Role of Foundational Texts in Illustrating the Fundamental Patterns of National Identity: With a Focus on the Theme of Filicide in Iranian Shahnameh: The Book of Kings


This was a lecture I gave to the Master students of Comparative Literature at University of Aarhus. Many thanks to Professor Mads Rosendahl for inviting me to his class. 


Foundational texts are either the fundaments upon which a culture is created or an account of how and through what characteristics a certain culture begins and thrives.

Karen Gammelgaard suggests that, “Foundational texts must be examined based on their complicated interaction with contexts that are ever-changing. Because the texts are written, read and used within different social arenas and historical traditions, they must be studied based on research questions that open up for comparisons that cross traditional institutional boundaries. He suggests the questions such as:

  • What characterizes the social, political, ideological, linguistic, and institutional conditions in which the texts are created, and do these historical conditions shape the texts and their status?
  • How do later situations affect the interpretation and use of the texts?

I believe these questions can be the starting point toward more important questions regarding the characterization of a culture and a national identity that remains relevant through the entire history of a nation. These questions could be raised as follows:

Is it possible to formulate the fundamental patterns of a nation’s social, political, ideological, and institutional behaviors that inherently indwells through their history?

How and by what means are we going to trace the persistency of such patterns throughout a nation’s history?

What foundational texts have to offer to map out those patterns?

These are the questions I would like to explore, not to answer, within the context of Iranian culture and with a focus on the most foundational text in Persian history, which is Shahnameh or The Book of Kings.

What I would be doing is simply giving a brief introductory of Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) as defining and inspiring literary document of Iranian national identity. And then I will focus on the concept of filicide as one of the most important themes that repeatedly appears in the book and may reveal the fundamental patterns of Iranian dialectical conflict between old and new, father and son, power and revolt, establishment and rebellion, tradition and innovation. I’ll try to show how the concept of filicide stands at the centre of all the social, political, religious and ideological conflicts between the suppressor and the supressed throughout the Iranian history.

I use the term filicide in a wider sense than “a deliberate act of parents killing their own child”. In fact, I expand the notion of physiological parenthood to political, cultural, ideological and therefore metaphorical spheres. In this sense, the king can always be seen as the Father to the nation in a same way that God can be seen as the ultimate Father to the man and especially to the king. I also stretch the concept of killing from an act of physical removal to the act of dispossession, subordination, subjugation, marginalization and suppression.

Shahnameh is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between 977 and 1010 of the Common Era consisted of about 60,000 verses. The Shahnameh should be seen as a point of confluence of certain ideas that have gathered over time and converged in this text with a potentiality of revealing the key aspects of Iranian national identity. This epic also embodies and reflects cultural features and characteristics of Iranianness or Iranianity, which I believe, are still relevant in contemporary Iran.

In my brief introduction of chronicles given in Shahnameh, I emphasize on the parts that represent the concept of filicide as a theme.

The Shahnameh begins with the story of creation by God, the divine wisdom or Ahuramzada, and ends with the fall of the Persian Empire as result of Muslim Arabs’ invasion toward the middle of the 7th century CE. It tells the chronicles of the birth, rise, and fall of the Persian Empire; not only to create a historical account of events, but also to reveal some of the most fundamental patterns of a nation’s identity.

The motivation behind writing, or rather collecting the stories of Shahname, is revealed by a simple yet crucial question.


The narrator of Shahname is an Iranian farmer of noble character who asks himself a question that implies the most important purpose of Shahname as a text that inquires the reasons of rise and fall of a great empire:  “How did they run the world in the beginning,” the farmer asks, “that they left it to us in such a sorry state?”


