New Translation of 'Persian Book of Kings'

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Cover for the new English translation by Dick Davis of Abolqasem Ferdowsi's 'Shahnemeh'

Cover for the new English translation by Dick Davis of Abolqasem Ferdowsi's epic narrative Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Penguin USA hide caption

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Iranians are in the middle of a 13-day celebration of the Persian New Year, Nowruz. It's an ancient tradition that dates back before the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire in the 7th century.

Listening to 'Shahnameh'

Hear how one part of the epic poem, "My Name is Tamehneh," is ideally enjoyed -- spoken out loud, both in English and Farsi:

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Just in time for the celebration, there's a new English translation of the Shahnameh, the "Persian Book of Kings." The epic was written over the course of 35 years, begun in the 10th century and finished in the 11th century by the poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi when the Persian Empire was a memory and Arabs dominated what is now the nation of Iran.

The story told in the Shahnameh begins with the origins of the world, recounts myths and legends of ancient times, then traces centuries of royal lineage, ending with the Arab invasion of Persia.

Translator Dick Davis is currently professor of Persian at Ohio State University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He takes an unorthodox approach to the epic, transforming Ferdowsi's verse into a combination of poetry and prose.

The Shahnameh's 60,000 couplets of Farsi roughly translate to 100,000 lines of English verse. It evolved from earlier oral epics and a Persian history commissioned by the royal family.

Davis says his translation is an effort to more closely mimic the cadence and feel of how storytellers have recited the Shahnameh for 1,000 years.

Excerpt: Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings

A page from a 17th-century illustrated book from Iran with collected passages from the 'Shahnameh' i

A page from a 17th-century illustrated book from Iran with collected passages from the Shahnameh. CORBIS/Seattle Art Museum hide caption

itoggle caption CORBIS/Seattle Art Museum
A page from a 17th-century illustrated book from Iran with collected passages from the 'Shahnameh'

A page from a 17th-century illustrated book from Iran with collected passages from the Shahnameh.

CORBIS/Seattle Art Museum
A battle scene from an illustrated version of the 'Shahnameh,' on display in Tehran. i

A battle scene from an illustrated version of the Shahnameh, on display in the Decorative Arts Museum in Tehran, Iran. CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption CORBIS
A battle scene from an illustrated version of the 'Shahnameh,' on display in Tehran.

A battle scene from an illustrated version of the Shahnameh, on display in the Decorative Arts Museum in Tehran, Iran.

CORBIS

The First Kings

The Reign of Kayumars

What does the Persian poet say about the first man to seek the crown of world sovereignty? No one has any knowledge of those first days, unless he has heard tales passed down from father to son. This is what those tales tell: The first man to be king, and to establish the ceremonies associated with the crown and throne, was Kayumars. When he became lord of the world, he lived first in the mountains, where he established his throne, and he and his people dressed in leopard skins. It was he who first taught men about the preparation of food and clothing, which were new in the world at that time. Seated on his throne, as splendid as the sun, he reigned for thirty years. He was like a tall cypress tree topped by the full moon, and the royal farr shone from him. All the animals of the world, wild and tame alike, reverently paid homage to him, bowing down before his throne, and their obedience increased his glory and good fortune.

He had a handsome son, who was wise and eager for fame, like his father. His name was Siamak, and Kayumars loved him with all his heart. The sight of his son was the one thing in the world that made him happy, and his love for the boy made him weep when he thought of their being separated.

Siamak grew into a fine young man, and he had no enemies, except for Ahriman, who was secretly jealous of his splendor and looked for ways to humble him. Ahriman had a son who was like a savage wolf; this fearless youth gathered an army together, spread sedition throughout the world, and prepared to attack the king.

