The First Kings (The Shahnameh Reading Project 1)

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

Today’s portion: The First Kings (pages 1 – 8)

Summary: “Here is our introduction to the establishment of civilization through a succession of glorious kings who ruled over people, animals, and the earth itself. They tamed the demons, discovered fire, invented irrigation, divided kinds of animals and kinds of human work all while honoring God.”

Sassanid king art

KE: A few things struck me immediately on reading this first section:

The story does not start with the creation of the world but rather with the creation of sovereignty, the “first man to be king, and to establish the ceremonies associated with the crown and throne.” I don’t know what traditions Ferdowsi is drawing on but given that this was written in the 10th century C.E. I thought the description of the piece by piece evolution of culture was fascinating. For one thing, the order makes sense. First people wear skins; then fire is discovered, and step by step more accoutrements of civilization are invented (by the kings).

Another element is how clearly stated the ethical theme is. Everyone, good or bad, will die. All that lives on after death is your deeds. Basically Ferdowsi sets up the morally good, just kings and their creation of civilization, and then we reach the pinnacle of glory and pride (symbolized by Jamshid commanding the demons to raise him into the heavens and his subsequent question “who would dare say that any man but I was king?” And so, the fall.

It’s refreshing to read an epic in which an expression of justice and morality sit front and center (even with the caveat that a monarchical system is not one I personally would consider the most just and moral).

No women so far, but the young men are, without exception, handsome or splendid.

TG: Yes! It makes sense to frame the narrative with the creation of civilization instead of the world, since this is literally the book of kings and kings require a civilization to rule – mortal men who are indebted to God for the farr that allows them to rule humans, animals, magical creatures, and even the earth itself. I was impressed by how concise the progression of invention was, and like you said, how clearly the theme was laid out.

If you don’t come to it knowing what farr is, by the end of the section you probably have a pretty clear idea that it’s essentially the grace of God – much like the “divine right of kings” in the West – without that ever being spelled out. Last year I read a book called THE PERSIANS by Homa Katouzian and the author emphasized the importance of understanding farr in understanding the pattern of thousands of years of revolution and rebellion in Persia and even Modern Iran – and here this fundamental epic poem is about the exact same thing.

The section even ends on a sort of cliff hanger that only works because of the tension created by the narrative leading us to understand that great kings must have farr to rule strongly and Jashid has lost it so… TURN THE PAGE TO FIND OUT THE DIRE CONSEQUENCES!

As a side note, I appreciated the practical details here and there, like using blue as a color of mourning, and the delightfully self-aware “There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in leopard skin.” Of course, soon after armor is invented!

I wonder if we should take bets on how long before the first lady is mentioned, and how much longer before there’s a lady who does anything?

KE: The “turn the page to find out” element of Jashid’s story places this classic firmly in the written tradition. Oral storytelling also uses cliffhangers but I think not quite in the same way.

Also, reading that specific detail–“There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in a leopard skin”–was the point where I knew I would love this. And for exactly the reason you cite, that it is such a self-aware comment. It’s like a glimpse of the poet himself peeking through.

TG: And the origin of the term farr, or at least a more in-depth discussion on Wikipedia. The etymology section alone makes me drool:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khvarenah

Next week: The Demon-King Zahhak

Link-back to the Introductory Post which includes the reading plan and links to each section as we complete it.

16 thoughts on “The First Kings (The Shahnameh Reading Project 1)

  1. I dove right into this with a civilization origin story mind set (vs kingly origin story) so, funnily enough, my initial world was a royal family and nothing else. Erm, woops! However, as you both commented, the order of innovation and filling in of small details are quite evocative and helped to fill my mental world very quickly. I actually went back to the beginning to skim it over again with the extra details in mind (like the magical beasts, etc).

    I was definitely struck by how many humans and creatures were scampering about but no women to birth said.

    Do you think that the moral/just theme had an undercurrent of ‘carry a big stick’ with it? I noticed how often the mighty, wonderful, wise, just kings ‘resolved all conflicts’ by their inherent awesome kingliness yet stockpiled weapons like mad. I also felt there was a definite focus on humans vs demons (good vs evil?) as many of the conflicts that got highlighted were against primarily demons rather than other humans.

