t chattel. They have power in their own right as advisors, sorceresses, mothers.

KE: I agree. I also entered this section with preconceptions and then they were all exploded. I suppose this is the “good dad” episode although naturally there may be more good dads later but I was specifically enamored of how the story deals with the king of Yemen and his love for his daughters. He doesn’t reject Feraydun’s request out of hatred for the other king. He isn’t evil or conniving, even though he does connive a bit. I was so impressed that he simply really loves his daughters. As people. As good company. What a concept. Also, so far the two kings also identified as Arab have not done well against the Persians, although obviously the king of Yemen isn’t in the same category as Zahhak. His deceit is, one might argue, for a good cause (at least by our standards).

Like you, I read the clues as to what the episode was about without really registering them until the naming happens and then the light went on and I realized I had been played by a master.

It also interested me that Feraydun finds a way to praise each quality of his sons even if, as with Salm, we might in another circumstance expect him to be condemned as a coward. Yet it IS also possible to see his behavior from a different angle, as the king does.

I did feel there were echoes of the ancient Indo-European folktale pattern of the three sons and the youngest son having a special destiny. I don’t know if this will turn out to be the case but given that the next section is the story of the youngest son, I guess we are about to find out.

Next week (February 5): The Story of Iraj
Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak

20 thoughts on “Feraydun and His Three Sons (Shahnameh Reading Project 3)

  1. I admit, I peeked ahead and saw some lines about Feraydun dividing the land between his three sons SO HERE IT COMES.

  2. Ken, the Dick Davis translation published by Penguin Classics. It is NOT unabridged but it is pretty comprehensive and quite good.

  3. Tessa: and I found an illustration (i.e. one of the miniatures) of the “dividing the land” which will be perfect for next week. Maybe. Depending on what else happens.

  4. It’s looking like I read this exactly as you two did. 🙂 I was delighted when naming turned out to be the entire point as I was super curious about what was up with all the naming clues. (And I’m taking it as a victory that all three daughters didn’t end up with names that reflected their looks… 1 out of 3 ain’t bad?) Speaking of looks, is anyone else looking at cypress trees differently now?

    I could tell from the narrative that I was supposed to think the Yemen king slightly foolish for being dishonest but it was hard for me to judge a parent who loved his children so much that he wanted them near him. I felt pretty sorry for him throughout. Can you imagine the dear in the headlights look he had in his eyes when he found out the most powerful person in his world was interested in taking his kids? I’m getting sad all over again.

    I also really liked how the test of the sons was used to indicate a positive character trait. It’s amazing how many defaults I have stuck in my head! The scene starts and the consequences immediately roll out in my head. How often I’ve read these types of tests and it ends badly for all but one and then, due to one event when a person is fairly young, they are given the huge burden of not having reacted acceptably. And that so often turns into a child that plots against the parent, etc. Can you imagine being given one extremely stressful test at 15 years old (or close to) that determines the rest of your life? That’s rough. I was so pleased when it circled back to the theme of names.

    By the way, I found this chapter rather tame and straightforward (which of course is relative because freezing magic winds! and giant dragons!) compared to the previous. Since I so often have someone in my head performing this for me, I imagine this is the part where everyone at the performance needed a little breather. 🙂

    Does magic feel very contextual to anyone else? Sometimes I feel like “magic” is synonymous with any number of negative words but then the Goodies will use magic as well, usually with prayers, which makes me think that the context of magic use is very important.

    (The original index post for the reading project doesn’t yet have links when I go to it. Just wondering if my loading is messed up or if the update hasn’t happened yet. Thanks!)

  5. I noticed that about magic, too, Rachel. It seems like when the good guys use it it’s good and from God, but when anybody else does it there’s suspicion about where it comes from and why they’re using it. The definition of magic doesn’t seem very ontological (like, it doesn’t exist as good or bad in and of itself), but is more dependent upon the user.

  6. Zahhak’s story is SO chock full of every variety of everything you can stuff into a story of this type that pretty much anything that came after it would seem tame. And it’s funny, because this episode does seem tamer — more domestic, focused on a single goal that will create continuity, which is why it’s so interesting that it is about BOTH marriage and naming.

    I did think it was interesting that Feraydun doesn’t immediately send for his mother, or send word to her, and that she has to “hear it” as news that “comes to her.” (nothing specified). He doesn’t bring her to court. Does she not want to go? Does he not want her there? So many questions!

    Also, “withered like a waterlily” because his daughters are the water of love that nourishes him? I agree we are supposed to think the king of Yemen foolish but I can’t help but sympathize with him more than Feraydun under these circumstances.

  7. Oh. And the astrology stuff. I did so much research on astronomy/historical astrology for Crown of Stars.


  8. Kate: if you could rec me one or two of your favorite resources on historical astrology and astronomy (esp Middle Eastern roots) that would make me very happy!!!

  9. I thought the unexpected lack of Feraydun inviting his mother to court or telling her about his success further underlined her autonomy. She’s out there doing her own thing, and they don’t need each other the way the King of Yemen needs/wants his daughters.

  10. She does kind of send him out on his own regardless, doesn’t she? I did wonder about this aspect because it seems like she has her own life that isn’t directly tied to him. Like, where does she get all the goods she sends to him? She just has them. Which is an interesting insight into the suggestion that she is not dependent on a man for her wealth. It belongs to her.

    Will list some astro references when I get home.

  11. One oldie-but-goodie starting place is Jim Tester’s A History of Western Astrology (1987).

    I haven’t read anything on this for some time though. Just checking amazon I saw a book by Nicolas Campion called Astrology and Cosmology in the World’s Religions that looks interesting (2012).

    In the 11th century Said al Andalusi wrote “Book of the Categories of the Nations” on the science in the known world of his time. It’s short, in a translation through University of Texas. It doesn’t give details of the science but is a fascinating look into a compendium of what he knew of as the scientific traditions of different cultures and specific scientists and physicians.

  12. Also if you’re up for it, right before he died John North completed Cosmos, a history of astronomy. It’s almost 900 pages. I haven’t read it but now I am super tempted.

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