Searching for the answer, the farmer begins to collecting and narrating the story of kings and heroes of Persia from the mythical era to the historical era. In fact, the narrator believes that the answer could be found only through a critical reading of the past. More importantly, the narrator calls for the particular attention to the symbolism behind the stories, which was ignored or totally misunderstood in all of the English translations of Shahnameh:


Deem not these mere lies and tales

Do not take them as mere fantasy and fiction

The most accords with sense

The rest may be understood as symbols (translated by O.Shams)


Kumarth, is the first king who seats upon the throne of Persia and rules the whole world.  He wears leopard skin and lives in the mountains.  Kumarth’s reign is succeeded by his grandson Hushang who discovers fire. Similarly, Hushang’s son, Tahmureth, whose title is the Demon Binder, became the next king.


With Jamsheed, son and successor to Tahmureth, the cornerstones of a civilization is founded. He parcels out men in classes: priests, warriors, artificers, and husbandmen, etc. He builds the first great cities of Iran and exploits the nature in favor of men.


However, witnessing all the good he has done, Jamsheed’s heart was uplifted by pride saying, “I know no lord over the world, but my own self.” As a result, the divine wisdom forsakes him in the hands of a demonic enemy. He comes to a bitter end. His realm is lost, and the demonic Zahhak conquers Iran. Zahhak is the embodiment of evil, the punishment of rebellion against God and the most notorious oppressor of Iranians.


Ahriman, Devil, disguised as a cook comes to Zahhak and makes him the first dishes of meat. As a sign of gratitude, he is allowed to kiss Zahhak’s shoulders. Two hungry serpents grow on king’s shoulders. This time, devil appears as a leech and advises the king to feed the serpent with the brains of the youth of the land. Eventually, Zahhak faces with the people’s revolt led by Kaveh, the Iron smith who lost 17 sons to Zahhak’s hungry serpents. Then, Freydoon, the true heir of Jamsheed, becomes the king of Iran.  Freydoon’s reign is admired by the narrator as the golden age of liberality and justice.


The story of Jamsheed is the first appearance of a conflict between the Father and Son. Jamsheed’s rebellion against his divine father Ahuramzada to claim the lordship over the world is punished by his tragic death in the hands of Zahhak. The story reveals the hierarchical structure of power in Iranian culture: The God as the true Lord of the world and the divine father to the king, the king as the God’s son and Father of nation.


In addition, the evil Zahhak, who seizes the Jamsheed’s position as the father of nation, is the murderer of children of the land feeding their brains to his voracious serpents in order to protect himself. Here, Zahhak appears as a symbolic oppressor of fresh thoughts and new ideas.

What we see in these two stories is an inevitable conflict between patriarchy and anti-patriarchy which repeatedly continues in the most dramatically important stories of Shahnameh. In fact the repetition of this conflict in Shahnameh, specifically in form of suppression and elimination of young rivals of power, is incomparable to any other themes in the Book of Kings. Considering such emphasis on this theme, we can argue that the answer for narrator’s question at the beginning of Shahname, regarding the reasons of fall of Iranian Empire, is sought within the stories of filicide and suppression of the youngest and most virtuous heroes of Persia.


After Freydoon, his kingdom is divided in two territories: Iran and Turan. From here on, a perpetual war between Iran and Turan begins. Rostam the main hero of Shahnameh is born in this era. Rostam’s father, Zahl, having been born white haired, as a sign of strangeness and difference, is left by his noble father in the mountains to die or to be eaten by wild animals. The story of Zahl, once again emphasizes on the theme of filicide in Shahnameh. The existence of Zahl, as a symbol of difference and strangeness is not tolerated by his father. Therefore, the only solution would be eliminate him.


However, he survives and is raised by Simorgh the mythical bird of Iranian mythology. The Rostam’s mother, Roodabeh, is a descendant of demonic Zahhak. Therefore, Rostam is a fruit of an unusual marriage of Zahl as symbol of the virtuous, the strange and the suppressed and Roodabeh as a descendant of an Iconic suppressor:


What will their offspring be?

