Shahname Synopsis

"The houses that are the dwelling of today will sink beneath shower and sunshine to decay but storm and rain shall never mar the palace that I have built with my poetry." Ferdowsi

The Shahname, literally meaning 'Book of Kings,' is structured according to the mythical and historical reign of 50 Persian Kings. The epic can be roughly divided into three parts: the first part tells of the mythical creation of Persia and its earliest mythical past; the second part tells of the legendary Kings and the heroes Rostam and Sohrab; the third part blends historical fact with legend, telling of the semi-mythical adventures of actual historical Kings.

Brief overview:

Part one:

Opens with a cosmography and the creation of the world out of nothing.

  • The reign of Jamshid for 700 hundred years.
  • The rule of Zahhak the evil Serpent King who is finally killed by the blacksmith.
  • The rule of Faridun and his sons.

Part two:

  • The birth and reign of Zal.
  • The birth of his son Rostam.
  • The reign of Rostam for 300 years, during which he overcomes seven heroic trials and many demons, marries Tahmina.
  • The birth of Sohrab.
  • The death of Sohrab by his own father, Rostam.

Part three:

  • The reigns and adventures of, among others: Key Khosrow; Siyavush; Goshtasp; Esfandiyar; Darius; Alexander, and Bahram Gur.

The story of Zal, Rostam and Sohrab

Sam married an unnamed palace courtier

Their son Zal married Princess Rudabeh , daughter of the King of Karbol.

Their son Rostam married Princess Tahmina .

Sohrab is their son.

This is the story of four generations, of fathers and sons, courage and skill, love and honour, war and grief, and of fathers making mistakes – sometimes putting their mistakes right, sometimes forgetting. This theme of fathers and sons reoccurs throughout the epic.

The story of Zal

Birth and childhood of Zal:
A son, Zal, is born to King Sam but the baby has hair as white as snow. Sam thinks his son is either an old man or a demon and orders the baby to be taken to the foothills of the Alborz mountains and left there.

The Alborz are mountains made of jewels.

Zal is found by the magical Simorgh, the phoenix like bird with red and gold feathers who has her nest on the summit of the mountain. She carries the baby to her next and brings him up as her own.

Some years later King Sam is reminded in a haunting dream how badly he has behaved towards his son. Sam feels remorse and sets out to the Alborz mountains to see if his son might still be alive.

He finds his son a grown handsome young man, well brought up by the bird. Zal doesn't want to leave the Simorgh, but she gives him one of her feathers and tells him if he is ever in trouble he must burn the feather and she will come to his aid.

Zal and Rudabeh:

Zal hears a description of Rudabeh, daughter of Mehrab, who has "lashes like raven's wings...the moon...her face". Zal falls in love with the description. Rudabeh hears equal praise of Zal and his "mammoth strength." They meet, but Rudabeh friends tease her about falling for a man with white hair brought up in a bird's nest. And Zal is equally worried, for Rudabeh is an ancestor of the evil serpent King Zahhak. (Zahhak grows a serpent on each of his shoulders which must be fed with human brains.)
Despite these obstacles they vow to meet, Rudabeh offering to let her hair down Rapunzal like from her tower so that Zal can climb up and see her. Zal doesn't wish to hurt her and so they use a rope instead.(The subject of many many paintings.) They promise each other their hearts and can love no other. All the families agree to their marriage, which overcomes the negative influence of the past. Their wedding lasts 30 days.

The story of Rostam

Rostam's Birth

The birth and childhood of Rostam:

Rudabeh is pregnant, in great pain and unable to give birth. Zal remembers the Simorgh's feather. He burns it and the Simorgh appears. The bird orders and arranges the first caesarean birth, giving Rudabeh healing herbs and stroking her with her feathers. Rudabeh gives birth to a huge son, "a lion cub", Rostam.

Rostam is a miracle baby and has grown into a boy within 5 days and to the height and strength of a young man within weeks. As a child he is the only on able to kill a white elephant that is rampaging unstoppable through the palace.

The White Mountain:

Rostam is sent to the White Mountain to get rid of rebels. He disguises himself as a merchant carrying salt, knowing that they need salt and will want to buy. He overcomes the rebel fortress single-handedly and is hailed a champion.

Rostam's horse Rakhsh:

Rostam catching Rakhsh

Rostam needs a horse and so all the horses in the kingdom are paraded in front of him. He places his hand on each horse's back and each horse buckles under his strength and their bellies touch the ground. Then he sees a young foal, "brave as a lion, as tall as a camel, as strong as an elephant." No one knows who the foal belongs to and no one can catch him. Rostam is the only one who can catch and saddle the foal. He says that the foal will be his war horse and calls the foal, Rakhsh, Lightning.

