News ID: 188739
Publish Date: 30 December 2008 - 08:29

A comparison of martyrdom and sacrifice concepts in epic literature of Iran, Greece and Rome

Introduction 1. Statement of the problem Epic literature occupies a very important place in the Iranian literary history. The social status of this genre is the major reason of this great importance. From the pre-history era, Iran has always been under attack of savage and barbarian or semi-barbarian ethnic groups. The attacks were not always to the same degree in the different parts of the country. In the western borders Iranians had civilized neighbors with whom they could establish ties and have mutual effects, but on the eastern borders uncivilized and nomadic peoples lived who attacked Iran to gain wealth and even livelihood and sustenance food. One of the major tasks of the ancient governments in Iran was to counter these attacks. The cultural characteristic of this part of the country and the social and economic conditions prepared the ground for epic making; through we can not claim that epic is a single geography's product.
In the Sassanid era, the epic literature changed and acquired a historical aspect and the kings ordered that books be written about their behavior and deeds, bravery and glory. "Khodai Nameh" is one of the most famous literary and historical works of this era. In the post-Islamic period and after the change of the governmental system, this literature lost its place but after some time and by the rise of some special factors in the eastern parts, it again emerged and became popular.
The major resources in this era were the national-historic texts of the pre-Islamic time but the Zoroastrian texts' effect could not be ignored too. The national epics were in poetical verses. They were emerged mostly in the 4th to 6th centuries but continued to the 8th century. Currently 19 works have been identified. Shahname of Masoud marvazi, Goshasbnameh of Daqiqi, Shahnameh of Firdawsi, Gorshasbnameh, Bahman Nameh, Faramarz Nameh, Koosh nameh, Banoogoshasb Nameh, Borzu Nameh, Shahriyar Nameh, Azar Barzyin Nameh, Bijan Nameh, Lohrasb Nameh, Soosan Nameh, Kohak Kooh Zad Narrative, Shabrang Narrative, Jamshid Narrative, Jahangir Nameh and Sam Nameh.

From among these, some are recovered partially and some are very short and just about a single story. The main theme is the fight between the kings and the enemies and the conduct of the great heroes. These are the epics narrating some parts of the traditions, manners and life of the people of this land.
From among these 19 works, undoubtedly Shah Nameh of Firdawsi is the most important one in terms of the content and the literary significance. In Shah Nameh of Firdawsi, the wisdom, love, bravery and death-welcoming of the Iranian heroes have been narrated in the poetical and literary language.
Apart from these national epics, there are historic and religious epics. The theme of the historic ones is the description of the kings and warlords and the events of their time especially their conquering and wars. Zafar Nameh and Sam Nameh of Seyfi and Jorun Nameh are instances of this. Religious epics are descriptions of the bravery of God's men especially the Shiite Imams.
From the literary point of view, the historic and religious epics are of less importance comparing to the national ones. Yet, because the intention is to compare the theme of heroism and sacrifice and martyrdom between Iran, Greece and Rome, these two types are ignored.
In this research, except the comparison of the sacrifice and martyrdom themes, one of the aims is to investigate and compare the heroic manners of the heroes of Iran on one side and Greece and Rome on the other side. After a review of the numerous works of epic of the three nations, six of them were selected for this research.

From among the Iranian epics, three books of Shah Nameh by Firdawsi, Gorshasb Nameh written by Assadi Tousi and Bahman Nameh by Abi Alkheyr, and from among Greek and Roman works, three books of The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil were selected.
A general overview of the six books is presented to pave the way for more serious treatments including just four parts of Firdawsi's Shah Nameh, from the beginning to the death of Rustam; the other parts of Shah Nameh are historical subjects which are of no concern to this research.
Another part of the research is devoted to the comparison of the conduct of the Iranian, Greek and Romanian heroes.
In the main part, the sacrifice and martyrdom themes are compared in the three nations' epics. Since we deal with the topic of death following from martyrdom theme, a brief discussion of the differing attitudes to death in east and west is presented. The final part is to present the conclusion.