Siamak Is Killed by the Black Demon

Kayumars was unaware of these machinations, but the angel Sorush appeared before Siamak in the guise of a magical being swathed in a leopard skin, and told him of the plots against his father. The prince's heart seethed with fury and he gathered an army together. There was no armor at that time, and the prince dressed for war in a leopard skin. The two armies met face to face, and Siamak strode forward to attack, but the black demon sunk his claws into the prince's unprotected body and stretched the noble Siamak in the dust.

Now in the dirt he laid the king's son low,

Clawed at his gut, and struck the fatal bow.

So perished Siamak—a demon's hand

Left leaderless his people and his land.

When the king heard of his son's death, his world darkened with sorrow. He descended from the throne, weeping and beating his head, and scoring his royal flesh in an agony of distress. His face was smeared with blood, his heart was in mourning, and his days were filled with sorrow. The army was arrayed before the king, and a cry of grief went up from its ranks. Everyone wore blue as a sign of mourning, and all the animals, wild and tame alike, and the birds of the air, gathered and made their way weeping and crying to the mountains, and the dust sent up by the throng of mourners hovered in the air above the king's court.

They mourned for a year, until the glorious Sorush brought a message from God, saying, "Kayumars, weep no more, but be of sound mind again. Gather an army together and fight against this malevolent demon." The king turned his weeping face toward the heavens and prayed to the great god that evil strike those who think evil. Then he prepared to avenge the death of Siamak, neither sleeping at night nor pausing to eat in the day.

Hushang and Kayumars Fight Against the Black Demon

The great Siamak had a son, Hushang, who acted as his grandfather's advisor. This splendid youth seemed compounded of intelligence and courtliness. Kayumars lovingly brought him up as his own son, because Hushang reminded him of Siamak, and he had eyes for no one else. When his heart was set on war and vengeance he summoned Hushang and laid before him his plans and secrets. He said, "I shall gather an army together and raise a cry of lamentation in the demons' ranks. You must command these warriors, since my days are numbered and you must be the new leader." He gathered together fairies, leopards and lions, savage wolves and fearless tigers, birds and domestic animals, and this army was led by the intrepid young prince. Kayumars was in the rear, his grandson Hushang in the van. The black demon came fearlessly forward, and the dust of his forces rose into the heavens, but the king's fury and the wild animals' magnificence rendered the demons' claws harmless. When the two groups met, the demons were defeated by

the animals; like a lion, Hushang caught the black demon in his grip, cleaving his body in two and severing his monstrous head. He laid him low in the dust and flayed his wretched body of its skin.

When Kayumars had achieved the vengeance he desired, his days came to an end, and the world was deprived of his glory.

You will not find another who has known

The might of Kayumars and his great throne.

The world was his while he remained alive,

He showed men how to prosper and to thrive:

But all this world is like a tale we hear—

Men's evil, and their glory, disappear.

The Reign of Hushang

The just and prudent Hushang was now master of the world, and he set the crown on his head and ruled in his grandfather's place. He reigned for forty years, and his mind was filled with wisdom, his heart with justice. Sitting on the royal throne, he said, "From this throne I rule over the seven climes, and everywhere my commands are obeyed." Mindful of God's will, he set about establishing justice. He helped the world flourish, and filled the face of the earth with his just rule.

The Discovery of Fire and the Establishment of the Feast of Sadeh

One day the king was riding toward the mountains with a group of companions when something long, and black suddenly appeared. Its two eyes were like bowls of blood affixed to its head, and smoke billowed from its mouth, darkening the world. Hushang considered carefully, then grasped a rock and flung it with all his royal strength at the beast, which flickered aside, so that the rock struck against stony ground and shattered. From the collision of the two stones a spark leaped out, and the rock's heart glowed with fire. The snake was not killed, but the fiery nature of flint was discovered, so that whenever anyone struck it with iron, sparks flashed forth. Hushang gave thanks to God that he had given this gift of fire, and from that time forth men prayed toward fire. When night came Hushang and his companions made a mountain of fire and circumambulated it. They had a feast that night, and drank wine. The feast was named "Sadeh" and is Hushang's legacy to us.

