The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Epic cycles

The study of Early Medieval Iran continues apace. Today I ran across Saghi Gazerani, Old Garment from a New Tailor: The Reception and Reshaping of Epic Material in Early Medieval Iran (2013). Apparently Gazerani has just published a whole book on the topic.

Gazerani holds that Ferdowsi (if I'm spelling that right) sifted through a morass of Iranian verse, prose, and legend to go with his Shah Nameh (if I'm spelling that right). Ferdowsi had an agenda: to provide proud antecedents for the Samanid court, and to downplay other cultures by contrast. (In my "Return of the Shah" I argue for sura 38-believing Arabs as among the cultures which Ferdowsi disapproved, or of whose earlier disapprovals he passed on.) But that meant that even other Iranian nations didn't get their story told - or, at best, got their stories told through a Samanid lens.

Among these is the Rustam cycle. Rustam is quite the hero in the Shah Nameh already. But there seems to be even more about him in the other stories. And these stories have survived in several other epics. They are just not as well studied, because the Shah Nameh was simply that um, good.

I am reminded of the Trojan War Cycle among the Greeks. Homer's Iliad was so good that it redefined the whole epic genre. Partisans of those other Trojan stories belatedly spun up their own Homeric-style epics, but - excepting Odyssey (which most think is by Homer too) - they were all pale shadows of Homer's majesty. So they didn't get copied as much. Some say that these epics and traditions might preserve better historical data, in places, or at least local counter-traditions but, let's be honest, who has ever cared?

Gazerani writes to propose a counter-tradition to the Shah Nameh, in Iran. Specifically, she argues for a thesis earlier proposed by one Shapur Shahbazi: that these counter-traditions and Rustam tales are stories from the Suren family, who were Parthians ruling over the Sakastan now "Sistan". Roman historians will recall a Suren as the general who handed general Crassus's head to him and got murdered for his trouble. (Here we have a longstanding, heroic line of beta males.)

Another note from Gazerani is on the dueling narratives about hero Garshāsp: Dāstān-e Garshāsp and Garshāspnāma. Garshāspnāma is a legend befitting its heroic topic. Dāstān also admit Garshāsp's heroism - but then counts his deeds as nothing, because along the way Garshāsp had defiled a sacred (Zoroastrian) fire. Eventually the Prophet himself has to intercede to get our man into the Paradise. Earlier I'd suggested that the Zoroastrians adopted their scripture very late - the Avesta, for one, was at least composed early, but it was adopted no earlier than 400 AD. I think Dāstān-e Garshāsp shows us something similar: Iran hosted a longstanding tradition of heroic epic - Parthian and Saka, and others - that owed little to orthodox Zoroastrianism, and less to the Persians. When "Zoroastrianism" came into being, the dasturs and mobeds subverted those old Iranian myths, like - it is often noted - the Jews subverted Aegean heroic tropes for that Goliath story. But the Persian priests didn't get their chance to suppress those myths entirely, so we still have Garshāspnāma.

UPDATE 2/26 - wrote this, but backdated it to when I'd composed all these themes (so, "today" fits). Because Friday's posts were getting verbose. And [2/27] found out that the correct pronoun for Iranian "Saghi" in English would be "she".


posted by Zimri on 16:41 | link | 0 comments

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