Of Monsters and Men: Humanity, Gender, and the Demonic in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

The demonic landscape of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is fantastic and varied. The epic begins with an account of the demon Ahriman’s attack against Gayumart, first king of the world. As it continues, we encounter numerous other stories about battles between humans and demons, from Kay Kavus’ ill-advised plan to attack the demon land of Mazandaran to Rustam’s combat with the Akvan Div. Both Zoroastrian and Islamic conceptions of the demonic inform the Shahnameh, and we see demons portrayed alternately as forces of physical destruction and forces of temptation. Demons appear as vivid, terrifying physical monsters, but also as allegories of fate and sin, and the heroes of the Shahnameh are judged according to their ability to defeat them in whatever guise they appear.

But the boundary between the human and the demonic in the Shahnameh is not clearly drawn. As Dick Davis has observed, Rostam has a “tangential relationship” with humanity, and his connection to the supernatural—which manifests itself in his use of trickery and magic—is inherited through demonic ancestry. This paper examines the intersection between human beings and the demonic in the Shahnameh, and I argue that the epic’s portrayals of the demonic complicate notions of what it means to be human while simultaneously enforcing specific gender norms.

My study begins by examining the tension between symbolic and physical representations of the demonic in the Shahnameh, demonstrating how disparate notions of evil converge in the pivotal character of Zahhak, who functions as a liminal figure through whom demonic traits are passed to human posterity, including Rostam. I explore the physicality of monsters and demons in the epic, illustrating how it serves to blur the line between humanity and the demonic. I also explore how the epic frames the use of sorcery by human and demonic actors, and how serpents consistently appear at points of encounter between humans and demons, and between good and evil. Not only do serpents and sorcery obscure the boundaries between these categories, but they are also represented in highly gendered ways, effectively and consistently enforcing specific conceptions of masculinity and femininity.