Shahname Historical and Cultural Questions

As a storyteller I always have questions about the stories I am researching, writing and telling. I enjoy following a trail of questions and seeing where they take me. Teachers and students will have their own questions to follow with the Shahname, but here are some starting points to help you get inside this story.

Historical background

"Deem not these legends lying fantasy... for most accord with sense or anyway contain a moral." Ferdowsi

What is The Shahname?

The Shahaname was written down by poet Ferdowsi (940-1020AD). He collected together the pre-Islamic stories, legends, history, myths and poems that had been told by storytellers, grandparents and holy men for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Ferdowsi wrote the epic in rhyming couplets. It took him about 35 years to write the poem and it was finally completed in about 1010 ad. The full translation in English is 9 volumes long!

By the 14th century it had become the custom of the King to commission their own new copy of the Shahname, written and illustrated by the best painters and calligraphers of their time. It is the most frequently illustrated Persian text and has retained its popularity in Iran today. Many of these precious manuscripts dating from 13th -18th centuries have survived, and are held in museums and libraries throughout the world. Russia, Cairo, Istanbul, Berlin, Bombay, Tehran, Tashkent, Edinburgh, Bengal, and the USA, are examples of a few of the places where manuscripts can be found today.

What is an epic?

Storytelling is a living process and stories are slippery creatures. They can change their shape and their meaning according to the way tellers use them on their tongues, and the way listeners receive them in their ears. Genres are consequently elusive, and a story can shift genre according to both performance and context. However there are some general features about genres that make it possible to identify them.

You can look for: structural and verbal patterns; stylistic features; subject matter; performance styles, and the surrounding context of performance. These are rich sources for research, and will reveal some of the formal features that make up a genre.

Epics are usually long cycles of connected, or branching, poems. They are often concerned with battles and heroic deeds, combining historical fact with romance, adventure, magic, the supernatural, and the Gods. They often tell the stories of several generations of families. The epic tradition is one of performance, so the text is the result of a living performance tradition which would have incorporated both poetry and prose, speech and song, and might have been accompanied by music.

A Persian Epic

When Ferdowsi was writing Persia was much bigger than it is now, it extended beyond the borders of current Iran. It extended into parts of Central Asia, Afghanistan, India, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Persian based languages are also spoken by tribes and communities outside Iran: Dari, Baluchi and Pashtu are spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Tadjik is spoken in Tajikistan: Kurdish is spoken in Turkey and Iraq; Osset is spoken in the Caucusus. These cultures know the Shahname, consider it their own and have their own versions of the stories. Even within Iran there are different versions of the Shahaname in different regions of the country.

Ferdowsi used pre-Islamic sources for his epic in an Islamic Iran. He wrote his poem in Persian rather than Arabic, creating a national epic that reconstructed the history and myth of the ancient Persian peoples. Consequently the Shahname has an important place in Persian culture and in the hearts of Persian people. Listening to the story, the audience find their place in community and in the wider cosmos, through listening to a story their identity is renewed.

Attitudes towards to the Shahname have shifted with each generation and its concerns, with governments and the political situation. The text itself might change only slightly, but the meanings of the text and peoples' relationships towards those meanings might change dramatically. As a specifically Persian story it has always represented a memory of a pre-Islamic state, but attitudes towards this pre-Islamic content have ranged from national pride, to censorship. The Shahname has been used in a myriad of contradictory ways; to uphold moral values; to define what is truly Persian; as propaganda to destroy an imperial past; to promote literacy in state literacy programmes; to create social harmony. I am interested to find out what the Shahname currently means for Persians today in both Iran and outside their country.

How do you spell Ferdowsi?

Lots of ways! There are loads of spellings of his name: Firdausi; Ferdowsi; Firdowsi; Firdawsi; Firdusi; Ferdausi...the spelling often reflects the background and era of the writer. I have used Ferdowsi , which seems to be the current spelling used by most academics.

"You must not believe the mould Firdowsi of Tus poured for his words was cast by any ordinary Persian. What happened was that in the beginning, the Word had been cast to earth from God's throne, but Firdowsi then raised it on high and recast it once again upon that throne." Ferdowsi

Cultural background

"The stories passed down from chest to chest..." Persian saying

Although Ferdowsi wrote down the stories of the Shahname they came from a long oral tradition, and continue today to be transmitted in an oral form.

Ways of telling the Shahaname

Everyone knows the stories of the Shahname, and parts of stories, sections of tales, fragments of poems, will be told by parents to children, by teachers in schools, by mullahs in the muktab - Koranic study groups, and by Sufi dervishes who used the text as starting points for philosophical and spiritual debate.

