Wonders of the Word: Duality and Dichotomy in the Enchanted World of Epic Storytelling

This panel is the literary companion to the art historical panel “Divine Delusions: Visions of the Supernatural in Persianate Painting.” It explores the marvellous worlds of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) and the Dastan-i Amir Hamzeh (Romance of Amir Hamzeh). As late as the twentieth century, Persianate epic tales or romances (qisseh/dastan) performed by storytellers beguiled the imaginations of their audiences with their depictions of demons, sorcery, and enchanted worlds. Revolving around the adventures of mythological, religious and historical figures, they were sustained by worldviews that found a place for unconventional, or khariq-i ‘adat, beings and events.

These worldviews grew faded and obscured as rationalist and empiricist epistemologies took hold of the minds of intellectuals, as well as for other reasons. Given this shift, which determines our twenty-first-century viewpoints—and the concomitant devaluation of such tales, in some quarters, as absurd, frivolous, or childish—how do we deal justly with Persianate dastans? Each of our papers presents an approach to this problem, whether by reading for religious symbolism (“Ardashir's Battle against the Giant Worm”), by highlighting the porous boundary between human and nonhuman (“Of Monsters and Men”), by probing the category of the uncanny (“The Adventures of Amir Hamza and the Question of the Uncanny”), or through historical investigation (“Dastans and Disenchantment”).


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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.”

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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.

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Under the patronage of the Mughal court, the dastan of Amir Hamza remained the single most important and famous of the Indo-Persian epics in the Sub-Continent for more than three centuries before it was lost to the ravages of time and a lack of patronage. Only recently, in 2007, did the first complete and unabridged English translation of the one-volume Dastan-e Amir Hamza become available. The Adventures of Amir Hamza is a magic-filled epic saga loosely knit around the life and exploits of Prophet Muhammad's uncle who not only colonises most of the world of men, but also Qaf, the realm of jinn and talismans, all in the name of “True Faith”.

With specific focus on the varied world of the magical and its importance for the storytellers, this paper reads the translated version of The Adventures with reference to Sigmund Freud's 1919 essay, “The 'Uncanny'”. I argue that the creation of the uncanny effect is possibly the single most striking feature of the dastan of Amir Hamza. And while this effect is initially created by the “peculiarly directive power of the storyteller”, its impact and sustenance lies in the religious setting of the story. The knowledge of the uncanny phenomena (jinn, magic, telepathy and the evil eye) through faith, and the lack thereof in experience, results in the ambivalence that is the hallmark of the uncanny effect. And it is here, in this ambivalent space between the religious and the areligious that the dastan dwells, creating an unparalleled uncanny effect.

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The marvelous story of Amir Hamzah was once popular in India, where it was recited or read in Persian, Urdu, and many other languages. Prior to the twentieth century, storytellers made a successful profession by specializing in the Hamzah-namah, both in the courts of rulers and in public spaces, weaving sumptuous tales of enchanted worlds and magical creatures. But by the 1920s, the art of courtly storytelling had all but disappeared. This paper will investigate the life of the “last storyteller of Delhi,” Mir Baqir ‘Ali, and consider other figures and texts before him in an attempt to lay bare the process of disenchantment that shifted the worldview of elite Indians after the coming of the British, and which led to the marginalization of romances like that of Amir Hamzah. Taking examples from the writings of storytellers and romance-writers, it will outline the pre-existing anxieties that some had about the Hamzah-namah’s great wonders, but also their justifications of the genre of romance.