- Coinciding with the rise of gaming and fantasy films, the novel introduces us to the esoteric world of Zoroastrianism where the world is in a constant state of battle between the darkness and the light.
The good thing about teaching at liberal arts colleges in the U.S. is that you get the opportunity to teach all kinds of intriguing courses. One of the courses I have learned so much from while teaching it is Religion, Gender and Society. Apart from the Abrahamic religions familiar to the West, I decided to teach other world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. But the religion that my students had never even heard of was Zoroastrianism, that was practiced in ancient Persia, and was for them the most unique of them all, with its sacred Temple of Fire and its mysterious Towers of Silence, both of which can still be found within the modern metropolis of Mumbai (Bombay).
The Persian name for the winter Solstice is Shab-e Yalda, “Night of Birth”, or Zayeshmehr, “Birth of Mithra”, or Shab-e Chelleh. It is a festival that is still celebrated in Iran and the Central Asian countries of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and even in the Indian Subcontinent, within the Parsi community, for Zoroastrians in India are known as Parsis. My Parsi friend Sohrab Homi Fracis assures me that the ancient Persian culture/history is held high to this day by Iranians in spite of the nation’s religious leaders’ earlier attempts to stamp it out in the land of its birth.
The celebration of Yalda signifies the rebirth of Mitra, the sun, and it is celebrated as the triumph of light over darkness. It is celebrated on the Northern Hemisphere’s longest night of the year, that is, on the eve of the Winter Solstice around December 21st each year. This being around the time of the Persian winter solstice celebration of Yalda, it would seem an apt moment for me to review a very unusual young adult fantasy novel, set in ancient Persia, “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” by Melissa Bashardoust. With the rise of gaming and fantasy films, various ancient mythologies have come to the limelight such as those of the Norse world and more recently, ancient Persia. Melissa Bashardoust utilizes one of them, the esoteric world of Zoroastrianism where the world is constantly in a state of battle between the darkness and the light.
One of the key figures in the novel is the Simorgh which first appeared in pre-Islamic records of ancient Iran. Many writers have used such fabulous birds as healer and protector, as well as the possessor of certain secrets which, being inaccessible to ordinary mortals, turn the bird into a prime sign of transcendence, physical or intellectual or spiritual. In his lecture on the spring festival of Nouruz, Iranian scholar Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak discusses how in the Jungian collective unconscious, powerful birds have since times immemorial been seen as symbols of release and liberation, be it from death and disease or pain and suffering, from the Ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth to the Indian Garuda of the Ramayana, and the Simorgh of the Persians.
J.K. Rowling’s phoenix, Fawkes, protector of the wizard Albus Dumbledore is its most recent avatar. But the sacred bird the Simorgh makes its first appearance in the ancient Persian epic, the Shahnameh, where it adopts and raises an exposed child Zal, and later assists Zal’s wife Rudabeh by healing the wounds she has suffered through the birth of her child Rostam, and in its third and final appearance it heals Rostam’s wounds and tells him how he can overcome his adversary Prince Esfandiar. In the Shahnameh it proclaims, “Take with you a feather of mine. And you shall always be in my protection.” Bashardoust uses the image of the sacred bird as healer.
But if the book has a heroic figure in the Simorgh, it also has a deadly one in the Shahmar, described in gaming terminology as a Yaghra monster from the mythical Karnwastern which serves as one of the champions of the dungeon. It is a mythical creature, half human and half snake, found with different variations in Middle Eastern folklore. The name of Shahmaran comes from Persian words “Shah,” a title used for Persian kings, and “mar” for serpent. In ancient Anatolia, it is female, and was first introduced to the West by Iranian Dutch singer-songwriter Sevdaliza through her fascinating Shahmaran video.
But in Bashardoust’s recreation of the legend, it is a deadly male who seduces the young heroine with his allure. How can any mortal resist such a deadly creature? But then, her heroine is no ordinary mortal herself. For “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is unusual in the fact that it is a feminist fairy tale about a girl cursed to be poisonous to the touch and who discovers that hidden within the deadly curse is also immense power.” It is also unusual as it is about a queer young woman in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom.
The haunting way it begins draws the reader into the tale as with Sheherazade in the “Arabian Nights,” with the phrase common to storytellers in Persia, “There was and there was not, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch.” This harks back to the book’s original title of “She Was and She Was Not,” and is full of gods and demons, secret passageways and the forbidden place of the dead, where a sacred fire is kept burning, harking back to the Zoroastrian temples of fire, which are tended to this day by Parsi priests garbed in white robes in Mumbai. Bashardoust explores themes of good vs. evil, and what turns a person toward darkness. It is a fascinating feminist fable of a young woman convinced that she is a monster who gradually learns to embrace her own power. It is also a coming-of-age tale that is subversive in its embracing of queerness, a move that would not be welcomed in much of conservative modern Iran.
Soraya is the twin sister of the Shah of Atashar, but their lives run on parallel lanes, for while the Shah lives surrounded by his courtiers, admired by all, Soraya is kept hidden within the maze of the tunnels within the palace in Golvahar. This was done for the safety of her own country folk, as even one touch of her skin would be fatal for whoever had the misfortune to touch her. Her lush rose garden is all she has in a world bereft of touch. This simple fact touches a chord for us in our pandemic-inflected world where we are unable to share a hug or even hold hands with a loved one outside of our home. It is no wonder that when the virile young soldier Azad expresses his admiration for her, she responds to it instantly, her entire body pulsating with desire for the forbidden. Bashardoust holds Soraya’s mother Tahmineh as guilty for hiding the background to Soraya’s curse from her, allegedly in order to spare her pain. But in reality, could it also be to spare herself the shame of admitting her own guilt? It is this too that makes this a fable that is all too contemporary, for the tale is not penned in black and white but in shades of grey. For nobody is either a pure villain or a pure hero, be it Soraya’s mother or Soraya’s lover, or Soraya herself.
Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is Professor of International Feminist Studies, at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she works as Chair of the Dept of Ethnic & Gender Studies, and teaches courses on Gender, Race, and Sexuality. Her doctorate is in Media Studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Prior to her arrival in the United States, she worked for seven years as a broadcast journalist for the Indian TV networks based in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International. Her journalistic work focused on the struggles of women and indigenous people in the postcolonial nation-state. Her work has been published widely, in academic journals as well as newspapers in the U.S and India.