Kayumars, whose kingdom stretched
across the wide world, who wore
the world’s first crown and called his throne
the seat of law, setting it high
in the mountains, where his fortunes soared as well,
who clothed himself in animal skins,
an example for his people to follow,
and taught them the trees’ fruit was food—
this Kayumars reigned for three decades,
a shining sun spreading peace,
a glowing moon, full and tranquil,
rising high above a slender cypress.
All creatures, wild and tame, came
from each of the world’s corners, seeking
refuge in his realm, revering him,
and in their reverence nurturing his splendor,
basking in the royal farr. This
is where in time religion’s rise began.
One day, as Hushang made his way
with some companions towards the mountains,
a long black snake with blood-filled bowls
for eyes and sun-darkening smoke
for breath charged at the monarch’s party.
The king took the creature’s measure,
hurled a rock with a hero’s strength,
but the monster dodged Hushang’s attack,
and the stone broke open on a boulder,
sending sparks into the air.
The fiend escaped, but fire had been found
in that rock’s heart, and Hushang
thanked God for granting such a gift.
The flames he lit that night blazed
mountain-high, and he made this proclamation:
“Fire is divine; the wise will worship it.”
Then he and his people circled those flames,
feasting and drinking wine, and the king named
their celebration Sadeh.
Girded with God’s glory, his mace
raised to his shoulder and ready to strike,
he braced for battle. The Black Demon
led his force of demons and sorcerers
to the fray, their voices thundering their approach,
but the war did not last long.
Casting spells, Tahmures subdued
most of his enemy’s troops. The rest
he felled with his mace, dragging them, chained,
through the dust. They pleaded to live, promising
knowledge no one else possessed.
Tahmures agreed. After he freed them,
they taught him to write, a gift he gave us.
Not just one, but thirty scripts:
Pahlavi and Persian, Arabic and Soghdian;
the Western way of writing, and Chinese as well.
They taught Tahmures to shape each letter
and pronounce the sound it stood for,
and this new and profitable knowledge
lit a light in him like the sun.
For three centuries,
Jamshid ruled in peace. His people
knew neither death nor hardship; the demons
stood ready to serve, and all who heard
the king’s command obeyed it. The land,
filled with music, flourished. Jamshid,
however, gave himself to vanity.
Seeing he had no peer in the world,
he forgot the gratitude that is God’s due
and called the nobles of his court before him,
making this fateful proclamation:
“From this day forward, I know no lord
but me: my word brought beauty
and skilled men to adorn the earth!
My word! Sunshine and sleep, security
and comfort, the clothes you wear, your food—
all came to you through me!
Who else ended death’s desolation
and with medicine vanished illness from your lives?
Without me, neither mind nor soul
would inhabit your bodies. So who besides me
can claim, unchallenged, the crown and its power?
You understand this now. So now,
who else can you call Creator but me?!”
The elders bowed their heads and held
their tongues, silenced by what he’d said.
When the last sound left his mouth,
the farr left him and his realm fell
into discord. A sensible, pious man
once said, “A king must make himself
God’s slave. Ingratitude towards God
will fill your heart with innumerable fears.”
Jamshid’s men deserted; his destiny
darkened, and his light disappeared from the world.
At dawn, the devil rose
beneath a blue dome
lit by morning’s glowing topaz.
He cooked for the king a feast of partridge
and white pheasant and his mind filled
with hope as he hurried it to Zahhak’s presence;
and when that witless Arab ruler reached
to take his portion from the tray, he gave
his senseless head into Eblis’ hands.
On the third day, the devil fed him
chicken and lamb; on the fourth,
a saddle of veal simmered in saffron
and rose water, aged wine
and clarified musk, and after Zahhak had eaten,
he stood in such awe of the skill
his chef possessed that he said, “Consider
what you want the most, then ask for it.
You are a worthy friend.” The fiend replied,
“May your majesty live forever!
Devotion for you overflows
my heart, and your eyes shine light
that sustains my soul! A small thing
I don’t deserve I’ll dare to ask.
Let the king command me to kiss his shoulders
and caress them with my eyes and face.”
Zahhak, who suspected nothing, said,
“May your good name grow more grand.”
Then the king ordered the cook to kiss him
as a best friend would, which Eblis did,
then vanished—a marvel no man
in all the world had ever seen—
and two black serpents sprung
from Zahhak’s shoulders. Zahhak panicked,
but nothing he knew to do removed them.
Finally, he sliced them off, then watched,
helpless, as they grew back, like new branches
sprouting. The court physicians crowded
Zahhak, filling the hall with wisdom
and advice, and cures to try, but all cures
failed. Then Eblis entered again,
disguised this time as a doctor.
He bowed low before the throne,
delivering this diagnosis, “Destiny
gave you to this fate. Change nothing!
The snakes stand where they stand. Instead
of cutting them off, offer them food.
Win their favor! Feed them, however,
only human brains. Bring them
nothing else. Such nourishment
will end their lives.” Zahhak listened,
desperate, and did what the “doctor” told him.
Thus Eblis expected to empty the earth.
Just then, a man demanding justice
marched into the palace. The princes made a place
for him to sit. “At whose hands,”
the serpent king asked, “have you suffered
so much that you dare to seek me out?”
Stunned to be hearing the king himself,
hitting his head with his fists, the man
called out, “I am Kaveh! I have come
to protest injustice thrust to the hilt
like a knife, your highness, many times
into my heart. If what I’ve heard here
is true, if you pursue only justice,
grant me relief from this great grief
rooted in my soul. Show the righteousness
you claim as yours, and raise your good name
to the heavens! The hurt blackening
my days, your majesty, comes mostly
from you! You say you will not stand
for the smallest offense committed against me,
but you never hesitate to harm my sons.
Of my eighteen young ones only one
is left. Allow him to live, I beg you.
Keep my soul, my king, from the cruel
and endless torture I would endure
if you feed your serpents his flesh. Tell me,
what have I done to deserve his death?!
“And if I’m innocent, don’t build my guilt
from false accusations. This misfortune fills
my mind with misery, murders the hope
children should be when you reach old age!
Injustice has a middle and a limit,
and so it has logic. Charge me, and judge me,
if you have charges to bring, or don’t butcher my child!
I’m a simple blacksmith, innocent
of any wrong against you, yet you,
breathing fire, burn my life!
A dragon-king is still a king,
obliged to provide justice. Sire,
your kingdom stretches across the seven climes.
Why should this fate fall here to me?
Explain yourself! Plead your case
before us now. Bring some sense
to why my son, from among
all your subjects, must satisfy those serpents
with his brains. Submit your words to the world
and let the world judge your worth!”