The great watershed moment of Persian history is the seventh century Arab/Islamic conquest of the Sasanians, the last pre-Islamic dynasty which once ruled Iran. That event dates from half-way through the historical record, 1300 years of recorded Persian civilisation having elapsed at that point, with a further 1300 years bringing us up to our present 21st century. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings arises from this moment and many of its its episodic mini-sagas refer to this great historical watershed.
Shahnameh encompasses entire series of generations of peoples, unlike the Iliad and Odyssey in which the characters are largely contemporaneous. It is closer stylistically to Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, being part of a folk tradition that continues as the introduction puts it, `both to feed the poem and feed off it.’ It is written in a mixture of prose and poetry, the poetry in couplets which are close in length to the heroic couplet of English verse.
Ancient Western epic poems do not end in tragedy but Shahnameh closes in lament for the loss of Persian civilisation in all its finery and wealth, with a pragamatic nod to the tougher, ascetic Arabs. No wonder the epic poem was promoted as the essential source of Persian culture by the Pahlavi Kings who ruled Iran between 1929 and 1979, from the remote vantage point of what some might suggest was similar levels of decadence.
Although there is much ambiguity in the poem and evidence of contradictory stances - for complex reasons, vividly outlined in translator Dick Davis’s introduction - the narrative is frequently hostile to Arab political culture as well as Islamic belief. The poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi was a Zoroastrian, Zoroastrianism being the religion of pre-islamic Iran. Islamic cosmology and chronology are ignored and Persian creation myths placed centre-stage.
The earlier sections of the epic poem are based in large part on myths and legends, the later sections become quasi-historical, closer to the feel of a recorded chronicle. Much of the work is concerned with the era just before that of Alexander the Great, or Sekander, and the decline of the Achaemenid monarchs. Alexander is half-Iranian in this version, rather than Macedonian, and as much interested in truth and reason as in conquering the world.
The delights of feasting, wine-drinking, the pursuit of erotic love, rivalry between fathers and son, deaths of fathers caused by sons and vice versa, incestuous marriages - all are here, familiar tropes from many epics and readers of the Táin will also note the appearance of familiar themes. The worst sins, as the Persians would have it, according to the poet - no doubt being a tad rose-tinted in this - were greed and excessive ambition. Mark you, readers of the world.