The Iranian Parallel


For from today new feasts and customs date,

Because tonight is born Shah Kai Khusrau




THE HAMLET THEME moves now to Persia. Firdausi's Shahnama, the Book of Kings, is the national epic of Iran [n1 We cite here the English translation of Arthur and Edward Warner (1905­1909).], and Firdausi (ca. A.D. 1010) is still today the national poet. At the time Firdausi wrote, his protector, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, had shifted the center of his power to India, and the Iranian empire had long been only a memory. With prodigious scholarship, Firdausi, like Homer before him, undertook to organize and record the Zendic tradition, which extended back from historic times into the purely mythical. The first section on the Pishdadian and Kaianian dynasties must be considered mythical throughout, although it does reach into historic times and encompasses four of the nine volumes of the Book of Kings in the English translation. Khusrau (Chosroes in Greek) is also the name of a line of historical rulers, one of whom, Khusrau Anushirvan, gave sanctuary to the last philosophers of Greece, the members of the Platonic Academy driven out by Justinian in A.D. 529. But Firdausi's Kai Khusrau is the towering figure of his own mythical age. Almost one-fifth of the whole work is allotted to him. He is actually the Haosravah of the Zend Avesta and also




the Rigvedic Sushravah, an identity which raises again the much discussed question of a common Indo-European "Urzeit," the time of origins.


The common features of Saxo's Amlethus and Kai Khusrau are so striking that Jiriczek, and after him Zenker, undertook detailed comparative studies. [n2 O. L. Jiriczek, "Hamlet in Iran," ZVV 10 (1900), pp. 353-64; R. Zenker, Boeve­-Amlethus (1905), pp. 207-82.]. But they concluded that the Greek saga of Bellerophon might provide a common origin, and that was the end of their quest. Classical antiquity has a magnetic quality for the scholarly mind. It acts upon it like the Great Lodestone Mountain in Sindbad. The frail philological bark comes apart as soon as Greece looms over the horizon.


Bellerophon's somber tale would provide a parallel too, but does that have to be the end of the trail? As Herodotus ruefully remarks, his own Hellenic antiquity goes back in recorded memory but a few centuries; beyond that, it blends with the Indo-European patrimony of legends..


In the vast flow of the Shahnama, one prominent feature is the perpetual war between "Untamo" and "Kalervo," here the two rival peoples of Turan and Iran. Because the vicissitudes of the Kaianian dynasty of Iran are spread over a narrative twice as long as both epics of Milton combined, it is necessary here to concentrate on one essential aspect.


The Iranian plot shows some "displacement" in that Afrasiyab the Turanian kills, instead of his brother, his nephew Siyawush who is also his son-in-law, so that the "avenger" of this crime is bound to come forth as the common grandson of the hostile Turanian Shah Afrasiyab and his brother, the noble Iranian Shah Kai Ka'us (the same one who plays no small role in the Rigveda as Kavya Ushanas, and in the Avesta as Kavi Usan). Siyawush, as commander of his father's army, offers peace to the Turanian Afrasiyab, who accepts the offer because he has had a catastrophic dream. [n3 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 2, pp. 232f.]. This dream resembles those of Tarquin and Ambales. Kai K.a'us does not trust Afrasiyab and declines peace. Siyawush, not wishing to break his own treaty with Turan, goes to live with Afrasiyab.




Afrasiyab honors the young man in every way, and gives him a large province which he rules excellently, i.e., in the "Golden Age" style of his father Kai Ka'us. Siyawush marries first a daughter of the Turanian Piran, then Shah Afrasiyab gives him his own daughter Farangis. But there is a serpent in that garden. Afrasiyab's jealous brother Garsiwas, an early Polonius, plots so successfully against Siyawush that Afrasiyab finally sends an army against the blameless young ruler. Siyawush is captured and killed. The widowed Farangis escapes, accompanied by Piran (Siyawush's first father-in-law) to Piran's home where she gives birth to a boy of great beauty, Kai Khusrau, Afrasiyab's and Kai Ka'us:' common grandson:


One dark and moonless night, while birds, wild beasts

And cattle slept, Piran in dream beheld

A splendour that outshone the sun itself,

While Siyawush, enthroned and sword in hand,

Called loudly to him saying: "Rest no more!

Throw off sweet sleep and think of times to come.

For from today new feasts and customs date,

Because to-night is born Shah Kai Khusrau!"

The chieftain roused him from his sweet repose:

Gulshahr the sunny-faced woke. Piran

Said unto her: "Arise, Betake thyself

To minister to Farangis, for I

Saw Siyawush in sleep a moment since,

Surpassing both the sun and moon in lustre,

And crying: 'Sleep no more, but join the feast


Of Kai Khusrau, the monarch of the world!' "

Gulshahr came hasting to the Moon and saw

The prince already born; she went with cries

Of joy that made the palace ring again

Back to Piran tbe chief. "Thou wouldest say,"

She cried, "that king and Moon are fairly matched!"


[n4. Firdausi, Warner trans. vol. 2, pp. 325f.]




With this prophetic dream of a great new age begins a long time of trials for the predestined hero. The boy grows up among the shepherds; he becomes a great hunter with a crude bow and arrows that he makes for himself without arrowheads or feathers, like Hamlet whittling his stakes. Grandfather Afrasiyab, being afraid of the boy, orders the prince brought to him so that he can convince himself his victim is harmless. Although Afrasiyab has sworn solemnly not to hurt Khusrau, Piran urges the boy to play the village idiot for his own safety. When the tyrant questions him with feigned benevolence, Kai Khusrau answers in the very same style as Amlethus did, in riddles which sound senseless and indicate that young Khusrau likens himself to a dog. The usurper feels relieved: "The fellow is a fool!"