The Shahname is also an important part of the activities at the zurkhane - the house of strength. Every town has at least one zurkhane. The zurkhane is a kind of gymnasium where young men practise a series of challenging physical feats, from lifting huge weights to wrestling. These exercises are a kind of meditation and are accompanied by a musician who plays the drum and reads aloud from the Shahname. The physical feats echo those of Rostam and other heroes in the text. The manuscript of the Shahname is kept in special place in the zurkhane. It is worth looking zurkhane up on the net because you will be able to look at photos of actual zurkhanes in Iran. The men from the most respected zurkhanes also give performances, and have even come to the UK on a couple of occasions and I have seen them perform.

The storyteller of the Shahname

But along with all these ways of telling, there were, and still are, professional storytellers whose life's work and art was to perform the whole of the Shahname. They are called Naqqal. A direct translation of naqqal is 'transmitter': the one who passes on, transmits the tale.

Naqqali were so important and so loved, there was an old tradition that the King had his own personal storytellers. These tellers worked as a team, and had to be ready to entertain the king night and day, whenever he called!

As Persian society is segregated, only men became naqqali. However my own long research about Turkic and Central Asian culture revealed many female storytellers, so things might not be as they seem, and this is an area worth looking at.

Naqqali told in the kavahane - coffee houses frequented mostly by men, (although this is beginning to change.) Naqqali also performed in private houses, the bazaar, and more recently on radio and TV and in theatres. There are still naqqali performing, but sadly the art form is gradually diminishing.

Many descriptions of naqqali written in English come from people who travelled in Persia when it was still quite unknown to the West. The traveller G.W. Benjamin describes hearing storytellers in kavahanes:

"...entire cantos from the great epic of Firdausi, chanted with resonant modulates and listened to with enthusiastic rapture." G.W. Benjamin, Persia and the Persians.1887.

Naqqali performed for special celebrations such as births, weddings, circumcisions, during the holy nights of the month of Ramadan, and at Noruz - the Persian New Year - on 21st March. Tellers would also move from city to city, knowing when certain local festivals would be held and when the best crowds could be gathered. Winter was seen as a time for telling. Summer was a time when everyone should be working, maximising the weather and light. Storytelling was a night time activity, and it was said,

"If you tell a folktale in the daytime a thief will steal your trousers!"

Ways of telling Shahname

Most naqqali used a stick as a prop to tell their story. I have seen the most famous Persian naqqal, Mr Torabi, who is in his late 60's now, and has become internationally famous for telling Shahname. He uses his stick to become different characters, and the stick takes on the life of a horse, a sword, a tree, a mountain. Mr Torabi's performance is very energetic, he uses movement and gesture and his whole body to bring the stories to life. Mr Torabi started as an actor in another Persian performance tradition: the Persian passion play or Ta'ziyeh. These are grand outdoor performances, where the lives and deaths of Persian saints and martyrs are enacted on stages and processions throughout the town. Ta'ziyeh is very popular and watched by thousands. The Persian film director Abbas Kiarostami has recently made a film (2004) called Ta'ziyeh which explores the relationship of the Persian audience to this theatrical form.

Sometimes naqqal use a drum and a bell to accompany their speech, and use a real sword instead of a stick. In the bazaar a naqqal might use a snake to attract his audience, or have a display of painted cards round their neck to draw a crowd. Others might hang up a painting of a section of the story and point to the relevant scenes with a stick.

Sir Arnold served as a young officer in South West Persia between 1907-1914, and vividly described in his journal a storyteller telling Shahname:

"He had an unfailing memory and a voice like a bell. One night he recited the story of Sohrab and Rostam in its original form as told by Firdawsi, it moved me almost to tears. Speaking nearly in the dark as we sat round the small charcoal fire he relied entirely on modulations of his voice to give dramatic effects to the successive speeches of the boy Sohrab and his old father Rostam. He held us spell bound for nearly two hours, then tea was served and water pipes passed round. He took a little food, and began a fresh." Quoted in Iranian Folk Narrative. Juliet Radhayrapetian. Garland Folklore Library. 1990. USA.

Each naqqali has a prompt book, a tumar, a compressed synopsis of the Shahname to help them remember the story. These are prose summaries of the story and tellers use them to weave their own variations, poems, songs and side stories into the plot. Naqqali tell the epic in 90 minute sections, and tumar are divided into sections of this length. Tellers would often tell one episode each day, and it would take them 6 months to complete the story. The audience would be gripped by the tale and as it was left on a cliff-hanger each time they would always come back for more. One Persian friend of mine described how sometimes the audience would be so desperate to hear the next bit they would run after the naqqal begging them to continue, and offering them more money to do so!

