Khosrow and Shirin (Shahnameh Readalong 40)

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

This week: Khosrow and Shirin

Synopsis: “The story of Khosrow Parviz’s downfall, the rebellion of his bad son, and how his non-noble wife Shirin manipulates her way to power and her ultimate end.”

The lovebirds seated close together in a pavilion. Three ladies attend them.

The lovebirds seated close together in a pavilion. Three ladies attend them. Lots of gold paint highlights, incredible patterned detail in the background, and lovely human figures with subtle motion makes this a superb painting.

TG:  Here we have another strong lady, right after Gordyeh! Only this one does not step outside the womanly roles to get what she needs and wants like Gordyeh, but uses womanly ways–sex, poison, manipulation–to survive and then die how she wants. I did not like her (she just flat-out murders poor Mariam!) but she was great to read about.

It’s clearly set up as a great love story between Shirin and Khosrow, though neither of them is remotely like Zal and Rudabeh, I feel like I’m supposed to think of them (or maybe that’s just because I’m *always* thinking of them), mostly because they are so devoted to each other–he adores her, she murders for him, they sleep together and tell each other secrets, and of course, Shirin’s ultimate act is to manipulate everyone into letting her die and be buried with her king. (Which was AMAZING, I actually started to really like her, despite not wanting to forgive her murdering Mariam.)

These two are star-crossed because of being different classes, and although Khosrow doesn’t climb any balconies, he does have to struggle to convince his councilors to accept her — and that bowl metaphor was fantastic, but also really drove home again how these later stories are becoming preoccupied with class and gender and also beauty. While we’ve always had great descriptions of the beauty of warriors and princes and queens, it’s only really been demons that are monstrous. But in the last few sections there’s a huge repeating pattern of ugliness being associated with bad men and bad thoughts. We get involved descriptions of how ugliness functions, and that is fascinating to me.

I don’t have a lot to say about all these kings who don’t rule for long–except it was nice to get a throwback to the earlier kings again when Khosrow just looses his farr. He just “becomes unjust” and I wonder what the looks like now that all these kings lately have seemed pretty terrible to me. I loved the line at the end: “he finds that his crown is made of the camphor with which the dead are anointed.” What a dark, pointed metaphor.

I found the role of Barbad the musician so interesting I looked him up. He was, of course, real, and he created an entire musical system that lasted a long time in the Middle East. AND he seems to have played a larger, more important story in Shirin and Khosrow’s courtship according to some studies– it was his music that made Shirin realize Khosrow loves her!

I can’t believe there’s only one section of this book left!!!


The musician Barbad and his very very large lute, which is also inlaid with cloisonne or painted or something similar. A lad wearing a fur cap accompanies him on a hand held drum.

KE:  I was puzzled that there was no description of the initial meeting and courtship of Khosrow and Shirin, even though I have found images of him seeing her bathing (a popular motif in these kind of stories).


The young (beardless) Khosrow, mounted on a horse, sees across rock and tree to where Shirin bathes topless.

Shirin seems like the sort of lowborn lover a noble youth is allowed to have, the one he puts aside when he takes on official marriages with women of his own rank. So their story, and how she re-enters his life, did really quite interest me. Also it feels as if the story itself is of two minds about her. First she murders Mariam out of jealousy–and honestly I can’t quite figure out where Bahram Chubineh’s story and his sister marrying Khosrow fit into this–and obviously that makes Shirin seem like a villain. But, like you, I was moved by the story of her death and her apparently genuine love for Khosrow. So that’s a contrast, and I’m not sure quite what to make of it or how we are meant to approach her.

As for Khosrow, I really have reached a point where the good guys do so many unpleasant things that I’m almost glad for them to lose their farr. After all, in my eyes they have already done so!

Wasn’t the other Byzantine prince (from Kesra’s? story) also named Shirui? is this coincidence, or some sort of Persian version of a Byzantine/Roman name? I wonder.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the double dealing and treachery in this episode. It felt so real: This is what these sort of folks do, especially in the late period of a failing dynasty. Short reigns and shifting sides is often one of the markers of the final days of a ruling family. And another thing that interests me about it is that however much we in the sff community talk about the Western roots of so much epic fantasy, I have to say that a lot of fantasy kingship and political intrigue seems to me to have a lot in common with what we are seeing here in the last chapters of the Shahnameh. Have these stories had more influence than they’re given credit for? Or are stories of dynasties and kings and tyrants inevitably similar in many ways? A sobering thought given the USA’s current political situation.


Next week: the final chapter, the end of the Sasanids and the arrival of the Arabs and Islam. I can’t believe we are almost done!

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, The Story of Mazdak, The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan, The Reign of Hormozd, The Reign of Khosrow Parviz

2 thoughts on “Khosrow and Shirin (Shahnameh Readalong 40)

  1. Shirin is the kind of character I often fall for as she’s clearly not just in all her dealings but she’s so compelling I can’t help but get in her head. I guess fiction is a safe place to explore these archetypes (though I realize these actions are not necessarily always fiction). Also, that last scene with her (described as sitting by the king leaning against the wall waiting to die) absolutely slayed me. It wasn’t until the end that I fully realized I was reading about enduring love. (True love and class differences always reminds me of “Katherine” by Anya Seton. Have either of you read it? Far across the globe from these lovers but still a love story that always sucks me in.) I think I’m going to read this one again now that I know what Shirin’s end game is.

    I, too, have been preoccupied with the now-recurring motif of ugliness denoting evilness.

    “Have these stories had more influence than they’re given credit for?”
    Not a question I have any answers to but one that I often think of, as well. I also wonder, is the world trading influences or are we all just repeating each other’s human (inevitable?) mistakes? Speaking politically, I sure hope not.

  2. Well, sadly, the seesaw between just rulers and unjust ones is a constant in world history and the tales thereof.

    I was also overwhelmed by Shirin’s devotion and death. I didn’t see it coming; when she killed Mariam I naturally thought of her as someone incapable of unselfish love (as it were) — in fact I expected her to try to seduce the son — but then it turns out that the love story was far deeper. There must be more stories that Ferdowsi did not include (or at any rate that the prose version he was turning into poetry didn’t include).

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