Now, the tale of vengeance, unduly abbreviated by Saxo's report and in other versions, is told by Firdausi with an appropriately majestic setting and on a grand scale. The anger of Iran and the world, stemming from the death of Siyawush, is, orchestrated apocalyptically into a cosmic tumult:


The world was all revenge and thou hadst said:

"It is a seething sea!" Earth had no room:

For walking, air was ambushed by the spears;

The stars began to fray, and time and earth

Washed hands in mischief. . .


[n5 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 2, p. 342.]


Still, the two archcriminals manage to escape and hide with inexhaustible resourcefulness. Afrasiyab even plays Proteus in the waters of a deep salt lake, constantly assuming new shapes to evade capture. Finally, two volumes and a multitude of events later, Afrasiyab and the evil counsellor are caught with a lasso or a net and both perish.


Only by going back to the Avestan tradition can one make sense of the many vicissitudes to which the Yashts or hymns of the Avesta allude repeatedly. [n6 Yasht 5.41-49; 19.56-64,74­]




The Shahs Kai Khusrau and Afrasiyab were contending in a quest for the enigmatic Hvarna, rendered as the "Glory," or the Charisma of Fortune. To obtain it the Shahs kept sacrificing a hundred horses, a thousand oxen, ten thousand lambs to the goddess Anahita, who is a kind of Ishtar-Artemis. Now this Glory "that belongs to the Aryan nations, born and unborn, and to the holy Zarathustra" was in Lake Vurukasha. Afrasiyab, Shah of the non-Aryan Turanians, was not entitled to it.. But leaving his hiding place in an underground palace of iron "a thousand times the height of man" and illuminated by artificial sun, moon and stars, he tried three times to capture the Hvarna, plunging into Lake Vurukasha. However, "the Glory escaped, the Glory fled away, the Glory changed its seat." There will be more discussion of Afrasiyab's attempts and his "horrible utterances," in the chapter "Of Time and the Rivers." The Glory was, instead, allotted to Kai Khusrau, and it was bestowed upon him without much ado. At this point it is fair to say that Hvarna stands for Legitimacy, or Heavenly Mandate, which is granted to rulers, but is also easily withdrawn. Yima (Jamshyd), the earliest "world ruler," lost it three times.


The story of diving Afrasiyab has had many offshoots in Eurasian folklore. There the Turanian Shah is spelled "Devil," and God causes him to dive to the bottom of the sea, so that in the meantime one of the archangels, or St. Elias, can steal a valuable object which is the legal property of the Devil. Sometimes the object is the sun, sometimes the "divine power," or thunder and lightning" or even a treaty between God and Devil which had turned out to be unprofitable for God. There remains the essential denouement. During those eventful years, Kai Ka'us held joint rulership with his grandson, secure in the Glory. Shortly after the victory over the upstart, Kai Ka'us dies and Kai Khusrau ascends the Ivory Throne. For sixty years, says the poem, "the whole world was obedient to his sway." It is striking that there is no word of any event after Kai Ka'us' death. Maybe it is because all has been achieved. Happy reigns have no history. But it is told that Kai Khusrau falls into deep melancholy and soul­ searching. [n7 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 4, pp. 272ff.]




He fears he may "grow arrogant in soul, corrupt in thought" like his predecessors Yima (Jamshyd) and, among others, Kai Ka'us himself, who had tried to get himself carried to heaven by eagles like the Babylonian Etana. So he makes the supreme decision:


"And now I deem it better to depart

To God in all my glory. . .

Because this Kaian crown and throne will pass."


The great Shah, then, who had once stated (at his first joint enthronement) :


"The whole world is my kingdom, all is mine

From Pisces downward to the Bull's head,"


[n8 Firdausi, Warner trans., vol. 2, p. 407.]


prepares his departure, takes leave of his paladins, waving aside their supplications and those of his whole army:


A cry rose from the army of Iran:

The sun hath wandered from its way in heaven!


The dream of Tarquin finds here an early echo. The Shah appoints as his successor Luhrasp and wanders off to a mountaintop, accompanied by five of his paladins, to whom he announces in the evening, before they sit down for the last time to talk of the great past they have lived together:


"What time the radiant sun shall raise its flag,

And turn the darksome earth to liquid gold,

Then is the time when I shall pass away

And haply with Surush for company."


[n9 Surush = A vestic Sraosha, the "angel" of Ahura Mazdah.]


Toward dawn he addresses his friends once more:


"Farewell for ever! When the sky shall bring

The sun again ye shall not look on me




Henceforth save in your dreams. Moreover be not

Here on the morrow on these arid sands,

Although the clouds rain musk, for from the Mountains

Will rise a furious blast and snap the boughs

And leafage of the trees, a storm of snow

Will shower down from heaven's louring rack,

And towards Iran ye will not find the track."

The chieftains' heads were heavy at the news.

The warriors slept in pain, and when the sun

Rose over the hills the Shah had disappeared.


The five paladins are lost and buried in the snowstorm.


[n10 This theme of sleep in the ((hour of Gethsemane" will occur more than once, e.g., in Gilgamesh. The myth of Quetzalcouatl is even more circumstantial. The exiled ruler is escorted by the dwarves and hunchbacks, who are also lost in the snow along what is now the Cortez Pass, while their ruler goes on to the sea and departs. But here at least he promises to come back and judge the living and the dead.




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