Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories

  • Dick Davis
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The Shahnameh, the national epic of Persia, was written in the late tenth/early eleventh centuries by the poet Ferdowsi, who drew on a mixture of preexisting oral and written sources. The work is immensely long (ca. 45,000 lines; the standard edition runs to nine volumes), and only partially conforms to the notions implied by the word “epic. ” It covers the pre-Islamic history of Persia/Iran from the creation of the world up to the Arab conquest of the country in the seventh century. The poem ’s simplest organizing principle is to record chronologically the reigns of the country ’s monarchs, and some fifty rulers (almost all kings, although a couple of queens are also present) are referred to: the poem is thus in its most basic form a royal chronicle. A clear break in the nature of the narratives, and the ways in which they are presented, is apparent with the advent of Alexander the Great, whose forces conquered the country in the fourth century BCE. Before this point the material is largely mythological or legendary (and has almost no correspondence with the known historical record); from the appearance of Alexander on the poem is quasi-historical, in that it deals largely with known historical rulers, although usually in a highly romanticized way, and with many distortions of the historical record (e.g., the Parthians who in reality ruled the country longer than any other dynasty, from ca. 247 BCE to ca. 224 CE, are given very short shrift, and their reign is compressed into a couple of generations). Before Alexander the work is close in spirit to what we normally mean by epic; during the quasi-historical second half it is often more like the medieval European verse romances that involve warfare than it is like the works of say Homer or Virgil.


Seventh Century Foreign Woman Love Story Medieval Literature Persian Word 
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  1. 1.
    Shahnameh-ye Ferdowsi, ed. E. E. Berteis et al., 9 vol. (Moscow: The Oriental Institute in Moscow, 1966–1971), 6: 218, 11. 22–24. All citations from the Shahnameh refer to this edition. The best translation of the Shahnameh in a European language is Jules Mohl’s seven-volume, nineteenth-century French version Le Livre des Rois, par Abou’l Kasim Firdousi, publié, traduit et commenté par M. Jules Mohl (1838; repr. Paris: Jean Maisonneuve, 1976). English versions include Reuben Levy’s summarized translation, The Epic of the Kings (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), reprinted numerous times, most recently Costa Mesa, 1996; and my own complete translation, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, trans. Dick Davis (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2006).Google Scholar
  2. 19.
    A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 602.Google Scholar

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© Sara S. Poor and Jana K. Schulman 2007

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  • Dick Davis

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