MYTHOLOGY EXPLORATION

Women in the Shahnameh: A Paragon of Strength

Music for the mood.
Siavash Marries Farangis
Siavash Marries Farangis, by Mo’en Mosavver from the first volume of a two-volume Shahnameh.

When we look at ancient epics, one’s that deal with a country’s or a people’s origins and mythologies, we normally find the stories suffer from the compartmentalization of female characters, casting them aside as one-dimensional personalities. They are reduced to the mother-of, or the daughter-of, rather than being represented by their name, individuality, and purpose.

The Shahnameh, the national Persian epic completed by Ferdowsi in the 11th century, covers traditionally hyper-masculine subject matters that you would find at the time of its writing: wars, heroism, dynastic conflicts, and royal successions. But when we look at the representation of women in the Shahnameh, there are a lot of surprising deliberations in how Ferdowsi portrays them.

I’d like to explore some of the major female characters of the Shahnameh and shed light on their importance and how they are represented. In their stories, Ferdowsi does not shy away from giving them more than a supporting role.

The women are problem solvers.

The women hold political power.

The women are fierce fighters.

The women are beautiful, intelligent, driven, eloquent, and independent. Above all, they are complicated and dynamic. They help drive the plot rather than be a spectator to it.

Rudabeh

“In purdah, and unseen by anyone,
He has a daughter lovelier than the sun.
Lashes like ravens’ wings protect a pair
Of eyes like wild narcissi hidden there;
If you would seek the moon, it is her face;
If you seek musk, her hair’s its hiding place.
She is a paradise, arrayed in splendor,
Glorious, graceful, elegantly slender.”

— Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis

Rudabeh is the princess of Kabul, daughter of King Mehrab and Queen Sindokht. Zal, son of the famous Sam, is smitten by the description of her beauty and makes plans with Rudabeh (through her servants) to meet at her father’s castle in secret. When he arrives below the battlements, he wonders how he can climb up to meet her. In response, Rudabeh lets her long hair down so that Zal can climb up to her. Zal refuses, worried that he may hurt her, and uses a rope to climb up the battlements instead.

Rudabeh gives birth to the most famous hero of Persian mythology, Rostam. It was said that Rostam was so big that Rudabeh would die in labour. With the help of the Simurgh (a mythical bird akin to the Phoenix), the first Cesarean delivery took place, and Rudabeh survives the pregnancy.

Rudabeh goes against her father’s wishes and decides to marry Zal. She takes matters into her own hands and sends her servants to evaluate if Zal truly is what he is described to be. She then sends for Zal to come to her.

Zal meets Rudabeh
Zal meets Rudabeh, unknown artist from a Shahnameh manuscript.

Sindokht

Sindokht is the mother of Rudabeh, and Queen of Kabul. It is Sindokht that solves the conflict of Zal and Rudabeh’s marriage. When King Mehrab discovers Zal and Rudabeh’s intentions, he is angered and presents the idea of publicly murdering his wife and daughter to appease the King of Persia, worried that the King would be angered by such an arrangement. Mehrab is a descendant of Zahhak, an adversary that almost destroyed Persia’s people.

Sindokht goes to Sam in secret, bringing gifts and intelligently pleading her case. It is through her direct action that the story leads to the King of Persia’s acceptance of the marriage between Zal and Rudabeh. She plays the role of the diplomat, and defender of Kabul, while her husband can only think to act with violence against his own family.

Sindukht comes to Sam Bearing Gifts.
Sindukht comes to Sam Bearing Gifts, by Abd al-Vahhab from the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp.

Gordafarid

“As she spoke, her shining teeth and bright red lips and heavenly face were like a paradise to Sohrab; no gardener ever grew so straight and tall a cypress as she seemed to be; her eyes were liquid as a deer’s, her brows were two bent bows, you’d say her body was a bud about to blossom.”

— Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis

Gordafarid is a Persian heroine, the daughter of the warrior Gazhdaham. She appears in the tale of Rostam and Sohrab as an adversary to the Turanian forces marching against Persia. Gordafarid hears that Hajir, the leader of a Persian outpost named the White Fortress, had been easily defeated by Sohrab (Rostam’s son and equal in strength and skill) and is angered to the point of riding out to meet Sohrab alone in front of his entire army. She challenges him to combat, going toe-to-toe with him in their duel. When her helmet is knocked off her head, Sohrab is stunned to see that it was a woman he had been fighting all along. Gordafarid tricks Sohrab and flees back to the outpost, buying time for her father to send a message to the King of Persia to send his forces to counter the Turanians.