This nursling of the fowl and that devil’s child. (A.G. Warner et Edmond Warner)


Because of such a strange and unconventional ancestry, through his whole saga, Rostam always suffers from an inner struggle between good and evil. He does both the most honorable and the most evil deeds in Iranian history. In this view, the complex character of Rostam could represent the Iranian nation itself, or better to say, Iranian-ness, rather than a mere savior or a protector of the nation. Rostam symbolizes a nation with great achievements and grievous mistakes; a nation with both unimaginable strength and undeniable flaws; a nation who courageously rises for its freedom yet kills its most free-hearted heroes by its own hands. After all, as we analyze the main character of Shahnameh, we must remember that question at the beginning of this epic: “how did they run the world in the beginning, that they left it to us in such a sorry state?” having in mind that the deeds of this character are part of the answer.

Of course, Rostam’s character could symbolize the various and even paradoxical national characters and aspects of Persian history and I shall return on this issue later. But first I would like to mention the three most crucial stories of Shahnameh in which the drama of Rostam’s life finds intense expression. The filicide is the dominant theme in all three stories: the story of Siavash, The story of Esfandyar, and the story of Sohrab.

Siyavash, the son of King Kay Kavus is told by his father to attack Turan, the main rival of the ancient Persian Empire ruled by Afrasyab. Siyavash refused to do so, and to escape his father’s wrath he took refuge in Turan. Thus a great friendship and love emerged between the two men. Soon, however, Afrasyab suspected Siyavash of conspiring to overtake his empire and had him killed. When the news of Siyavash’s death reached his father, he lamented and said it was not Afrasyab but rather he himself who killed his son. The death of Siyavash as a symbol of virtue and innocence inspires a cult of mourning that lasted until the tenth century and remained as one of the origins of Iranian interpretation of Islam, Shi’te. This cult of mourning also indicates one of the fundamental patterns in Iranian culture to which I will return.


Esfandiar son of Goshtasb, the Kiani king, is a hero blessed by Zoroaster the famous prophet of ancient Persia and because of that his body is invulnerable except his eyes.  King Goshtasb, repeatedly promises handing over the kingdom to his son, but does not keep his promise. He sends Esfandiar to the most impossible and dangerous missions. And when Esfandiar comes back victoriously, he not only does not bestow the crown upon him but also orders to jail him in a fortress. Once again when the kingdom is threatened by the invaders the king asks Esfandiar to defend the land. Esfandiar goes through so many dangerous missions and when he comes back once again his father refuses to give him the crown. The king then consults with his minister to know about Esfandiar’s fate. The minister, who is an astronomer and predictor, predicts death of Esfandiar by Rostam in Zabolistan. So the king sends Esfandiar to the last final mission that is bringing Rostam to the court bound and humiliated.

Esfandyar’s mother tries to warn him about his father’s real intention, but he does not pay attention. Also Rostam tries to dissuade Esfandyar not to fight but he refrains and finally war breaks out between them. Rostam becomes wounded and helpless and asks the legendary bird Simorgh for help. Simorgh tells him about Esfandyar’s vulnerable eyes and teaches him how to kill Esfandyar. But also simourgh warns Rostam that whoever kills Esfandyar will be cursed forever and his life would be nothing but suffering and shall meet a disastrous end. At the end Esfandyar is killed by Rostam. When Esfnadyar dies Rostam mourns and curses the king and land of Persia that let such a great hero to die in vain. Once again the tragedy of filicide reoccurs. Esfandyar is symbol of nobility and strength as well as simple-heartedness and arrogance. Despite the Achilles’ heel, the esfandyar’s eye is not only a symbol of vulnerability against death and fate, but it also symbolizes his naivety and blind obedience of his father.


And finally with the story of Sohrab, the most affecting story of Shahnameh, the tragedy of filicide reaches its peak: A father who unknowingly kills his own son in the battlefield; A son who was full of hope to find his father to make him the king of Iran; A son who dies not because of his weakness in the battle, but because of his good heart and his father’s deceitful plan; a father who spent his life to protect the kings and the land of Persia; a father who also has a principal role in death of all three young heroes of Shahnameh.


