The Ashkanians (Shahnameh Readalong 31)

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

This week: The Ashkanians

Synopsis: “The post-Sekandar world is less grandiose than before, with many short-lived kings and an even shorter-lived peace, but we do get a great story about a demon-worm.”

TG: The introduction to this section was fascinating, as it basically said “here’s what we’re going to talk about, and it’s not really worth talking about, in fact, we know almost nothing about these kings but their names,” and then the section proceeds to go into a lot of detail.

I wonder what the purpose of it was — to assure us that we don’t have to worry about another great character like Sekandar? To relate listeners to an episode of history that I’m not familiar with?

That said, this section presented some unique moments (not even including the worm). Babak’s reaction to his dream prophecy was a pleasant surprise, in that he didn’t get jealous or angry, but instead welcomed this strange prince into his life and allowed Sasan to become his son, and then for Ardeshir to be born.

And Golnar! The king’s treasurer. She’s not just any slave or mistress, she’s trusted with the kingdom’s funds, and no matter what else you can say about Ardavan, he loved her, even refusing to start his days without seeing her face for a good omen. That was charming. But Golnar takes destiny (and the story) into her own hands by climbing out of her bower to chase love in the form of Ardeshir. She gives up everything, risks her life, and even uses her power over the treasury to steal from Ardavan. If only she didn’t disappear entirely once she served her purpose. I was hoping to discover who her sons and daughters are by Ardeshir. OH WELL.

And then the worm. What a great fairy tale, and it fits into the story here seamlessly. I love the overlooked daughter who finds the worm and instead of fearing it, gives it a home and uses its luck. Too bad this turned into her father’s story instead of her own. So it goes. But at least I can imagine she survives and finds continued happiness and success in the rest of her life.

Here’s a picture of Ardeshir killing the worm: 


King Ardeshir in disguise as a merchant pours hot lead down the throat of the giant worm, which lives in a cistern. His three cronies stand alongside, watching.

And here the girls spinning (I’m fascinated by their spindles)(the piece is a detail from a larger 16th century painting called “The Story of Hafted and the Worm):


five young women seated cross-legged on the ground, amid trees, spinning thread.

KE: The historical discussion here fascinates me. Sekander “kills all the kings” which I would kind of assume must reference his conquest of the Persian Empire and replacing most (although not all) of the local level kings and rulers with Macedonian and Greek men from his army. So there is a violent break in terms of rulership to some degree (although studying the Seleucid period shows that it isn’t a clean a break as one might think, and it certainly didn’t involve any major changes in the general population demographics). But the narrative seems to skip over the Seluecid period and to a fair extent the Parthian period, as the Ashkanian period seems to include a number of local and regional level rulers without one overall Iranian king as in the previous dynasty.

Maybe this was just me, but I did feel that Ardeshir’s narrative has less of a legendary aura to it and felt more realistic. Everything that happens to him (even to some extent the story of the worm with the cunning way he kills it) feels completely believable in the sense that it could easily be translated directly into the plot of a novel and make pragmatic sense. Rostam always feels larger than life. Ardeshir feels like a dude doing things to make his way, and his story also makes political sense, for example, with the idea of him fostering at the court of a more powerful king whom he eventually supplants. Also I loved his charming correspondence with his beloved grandfather, to whom he is evidently closer than his own father.

While I’m on that, how savvy and level-headed is Babak anyway? Seeing how the stars reference this young shepherd as a future king or sire of kings, does he try to murder the man? NO. He promptly marries him off to his daughter so that he, too, can be connected to this coming line of kings. I loved that.

I too loved the story of the worm but I’m sorry we never hear what became of the daughter (the one, the story tells us, that her father never thought about, which is then contrasted with her actions bringing about his wealth and power). I thought her sparing the worm was a nice action but I guess it wasn’t? I never figured it out, and she vanishes from the story, still nameless. Alas. Together with the unnamed daughter of Mehrak, who is the only one of his family not put to the sword, because she manages to hide out. Will we see her again in the next chapter? Or is she yet another woman’s story hinted at and left untold? It’s no wonder I write the books I do, centering women.

Finally, I just absolutely have to do a retelling of Golnar’s story because it completely took hold of me and I, too, was irritated that we never hear about her again (unless she turns up in the next chapter, but I have to assume that Ardeshir’s heir will be by the princess, not the slave)(although you never know).

Oh, one last thing. For all his legendary status and heroics, Rostam really is a life that flares brightly and yet leaves nothing but his reputation upon his death (although that is considerable), while the hero Esfandyar is now one of the ancestors of the new dynasty and mentioned as such.

Next week: The Reign of Ardeshir & The Reign of Shapur, son of Ardeshir

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, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam