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Monday, 14 March 2011

The legends of king Azhdahak of Media

Having worked on a webpage on Mount Azhdahak in the Geghama mountains and reading the Movses Khorenatsi legend behind the name I was surprised to read later two other accounts of king Azhdahak of Media. I post below all three sources about him and will draw some conclusions from it all.

Places and peoples mentioned in the texts
  • "History of Armenia", Told by Movses Khorenatsi (410-90 AD) at the instance of Sahak Bagratuni.
  • Account of Kaveh and Zahak in the "Shahname" by Ferdowsi (940-1020 AD) that was a legend from the Sassanian era.
  • Account from Herodotus (490-30 BC) on the life of Cyrus the great.
"Zahak was the son of Mardas an Arab ruler in Iran." -I think Ferdowsi had an Arab origin for Zahak as to appeal to the Iranian Sammanid dynasty for whom the story was written. Mardas is from the Iranian word “Mard”= Man. It might also have been the actual name of the Medes, a name being an Ionic Greek corruption of the name Madas.
Astyges was a historical king recorded by Herodotus. Reigning from 585-550 BC.
“The alliance of Cyrus and Tigran was of a great danger for the King of Media, Azhdahak”.
"Stories have it that Zahak killed Jamshid his father in order to gain the kingdom. It was believed that Zahak had a special relationship with the satan and that he had kissed Zahak's shoulders and from each shoulder had grown a snake.
Cylinder seal from Gonur, Turkmenistan, from around 2500 BC
Zahak wanted rid of them. This time satan appears to Zahak as a doctor and advised him to drink the blood of young Iranians in order to satisfy the needs of the bloodthirsty snakes." -Ferdowsi in associating Zahak with the Arabs now associates them as draining the life of Iran.
"One night Zahak dreams that three men came to his palace and killed him."
-In the account of the dream of king Azdhahak by Movses Khorenatsi three men also appeared. Worth noting that this Armenian legend preserved the real name of the Median king, Azhdahak.
“Today I was in an unknown land near to a mountain that rose high from the earth and which peak appeared enveloped in a thick ice. One would have said that it was in the land of the Hikedes. As I gazed for a long time at the mountain, a woman dressed in purple and wrapped in a veil the color of the sky appeared sitting at the summit of that great height. Her eyes were beautiful, her stature tall, her cheeks red, and she was seized with the pains of childbirth. I was looking amazed for a long time at this performance the woman suddenly gave birth to three heroes, fully formed in stature and form. The first was mounted on a lion and flew to the west; the second on a leopard looked to the north; but the third rode a monstrous dragon and launched an attack on our empire. In the midst of such confused visions it seemed to me that I was standing on the roof of my palace, and I saw the surface of this pavilion adorned with beautiful and many-colored awnings; the gods who crowned me were present in a wonderful spectacle and I was honouring them with sacrifices and incense. Suddenly I looked up and saw the man who was riding the dragon flying with eagle’s wings and bearing down to me. He was already close by, intending to destroy the gods. But I, Azhdahak, interposing myself, received this attack and came to grips with the wonderful hero. First we both hacked each other’s bodies with lances, causing streams of blood to flow making the surface of the palace shine like the sun by our blood. For the end of the fight was destruction, and I did not seem to be alive. The course of these visions indicates nothing else save that king Tigran of the Hikede is about to come upon us in a violent assault." - Khorenatsi has Azdhahak plot against king Tigran. He arranged to marry Tigran’s sister Tigranuhi to get at Tigran. Unknowing of Azhdahak’s designs Tigran accepts the marriage. However by her beauty she had some control over Azdhahak and nothing was done in the kingdom against her will.
"He wakes up in terror and calls upon the dream interpreter whom in turn tells him that a man with a name of Fereydun will come and take his kingdom away. Hence Zahak sends for soldiers to find all men with the name Fereydun and to have them killed. Fereydun's mother, Faranak, hears this news and takes Fereydun to a village in Mazandaran." -Fereydun and Faranak both have the old Persian word “Far” in them, which means Glory. The village in Mazandaran is likely the one near Larijan that gets mentioned a lot in this Ferdowsi story.
