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Abstract

The role of charms in Iranian belief narratives remains largely unexplored. Hereby, I attempt a preliminary survey. First, I examine the text of the Iranian national epic, the Shahname of Ferdowsi (X–XI century A.D.), in which the word afsun denotes charm or magic spell. In contemporary folktale texts (I mainly rely on the voluminous Dictionary of Iranian Folktales), an Arabic loan-word verd (which also means a kind of prayer) is used to mean a charm which facilitates supernatural results such as shape-shifting, transformation or miraculous healing. Ritual prayer (namaz) and supplication (do’a) also function as charms in folk narratives. I also give a brief overview of the Iranian folklore scholarship.

Abstract

The role of charms in Iranian belief narratives remains largely unexplored. Hereby, I attempt a preliminary survey. First, I examine the text of the Iranian national epic, the Shahname of Ferdowsi (X–XI century A.D.), in which the word afsun denotes charm or magic spell. In contemporary folktale texts (I mainly rely on the voluminous Dictionary of Iranian Folktales), an Arabic loan-word verd (which also means a kind of prayer) is used to mean a charm which facilitates supernatural results such as shape-shifting, transformation or miraculous healing. Ritual prayer (namaz) and supplication (do’a) also function as charms in folk narratives. I also give a brief overview of the Iranian folklore scholarship.

INTRODUCTION

Iranian belief narratives are of great antiquity and can be traced back to at least the first millennium B.C. The sacred texts of Zoroastrians, the Avesta, the Old Persian inscriptions and references from the works of Classical Greek and Roman authors such as Herodotos, Xenophon, Chares of Mytilene, Aelian, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Syriac Acts of the Martyrs from the later Antiquity, contain large amounts of pre-Islamic data.

My own investigation hereby focuses mainly on post-Islamic materials, the so-called national epic of Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi, the Book of the Kings (Shahname), as well as belief narratives from the monumental contemporary collection of Iranian tales, The Dictionary of Iranian Folktales (Farhang-e Afsaneha-ye Mardom-e Iran), which has been edited by Ali Ashraf Darvishian and Reza Khandan in a multi-volume enterprise during the last few decades of our era.

THE SHAHNAME

The national epic, which was composed by Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi (A.D. 940–1020), is a poetic work of imposing length and quality, consisting of sixty thousand rhyming verses composed in Classical New Persian and based on ancient written and oral sources. It is relatively well edited and studied both by Iranian and foreign scholars1 and has greatly influenced the heroic literature of neighboring people (Central Asian and Ottoman Turks, Armenians, Kurds).

Ferdowsi’s world-view is clearly monotheistic: the ancient kings and heroes of Iran usually invoke God’s name and attributes (world-creator, etc.) in their desperate fight against demons (dev) and witches (jadu, zan-e jadu, afsungar).

Magic (jadu, afsun) is not without importance in the world-view of the epic. While afsun (which is etymologically derived from the Middle Persian verb afsudan, “to enchant” or “protect with a spell”), is an ambivalent term, meaning a spell which can be taught by an angel2 and may save a life, the word jadu, on the other hand, clearly denotes “black”, i.e., harmful magic. In addition, the very word “magic” carries special connotations, as etymologically it means a certain priestly class in ancient Iran, or more commonly “wise man”, “sage”.

In Ferdowsi’s epic, distinctions between the realms of Good and Evil are not as sharp as in Zoroastrian literature. The great heroes and kings of the Shahname are frequently caught between conflicting values of honor and self-preservation, when they fight their continuous fratricidal wars against Turan (the north-eastern neighboring empire), Rum (the Western peoples, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines) and “vassal” countries (Sistan, Mazanderan).

IRANIAN POPULAR LITERATURE

The huge corpus of Iranian Islamic belief narratives which were preserved in medieval chronicles, popular epics, books of anecdotes and hagiographical literature, has still not been fully utilized by contemporary researchers, though the pioneering studies of M.J. Mahjoub deserve to be mentioned (Mahjoub 2014).

Iranian oral tradition and folk customs have received more attention from both foreign and Iranian scholars during the last hundred years. The studies of A. Christensen, H. Massé, S. Hedayat, and L. P. Elwell-Sutton, dating from the first half of the 20th century, and more recently those of S. A. Enjavi-Shirazi, U. Marzolph and M. Omidsalar, among others, widen our perspectives on the understanding of the shared heritage of story-telling in the Near and Middle East and South-West Asia (Cf. Marzolph 1984:306–311).

