Originally Published Online in 2005
Persian poetry is as old as Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrians, in which the first form of poetry has been documented. As noted in the previous communique: "The prophet Zarathushtra, son of Pourushaspa, of the Spitaman family, is primarily known to Iranians through the Yasnas and the Gathas. Yasnas consist of 72 chapters, which are mainly invocations of various deities. Chapters 28-53 are the oldest part of the text, containing the Gathas (poems and songs), the only remaining direct testimony of the religion taught by Zoroaster. Gathas are seventeen great hymns, which he composed and they have been faithfully preserved by Zoroastrians. These are not the works of instruction. They are rather the inspired and passionate remarks, many of them addressed directly to God. And their poetic form is a very ancient one, which has been traced back to Indo-European era. Such poetry can only have been fully understood by the scholars; and since Zoroaster believed that God had entrusted him with a message for all mankind, he must also have preached again and again in plain words to ordinary people. His teaching were handed down orally in his community from generation to generation, and were at last committed to writing under the Sassanids, rulers of the third Iranian empire. The language then spoken was Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi".
Zarathushtra in the Gathas addresses men and women equally and even in some verses, calls to women first. His teachings are for everybody all over the world; they transcend gender, nationality, and race. Here is a quote from Yasna 46/10: "Wise Lord, whoever in this world, man or woman performs the best in life, good deeds according to righteousness and service to humanity based on good mind, I shall accompany them in glorifying you and shall with all of them cross the bridge of judgment." In this verse Zarathushtra declares that man and woman, wherever they are, through the deeds of good mind and service to people, will equally receive spiritual rewards.
During Sassanid Dynasty (226-642 AD), high-ranking status was conferred to court poets or musicians such as Baarbod, Nakissa, and Raamtin. Baarbod, the most famous of those court poet and musicians, reportedly conceived a musical system consisting of seven royal modes, thirty derivative modes, and three hundred sixty melodies. Baarbod composed a very large quantity of verses, of which none has been survived. It is reported that historians like Masoudi and Helal-e-Askari point to a wealth of poetry during the Sassanid era. It is not known, however, how much of this poetry had been in Dari and how much in Pahlavi Middle Persian. [The term Dari derives from (Darbari), which means Persian of the (royal) courts. It developed at the royal courts of the Samanids (980 AD) in Central Asia and became the major language of Persia. Today, the term is used to refer to three different themes: 1. Dari is the local name used for the Persian Language in Afghanistan. 2. Dari (also called Gabri or Yazdi) is the name used by Zoroastrians to refer to the Northwestern Iranian Language they speak. 3. Dari is also the name of the Persian Language in Classical Poetry].
In regard to the poetry during the Sassanid era, the sources are silent on the distinction between Dari and Pahlavi (See Kadkani & Bashiri). Only late poet Mohammad Taghi Bahar In his articles in Cultural Journal of Mehr stated that the poetry referred to was in Dari because he detected certain differences between the language of that poetry and Pahlavi Middle Persian. Furthermore, that language contained some vocabulary that is absent in Pahlavi Middle Persian. Late scholar Zabiholah Safa, on the other hand, assigned those works to Parthian (northern) and Sassanian (southern) Pahlavi. These fragments' language is still being debated but, most likely, it is Pahlavi. According to the poet and scholar Shafii-Kadkani, Bahar's article is the only reference to Dari poetry during Sassanid times. This, of course, throws doubt on the poetry ascribed to the son of Yazedgerd I or Bahram V who was also called as Bahram-e-Gur (BHG), and ruled from 420 to 439 AD during Sassanid era. The poem attributed to BHG reads as:
I am the lion of Shanbaleh,
I am the mighty tiger (in Persian: Manam Shir-e-Shanbaleh, Manam Babr-e-Yaleh).
