Sam & the Simorgh (Shahnameh Reading Project 6)

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

Today’s portion: Sam and the Simorgh

Synopsis: An interlude to introduce Sam, a Persian king(?) and his son Zal, who was raised by a giant bird.

TG: At first I thought this section was a true interlude – a full aside – and I’m surprised it’s really just a brief introduction to how Zal came into being as a wise and learned man. It’s all a set up for the next section, it seems.

I’m not sure what the point of it is in breaking it off of the full story of Zal that comes next, except to bolster the theme that it’s best to trust in God’s plan (Fate?) and love according to the laws of family and God’s command.

It was interesting that Manuchehr noticed that Zal has farr but no one else seemed to – though an argument could be made for the Simorgh noticing, and that’s why she saved his life and raised him instead of feeding him to her chicks. This might be a clue to how farr works, or just further evidence that farr is mysterious, and purposefully so.

The list of gifts that Manuchehr gave to Sam when he sent him off reminded me strongly of the long list of gifts Hrothgar gives Beowulf, and I wonder at that as a similar narrative technique. I wonder if there are parallels in how the list of riches are used in each epic. Obviously it’s a display of wealth and a way to prove the importance of the characters involved, gratitude, and promise. But surely there are important connotations lost on us reading hundreds of years later.


KE:  Yes, gift giving customs are such a crucial part of social stability. I haven’t done any specific reading on this issue but I am pretty sure that at this level of kingship (proto state kingship, I guess I will call it?) rulers lavish gifts upon their followers as a means of creating and sustaining ties of loyalty and obligation. It’s also a form of wealth re-distribution, since Zal can, theoretically, then gift some of these things on to his own followers (although we don’t see that).

I loved this line, spoken by Sam to Zal: “It is right to say what is in your heart like this; say it, say whatever you wish.” Sounds very modern! Which is followed immediately by a statement about the astrologers and how “we cannot quarrel with the heavens.” I love how aspects of the story feel so emotionally understandable while other elements clearly include cultural knowledge that I totally lack.

All the paintings illustrating this episode show Zal as an albino, which isn’t quite how I understood it from the text when Sam says, “his black body, and his hair as white as jasmine.” Earlier the infant is described as having a body “like pure silver,” and I can’t quite reconcile silver and black. They seem like such contrasts to me. Regardless, it seems he is albino, a fascinating choice.

Also while googling images for next week I realized the importance of this prologue for Zal, to be followed by the long episode (next week) of his courtship of Rudabeh: They are the parents of the central hero of the Shahnameh, Rostam.

Here is a lovely painting of the Simorgh bringing Zal to Sam.

Sam & Simorgh

Painting of Sam kneeling on the ground. The simorgh with tail flared in in four sections flies down to meet him, bearing his son Zal.