Playing with words

In Persian culture there is a fluid relationship between written and oral modes of communication. Storytellers draw on written versions of Shahaname then recreate the text in performance, composing and improvising new poetic sections, which then get added back into the written text. So the text is in progress, constantly being remade by each teller, the storyteller preserving, transmitting, recomposing, and inventing the text in performance.

Verbal arts

The tradition of poetry is very strong in Persia, and Ferdowsi had a powerful influence on later Persian writers such as Nizami(1141-1209), Sa 'di (1213-1292), and Hafiz (1310-1388). Poetry is deeply connected to music in Persia, and poems are often spoken/sung over music.

Epics utilise many poetic verbal formulas. Storytellers memorise and repeat these formulae, or use them as templates to create their own poetry. These verbal formula range from laments to praise songs, from boasts to verbal duels. These verbal formulae are an important part of a Persian storytellers repertoire.

The Shahname contains many praise 'songs' (these are poems, they might be chanted or sung, but can also be spoken.) These praise songs reoccur throughout the epic, praising: horses; beautiful women; children; the mountains; heroics feats; battles; the sunrise, and the moon. Each character in the epic has their own poetic passage describing their attributes.

The Shahaname also contains laments. For instance Tahmina cries a long and sad lament when Sohrab is killed, as does Rostam. These poetic laments closely resemble actual laments that would have really been sung when someone died.

Making up your own praise songs

It is fun to make up your own praise songs! Perhaps students can make them up for pets, family members, favourite toys?

Here are examples of two praise songs from the Shahname, these are my versions of the praise songs. And I have done what all naqqali do -  recreated the praise song in my own style but re-using some of the old images:

RUDABEH

(Rudabeh is Zal's wife and this praise song occurs when Rudabeh is first mentioned in the story.)

Rudabeh,

radiant as the sun,

stately as a tree.

On silver shoulders

her black hair curls

circling her shoulders like a necklace.

Her mouth a rosy pomegranate.

Her lashes dark as a raven's wing.

If you seek a brilliant moon,

you will find it in her face.

If you long for perfume,

you will find it in her hair.

From head to toe

she is a golden paradise.

All radiance, harmony and beauty.

RAKHSH

(Rakhsh is Rostam's magic horse and this praise song occurs when Rostam is looking for a horse and first sees Rakhsh)
Rakhsh galloped by

his tail curved high.

His coat bright,

his mane like a lion,

his ears two shining daggers.

Rakhsh had hooves of steel

and eyes so sharp

that at night

he could see an ant's footprint on a black cloak two miles away.

Rakhsh had the strength of an elephant,

the courage of a lion

and could run faster than a camel.

In the whole world

there was no other horse

like Rakhsh.

Caravans of Joy

The Shahname is part of Tajik culture. Tajik culture remains close to Persian traditions, while incorporating Central Asian traditions too. In Tajikistan there was a tradition of the Caravan of joy. I am not sure if this is still happening, but some elements of this tradition will remain in some form. The Caravan of joy was a theatrical event, a spectacle of music, dance and costume, based on stories from the Shahname. People dressed up as characters, decorated the streets, and built scenes mounted on carts which processed round the town in a joyful colourful caravan. Mechanical figures of animals were made, for instance you could sit inside an elephant's trunk and make it move. People dressed up as Rostam and Tahmina and the Simorgh, there were puppets, masks, comedy acts, special arrangements of flowers, and shopkeepers sold food and handmade toys. There were even great constructions built to represent the story, such as the 'Tree at the centre of the world' which is in the cosmography in the opening of the Shahaname. The Caravans of Joy would be performed at religious festivals, or circumcisions, or wedding parties which were elaborate events continuing over several days or weeks. What would your caravan of joy be?

Bibliography

Some more books for your bibliography:

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral traditions and the verbal arts .Routledge.1992.

Fischer, Michael M. J. Mute dreams, blind owls, and dispersed knowledges. Persian poesis in the transnational circuitry. Duke University Press.2004

Radhayrapetian, Juliet. Iranian Folk Narrative. Garland Folklore Library.1990.USA

Reed, Elizabeth. Persian Literature, Ancient and Modern .Chicago.1893.

 

Sally Pomme Clayton 2005