Fereydoon and Zahak

The mythological origins of Fereydoonism


Fereydoon and Zahak
by Ari Siletz

Skeptipedia Iranica describes Fereydoonism as the expatriate urge to commandeer an uprising once it has already been started in his country of birth. Characteristic of this condition is the false sense in the expatriate that he/she represents the authentic native, having escaped the cumulative cultural and political mutations affecting those who stayed behind.

The nomenclature has its origin in the story of Fereydoon and Zahak. Still unborn, Fereydoon was being hunted by Zahak, the Arab usurper of the Iranian throne. Zahak started the chase after he had a dream that someone named Fereydoon was going to bash his head in with a cow-headed mace, then flay him head to foot and chain him to Mount Damavand.

For someone with such precise psychic vision, this was a disappointingly inefficient premonition. What Zahak should have dreamt was that a local blacksmith named Kaveh was going to start a rebellion against him, after which a young man named Fereydoon would take over the rebellion, bash his head in with a cow-headed mace, flay him and chain him to Damavand. Since Kaveh the blacksmith was already born, he would have been easier to find and kill, averting the unfortunate chain of events.

By the time Fereydoon was born, everyone knew that Zahak was looking for him, so

Fereydoon’s mother, the noblewoman Faranak, escaped to a far away meadow where the child would be suckled by an extraordinary cow, Pormayeh (or Barmayeh). Ferdowsi says in his Shahnameh that each hair on this splendid cow was a different color. With this information we can actually determine the size of this super cow. Since the human eye can see about 10 million colors, and assuming a reasonable density for cow hair, this cow comes out to be about 4 feet long. A really big goat maybe, but an uber-cow? This gives a quantitative measure of the exaggeration factor of the myth.

Meanwhile Kaveh the blacksmith was losing son after son to Zahak. The snakes growing out of Zahak’s shoulders (long story) would eat nothing but human brain, so a lot of young Iranians were losing their lives to the regime. Two Iranians named Armayel and Garmayel deserve to share a Nobel Peace Prize for their deeds, because they figured out a way to mix lamb brain with the snake food, saving many Iranians.

Ferdowsi says the men who were saved were smuggled out to the wilderness and given flocks of goats to sustain them. These later became the nomadic Kords. Skeptipedia Iranica conjectures that Armayel and Garmayel were Kords to begin with, and that ethnic favoritism was at work here (This kind of favoritism plagued the country until last month’s elections where Kords, Lors, Azeris, Baluchis, Arabs, Gilakis, Mazanderanis, and Turkamans, with unprecedented fair-mindedness voted overwhelmingly against their own candidates).

Fereydoon was really angry, of course. Not about the brain business, which—being an expatriate—he knew nothing about. He was mad because mom had told him about how Zahak killed his father and took away their property. Also, the pet cow (goat?), Pormayeh had to be avenged. In his mad search for Fereydoon Zahak had shown no mercy to the cow.

The young man was about to sweep down on his homeland in a storm of vengeance, but Faranak, who didn’t want to lose a son, held him back, reminding him that he had no followers, while Zahak had a big army. The task of finding followers and starting a rebellion would fall to the blacksmith Kaveh who was down to his last son.

Fed up with the injustice, Kaveh took off his leather apron and stuck it on a spear, improvising a flag. Then he went around the country with his new flag—which has come to be known as Derafsh e Kaviani--making speeches and gathering an army in Fereydoon’s name. Fereyedoon later took over this army, bashed Zahak’s head in with a cow-headed mace, flayed him head to foot and chained him to mountain Damavand. Iran was free again.

Afterwards Fereydoon did something Zahak had not seen in his dream: he told Kaveh and his followers to go home.

So we brave expatriates must stay at the ready. Kaveh is gathering support in our names. Soon he will come to put at our disposal a large army of followers. Our properties will be returned, our 48 inch cow avenged.

And Kaveh will go home, leaving us in charge of Iran.