Then he took ore in his fist, and with fire he separated iron from its rocky home. In this way he created the blacksmith's craft, fashioning maces, axes, saws, and hatchets. Then he turned his attention to irrigation, bringing water from lakes to the plains by means of channels and canals, and so using his royal farr to lessen men's labor. In this way he increased the land available for agriculture and the harvest, so that each man could grow grain for his own bread and know the fruits of his own toil.

Hushang used his God-given royal authority to separate animals into those that are wild and can be hunted, like onager and deer, and those suitable for domestic use, like cows, sheep, and donkeys. He killed animals with fine pelts, like foxes and ermine, the soft squirrel, and the sable, whose fur is so warm, and had fine clothes made from them. Hushang toiled and spread justice, and consumed his due of the world's goods, and then departed, leaving behind nothing but his good name. In his time he struggled mightily, planning and inventing innumerable schemes, but when his days were at an end, for all his sagacity and dignity, he departed. The world will not keep faith with you, nor will she show you her true face.

The Reign of Tahmures

Hushang had an intelligent son, Tahmures, who was called "the Binder of Demons." He sat on his father's throne and swore to preserve the customs his father had instituted. He called his wise counselors to him and spoke eloquently with them, saying, "Today the throne and crown, the treasury and army, are mine; with my wisdom I shall cleanse the world of evil. I shall restrict the power of demons everywhere and make myself lord of the world. Whatever is useful in the world I will reveal and make available to mankind."

Then he sheared sheep and goats and spun their wool into fibers, from which he fashioned clothes; he also taught men how to weave carpets. He had flocks fed on grass, straw, and barley, and from among wild animals he selected the lynx and cheetah, bringing them in from the mountains and plains and confining them, to train them as hunters. He also chose hawks and falcons, and hens and roosters, who crow at dawn, and showed men how to tame these birds by treating them well and speaking gently to them. He brought out the hidden virtues of things, and the world was astonished at his innovations. He said that men should praise God, who had given mankind sovereignty over the earth's animals.

Tahmures had a noble vizier named Shahrasb, a man whose thoughts avoided all evil and who was universally praised. Fasting by day and praying by night, he was the king's star of good fortune, and the souls of the malevolent were under his control. Shahrasb wished the king's reign to be just, and he guided him in righteous paths, so that Tahmures lived purified of all evil and the divine farr emanated from him. The king bound Ahriman by spells and sat on him, using him as a mount on which to tour the world. When the demons saw this, many of them gathered in groups and murmured against him, saying the crown and farr were no longer his. But Tahmures learned of their sedition and attacked them, breaking their rebellion. He girded himself with God's glory and lifted his heavy mace to his shoulders, ready for battle.

All the demons and sorcerers came together in a great army, with the black demon as their leader, and their roars ascended to the heavens. But Tahmures suddenly confronted them, and the war did not last long; two-thirds of the demons he subdued by spells, and the other third by his heavy mace. He dragged them wounded and in chains in the dust, and they pleaded for their lives, saying, "Don't kill us, we can teach you something new and highly profitable." The king granted them their lives on condition that they reveal their secrets to him, and when he had freed them from their chains they had no choice but to obey him. They taught the king how to write, and his heart glowed like the sun with this knowledge. They did not teach him just one script, but almost thirty, including the Western, Arab, and Persian ways of writing, as well as the Soghdian, Chinese, and Pahlavi, showing him how the letters are formed and pronounced. For thirty years the king performed these and other noble actions; then his days were at an end and he departed, and the memory of his struggles was his memorial.

The Reign of Jamshid

All mourned when the Binder of Demons died. But his splendid son, Jamshid, his heart filled with his father's precepts, then prepared to reign. He sat on his father's throne, wearing a golden crown according to royal custom. The imperial farr was his. The world submitted to him; quarrels were laid to rest, and all demons, birds, and fairies obeyed Jamshid's commands. The royal throne shone with his luster, and the wealth of the world increased. He said, "God's glory is with me; I am both prince and priest. I hold evildoers back from their evil, and I guide souls toward the light."

