The Image of Zoroaster in the Dastan-e Goshtasp

The aim of this article is to examine the image of the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the Shāhnāma based on a closed reading of the story about the Kayānian king Goshtāsp written by Daqiqi (and continued by Ferdousi). There has so far been no comprehensive treatment of Daqiqi’s rendering of Zoroaster and the founding of the first Zoroastrian community. This lack of scholarly research is surprising given the importance of Daqiqi in the transmission of the ancient Iranian cultural and religious heritage (illustrated in his pioneering role in the creation of the Shāhnāma of Ferdousi) and the uniqueness of his work, which constitutes the only long poem that has been preserved from the Sāmānid and pre-Sāmānid period (even though extant verses of some early poets suggest the existence of several other epic works). As Daqiqi relates, it was in Goshtāsp’s reign that Zoroaster introduced his religion in the Iranian cultural sphere, with the support of the king’s son Esfandiār. Goshtāsp was forced to go to war to defend the faith against king Arjāsp of Turān and suffered the loss of his brother Zarēr in battle. These are celebrated events in the early history of Zoroastrianism that have been expounded upon throughout the centuries in different versions.

 

A close reading of the Dāstān-e Goshtāsp demonstrates that Daqiqi is heavily influenced by Zoroastrian religious and ethical concepts. He presents Zoroastrianism in accordance with the Avestā as a monotheistic religion that emphasizes to the dualistic struggle between good and evil. Zoroaster is portrayed as a prophet who advocated wisdom and goodness. He is the founder of the “good religion” (dēn-e behi) and his revelation, as contained in the Avestā, is praised by Daqiqi. Using the metaphor of a tree he portrays the prophet’s coming as that of a great tree, bearing the immortal fruit of wisdom, with many branches spread far and wide. This favourable description of Zoroaster is far from the conventional Muslim view and stands in sharp contrast to contemporary Arabic sources (Ṭabari, Taʽālabi Nishāburi, etc.) that denounce him as a false prophet and describe his teachings as based on a collection of superstitions. In Daqiqi’s account he is a charismatic leader and eloquent orator, who guides Goshtāsp and his associates to God. As far as Zoroaster’s character is concerned, he is represented as a wise, benevolent, and truthful person. Influenced by the royal tradition of the Sāsānian period, the poet also emphasizes his strong sense of patriotism and social consciousness. His religious instructions are intended to promote the protection and welfare of Iran, not least in relation to its Turānian enemy. Daqiqi’s reliance on Sāsānian sources is also evident in the fact that Zoroaster is presented as advocating religion and kingship as comparable counterparts.

 

Many streams of tradition – religious, royal, and heroic – converge and cross-influence each other in various ways in the Dāstān-e Goshtāsp. The traditions differ in emphasis and in their evaluation of individual events and characters. Apart from the three major traditions of the Iranian national epic, Daqiqi draws on historical material from his own period as illustrated in his description of the originally Parthian legend of the Borzēn-Mehr and the cypress of Kashmar, which flourished in a dependency of Nishāpur until 871. The poet largely keeps to the royal tradition even if he is heavily influenced by the priestly tradition as regards details concerning the coming of Zoroaster and the conflict between Iran and Turān. His reliance on the priestly tradition is illustrated by his description of the causes of the war as well as the function of the “valiant demon”, which is identical to the “demon of wrath” (Av. Aēshəma) of the Zoroastrian tradition. It is important to observe that the poet consciously adopts these features to render the story a religious dimension, and his allusions to material contained in the priestly tradition are not just perfunctory references to the religious subject matter. Daqiqi’s reliance on the royal tradition must however be considered highly conventional since it includes very little innovative or imaginative thinking in comparison to Ferdousi. The royal tradition also comprises a strong heroic component since the Kayānian cycle embodies the literature of the most notable heroic age in the Iranian tradition. This feature is reflected in the tone and rhetoric of the epic, which are more heroic than religious. The poet holds on to some conventions of epic poetry such as rich hyperbole, fixed epithets, and an abundance of formal repetitions.

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