2. The significance and aim of the research

As was mentioned, the aim here is to make a comparison between the sacrifice and martyrdom themes as well as comparison of the conduct of the Iranian, Greek and Romanian heroes. Since by studying these two themes, the major areas of cultural difference between Iranians and Greek and Romanians and even the East and West are made clear, this research is a necessity. Furthermore, no detailed research has so far been done on the subject. We also intend to find the importance of the martyrdom and sacrifice themes in Iranian epic literature.

3. The Hypotheses and questions of the research

The hypotheses are as follows:
1. The epic literature of Iran is among the best cases for study of the culture in Iran.

2. For investigating the sacrifice and martyrdom themes in Iranian culture and literature epic literature is one of the best martial.

3. The comparison of these themes in the epic literature of Iran, Greece and Rome is one of the best methods to point out the cultural differences.

The main research questions are as follows:
1. To what degree the investigation of the sacrifice and martyrdom themes is indicative of their importance in the Iranian culture?
2. To what degree is the comparison of these themes in the epic literature of Iran, Greece and Rome indicative of the knowledge of the two cultures and knowledge of their difference?
4. Review of Literature
In our literary history much has been written on the importance of national epics particularly Shah Nameh as a masterpiece and about its author Firdawsi which I see as redundant to discuss in here.
Likewise, in the western literary history, especially Greek and Romanian parts, much has been written on the importance of Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid and their authors Homer and Virgil. The volume and quality of the writings are insignificant comparing with the Iranian ones.
However, all in all, these works have been insufficiently compared and just the few comparative works have been more concerned with literary aspects or related to comparing the life of Firdawsi and Homer.
Meanwhile one of the most important works is "Namwar Nameh" by the late Zarrin Koub (Zarrin Koob, 1381). In some parts of the book, he has very briefly compared Iliad and Odyssey with Shah Nameh from a literary viewpoint.
In another part of the book, in an article under the title of Rustam and Achilles (ibid, 125-137), the late Zarrin Koub briefly compares the two heroes. This article has been previously published in his article "no East, no West just Humanity" (Zarrin Koob, 1380, 18-19). His article as all his works is very important from a literary viewpoint but does not deal with our research topic. Another writing on Firdawsi and Homer is a book by the same name "Firdawsi and Homer" by Kamran Jamali (Jamali, 1368). This book has three parts; one part is comparison of Firdawsi and Homer, aesthetically, another part is on their beliefs and the other parts include six various subjects. Though a short book, it has dealt with the main aesthetic and beliefs-related differences of Firdawsi and Homer.
The current research topic is not also in accordance with the book already mentioned. Of the last valuable efforts is a book by Mohtasham Mohammadi by the title "an overview of the higher epics" (Mohammadi, 1381). Despite being too brief, it has effectively tackled the issue and compared the Iranian and Greek heroes' characteristics.
From the most recent research studies is also the book "Shah Nameh of Firdawsi and the Athens' tragedy" by Khojasteh Kiya (Kiya, 1379). The author has briefly approached the differences of Shah Nameh and Homer's epics. But its main theme is tragedy, therefore unrelated to this research.
5. Methodology
This is a library research. First the data has been noted down from different sources and then classified according to the subject and finally analyzed.
Since even a brief presentation of the all project would occupy large number of pages, here two of the most important topics are offered; the comparison of the heroes of Iran, Greek and Rome in their relation with God, and the brief comparison of the theme of sacrifice for the two groups.
6. Comparison of relation with God for Iranian heroes and Greek and Roman heroes
6.1. The Greek and Roman heroes, and God
On the topic of relation of the Gods and the humans in Greek and Roman epics, it should be said that the Greek Gods have very human-like desires. This closeness is noticeable but the interference of Gods in human affairs has two major results: firstly, these Gods lose their Godly position and become earthly and human-like and sometimes worse than humans and secondly, human beings have no free will and effective role. In the epic of west, humans are destined and have no free will but in Iranian epics heroes like Rustam, Zal and Sam are world-heroes and very inferior figures like Giw, Gudarz, and Bijan or even women like Farangis, Sindokht, Rudabeh, Tahmineh and Manijeh fight against their destiny. Their most important tool except their heroic acts is their wisdom. The most important effort of the humans is to defeat their destiny and make the story of their life. Though in Iranian epics, destiny is related to divine power and realizes as it has been decided, the fact that the heroes know about, but to the last minute the hero uses his wisdom and will to change his destiny.
