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.

10 thoughts on “Sam & the Simorgh (Shahnameh Reading Project 6)

  1. OHhhhhhh the parents of Rostam, of course. The only character in this that I knew anything about before starting this read. That makes so much sense.

    I had similar issues reconciling how Val looked, especially since the specificity of the descriptions isn’t something I’m used to from previous sections. There’s such a difference between “his face was like the sun” or “he was as tall as a cypress” and “his skin is black and his hair white.” And then to have the specificity in conflict with itself… I wonder what we’re missing.

  2. As a child, all my suns had smiley faces when I drew pictures so I feel these descriptions speak right to me. 😉

    I don’t know if it’s reductive of me but when I see those kinds of descriptions they all get filed under: This is how we indicate something so beyond regular mortal comprehension that it doesn’t matter what I say it’s just glorious and you have to accept it. It was definitely interesting to get such a concrete description, even if I couldn’t quite reconcile the conflicts you both mentioned. Though perhaps a body like silver has more to do with the properties of silver rather than the color? (Of course, I also got sidetracked thinking of what the local customs were for children who looked different when born since the father was so quick to decide on exposure. 🙁 It appeared, though, that the women of the household were accepting of the child.) Speaking of the women, loved the note made about the wet nurse having the spirit of a lion.

    I was a bit confused about who Sam was at all. I actually flipped back through a few sections wondering if I had missed something. When I looked at a character list online it has Sam/Saam listed as “Iran’s champion during the rule of Fereydun and Manuchehr.” I found the king/crown references to him added to my confusion but, as has been mentioned with the gifts, if you have a great warrior-champion then perhaps you reward him with ruling a local fiefdom/territory. I don’t think I appreciated at first that I was getting Zal’s backstory. It just felt like I’d been transported and plunked down in a brand new story.

    My favorite line: Of the world’s flowers, my share is only thorns, but one cannot fight against God’s decrees.

    Going back to descriptions, I continue to be nothing but awed by the amazing fantastical beasts that are a part of this poem. Taking only those as inspiration someone could write a truly epic story using them.

    As a side note that may or may not be interesting to anyone, I got the eBook of this at first due to availability issues with this edition in NZ. While all the normal advantages of an eBook are certainly there I’m thrilled to have a paper copy at last (my super awesome mom acts as my supplier/enabler of US books, yay for moms). The illustrations are much easier to see and seem more a part of the poem. It’s easier to flip around the sections for reminders and it’s just such a lovely book. I’m not usually bothered regarding format but in this case I definitely recommend the paper version.

  3. Rachel — I’m always so interested in what comparisons different writers and different cultures make with respect to beauty. So many comparisons of stature to trees!

    I had the same problem with Sam. Like: Wait, who is he?
    The rewarding your strongest warriors/princes with land as well as gifts is so classic, and very much part of a warrior and war sustained culture/kingdom. The lords are beholden to you for their land (and thus the wealth they can accrue from their holdings), so it fixes obligations between king and the powerful lords who support his rule. I love this stuff, which of course is embedded in the text (Ferdowsi sees no need to explain).

    And yes, I think the actual physical edition of the Dick Davis translation is really great.

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