Tag Archives: Shahnama

Women in the Persian Book of Kings

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi (d. 1020); recto: Zal climbs to reach Rudaba; verso: text: Zal consults with the priests about Rudaba; Iran, Timurid period, mid-15th century; ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase—Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds, Smithsonian Collections Acquisition Program, and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler

This is the first in an occasional series looking at the role of women in Persian poetry, storytelling, and painting.

With Women’s History Month recently behind us, I began to think about the significance of women in one of the most important works in Persian literature: Firdawsi’s epic of the Persian kings, the Shahnama. Did women have a prominent place in these tales, and how were they portrayed? Are queens represented alongside the kings?

In the first half of the Shahnama—which focuses on Iran’s mythical past, particularly Persian legends—many women play central roles as the mothers of kings and warriors, the heroes in the epic poem. Dr. Dick Davis writes that surprisingly there are “over fifty women … named in the poem … and a number of them play a significant and sometimes primary role in the narrative.” One such woman is Rudaba, the princess of Kabul, who gives birth to one of the greatest Shahnama heroes, Rostam. She is presented as a free agent and engineers her own life by defying male authority, even that of her father. In the painting above, Rudaba lets down her long hair so that Zal, her future lover and husband, can scale the building and join her on the roof. (He chooses, however, to use a lasso to climb the wall.)

Rudaba is independent and takes matters into her own hands, and by no means is she an exception. A whole host of women in the Shahnama actively pursue their desires and take initiative, and they are mostly presented in a positive light for doing so. Moreover, there is hardly any immediate social backlash. Instead, a woman making choices based on desire is glamorized and presented as entirely understandable—something almost unheard of in traditional society.

The women in the Shahnama are not just celebrated for their role as mothers. Like Rudaba, they are known for their beauty, intelligence, independence, and fierceness. The epic poem features women as diplomatic envoys and queens. This gives them a degree of political power and, as Davis has written, has allowed the women “to confront the world on their own terms.”

Despite the action-packed and colorful representations of these works, the strong women in the Shahnama sometimes take a backseat to their male contemporaries. Letting the stories of kings and heroes overshadow those of powerful queens and wise women risks diminishing the complexity of these works, which, after all, is what makes them so exquisite.

Source: Davis, D., “Women in Shahnameh” in Women and Medieval Epic: Gender, Genre and the Limits of Epic Masculinity, edited by Sara S. Poor and Jane K. Schulman (Palgrave MacMillan: 2007), 67-90.

Inspired by Storytelling

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit
circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

David Nash is program assistant in the education department of Freer|Sackler.

While we were setting up for the Shahnama storytelling performances at this year’s Nowruz celebration, a little girl named Sophia and her father arrived an hour early for the first show. As they waited, Sophia explained that she did not want to take any chances on not getting in. Sophia is nine years old and had seen the performer, Xanthe Gresham, at previous Nowruz celebrations. Her father told us that as soon as she found out that Xanthe would be performing again this year, she made him promise to take her.

As they waited outside of the theater, Sophia asked us if Xanthe would be telling Rustam stories again. We assured her that Rustam would definitely be included. We also reminded her that Xanthe asks for volunteers from the audience to perform on stage with her and suggested that Sophia sit up close so that she might be selected. She sat as close as possible and, indeed, was the very first audience member to be chosen to come to the stage and help with the story. Sophia’s face lit up as a costume was placed over her shoulders, and she performed with the enthusiasm of a great actor.

When the show was over, Sophia and her father approached Xanthe and politely thanked her for the wonderful story. Then, Sophia added, “I’ll see you at 2:30,” the time of the next show. As they left the theater I overheard the father ask, “What would you like to do next?” Sophia replied, “Let’s go play chess. But we have to be back in time for the next show.” And, of course, they did show up for the next performance, as well as for the last performance of the day. Each time Sophia was asked to play a role in the story and each time her smile beamed. After the final performance, she told Xanthe, “I’m going to be a storyteller like you.” Then she announced, “I can’t wait until next year!”

An estimated 750 visitors came through the doors of the theater to attend Xanthe’s performances in honor of Nowruz (with nearly 10,000 visiting the museums on Saturday, March 16), and enjoyed the stories tremendously. None, however, as much as Sophia … Xanthe Gresham’s biggest fan.