Recorded: May 20, 2022
Event: The World of Ancient Iran and the West
Citation: Davidson, Olga M. "How the Persian Book of Kings by Ferdowsi about the Ancient Royal Dynasties of Iran Could Ever Become a World Epic for the So-Called West." Pourdavoud Center: The World of Ancient Iran and the West (May 20, 2022).
by Olga M. Davidson (Boston University)
Olga M. Davidson (Ph.D., Princeton University, 1983) is on the faculty of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, Boston University, where she has served as Research Fellow since 2009. From 1992 to 1997, she was Chair of the Concentration in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. Since 1999, she has been Chair of the Board, Ilex Foundation. She is the author of Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings (Harvard UP, 3rd ed. 2013) and Comparative Literature and Classical Persian Poetry (Harvard UP, 2nd ed. 2013). With Shreve Simpson, she co-edited Ferdowsi’s Shahnama: Millennial Perspectives (Harvard UP, 2013).
How the Persian Book of Kings by Ferdowsi about the Ancient Royal Dynasties of Iran Could Ever Become a World Epic for the So-Called West
The traditional title Shāhnāme, meaning literally “Book of Kings” in classical Persian, seems on the surface to be a most appropriate way of referring to this monumental poem completed in the early eleventh century CE by Ferdowsi, whose poetic name, meaning “Man of Paradise,” reflects ex post facto the exalted reception of his poetry, through the ages, in a wide variety of Persianate societies that identified with their Iranian heritage by way of venerating a form of poetry that glorifies the ancient royal dynasties of Iran. But such an exalted reception of the poetry extends to non-Persianate and even non-Iranian societies. As I argue, the poetry of Ferdowsi himself anticipates its own reception not only in the Iranian but also in the non-Iranian world—and even in the world of the “West” as pictured in the Shāhnāme. I concentrate on episodes narrated in the Shāhnāme about a shah named Goshtāsp, who, before he becomes king, immigrates to the capital city of the “West,” Rūm, that is, Byzantium, where he tests his potential for kingship by undertaking various heroic tasks. Relevant here is my use of the word “heroic” in describing the tasks performed by Goshtāsp in Rūm, since the second part of my argumentation which centers on the historical reception of Ferdowsi in the real “West” that was Europe in later times. For Europeans, the reception of the Shāhnāme was inspired by narratives not about kings as kings but about kings as heroes and about heroes as kingmakers.