It is Norouz, the Persian New Year, which is celebrated far and wide throughout what used to be the Persian Empire, and I thought I would share with you the section of Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, often called the Iranian national epic, in which the story of the first Norouz is told. The Shahnameh is a work of profound nationalism, an assertion of Iranian national identity against the power and influence of the Muslim Arab culture that conquered Iran in the 7th century CE. Composed by Ferdowsi in the 10th century, the poem constitutes a kind of mythopoetic and historical archeology, telling the story of pre-Islamic Iran through the stories of the empire’s rulers, starting with the first, mythical king, whose name was Kayumars. Kayumars and three kings who follow him, Houshang, Tahmures and Jamshid, are responsible for bringing civilization to the world, each one deepening and strengthening the social order that is necessary for humanity to survive.
The greatest, and also the most disappointing, of these four is Jamshid, for it is Jamshid who establishes social classes, brings the science of medicine to humanity, teaches his people to make clothing and perfume, and in general orders the society if his time such that it is recognizable to us as the kind of social world in which we live. Jamshid, also, however is the first king to allow his pride to get the better of him, declaring himself a deity and losing the farr, which people often translate into English as aura, but is more accurately described as the visible quality in a king that signifies for his subjects the fact that God favors his rule. If you imagine the halos that were drawn around Christ’s head in medieval paintings, but picture them around the heads of kings and understand them to be visible proof of what the Europeans used to believe was the divine right of kings, you have something close to what the farr is.
Once Jamshid loses the farr, there is room for evil to enter the world, which it does in the form of Zahhak, part of whose story you can read in my translation on Ekleksographia. In addition to the word farr, you need to know that peris are supernatural creatures upon which are based the faeries of Victorian England; and you need to know as well that “Demon Binder” was the name given to Jamshid’s father, Tahmures, because he bound Ahriman–the source of evil–and rode him, more or less like a horse, around the world.
Here is my translation of Jamshid’s story, which is also the story of the first Norouz:
Filled with his father’s wisdom, when the world
was done mourning the Demon Binder,
Jamshid joined the line of men
to ascend the throne and wear the crown.
Peace spread across his kingdom,
and the birds and peris bowed to him too.
“I will,” he said, “keep evil from evil-doers’
hands, and I will guide souls to light.
The royal farr rests with me. I rule
as shah and priest.”
He turned first
to making weapons, paving for his warriors
a road to glory and renown. Iron,
beneath his farr, softened, became swords
and helmets, chain mail and horse armor,
and he gave fifty years to training
the men he charged with building his armory.
The next five decades, Jamshid devoted
to clothing, contriving different fabrics—
linen and silk, brocades and satin—
teaching people to spin and to weave,
to dye what they’d woven, and then sew a garment
for feasting or fighting. When he finished, he divided
men by their profession, sending
first to the mountains, to worship their Master
and live lives of devotion, the Katuzi.
Second, he summoned the Neysari,
lion-hearted fighters whose luster
lit the entire land, whose leadership
and courage kept the king secure,
and whose valor ensured the nation’s reputation.
Those who farmed the fields came next,
the Basudi, who sow and reap,
who receive no thanks, but whom none reproach
when there’s food to eat. Free people
who kneel to no one and seek no quarrel,
despite the rags they wear, their care
makes the earth flourish and nourishes peace.
A wise elder once said,
“If a free man finds himself a slave,
he has only his own laziness to blame.”
Jamshid gathered the craftsmen last,
the anxious and stubborn Ahtukhoshi.
Haughty and contrary, they work with their hands
to make the goods sold in the market,
and they are always anxious. Fifty years
marched by while Jamshid showed
each person breathing earth’s air
his proper place and path, teaching
the scope of the life he’d been given to live.
He ordered the demons to pour water
over earth, stirring it into clay
they filled molds with to form bricks.
With mortar and stone, they laid foundations
for public baths and beautiful palaces,
and castles to protect against attack.
From rocks, Jamshid’s magic extracted
the lustrous gems and precious metals
he found hidden there, filling his hands
with gold and silver, amber and jacinth.
He distilled perfumes for his people’s pleasure:
balsam and ambergris, rose water and camphor,
musk and aloe. He made medicines
to bring the sick back to health
and to help the healthy stay that way.
Jamshid revealed these secret things
as none before him had done. No one
discovered and ordered the world as he did.
Yet another fifty years
saw Jamshid building ships
he could sail quickly across the sea,
making port in each realm he reached;
and then, although he was already great,
Jamshid stepped past greatness.
He used his farr to fashion a jeweled
throne, decreeing the demons should raise it
high in the sky, where he sat shining
like the sun, and the world’s creatures gathered
around him, standing in awe, scattering
gems at his feet. It was the first of Farvadin,
and Jamshid set that day aside,
naming it Norooz, “new day,”
the day he rested, the first of the year.
His nobles declared a feast, a festival
of wine and song we still celebrate
in Jamshid’s memory.
For three centuries,
Jamshid ruled in peace. His people
knew neither death nor hardship; the demons
stood ready to serve; and all who heard
the king’s command obeyed it. The land,
filled with music, flourished. Jamshid,
however, gave himself to vanity.
Seeing he had no peer in the world,
he forgot the gratitude that is God’s due
and called the nobles of his court before him
to make this fateful proclamation:
“From this day forward, I know no lord
but me: my word brought beauty
and skilled men to adorn the earth!
My word! Sunshine and sleep, security
and comfort, the clothes you wear, your food—
all came to you through me!
Who else ended death’s desolation
and with medicine vanished illness from your lives?
Without me, neither mind nor soul
would inhabit your bodies. So who besides me
can claim, unchallenged, the crown and its power?
You understand this now. So now,
who else can you call Creator but me?!”
The elders bowed their heads and held
their tongues, silenced by what he’d said,
but when the last sound left his mouth,
the farr left him, and his realm fell
into discord. A sensible, pious man
once said, “A king must make himself
God’s slave. Ingratitude towards God
will fill your heart with innumerable fears.”
Jamshid’s men deserted; his destiny
darkened, and his light disappeared from the world.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.