Life of Ferdowsi myths as evidence for the reception of Ferdowsi

2015.12.17 | By Olga M. Davidson

A Multiform Reception of the Shahnama as reflected in the Bâysonghori Preface

§1. In a previous study, I argued that the historicized narrative of the so-called Older Preface to the Shahnama of Ferdowsi is strikingly parallel to Ferdowsi’s own poeticized narrative concerning the genesis of the Book of Kings.[1] In the present study, I make a parallel argument with regard to the Bâysonghori Preface. This text is the preface to the Bâysonghori Shahnama, a fifteenth century manuscript commissioned by the Timurid prince Ghiath-al-Din Bâysonghor b. Shāhrokh (d. 837 / 1433) in 829 / 1426 and completed in 833 / 1430 (30th of January) by Mawlana Ja‘far Bâysonghori, a Tabrizi calligrapher who appears to have also served as the librarian to the prince.[2]

§2. Before I proceed to my present argumentation, I offer some background, based on my previous study.

§3. In various manuscripts of the  Shahnama of Ferdowsi, the actual poetry is preceded by various prose prefaces, which served to contextualize (1) the poet Ferdowsi himself and (2) the poetry in its historicized setting—which is not to say that such a setting needs to be truly “historical.” The poet was contextualized through the narration of his life and times, with a focus on this question: how could it happen that this one man, known by his poetic name Ferdowsi, came to compose such a monumental poem about the sum total of Iranian civilization, visualized as a Book of Kings? The different versions of the “Life of Ferdowsi,” as reflected in these different prefaces and as supplemented by still other versions as reflected in other prose works, can be analyzed as representing a traditional Iranian literary form in its own right—a prose tradition complementing the poetic tradition that culminated in the Shahnama of Ferdowsi. Moreover, despite their prosaic exterior, these “Life of Ferdowsi” narratives can be analyzed as poetic agenda.

§4. Such poetic agenda are evident in various stylized visualizations—let us call them tropes—referring to the making of poetry. In the language of these tropes, the artistic process of making poetry is visualized as the cultural “event” of turning prose into poetry.

§5. I argue that such a visualization is not just a trope: it is a poetic trope, typical of Iranian poetic traditions. There are four texts that constitute the primary evidence:

  1. the so-called Older Preface, dated to the middle of 4th century A.H.
  2. the preface of the Florence ms. of the Shahnama, dated 614 A.H. (supplemented by the preface of the Topkapi manuscript)
  3. the 3rd or “intermediate” preface
  4. the Bâysonghori preface, dated 829 A.H.

§6. In analyzing the prosaic “Life of Ferdowsi” traditions as parallel to the poetic traditions of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama itself, I apply diachronic as well synchronic perspectives. In using these terms, I follow the definitions of Ferdinand de Saussure, with reference to language as a structure. Saussure notes that the synchronic approach concerns a current state of a structure while the diachronic approach examines different phases in the evolution of that given structure.[3]

§7. Saussure’s definition makes it clear that diachrony is a matter of evolution, a concept directly relevant to my diachronic perspective on the “Life of Ferdowsi” traditions. Applying such a diachronic perspective, I have developed an evolutionary model for studying the poetic stratifications of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama.[4]

§8. This model is based on both comparative and internal evidence. In terms of such a model, I argued that the evolution of the Shahnama helps explain the accretive and at the same time organic composition of this poetry. And I extended this argument from the poetry itself to the prose prefaces to that poetry.

§9. In the case of the poetry, I argued that the Shahnama, as an organically growing corpus, accommodates through time the diverse worldviews of its diverse audiences. And I argued that the prose prefaces, the rhetorical purpose of which was to contextualize the Shahnama and its poet in the here and now, likewise accommodate, through time, such diversity.

§10. When I speak of accommodation as a process that took place through time, I mean that the audience-responsiveness of the Shahnama and of its various prose prefaces cannot be fully explained in terms of any single time. In other words, the Shahnama and its different prose prefaces respond to different horizons of expectation, and these horizons cannot be seen from an exclusively synchronic perspective. In addition, a diachronic perspective is also required, which is a key to the concept of an “evolutionary model.”

