Women in the Art of the Shahnameh

It probably does not come as a surprise to anyone reading this that women throughout time have frequently been left out of the historical records. The idea that women do not impact history has been widespread among the subjects of history, as well as the people who study it. However, this is one place where the Shahnameh is unique. Women appear quite often in its stories, in all sorts of roles, including one woman who was a queen (1). But the history of the Shahnameh is not limited to what Ferdowsi wrote and the artwork of the Shahnameh shows a different perspective on women.

The artists who were commissioned to illustrate the Shahnameh were often told to do so by royalty who were inspired by epic heroes like Rostam and Eskandar. They wanted to see the scenes filled with action and those were the scenes chosen to be illustrated and the ones that most often survived to today. Most of the women in the Shahnameh were not involved in combat scenes and so were not depicted often, with a few notable exceptions like Gordafraid, a warrior who fought Rostam’s son (2). Even then, there are very few versions of Gordafraid’s fight that still exist and Gordafraid is not often depicted particularly well in them.

sohrab_fights_gordafarid1

One woman who appears much more often is Azedeh, a slave who went hunting with the prince Bahram Gur and dared him to shoot a deer in the ear. When he did and she protested that the deer died, Bahram Gur pushed her off the saddle and trampled her beneath his camel (3). Azedeh can be seen on plates and bowls often at the beginning of the era when the Shahnameh first started being illustrated.  Her story serves as a reminder of how people of different social standings should interact with each other, with the consequences crystal clear. This lesson, in addition to its moment of graphic action, make it a tempting scene to illustrate.

The other woman who appears frequently in illustrations of the Shahnameh is Tahmineh, Rostam’s lover and daughter of the king of Samangan. Tahmineh is a very active figure during her time in the Shahnameh. When Rostam arrives in her father’s castle she visits his room in the night and asks him to have sex with her in order to bear him an heir (4). Illustrations of this scene are common and Tahmineh is given prominence in them: she is often taking up the entire vertical frame, even when her slave isn’t, and is always the active party (5). The different versions have different interpretations of Rostam’s reaction, from surprised to eager. Even though Tahmineh is always the one acting, around the 1400s, during the Timurid dynasty, she began to be painted with her head down and shoulder up in a more timid and uncertain way (6). Many depictions of this scene retain the same composition from version to version, a kind of visual consensus on what happened, and similarly, the timid version of Tahmineh became a popular depiction of her, with a very similar image being found in the fifteenth or sixteenth century during the Safavid empire (7). But this interpretation contradicts the text, where Tahmineh is shown to be confident in what she wants, even saying that she has wanted Rostam since she first heard stories of him. The shift in Tahmineh’s demeanor is another product of the cultures each Shahnameh was made in. A similar change can be seen in the artwork, simple action focused illustrations in the Mongol empire changed to complex architectural paintings in Timurid dynasty (8). Other evidence of this is the change of Tahmineh’s attendant. In the Shahnameh she is a slave and the early images reflect that. As time goes on however, the attendant changes to a male black eunuch and remains male for the rest of the time (9). These are all reflections of the dynasties they were created under.

The actual writing of the Shahnameh might be fairly equal concerning men and women, but the text has been interpreted and filtered through the cultural framework of each society who read it.These cultures all have different interpretations of women’s roles and the scenes depicted, behavior of characters, and even the gender of side characters change to reflect those ideas. It’s vitally important for us to recognize the difference between what the text says and what the illustrations show. The Shahnameh impacted these societies enough that they wished to recreate it and we need to be aware of why.

 

  1. Davis, Dick. “Women in the Shahnameh: Exotics and Natives, Rebellious Legends, and Dutiful Histories.” In Women and Medieval Epic, pp. 67-90. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2007.
  2. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. p. 192-193
  3. Ibid. p. 713
  4. Ibid. p. 189
  5. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.
  6. Ibid. p. 138
  7. Ibid. p. 183
  8. Gurgīn, Īraj., Grabar, Oleg, Films for the Humanities, and Rādyū Tilivīzyūn-i Millī-i Īrān. The Art of the Book : Persian Miniatures from the Shahnameh = Mīni̇yātūr’ha-yi Shāhnāmah. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1980.
  9. Brend, Barbara, Melville, C. P., and Fitzwilliam Museum. Epic of the Persian Kings : The Art of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. London ; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Gordafraid being defeated by Sohrab. 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.

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Loveimi: Women’s Role in the Shahnameh

In the last post, I identified an argument by Alyssa Gabbay where she argued that a successful relationship between men and women in the Shahnameh was characterized by the male having authority over the female character. She concluded that the Bahram-Gur story was the evidence needed to support the claim that women had lower social status than men in the Shahnameh. (1) In this post, I will discuss “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh”, an article by Soheila Loveimi, that argued that Ferdowsi captured women as equal to males in the Shahnameh.