With death of Sohrab, the last of these young and virtuous heroes, the hope for change and peace vanishes and the fall of the empire begins. Rostam, himself, as a symbol of a nation who killed its golden children who were the last chance to bring glory, wisdom and peace to the land is doomed to die a tragic death. In Ferdowsi’s view with the death of Siavash, the symbol of innocence and virtue, Esfandyar, the symbol of nobility and strength, and Sohrab, the symbol of courage and chivalry, the nation remains with no values to stand for. Thus, the fall of Persian Empire would be inevitable. Shortly after the death of Sohrab, Rostam dies as a victim of his brother’s treachery. Even the death of Rostam indicates the extent of immorality within the Iranian society at that time. It seems that the narrator finally finds his answer to the question he raised at the beginning of Shahnameh.


Through these stories, Shahnameh suggests some fundamental patterns for Iranian political, social and cultural behaviors. The most important one is the conceptions of filicide and merciless patriarchy as the main reasons for the fall of Persian Empire and as principal context upon which the crucial events of Iranian history can be understood. Almost in every Iranian dynasty we can trace the evidence of filicide that eventually led to the fall of that dynasty. The systematic suppression and elimination of young energies and ideas throughout the history of Iran indicates the patriarchal characteristics of the Iranian society.

Compared to the concept of patricide in western culture that can be read on the context of modernity and enlightenment era, the concept of filicide in Persian culture could be read on the context of historical resistance against modernization and sociopolitical innovations.

There are many strong arguments that the Iranian revolution, despite its appearance and progressive claims, was a result of a historical resistance against the project of modernization practiced by Pahlavi kings and eventually led to a traditionalist and reactionary regime.


The possibility to trace the tragedy of filicide in the contemporary Iran, specifically as it is narrated in the story of Sohrab, proves that this pattern is still relevant thousand years after Shahnameh. In 1979 Iranian revolution, the young idealist Iranians rebel against the king as father of the nation, with a naïve dream of giving the power back to the people. But they were dispossessed and massacred by people who still identify themselves with patriarchy and its charismatic embodiment, Ayatollah Khomeini.


The major body of the Iranian revolutionaries which were the young leftists can be compared to Sohrab from several standpoints. First, Sohrab is the only hero of the Shahnameh who demonstrates the anti-patriarchal tendencies. Sohrab neither prays to God as the divine source of power, nor refers to him at any point in the story. He is stateless as essentially without any religion as well. Second, Sohrab’s rebellion against the king is also rebellion against the god as the ultimate patriarch who chooses the king as his son and as his chief on earth. Third, Sohrab’s dream to make his father the king instead of Kavus can be seen as a dramatic shift from aristocracy towards meritocracy. Sohrab does not know his father personally; all he knows is that Rostam deserves to be the king not because he is Sohrab’s father but because of his heroic endeavors to protect the land. The leftist revolutionaries of Iran, who were wiped out right after the revolution, had the same ambitions. The interesting point is that these young revolutionaries praised and accepted Ayatollah Khomeini as their spiritual father at some points. In memory of these revolutionary the Iranian poet, Kadkani, writes:

What springtime it is in this wasteland

Where all the tulips are mirrors for blood of Sohrabs and Siavashes

Also one of the most famous poems of that time is a long poem by Reza Baraheni called Ishmael, the son Abraham was ordered to scarify in Muslim belief. The poem is a long elegy for the death of his revolutionary friend, in which the filicide is again the dominant theme. The poem begins as:

I swear to your red eyes my dear Ishmael

That the sun will shine much better than the day you died


Another fact that supports the presence of filicide as a principal pattern in 1979 revolution is the popularity of many stories about high ranked clerics who personally tried, sentenced and executed their own leftist children. Those filicides were seen as brave and revolutionary acts at that time.


Identification with the fate and legend of Sohrab is occasionally used by the next generation, the children of revolution who were born after 1979 and were constantly dispossessed, suppressed and murdered in the name their fathers’ values. During the Green Uprising in 2009, the death a young protester named Sohrab Arabi, immediately made him the icon of the movement; a martyr who revives the memory of legendary hero of Shahnameh. Unfortunately, this identification never goes beyond the characterization and sanctification of the victim or the suppressed as a hero of tragedy.

