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Epic Literature
of Ancient Iran

Parthian and Middle
Persian Written Literatures

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The most significant literary heritage of ancient Iran, however, is the heroic poetry which eventually evolved into the Iranian national epic. The core of this poetry belongs to a heroic age of remote antiquity, that of the Kayanians. Under this dynasty, whose history is wrapped in legend, the ancestors of the Avestan people offered worship and sacrifice to a broad range of deities who often symbolized the forces of nature. Grappling with the hazards of a cold, frost-stricken climate, beset by demons of drought, and harassed by marauding neighbors, they struggled to overcome the physical and social challenges of their environment. The institution of kingship had already developed among them; the worship of tribal gods and ancestral spirits had given way to a common worship of universal gods and the spirits of protective, departed heroes. The first adumbration of the major legends of the Iranian epic are found in the Yashts of the Avesta, where Kayanian kings offer sacrifice to the gods in order to earn their support and gain strength in the perpetual struggle against their enemies, the Turanians. As the major concern of the Kayanians, this bitter, never-ending feud with the Turanians constitutes the main theme of the Iranian epic. Zoroastrianism adopted these legends of the past and extended its blessing to their protagonists.

Transmitted by professional minstrels, the legends were inherited in turn by the Parthians, who lived close to the Avestan regions and had become Zoroastrian. During the long reign of the Arsacids (247 BC-AD 226) these legends spread to the rest of Iran and overshadowed the local ones. In the process, the memory of the Medes and the Persians, who did not figure in the eastern epics or in Zoroastrian literature, faded into oblivion; when the Sassanian scribes (dabirs) eventually attempted the compilation, and systemization of an Iranian history, all they could find for the ancient periods were the cycles of legends and stories that had come down from Parthian times, reaching back into Kayanian memories.

The Parthian period itself saw the resurgence of a second heroic age, and the Arsacid princes and some of their vassal lords became the focus of a number of adventure tales; in the hands of the minstrels (gosans) these tales eventually became legend. The gosan was a poet-musician, "privileged at court and popular with the people; present at the graveside and at the feast, euologist, satirist, storyteller, musician; recorder of the past achievements, and commentator of his own times," who performed at courts and among the people, entertaining them with his repertoire of tales of heroism, love, and adventure to the accompaniment of musical instruments.

As time went by and the history of the Arsacids was also lost to the people, their legends, together with other myths and legends of eastern Iran (notably those of the house of Rostam of Seistan) were mingled with Kayanian legends and woven into the fabric of the national saga. Parthian figures, such as Godarz, Giv, Bizhan, Milad (Mehrdad), and Farhad generally appear as warrior nobles at the court of the Kayanians. It is hard to say to what extent the linear systematization of the heroic cycles was created by the gosans, guided by their narrative instincts, and to what extent created through a conscious effort of the Sassanian compilers. The compilation toward the end of the reign of Khosrow II (590-628) in the form of the Khwaday-namag (Book of lords) may have been subconsciously prompted by a perception of the deteriorating national spirit and a need for boosting national pride by recalling past glories. The result, in any event, was a long history of the Iranian nation from the first world-king, Gayomart, to the reign of Khosrow II, with events arranged according to the perceived sequence of kings and queens, fifty in number. Although the legends have been skillfully reconciled and read as a progressive history, some incongruities traceable to the independence of different cycles remain.

The fierce struggle with the Turanians, symbolic of the recurrent menace and destructive invasions of the Central Asian nomads, runs through the mythical and legendary parts of the epic almost as a connecting thread. Naturally the heroic legends of the past did not reach the compilers in their original purity. With each major social and religious reform the legends had to be adjusted to comply with new sensibilities. Heroic ages, in which the warrior class stands out are generally succeeded by periods of predominantly moral and spiritual concerns, when the seer, the saint, and the prophet outshine the warrior, and the literature reflects the change. Such literature, be it magical, didactic, or apocalyptic, is often superimposed on or mixed with the heroic tales, as is most noticeable in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The Iranian legends too, were augmented by a considerable number of religious postulates and moral and moralizing comments. Accordingly, the Middle Persian Khwaday-namag, as seen through the pages of the Shah-nama, was studded with royal words of wisdom, priestly discourse, moral precepts, philosophical observations, and testaments and enthronement speeches extolling justice, religiosity, and honesty. Thus the Khwaday-namag, rather than being the work of a single genius, was a compendium of Iranian epics and morals, elaborated and refined throughout the ages. As such it constitutes the most important literary heritage of ancient Iran.

Admittedly, the Khwaday-namag was regarded primarily as a book of history, but we must remember that "history" did not mean the factual, dispassionate investigation and recording of events as expected from modern scholarship....

....If the subject was historical, the method was literary, and ample use was made of metaphors, hyperbole, and other rhetorical devices to enhance the effect of the narrative. Action, pageantry, scenes of battles, hunting, banquets, and drinking bouts were depicted with relish, but logistics, dates, and circumstantial details were mostly ignored. The emotional force of the narrative, moreover, was kept at a high level: warriors' conceits were cited with dramatic impact, and the miraculous was conjured up without reservation. Thus the Khwaday-namag was indeed also a work of artistic merit and literary effect.

It is sometimes suggested that Middle Iranian did not produce great works of imaginative literature. This judgment ignores two basic facts: that the secular literature of Iran prior to Islam was essentially oral, and that much of the early New Persian literature was in fact only a new recension or direct rendering of Middle Persian and Parthian creations.


The Development
of Iranian Literatures

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Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena