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.


In the sixth century BCE, following the death of King Cambyses on his Egyptian campaign, the Persian heartland was the scene of an antique murder mystery, during which the Achaemenid throne was held or seized by one or several individual(s)—about whose identity our sources provide conflicting information—who were eventually eliminated through an aristocratic coup d’état fomented by Darius I. The event itself may have been of lesser significance were it not to constitute the main topic of one of the most important inscriptions of antiquity, that is, the inscription of Darius I at Bisotun. Composed in the last quarter of sixth century BCE, in the wake of Darius’ rise to power, the narrative of the inscription would decisively influence Iranian epic and epigraphic traditions well into the early Islamic period. An elucidation of the Bisotun inscription’s thematic composition would therefore not only allow us to solve an ancient murder, but also shed light on the interplay of epic and history in ancient and early Islamic Iran.

Scholarship in this field has traditionally been divided into two opposite camps: One accepts as true Darius’ account at Bisotun, in which a magus (priest) called Gaumāta is depicted as a usurper who seized power by pretending to be the royal prince Bardiya, Cambyses’ brother and heir. The other rejects the credi-bility of this aspect of Darius’ res gestae, regarding it as a narrative composed to cover up Darius’ own coup d’état against the legitimate Bardiya, toward the concealment of whose rule the presumed fiction of a usurper-magus was invented by Darius.

This book seeks to reconcile these opposed views through a comparative and diachronic approach that incorporates a consideration of both Meso-potamian cultural practices, such as the ritual of the “substitute king,” and the later Iranian oral (epic) tradition, which has been largely overlooked in the past. The two main narratives reporting on this murder case (surveyed in chapter 1) are, first, the royal inscription of Darius I at Bisotun, and second, the traditions collected in Herodotus’ account—upon which most of the classical sources depend. It is argued here that these two traditions have been influenced by the desire of Darius’ royal chancellery to cover up the murder of the royal prince and Gaumāta through different narratives, each targeting a specific audience. We shall seek to demonstrate (1) that the murder (hi-)story was cast by Darius’ scribes into the mold of ancient Near Eastern epigraphic narratives in the discourse of the Bisotun inscription, in the sense that two historical personalities (their existence is proved in chapter 2) were combined into “one unfit to rule,” that is, Gaumāta pretending to be Bardiya, a process I consider to have been inspired by the concept of the Mesopotamian “substitute king” (on which see chapter 3); and (2) that, on another level, the murder chronicle was afterward composed orally by drawing upon (Indo)-Iranian oral epic and literary traditions of the Twins, so that the existence of Bardiya and Gaumāta would translate into the rule of two evil brothers (as elucidated in chapter 4).

The narrative of the Bisotun inscription was intended primarily for the Mesopotamian population of the realm, who were familiar with the “substitute king” ritual and who would have acknowledged as truthful an account constructed using concepts pertaining to their own ritual practices. By contrast, the oral story that was later captured by Greek authors was intended for the larger Iranian population of the Empire, who would have believed the chroni-cle composed by Darius I’s scribes because of its basis in Iranian epic themes and cosmogonical concepts that were best suited to make the story of Bardiya’s murder without Darius’ role having to be revealed.

In the latter part of the study, we will see that this second, originally oral, narrative, preserved by Herodotus and other Greek and Latin authors, had an immeasurable impact upon the “historiographical” writings and epic compositions of later Iranian empires, such as the Sasanians, almost nine centuries later. Sasanian inscriptions, especially the inscription of King Narseh at Paikuli (discussed at length in chapter 6), do make use of the same story pattern that we see in the accounts of Greek and Latin authors describing Bardiya’s murder, especially with regard to the theme of two evil usurpers (called here Warahrān and Wahnām). Importantly, the tradition reflected in the “Book of the Kings” (the Šāhnāme; see chapter 7) and the medieval romances called the “Book of Darius” (Dārābnāme) and “Samak, the ayyār” (Samak-e ʿAyyār) (both examined in chapter 4) shows that the story of Bardiya’s murder had become part of the epic canon.

Finally, the study seeks to demonstrate that in ancient and medieval Iran the interactions between epic and historiographical practices were varied and intricate. “Historical records” could be generated in conformity with the ideals of epic, or composed by being cast into the mold of the oral epic tradition, thereby ceding their individual “historical” tenor in order to conform to the normative frame of the epic. A case in point is the (Indo-)Iranian epic theme of the Twins, which decisively shaped the oral composition of the murder story of Bardiya and Gaumāta. However, the prestige of the oral rendition of the Bisotun inscription must have been such that the theme of the two evil brothers was projected back (under a new guise) into the oral epic tradition and so came to replace the older Iranian theme of the Twins, thus rejuvenating the thematic inventory of the epic tradition.

Note that throughout the book, all translations not explicitly identified are my own.


[ back ] 1. Shayegan 2011.

[ back ] 2. Shayegan 2003.