The preceding summary reflects the way pre-Islamic Iranian history has been understood by modern and non-Iranian historians. In Iran itself after the Sasanid period, historical memory of the Achaemenids was almost totally lost, that of the Parthians largely forgotten, and only that of the Sasanids preserved in recognizable form until fairly recently. Instead, most Iranians would have been familiar with what has been called the “Iranian national history,” 2 a semi-legendary and epic narrative of events from the creation of the world to the Islamic conquest. In this sense, Iran actually has not one but two ancient histories, and for many generations of Iranians it was this national history that was accepted as real. Since this is primarily a book on Iranian culture and customs, and since the national history has played such a vital role in shaping Iranian culture and sensibilities, it is worth giving a synopsis of it here.

According to the national history, the earliest rulers, rather like the great sages of Chinese tradition, were universal sovereigns who lived for fantastically long periods of time, developed agriculture and domesticated animals, introduced the various arts and crafts, and laid the foundations of civilization. The first of these monarchs, and in some versions of the story also the first human being, was Kayumars. He and his descendants, Hushang and Tahmuras, battled the primordial demons that afflicted the world and taught men how to use fire, dress in animal skins, plant trees, dig canals, and so on. Hushang also established the formal traditions of kingship and thus founded the dynasty of kings known as the Pishdâdiân, “the first to dispense justice.” Tahmuras was followed by Jamshid, a proud king who invented the implements of war, organized society into four social classes based on profession, constructed great palaces, taught men how to weave textiles, began to use perfume and jewels, and established the New Year holiday. Toward the end of his reign, however, he turned haughty and ungrateful toward God; as punishment, an “Arab” usurper appeared—Zahhâk, who stirred up a rebellion and had Jamshid killed. Although he had been divinely sent to chastise Jamshid for his pride, Zahhâk was transformed into an instrument of the devil (Ahriman or Eblis); disguised as a cook, the devil had kissed Zahhâk on his shoulders, causing snakes to grow from them that had to be fed on the brains of children. This bloody tyranny was brought to an end by a revolt proclaimed by Kâveh, a brave blacksmith of royal lineage; Kâveh’s apron became the banner of the rebellion and the symbol of the Iranian national struggle against the forces of evil. Zahhâk was eventually defeated and imprisoned deep in the volcanic caldera of Mount Damavand, where he would suffer torment until the end of time.

The new king, Fereydun, eventually decided to divide his kingdom into three parts to be assigned to his three sons: the west to Salm (the oldest), the east to Tur, and the central, favored land of Iran to Iraj (the youngest). Salm and Tur were jealous and conspired to murder Iraj, sending his head to the horrified but helpless Fereydun. Iraj was eventually avenged by his son Manuchehr, who challenged his uncles to combat, killed them, and succeeded Fereydun as king. Among the Iranian noblemen who gave allegiance to Manuchehr was Sâm, a prince of Sistân. Sâm’s son, Zâl, was born with white hair, an ominous portent which caused Sâm to expose the baby on a mountain. However, Zâl was discovered, nurtured, and protected by a great bird, the Simorgh, until he was reconciled with his father. Later, Zâl sought to marry the beautiful Rudâbeh, daughter of the king of Kâbol. King Manuchehr, however, opposed their marriage since Rudâbeh was also descended from Zahhâk, and he almost went to war with Sâm to prevent their union before finally agreeing to it. Manuchehr’s fears did prove unfounded since the marriage of Zâl and Rudâbeh led to the birth of Iran’s greatest champion, Rostam, a hero who saved Iran from disaster in the turbulent years after the death of Manuchehr and repeatedly fended off attacks from the eastern lands of Turân and its king, Afrâsiâb.