Loveimi identified multiple women in her article as evidence for women having a progressive and empowering role within the text. One of the women she identified is Pourandokht, the successor to Ardeshir Shiravi. She came to power after King Faramin died, and she focused her reign on helping the poor. Loveimi defined her as a kind ruler who possessed the love of the people. The people loved her so much that when she passed away 6 months after being appointed the people only had good names for her. Overall, her reign was characterized as being peaceful and prosperous, which was very different from the other Kings of the book whose reign focused solely on conquest or battling foreign rulers. Loveimi does not compare Pourandokht with other rulers; they only identified that she was a female ruler who was seen in a good light. Loveimi used this character to implicitly assert that women are not all placed in villainous roles within the Shahnameh.(2)

Another woman that Loveimi used to provide evidence for the assertion of women possessing a powerful role within the work is a character referred to as “Peasant’s wife.” This character spoke out against one of the King Bahram Gur for his mistreatment of villagers. The King had been leading his army constantly through the village’s land–causing damage and grief. She called him “cruel” and “oppressive.” (3) Loveimi implied that it was due to the Peasant’s wife that Bahram Gur eventually saw the error in his ways and repented for his sins. The King listened to this woman’s claims and eventually changed his ways. The Peasant’s wife spoke out against oppression and in return was rewarded with the King addressing the village’s grievances. (4)

Additionally, Gordafarid is another woman who is used as a confirmation of the female’s revolutionary role within the text. Gordafarid is a female warrior who picked up arms after she heard that her leader, Hejir, had been taken by King Sohrab’s army. Upset by the shame Hejir had brought to the White fortress, she dressed herself up as a knight, placed a helmet on her head to hide her identity, and rode her horse to challenge Sohrab. Gordafarid is an example of a female character participating in battle and possessing qualities of a male warrior. She comes into contact with King Sohrab and is only outed as a woman when her helmet is taken off. She is seen as having control over her own fate and works to make her own goals met.(5) She is one of the only female warriors of the work, but her story is nevertheless important in declaring that women do possess roles that are involved in a battle.

Loveimi uses all three of these characters as evidence for their assertion that men and women are on equal footing in the Shahnameh. A weakness in Loveimi’s argument is that they do not clearly state how certain characters are examples of the Shahnameh’s progressive characterization of women. They pull out characters as evidence but does not ever compare them to the male characters who are of the same ranking. For instance, in discussing Gordafarid, Loveimi does not compare the description of her to the description of a male warrior. It would have been a more compelling argument if they compared the diction of a male warrior with the diction of Gordafarid. Furthermore, the characters they do pull out sometimes do not capture the equality she would like to assert. An example of this would be the Peasant’s wife story. The Peasant’s wife speaks out about Bahram Gur’s oppression, but it’s not until there is no milk in the village cow’s udder does he realize the errors in his ways. To me, it seemed like it was more of the supernatural element that convinced him to repent and ask God for forgiveness than the peasant’s wife’s declaration.

Overall, Loveimi does address an interesting counter to Gabbay’s argument but does not completely dismiss Gabbay’s assertions. I  now understand that women take on many different roles within the work, but I am not completely convinced that the Shahnameh captured men and women on equal footing. I am especially unconvinced when looking at the art piece below:

Sohrab_fights_Gordafarid

(Source: Sohrab fights Gordafarid. 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 or less. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

This artwork shows Gordafarid being defeated by Sohrab. Loveimi described her as being a fearless warrior, but this art piece is definitely not painting her as that. In this art piece, her face is not shown and her body is askew–creating the image of a dishonorable defeat. The artist who interpreted this scene does not see her as being a warrior on par with the other male soldiers. Once again, I am faced with different interpretations of the work. Loveimi claimed that Gordafarid was a fearless warrior that was well respected. The above art piece showed her as a clumsy opponent who is easily defeated by the King Sohrab. I decided I had to go to the original text to see how Ferdowsi depicted the scene.

Looking at the text of the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi described her as being a well-experienced warrior who was trained with the bow and lance. She challenged Sohrab, but is defeated relatively quickly with her helmet being snatched from her head; her hair “streamed out, and her face shone like a splendid sun.” (6) This is where the text differs from the art piece. The art piece does not show Gordafarid face; thus ignoring the description that Ferdowsi had of this female character. Furthermore, Ferdowsi also states that she “brought no shame on [her] people due to her defeat. (7) The text of the Shahnameh provided evidence for Loveimi’s interpretation while distinguishing the art piece as being an inaccurate depiction of the event.

By looking exclusively at the cast of female characters, the Shahnameh took on the characteristic as being a progressive work that captures female characters in a good light. Loveimi does assert that the wide cast does imply that women are an important part of the text, but they are unable to clearly state their relationship with men and how that influences their role within the work. Furthermore, the artwork reflects that woman did not have an equal relationship with males and some female characters are depicted differently from how they are perceived in the text. The Shahnameh text supported Loveimi’s argument regarding Gordafarid’s description, but it is unable to completely address Loveimi’s weaknesses in their argument.

I, however, will not end here! I will continue to analyze female characterization and the relationship woman had with male characters. I still have several other sources that will further this research.

More to come!

  1. Gabbay, Alyssa. “Love Gone Wrong, Then Right Again: Male/Female Dynamics in the Bahrām Gūr–Slave Girl Story.” Iranian Studies 42, no. 5 (2009): 677-692.
  2. Loveimi, Soheila. “Fateful Women in Ferdowsi Shahnameh.” English Language Teaching 9, no. 5 (2016): 47.
  3. Ibid., 48.
  4. Ibid., 48.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings.” Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Vikings, 2006. 191-192.
  7. Ibid., 193.