Herodotus said Astyges had 2 premonitions. 1) That his sister Mandane (also known as Amytis) would have a son who would overthrow him, so he married her to Cambyses (Kambujiya) the Persian (son of Cyrus I). 2) After another premonition he had her returned with her young son to the palace. The baby boy (Cyrus II) was given to Harpagos with orders that he should kill the baby. Apparently a dead baby was substituted and the baby boy was given to a shepherd family to raise in the Median mountains. -It is an illogical story. If the king knew she would have a son who would overthrow him, why did he not kill her? The real Amytis married the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II.
Nicholas of Damascus wrote that Cyrus was a son of a bandit, Atradates, and got the job of a servant to the palace groundsman (Harpagos?). He then rose to become cup bearer to king Astyges. He got his father the job of governor of Persis (Anshan). Much of this is said be based on the legend of king Sargon. The Ferdowsi legend of Kaveh coming from a simple back round seems to echo it.
“The shrewd-minded beauty, however, having perceived the plot by the Median, responded with the words of love to Azdhahak yet informed her brother urgently of his treachery using her faithful people. And once such baseness had been revealed there was thenceforth no excuse or deceit that could veil such wickedness, but then war broke out openly.” -Compared to the two other stories, no son is sent away into hiding but a woman notifies her brother of the designs of her husband, which results in war.
"Fereydun was left with a farmer in Larijan and fed by a cow which had hairs of many colours. Zahak soon heared of this unusual cow and wanted to go to Larijan. Faranak hears of this and takes Fereydun to an old man who wondered in the mountains to take care of him." -A multi-coloured cow? Surely that a man with the name Fereydun had survived would be the reason to go to Larijan? Faranak seemed to be very close to Zahak to always get word of his plans and seemed to prefer the Mazandaran as a refuge for her son and nowhere else.
"Zahak kills the cow. Once Fereydun reaches the age of sixteen he leaves in search of his mother. When he finds her she tells him all that had happened. When Fereydun learns all about his origin he plots to take revenge on Zahak." -Killing the cow seems to have had no effect on the welfare of Fereydun and he grew to be 16 before he met his mother again..
When the boy was ten years old his fame came to the notice of Astyges who recognized him and had him sent back to live with his real parents. However Astyges had Harpagos own son killed, butchered and served at dinner to him for tricking him. Harpagos rebelled and joined with Cyrus to overthrow Astyges. -Again it is contradictory, if he knew Cyrus was a danger why did he not kill him? Instead killing Harpagos’ son.
As Fereydun gets closer to exacting his revenge he met Kaveh at a gathering. Kaveh was a blacksmith with nothing more than a brave heart and the support of his people. He decided to end this vicious cycle of tyranny by killing king Zahak.” Kaveh is an Avestan word that means King.
With bravery he approached king Zahak and demanded freedom for the people. He took off his leather apron and puts it on top of a spear to make a flag out of it. This flag was called the Darafsh. It symbolised freedom.” - Either the hide of the multi-coloured cow became Kaveh's apron or Zahak had no use for the multi-coloured cow! So this is the legend of the Darafsh. However this flag was real, it measured 7 metres by 4.9 metres. It might well have begun with a humble origin, but the final flag was very elaborate. Each king of Iran had added a jewel to it. Gold and silver thread was interwoven into the silk tapestry. When not used as a battle standard it was a grand carpet in front of the king’s throne at Ctesiphon. It was cut into pieces when the Arab Muslims captured the palace in 637 AD.