Sohrab fights Gurdafarid
Sohrab fights Gurdafarid, unknown artist from a Shahnameh manuscript.

Tahmineh

“This beauty’s eyebrows curved like an archer’s bow, and her ringlets hung like nooses to snare the unwary; in stature she was as elegant as a cypress tree. Her mind and body were pure, and she seemed not to partake of earthly existence at all. The lionhearted Rostam gazed at her in astonishment; he asked her what her name was and what it was that she sought on so dark a night.”

— Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis

Tahmineh is the princess of Samangan, a bordering kingdom between the Persians and the Turanians. When Rostam loses his horse (Rakhsh) and travels to nearby Samangan looking for him, he encounters the King of Samangan and is provided food and lodging for the night. He is then visited by Tahmineh, who professes her desire to be with him. Having heard the great tales of his deeds, she is determined to wed Rostam and bear him a child. Rostam obliges and they are immediately wed and spend the night together.

In some writings, it is thought that Tahmineh is the one that instigated the taking of Rostam’s horse so that he would wander to Samangan. This is because she promises to find Raksh if Rostam agrees to her request, and Raksh is immediately found the next morning. Similar to Rudabeh, she is the driving force in making this union come about, rather than having indirect circumstances lead to it.

Tahmina visits Rostam
Tahmina visits Rostam, unknown artist from a Shahnameh manuscript.

Sudabeh

“Then someone took Kavus aside and said: “This king
Has sired a daughter lovely as the spring,
More stately than a cypress tree, and crowned
By hair like black musk, like a noose unbound,
Her tongue is like a dagger lodged between
Lips sweet as sugar cane; she is a queen
Arrayed like paradise, a paragon
As pure and splendid as the vernal sun,
Fit for a monarch, if one should decide
To choose this moonlike beauty as his bride.”

— Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis

Sudabeh is the princess of Hamavaran. King Kay Kavus chooses to marry her after a failed rebellion by the King of Hamavaran. When the King of Hamavaran decides to plot against Kavus, it is Sudabeh that advises Kavus not to listen to the request of her father for Kavus to visit Hamavaran. Kavus brushes off Sudabeh’s worries and upon arriving in Hamavaran, is tricked and imprisoned by the king.

Quick aside

There’s clear evidence that throughout the Shahnameh, women are almost always correct in the advice they give to the men of the epic. If the male character listens, then he is rewarded with good fortune, and if he does not listen, then he deals with the negative outcomes of his decision.

Sudabeh is interesting because she is a character in the Shahnameh that goes from having strong morality to acting entirely immoral in later stories. She creates tension between Kavus and his son Siavash. She does so by making advances on Siavash (her stepson) behind her husband’s back. It is this tension that forces Siavash to exile himself from Iran and leads to his ultimate demise at the hand of the Turanian king, Afrasyab.

Fire Ordeal of Siyavush
Fire Ordeal of Siyavush, unknown artist from a Shahnameh manuscript.

An interesting perspective

The stories described above only look at a handful of the many female characters found in the Shahnameh. It is important to understand that summarizing these stories does a disservice to the complexity that can be found in the character’s thoughts and actions.

We see stories that deal with political, romantic, and paternal relationships, ones that explore the struggles of love, adversity, and morality. The women of these stories span the spectrum of good and evil. They are redeemed for the evils they committed, or find evil when they were once pure. Their morality may shine from the moment we are introduced to them, to the moment they pass. What matters is they are represented as strongly as their male counterparts. The Shahnameh is not perfect but still gives a wonderful perspective to a normally disappointing literary element, brought about due to a consequence of its time.

I am proud to see the women of the Shahnameh, an epic that explores the mythology and quasi-history of Iran, represented by their strong, humanizing qualities. It translates beautifully to the strength of women in today’s Iran, and their fight to establish their right for freedom and equality. One that is fought with courage, dignity, and absolute ferocity.

If you are interested in further readings, I’d recommend checking out some of Dick Davis’ published works, namely, Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories and his anthology, The Mirror of My Heart, a translation of a thousand years of Persian poetry by women.

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Behrouz Salehipour

Behrouz Salehipour

Senior Product Designer at Fraction. Always trying to overcome my fear of writing. Writing about things that interest me.