You are here

The Shahnameh: From National Epic to World Literature

March 2, 2018

The Shahnameh (Chronicle of Kings) is an epic poem in the Persian language that tells the myths, legends, and history of the Iranian people. A massive work comprised of over fifty thousand rhyming couplets, the Shahnameh starts at the dawn of time and ends with the fall of the Sassanian dynasty, the last pre-Islamic Iranian empire which fell to Arab Muslim conquerors in 636.

Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-1019) spent thirty-five years of his life composing the Shahnameh based on the various stories and accounts of Iran’s ancient civilization that were available to him. In at least one case, Ferdowsi also incorporated the earlier attempts at a Shahnameh by another poet directly into his own version. In some respects, then, the Shahnameh is a product of its times. Not only does Ferdowsi’s poem pick up where others left off (we know this because Ferdowsi tells us so), but the poet also praises the patrons who paid handsomely for Persian poetry in the day. That is to say, Persian civilization was experiencing a period of cultural revival in the tenth century, the likes of which had not been seen since well before the fall of the Sassanian dynasty three centuries earlier. But if the Shahnameh is an indication of a broader historical movement, it is also that movement’s crowning achievement. When Ferdowsi finally completed his masterpiece in 1010, he ensured that Persian literature and the stories of the Iranians would flourish for the millennium to follow. 

In the sense that the Shahnameh tells the story of monarchs who ruled over a land called Iran and the heroes who fought on their behalf, it is rightly referred to as the Iranian national epic. In that sense, we can think of the Shahnameh as a literary expression of the values, ideals and aspirations of the Iranian people whose existence, according to the text, predates recorded history. Today, of course, Persian is an official language of three countries: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (where it is called Farsi, Dari and Tajik, respectively), and it would certainly be reasonable to consider those modern nation-states as Ferdowsi’s proper heirs. But the Shahnameh has also found its way into the literary traditions of nearly every society has had contact with Persian. The first full English translation, for example, appeared in 1785. Less than a century later, the English poet Mathew Arnold published “Sohrab and Rustum,” in which he retells arguably the most famous episode in the poem involving the tragic battle between the titular son and father. Indeed, if the Shahnameh began as the epic of a given nation, it has since earned a place among the most celebrated works of world literature.  

The stories of the Shahnameh can be divided into three sections that correspond to three dynasties of Iranian monarchs. The first, the Pishdadian, occupy the realm of mythology. These stories relate origins narratives: the first kings discover fire, invent tools and introduce technologies like agriculture to their people. In these early chapters, conflict exists primarily between humans and demons.  

The second section, corresponding to the reign of the Kayanids, contains legends and heroic escapades. Here, the main source of conflict is no longer between humans and supernatural beings--although there are still plenty of battles against demons, dragons and other mythical creatures--but rather between Iran and its neighboring adversaries. Along with the Iranian kings, the protagonists of this legendary section are the champions Rostam (the same from Mathew Arnold’s poem), his father Zaul, and grandfather Saum, who fight on behalf of the Iranian throne. It is these champions’ unparalleled feats of strength and bravery, romantic encounters (like that between Zaul and Rudabeh), and tragic displays of hubris that drive many of the Shahnameh’s best-known stories.

The third section, which can be described as historical, relates the rise and fall of the Sassanians and corresponds, to greater and lesser degrees, with what is recorded in other sources. Of course, the Shahnameh also omits significant portions from the record. For example, Ferdowsi makes almost no mention of the Achaemenids, whose founder, Cyrus the Great, certainly looms large in the history of the Persians. Nonetheless, by the time we arrive at the history of the Sassanians, it seems that Ferdowsi had access to a number of chronicles and other historical sources that allowed him to include details about court and daily life that are not found in the mythical or legendary sections.

Taken as a whole, the Shahnameh might read as tragedy. It tells the story, after all, of a once great civilization faced with utter defeat in the poem’s closing lines. But the cultural revival taking place in Ferdowsi’s lifetime also suggests that at least the notion of a Persian civilization had endured well beyond the period when the poem ends. Likewise, the fact that the Shahnameh continues to be read, adapted and performed over a millennium after its composition would itself bear witness to the cultural legacy of a civilization that Ferdowsi not only mourns but celebrates.

Samad Alavi
Assistant Professor
Near Eastern Languages and Civilization
University of Washington