Belief in devils and witches was a central feature of the medieval and early modern worlds. From Ars Moriendi texts that taught the dying how to avoid the clutches of the devil, to treatises on the machinations of witches, interactions with malign, evil entities were an accepted − if unwelcome − part of everyday life. While much has been written on the Occidental traditions of supernatural belief, it should also be noted that the Islamic world shared the same concerns about the agency of evil spirits. The epic Persian poem, the Shahnama, or ‘Book of Kings’, contained numerous stories involving magic, witches and demons. The historic John Rylands Library in Manchester is home to a fine selection of meticulously illustrated copies of the text.
Written between c.982−1010 CE by Abu’l Qasim Firdousi of Tus (‘Ferdowsi’, d. 1025CE), who took over the project from Abu Mansur Daqiqi (d. 976CE), the Shahnama charts the history of the Persian people from the beginning of the world to the fall of the Sasanian Empire (642CE). As well as being the longest poem ever written by a single author, the Shahnama is notable for the purity of its written Persian, with very few Arabic loan words included in the text. Structurally, it is divided into three main parts, the mythical, legendary, and historical eras, and covers the reigns of forty-seven kings and three queens. Almost two-thirds of the text is devoted to the legendary section of Iranian history, of which the adventures of the hero Rustam (see below) are given particular prominence. The Shahnama places great emphasis on the differences between good and bad kingship, providing moral lessons to entertain and edify its noble readership. Demons and witches – that is, evil incarnate – provided the ideal obstacles for ‘good’ kings and heroes to overcome. The increased commercialisation of manuscript production in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, focused mainly on the city of Shiraz, meant that the Ferdowsi’s masterpiece began to enjoy a much wider circulation, able to be read, copied and patronised by royal and non-royal audiences alike.
The storming of the castle of Bahman is one of the most visceral supernatural encounters recorded in the Shahnama. Following a long and eventful reign, the Shah Kay Kavus decided to abdicate his throne, but could not decide whether his successor should be his son, Fariburz, or grandson, Kay Khusraw. Thus he announced that whoever vanquished the demon-filled castle of Bahman would become the new ruler. Fariburz’s assault failed after the ground surrounding the castle magically burst into flames, forcing him to retreat. When Kay Khusraw approached the castle, he commanded one of his retainers, Giv, to attach a letter to the walls proclaiming the castle would fall to the rightful king. Almost immediately the ramparts began to crumble. Kay Khusraw wasted no time in ordering his archers to fire, killing many ‘Divs’ (demons) in the process. Those that weren’t killed in the initial onslaught died after falling from the battlements. Kay Khusraw returned home in triumph and accepted the Persian crown. This page from Persian MS 910, written in 1518 but not illustrated until much later, showcases the aftermath of the collapse of Bahman’s walls (fig. 1).
|Fig. 1: The demon castle of Bahman, Persian MS 910, fol. 139a (c. 1518) (copyright of the University of Manchester)|
Rustam is considered the greatest of the Shahnama’s heroic characters. In the tradition of other such legendary heroes as Herekles, Cu Chulainn and Beowulf, Rustam was a larger-than-life figure who, from an early age, performed many feats of strength, daring and courage. His most famous quest concerns the seven labours, or ‘courses’, undertaken to rescue the previously-mentioned Shah, Kay Kavus. Having been persuaded by a div disguised as a minstrel to invade the realm of Mazandaran on the Caspian Sea, the Shah and his army were captured and blinded by the infamous White Div (div-i safid), who had come to the aid of Mazandaran’s king. On hearing of the Shah’s predicament, Rustam determined to slay the Div, the blood from whose liver was the only substance that could restore the Shah and the army’s sight. In sequence, Rustam’s challenges included fighting a lion, finding a spring in the desert, defeating a dragon, a witch, the hero Ulad, the demon Arzhang and, finally, the White Div himself.
The fourth labour, the slaying of an evil witch, provides a fascinating insight into Persian conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic. Following his defeat of the desert-dwelling dragon, Rustam entered a valley populated by ‘sorcerers’ and came across a banquet that had been set up beside a stream. Noting that it was a “sorcerers’ meal” and that the participating divs had fled at the sound of his approach, Rustam sat down, picked up a lute and began to sing. His melodies reached the ears of a nearby witch, who approached Rustam in the guise of a beautiful young woman. Not knowing that she was a witch, Rustam offered her a glass of wine, invoking the grace of God as he did so. The witch recoiled at the mention of God’s name, an insult that prompted Rustam to ensnare her in his magical lasso. Ordered to “speak and show thy proper favour”, the witch transformed back into a hideous, wrinkled old hag. Rustam promptly stabbed her with his sword before continuing with his journey. While this illustration from Persian MS 9, produced in India, does not depict Rustam’s lasso, nor the witch’s hideous appearance, it clearly shows the moment when he is about to behead his adversary (fig. 2).