Rostam's seven heroic trials:

Rostam sets off to fee King Kay Kavus from demons. On the way he undergoes seven tests, a bit like Hercules. These are known as the seven heroic trials and are the subjects of many paintings.

Rakhsh fighting the Lion

1. The lion: Rakhsh gallops two days travel in one day. They rest and a lion appears. Rakhsh kills the lion while Rostam sleeps.

2. The desert: Rakhsh and Rostam get lost in a dry desert and nearly die of thirst. Their prayers bring a sheep who leads them to a stream.

Defeating the Dragon

3. The dragon: While Rostam sleeps a dragon appears. Rakhsh strikes his hoof on the ground, the dragon vanishes and Rostam wakes. Rostam is cross with Rakhsh for waking him up. This happens twice more. each time Rostam is saved by his horse but each time Rostam reprimands him. Finally Rostam sees the dragon. They fight, Rakhsh bites the dragon and Rostam cuts off its head.

4. The witch: They find a banquet of food spread out under some trees and sit down to eat. A beautiful woman appears welcoming them. Rostam praises her beauty and God for creating her. But she changes shape into a hideous terrifying hag. Rostam catches her and kills her.

Rostam capturing Ulad

5. Battle with Ulad: While Rostam sleeps (all great heroes have to sleep!) Rakhsh wanders into a field and starts eating the crops. The farmer is furious. Rostam fights the farmer and pulls off his ears. The farmer gets the hero Ulad to represent him. Ulad arrives with a whole army. Rostam destroys the whole army single-handedly. He then asks Ulad if he knows where King Kavus is being held. Ulad is so impressed with Rostam he offers to be his guide and protector.

Rostam fighting Arzhang

6. Demon King Arzhang: They come upon a demon encampment. Rostam and Rakhsh kill the demon king Arzhang and the other demons run away. They continue on the long journey to King Kavus.

Rostam killing the White Demon

7. The White Demon: King Kavus's castle is besieged by demons. Rostam waits until dawn comes and the demons fall asleep. He kills them. They capture the White Demon and cut out his liver. Kavus is set free. They have a great party.

Tahmina:

Rakhsh is caught by Turkish horsemen while Rostam is asleep. Rostam goes to the King of Samangan for help. Tahmina, the King's daughter has heard about Rostam and fallen in love with his description. She comes into his room while he sleeps and he wakes to see her beauty, "as elegant as a cypress tree...". They fall in love and marry. Tahmina helps get Rakhsh back. Rostam doesn't stay long and leaves to go on more campaigns. Before he leaves Rostam gives Tahmina a bracelet of gems, and if they have a child she is to give it to the baby. If it is a girl the girl can wear it in her hair, if it is a boy he should wear it on his arm. Rostam leaves and Tahmina never sees him again.

Sohrab:

Tahmina gives birth to a boy, Sohrab. At ten years old Sohrab asks who his father is. Tahmina tells him it is the champion Rostam, and gives Sohrab the bracelet. She tells Sohrab to keep it secret that he is the son of Rostam, because she is afraid that he will be called to war like his father, and she will never see him again. Sohrab is given a wonderful horse (the son of Rakhsh). His strength becomes widely known and the King sends him to war, (unbeknownst to Sohrab, the war is against Rostam).

Sohrab and Rostam fight:

The Death of Sohrab

Sohrab and Rostam meet on the battle field and don't know each other. Rostam is amazed by Sohrab's strength. Sohrab senses that this might be his father, and tells Rostam not to fight. Rostam thinks Sohrab is trying to trick him. So Sohrab is about to kill Rostam. Rostam tells him that a true hero never kills at the first strike and Sohrab lets him go.

Sohrab is killed by Rostam:

They fight again, but Sohrab is nervous and uncertain. He doesn't want to fight and Rostam immediately mortally wounds Sohrab. As Sohrab dies he describes how he has been looking for his father and shows Rostam the bracelet. Rostam realises this is his own son. Sohrab dies and Rostam is overwhelmed with grief "turn my shining days to darkest night".

Rostam holds a royal funeral for his son.

"As this famous book comes to an end the country will be full of talk about me whoever has intelligence, judgement and religion will pour blessings on me after I die. But I will not die after this, I will remain alive, as I have scattered the seeds of speech."Ferdowsi

Important characters:

  • Sam
  • Zal
  • Simorgh
  • Rakhsh
  • Rudabeh
  • King Kay Kavus
  • King of Samangan
  • Tahmina
  • Sohrab

©Sally Pomme Clayton 2005

All images ©The British Library Board