POPULAR PIETY AND SUPERSTITION IN IRANIAN CONTEMPORARY BELIEF NARRATIVES

Relying on some hundred texts selected from the multivolume collection of A. Darvishian & R. Khandan, The Dictionary of Iranian Folktales (afterwards DIT) and also a collection by the late S.A. Enjavi-Shirazi, I will hereby attempt to give a brief description of the use of verbal charms and other means of asking for supernatural help in a few folk narratives, fairytales and legends.

The ancient Persian word for magic spell, i.e., afsun, which was often used by Ferdowsi, seems to be absent in folk narratives. The word which usually means “charm” in these texts is the word verd, an Arabic loanword. While in the definition of H. Algar, verd can be a kind of prayer (Algar 1996), in the opinion of M. Bagheri, verd in folktales is used as the nonsense word of a conjurer (like hocus-pocus in European tales) (Professor Mehri Bagheri, personal communication, 2018). In our above-mentioned texts, verd is sometimes used by a magical helper to perform impossible tasks for the heroine (DIT, vol.7. Green Ali, 36–37. ATU 425 B.; DIT, vol. 7. The Three Sisters, 431). Frequently, verd is used in cases of shape shifting or the transformation of men into animals, such as a dog or a donkey (Enjavi-Shirazi 2005:240–241), or a hen, a deer (DIT, vol. 17. Two Dervishes, 341; Enchanted Garden, 382), a monkey (DIT, vol. 18. Enchanted Spring, 217), etc., or transformation into inanimate objects.3

Verd is used by sorcerers, witches, demons, fairies and wise women (Cf. EnjaviShirazi 2005:241; DIT, vol. 17. Enchanted Spring, 219; DIT, vol. 18. Enchanted Garden, 384), and above all, by dervishes, who in folktales seem to be endowed with great magical, but often sinister powers, as in several versions of the tale The Magician and His Pupil, ATU 325 in the collection.

Verd also can be taught to human beings under certain conditions, cf. the tale of The Daughter of Dal4 (i.e., foster-daughter of a legendary bird), in which an egg and rags can be transformed into a baby by the verd-chanting of a childless woman (DIT, vol.18. 460).

In these belief narratives, prayers – both the obligatory ritual prayer (Persian namaz, equivalent of the Arabic salat) and the supplication (do’a) – are said in certain desperate cases to achieve miraculous results for humans, such as reviving the dead (DIT, vol.7. Sam and Malek Ebrahim, 30; DIT, vol.7. The Stone of Patience, 242, 261, ff), transforming inanimate objects (doll, dough figure) into living maidens (DIT, vol.3. Four men and the miracle, 416; DIT, vol.18. The Dough Girl, 495), rejuvenating the old (DIT, vol.7. Sam and Malek Ebrahim, 30), healing the blind (DIT, vol.3. Jamjame, 225) and opening the enchanted gate (DIT, vol. 3. The Lazy Boy, 137).

The use of magic objects is also often accompanied by prayers. In the Kurdish tale of Toli Hazar (The princess whose finger can be seen only at the price of thousand pieces of gold), the stick and the table cloth provides food, when prayer (do’a) is said over them (DIT, vol. 3, 117).

In the story of The Lazy Boy under the Apricot Tree, the seal of Solomon placed under the tongue makes every wish come true, if the protagonist simultaneously performs the obligatory Islamic prayer and a supplication (DIT, vol. 3, 155).

In the tale of the Cup bearer, the carpet can fly with its owner in any direction, if he pronounces the Quranic verse 61/13, “In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful, the help is from God, the victory is near”.5

CONCLUSION

It can be said that charms (afsun, verd, and, in a certain sense, ritual and supplicatory prayer) have an important role in Iranian belief narratives. They are taught by miraculous helpers (saints, prophets, wise old men and women, dervishes) in accordance with Islamic tradition.

Traces of pre-Islamic beliefs also subsist. Ogres and demons (dev), witches (jadu) and fairies (pari, who are a sort of nature spirit, most notably “She of the Forty Tresses” Chehel Gisu, the femme fatale of Iranian fairy tales) are encountered and usually overcome by human heroes and heroines.

With the help of the ATU Index (Uther 2011) and Stith Thompson’s Motif Index (Thompson 1955–1958), more in-depth studies can be done in this promising field.

