Rostam, The Son of Zal-Dastan (Shahnameh Reading Project 8)

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: Rostam, The Son of Zal-Dastan

Synopsis: Rudabeh nearly dies giving birth, but with the help of a wizard and the great bird Simorgh, Rostam is born to great acclaim.

TG:  At first I was very worried Rudabeh was going to die giving birth to Rostam, in some terrible metaphor about how he’s too great and strong for this earth, much less a human woman’s body. BUT not only did she survive, she named him, and named him after her own trial with death. She also is the first to acknowlege the farr in him (“she saw the signs of royal glory”). I was so glad she made it, and to see the return of Simorgh, who raised Zal, and that Sindokht was present, too. Even though the line of men is obviously the most important, the women are not only not erased, but they come back and are part of the family in a way that creates the future, too, not just holding the history.

But let’s talk about the doll baby for a moment: in any modern Western narrative that would be the beginning of a story in which the doll becomes Rostam’s ultimate weakness, or evil doppelganger – possessed by the devil or something. Part of me hopes that’s where it’s going (and that the doll baby will, in fact, return at all) but part of me thinks it’s just one more fascinating detail dropped in as part of the story, only there to highlight how great Rostam is and will be. Not foreshadowing or the promise of danger. We shall see!

Additionally, I’ve noticed before that when a great mass of people is brought together (usually an army) the descriptions say the ground grows black. In this section the lines are: “the earth turned the color of ebony beneath the cavalry’s hooves” and “the earth turned black as pitch.” I’m wondering what this is in reference to. The great shadow of a gathered army darkening the ground? That’s the best I can come up with.

KE:  Yes, how interesting and appropriate that although it was a male priest (who clearly also functions as a doctor) who performs the c-section, it was the Simorgh who saved Rudabeh’s life by explaining how to proceed. And how amazing to have a c-section described in a story written in the 10th century–in which the mother survives, too!
I loved a number of the poetic phrases present in this section:
I say pearls, but it was peace to the soul that she brought.
his face opened like a blossom
The doll struck me as intriguing (perhaps as odd but I am assuming if I knew more about Persian culture I would understand its antecedents better). Will it show up later? Because, like you, in a different story it would feature like the gun on the mantlepiece, needing to be deployed later at a dramatic moment.
So here’s a thing that interests me: Manuchehr clearly did not support the marriage between Zal and Rudabeh because of her dicey ancestry. And here Mehrab now confirms that Zahhak’s blood will, in its way, run true in him by turning him to do bad things (we assume). Yet Rostam also is a descendent of Zahhak. So how will this play out? And why on earth would Sam and Zal laugh at Mehrab, when we all know that laughing at someone usually just really pisses them off?
Oh, one last thing. I was very very interested that Rudabeh names Rostam in the same fashion so many children, especially sons, are named in the Bible. For example, when Sarah learned that God had promised Abraham that they would have a son, she laughed (because she was so old, past the age of child-bearing), the name Isaac (Yitzhak) means “he laughs” or “he will laugh.”

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh

9 thoughts on “Rostam, The Son of Zal-Dastan (Shahnameh Reading Project 8)

  1. I would expect “the land turns black” to refer to the destruction of any plant life–that is, the land turned to mud. I guess I don’t have a very poetical frame of mind!

  2. I, too, was thinking the land was turned to mud by that many horses. And to get even more unpoetical, horses produce a lot of manure.

    I was quite taken with the doll’s detailed description. What an interesting way to share baby pictures. Not a portrait, an engraving, or needle work but a silk doll. That’s a new one to me (Though American Doll collector’s might be so excited about this.).

    Does anyone else ever wonder if it’s unfamiliarity with the cultural references or if any of these tid bits that seem to come from nowhere (and possibly never show up again) have to do with the abridgement? Or maybe a bit of both?

    I loved the inclusion of the c-section and getting advice from Zal’s foster mom. So cool for that to be an aspect of the birth. And so detailed! In thinking back the re-positioning the head was spoken of.

    I am now fully convinced that the Persian heroic ideal was a rugby player’s body. 🙂

  3. I am here for the rugby player’s body as an ideal. lol

    I figure it’s either the abridgement OR a reference to something we are expected to know and would know if we were 10th century Persians.

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