BMCR 2014.03.24

Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran from Gaumāta to Wahnām. Hellenic studies 52

, Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran from Gaumāta to Wahnām. Hellenic studies 52. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2012. xv, 227. ISBN 9780674065888 $24.95 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is given at the end of the review.]

In Iranian studies the predominant trend is, generally speaking, to differentiate epic and historical literature as two separate genres. The book under discussion is a welcome contribution to the reconsideration of this differentiation. The primary question of the study addresses the extent to which royal historiography in ancient Iran is influenced by (epic) oral traditions. Shayegan chooses the narrative theme of usurpation in three different chronological epochs of Iranian history: Darius’s inscription at Bīstūn (late sixth century BC) and its reflections in Greek historiography, the inscription of Narseh at Paikuli (end of the third century AD) and the story of Fereydūn and Żahhāk in the Šāhnāme of Ferdosī (10 th -11 th century AD). Shayegan concludes that these historical events are not only preserved in the written historiographical texts but are also handed down in parallel oral epic traditions. The book is thus of greatest interest to scholars of not only Iranian studies but also oral tradition.

In the first chapter Shayegan introduces the conflicting sources on the coup d’état at the end of Cambyses’ reign: the Iranian account from the Bīstūn inscription in which only one usurper, Gaumāta, is introduced, and the account in the classical sources—Herodotus, Trogus’ account in Justin’s epitome, Ctesias, Dionysius of Miletus, Hellanicus, Aeschylus, and some minor classical as well as Late Antique and Syriac sources—in which a couple play the role of usurper. He discusses the functions of the usurpers in these sources, kingmaker and puppet-king, as well as their relationship to Bardiya, Cambyses’ brother. In chapter two, Shayegan tackles the historicity of the two personae of the Bīstūn narrative, Bardiya and Gaumāta. The names of the Herodotean pair seem to be derived from the name and the political title of Bardiya; the names of the Justinian pair from the name and the religious title of Gaumāta; and Shayegan convincingly asserts that this can be considered evidence for Bardiya’s and Gaumāta’s historicity.

In the third chapter, Shayegan argues for the influence of the Mesopotamian ritual of the substitute king on the usurpation narrative at Bīstūn even though he admits that the crucial Herodotean story of Xerxes ordering Artabanus to dress in his robe and sleep in his bed “does not represent a genuine instance of the ‘substitute king’ ritual” (p. 39). Because of similar elements in the substitute king ritual and this story, he considers the latter a variation of the former. However, one cannot overlook the basic functional difference between the two: the ritual aims to prevent the realization of the king’s omen whereas Xerxes tries to verify the validity of his dream.

In the following chapter, by contrast, Shayegan presents enough evidence for the existence of the “evil brothers” theme in the Iranian epic tradition and more importantly, for a mythologem which may have served as a pattern for the shift of “the historical reality of two associates … into the story of ‘two evil brothers’” (p. 51). My one criticism concerns his estimation of twins in Iranian cosmogony (Ahreman and Ohrmazd) as ‘evildoers’, because in this case one brother is evil, while the other is the opposite.

In the first part of chapter five, Shayegan deals with Oral-Formulaic theory. He shows that more recent studies in oral tradition have rejected not only the mutual exclusivity of orality and literacy but also the presumed movement from orality to literacy. Instead, one has to contend with hybridity and different combinations of these, such as literate production using formulaic composition, composing poems in writing primarily for an audience of listeners, (re)composition in performance or oral circulation of a literate composed text, and written recording of a performance. It is in this zone of hybridity that Shayegan situates Achaemenid and Sasanian epigraphical narratives. In the Bīstūn inscription, he investigates the meanings of the crucial words ha n dugā- “account,” * dipiciça- “transcript,” patišam kun- “counterfeit; replicate.” (p. 96f.) He convincingly concludes that “the dissemination of the Bisotun narrative may have taken place on two levels: an oral Old Persian variant ( ha n dugā-) of the Bisotun inscription was circulated, and an Old Persian written transcript (* dipiciça-) of the same inscription, recorded on clay and parchment, was sent to the four quarters of the empire” (p. 101). The two other versions of Darius’s res gestae at Bīstūn, the ha n dugā- and the * dipiciça-, could have given rise, Shayegan argues, to two independent oral (performed) traditions. It is the ha n dugā- version which could be considered the probable origin of the Greek accounts of Darius’s coup d’état. (p. 102f.)