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more from Ari Siletz

You know I could

by Anonymouse on

You know I could never guage people's feelings in Iran towards Khomeini properly.  Upper and middle class by and large are against him.  Lower middle class I feel the same and even people with lower means are not shy of not remembering his name in a good light. At the same time many in upper, middle and lower classes can stillsay few good things about him and his memory.

I think he is mostly a myth among poor and I believe that is mostly a financial tie and not much more.  Everyone knows pretty much that he felt "nothing" and can't attribute much progressive thoughts towards him after he got rid of Shah, especially when you have such a large percentage of young people in the populaion. Not to mention the Islamic Republic's history in the past 30 years.

However, take a look at his masoleum.  Isn't it one of the biggest construction projects ever in Iran?  I think it is 2nd to Perspolis in terms of size, Milad Tower maybe 2nd.  Anyway it is huge.  What are we going to do with it when and if Iran turns secular?  That's the least of our problems I know but still.

Again in his death anniversary they were talking that the pillars were drilled into earth by 36 meters, that's 36 X 3 ft = 108 ft deep into the ground with concrete and 92 meters in the air to represent his age at time of death, and there are 4 of them.  Khalkhali had such a hard time demolishing Reza Shah's masoleum, this one would be much tougher if attempted.

Anyway, he is not hurting anyone now and many are attempting to change his image but his "noting" will always remain. Maybe that is what he is telling us from grave that we should feel "nothing" towards Islamic Republic ;-)

Everything is sacred.

Ari Siletz

Thanks varjavand

by Ari Siletz on

New copies of my book should arrive in the mail in the coming week. I'm looking forward to sending you a signed copy, as promised. Meanwhile I am really enjoying your book, From Misery Alley to Missouri Valley. If you happen to do a book reading in the San Francisco Bay Area, let us know.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

You seem to have a boots-on-the-ground feel for the situation in Iran. Realism is key to the decisions we make regarding who to support.


The Greens seem to feel a need to rehabilitate Khomenini. Whatever his true character may have been, it seems each side needs Khomenini myths supporting their side. One of the disadvantages of being dead. The advantage is that no matter which side wins, Khomeini will end up with the credit.  Unless the movement turns completely secular.

Ari Siletz

Great link, cameron

by Ari Siletz on

Wonderful to see Shahnameh fans bringing Ferdowsi into mainstream America. This link to the website--featuring a young American comic book reviewer--was particularly touching.


Speaking of mainstream, and in reference to the comment by "cyrus the great" about characters not mentioned in the above rendition, I would draw the attention of comic book artists to the characters of Sharnavaz and Arnavaz. These two breathtakingly sexy sisters of the deposed Iranian king Jamshid play an important role in the story. Not the least of which is that the decisive battle between Fereydoon and Zahak happens because Zahak becomes infuriated at Fereydoon for having a threesome with these lovely women, when Zahak was the only one to previously have the priviledge. Some Iranian myth maker must have been really mad at Jamsheed, though Jamsheed is a revered character.


Whem my mom used to tell me the story, she ommited this angle, replacing Armayel and Garmayel with Shahrnavaz and Arnavaz as the two who conspired to save the Iranain youth from becoming snake food. This is an example of a myth being upgraded by folks to adapt it to concurrent realities. In this case, the greater role that women are playing in (remembered) history. 



by varjavand on

Well written as your other stories, timely as well.

I am still waiting to receive a signed copy of your book


cyrus the great


by cyrus the great on

Great read. You named most of the characters, but failed to mention that Fereydoons Father who was killed by Zahak was named Abteen


Keep up the good work!

by cameron on

Thank you for the interesting and well written article. As a Shahnameh fan it is always good to see people still enjoying and learning leasons from it.

Shad-O Sarboland Bashi



Religion is a big

by Anonymouse on

Religion is a big part of Iranian political toolkit and if Khomeini felt something rather than "nothing" we'd be in a different stage.  The chance of another Khomeini-style-feel-nothing-man ruining another movement is slim to none and slim has left the building!