The Iranian hero knows that God has decided everything but he faces his destiny not to oppose God but to change his destiny, yet the Greek heroes are retarded, kid-like heroes, not able to oppose the Gods.
Greek Gods know no mercy and have no forgiveness in their terminology. After great efforts by Ulysses to return to his land, people of a land help him and give him gifts and a ship and return him to his homeland. The God of the seas get angry and gets the permission from Zeus to punish the people and so destroys their ship in front of their eyes (Homer, 1372: 292).
This instance of help which at the end leads to regret from both the helpers and help-seekers, is of the rare occasions in the epic stories of Greek and Rome, but all through Iranian epics we have hospitality of Iranians not only for their friends and relatives but also for their enemies.
6.2. Iranian heroes and God
Generally speaking the viewpoint of Iranians about God and his status is quite different from his status among the people in the East. The first and foremost difference is the belief of Iranians in the Unity of God a long time before Islam; the belief that had reflected in all aspects of life. God of the Iranians is present and observing everywhere and everyone but his presence is not in opposition to the will of people. As mentioned in the part related to the destiny and biography, Iranian heroes' have their destiny but it does not mean that their will is not important. Unlike the Greek Gods, the One and Only God is not interfering in all details of life.
Iranian heroes have such a close tie with their God that they acquire mystical status but this mysticism in Iran does not mean distance and isolation from the family and homeland. In the harshest stages of life, these heroes just find peace and rest in the remembrance of God and believe that the hardships are God-given favors.
6.2.1. The Iranian hero and the remembrance of God: the Iranian hero always remembers God and seeks succor from him. In the epic stories of Shah Nameh, from the very beginning or the mythical period, the king-heroes begin their lives with the remembrance of God. Kiyumars is God-seeking and after the death of his son, Siyamak, experiences excessive melancholy but after one year is inspired by God and with his remembrance forgets his sadness.
He called the highest name of His God; he wiped his eyes (Mull, 17)
After him, Houshang starts his kingship by the name of God:
By the order of Glorious God, he started generously his duty (ibid, 19)
One of the depictions of Shah Nameh and other epics is the letters. In Shah Nameh, there are a large number of exchanges of letters between Kings and heroes and between heroes. In all these letters, the beginning is started by the name and praise of God. In a letter, Sam writes to Manouchehr in this manner:
The start of the letter is with the praise of God, present everywhere and always
The Iranian hero always trusts his own power, wisdom and bravery and at the same time hopes for God's help. On the outset of journey for helping a king, Rustam starts his difficult task this way:
For my heart, my arms and my weapon, the friend sufficces
I seek the succor of no one except God
Elsewhere in his first fight with Afrasyiab, when he is very young, he tells his father Zal:
Rustam told him Thou the hero, don't be worried for me
God is my Guardian, heart, blade and arms are my castle
In the part Khane Chahrom, the best depiction of this relationship with God exists.
In his trip to Mazandaran for Saving the Kawoos Shah and other heroes, he experiences hardships. In the beginning, while asleep, a lion attacks him but Rakhsh, his horse, kills it. Then when very thirsty, by wisdom and trusting in God, he manages to find a spring and then he faces a dragon and kills it.
Worn and torn from the long journey, and while he is very angry, Rustam sees a table of a variety of foods and wine and Tambour musical instrument. He comes down from his horse, unaware of the magic of an old woman. He takes rest and plays a tune, the old woman takes courage out of his physical state and transforms into a young and pretty lady. After all these hardships and facing the bounties, he does not forget God and before eating calls the name of God and realizes the old woman's talisman and sees her real face; a black and ugly face, of the astray and anti-human fairies. He cuts her into two pieces and with the name and remembrance of God defeats the magic.
