Ardashir’s Battle against the Giant Worm

The full account of Ardashīr’s battle against Haftvād and a giant worm is given only in Firdausi’s Shāhnāma. The Middle Persian text of the Kārnāmag ī Ardašīr ī Pābagān, which provides an account about the rise to power and reign of Ardashīr, does not contain the details. And medieval historians who cover the reign of Ardashīr either strip the account of its “legendary” content or refer to it only very briefly. The details of this account, however, are indispensable for understanding its symbolic significance. Some modern scholars have pointed to parallels between this story and the ancient Indo-European epics of dragon-slaying heroes. But there is certainly more to this long tale than just the killing of a worm/dragon by a hero. Others have drawn connections between the tale and the introduction of silk industry to Iran, even though it is clearly mentioned in the text of the Shāhnāma that Haftvād’s daughter spins cotton (panba) not silk. Yet others have suggested that the tale has connections with the Indian cult of snake-gods (Nāga). Drawing on evidence from Zoroastrian apocalyptic literature and ancient Persian beliefs reflected in it, I offer a new interpretation of this enigmatic tale in the Shāhnāma and argue that Ardashīr’s battle against the giant worm represents him as a saviour figure who arises to restore the Good Religion and, in Zoroastrian parlance, “renovate the world.”