Case and point Ahmadi who is oblivious to all these protests (feels "nothing" :-) and is going to get inaugurated Monday.  He "won" by a landslide and 65% of the vote, same % as Obama thus the "win" by 60%ish, yet 65% are protesting his "win"!

When current Mullahs refer to their "memories" of Imam they are all about an old man who was basically a hoot!  I am not kidding!  When I was there and it was his death anniversary everyone on TV was remembering a memory and none was of any substance.

For example Mousavi's memory in his debate with Ahmadi was when he said; you know during the war some people went to Imam and asked him to go and open a front with Israel.  Imam in his usual manner said "Ghod's road is through Karbala".

BTW it is easy for us to dismiss religion here in America but it is not so in Iran.  Why do you think many of our educated people who were in Iran became religious?   

Everything is sacred.

Ari Siletz

Dear Befuddled In San Francisco

by Ari Siletz on

Be assured that you are not a Fereydoonista. The term applies to expats who expect Kaveh to sacrifice his sons to the battle then hand the spoils of power over to said expats. Expats who cheer and encourage Kaveh from abroad without creating headaches for him on the battle field--such as prematurely waving attack flags, alerting the enemy and confusing the ranks--can proudly call themselves Kaveh-ists if they want. The best expat cheerleaders even get to ride in Cessna e Kaviani. Skeptipedia staff get first dibs though.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Anonymouse, Yana, you bring up a soaaleh sakht regarding religion.        Iran doesn't have the same historical motivations as Europe to separate church and state, and so one of the pillars of modernity appears to be missing, and likely to stay missing in near future. Religion is part of the Iranian political toolkit, and the Green Movement is not exempt from this.

 Yet in his struggle to rescue the Islamic order, Rafsanjani's recent speech appeared to beg angry protesters to recognize that large reserves of modern democratic values can be found in Shiism.  He said Mohammad advised Ali to leave the people alone to do what they wanted, suggesting that this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Shiism's modern democratic potential.


So while it is unrealistic to expect that Iran's 90% Shiite majority will simply allow a secular state to come along and neuter it, the social pressures created by broader education and global contact may leave the religious state no choice but to shed its oppressive traditions and cultivate "newly discovered" liberal aspects.     Driving this point forcefully to where religion is left with minor face-saving influence would be a Green victory, and as close to secularism as Iran's near-term culture can offer . As they say, bebeeneem o ta'reef konim, but I wouldn't make separation of Mosque and State a strict condition of an Iranian democracy, because then the deal may be too hard to make. 



Nazy Kaviani

Dear Skeptipedia Iranica

by Nazy Kaviani on

I named my first born Kavian. The gesture was an act of homage to my father and to Kaveh.

When he was 9, my son started asking me about the Zahak story and Kaveh the blacksmith. I remember reading the story and discussing it many times, each time seeing his young boy's eyes twinkle with excitement at the thought of justice and people power. Recently he told me that all through that time when he was asking me those questions, he was secretly hoping that I would tell him that his name had been chosen because of his roots' going back to Kaveh himself. He said he was really disappointed when he finally realized that he wasn't really related to Kaveh, "because it would have been so cool."

Dear Skeptipedia Iranica:

I am concerned because when we were at the San Francisco demonstrations, my son and I saw an airplane carrying a banner which showed a Derafsh-e-Kaviani flag. My son and I looked at each other and didn't feel any particular pride with that banner in the sky over a protest the organizers of which had specifically asked people not to bring other flags (though I did joke around that it was my over-zealous personal pilot, trying to impress me!). Watching video clips of Saturday's gathering, every time I came to seeing that airplane in the sky over San Francisco City Hall, I feel that same dread. Whereas I wasn’t really bothered by the Shir-o-Khorshid flags (as explained on the other thread), this one really bothered me for some reason. Now my sense of dread is growing as I read your piece here.