§11. Most previous studies of the prose prefaces to the Shahnama have been limited to what I would call an “archaeological” perspective. That is, they have attempted to recover simply the earliest layers of the contents of these prefaces. Whatever does not fit the ancient worldview that is reconstructed from these earliest layers is then dismissed as an “interpolation”—or even discarded from the edited text.

§12. If, however, we open up the inquiry by combining diachronic and synchronic perspectives, we begin to see an ongoing pattern of accommodation and coexistence between older and newer traditions in the evolving poetics of the Shahnama.

§13. For example, some relatively older phases of the poetry of the Shahnama reflect the era of the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, the signs of whose patronage are still embedded in that poetry. Relatively newer phases, however, suggest an era when the poetry was no longer tied to this patronage. Such newer phases could be accommodated through the accretion of themes that dramatize a pattern of opposition—or at least indifference—on the part of Ferdowsi toward the patronage of Mahmud. This way, the poetic legacy of Ferdowsi is legitimated through time, from one phase to the next in the history of its overall reception.

§14. With this background now in place, I turn to the main argument in my present study: that the prose of the Bâysonghori Preface of the Shahnama, like the prose of the other prefaces and like poetry of the Shahnama itself, accommodates through time the diverse world views of its diverse audiences, and that this kind of accommodation through time has to be analyzed from a diachronic as well as synchronic perspective.

§15. We begin with the recension of the Shahnama that was commissioned by Shah Bâysonghor. Just as this recension is markedly inclusive in its synthesis of textual variants, so also the actual narrative of the Preface of the Bâysonghori Recension is inclusive in its synthesis of narratological variants. The narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface synthesizes the different versions of the story about the genesis of the Book of Kings as a way of explaining the genesis—and the reception—of the Bâysonghori recension itself.

§16. As a long-term project, I have been working on a translation of and commentary on the entire text of this Preface. This presentation is part of that project. Here I concentrate on selected portions of this text that highlight one particular phase of the narrative. As I examine this narrative, I will treat the contents as evidence for a pattern of thinking that reflects on the reception and even the formation of the body of poetry that we recognize as the Shahnama of Ferdowsi.

§17. I start at a given point in time within this narrative. It is the point where the patronage of the Book of Kings tradition passes from the dynasty of the Samanids, who are said to have commissioned the poet Daqiqi to turn the prose of the Book into poetry. When the dynasty of the Samanids is cut short, there is a transfer of power to Mahmud of Ghazna; correlatively, the life of the poet Daqiqi is cut short, and the turning of prose to poetry is interrupted, so that Daqiqi gets only as far as one or two thousand lines.[5]

§18. At the court of Mahmud, other poets attempt to take up where Daqiqi left off. Each of these poets is competing to become the authoritative poet of the Shahnama; at the beginning of the competition, the most prominent of these competitors is the chief court poet of Ghazna, ‘Onsori.[6]

§19. At first, it looks as if ‘Onsori will win the competition with the rival poets. At this point in the narrative, however, the unexpected happens. A visitor comes to the court of the Sultan. His name is Khor Firuz, and he hails from Fars, which is in West Iran. The intervention of this West Iranian figure prefigures the arrival of a new poetic rival, who will make his own bid to become the authoritative continuator of the Book of Kings at the court of Mahmud. That poetic figure is Ferdowsi, who hails from Tus, which is of course in East Iran. As the narrative proceeds, this new arrival at the court of the Sultan in Ghazna will eclipse the chief court poet of Ghazna, ‘Onsori.[7] Like ‘Onsori, Ferdowsi represents the poetic traditions of East Iran. Unlike ‘Onsori, however, Ferdowsi represents the poetic traditions of West Iran as well. And that is why Ferdowsi wins out over ‘Onsori on the course of the narrative to come.

§20. From here on, Ferdowsi will dominate the rest of the narrative. He is the one who will emerge as the single authoritative poet of the Shahnama, and he earns his poetic name, “poet of paradise,” in the process.[8]

§21. In the logic of the narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface, the competition between ‘Onsori and Ferdowsi as court poets is happening at a time when the Book of Kings has supposedly not yet been turned into poetry. In other words, the narrative supposes that the poetic version of the Book of Kings, the Shahnama as we know it, has remained suspended at the same point where Daqiqi had left it when he died and when the patronage of the Samanid dynasty was ended. Supposedly, each of the competing poets in the court of Sultan Mahmud would still have to rely on prose versions written down in books, which are supposed to be the raw material for the poetry that they hope to produce.

