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Customs, Rules and correct
manners in Shah-Nameh

FEZANA journal,
Winter 1994

Dr. Pallan Ichaporia



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With the advance of Avestan and Pahlavi studies, Ferdowsi's Shah-Nameh has assumed a new significance as the most developed source of Iranian sagas, the origin of which is in the Avestan traditions. Noldeke investigated the Avestan and Pahlavi source of the national history of Iran [Das Iranische Nationalepos Leipzig-Berlin, 1920]. Furthermore, he correctly pointed out that Shah-Nameh has great influence on the Iranian psychology, and literary creations [ibid]. Thus it should not come as a surprise that in Shah-Nameh, one can find scattered among its several volumes, instances of good social customs, good rules, correct manners and wise maxims. The Modern Persian word ‘adab’, the origin of which is traced to Sassanian Iran, denotes all these together. Adab is equivalent to the Middle Persian word 'farhang' and, is close to another Pahlavi word 'ewen.'

Shah-Nameh defines the word adab as ideal refinements of thoughts, words and deeds. This has its origin in the Zarthusti triad of good thoughts, good words and good deeds. The ideal refinements in the form of ethical behavior are manifested throughout the Shah-Nameh. Some examples are shown below:

(1) The gentle behavior of the man who brings the head of Tur to the latter's father, Feriedon, and the response of Feriedon at the sight of his son's head, without visible anger or grief, reflects correct manners and customs [Shah-Nameh Vol.1, pp.192-193, Noldeke].

(2) Another example is the reception which the Iranian commander, Goodarz gives to Royin, who has been sent by his father, Piran, to Goodarz with an offer of peace. Although Goodarz has lost seventy sons and grandsons in the war with Turan, he walks with a cheerful face to meet Royin and asks how he (Royin), Afrasiab, and other Turanian generals are faring, and then entertains him for a week, before finally telling him that there can be no solution except war [Vol.3, p.512] - a fine example of excellent manners and behavior even towards one's enemy.

(3) Esfandiar, having reached Sistan, neither accepts Rustom's invitation to have meals with him, nor does he reciprocate the invitation for fear that if they eat each other's food and if Rustom does not obey his orders to be chained and brought before KingVishtasp, he (Esfandiar) will not be able to do anything on account of the bond of friendship created by sharing the meal ('mehr-e-nan o namak'). Shah-Nameh talks about the custom of "keram" which requires a host, after inviting someone to a banquet, to send a messenger at the appointed hour to remind the invitee [vol.4, p.609].

According to Shah-Nameh, the course of a person's life is determined by his efforts ('kushesh') and his fortune (bakht). Anoshiravan asks Bozorgmehr whether greatness results from efforts or fortune. Bozorgmehr answered that the two are coupled like body and soul. Efforts cannot achieve greatness without the assistance of fortune [vol.6, p.3741].

Proper proportion in diet according to Shah-Nameh is to eat little, [vol.4, p.283-286] not to eat when the stomach is full, and to stop eating when some appetite still remains [vol.6, p.286]. Also mentioned are the harmful effects of anything in excess [vol. 5, p.630]. It advises that wine should be taken to induce happiness and not drunkenness, which results from over indulgence [vol.6, p.286]. The advantage of moderation and the evil of intemperance is found in the story of Kabroy and the Young Shoemaker 'vol.5, p.5161 placed in the reign of Kayqobad.

The roots of such ethical refinements can be traced to Zarthusti Pahlavi texts: Ayadg-i-Wazurgmihr Xusrow ud Redak (King Khusrow and a Boy), in several books of the Denkard, and Andarz-Nameh Adoorbad-i Maraspand.

Good manners come with good education and knowledge. Shah-Nameh shows that when young Zal seeks the approval of King Manuchehr for his marriage to Roudabeh he had to convince the King and nobles of the adequacy of his education and is being tested in the presence of the King and mobeds (priests) on his way of life, his attitude towards death, and for his prowess in spear-throwing, club-wielding, archery and horse-back riding [Vol. 1, p.328].

When Rustom is charged with the upbringing of Siavash, he takes him to Zabol, and teaches him how to ride, shoot arrows, hunt wild beasts, train falcons, behave decently, speak property, exert authority and handle troops [Vol. 2, p.200]. Similar education and knowledge were imparted to Bahman [Vol. 4, p. 690], Darab [Vol. 5], Ardeshir [Vol. 5, p.276], and Bahram Gur [Vol. 5, p.500]. These great Zarthusthis were also trained by men of culture in the knowledge of Avesta [Vols.4-5].

Shah-Nameh asserts the superiority of poetry versus prose "where few words and much meaning is found" [Vol. 8, p.102]. One must note Zarthusthra's poetic Gathas where words are few and meanings are profound. Maxims are abundant in the accounts of the reign of King Anoshiravan. They are: honesty in buying and selling; concurrence of the heart and the tongue (sincerity); generosity and magnanimity; affability and forbearance; calmness and chivalry; trustworthiness in oneself with trust in God; abstention from gossip, fault-finding and slander; modesty; and avoidance of conceit.

Shah-Nameh further gives advice op the choice of friends who will help in the hour of need. Regarding enemies, there must be preferable avoidance and they must be treated honorably [Vol. 3, p.494].

Bozorgmehr, in an address to King Kosrow, gives 10 demons ('divs ') who are the enemies of good life: greed, excessive needs, envy, disgrace, revenge, anger, slander, insincerity, lack of knowledge of religion and ingratitude.

From this short article, one can easily see that Shah-Nameh is not only the history of the Iranian kings, but also a guide to a good, happy, honest life. It is the second best-seller book of all time in Iran, next only to the Quran. Shah-Nameh is our heritage and regular study of it is bound to benefit our lives.