Bahrām V Gōr in Persian Legend and Literature
The growth of legends around prominent figures is familiar in Persian literature, and the case of Bahrām V is an excellent example of this. The relatively colorless and straightforward accounts by the early historians (Ṭabarī, Dīnavarī, Baḷʿamī, Ebn Balḵī), which emphasize Bahrām’s military prowess and his efforts to rule well, contain small hints of the way the legends will develop. Ferdowsī’s and Ṯaʿālebī’s accounts contain many of the characteristics of popular romances: a childless king (Yazdegerd I) who eventually fathers a son, the boy’s auspicious horoscope, his precocious physical and intellectual development, his education in the three areas of letters, manly arts, and kingship, and a life devoted to military and amorous adventures and the chase. His sobriquet gōr (wild ass) is said to have been inspired by a spectacular hunting feat where he killed a lion and an onager with one arrow, or in later accounts, by his love of hunting wild asses.
The major versions of the romance of Bahrām Gōr are in Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāma, Neẓāmī’s Haft peykar, and Amīr(-e) Ḵosrow’s Hašt behešt. In each case the framework of the story is the same, but the emphasis and details differ considerably. Ferdowsī’s is the most balanced, and presents the life of Bahrām in an exemplary fashion, many of his adventures giving him the opportunity to display qualities admired in Persian kings. Neẓāmī’s and Amīr Ḵosrow’s are psychologically more subtle, but also more erotic and symbolic. In the latter two the account is dominated by an elaborate framed story, focused on seven princesses whom Bahrām marries and the stories that each one tells him as he visits them on successive days of the week. The symbolism of planets, colors, and the number seven pervades the romance.
One of the most remarkable differences among the various versions of the story is the manner of Bahrām’s death. Ferdowsī’s version has Bahrām die in his sleep, while in Haft peykar and Hašt behešt he chases an onager into a cave and disappears. Versions of the legend by early historians have him sink into a swamp, fall into a deep pit, or drown. Most of these variants appear to be local legends. For a discussion of this question, see M.-J. Maḥjūb, “Gūr-e Bahrām Gōr,” Īrān-nāma 1, 1361 Š./1983, pp. 147-63.
Bahrām Gōr is mentioned in early literary sources as the first person to write poetry in Persian. ʿAwfī, Lobāb I, pp. 19-20, quotes Arabic and Persian verses attributed to him, but the Persian ones are obviously of a later date.
The homonyms gūr “onager,” and gūr “grave” have led to many puns in classical Persian poetry, such as in this line from Ḥāfeẓ: Kamand e ṣayd-e bahrāmī be-afkan jām-e Jam bar dār/ke man peymūdam īn ṣaḥrā na Bahrām ast o na gūraš (Throw down Bahrām’s hunting lasso and take up Jamshid’s cup/I have crossed this plain and there is neither Bahrām nor his onager, or: his grave; Dīvān, ed. Qazvīnī and Ḡanī, Tehran, 1320 Š./1941-42, p. 188).
The adventures of Bahrām Gōr are a favorite subject for manuscript illustrations. J. Norgren and E. Davis in their Preliminary Index of Shah-Nameh Illustrations (Ann Arbor, 1969) list thirty-two scenes showing Bahrām Gōr, the most popular of which are “Bahrām Gōr hunting in the company of Āzāda,” “Bahrām snatching the crown from between two lions,” and “Bahrām kills a dragon.” Manuscripts of the Haft Peykar and Hašt behešt are also frequently illustrated.
P. J. Chelkowski, Mirror of the Invisible World, New York, 1975 (includes a prose translation of Haft peykar).
L. N. Dodkhudoeva, Poemy Nezami v srednovekovoĭ miniatyurnoĭ zhivopisi, Moscow, 1985.
R. Ettinghausen, “Bahram Gur’s Hunting Feats or the Problem of Identification,”Iran 17, 1979, pp. 25-31.
M.-J. Maḥjūb, “Hašt behešt wa Haft peykar,” Īrān-Nāma 1, 1362 Š./1983, pp. 346-87.
M. Moʿīn, Taḥlīl-e Haft peykar-e Neẓāmī, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959-60.
M. S. Simpson, “Narrative Allusion and Metaphor in the Decoration of Medieval Islamic Objects,” in H. L. Kessler and M. S. Simpson, eds., The Pictorial Narrative in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Studies in Art History 16, Washington, D.C., 1985, pp. 131-50.
(W. L. Hanaway, Jr.)
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: July 26, 2016
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 5, pp. 514-522
W. L. Hanaway, Jr., “Bahrām V Gōr in Persian Legend and Literature,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, III/5, pp. 514-522, available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bahram-05-lit (accessed on 30 December 2012).