§22. Such a supposition is most evident in the part of the narrative where the figure of Khor Firuz discovers to his surprise that the court poet ‘Onsori expects to be authorized as the sole poet of the Shahnama before he has yet composed the poetry. I turn here to pertinent selections from my working translation:

[Khor Firuz] fired up his brain trying to decipher what kind of a book this could be that enabled its would-be author to receive such (lavish) treatment before actually embarking on it? And how come ‘Onsori, who had not yet placed the foundations of this work, should be eligible for such adulation?[9]

In performative terms, the question can be paraphrased this way: how can you even think of a versified Book of Kings before it has all been versified?

§23. As we can see, all that ‘Onsori has accomplished so far in this narrative is to engage in a single poetic performance, which is equated to a ‘scroll’ or tumar of poetry.[10] And this poetic performance is supposedly based on a Book of Kings that has just been sent to the court of the Sultan. The narrative goes on to say that this Book of Kings came from East Iran, specifically from the region of Sistan. Let us read the relevant portion of the narrative:

The Imam said: “From the beginning of creation, rulers and kings have all had their own particular sources of fear and delight: some found their pleasure in putting up banquets and feasting [bazm], some in extirpating danger from matters martial [razm].”[11]

§24. We see here a reference to the internal poetics of the Shahnama, where the combined themes of bazm ‘feasting’ and razm ‘fighting’ signal the heroic tradition of Rostam and related heroic figures; this tradition, it must be emphasized, is distinctly East Iranian in provenance.[12] By way of referring to the themes of bazm and razm, the narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface signals in its own turn the East Iranian epic traditions about the hero Rostam and his epic exploits. Here is the relevant portion of the narrative. A certain imam is being questioned by Khor Firuz about the circumstances of the competition among the court poets that is being sponsored by Sultan Mahmud, and the imam explains as follows:

In the past few days they have brought a manuscript from Sistan containing material on the life and manners of past kings. And the Sultan has decided that the best of these stories should be turned into verse. That explains why such crowds and multitude of poets have assembled at the court. Today was the day that the poets were to bring their versified pearls and present them at court. And in the Sultan’s discerning mind, ‘Onsori’s poem was found the most beautiful. He has instructed him to carry out the task.[13]

Here the narrative aetiologizes the inclusion of “Sistanian” poetic traditions about the hero Rostam in the Shahnama.

§25. What the figure of Khor Firuz has discovered, to his surprise, is that the poetic Shahnama is still in the making, and that the content of this poetry is being dictated, as it were, by the Book that will be chosen as the source for this poetry.

§26. The version that ‘Onsori will use is described here in terms of a textual source. That is, the version that ‘Onsori will use for his poetic Shahnama is supposedly based on a prosaic Book of Kings that has been brought to Ghazna from the farthest reaches of East Iran, that is, from Sistan.

§27. The narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface proceeds to describe the reaction of Khor Firuz. Now that he knows why and how the poetic Shahnama is being created, and now that he understands that this poetic version will be based on a prosaic Book of Kings that comes from East Iran, Khor Firuz makes an announcement to the Sultan: that there is a rival Book of Kings that exists in West Iran, specifically, in his native region of Fars. He adds that he cannot retrieve the Book himself because he is at the moment alienated from the people of Fars.[14] So the Sultan takes matters into his own hands. He sends out messengers to Fars to fetch the text of this prosaic Book of Kings from Fars in West Iran, and the people of Fars now gladly give up this Book to the messengers, despite their alienation from Khor Firuz:

The king immediately ordered a letter written and gave it to a messenger to take to his abode [= the abode of Khor Firuz] and deliver it to his people and take the book and bring it back with him.

The messenger dashed off like lightning
Out on his mission day and night
He skimmed over the high and the low like a wind in fury
Delving into the heart of the night like a secret thought.