The story of Sohrab becomes an exemplum of a failed dream of an anti-patriarchal rebellion in the Iranian culture. Until today, the death of Sohrab has largely been interpreted as such a rebellion is doomed to failure. However, the very existence of such a hero in the Iranian foundational texts proves that such idea has always been part of Iranian collective unconsciousness and it has the full potentiality to become a basis for a political and cultural upheaval.


Another fundamental pattern for Iranianness that Shahnameh suggests lies within the conception of “immortalizing defeat”.


Micheal Hillmann points out such a unique aspect of Shahname as follows:


“Although the literary epic tradition generally implies or represents nostalgia for bygone heroic age, epics themselves generally recount the story of victory in the heroic age. But Frdowsi composed his Shahnameh as national history culminated in disaster”.


The act of “sanctifying the defeat”, in Shahnameh suggests another pattern for Iranianness:  identification with defeat and tragedy. This pattern is so essential that even during the Islamic era Iranians recreate a new interpretation of Islam based on this pattern within which the death of Mohammad’s grandson Hussayn is replaced with the tragic death of Siavash and Sohrab as the Lord of martyrs and becomes the main core of Shite philosophy.


The form of tragedy used by Ferdowsi for the stories mentioned above and the role of fate in these stories can also suggest another pattern: aggrandizing the fate to justify the defeat. In all of Shahname’s stories the regrettable death of a hero is blamed on fate or will of God. Such a viewpoint covers up all the mistakes and misjudgments of characters leaving no place for criticizing their actions. Within the Iranian culture such important role for fate led to passively acceptance of defeat and to the long tradition of Sufism. If in the story of Oedipus, he relives himself from the consequence of his actions by blinding himself and cutting his connection with the outside world, in stories of Shahnameh and in Iranian culture, one relieves himself by accepting his unfortunate fate and by submission to the will of God. Such a belief also formed a strong tradition of waiting for a messiah that has both religious and national origins in Persian culture. Even within the Iranian intellectual circles that distinguish themselves from such believers, the lack of deconstructive recreation of these stories from a critical point of view can be seen at least as a sign of incuriosity or disapproval toward these topics.


However, Shahnameh is still at the center of attention in Iranian culture and within all layers of society. In fact, there is a hyper-sentiment about this text mostly from the younger generations as a reaction to anti-nationalistic efforts of Iranian religious government and also as literary opium for contemporary social frustration and political disappointment of Iranian society. Shahnameh is praised and quoted in every occasion. But it is being read erroneously and it is rarely analyzed on a contemporary context; as if the most of Iranians prefer to enjoy the glorious image of pre-Islamic Iranian empire and to forget the image of defeated idealist heroes that is still similar to the contemporary image of Iranians.

The necessity of analyzing and criticizing the fundamental patterns of Iranianness is more than obvious, and considering the unique situation of Iran politically, socially and internationally, it is necessary more than any time else. These attempts can lead to a deeper understanding of the political, cultural and social problematics of contemporary Iran. And similar attempts in any other languages can lead to surprising answers to the questions of national identity and its fundamental patterns. One can hope the deconstructive readings of foundational texts separated from the national sentiments that surround these texts might bring to light the darkest corners of a nation’s culture.



Works Cited:


Baraheni, Reza, Ishmael: A Long Poem, Tehran: Morghe Amin, 1988, print.


Gammlgaard, Karen, Foundational Texts. Retrieved from:


Ferdowsi, Abul Qasem, Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Trans. Edmond Warner and Arthur.G. Warner. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1905, print.


Hillman, Michael, Iranian Culture: A persistent View. Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1990, pp. 14, 15


Shafiee Kadkani, M. Reza, Dar Koochehaye NeiShabour, Mashhad: Toos Publication, 1972, print.


Zimmern, Helen, The Epic of Kings, Retrieved from: