The Human in the Monster: Images of Divs (Demons) in 14th to 16th Century Shahnamas

The Human in the Monster: Images of Divs (Demons) in 14th to 16th Century Shahnamas

By Francesca Leoni

The Monstrous Identity of Humanity: Monsters and the Monstrous, Proceedings of the Fifth Global Conference, edited by Marlin C. Bates (2007)

Abstract: In the Shāhnāma (The Book of Kings, ca 1010) – an epic poem that relates the history of ancient Iranian kings – fantastic encounters are very frequent and take many forms. Legendary heroes and kings are described as fighting enormous dragons, as well as meeting extraordinary beings, such as talking phoenixes and animal-headed trees. Their most significant deeds, though, are those accomplished against dīvs (demons), hideous creatures that threaten the human order. While hybridity and monstrosity constantly characterize the representations of these beings in illustrated versions of the poem, we assist to a significant transformation – and progressive humanization – of their imagery from the 16th century on. These monsters change from impassive half-human/half-animal creatures to deformed humanoids with disproportioned limbs and caricaturized physiognomies. At times, they almost look more “human” than the men fighting them, which are instead shaped according to well-established, but rather artificial iconographic conventions. My paper reconstructs the changes in the imagery of dīvs between the 14th and the 16th century and discusses the artistic implications and the historical factors underlying them. It also raises questions about the cultural values attached to specific visual choices, aiming to prove that precise notions of personal and social appropriateness shaped the protagonists of such artful compositions. The case of demonic imagery – and its tension with other figurative types – offers the opportunity to challenge the derivative role traditionally attributed to miniature painting in the Islamic world. In fact, it proves that the pictorial space was a locus for the articulation of relevant historical and cultural issues and not only a way to embellish classical works of Persian literature.

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