Persian Language & Literature

A Mythological Glance at Demons in Ancient Iranian Literature
By: Mansour Yaqouti
Ferdowsi says:
You consider demon to mean bad people;
Those who are not grateful to God
Anyone who has disregard for human manners;
You should consider him a demon and not human;

The Book of Kings (Shahnameh) has it that during the rule of the legendary king of Persian, Jamshid, demons worked as engineers and architects to build bathhouses, bridges and houses. As one can understand from Firdawsi's poems, demons were like humans or those with different, heretical religious beliefs. Probably they were polytheists and had remained faithful to the religion of their ancestors. Therefore, they were probably people who were backward in terms of civilization. They were hunters who lived in caves or were nomads and spent most of their lives in the mountains. Can't we take caves as symbol of black tents at those times?

Demons, according to the following verses, were people who insisted on the lifestyle of their ancestors and could not adapt to the new way of living in villages, agriculture and building houses. What is the meaning of 'Anyone who has disregard for human manners'? Certainly, demons were people with their own specific lifestyle and beliefs. The living place of demons could be determined on the basis of Book of Kings and ancient Iranian myths.

The White Demon (Div Sepid) is one of the most renowned demons who lived at a cave in Mazandaran. Based on the most ancient of Iranian myths, demons lived either deep inside the caves or on high mountains and deserted castles. I the myth 'Gol-e Khandan (smiling flower)' the demon that steals Gol-e Khandan keeps her at a deserted castle. In another myth 'Namadineh', Namadineh who is a young and beautiful girl goes a long way to look for some wool. She ends up at a cave, in which a demon lives. Namadineh was a village girl and demon lived at a cave and had not seen a human for years. He treats, Namadineh, who is a kind and humane girl, appropriately and enchants her, so that, whenever she laughs a bouquet would fall out of her mouth and a small sun shines on her brow while planting a small moon on her chin. However, when another ignorant and spoiled girl happens to go to the same cave and disdain the demon, he revenges on her. When the Aryans chose to settle in the lush plain of Iran, the original inhabitant were living in mountains and at cave, covering their bodies with animal hides and, perhaps, putting caps made of the skull of bulls on their heads. Most probably, when confronting those people, Aryans who were relatively more civilized and were familiar with urbanism and agriculture had fought with them.

In another ancient tale, there is a special apple tree at a king's palace, which bears three red, fragrant and big apples every year. The apples are being stolen away and the king asks his three sons to keep watch beside the tree. At last, the younger son injures the thieve and when he tracks the blood, he reaches a cave where a demon lives. The demon had been keeping three young girls there because they were not willing to marry him.

In most tales, the home of demons is a cave and the common clue in these tales is that the demon steals a girl and takes her to the cave asking her to marry him.

Usually, no girl agreed to the marriage and no demon marries the girl by force. Perhaps, symbolically it meant that people living in mountains were willing to have contacts with people living in villages and the reason for girls not agreeing to marry demons was that the latter had no plan to desist the lifestyle of their ancestors.

People who were known demons did not worship the Almighty God and, perhaps worshipped many gods like Anahita, the goddess of rain and plantations; Va the goddess of wind; and Mehr or Mitra, the goddess of light, war and pact.

Before Zoroaster, Iranian people believed in many gods. There has been no paganism in Iran, Mitra and Anahita and other gods and goddesses were supernatural creatures that were demoted to second-degree deities in the religion of Zoroaster.

However, the human culture and believes are deep-rooted and they cannot be simply changed during several centuries. The struggle between new and old is a perennial fights; the old is turned new and new is turned old. Demon is symbol of violence in Persian myths. He has a heinous appearance and resorts to force to attain his goals. He comes out of the blues and steals the bride, which is a symbol for beauty and fertility. The demons were not sophisticated and were easily duped. In many myths they were easily tricked by urban people, who were symbolized by princes. Even the villagers deceived them. An old tale has it that a number of demons lived in an old castle. An old woman with his wise son and another insane son succeed to make them skedaddle away with the help of a turtle and the sound of a drum beaten by tail of a donkey. In some stories, including that of Akvan the Demon, he flies into the skies. This has posed a riddle; does flying means scaling up high mountains? Or reaching deserted caves that were well-nigh inaccessible to city dwellers?

In most fables, the life bottle of the demon is in the brain of a wild goat and the demon dies the moment that goat is killed. Has this anything to do with symbolizing the lives of demons in mountains and its close relationship with hunting? Note that we have seen many engravings of wild goats in seals, pins and daggers belonging to the brass age.

Dialogue is the prerequisite of urban life. Whenever a group of people live together, they have to talk to each other in order to overcome problems.

Violence, however, stems from nomadic lifestyle. Iran's geography is intertwined with high mountains, deserts and forests. Perhaps man and demons represented contrasting features of Iranian nature.

There is a tale among Kurds called 'Sabz-e Qaba' (green-cloaked) according to which an old farmer comes across a talking turtle in his farm. He takes it to his home. One day the turtle asked the farmer's wife to suit the king's daughter for him. The women declines first, but finally goes to the palace and the king accepts her request provided that the turtle would build a palace for his daughter by the next day whose bricks would be alternately gold and silver and birds cover the sky over it in such a manner that the sun's light would not touch the princess. Next day, the palace is there to the amazement of all people and bird cover the sky above it.

The princess marries the turtle. On the marriage day, a handsome boy comes out of the turtle's shell. One day, the princess takes the shell and burns it down in the absence of her husband. Her husband goes away in anger and tells her, "If you want to find me, you have to wear out seven pairs of iron shoes and iron sticks." She finally finds him and discovers that he is the son of a female demon who becomes angry at the princess and covers the whole earth with feathers telling the princess to sweep the ground overnight. Her son helps the princess and the demon who is at her wit's end accepts the princess as her daughter-in-law.

This tale indicates another stage of human life. The son of the demon represents the young generation that has discarded old notions and married the princess. Her father does not agree to their marriage and proposes an impossible condition: building a palace of gold and silver bricks. The young man does it, but still sticks to his shell, which symbolizes old traditions. The princess takes a bold action and burns the shell. In reaction, the young man goes back to his mother, who shelters him. The demon's efforts for keeping the old traditions are in vain. The shell has been burned and the new generation that has emerged from the old relations is seeking a totally different situation.