6.2.2. Thanking God: apart from His remembrance, Iranian heroes always praise and thank God. And this becomes more evident after doing a huge task, gaining a victory or a success. This act of thanking is both personal and private, and public and is done also by the army and people. It is done in a way to teach others the same thing. After creation from fire, Houshang says:
The king of the world thanked and praised the King of all creatures (ibid, 20)
Since he has power over the animals, Tahmoures tells the Iranians:
Said he, praise God and worship him
He gave us power over the wild, praise him who led us on the path (ibid, 22)
And Faranak, hearing of the kingship of her son:
Thanked a lot the almighty God, for the merry time of life (ibid, 58)
After the defeat of the great enemy of Iran, China's emperor or Khaqan:
Now, said Rustam to the Iranians, the time is to take off the armor
For in the Almighty's presence, neither spear nor armor
All prostate in humbleness, then you crown yourself
Now, for the great grace and glory that the Creator gave
Let us thank and praise him
And Bahman, the Iranian king and hero in Bahman Nameh, though his deeds are not in line with Rustam and other heroes of Shah Name, is not ignorant of the thanking of God. After marring the daughter of the king of Egypt:
And the next day, Bahman washed himself
For he wanted to worship God
And sought a place in private
He then thanked God a lot, God of the four elements of universe (Abi Alkhayrah)
In contrast with praise and thanking of God, in Iranian epics, ungratefulness has also been depicted. Its signs have been: telling lies, becoming arrogant and haughty, and avoiding generosity and donation to people. In one word leaving the true path of God and ignoring the noble creation of God, humanity.
7. a comparison of the theme of sacrifice in the epic stories of Iran, Greece and Rome
Concerning sacrifice, the best example is heroic deeds where the heroes face hardships and risk their lives to save the life of their friends and relatives. In both the epics of Iran and of Greece and Rome, this theme has been discussed but in Iranian epics it has a special feature in terms of its literary expression and content. Moreover, the instances of sacrifice are more abundant in Iranian epics. Because of the large number of these, just few examples are given: the fight between Fariydun and Zohak is one of the wars between Good and Bad. Zohak is the pupil brought up by the devil, who by deception and transforming into an advice-giving old man, a cook and a physician hoaxed the young, arrogant, inexperienced and ill-intentioned Zohak into killing his father, becoming the first one who committed patricide in the Iranian epics. Then Zohak started eating the meat of animals so as to become wilder and at last he fell into the worst form of criminality by everyday killing of two innocent young boys and feeding the two snakes on his shoulders by their brain. Zohak is the symbol of evil in Iranian myths and Afrasyiab is the symbol of evil in the epics.
Based on what was said, the fight between Fariydun and Zohak is the example of war of Good and Evil. When Fariydun and his friends are getting close to the palace of Zohak, they have to cross the river Arvandrood but the guard and the chief of the boatmen asks him to show the seal of kingship. Therefore, Fariydun gathers the courage and by his horse crosses the frightening water.
7.1. Fariydun crossing the water: in the myths crossing the water means gaining glory and highness (Bahar, 1375:156-157). By this Fariydun gains the glory which Firdawsi beautifully has depicted but from another point of view he has not been afraid of sacrificing his life. To save the Iranian people, he and his friends take such a great risk.
2.7. Rustam and his self-sacrifices
In Firdawsi's Shah Nameh and in the epic literature of Iran, the most beautiful and charming depictions of the theme of sacrifice have been embodied in the deeds and behavior of Rustam.
Rustam shows his bravery and sacrifice from childhood by killing the gone-wild elephant and conquering the white castle.
Of his sacrifices is in the event when the elephant of Zal has broken the chains and entered the city and is harming them. Rustam takes the club and fights it and eventually kills it.
What in this story catches the attention is his sacrifice and bravery because all other heroes and the powerful fled the scene.
After this bravery, Zal considers his son to be of the competence to do more difficult tasks, so he tells him to conquer the white castle where his own grandfather Nariman failed to conquer and was killed. Rustam conquers the castle with wisdom and bravery.
The most significant of his sacrifices is in the seven stages where he faces all symbols of the evil like demons, dragons and monsters. Though he defeats all, he experiences hardships and miseries. From the very beginning and to save the Kawoos Shah and other heroes, he selected the shorter but most dangerous way. He whole-heartedly selected the way when he knew the difficulties and hazards. He knew that his fellows were in the prison of demons and had to be released sooner rather than later and so he opted for the perilous way.