First he turned his attention to weapons of war, and he opened the way to glory for his warriors. His royal farr softened iron, and his able mind taught men how to fashion helmets, chain mail, cuirasses, swords, and barding for horses. Occupied in this way for fifty years, he laid up stores of weapons. For another fifty years he gave his mind to the making of clothes for both feasting and fighting, using linen, silk, and wool, and fashioning fine stuffs and brocades from them. He taught the arts of spinning and weaving, dyeing and sewing. The world rejoiced in his reign, and he too rejoiced.

Then he spent fifty years gathering the men of different professions about him. He separated those whose business is prayer and worship, assigning the mountains to them as their dwelling place. Next he drew up ranks of men who carry lances, the lion-warriors who give splendor to their army and country, who are the throne's support and from whom a man's good reputation comes. The third group were those who work in the fields, sowing and reaping, and receiving no man's thanks, although no one reproaches them when it is time to eat. They are free men and quarrel with no one, and the world flourishes through their labor. As a sage once said, "It's only laziness that will make a slave of a free man." The fourth group were the men who work with their hands at various crafts and trades; they are contumacious people, and their hearts are always filled with anxiety. Jamshid spent fifty years arranging these matters, so that each man was aware of his appropriate duties and knew his own worth and rank.

Then he ordered the demons to mix clay and water and pack the mixture into molds for bricks. They made foundations of stone and plaster; then, using the science of geometry, they made the superstructure with bricks. In this way they built public baths and castles, and palaces that are a refuge against misfortune. He spent time extracting brilliant jewels and precious metals from rock, and so came into the possession of rubies, amber, gold, and silver. He used magic to solve the mysteries of how this could be done. He introduced the use of perfumes like benzoin, camphor, musk, sandalwood, ambergris, and rosewater, and he discovered cures for illnesses, showing men the way to good health. He revealed all these secrets, and the world had never known such an inquirer into her mysteries as he was. Next he turned his attention to water and ships, and so was able to travel quickly from country to country. Another fifty years passed in these labors, and nothing remained hidden from his wisdom.

The Festival of No-Ruz

Although Jamshid had accomplished all these things, he strove to climb even higher. With his royal farr he constructed a throne studded with gems, and had demons raise him aloft from the earth into the heavens; there he sat on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world's creatures gathered in wonder about him and scattered jewels on him, and called this day the New Day, or No-Ruz. This was the first day of the month of Farvardin, at the beginning of the year, when Jamshid rested from his labors and put aside all rancor. His nobles made a great feast, calling for wine and musicians, and this splendid festival has been passed down to us, as a memorial to Jamshid. Three hundred years went by, and death was unknown during that time; men knew nothing of sorrow or evil, and the demons were their slaves. The people obeyed their sovereign, and the land was filled with music. Years passed, the royal farr radiated from the king, and all the world was his to command.

Jamshid surveyed the world, and saw none there

Whose greatness or whose splendor could compare

With his: and he who had known God became

Ungrateful, proud, forgetful of God's name.

He summoned his army commanders and aged advisors and said, "I know of no one in the world who is my equal. It was I who introduced the skills and arts of living to mankind, and the royal throne has seen no one to compare with me. I arranged the world as I wished; your food and sleep and security come from me, as do your clothes and all of your comforts. Greatness, royalty, and the crown are mine; who would dare say that any man but I was king?" All the elders inclined their heads, since no one dared gainsay anything he said. But

By saying this he lost God's farr, and through

The world men's murmurings of sedition grew.

As a wise and reverent man once remarked, "If you are a king, be as a slave toward God; the heart of any man who is ungrateful to God will be filled with countless fears." Jamshid's days were darkened, and his world-illuminating splendor dimmed.

Excerpted from Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings Copyright © Penguin USA. All rights reserved.

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