Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Ferdowsi’s Epic of Kings / Shahnameh

In reading Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, I learned of the Epic of Kings. In volume two of the Encyclopedia (page 902-3) is the story of Rustem: “The Coming of Rustem”.

"The Wonder-bird flew down"

“The Wonder-bird flew down”

In this Persian tale we learn of his father Zal’s birth, and how Zal was cast away by his father Zahon, and then looked after by a “Wonder-bird”. When years had passed Zahon wanted his son back and when he found him the bird let him go, but gave Zal “three feathers [from his breast]” with the instruction “whenever thou art in direst distress cast one of these on the fire, and I will come to thine aid.” Later in the short account Zal marries the princess Rudabeh (this part of the tale has elements of Romeo and Juliet and Rapunzel). Shortly after marriage however, Rudabeh becomes gravely ill and no physician could help her. Zal remembers the Wonder-bird’s magic feathers and he “threw one” onto a fire and the bird comes to their aid. Rustem is then born to Zal and Rudabeh.

Here the story comes to an abrupt end. This account had specifically mentioned three feathers, and I had in my mind that this was to be like three wishes. I did some googling and discovered that this story was only part of the much greater Epic of Kings:

“Shahnameh or Shahnama … “The Book of Kings” is a long epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE and is the national epic of Greater Iran. Consisting of some 60,000 verses, the Shahnameh tells mainly the mythical and to some extent the historical past of the Persian empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Today Iran, Afghanistan and the greater region influenced by the Persian culture (such as Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, and Dagestan) celebrate this national epic.” – [1]

I found that the book was freely available online [2] but, not wanting to read things at length on a computer screen, not owning an e-reader, and not wanting to print it off at over 100 pages, I got my local library to source me a copy.

The version online was translated by Helen Zimmern in 1883 [3] whereas the version I received dates to 1973 and was translated by Reuben Levi [4]. It’s not complete though – Levi admits that he has left out the bumf, but perhaps this could hider my search for how the other two feathers were used. [5]

Indeed, when I came to Levi’s account of the Wonder-bird, in this case the Simorgh, only a single [wing] feather is used (page 47), but it is specified that only a single barb of that feather is used to summon the bird for the first time – “three” is not specified, and therefore a single feather could have many barbs plucked off and used! There was nothing for it – I would have to read Levi’s whole book, and still accept that perhaps I didn’t learn of all accounts of Simorgh summoning.

But first, a little description of the Simorgh from Wikipedia:

Simurgh … also spelled simorgh, simurg, simoorg or simourv, is a benevolent, mythical flying creature. It is sometimes equated with other mythological birds such as Arabic Anqā, Persian Homā or Turkic Kerkés, Semrug, Semurg, Samran, and Samruk. The figure can be found in all periods of Greater Iranian art and literature and is also evident in the iconography of Georgia, medieval Armenia, the Byzantine empire, and other regions that were within the sphere of Persian cultural influence. The name simurgh derives from Middle Persian Pahlavi sēnmurw (and earlier sēnmuruγ), also attested in Middle Persian Pāzand as sīna-mrū. The Middle Persian term derives in turn from Avestan mərəγō Saēnō “the bird Saēna”, originally a raptor, likely an eagle, falcon, or sparrowhawk, as can be deduced from the etymological cognate Sanskrit śyenaḥ (“raptor, eagle, bird of prey”) that also appears as a divine figure… – [6]

Zimmern’s version states: “bear with thee this [single] feather from her breast. And in the day of thy need cast it into the fire, and I will come like unto a cloud and deliver thee from danger” and since the Children’s Encyclopedia was written before Levi’s version, it is perhaps the case that the choice of “wing” was later used, and three feathers were employed in the script to indeed add more magic to the children’s version. However, when the feather is used to save Rudabeh, the whole feather is used:

“And he cast the feather into the fire as she had commanded, and straightway a sound of rushing wings filled the air, and the sky was darkened and the bird of God stood before Zal.” – [7]

After reading on in Levi’s version I came to the part where Rostam’s (aka Rustem) son dies (page 80), but here there is no mention of the Simorgh feather or bird on this occasion, which could have been used to save him. On page 193 the translator notes that he is omitting details of the slaying of “the fabulous bird, Simorgh” (by Esfandiyar who “is drenched in the blood of Simorgh and thus is made invulnerable except in the eyes, which he closes while being immersed.”

Reading on, however, on pages 205-11 Rostam battles with Esfandiyar, is injured, and the Simorgh bird is summoned with the use of a barb of the feather and fire. The bird instructs him on how to kill Esfandiar by crafting an arrow with two arrow heads (to take out both of his eyes).


In Zimmenrn’s account the same also happens, even though, this somewhat contradictory because originally only one feather was given and that was used in the original summoning. The second summoning is similar to the first though:

“and the feather that she had given him from her breast that he might call upon her in the day of his need. So he brought it and cast it into the fire as she had commanded, and straightway a sound of rushing wings filled the air and the sky was darkened, and the bird of God stood before Zal.” – [8]

Again the bird instructs that “Only through his eyes can Isfendiyar be wounded.” So I looked back through Zimmern’s version to look for the prerequisite for this point, i.e. that he had slayed the Simorgh bird who’s blood made him invulnerable except in the eyes, and I found this account of Esfandiyar/Isfendiyar:

“And on the first day he slew two raging wolves, and on the second he laid low two evil Deevs that were clothed as lions, and on the third he overcame a dragon whose breath was poison. And on the fourth day Isfendiyar slew a great magician who would have lured him into the paths of evil, and on the fifth he slew a mighty bird whom no man had ever struck down. No further detail is given.

Perhaps it was a Simorgh, if not the Simorgh that Esfandiyar had slain.

Further reading:

I mentioned Rostam and his horse in this post about horses:











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