The Story of Zohak

In Arabia, there lived a noble king. His name was Mardas (also called Khrutasp of Babylon). He had only one son, Zohak, who was brave but also very rash and ambitious. Ahriman (Satan) decided to corrupt Zohak. He sent Evil, disguised as a well-wisher called Ablis, to the court. Praising Zohak for his valour and wisdom, he brought the young man completely under his influence. Ablis told him “I have great knowledge and if you obey me, I will make you master of the world. But you must pledge yourself fully to me and swear that you will always do what I tell you to do”. Zohak foolishly agreed. The first task he was given by Ahriman horrified him, because it was to kill his own father and become king: “For while your old father lives, you will remain unknown”. Zohak could not however break away from Satan and followed the evil plan.
 
The old king used to go to his garden before dawn to take a bath and prepare for his prayers. Zohak was made to dig a deep pit in the path, plant sharp stakes there and cover it with straw. Mardas fell into the pit and died and Zohak crowned himself King of the Arabs.
 
Zohak learnt the art of black magic from Ahriman and began to rule. Satan now appeared to Zohak in the form of a sweet-tongued young man who was an expert cook. He succeeded in being made the chief cook in the palace. Till that time, most food had been cooked from vegetables and herbs, for men ate “what grew from the earth”. Satan fed Zohak a delicious dish made with eggs. Then every day he slaughtered a different bird or animal and served these dishes – partridge, chicken, lamb, veal and other such animals. He fed Zohak with blood and the royal prince wanted more and more such food.
 
O flesh of every beast and every bird

He brought him one by one as he preferred

And like a lion nourished him with blood

So as to make the king bold on such food
 
Zohak believed that eating flesh made him strong and brave like a lion, and called the cook to thank him.The cook asked for a boon. “If the king takes pleasure in thy servant, grant that he may kiss thy shoulders”. Zohak gave permission, the cook kissed him on his shoulders, and immediately the earth opened beneath his feet and the cook disappeared. All the courtiers were very agitated. But as they turned around they saw that from the king’s shoulders sprang two hissing serpents, black and poisonous. The king was terrified and commanded they should be cut off. But every time the snakes were cut they grew again and the whole court was in despair.
 
Satan once again appeared disguised as a learned doctor and declared
 
What is done is done.

Feed them to turn them calm …

No other remedy the case will meet

Save brains of men give ye them to eat”
 
It was Satan’s secret plan to make sure that two young humans were killed daily to feed Zohak, for in this way he ultimately schemed to rid the world of human beings. Zohak fed the brains of two young men daily to his snakes and fear and terror of the king spread through the land.
 
Two young Iranian brothers, Armail and Karmail, tried to prevent total slaughter and joined the palace as cooks. Every day they rescued the life of one man brought to the kitchens and replaced his brain with the brain of a sheep. In this way they saved hundreds of lives. The youths who were rescued were told to flee to the mountains and forests and never come back. These people started leading nomadic lives in the wilderness and it is believed that the present day Kurds are their descendants.
 
King Jamshed at this time had become weak by disobeying Ahura Mazda, and as Zohak’s power spread, the nobles of Iran thought he could restore peace. Zohak marched into Iran and crowned himself. Finally, Zohak found king Jamshed, who had fled the country, and killed him by having his body cut into two parts. Zohak took Jamshed’s two sisters, Shernaz and Arnavaz, into his harem. So Zohak, having his sold his soul to the devil, now was king of Arabia, Iran and the surrounding country, and he believed he was king of the world. It was a sad time, for every day men were killed in court to satisfy the snakes. Evil and vice spread all over the world and virtue hid its face.
 
Ahura Mazda now saw that the people had learnt that evil only begets evil. He wanted to stop the suffering of the earth. He therefore caused a grandson to be born to Jamshed who was named Faridun. Zohak had a terrible dream:
 
A youth was there

Tall as a Cypress and with kingly air.

