Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām

Rahim M. Shayegan

Shayegan, M. Rahim. Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām. Hellenic Studies Series 52. Washington, D.C./Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Hellenic Studies – Harvard University Press, 2012.

The purpose of the study is twofold. In the first part, it examines the content of one the most important inscriptions of the Ancient Near East: the Bisotun inscription of the Achaemenid king Darius I (6th century BCE), which in essence reports on a suspicious fratricide and subsequent coup-d’état. The study shows how the inscription’s narrative would decisively influence the Iranian epic, epigraphic, and historiographical traditions well into the Sasanian and early Islamic periods. Intriguingly, the author’s assessment of the impact of the Bisotun narrative on later literary traditions—in particular, on the inscription of the Sasanian king Narseh at Paikuli (3rd–4th centuries CE)—relies on the reception of the oral rendition of the Bisotun story captured by Greek historians.

In the second part of the study, Shayegan investigates how this originally oral narrative, preserved by Herodotus and other Greek and Latin authors, could impact the “historiographical” writings and epic compositions of later Iranian empires, such as the Sasanians, over nine centuries later. Not only do Sasanian inscriptions, especially the inscription of king Narseh at Paikuli, make use of the same story pattern that one encounters in the accounts of Greek and Latin authors describing Bardiya’s murder, especially with regard to the theme of two evil usurpers (called here Warahrān and Wahnām), but also the epic tradition, as reflected in the “Book of the Kings” (Šāhnāme), and the medieval romances called the “Book of Darius” (Dārābnāme), and “Samak, the ʿayyār” (Samak-e ʿAyyār) shows that the story of Bardiya’s murder had penetrated epic composition and had become part of the epic canon.

Finally, the study seeks to demonstrate that in Ancient, Late Antique, and Medieval Iran the interaction between epic and historiographical practices were varied and intricate. “Historical records” could be generated in conformity with the ideals of epic, or composed by being cast into the mold of the oral epic tradition, thereby losing their individual “historical” tenor to conform to the normative frame of the epic. An example in case is the (Indo)-Iranian epic theme of the Twins that decisively shaped the oral composition of the murder story of Bardiya and Gaumāta. However, the prestige of the oral rendition of the Bisotun must have been such that the theme of the two evil brothers was projected back (under new guise) into the oral epic tradition and replaced the older Iranian theme of the Twins, thus re-juvenating the thematic inventory of the epic tradition.
This study in conjunction with Shayegan’s recently published Arsacids and Sasanians: Political ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia (Cambridge University Press, 2011) form the Vorarbeiten for a new history of the Sasanian empire, on which Shayegan is presently working.