    KE – Do you think the poem itself would be in the written tradition rather than oral or this particular presentation of it? (ok, that question sounds weird as obv this poem was written but I hope what I mean is clear:) I’m thinking of the details in the intro about the tradition (both older and modern) of presenting this epic orally. I actually find myself often imaging someone presenting it to me orally while reading so I was definitely curious about that comment you made.

    TG – I also really enjoyed those little details esp the comment about the blue color. It got me all interested in dyes and who was making the mourning clothes. Perhaps these folks? 🙂 “The fourth group were the men who work with their hands at various crafts and trades; they are contumacious people, and their hearts are always filled with anxiety.”

  2. Kudos to you guys for tackling source material (& sharing)!
    Also an etymology lover. Thinking “farr” similar to Yoruban concept “ashe”, “axe”, grace, righteousness, power, brightness of spirit.

  3. Anna: That’s fascinating about Yoruba “ashe.” I am betting this concept–of divine favor, brightness of spirit, and/or righteousness–appears in a number of language/culture assemblages.

  4. The hearts of artisans and poets are ALWAYS filled with anxiety. TRUE WORDS.

    Rachel, I just don’t know enough to know if there is a “big stick” mentality or if the idea of farr IS the big stick, if that makes sense. But yes, the weapons stockpiling never seems to cease in epics like this. True of our own literature as well, I think, in many ways: Empires will talk about empire things.

    As for the history of the poem, I need to do more research for a future installment. My understanding is that Ferdowsi wrote this as a written poem, as it were, drawing from diverse sources surely including oral storytelling, which would influence how he told the story and wrote a “what comes next” cliffhanger. I also found the introduction so fascinating in how the written poem then took on a life of its own (not unlike fanfiction or, really, all of literature in the history of the world) and spun out into various iterations both written and oral.

  5. I read the introduction before tackling this week’s reading, which helped when I was thrown the idea of “farr” right out of the gate.

    I also wonder if the protocols of reading this–which I am treating as secondary world fantasy/fantastical history will influence how I approach the narrative.

  6. Rachel, I thought it was very interesting that the enemies were demons, too, especially because that seemed pretty fluid in the first few pages – I didn’t realize the first demon was a demon, not a rival king, until the narrative was like BTW GIANT BLACK DEMON and I had to make myself start reading from a more fantastical perspective, because I hadn’t, for whatever reason, expected demons, angels, fairies or anything non-“realistic!”

  7. Anna: I went and looks up “ashe” and barely managed not to fall down a long rabbit hole. Thank you! 😉 It seems like it’s more a part of everything – a divine energy or soul given to everything by God, not necessarily a marker of rulership – but obviously I haven’t studied it. My understanding of farr in this context is that not everybody has it, not everybody could have it – only the one person with God’s favor to rule.

  8. The idea of farr (especially if only one man at a time can have it) creates an interesting statement about kingship, one that is difficult for me (in my cultural placement as a person who has grown up in a very different political system) to fully engage with except intellectually.

  9. Paul, that makes sense. To me it feels more deeply grounded though because it isn’t “made up” in the same way, in the sense that I feel like its roots are sunk so deep in the actual cultural and historical development of a region. To a fair extent much secondary world building is more of a veneer, and this doesn’t feel that way to me.

    Even with the demons and angels and fairies, etc, or maybe in because of them.

  10. Coming a little late to the party on this installment, but like others, I dove in expecting to begin with a creation epic and then found myself surprised by the civilization origin story (in a good way).

    I found it very interesting that Hushang’s army was composed only (as far as the text states) animals and fairies (I would LOVE to know what Ferdowski actually speaks of when he mentions fairies) and no expressly stated humans. It was just so practical to have animals and fairies (and a powerful King, thanks to farr) only able to defeat demons until the discovery of fire & ability to craft weapons.

    In my mind, this seems like some kind of important turning point (the Good Humans don’t fight until we have a sharp object in our hands), but I can’t quite put my finger on it. The first few battles don’t expressly mention who or what composes those first armies, so I’m going to assume it wasn’t humans. But maybe there’s evidence for that elsewhere.

    I, too, am waiting eagerly to see when the ladies show up, if ever.

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