Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām

  Shayegan, M. Rahim. 2012. Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām. Hellenic Studies Series 52. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 8. Preliminary Conclusions

In this study we have argued that the murder of King Bardiya and his helper Gaumāta—both of whom we consider to be historical personalities—gave rise to two distinct narratives, each targeting a specific audience. As a means to cover up the murder of Bardiya and Gaumāta, Darius’ royal chancellery cast one account—the one preserved in the Bisotun inscription, as well as in “diplomatic” variants—into the mold of ancient Near Eastern epigraphic narratives, by adapting elements of the “substitute king” concept, so that the existence of two historical personalities was reduced to that of one unfit to rule: Gaumāta pretending to be Bardiya. What is more, the chronicle of this double murder was subsequently composed orally by drawing upon the Iranian oral and literary traditions of the Twins, which resulted in the rule of Bardiya and his helper Gaumāta morphing into that of two evil brothers.

The inscription of Darius I at Bisotun was probably composed originally in Elamite by polyglot Iranian scribes, and intended for the consumption of the realm’s Mesopotamian audience. The latter, by virtue of its exposure to the “substitute king” ritual, may have more readily accepted as truthful an account incorporating concepts stemming from its own intellectual horizon. This narrative—whose “diplomatic” variants (among them the *dipiciça- , the Old Persian written transcript of the Bisotun inscription) were recorded in the languages of the realm and dispatched by royal heralds to administrative centers throughout the empire, as the Aramaic version and the Akkadian fragments found in Babylon clearly illustrate—was paralleled by an oral variant of the royal res gestae, the ha n dugā-, which was geared towards an Iranian aural audience, the kāra-, and was disseminated by professional storytellers.

Such an oral account of the events leading to Darius’ enthronement—one which had recourse to the Iranian epic themes and cosmogonical concepts best suited to making the story of Bardiya’s murder believable to the larger Iranian population of the empire, without compromising Darius—probably formed the story pattern of Herodotus’ narrative. This oral variant, preserved by Herodotus and other classical authors, had a lasting impact upon the “historiographical” writings and epic compositions of Iranian empires to follow. Indeed, the Iranian mythoepic theme of the Twins, which had decisively shaped the oral composition of the murder story of Bardiya and Gaumāta in the Bisotun inscription, would in time, due to the impact of Bisotun’s ha n dugā-, be superseded by the theme of the two evil brothers, which by reintegrating the oral epic traditions would inevitably rejuvenate its thematic inventory.

We can observe this not only in Sasanian epigraphy, wherein the role played by the two usurpers Warahrān and Wahnām, son of Tadrōs, is reminiscent of the evil magian duo in Herodotus’ account, but also in early medieval Persian epic poetic and prose compositions (which were exposed to oral traditions), such as the Šāhnāme, the Dārābnāme, and the Samak-e ʿAyyār, in which the two evil brothers (accomplices) are well attested. Thus it is possible that as a result of the wider dissemination of the oral variant of Darius’ accession narrative, a new theme was forged in Iranian epic that in time would exercise such an ascendancy over the imagination of future generations that they would compose their deeds in conformity with its conceptual frame. [1]

Investigation of the Sasanian epigraphic corpus from the perspective of orality was undertaken in order to determine its degree of historicity, originally called into question by the presence of so many thematic and linguistic parallels between the Achaemenid and Sasanian corpora and the abundance of formulaic expressions within the Sasanian inscriptions. The precepts of the Oral-Formulaic School may account for the presence of repetitive patterns (story patterns, themes, and formulae) in Iranian, in particular Sasanian, epigraphy, but cannot more conclusively substantiate the claim that Sasanian inscriptions had been exposed to oral composition, or exhibited characteristics wrought into oral texts. Such evidence, however, could be evinced in the accounts of Herodotus and the Šāhnāme, with far-reaching consequences.

On the one hand, such an eventuality would impose a heavy caveat upon Achaemenid and Sasanian inscriptions as primary sources for political history, but, on the other hand, it would open up other avenues of historical inquiry that the emphasis on political history has so far eclipsed. Indeed, the inscriptions may now be seen to supply unique insights into the mentality of the Achaemenids and Sasanians. The very composition of the inscriptions and the ideal frame in which they evolve inform us about the unique historical conception(s) of Achaemenids and Sasanians, as well as the persistence of certain mental representations throughout Iranian history. The recurrence of a story pattern, which probably belonged to the oral variant of the Bisotun inscription, within the narrative of King Narseh at Paikuli and the Šāhnāme illustrates this phenomenon.


[ back ] 1. Skjærvø (1998c:104) outlines this phenomenon in the following terms: “We are faced with a situation of reciprocal influence. While the records of the kings were strongly influenced by the formulas of the oral literature, the kings too were themselves influenced by this literature and acted in conformity with it, thus turning what would otherwise be literary invention into historical events.” In other words, history may generate epic, which in turn can engender a new historical reality.

[ back ] 2. Skjærvø 1998c:104.

[ back ] 3. On the distinction between mythos and logos—that is, the development of a rational, explicative form of speech from the narrative mythoepic discourse—see Vernant 1974; Vernant 1990a; Vernant 1990b; and Vidal-Naquet 1990; see also Martin 2009:11–15. On the distinction between epic and myth, see Edmunds 2009.

[ back ] 4. The concept of “historical epic”—which Raaflaub has defined while specifically discussing Roman matters as “epics dealing either with the history of specific events (such as the Persian Wars or Rome’s civil wars) or of cities, regions, or an entire nation … narrate history, although in various ways heroicizing and mythologizing it”—may also, in view of our discussion, be applicable to the Iranian world; see Raaflaub 2009:68.