He reached the place of Khor Firuz and gave the letter to his people. They rewarded him with many gifts and gave the book to him. The messenger brought back the book to the Sultan. Because of this, Khor Firuz was greatly favored and attained a high rank at the court.[15]

§28. The verses that are quoted in this context of the narrative, describing the feverish efforts of the messenger to reach the region of Fars as soon as possible, serve to reinforce the point of the story here. That point, I argue, is that there was once a West Iranian Shahnama in the making, which rivaled an East Iranian Shahnama in the making, as represented by the Book of Kings that had just been sent from the region of Sistan to the court of the Sultan.

§29. In the logic of the narrative, what resulted was a distinct part of the poetic Shahnama in the making:

And then the Sultan chose seven stories from these Annals of the Kings (Siyar-al-moluk) and distributed them among seven poets so that each could turn a story into verse.[16]

This point in time is linked in the narrative to a later point in time when the seven rival poets are enumerated. Of these seven, as we are about to see, three are court poets at Ghazna, the most prominent of whom is ‘Onsori.

§30. I propose here to “fast-forward” to that later point of time, where the narrative highlights the victory of Ferdowsi over the seven rival poets of the poetic Shahnama in the making. What we are about see there is that Ferdowsi becomes the authoritative poet of the Shahnama in the act of performance:

In short, he [= Ferdowsi] left Herat and reached Ghazna. And some say that Ferdowsi had been unjustly treated by the tax-collector at Tus and he went to Ghazna (to seek redress). And, at that time, Sultan Mahmud had selected seven stories from the Annals of the Persian Kings and given them to seven poets, so that each could turn one into verse. Whoever produced the best poetry would be given the whole book to versify. The names of the seven poets are as follows: ‘Onsori, Farrokhi, Zaynabi, ‘Asjadi, Manjik of Tirmidh, Harmi the Lute-player,[17] and Abu Hanifeh of Eskaf.[18] And ‘Onsori’s share was the story of Sohrab. And the seven poets who were the stars of the firmament of eloquence were engaged in the Sultan’s commission.

Meanwhile, Ferdowsi arrived at a garden near Ghazna. He sent someone to town to let some friends know that he had arrived. He made his ablutions and performed his religious prayers. By coincidence the poets of Ghazna—‘Onsori, Farrokhi and Asjadi—had each left the town and their rivals with a handsome slave boy and were about to have a private party in that garden. When Ferdowsi had finished his prayers, he wanted to join them for a while. When he was going towards them, they said, “this dry and somber ascetic will prove a killjoy to our occasion, we must get rid of him.” One of them said, “let us pretend to him that we are violently drunk so that he goes away.” ‘Onsori stopped them. Another said, “let us each say a half-line of verse in a difficult meter and ask him to give us the fourth.[19] If he agrees, perhaps he would fit the company, otherwise it will be a good excuse.” When he arrived, they acknowledged him and told him about the conditions. He answered, “If I can, I will cite it, if not, I will not trouble you anymore and leave.” ‘Onsori said, “this is fine.”[20]

We see here that ‘Onsori has the final word because he was Mahmud’s chief court poet, or malek-ol-sho’ara.

§31. I continue where we just left off in the narrative, which now proceeds to quote the rival half-lines composed by the rival poets:

Onsori goft: chun âreze to mâh nabâshad rowshan
Asjadi goft: mânand-e rokhat gol nabovad dar golshan
Farrokhi goft: mozhgânt hami gozar konad bar jowshan
Ferdowsi goft: mânand-e senân-e Giv dar jang-e pashan

‘Onsori said: “The moon is not as lucent as your face”
‘Asjadi said, “No flower in the garden matches your face”
Farrokhi said, “Your eyelashes would penetrate a coat of mail”
Ferdowsi said, “Just like Giv’s spear when he fought Pashan”

They [= the other three poets] asked about the manner of the battle between Giv and Pashan. He [= Ferdowsi] told it in a pleasing way so that his breadth of knowledge became apparent. He joined that party in conversation and companionship. And the poets gave him tests and challenges in poetry, and in improvisation Ferdowsi was extremely dextrous:

He rode the horse of improvisation
Smashing through the army of thought
Clutching the spear of fine words in one wave of improvisation
He broke through the heart of the infantry

The narrative is already making it evident here that Ferdowsi is going to win his contest with the three other poets.

