Empty thy head of wind
Recently, I found myself returning to the Shahnameh or Persian Book of Kings. As cool epics go, it’s right up there. It has magnificent kings, conniving bad guys, great heroes, and lots and lots of tragedy. Most famous are the stories involving the greatest hero, Rostam (aka Rustum), especially the one in which he defeats his opponent in combat only to discover that he has killed his own son. You may know Mathew Arnold’s version of the tragic story of Rostam and Sohrab. Back in high school, I put this passage in my quote book:
So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead;
And the great Rustum drew his horseman’s cloak
Down o’er his face, and sate by his dead son.
As those black granite pillars, once high-rear’d
By Jemshid in Persepolis, to bear
His house, now ‘mid their broken flights of steps
Lie prone, enormous, down the mountain side–
So in the sand lay Rustum by his son.
But it was not Rostam that drew me to the Shahnameh this time; rather, I was trying to track down another passage:
Empty thy head of wind, for none is born of his mother save to die. Wert thou a rampart of well-wrought iron, the rotation of the heavens would break thee nonetheless, and thou shouldst disappear.
It turns out to be part of the story of “Zohhak and the Snakes,” which comes early in the first book. Zohhak was a regular guy until the evil demon Ahriman got his hooks into him. After Zohhak killed his own father to become king, Ahriman cooked a wonderful meal for him. When Zohhak asked what he wanted as a reward, Ahriman wanted only to kiss the king’s shoulders. Zohhak readily agreed, but was surprised when two nasty serpents sprang up from the spots Ahriman had kissed.
To make matters worse, it turned out that Zohhak had to feed the snakes human brains every day or they would eat him. Naturally, Zohhak responded by killing people and feeding the snakes. Bad king! Apparently all this gave him indigestion and one night he had a bad dream. When he asked his advisers to interpret it, one of them responded with my quote. It didn’t seem to have much effect though, and Zohhak continued to be nasty until a hero, Feridoun, finally defeated him. Here is the hero sneaking up on Zohhak. I’m not sure where the snakes are.
Rather than kill Zohhak outright, Feridoun nailed him to a rock high on Mount Damavand, where he would suffer enternally.
Then Feridoun ruled as a great king and all of Persia was happy and prosperous.
I’ve always liked Persian painting. The colors are lovely and jewel-like. They remind me of medieval illuminated manuscripts, though with obvious differences.
The moral of the story? Don’t talk to demons or let them cook for you and never, never kill the king, your father.
When you get the chance, take a look at the Shahnameh and its lovely illustrations. They have much to offer.
In the meantime, have a great weekend!