However, most scholars do not accept the Dari ascription and consider this poem to be in seven syllabic feet. Speculations place it after the Arabs invasion but, even then and even if one can accept it as Dari, it is not the oldest. One must, therefore, search for even more ancient specimens: It is known that before the Arab invasion, Persian verse, being syllabic, did not conform to the Arabic metric system. Those familiar with the Arabic meters, considered the syllabic verse to be a kind of prose. That is why poet and scholar Mohammad Awfi (in Timurid era), who was familiar with the Arabic metric system, assessed BHG's syllabic verse as follows: "BHG was the first to compose poetry in Persian. During the time of Khosrow Parviz many such compositions existed and were put to music by Baarbod. But, since these poems are devoid of meter, rhyme, and the other trappings of poetry, we have not dealt with them in any substantial manner". That Awfi's statement indicates that even at his time, some form of the syllabic verse was still in existence. The frequent references to the songs of Baabod and Nakisa in Persian, during early Islamic times, are indicative of the prevalence of this kind of verse at that time. Furthermore, there are documents indicating that Baarbod's verses had been published at that time. The following poem of Mujladi (or Makhlidi) Gurgani (MDG), who lived at the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century AH, also support the suggestion that composition of poetry and songs were prevalent during Sassanid era. Here is the English Version of MDG's poem:
Among the all delights of this world
Surviving from the Sassanid and Samanid times
There remain the poems of Rudaki on praise and admire
And the songs of Baarbod and canaries.
As it was noted by the scholar on Persian Literature, late Professor Edward Browne: "There can be no doubt that Sassanid courts were filled with music and with poems and songs and that the trend was, at the least, reflected in post-Sassanid era. No matter how drastically the change to a metric system may have affected the syllabic poetry of ancient Iran, at least superficially, the quatrain and the ode are Iranian in origin. Although Persian Poetry reached its highest point in the 10th century in Khorasaan, there evidences that indicate its existence at the Sassanid courts". (See: Kadkani & Bashiri).
It should be also noted that the first attempts to revive Persian Language and Literature, after Arabs invasion, was in poetic form. Among the first poets, were Mohammad Wasif (MWF), and Hanzaleh-e-Baadghaissi. However, Mohammad Awfi in his book, Lobabolbaab, refers to one Abbas of Merw as the first poet, who composed a poem when Ma'mun, Abbasid Caliph, visited Marv in 809 AD. It is documented that MWF, a secretary to Ya'ghub Laith (ruled 869-879 AD), the founder of Saffarid Dynasty, praised Ya'ghub, on his victory in Herat in Arabic verses. Not understanding his secretary a single word, Ya'ghub asked:
"WHY MUST SOMETHING BE RECITED THAT I CANNOT UNDERSTAND AT ALL?" Thus, MWF started to compose his poetry in Persian language used at the time, Dari..
1. As already mentioned in the introduction, the Persian poetry is as old as Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrians, in which the first form of poetry has been documented. It should be noted that the first five books of Torah begins with Genesis, and one of the most common statements regarding Genesis is that it is poetic. However, in her article on "Is Genesis Poetry or Historic Narrative?" Helen Fryman noted that none of the forms of Hebrew Poetry is found in Genesis.
2. Some research documents also indicate that Atossa, the wife of Darius the Great (one of the kings of Achaemenid Empire who reigned from 521 to 486 BC) was also a poetess. Atossa married Darius the Great in 522 BC. Atossa was the mother of King Xerxes (in Persian: Khashayar Shah) who succeeded Darius the Great. Very little is known about Atossa (550-475 BC), although it is speculated that she came from a Zoroastrian family, as Atossa is also a mythical figure in that religion.
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
Bashiri, I. (2004): Online Articles on Persian Literature.
Browne E. G. (1998): Literary History of Persia, ed., (Four volumes, 2256 pages, and twenty-five years in the writing), Ibex Publishers, Bethesda, Md (USA).
Fryman, H. (2000): Online Article on Is Genesis Poetry or Historic Narrative?
Jahanian, D. (2002): Online Article on Women in the Avesta Era.
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Various Articles on Persian Poetry & First Iranians.
Safa, Z. (1969): Various Notes & Articles on Persian Literature (in Persian).
Shahbazi, A. Shapur (1977): The Traditional Date of Zoroaster Explained, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40 (1): 25-35.
Shafagh, R. (1956): Hoistory of Persian Literature (in Persian), ed., Tehran, Iran.
Shaffii Kadkani, M. R. (1995): Various Notes & Articles on Persian Poetry (in Persian).
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2005): Online Articles on Zoroaster, Poetry, and Persian Literature.
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