With loins all girded and of royal grace

He carried in his hands a bull –headed mace

Zohak he fierce attacked, to battle led

And struck with ox-headed mace upon his head”.
 
The tyrant called wise men to interpret his dream. They were frightened to tell the king the truth but finally, one brave priest named Zirak, interpreted the dream thus: “There will arise one named Faridun, who shall inherit your throne and strike you down with a bull-headed mace”. Zohak swooned in anger and fear, but when he recovered he sent his warriors out to search for Faridun.
 
Abtin, a young and handsome man, was Faridun’s father. He used to stay in hiding from Zohak’s cruelty but was finally caught and killed. Faridun’s mother, Faranak, kept the boy hidden in a thick forest where a wondrous cow named Purmayah nursed him. Purmayah’s hair was the colour of a peacock’s feather. When Zohak came to learn of this hiding place, Faridun’s mother fled to a holy man on Mount Alburz and asked him to guard and protect the boy. Zohak had discovered Purmayah in the forest. In his anger that Faridun had escaped, he killed the cow and destroyed the whole forest, turning it into a barren desert. At the age of sixteen, Faridun learnt the truth about his father and his birth. Hearing of Zohak’s cruelty, Faridun was keen to take revenge, but his mother told him to wait till he had allies to help him in his destined task.
 
Zohak, in his fury, demanded that all his people declare him a just and noble king and sign the Mehzar Nameh or pledge of loyalty. Most obeyed out of fear, but one man named Kaveh refused in anger. He told his story to all: “I am Kaveh, a blacksmith, I want justice against the king. I had seventeen fair sons; you, King, have killed sixteen to satisfy your serpents and have now told me to send my last child. I will not do so”. Zohak, fearing that the people were turning against him, tried to bribe Kaveh, granted the life of his son and appealed to Kaveh to state that he was a noble and just king. Kaveh angrily rejected the king and strode out from the palace to the market place where he stirred up the oppressed people against the evil Zohak. Kaveh took off his blacksmith’s leather apron, and putting it on the point of a lance, raised it as the flag of freedom. He declared that he and the people would find Faridun to free them from Zohak. This banner made by Kaveh became Iran’s national flag for five dynasties and came to be called the Drafshe Kavyani or Kavyani Zundo (the royal flag).
 
The crowd of people marched with Kaveh to Faridun’s mother’s home, holding up this flag. Faridun knew that it was time to reclaim Jamshed’s throne. He asked for his mother’s blessings, had a bull-headed iron mace made to remind him of the cow Purmayah who had nursed and protected him, and embroidered the leather apron of Kaveh with his mother’s jewels because it was to be the flag of freedom. The army set forth to search for Zohak. After crossing the river Tigris, they reached the palace of the king. All the people of the city (Beitul Mukaddas) rallied to Faridun who freed Jamshed’s two sisters Shernaz and Arnavaz. Faridun was declared the king.
 
Zohak returned with an army but the people of the city threw bricks and stones from their city towers on the tyrant, and Faridun’s army shattered Zohak’s forces. Zohak and Faridun came face to face, but even as the young man raised his bull-headed mace to crush Zohak, the angel Sarosh swooped down and proclaimed “Strike not; not yet has come his time for death”. Sarosh told Faridun to take Zohak to Mount Demavand and bind him to a rock. There the hot sun punished him for his deeds, the chains cut into his flesh and his tongue was parched with thirst. Legend says that Zohak is still imprisoned on Mount Demavand, and every night he cuts at the iron chains that bind him and makes them thin. But just as they are about to snap, morning dawns with the crow of the rooster (allegorically it means the forces of evil are powerful at night but the good forces symbolized by the rooster, bird of angel Sarosh, become powerful in the light of day and forces evil to retreat) which restores the chains to their original size. So Zohak eternally suffers some of the cruelty that he had inflicted on others.
 
Faridun took over Zohak’s kingdom and reigned in his place.