Regarding the much later inscription of Narseh at Paikuli, Shayegan argues there are two decisive pieces of evidence for the influence on it of an oral tradition derived from the oral origin of Herodotus’s account: the existence of two usurpers and two councils in both accounts and their absence in the Bīstūn inscription. While he suggests that the introduction of two usurpers instead of one into the story in Herodotus comes from the “evil brothers” pattern in Indo-Iranian mythology and cosmogony, he does not pose the question of the introduction of two councils during the oral transmission of Darius’ res gestae.

In the next two chapters Shayegan points out similarities in formulation and story patterns in the accounts of royal usurpations in Herodotus and the Bīstūn and Paikuli inscriptions (chapter 6) and in the Żahhāk story (chapter seven). While the general similarity of these accounts is undeniable, it is not inevitable that the theme in a later account stems from oral transmission of an older account; the theme may have been transmitted through another story. Shayegan himself provides an example in the story of Żahhāk and the two sisters, Šahrnāz and Arnavāz (p. 144-146). It has been recently established1 that this myth originates in the Indo-Iranian period and has the Old Indian Vala-myth as counterpart,2 and so it can nearly be ruled out that this theme in the Żahhāk story is imported from the oral transmission of Darius’s res gestae.

In addition to similarities, Shayegan takes account of differences between story patterns. As an example he notes the contrast between Herodotus’ account and Paikuli inscription regarding the two councils (p. 136f). To such serious differences can be added the prominent role which falsehood plays in the Iranian representations of res gestae and its only implicit presence in the Herodotean account. With regard to these differences, we should consider the works of Herodotus and the other Greek authors not as written copies of the orally transmitted res gestae of Darius, but rather the Greek interpretation. Because of the relatively low importance of falsehood for the Greek audience, Greek authors did not stress this theme in their writings.

More general conclusions than the short last chapter would have been useful for scholars in fields other than Iranian studies who may be less interested in philological details or precise comparisons of different accounts.3

The merit of Shayegan’s outstanding study lies in its refreshing insight on Iranian epigraphy and the debate on oral versus literate transmission of knowledge in Ancient Iran. Finally, one not only reads Shayegan’s book with rapt attention, but becomes very keen to read his upcoming book, “a new history of the Sasanian empire” (p. xiii).

Table of Contents

1. The Sources (1-26)
2. On the Historical Personae Bardiya and Gaumāta (27-34)
3. The Concept and Reality of the Substitute King in Mesopotamia and Iran (35-42)
4. The Evil Brothers in the Iranian Tradition (43-72)
5. Oral-Formulaic Theory and Iranian Royal Inscriptions (73-108)
6. Royal Usurpations in Iranian Literary Traditions I: The Inscription of Narseh at Paikuli (109-138)
7. Royal Usurpations in Iranian Literary Traditions II: The Evidence of Šāhnāme (139-156)
8. Preliminary Conclusions (157-160)
Appendix I. Formulaic Analysis of Kerdīr’s Inscriptions (161-174)
Appendix II. Thematic Analysis of Kerdīr’s Inscriptions (175-180)
Bibliography (181-214)
Index Locorum (215-218)
Subject Index (219-227)


1. See Remmer, Ulla. Frauennamen im Rigveda und im Avesta. Studien zur Onomastik des ältesten Indischen und Iranischen. Wien 2006, pp. 214-224.

2. According to this interpretation, Av. Arǝnauuācī is the original captive woman corresponding to Uṣás in Vala-myth. The duplication of the women is believed to be a Zoroastrian innovation, giving a positive character to the captured person who will be released by a Zoroastrian hero, Θraētaona.

3. I noted some mistakes: on p. 143, the following verse should be added between verses seven and eight: nehān rāstī āškārā gazand; on p. 151, the last verse is missing: jahān-nāsepardeh javān-e sotorg; the second verse on the same page should read kē pēš-e negahbān-e eyvān berost. With regard to meter, the first verse on p. 144 should read dō pākīze az ḫāne-ye ğamm-e šīd. The name of one of the two captured sisters by Żahhāk is rendered in the first verse on p. 145 “ šahrzād ” instead of šahrnāz.