The Story of Mazdak (Shahnameh Readalong 36)

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 Story of Mazdak

Synopsis: “Mazdak comes to Qobad’s court, preaching equality for all men, but his new religion is rejected and he’s killed.”

TG:  WELL we have our absolute evidence that women have lost all status. Here they of course cannot hold their own wealth or make their own choices because they ARE wealth. They are equal only to wealth, in that they bring corruption to all mankind equally with wealth.

I’m very glad this is all happening in the end of the book, because if it had been in the first 1/4 I’m not sure I’d have been able to stick to this project!

It’s interesting to me that this brief sojourn into a sort of communist agenda where men are supposed to be economically equal and wealth is the enemy so easily catches hold of King Qobad, though the snake poison anecdote is a pretty convincing one. Especially since so recently we had the episode where the priest made all the people in a village equal and a few weeks later the village was razed to the earth and everything had gone badly.

And even though Mazdak’s religion is rejected it certainly isn’t because of anybody thinking women are worth anything. The number one argument against sharing women in common had nothing to do with women, but in good patriarchal fashion, it was “how will a son know his father, or a father his son?”

Always centering the menfolk. ALAS.

Apparently, Mazdak is a historical figure and I found quite a bit about him, and most of it de-emphasised the sexism, which doesn’t make me think Shahnahmeh is inaccurate, it makes me think history doesn’t care much.

The next section is about how kings needs a good woman for a partner, and I’m a little nervous to read it.


I’m not positive this is an illustration of the crown prince having the followers of Mazdak planted upside down in the palace garden but here are six men, with varying skin tones, hanging by their feet from garden trees.

KE: “He said that those who have nothing were equal with the powerful, and that one man should not own more than another.” <== These radical social movements aren’t modern inventions; they go all the way back.

This story is a classic example of how the rich and powerful squash social movements that threaten their privilege, status, wealth, and lines of inheritance (i.e. control of women’s pregnancies). At the same time it reminds us that men like Mazdak could also be (and were often) demagogues, filled with love for the sound of their own voices, insistent on punishing anyone who refused to follow their exact way. And of course so often these men are also just as sexist as the society at large (or more so), seeing women as possessions like gold and horses rather than women having their own right to themselves, much less the same right to status and rank as men. And how stark a comparison to the old legendary days when so many women are described as possessing their own wealth (and sexuality). Like you, Tessa, I think if this had been the attitude toward women in the opening third I might not have gotten farther either. How far we HAVE fallen, indeed.

So basically Prince Kesra, meant to be an exemplar of virtue, devises horrific deaths for his political enemies as he maintains the unequal status quo. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Now I need to read more about Mazdak and his legacy. Note Ferdowsi’s warning made in the present tense to the reader: “If you have any sense, you will not follow Mazdak’s way.” This suggests to me that in Ferdowsi’s time Mazdakism still existed somewhere, somehow. Because after all, these ideas and social movements always will exist as long as our political systems entrench and support inequality and pretend that it is justice and God’s will.

Next week: The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan (who I am already disposed to dislike)(and yes, I too am not sure if the comment about “a good woman” will turn out to be some horrible form of “I told you so” irony)

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, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur

4 thoughts on “The Story of Mazdak (Shahnameh Readalong 36)

  1. Apparently, Mazdak is a historical figure and I found quite a bit about him, and most of it de-emphasised the sexism, which doesn’t make me think Shahnahmeh is inaccurate, it makes me think history doesn’t care much.

    Yeah, as I have said before, the more into historical time we get, the less impressed I am with the work, sad to say. I am also thinking of a Greek “Gold, Silver Iron” sort of falling away from the mythic to the actual.

  2. Partly it’s just that people are now acting more like people act and yes, indeed, they have diminished 🙁

  3. Hello again! I’m so disappointed to have been unable to participate for so long because omg SO MUCH HAS HAPPENED!!!

    And, holy crap, what happened to all the women being active and having resources? Ok, there weren’t a ton of them but it wasn’t like this. Ugh!

    Just a few very minor things from catching up on posts, etc. I, too, have realized how gendered my idea of adjectives is from reading this. Always good to have one’s eyes opened.

    Demon worm!!!! I had no idea I needed a demon worm in my life. What a great story. It was a shame the daughter disappeared from that one. I liked her.

    Homay ftw! She was brilliant!

    I really enjoyed the podcast re Rostam’s death. I was really surprised at myself for being sad since I didn’t like him much. However, it was so ignoble and there were innocent bystanders so it all seemed terrible rather than him finally getting his. Also, after everything his horse did for him his final repayment was literally to kill him. Some hero.

    I’ve noticed now that we’re in more modern times that there seems to be far more death and far less reconciliation. Like armies of death always happened but so often there was reconciliation between royals, etc but not so these days. M. Guillotine rules all.

    Also, I think Iran 100% funded the Indian military export market. 😉

    To be more topical…
    “Men should be equal in the world… Women, houses, and possessions were to be distributed so that the poor would have as much as the rich.” Ugh, so LITERALLY Men.

    “…who will want to be commoner, and how will nobility be recognized?”
    This beautifully ironic line delivered with complete sincerity amidst the most ridiculous line of “logic” as the king is convinced of the error of Mazdak’s ways actually made me laugh out loud. Who indeed?

    It’s been interesting to see religions change and prophets come and go (some more successful than others) in the midst of the greater doings of the Shahnameh. It really makes me curious as to what perfect combination of events has to occur so that a new religion will take hold? I would guess there’s no single formula but the question still interests me.

    Ugh, but this woman thing though. Hard slogging these days.

    I’m really hoping to get some more genealogies done before the end of year. So many new people to add!!

  4. Rachel, yes, I too find the “historical” portion so filled with death and endless bad decision making. Not long to go now so I wonder how the last good king (Khosrow Parviz) will fare in this regard.

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