It was mentioned that Rustam passes every phase with difficulty. He experiences insomnia, thirst and starvation; he loses energy but never retreats and never loses hope. He bears all hardships with the remembrance of God and hopefulness because he believes in the freedom and release of human beings and is ready to make sacrifices, even his own life. Any impartial reader who reads the seven phases of Rustam praises him for his sacrifices on the way of freedom of humans and for his God seeking.
The theme of sacrifice and highlighting of this meta- human concept in Shah Nameh is not limited to Rustam but other heroes have the same characteristic and in all Iranian culture this concept is praised and prevailing. The wars of Iranians and Tooranians and tens of other noteworthy stories are of the type.
7.3. The theme of sacrifice in epic texts of Greece and Rome
In Greek and Roman epics also heroes make big sacrifices to gain victory. From the most famous ones are Hector, Ulysses, Nestor, Ajax and Aeneid.
Before the entrance of the Achilles to the war of the Greeks with the Troy, in most confrontation scenes Trojans won the wars. These defeats caused that the Greeks lost their spirits and wanted to retreat and flee but the stimulating and encouraging words of the heroes and their bravery returned them to the scene. In one of the scenes the elderly Nestor encourages the soldiers to return by passionate words and shows such bravery and chivalrous deeds in his old age that the others return to hope and war.
In another scene one, of the other heroes, the old king? Who saw the Greeks being besieged by the Trojans in their ships, attacked them on his own and killed several of them so as to end the siege. Exactly at the same time the Trojans were coming close to the Greeks' ships so as to make them flee but Ajax enters the scene and boosts their spirit with his speech and attacks the enemy.
In another scene where the Trojans have succeeded to break the defense line of the Greeks, Agamemnon gathers the commanders and suggests that they flee in the darkness of the night by their ships but Ulysses rejects it and invites all to resistance and fighting.
Also, in Roman epics in Aeneid, Aeneid and his friends risk their lives many times to gain the freedom of their forces and victory.
The main difference in these sacrifice themes is in the goal and intention, for Iranians on one part and Greek and Romans on the other part. In Iran the heroes make sacrifice and experience hardships to free their compatriots and deter the enemies, briefly they want the victory of Good over evil not material means and booties and spoils or slaves and maidens. Among Greeks, however, from the very beginning the fight against Trojans is under the guise of release of Helen but for looting the wealth of the Troy. So, rarely the scenes of sacrifice are to save a friend and mostly for gains.
When Agamemnon tells the army that they need some people to enter the Trojans army in the night and bring news about them, he adds:
"Every one of the commanders in charge of a ship would give them a black ewe with a milk-fed lamb" (Homer, 328)
8. Conclusion
In conclusion we could say that the Iranian heroes and champions counter danger and hardships and sacrifice their lives just to save their compatriots and protect their lives, chastity and principles. They are proud and honored, for they have a very big world, as big as the purity and goodness, so they challenge everyone and everything and accept martyrdom. They think of humanity and the whole world but they would not exchange their land for anything. They do not belong to a period of time and do not live in a single period. You can not estimate the age of Rustam in Shah Nameh because Rustam is the epitome and embodiment of all brave and sacrificing Iranians who stand against the enemy and evil throughout the history.
In the Roman and Greek history, there are cases of resistance and bravery and martyrdom and heroic deeds, but very rarely you can find someone like Rustam who sincerely and happily faces the danger. He faces the danger to save the others and protect their lives and principles and honor, he does so without materialistic and sensual aspirations. Very difficult you can find people who would not exchange the praying of old ladies and happiness of old men for the whole spoils and beauties. However, the Greek champion fights and he fights very good but not for the sake of Good. He is seeking money, highness and women. Though the Roman hero, Aeneid has great chivalrous and manly qualities, Achilles is an arrogant, selfish and idiot hero fading in the presence of Iranian Rustam.
Bibliography is in Persian.
Researcher: Mostafa Nadim
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