§32. I conclude by observing that these excerpts from the narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface treat the Book of Kings tradition as performed poetry, not written prose. The idea of poetry, as expressed in this narrative, clearly goes above and beyond the idea of prose narratives in books, even though the idea of poetic composition and performance is metaphorized in terms of a book culture. A salient example is the passing reference, as noted earlier, to the tumar of the chief court poet of Ghazna, ‘Onsori.

§33. It is important to observe also the fact that the metaphorization of poetic composition and performance in terms of a book culture extends to Western as well as Eastern Iranian poetic traditions. That is the point of the aetiologizing vignettes about Khor Firuz, the impresario of a West Iranian Book of Kings tradition. In terms of the narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface, Western as well as Eastern Iranian prose texts are being turned into poetry.

§34. Pertinent to these observations is the fact that Khor Firuz, when he is first mentioned in the narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface, is pointedly described as a descendant of the Shah Anôshirvân.[21] Later on in the narrative, this Shah Anôshirvân (reign: 531–579 CE) is figured as the prototypical re-creator of the Shahnama. He is the culture hero who leaves no stone unturned in finding all regional variants of the supposedly prototypical Book of Kings:

The narrators of records and accounts relate that in ancient times the kings of Persia and particularly the Sasanians and among them most notably the just king Anôshirvân loved collecting accounts of the past generations and having them shorn of their anomalies. And he habitually sent messengers to research throughout the world and gather stories of the rulers of different regions along with other noteworthy accounts and to deliver a copy of their research to the [royal] library.[22]

§35. So the narrative here figures the Shahnama of Shah Anôshirvân as a prototype of the Shahnama of the Sultan Mahmud—which is a Shahnama still in the making. This description of the genesis of the Shahnama as commissioned by Mahmud and as composed ultimately by Ferdowsi is thematically parallel to Ferdowsi’s own description of the genesis of the Pahlavi book of Kings that he claims as his own source:

A noble and wise pahlavân, who is described as a hereditary dehqân, assembles bad-s from all over Iran, each of whom possesses a “fragment” of a preexisting Pahlavi book that had disintegrated through neglect. What now happens is an imagined reintegration of the disintegrated text. After all the môbad-s are lined up in the correct order, each of them is called upon to recite his own part of the notional totality that is the Book. It is thus that this ancient but once “fragmented” Book is wondrously reassembled by the assembly of môbad-s (Shahnama I 21.126-136 ed. Bertels).[23]

§36. In this description, as I have argued in my previous work, “we have what amounts to a myth-made stylization of oral poetry.”[24] A parallel argument can be made about the mutually contradictory historicized narratives that we find in the so-called Older Preface and in the Bâysonghori Preface, including the narrative we have been considering in this presentation. Such narratives are essential for understanding the reception and even the transmission of the Shahnama.


Davidson, Olga M. 2001. “Some Iranian poetic tropes as reflected in the ‘Life of Ferdowsi’ traditions.” In Philologica et Linguistica: Festschrift für Helmut Humbach (ed. Maria Gabriela Schmidt and Walter Bisang; Trier, 2001), supplement, pp. 1–12.

—. 2005. “Persian / Iranian Epic,” A Companion to Ancient Epic,” (J. M. Foley, ed.; Oxford, 2005) 264–276.

—. 2008. “The Testing of the Shâhnâma in the “Life of Ferdowsi” Narratives,” The Rhetoric of Biography: Narrating Lives in Persianate Societies (Louise Marlow, ed.; Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2008) 11–20.

—. 2008. Review of Kumiko Yamamoto, The Oral Background of Persian Epics: Storytelling and Poetry (Leiden 2003), Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 103 (2008) 306–315.

—. 2013. Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings. 3rd ed. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2013. 1st ed, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1994; 2nd ed. Mazda Press: Los Angeles, CA, 2006.

