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Isfandiyar struggles with the simurgh

20 December, 2007 (05:00) | literature/performance/film/music, medieval, west asia | By: xensen

Isfandiyar struggles with the simurgh

Isfandiyar is one of the heroes of the great Persian epic the Shahnama, or “Book of Kings” by Firdawsi. The image above is from a 1330 edition. The legendary bird the Simurgh figures prominently in the story.

The Simurgh is always represented as female. Although not depicted so in this image, she was often shown with the head of a dog, and sometimes with the claws of a lion. She was very large — large enough to carry off an elephant. The Simurgh was sometimes said to live at the top of the tree of life and to have seen the creation and destruction of the world three times. She represented the union between the earth and the sky, and was charged with purifying the waters of the earth.

When the albino prince Zal was abandoned by his parents, the Simurgh nurtured him. Later Zal returned to human society and married a woman named Rudaba. In due course she became pregnant, but her labor was difficult. Zal summoned the Simurgh, who performed a cesarean section with her claws. The baby who was born was Rostam, the national hero of Persia.

Later in the story, Rostam and Isfandiyar engaged in combat. Rostam had the worst of the encounter, because Isfandiyar had immersed himself in a magical water that made one invulnerable. Again summoned, the Simurgh healed Rostam and advised him that Isfandiyar had kept his eyes shut while immersed in the magic water, and Rostam was able to defeat him by shooting an arrow through his eye.

In an alternate episode from the story, however, Isfandiyar kills the Simurgh (or perhaps a different Simurgh) as part of one of a series of heroic labors. This is the scene depicted here.

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