The “Shahnameh” or Persian Book of Kings, is an epic poem by Ferdowsi that comprises various myths, legends, and histories of Iran in some 60,000 verses. Completed in 1010, the Shahnameh has continuously played a significant role in characterizing the culture, moral structures, and sense of national identity in Iran largely by inspiring various artistic traditions dedicated to telling its stories. While the most distinguished among these is the art of illustrated manuscript paintings (a.k.a. book paintings) that depict various scenes of adventure, war, and feats of heroism, other traditions include different forms of performance art, decorated ceramics, textiles, metalwork, and carvings.
Whereas the Shahnameh is easily among the most influential poems ever written, the lasting significance of this work can be partially attributed to the poetic skill of Ferdowsi. However, as this single poem came to inspire (quite literally) centuries worth of subsequent art, and sentiments of national unity within Iran, the relationship between Ferdowsi’s work and all that it inspired is understandably complicated. In attempting to understand this relationship, it seems necessary to ask two questions:
How did Ferdowsi intend his work to be used?
How does Ferdowsi’s writing lend itself to artistic expression?
In an essay titled “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh”(1) Jerome Clinton asserts that Ferdowsi’s primary goal in writing that Shahnameh was to create something that was to be read or recited. That is, a work of pure poetry that didn’t necessarily lend itself so extensively to the visual interpretations continuously produced centuries after the poems completion. While Ferdowsi does not say this directly, Clinton makes this argument by closely looking at the master poet’s writing style.
In Ferdowsi’s writings, adjectives, adverbs, and visual descriptions are somewhat scares, and when poetic imagery is employed Clinton asserts that it is always in pursuit of furthering the audiences understanding of the actions taking place, the emotions involved, and the moral landscape of the given scene. In this way, an object, creature, or person in the Shahnameh is known by its effects on the story rather than a description of what it appears to be(2). An example of this can be seen in the story of “Zal and Sam” in which the infant Sam is at one point abandoned on a mountainside to die. Soon after, the mythical bird Simorgh depends upon Sam with the intention of feeding him to her young. In Iranian mythology the Simorgh is usually described as a large and majestic multicolored bird who is an incredible sight to behold. However, here Clinton notes that Ferdowsi utilizes no such description. Instead, for the purpose of telling this story, the mythical bird represents a threat to Sam and as such Ferdowsi predominantly describes it only by the features that make it most menacing (outreaching talons, large wingspan, etc.), but even here these features seem to be more defined by their actions than their appearance (ex: OUTREACHING talons).
While this example clearly shows how Ferdowsi writes in a manner that favors the ends of the storytelling process over the detail of the visuals, stylistic traits like this are often seen as indicators of Ferdowsi’s unique poetic mastery. The Scholar Shafi’i-Kadkani asserts that another one of these traits is Ferdowsi’s “stylistic economy” which is characterized by a conservative use of similes, metaphors, and other literary devices often overly utilized in the crafts of poetry and storytelling (3).
In a similar manner, Jerome Clinton calls attention to the use of color in the Shahnameh, saying that “for the most part Ferdowsi’s palette is limited to six colors: black, white, gold, silver, red, and blue, all of which have strong metaphoric content.”(4) The concepts represented by these colors are fairly intuitive and easily to understand as many can be found in modern Western culture as well. For instance, Ferdowsi commonly uses gold and silver to represent wealth or prosperity, while red usually symbolizes blood or the ferocity of war often in contrast with blue which frequently represents the stillness of night. Whereas Ferdowsi’s use of color can be seen as more of a poetic device than a descriptive one due to the nature of this color-based symbolism, the naturalness and ease at which these metaphors are grasped seems to point to the authors desire for his writing to be understood by a broad audience. In essence, by making use of the relationships between specific colors and ideas (ex. red = blood), Ferdowsi plays on the natural associations of people to make the Shahnameh more easily accessible to a larger audience.
1. Jerome Clinton, “Ferdowsi and the Illustration of the Shahnameh,” in Islamic Art and Literature, edited by Oleg Grabar, and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2001), 57-78.
2. Ibid, 63.
3. Ibid, 62.
4. Ibid, 62.
Image from Wikimedia Commons. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years of less.