—. 2013. Comparative Literature and Classical Persian Poetry, 2nd ed. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2013. 1st ed, Bibliotheca Iranica: Intellectual Traditions Series, Mazda Press: Los Angeles, CA, 2000.

—. 2013. “Interweavings of book and performance in the making of the Shahnama of Ferdowsi: Extrapolations from the narrative of the Preface to the Bāysonghor manuscript,” Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāma: Millenial Perspectives (ed. Olga M. Davidson and Marianna Shreve Simpson; Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2013) 1–11.

Minorsky, Vladimir F. 1964. “The Older Preface to the Shâhnâma.” Iranica: Twenty Articles 260–274. Tehran.

Nagy, Gregory. “L’aède épique en auteur: la tradition des Vies d’Homère.” Identités d’auteur dans l’Antiquité et la tradition européenne (ed. C. Calame, and R. Chartier; Grenoble, 2004) 41–67.

Qazvini, Mirzâ Mohammad Khân. 1944. “Muqaddama-ye qadim-e Shâhnâma.” Hazâra-ye Ferdowsi (Tehran, 1944) 123–148.

Riyahi, Mohammad Amin. Sar-Chashma-ha-ye Ferdowsi Shenasi (Tehran, 1993) 364–418.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Critical ed. 1972 by T. de Mauro. (Paris, 1916; critical ed. 1972 by Tullio de Mauro.


The video recording of this presentation was originally shown at an international conference held at Baku, 27-28 November 2015. The title of the conference was Müqayisəli ədəbiyyat və mədəniyyət: Ədəbiyyatın və mədəniyyətin başlanğıc meyarları, Comparative Literature and Culture: Starting points of national literature and culture. Special thanks go to Rahilya Geybullayeva and Sevinj Bakhyshova for making it possible for Gregory Nagy and Olga Davidson to post their video recordings in Classical Inquiries.
Thanks go also to Claudia Filos for her expert videography.

[1] Davidson 2001, “Some Iranian poetic tropes as reflected in the ‘Life of Ferdowsi’ traditions,” in Philologica et Linguistica: Festschrift für Helmut Humbach, supplement pp. 1–12. The text of the Older Preface has been edited by Qazvini (1944) and translated by Minorsky 1963.

[2] The text of the Bâysonghori Preface has been edited by Mohammad Amin Riyahi, Sar-Chashma-ha-ye Ferdowsi Shenasi (1993 / 1372) 364–418.

[3] Saussure, Cours de linguistique génerale, p. 117.

[4] In developing this model, I have followed some of the methods used by Nagy in his developing an evolutionary model for the making of Homeric poetry. See his “L’aède épique en auteur: la tradition des Vies d’Homère” (2004).

[5] Bâysonghori Preface p. 370 ed. Riyahi.

[6] Bâysonghori Preface pp. 370–374.

[7] Bâysonghori Preface pp. 370–374.

[8] Bâysonghori Preface pp. 374–418.

[9] Bâysonghori Preface p. 372.

[10] For more on the concept and on the historical reality of the tumar, see Davidson 2008.

[11] Bâysonghori Preface p. 373.

[12] I analyze the correlation of these two themes of bazm ‘feasting’ and razm ‘fighting’ in chapter 9 of my book Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings (Davidson 3rd ed. 2013).

[13] Bâysonghori Preface p. 373.

[14] The narrative of the Bâysonghori Preface does not make it explicit whether or not Khor Firuz himself could be a performer of Shahnama traditions. In my previous work (Davidson 2005, p. 271), I make the inference that he was such a performer.

[15] Bâysonghori Preface p. 374. Again, the narrative does not make it explicit that Khor Firuz himself could be considered a court poet in his own right.

[16] Bâysonghori Preface p. 374.

[17] We find no reference to this figure anywhere else.

[18] The anachronistic figure of Rudaki is not mentioend here in the narrative.

[19] The fourth half-verse would be the concluding half-line of a quatrain.

[20] Bâysonghori Preface p. 381.

[21] Bâysonghori Preface p. 371.

[22] Bâysonghori Preface pp. 368–369.

[23] Davidson, Comparative Literature and Classical Persian Poetics (2000), pp. 30–32.

[24] Davidson, Poet and Hero (1994), p. 53.