We are now official expatriates of Iran. What if with the way you describe the lot of us expat Iranians, we have all become a bunch of Fereydoonists, leaving Kaveh and his army of volunteer soldiers behind? I am no Kaveh and I am not related to him, but it would be so ironic and cruel if I can no longer be a Kaveh-ist, either! Though wickedly fun to read your piece, I am really befuddled now! Please help set this mess (you created) straight if you can, Skeptipedia Jan.


To anonymous

by Yana on

That is exactly what I have been trying to say, this religion thing is so deeply rooted in our people that they miss every time the opportunity to catch the fish of freedom!

shad zee



Ari I meant what is

by Anonymouse on

Ari I meant what is the discriminator, the difference between now and then.  The methods are the same, everything is pretty much the same.  I don't think the main difference is the lack of a figure like Khomeini who feels "nothing"! 

I'm reading this book by Carole Jerome who was Ghotbzadeh's girlfriend and this book was introduced by our friend DK several months ago.  I don't feel like searching for the link now.  I bought it for $0.25 at Amazon and $4.95 shipping and handling!

Anyway, it is a fascinating book and when I'm done with it hopefully I can write a review about it, whenever that may be.

In that book you go behind the scene of the whos who of 1979 revolution and what it took to bring down Shah.  I know who they were but this book gives it another look from a reporter's perspective before, during and after the whole thing sitting right next to Khomeini and his men. 

Now Khomeini was able to order general strikes and everything else to bring Shah to his knees, yet he felt "nothing"!  Akheh baba WTF?!  You see what I mean?  Now imagine if he did everything he did yet felt "something".  Where would we be by now?

The elements of religion is still the driving factor in this green movement.  While people understand and feel the need for separation of Mosque and state now, they still go to the street with their religious beliefs and I don't blame them. It is crazy as hell in the streets and everytime you go out many read their ashhads and get their strength this way.  It is not easy, how many other nations do we know who've done it twice in 30 years?

We don't need Kaveh again, anyone would do and there are plenty we can think about and name now.  We need to understand that there are a lot more issues and problems than 1979.  Mousavi said the other day this regime has done worse than Shah did in his time.  Imagine him saying something like that just a couple of months ago.  A main difference I see this time around is Iran's population that has doubled and that in and of itself is a huge "khan" for Rostam to concur.  

Everything is sacred.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Same people (Kaveh), same beliefs (Farr), but all grown up (modernity). Kaveh gave up his/her power to Farr e Shahanshahi, then again to Farr e Islami. This time Kaveh is on to a modern kind of Farr. Give up his/her hard-earned power to another Fereydoon? In Zahak's dreams! Kaveh is not obediently going home this time.


By the way, beautiful observation about our 30-year Ferdowsi cycle. Myth is destiny; parents just have to read them the right way to our children.


NICE! damet garm Ari jan!

by Yana on

shad zee



It has been so many

by Anonymouse on

It has been so many years since I read Shahnameh.  Come to think of it either my father or my mother (I am not sure :-), I think it was my father who took his time and read me the entire Shahnameh and explained each story so I could clearly understand what the heck Ferdowsi was talking about.

He took his time and made sure I was following the stories and I was interested, so it made sense to me and as a teenage boy I was mixing martial arts (Bruce Lee :-) with Rostam in our living room!

Anyway, your piece here does a good job of summarizing this story as best as I can remember.  I think the English is a little like Farsi dari ;-) but it's all good.

For the sake of argument let's say Kaveh (Mousavi ?) has already avenged Zahak and we're now in charge of Iran.  Now what?! Last time we were in charge we did such a great job!  Now 30 years later, incidently the time it took Ferdowsi to write Shahnameh, we're back to square one.  Same people, same beliefs, same thing? 

Everything is sacred.



by IRANdokht on

I enjoyed reading this very clever piece. You made your very valid point quite eloquently. I have also enjoyed the comments I have seen from you on the subject of Iran's movement.

Thank you for another excellent work!