As someone who has long loved fairy tales and mythology, I’ve always found it both interesting and kind of magical the way similar characters, themes, and motifs appear in the stories of different cultures throughout the world. Whether these similarities show up because of cross-cultural interactions or out of sheer coincidence, certain themes seem to be so universal to humanity that they take root in many times and places. Maybe there are some stories we all need to tell to help us make sense of this world we live in.
While poring over Persian myths and legends for my novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, I was always delightfully surprised whenever I came across a story that sounded familiar to me from my western upbringing. While I don’t have the expertise to speak to exactly how these stories found their way from one culture to another, or whether any of these stories were directly influenced by each other, I hope you’ll join me in marveling at the way some stories speak to and create common threads in all of us.
Here are five Persian legends featuring elements in common with western myths and fairy tales:
This story will certainly sound familiar: a beautiful young woman lets down her long hair so that her suitor can climb his way up to her. But while Rapunzel’s prince does use her hair to climb up her tower, in the story of Rudabeh and Zal, found in the epic Shahnameh, the suitor rejects this offer.
Zal is a young hero who was born with white hair, which was considered such an ill omen that he was abandoned as an infant on the side of a mountain, where he was found and adopted by a magical bird called the Simorgh. Rudabeh is the descendant of an evil serpent king. But despite these potential deterrents, the two of them become entranced with each other from afar and so arrange a rendezvous to meet in person. When Zal shows up, Rudabeh lets down her hair from the roof so that he can climb up to her—but Zal refuses, saying it wouldn’t be right for him to do so because he doesn’t want to hurt her, and uses a rope to scale the walls instead. That’s some old school Persian courtesy right there, and that romantic image of a young woman letting down her hair in the hope of romance is striking enough to be memorable no matter where it shows up.
The Seven Labors of Rostam
One of the most famous figures in Persian legend is Rostam (the son of Zal and Rudabeh), whose story is also in the Shahnameh. Much like Heracles/Hercules from Greek/Roman myth, Rostam is born with incredible strength (in fact, he’s so large at birth that he necessitates the invention of the C-section). Rostam becomes a great hero and champion of his king. In one story, after the king and his army are captured by demons and rendered magically blind, Rostam sets out with his loyal steed, Rakhsh, to save the king. He faces seven obstacles (or labors) on the way, including a lion, a dragon, and some demons, and, of course, defeats them in order to save his king and restore his sight. While the madness and repentance aspects of Heracles’ twelve labors isn’t found in Rostam’s tale, Rostam is often likened to Heracles given their shared heroic status, immense strength, and series of labors.
Rostam and Sohrab
Another well-known part of Rostam’s story is the tragedy of his clash with his son, Sohrab. Rostam has a child with a woman named Tahmineh in a neighboring kingdom, but doesn’t stick around long enough to see the child’s birth. Tahmineh has a son, Sohrab, who grows up to become a warrior in his own right. Upon learning that he is the son of the great hero Rostam, Sohrab leads an invasion meant to put Rostam on the throne, but unknowingly ends up facing Rostam on the battlefield. Rostam kills Sohrab, not realizing that he killed his own son until it’s too late, and breaks down in grief. The story of a father killing his son is found in other tales in the west, perhaps most famously in Arthurian legend. Like Rostam, King Arthur fights a son he didn’t raise (Mordred) on the battlefield and slays him. In Arthur’s case, though, father and son kill each other. The mythological Irish figure of Cú Chulainn is another hero of great strength who ultimately kills his own son.
Another hero in the Shahnameh, Esfandyar, undergoes seven labors like both Rostam and Heracles, but he also has a striking similarity with the Greek hero Achilles. Echoing Achilles’ animosity for his general, Agamemnon, Esfandyar is in a power struggle with his father, who pressures Esfandyar into attacking Rostam. Though Esfandyar is reluctant to attack such a beloved hero, he gives in and ends up fighting and grievously wounding Rostam. Luckily, Rostam’s father, Zal, is the adopted son of the Simorgh, a magical bird who happens to know that Esfandyar is invulnerable, except for one fatal flaw—his Achilles heel, if you will. Esfandyar can only be killed by striking at his eyes. With this knowledge, Rostam defeats Esfandyar, though his death is more ominous than triumphant for Rostam.
Vis and Ramin
The epic romance of Vis and Ramin was written in verse in the 11th century, but the narrative is believed to date from the Parthian era, several centuries earlier. This story of two star-crossed lovers has echoes in the Celtic story of Tristan and Isolde (as well as the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere). While there is no definitive proof that Vis and Ramin is the sole source of Tristan and Isolde, the parallels are numerous and undeniable.
Both stories feature a young woman (Vis or Isolde) married to an older king (Mobad or Mark), and an affair between that queen and a young relative of the king (Ramin or Tristan). Other similarities throughout the story include Ramin and Tristan falling in love with their paramours while bringing them to the men they’re supposed to marry, a handmaiden or nurse with magical knowledge who takes the place of her mistress in her husband’s bed, an ordeal by fire, and a separation between the two lovers where the young man goes off and marries someone else for a while before returning to his true love. Interestingly, Vis and Ramin don’t have the tragic ending of Tristan and Isolde. After plenty of turmoil, they end up happily married for many years until Ramin dies at an advanced age, and are celebrated in the text despite their adulterous beginnings.
Originally published in July 2020.
Melissa Bashardoust received her degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where she rediscovered her love for creative writing, children’s literature, and fairy tales and their retellings. She currently lives in Southern California with a cat named Alice and more copies of Jane Eyre than she probably needs. Melissa is the author of Girls Made of Snow and Glass and Girl, Serpent, Thorn.