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Sunday, July 11, 2010

RICHARD FREEMAN: Persian Dragons

Persian dragons go by a number of names aži dahāka, ezhdehā, or azhdahā. In appearance it is not unlike the Chinese dragon but its nature is more akin to the western dragon. It has a camel-like head with a beard and sharp teeth in its mouth. Persian dragons a single horn that branches into two spikes at the end. The body and tail are long and serpentine, capable of constriction. It has four legs ending in claws that are usually tiger-like in form. The whole body is covered in shimmering scales. Though they rarely fly Persian dragons often have wings. Unlike western dragons the wings are feathery like birds wings rather than bat-like.

If their form recalls the generally peaceful Asian dragons, their temperament was more akin to the evil dragons of Europe. Persian dragons were so savage that even jinn feared them. They spat out great jets of fire and devoured what ever they came across, man or beast.

The Shahnameh a Persian book of poems written by Hakīm Abu'l-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī between 977 A.D and 1010 A.D and running to 60,000 verses, mentions dragons doing battle with Persian heroes and Shāhs (kings).

The king Faridun had three sons who he would not name until he knew their characters. He tested them by appearing to each in the form of a huge fire breathing dragon. The eldest son fled in terror, the second son stood his ground to fight and the third boasted that he was Faridun’s son and advised the dragon to flee.

Faridun named his first son Salm for prudence and gave him the western territories. The second son he called Tur for bravery and awarded him the eastern lands. The third son he called Iraj for discreet courage and gave him the kingdom of Persia.

Iraj’s decedents often met with dragons as recorded in the Shahnameh.

Gushtasp was a great huntsman who had married a princess from the western kingdoms against her father’s wishes. The Emperor banished the pair to a remote wilderness but Gushtasp’s skill grew to legendary levels. He slew a dragon by affixing a multi bladed dagger to his spear and thrusting it down the monster’s throat. Finally his father in law relented and made Gushtasp general of the imperial army.

Gustasp’s son was as crafty as his father was brave. His name was Isfandiyar. Whilst journeying east to rescue his sisters from an invading warlord he encountered a dragon so vas it could defeat a whole army. Knowing he could not hope to win in a straight battle with the monster Isfandiyar developed a plan. He built a wooden carriage studded with sharp hooks and sword blades. He hid inside and drove it towards the waiting dragon. The dragon swallowed the horses, carriage and driver whole, but the hooks and blades fatally ripped into its gullet. Isfandiyar himself leapt free as the beast writhed in its death throes.

Isfandiyar had a son named Ardashir. One day Ardashir was out riding in the Zagros Mountains when he was ambushed by a dragon so large that it swallowed both him and his horse.

Generations later King Bahram Gur was out hunting when he encountered a small dragon. He shot it with an arrow through the chest and one to the head. When he sliced it open he found a human body in its belly.

But by far the best known hero of the Shahnameh is Rustam - a sort of Persian Heracles - who performed seven great tasks. The third of these involved slaying a dragon. His story runs thus.

Persia’s greatest hero was a feudal lord named Rustam who was born during the reign of King Manucihr. Rustam had a remarkable dappled horse called Rakhsh. The steed was legendary for his intelligence and loyalty.

One night man and horse had made camp deep in the desert. Unknown to Rustam they were close to the lair of a desert dragon. The ghastly beast was so savage that even the jinn and daemons of the desert feared it and would not come close to its cave. And when the dragon ventured forth, spewing fire and venom they all fled.

Rustam had tethered Rakhsh for the night and climbed into his tent. By the silver light of the gibbous moon the dragon came coiling across the dunes in search of prey. It had a long serpent body and stood on four legs with tiger claws. Its wings were covered in blood red feathers. The horned and bearded head swung this way and that as it searched for a victim. Black venom dripped from its teeth and sizzled into the sand.

Soon its flickering tongue caught the scent of the sleeping hero. Silent as a ghost it crept towards Rustam’s tent. Rakhsh reared up and whinnied a warning to his master. He stamped his hooves and pulled against his tether. Rustam stirred in his tent and the dragon, knowing its advantage had been spoiled, slid away into the night.

Rustam emerged to see what had been bothering Rakhsh. Seeing nothing amiss he yawned and returned to his tent.

An hour or so later the dragon came sliding out of the night again, its smoky nostrils a twitch with the scent of man. Once more Rakhsh went wild, neighing and stomping. The foiled dragon vanished into the darkness. Rustam awoke again and on finding nothing wrong berated his horse for such foolishness before returning returning wearily to bed.

Eventually Rakhsh’s head nodded, but even as he dozed, the desert dragon once more emerged from the dunes its patterned scales shining by moonlight. Slashing through the side of Rustam’s tent with its claws it coiled its python-like body around the sleeping man.

Rustam awoke to find his arms pinned against his sides and the dragon’s coils tightening like a vice about him. The air was pushed from his lungs and with fading sight he saw the dragon’s head poised to strike above him. In a last desperate effort he reached for his scimitar but the coils tightened again hold him helpless. Rustam tried to gasp for help before the deadly fangs struck home.

Suddenly Rakhsh galloped into view. He had torn himself free of his tether and flung himself at the dragon. He bit at the coils and slammed his hooves against them. They could not penetrate the hard scales of the dragon. But the monster, realizing it was under attack loosened its coils and turned on the horse. Spitting fire and venom it struck at the brave animal. Rakhsh dodged the savage attack and lured the dragon away from Rustam. Gulping in air Rustam grabbed his scimitar. Whilst the dragon was engaged in attacking the horse, he slashed at the softer scales on its underbelly fatally wounding it.

When both man and horse were recovered Rustam gave praise to Allah and sang a song of glory to his valiant steed.


Dale Drinnon said...

Although the legends are much exaggerated, there seems to be a real creature at the bottom of them: in Iraq it is called Afa and it is apparantly the same as the Jhoors in Western India, which Heuvelmans related to the Burus but said they were "Highly mythologized" when he mentioned them in his checklist. The artistic representations of them are obviously based directly on Chinese designs, but the original might be a large monitor lizard that used to lurk around water holes. Heuvelmans referred to it as a monitor, whether or not it would be the same as the Buru.

Swing trader said...

I am a student of Shahnameh, and I have to say your summary of cases where dragons have been mentioned in that book is both correct and very close to the text. I congratulate you.

Saeid Nourizadeh