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"HE monarchs of ancient Persia made several attempts
to collect the historic annals of their country,. but both people and traditions were scattered by the Arabian conquest. The manuscript annals were carried to Abyssinia, thence to India, and were taken back to Persia just when the weakness of the conquerors was beginning to show itself. The various members of the Persian line, who had declared themselves independent of their conquerors, determined to rouse the patriotism of their countrymen by the recital of the stirring deeds of the warriors of old Persia.
The fame of Abul Kasin Mansur, born at Thus, in Khorasan, A. D. 920, reached Mahmoud of Ghaznin, who was searching for a poet to re-cast the annals of Persia. He called the poet to his court, and, on hearing him improvise, called him Firdusi (the paradisiacal). The poet was intrusted with the preparation of the Shah-Nameh, or Epic of Kings, for every one thousand distichs of which he was to receive a thousand pieces of gold. It had been the dream of the poet's life to build a bridge and otherwise improve his native town. He therefore asked that the payment be deferred until the completion of his work, that he might apply the entire sum to these improvements. But when the poem was completed, after thirty years' labor, the king, instigated by the slanders of the jealous prime minister, sent to the poet sixty thousand silver instead of gold dirhems. The enraged poet threw the silver to his attendants and fled from the country, leaving behind him an insulting poem to the sultan. He spent the remainder of his life at Mazinderan and Bagdad, where he was received with honor, and in his old age returned to Thus to die. Tradition relates that Mahmoud at last discovered the villainy of his minister, and sent the gold to Thus. But the old poet was dead, and his daughter indignantly refused the money. Mahmoud then applied the sum to the improvements of the town so long desired by Firdusi.
The Shah-Nameh is written in the pure old Persian, that Mohammed declared would be the language of Paradise. In its sixty thousand couplets are related the deeds of the Persian kings from the foundation of the world to the invasion by the Mohammedans; but it is of very little value as a historical record, the facts it purports to relate being almost lost among the Oriental exaggerations of the deeds of its heroes.
The only complete translation in a foreign language is the elaborate French translation of Julius Mohl.
The Shah-Nameh is still popular in Persia, where it is said that even the camel drivers are able to repeat long portions of it. Firdusi is sometimes called the Homer of the East, because he describes rude heroic times and men, as did Homer; but he is also compared to Ariosto, because of his wealth of imagery. His heroes are very different from those to whom we have been wont to pay our allegiance; but they fight for the same principles and worship as lovely maids, to judge from the hyperbole employed in their description. The condensation of the Shah-Nameh reads like a dry chronicle ; but in its entirety it reminds one of nothing so much as a gorgeous Persian web, so light and varied, so brightened is it by its wealth of episode.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM, THE SHAH-NAMEH. Samuel Johnson's The Shah-Nameh, or Book of Kings (in his Oriental Religion, Persia, 1885, pp. 711-782); E. B. Cowell's Persian Literature, Firdusi (in Oxford Essays, 1885, pp. 164-166); Elizabeth A. Reed's Persian Literature, Ancient and Modern, 1893, pp. 214-283.
STANDARD ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, THE SHAH-NAMEH. The Shah-Nameh, Tr. and abridged in prose and verse with notes and illustrations, by James Atkinson, 1832 ; Abbreviated version taken from a Persian abridgment, half prose, half verse; The Epic of Kings, Stories re-told from Firdusi, by Helen Zimmern, 1882.
THE STORY OF THE SHAH-NAMEH.
KAIUMERS was the first King of Persia, and against him Ahriman, the evil, through jealousy of his greatness, sent forth a mighty Deev to conquer him. By this Deev, Saiamuk, the son of Kaiumers, was slain, and the king himself died of grief at the loss of his son.
Husheng, his grandson, who succeeded Kaiumers, was a great and wise king, who gave fire to his people, taught them irrigation, instructed them how to till and sow, and gave names to the beasts. His son and successor, Tahumers, taught his people the arts of spinning, weaving, and writing, and when he died left his throne to his son Jemschid.
Jemschid was a mighty monarch, who divided men into classes, and the years into periods, and builded mighty walls and cities; but his heart grew proud at the thought of his power, and he was driven away from his land by his people, who called Zohak to the throne of Iran.
Zohak, who came from the deserts of Arabia, was a good and wise young man who had fallen into the power of a Deev. This Deev, in the guise of a skillful servant, asked permission one day to kiss his monarch between the shoulders, as a reward for an unusually fine bit of cookery. From the spot he kissed sprang two black serpents, whose only nourishment was the brains of the king's subjects.
The serpent king, as Zohak was now called, was much feared by his subjects, who saw their numbers daily lessen by the demands of the serpents. But when the children of the blacksmith Kawah were demanded as food for the serpents, the blacksmith defied Zohak, and raising his leathern apron as a standard, — a banner ever since honored in Persia, — he called the people to him, and set off in search of Feridoun, an heir of Jemschid. Under the young leader the oppressed people defeated the tyrant, and placed Feridoun on the throne.