“It is written that Kaveh, Fereydun and his two brothers Kiyanush and Shadkam, united the people and went to a war with Zahak.” In Avestan Kaveh is also known as Kayan or Kay. This is taken from the Avestan legend that has king Haosravah (Kay Khusru/Khaveh), Zarthushtra (Zoroaster) and Jamasp. King Haosravah in Avestan legend was the one who united the tribes into one Iranian nation. Clearly Ferdowsi blended older legends into the legend of king Azhdahak.
“The Armenian king gathered troops from the confines of Cappadocia, the total elite of Iberia and Albania, and selected warriors of Greater and Lesser Armenia and marched with whole his host to the land of Media. When the battle was joined, with his lance Tigran split Azhdahak’s iron armor like water; the point of the lance ran right through him, and as he drew it back again he brought out with his weapon half of Azhdahak’s lungs. The combat was magnificent, for heroes were facing heroes, and not straightway did they turn their backs to each other. Therefore the struggle was drawn out over many hours. But the death of Azhdahak brought it to an end. And this feat, added to his good fortune, increased Tigran’s glory.” Armenia was only divied into a “Greater” and “Lesser” region during the Achaemenid empire, not during the Median empire.
"Feraydun and his army did battle against Zahak and defeated him. Zahak fled to India and Fereydun went to find him, and when he did, Fereydoon took Zahak to Mazandaran and imprisoned him on mount Damavand." - Ferdowsi seems to use the Zoroastrian symbolism of Ahura Mazda defeating Ariman. Historically king Darius III fled east to Bactria after escaping from the plain of Gaugamela during battle against Alexander III in north Iraq. Alexander then went out to pursue him. Darius was assassinated by his relative, Bessos. It also mirrors the later historical event when king Yazdigerd III fled to Bactria after being defeated by the Arab armies. Yazdigerd was assassinated by the governor of Merv.
Herodotus said the Median empire stretched to India but this must have meant Bactria (todays Afghanistan). Herodotus did not state that Astyges was killed, only overthrown.
“But Anush, Azhdahak’s first wife, Tigran settled safe at the edge of the great mountain’s chasm. The chasm is rumored to have been formed by a terrible earthquake; it had been narrated by the people dispatched by Ptolemy to measure the inhabited land in stadia, as well as part of the sea and the uninhabited land starting from the hot belt (Geghama mountains) up until Kimuron (Akkadian~Gimmiri, the Caucasus). He gave servants to Anush from among the same Medes who dwelt at the foot of the mountain. Tigran took the rest of the house of Azhdahak into captivity, married Anush, mother of vishaps (dragons), and with the help and approval of Cyrus he seized the land of the Massagetae (Sakashen) and the Medians ." - In the legend it is strange why Anush would be settled separately from the court of Tigran unless her life would have been in danger. Anush may be the same as Mandane in the Herodotus story. It is implied that she was Median. Compare how Anush is described as a mother of dragons whilst in Ferdowsi’s legend Zahak worshipped serpents and had a serpent on each shoulder. Reading the Khorenatsi legend it seems Medes lived in the Geghama region and that Tigran was fighting a dynastic war with Azhdahak in alliance with Cyrus. And in the Khorenatsi legend Cyrus seems to be only added to add prestige to Tigran yet has no other role. Historically Armenia did not gain liberty from the Medes. The Medes were defeated by king Cyrus and Armenia was annexed as well by him.
It is also strange why Mazandaran occurs many times in Ferdowsi’s story as a place of exile or imprisonment. Even after Caliph conquered the region in 652 AD the remoteness of Mazandaran allowed Iranian traditions to survive. However it was also a nearby region, Media, that Herodotus had the baby Cyrus grow up in.

Historically Astyges was overthrown later when Cyrus was ruling Anshan (Persis). 

Ferdowsi seems to have used a lot of Zoroastrian allegory in this legend. 
Fereydun, son of Faranak, is the "Far" or royal glory. Kaveh is the real King that the Glory had sough out. Zahak represents Ahriman, the manifestation of Evil.
If there is any historical substance to draw from all of these legends it seems that Cyrus II "The Great" took advantage of a civil war in the Median empire and came out the winner.

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