Rustam’s quest ended when he arrived at the White Div’s underground lair, the setting of the seventh and final labour. Entering the pitch-black cave and finding the demon asleep, he roused his opponent with a fierce roar and cut off the Div’s hand and foot before he had time to react. Following a brief but violent struggle, Rustam killed the Div by throwing him upon the ground, after which he removed the demon’s liver. As expected, the blood from the liver magically cured Kay Kavus and his army of their blindness. This illustration from Persian MS 932 shows Rustam stabbing the White Div’s torso after having already sliced off its limbs (fig. 3). The animated, violent nature of the scene suggests that the Div has not yet been killed. This, then, is the middle of the fight rather than its aftermath. The image itself is defined by the contrast between the frenetic action occurring within the cave and the consternation of the human and demonic characters without. The figure at the very right of the page can be identified as Ulad, who was captured by Rustam during the fifth labour and made to act as his guide through the lands of Mazandaran. Rustam tied Ulad to a tree before entering the White Div’s cave. The horse at the lower right side of the page is Rustan’s faithful steed, Rakhsh.
Within the cave itself Rustam is depicted with his usual accoutrements of a leopard skin helmet and tiger skin robe. According to legend, the tiger skin was said to afford Rustam superhuman powers. As embodiments of chaos and social disorder, the divs are appropriately hybridised, a mixture of both animal and human parts. Their feral semi-nakedness also contrasts with the finery of Rustam and Ulad’s own clothing. Interestingly, the poem describes the White Div as being ‘a mountain that blotted all within, with a sable face and hair like a lion’s mane’. Thus, while the nomenclature ‘White Div’ would seem to refers to the demon’s hair colour rather than its skin complexion, the artist − perhaps aware of the difficulty of depicting a dark body on a black background − has chosen to make the creature entirely white. With Rustam representing the known, cultural world and the White Div representing the Other, the seventh labour can be read as a broad allegory of the fight between good and evil.
Demons and witches were an integral component of pre- and post-Islamic Persian folklore. Where the Shahnama is concerned, evil entities were a threat to the very coherence of the Persian court. The destruction of the castle of Bahman and the killing of the White Div ensured the maintenance of divine order. The Shahnama’s portrayal of magic is, however, much more ambiguous. White or ‘good’ magic seems to have been the sole property of heroes, seen especially in the positive connotations associated with Rustam’s lasso and leopard-skin helmet. More often than note, female magic was characterised as ‘bad’ and possibly demonic. Heroes could use magic for their own noble ends; females, by contrast, were shaped by the supernatural forces they wielded. As noted in Rustam’s fourth labour, the innate ugliness of the witch was concealed beneath a false, seductive glamour. Such beliefs find a corollary in Western conceptions of witchcraft. The ability to seemingly change shape and deceive the senses is considered, for example, in Part I, Question Ten of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’, c.1487). Whether to entertain (Shahnama) or instruct (Malleus), to amuse or provoke fear, tales of the supernatural had a strong emotional impact on Eastern and Western audiences alike.
Further Reading: Jerome W. Clinton and Marianna S. Simpson, ‘How Rustam killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Iranian Studies 39: 2 (2006), 171-97; C. P. Melville and Barbara Brend, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (London: Tauris, 2010); Laurie Pierce, ‘Serpents and Sorcery: Humanity, Gender, and the Demonic in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh’, Iranian Studies 48: 3 (2015), 349−67; Basil W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the John Rylands Library: A Descriptive Catalogue (London: Sotheby, 1980)
About the author: Dr Stephen Gordon is a Postdoctoral Research Associate on Jennifer Spinks’ Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Magic, Diabolism, and Global Religion in European Print Culture, 1500–1700’ (grant number AH/L015013/1). One of the major outcomes of the project will be the exhibition ‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World’ at the John Rylands Library, from late January to mid 2016. The exhibition will be co-curated by Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley, who both lecture in early modern history at the University of Manchester, and it has also been supported by the John Rylands Research Institute. It will feature Persian MSS 9, 910 and 932 alongside other works from the Rylands collection. Stephen’s work more often focuses upon Western traditions of supernatural belief. One of the aims of the exhibition is to situate a small selection of non-Western works from the collection in a dialogue with material from European contexts, partly in the hope of fostering future collaborative work with specialists in this area.