Zahhak; the Legend of the Serpent King

Zahhak; the Legend of the Serpent King

In the Shahnameh a poetic opus written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 AD, Zahhak is an evil king who conquers Iran and who has serpents growing out of his shoulders.

A long time ago in between the two great rivers Euphrates and Tigris there was a land called Mesopotamia. Deep inside the castle lived a cruel Assyrian king called Zahhak. His armies terrorised all the people of the land.

All had been well before Zahhak’s rule in Mesopotamia.

It was during the reign of a king called Jemshid that things started to go wrong. He thought himself above the sun gods and began to lose favour with his people.

A spirit called Ahriman the Evil, seized the chance to take control. He chose Zahhak to take over the throne, who then killed Jemshid and cut him in two.


The Emergence of Snakes

The evil spirit, disguised as a cook, fed Zahhak with blood and the flesh of animals and one day Ahriman merely asked to kiss Zahhak on his two shoulders, which he agreed. Then Ahriman touched Zahhak’s shoulders with his lips and vanished.

At once, two black snakes grew out of Zahhak’s shoulders. They could not be surgically removed, for as soon as one snake-head had been cut off, another took its place.From a psychological viewpoint, the snakes on Zahhak’s shoulders could represent his lust for killing or a form of sadism which, if left unsatisfied, would torment Zahhak.


Ahriman now appeared to Zahhak in the form of a skilled physician. He counseled Zahhak that the only remedy was to let the snakes remain on his shoulders, and sate their hunger by supplying them with human brains for food every day otherwise the snakes will feed on his own.

Zahtak”s rule lasts for a thousand years during which two young men are sacrificed daily to provide their brains to the serpents to alleviate the pain that Zahhak felt.

Since the snake king began his rule over the kingdom, the sun refused to shine. Now all was dark, cold and bleak. The people all over the land were very sad.


Rise of Kaveh the Blacksmith

Kaveh (also called Kaveh Ahangar or Kaveh the Blacksmith) was a simple blacksmith. He and his wife were weakened by grief and hated Zahhak as he had already taken 16 of their 17 children.

One day the order came from the castle that Kaveh’s last daughter was to be killed and her brain was to be brought to the castle gate the very next day.

Zahhak’s minions had murdered 16 of his 17 sons so that Zahhak might feed his snakes’ lust for human brains.

Kaveh lay all night on the roof of his house, under the bright stars and rays of the shining full moon thinking how to save his last daughter from Zahhak’s snakes.


Instead of sacrificing his own daughter, Kaveh had sacrificed a sheep and had put the sheep’s brain into the wooden bucket. And no one had noticed.
Soon all the townspeople heard of this. So when Zahhak demanded from them a child sacrifice, they all did the same. Like this, many hundreds of children were saved.

Then all the saved children went, under darkness, to the very furthest and highest mountains where no one would find them.

Here, high up in the safety of the Zagros Mountains, the children grew in freedom. They learnt how to survive on their own. They learnt how to ride wild horses, how to hunt, fish, sing and dance.

From Kaveh they learnt how to fight. One day soon they would return to their homeland and save their people from the tyrant king. Time went by and Kaveh’s army was ready to begin their march on the castle. On the way they passed through villages and hamlets. The village dogs barked and the people came out of their houses to cheer them and give them bread, water, yoghurt and olives.

The Destiny of the Demon Snake

As Kaveh and the children drew near Zahhak’s castle both men and women left their fields to join them. By the time they were approaching the castle Kaveh’s army had grown too many thousands.

They paused outside the castle and turned to Kaveh.

Kaveh stood on a rock. He wore his blacksmith’s leather apron and clenched his hammer in his hand. He turned and faced the castle and raised his hammer towards the castle gates.

The large crowd surged forwards and smashed down the castle gates that were shaped like winged warriors and quickly overpowered Zahhak’s men.


Kaveh raced straight to Zahhak’s chambers, down the winding stone stairs, and with his blacksmiths hammer killed the evil snake king and cut off his head. The two serpents withered.

He then climbed to the top of the mountain above the castle and lit a large bonfire to tell all the people of Mesopotamia that they were free.

Soon, hundreds of fires all over the land were lit to spread the message and the flames leapt high into the night sky, lighting it up and cleansing the air of the smell of Zahhak and his evil deeds. The darkness was gone.

The fires burned higher and higher and the people sang and danced around in circles holding hands with their shoulders bobbing up and down in rhythm with the flute and drum. The women in bright coloured sequined dresses sang love songs and the men replied as they all moved around the flames as one.

Some of the youngsters hovered over the flute, drunk with the sound of the music, their arms outstretched like eagles soaring the skies.
Now they were free.

Memoriam of Kaveh Uprising

To this day, on the same Spring day every year, March 21st, (which is also Spring Equinox) Kurdish, Persian, Afghan and other people of the Middle East dance and leap through fires to remember Kaveh and how he freed his people from tyranny and oppression and to celebrate the coming of the New Year.

This day is called Newroz or New Day. It is one of the few ‘peoples celebrations’ that has survived and predates all the major religious festivals.
Although celebrated by others, it is especially important for the Kurds as it is also the start of the Kurdish calendar and celebrates the Kurds own long struggle for freedom.

In the Kurdish myth, Zahhak”s evil reign causes spring to no longer come to Kurdistan.

Kaveh is the most famous of Persian mythological characters known for resisting the despotic foreign rule in Iran. He rebels against the foreign ruler of Persia and leads the people to overthrow the tyrant king.

By the late Sassanid era (224–651), Kaveh’s Banner had emerged as the standard of the Sassanid dynasty. The tomb of Kaveh is believed to be situated on a hill near a village named Mashhad-e Kaveh in Isfahan province.