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

6 thoughts on “The Demon-King Zahhak (The Shahnameh Reading Project 2)

  1. Sweet map! 🙂

    Oh man, this chapter! It’s like every great tid bit of classic fantasy all condensed into one epic transfer of leadership. So much fun.

    I, too, feel my life is richer now that it contains a rainbow cow and I also really loved that line about moms knowing the truth. I actually laughed out loud when I read that. Speaking of secrets/truths, I’ve noticed how often the earth’s secrets are mentioned along with death. I feel like dying because the earth never reveals its secrets is a recurring comment. That leads me to wondering: if one could discover the earth’s secrets would one be immortal?

    I think a case could be made for cooks being the heroes of this chapter. Or at least a very close second to Feraydun.

    Whenever I read a translation I find myself quite often thinking of the versatility of language in and of itself and (probably more importantly) within its cultural setting. At times I completely stop reading and just start thinking of the various ways certain words/phrases can be interpreted. It’s why I think translators must be language translators but also cultural translators. There are so many instances that could probably be discussed but a very simple example so far is the word fairy. (I’m currently looking at p. 82 of this translation/edition) Is this supposed to be simply and only “a small imaginary being of human form that has magical powers, especially a female one” (no mention of wings in the definition? see, I 100% put wings on a fairy) or is this more of a cultural definition in which I would be inclined to think of fairies as tricksy, indifferent to humans, fully into getting the better of people through mean pranks, making bargains that always have a huge cost, etc. These are all the cultural ways in which I have encountered fairies. But is any of that reflective of the cultural reality of fairies for ancient Persians as filtered through Davis’ understanding of their culture and his own?

    Truly there is so much to talk about but I’ll only make one more tiny comment so I don’t just have brain diarrhea all over the comments section: was anyone else struck by Zahhak not attempting AT ALL to forestall the prophecy? I’m so used to narratives involving folks fighting against prophecies that I was really surprised when he killed Feraydun’s father as soon as he discovered him. I mean you don’t even want to try to take away his need for future vengeance?

    Really really enjoying this! So glad the two of you are sharing this project online. 🙂

  2. Rachel — I too expected Zahhak to try and break the prophecy, esp in some King Herod style slaughter. It says something about the acceptance of destiny, maybe? I wonder if a king with farr would be better able to change his destiny than a demon-king?

    I also was intrigued by Feraydun’s brothers trying to kill him and then they all go along their merry way as if nothing happened. I assume we’ll come back to that, surely, and it might affect how Feraydun interacts with his three sons in the next chapter.

  3. I liked the little detail on the Kurds, too.

    I was struck by how Zahnak was described as an Arab here, and overthrown in the end by a Persian. I wonder, given when this was written, how much contemporary politics was being written into this.

  4. Oh gosh, all of this.

    1. Translation. Any time I read a work in translation I know I am missing 98% of the wordplay and 99% of the cultural references, or more, depending on how good the translator is. Years ago I heard quite a good lecture about medieval scribes and the notations they would make in the margins, and the lecturer compared the relationship of such comments in their own time to our relationship to stand up comics today: almost all of what they write/say is based on OUR knowledge of current events and cultural references and so on. So I’m grateful for a good translator, but I’m also aware of how much I am missing.

    2. Arabs and Persians. I too (given the time frame) wonder if Ferdowsi was sneaking (not so sneaking?) in some pointed commentary, but I don’t know. A good topic for research.

    3. The cooks: Besides what they did, I’m also struck by how they had to make a terrible choice and save one while allowing another to be killed. And yet there is no question they are heroes.

    4. The brothers . . . I also imagine that will show up later. Because, yes, it struck me as odd too.

    5. Same thoughts as everyone else about prophecy. I’m so used to the way the trope is used in Western lit and so it fascinated me to see it unfold entirely differently. Frankly, I already see multiple lines of inquiry were I to have time to crawl down about 200 different rabbit holes of questions.

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