REFERENCES CITED

  • Algar, Hamid 1996 Do’a. In Yar-Shater, Ehsan (ed.) Encyclopaedia Iranica VII., 452456. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Darvishian, Ali AshrafKhandan, Reza 1998 Farhang-e Afsaneha-ye Mardom-e Iran [The Dictionary of Iranian Folktales]. Tehran: Ketab o Farhang.

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  • Donaldson, Bess Allen 1938 The Wild Rue. A Study of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran . London: Luzac &Co.

  • Enjavi-Shirazi, S. Abu-l Qasem 2005 Gol ba Senobar che kard. Qesseha-ye irani [What Did Gol to Senobar. Iranian Tales]. 4th ed. Tehran: Amir Kabir.

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  • Ferdowsi, Abu-l Qasem 2012 Shahname [The Book of the Kings]. Ed. Khaleghi-Motlagh, Jalal. 4th ed. Tehran: Markaz-e Da’ere-ye al-Ma’arif-e Bozorg-e Eslami.

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  • Mahjoub, Mohammad Ja’far 2014 The Popular Literature of Iran [Adabiyat-e ‘ammiyane-ye Iran]. Ed. Dzulfaqari, H. Tehran: Chashme.

  • Markus-Takeshita, Kinga 2015 Belief Tales in the Shahname . Israel Ethnographic Society Series. No.5.

  • Marzolph, Ulrich 1984 Typologie des persischen Volksmärchen [Tipology of Persian Folktales]. Beirut: In Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag.

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  • Omidsalar, Mahmud 1992 Charms. In Yar-Shater, Ehsan (ed.) Encyclopaedia Iranica . Vol. V., 385388. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Thompson, Stith 1955–1958 Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Medieval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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  • Uther, Hans-Jörg 2011 The Types of International Folktales . Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

1

For a detailed discussion and bibliography see Markus-Takeshita 2015.

2

In the chapters of the primeval kings it means God-given spell, incantation, cf. the chapter of King Tahmuras, verses 27, 37; the chapter of Zahak, 278–291; the chapter of Faridun, 196–202.

3

a needle, Green Ali, 36; a stone, Sorcery, DIT, vol. 18. 122.

4

Dal is a legendary bird in some southern Iranian folktales. In most traditional narratives and above all in the Shahname, Simorg is the magical (and maternal) bird helper.

5

DIT, vol. 7., 62. For Quranic verses used as charms, see Donaldson 1938: chapters XVI and XXVI.

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  • Algar, Hamid 1996 Do’a. In Yar-Shater, Ehsan (ed.) Encyclopaedia Iranica VII., 452456. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Darvishian, Ali AshrafKhandan, Reza 1998 Farhang-e Afsaneha-ye Mardom-e Iran [The Dictionary of Iranian Folktales]. Tehran: Ketab o Farhang.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Donaldson, Bess Allen 1938 The Wild Rue. A Study of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran . London: Luzac &Co.

  • Enjavi-Shirazi, S. Abu-l Qasem 2005 Gol ba Senobar che kard. Qesseha-ye irani [What Did Gol to Senobar. Iranian Tales]. 4th ed. Tehran: Amir Kabir.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferdowsi, Abu-l Qasem 2012 Shahname [The Book of the Kings]. Ed. Khaleghi-Motlagh, Jalal. 4th ed. Tehran: Markaz-e Da’ere-ye al-Ma’arif-e Bozorg-e Eslami.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mahjoub, Mohammad Ja’far 2014 The Popular Literature of Iran [Adabiyat-e ‘ammiyane-ye Iran]. Ed. Dzulfaqari, H. Tehran: Chashme.

  • Markus-Takeshita, Kinga 2015 Belief Tales in the Shahname . Israel Ethnographic Society Series. No.5.

  • Marzolph, Ulrich 1984 Typologie des persischen Volksmärchen [Tipology of Persian Folktales]. Beirut: In Kommission bei Franz Steiner Verlag.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Omidsalar, Mahmud 1992 Charms. In Yar-Shater, Ehsan (ed.) Encyclopaedia Iranica . Vol. V., 385388. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  • Thompson, Stith 1955–1958 Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Medieval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Uther, Hans-Jörg 2011 The Types of International Folktales . Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.

  • Cultural Studies SJR Quartile Score (2018): Q3
  • Music SJR Quartile Score (2018): Q3
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