The Ideal Warrior in the Persian Book of Kings
Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - 5:15pm
The Ideal Warrior in the Persian Book of Kings

5:15–6 pm: Special viewing of Ceramics of the Islamic World, Brantley Gallery, Portland Art Museum
6 pm Reception; 6:30 pm Program, Miller Room, Mark Building, Portland Art Museum

Free & open to the public


Dr. Davis addressed the complex characterizations of the ideal warrior in the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings. Written by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi at the end of the tenth century, the Shahnameh traces the course of Persian history from Creation to the mid-seventh century. The Shahnameh is packed with tales of the astonishing prowess of legendary warriors who vanquished enemies both human and supernatural—dragons, witches, and demons.  What makes the Shahnameh a work of enduring interest is the way that Firdausi also explores the interior emotional states of his heroes. Indomitable on the battlefield, these princes and paladins were caught in webs of political intrigue and moral conflict.


Dr. Davis’ lecture was prefaced by a viewing of the Portland Art Museum’s new collection, ‘Ceramics of the Islamic World.’ The Ottis Collection includes an ongoing gift of 300 vessels and tiles from a broad swath of the Islamic world stretching from Morocco to Iran. The thirty pieces currently on view date from the 9th century Abbasid era through the early 20th century. The imagery of the exhibit enlivened the audience’s voyage into Persian myth and history with Dr. Davis.

Maribeth Graybill, curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum, introduced Dr. Davis and his work. Davis lectured at the invitation of the Asian Art Council five years ago and his return was clearly anticipated by the packed audience.

Davis’ translation of the Shahnameh (sha-na-MAY), or ‘The Book of Kings’ was named Best Book of 2006 by the Washington Post.

For the occasion of this lecture, Davis set out to describe the nature of the hero according to the Shahnameh. He realized this would be more challenging than expected when he identified a range of hero archetypes present in the Shahnameh. Written over the course of thirty years and completed in 1010 AD, Firadusi’s Shanameh narrates the history of Persia prior to the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. The Shanameh begins with the creation of the world and ends with the murder of the last pre-Islamic Persian emperor, spanning fifty generations and comprising an enormous cast of characters set in disparate historical eras. Some believe that Firdausi drew his stories from one specific pre-Islamic book, while others like Davis assert that he gleaned information from a range of oral and written sources, thus accounting for the book’s diversity in worldview. For the purposes of his lecture, Davis divided the text into three general phases: the mythological beginnings, legendary interim, and the later historical material. Each type of narrative ties to different ideas of heroic behavior that emerge from their particular strata into which they are embedded.

The mythological world is one of supernatural beings and dark and backward abysmal beginnings.  Evil is conceived as something that attacks from the outside, rather than welling up from within human nature. Davis cited the story of Zahaq, a price who succumbed to the temptation of the devil and killed his father in order to become king of all the Arabs and Persians. The devil then tempts him once again: disguised as a king, he offers to cook Zahaq marvelous foods. In gratitude, Zahaq lets him kiss his kingly shoulders, only to find that snakes spring from his body where the devil kissed him. The snakes demand human brains and young men are sacrificed to satiate their hunger. Finally a young warrior called Faridun beats Zahaq and imprisons him beneath the largest mountain of Persia. To this day, earthquakes are attributed to the anger of Zahaq, trapped under the mountain.

Thus evil originates from an external source and constitutes an external reality, as represented by the appearance of snakes that threaten to victimize their host to the same degree as those around him. The heros of this early mythological section of the Shahnameh have no inner life; they are stark and emblematic, exhibiting basic, primal emotions such as rage, fear and envy. Humanity is portrayed as intrinsically noble until that quality is forfeited through external influence.

As the Shahnameh transitions to legendary material, the concept of evil becomes more psychological. These early heros are still cosmic, but become more subject to the destructive power of their own decisions. The malevolent world of demons gets largely humanized and interiorized, and evil now originates in the actions of specific human individuals rather than the mythological forces of darkness. Thus the youngest son of Faridun who seeks to make amends with his jealous brothers is killed by them as a result of his trusting goodness. This trope involving the fall of a noble person is repeated throughout the poem: the famous hero Sirosh is another example of a noble figure who is eventually destroyed by his own kindness. In these themes of tragedy and defeat, heros save their consciousness but lose their souls.

In the final, historical phase of the Shahnameh, the various elements of the supernatural disappear, although the concept of history is still marked by certain epic proportions. The hero Rustem serves under seven monarchs, spanning a career of 500 years! He displays many characteristics of the timeless trickster hero. Davis called attention to his weaponry, including the lariot, mace and rocks, which suggest that certain parts of the poem draw from Neolithic narratives of an ancient, pre-metal origin. Thus despite the general progression of the poem from the mythological to the historical, certain elements mix across these chronological divisions.

In the question and answer session following the lecture, Davis was asked whether the ethics of the Shahnameh should be considered pre-Islamic or post-Islamic. Davis answered that although the stories are pre-Islamic and the ethics are rooted deep in the stories, Firadusi has great respect for Islamic norms and has obviously given the poem an Islamic gloss. However, he also pointed out the difficulty in identifying the pre- and post- Islamic when Islamic norms integrated that which came before. Davis considers the hero Sirosh to represent mystical truth, a sort of proto-Sufi character. Another audience member asked about the difference between ancient, medieval and modern Persian language; Davis clarified that any educated Iranian could understand the majority of the Shanameh with only a few exceptions because for the most part vocabulary and grammar has remained consistent since the medieval era.

An astute audience member pushed Davis to discern a central argument to the text – does one particular hero stand out as exemplary of a solution? Davis answered that part of the greatness of the poem is its absolute complexity and evasion of a final answer or simple solution to the heroic quandary. The universal applicability of the Shahnameh was perhaps exemplified by his next answer, to a question about the relationship between pre-Islamic ethics and later Shia Muslim ethics. Davis suggested that one might find a parallel between the martyrdom of Hussein at Karbala and the self-sacrifice of Sirosh and other Shahnameh heros.

This rapporteur's summary was prepared by Sara Swetzoff.


Dick Davis is Professor Emeritus of Persian, Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures, Ohio State University and the most renowned translator of classical Persian poetry and prose of our time. During the winter and spring of 2013, Dr. Davis joined the Persian program at Portland State University as a visiting professor. In winter 2013 Dr. Davis taught "Introduction to Persian Literature” and “Iranian Women Writers" (both in English). In spring he taught “Persian Literature in Translation” (in Persian) and “Persian Mythology and Folklore” (in English). Dr. Davis’ residency at PSU was supported by a grant from the PARSA Community Foundation in an effort to promote Persian Studies at PSU.


The Portland State University Middle East Studies Center Lecture Series podcast features audio recordings from the series, including this event. Download the audio podcast of this lecture or subscribe to the podcase to receive future episodes by clicking here.


This lecture is presented by the Portland Art Museum in conjunction with the special display of Ceramics of the Islamic World: The Ottis Collection, on view at the Museum through October 27, 2013, and co-sponsored with the Portland Art Museum’s Asian Art Council.

The Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University promotes understanding of the people, cultures, languages and religions of the Middle East. As a National Resource Center for Middle East Studies under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI program, the Center serves as a resource on issues pertaining to the Middle East through activities that reach students and scholars, as well as businesses, educators, and the media. The Middle East Studies Center supports academic conferences, workshops, cultural events, lectures, and a resource library. | | 503-725-4074