As time permits, I find myself searching the web for people, places, events, and ideas in Shahnameh. I was pleasantly surprised during such a search to encounter the blog of sci-fi/fantasy author Kate Elliott, who spent much of 2016 reading Shahnameh with another author, Tessa Gratton. They’ve used the opportunity to have a conversation about each of 42 segments (although by the looks of it, they missed a couple of weeks). You should give their conversation a read. The Shahnamah Reading Project 2016, with Tessa Gratton & Kate Elliott

By way of an update, I am finishing up the reign of Darab. As the narrative progressed, I was scanning eagerly for signs of any events from externally verifiable history. The place names are relatively easy to identify more often than not, but the personal names don’t ever seem to match up unless you know what you’re looking for. For instance, according to legend, the present-day Iranian city of Darab was founded by Darius I, who ruled Persia at the peak of the Achaemenid Dynasty. Darab-gerd, its old name, in fact means Darius-town, meaning that Darab is probably Darius I. Of course, this means that the founder of the same dynasty, Cyrus the Great, has already come and gone in this narrative, but who was he in Ferdowsi’s telling?

Now, I understand that Ferdowsi was not recounting a strict history of Persia more than he was recounting its myths. After all, the great hero Rostam, at one point during his conversation with doomed Esfandyar, declares his age to be over 600 years, a plausible figure given the length of time he’s been active in the story. Still, one might expect that events occurring in the subjective timeline to begin to mirror those that are closer to the present than the earlier parts of the narrative. It is the age of the names and their various transliterations and translations that makes it difficult to trace here.

If Darab is our reference point, and we know that Darab means Darius, we can draw some conclusions. First, we can be confident that the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great coincides with Ferdowsi’s telling of the conquest of Persia by Sekandar. The Persians recorded his name as both Sekandar and Iskandar, and Alexander is the Greek version of his name. Second, we now have a means of walking backward to Cyrus III, known as Cyrus the Great. For this, we have to use etymology. Again, it is the Romanized Greek version of the name that we in the West have preserved in our histories, but it is through the old Greek and Old Persian that we start to get a sense: Kyros or Kurus. These forms, of course, much resemble Kay Khosrow. This comparison breaks down somewhat when we note that the etymology of Kurus and that of Khosrow are distinct and unrelated. In that case, we still have Kavus (Kaus), Kay Khosrow’s grandfather. An intriguing entry in Volume 10 of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society (1841) suggests that the cuneiform inscription of the name of Cambyses I, Cyrus the Great’s father, was Kabus.

This still leaves us with lots of myth overlaying some identifiable historical touchstones. As we move forward in Ferdowsi’s mythical history, we will undoubtedly begin to recognize even more actual history. For me, this is what helps ground the epic and make it part of the real world.