Faced with the weakness of the last of the Pishdâdiân kings, Zâl convened a council of nobles to pick a new ruler; Rostam was sent on a mission into the Alborz Mountains to bring back another of Manuchehr’s descendants, Kay Qobâd, who founded a new dynasty of kings known as the Kayâniâns and who distinguished himself in combat with Afrâsiâb. Unfortunately, his successor, Kay Kâvus, was utterly incompetent and had to be saved by Rostam from one near disaster after another. Kâvus even managed to drive his own son, Siâvosh, over to the side of the Turanians, who then treacherously murdered him. The wife of Siâvosh, daughter of Afrâsiâb, survived and gave birth to Kay Khosrow; Khosrow returned to Iran, deposed Kâvus, and launched a war of revenge against the Turanians. After the defeat of Afrâsiâb, Khosrow abdicated, to be followed by two relatively mediocre kings, Lohrâsp and Goshtâsp, during whose reigns the prophet Zoroaster supposedly appeared. Goshtâsp was overshadowed by his son Esfandiâr, who championed the new religion and fought off attacks by the Turanians. Jealous and suspicious of Esfandiâr, Goshtâsp once had him imprisoned and later ordered him for no good reason to go and arrest Rostam. In that tragic era, Rostam fought and killed Esfandiâr; Rostam himself was killed in a trap set by his wicked brother Shagad; and Esfandiâr’s son, Bahman, killed Zâl and exterminated his family. Bahman’s son Dârâb, abandoned by his mother in a basket set afloat on a river, was found and raised by a commoner but was eventually recognized and installed as king. He married the daughter of Filfus, a king of Greece, but sent her back because he was offended by her bad breath. Pregnant, she gave birth to Eskandar, who later quarreled with the new king. Dârâb’s other son, Dârâ, defeated him and made himself the ruler of Iran, bringing the Kayâniân Dynasty to an end. Eskandar proved to be an impressive philosopher-king who accomplished many astonishing feats. After his death, the succession was disputed, and the world was in turmoil under various regional rulers and the petty Ashkâniân kings until Ardashir emerged to found the Sasanid Dynasty.

Versions of this national history were disseminated over the centuries by popular bards (gosân) , who recited stirring stories based on it as a kind of popular entertainment; by medieval historians, who sometimes explored its inconsistencies or sought to identify its heroes with other historical individuals; and by court poets, who added their own flourishes to the basic outline. Without doubt, what became the most widely appreciated, eloquent, and aesthetically attractive presentation of the story was the long epic poem by Abo’l-Qâsem Ferdowsi (ca. a.d. 940–1020) known as the Shâh-nâmeh (Book of Kings). While following the general structure outlined above, Ferdowsi also added many details and additional stories for dramatic effect: Rudâbeh, like Rapunzel, lowers down her long hair so Rostam can climb up to her in her castle; Rostam fathers a son by a Turanian princess but does not know of his birth and later kills him in combat; the daughter of a man named Haftvâd finds a magic worm in an apple that brings great wealth and power to Haftvâd and his town, but which is then destroyed by Ardashir, founder of the Sasanid Dynasty.

Some elements of the national history can be traced back to material in the oldest Iranian myths and beyond that to the common mythology of the Indo-Europeans: Fereydun and Zahhâk, for example, correspond to the ancient Iranian hero Thraetaona and the evil dragon Azhi Dahâka that he imprisoned; there are many parallels between the stories of the deeds of Rostam and those of the labors of Hercules. Other details can be attributed to folklore, local legends, or the embellishments of individual authors. Parts of the narrative do reflect historical facts: despite the legendary embellishments, Dârâ, Filfus, and Eskandar are recognizable as Darius III, Philip of Macedon, and Alexander the Great. From the last of the Kayâniân kings onward, the national history thus draws closer and closer to conventional accounts of pre- Islamic Iranian history, and with the establishment of the Sasanids, the two are virtually indistinguishable.

Whatever the sources, though, the national history as a whole conveys many ideas that are generally regarded as fundamental to an understanding of Iranian culture: the stark emphasis on the struggle between good and evil in the world; the role of Iran itself as the most favored land and center of civilization; or the theme of continuing assault on Iran by hostile and envious powers to the west and east. Above all, the twin ideals of a just, charismatic monarchy and a rigid social order are viewed as necessary for human prosperity and national survival. Especially in Ferdowsi’s version of the national history, the concept of righteous kingship is exalted, but alongside it there is the issue of what to do about rulers who are foolish or oppressive (and there are a good many of them) and the need to stand up for what is right. At the same time, the desire for a directed, stable, orderly society is emphasized. That concept is brought home with great clarity in a famous story about the Sasanid king Bahrâm Gur: Displeased that the people of a village had not greeted him properly, he wished that the village would be destroyed. His priest accomplished this by telling the people that the social hierarchy was abolished; instead of having a headman, there would be complete equality among the men, women, and children of the village. At first the people were overjoyed with their newfound liberty, but they soon fell to fighting each other and neglecting their work, so that within a year the village was in ruins. Only when the office of headman was reinstituted did the village recover.