My Mother’s Persian Stories: Rose and Marigold
The custom of telling bedtime stories is ancient. Over the ages, they have passed from one generation to another through oral tradition. Each generation has embellished them in new ways by adding or subtracting some details. My mother told these stories to her first born children slightly differently than she told them to those like me, who were born later.
These stories were made by wise and loving souls whose names have been forgotten but whose works have remained eternal. Some have elements of ancient Persian mythology, some are mystical, some are humorous, and some are perhaps allusions to actual historical events.
Our greatest wish is that parents everywhere continue the oral tradition of storytelling and retell them to their own children, perhaps embellishing and changing them as they see fit, or even adding new tales of their own.
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Once Upon a Day…
Once upon a day and once upon a time, under the purple dome of the sky, there lived a king who had a very beautiful and clever daughter. But the princess was very sad. Whenever her father said that he wished to see her happily married, the princess replied, “My dear father, you know why I am so sad.”
One day, the king told the princess, “Among your many suitors, whoever can answer my riddle will be worthy of marrying you.” The princess asked, “What is this riddle?” The king answered,
“What did Rose say to Marigold and what did Marigold say to Rose?”
The princess immediately understood the meaning of the riddle and accepted her father’s suggestion. She said, “I hope that a bold and noble man will be able to solve it.”
John William Godward "A Persian princess" 1898. (Plum leaves/CC BY 2.0)
Who Can Solve the Riddle of Rose and Marigold?
The messengers of the king went to all the corners of the land and announced the riddle. Soon after, many young men, whose greatest wish was to marry the princess, came to the castle. Among them were those who thought that the riddle was a ploy for the princess to choose the best suitor by herself. Such suitors came dressed in expensive clothes, full of shining jewels and swooned:
“A rose with golden leaves and rubies asked a marigold full of diamonds and emeralds which one of us are worthy of the princess?”
But soon, they realized that the princess wasn’t interested in flowery sayings or jeweled attire.
Other hopeful suitors wrote poems about roses and marigolds and spring and ecstatic love, but the princess was still disappointed. The suitors soon lost hope as she left the reception hall with a regretful sigh.
Young man playing the saaz. (Public Domain)
There came a day, when a bold and wise shepherd thought to himself, “This riddle is not about money and wealth or poetry or beauty. It is about an adventurous journey.” The shepherd went to the bathhouse, changed into his best clothes, and rode off to the palace. The castle guards were surprised to see such a simple suitor. They looked upon him with disdain, but remembered that the king had ordered to let in any suitor who reached the palace.
The shepherd had heard many stories of the princess’s beauty, but was overwhelmed to see that she was even more beautiful than he had ever imagined. Yet, he could see deep sadness in her eyes. The bold shepherd asked, “Dear Princess, how much time do I have to solve this riddle?” The princess, finally hearing someone ask a sensible question, looked up hopefully and answered, “However long it takes.”
The princess, finally hearing someone ask a sensible question, looked up hopefully and answered, “However long it takes.” (Kamshots/CC BY 2.0)
A Journey of Hope Begins
The emboldened shepherd returned to his village and visited an old man, known for his great wisdom and vast experience. The wise old man carefully listened to the shepherd’s story and advised, “Only you can find your path. Wherever you go, look carefully and see all of the hidden signs that are around you. Before you take a step, look where you put your foot.” The shepherd thanked him kindly and left.
The shepherd bid his family and friends farewell, and prepared supplies for his journey. The next morning, at the break of dawn, he started on his way. He passed through the beautiful fields of his village. Then, he reached a river and walked along its banks for many hours. Finally, he came to a point where the water diverted into a small stream. He followed this stream for a short time and saw that it poured into a big pond. Wild colorful flowers were growing around it. Their stems were so tangled that they had become a wall of flowery thorns, guarding a secluded area.
The shepherd came upon wildflowers near a pond. (CC0)
The exhausted shepherd sat down and opened his bundle of food. He ate meagerly and drank some water. As he was eating, he looked into the clear pond and saw a tiny golden fish suddenly appearing. He remembered the words of the wise old man.
The gold fish wriggled back and forth in the water and then dove back in, quickly disappearing into the depths below. The shepherd was surprised that he could no longer see the golden fish, since the water was very clear and it was possible to see to the very bottom of the pond.
A tiny golden fish suddenly appeared. (CC0)
Following the Fish and Finding Sadness
The shepherd took a deep breath, jumped into the pond, and swam underneath to see where the golden fish had gone. There, beneath the water, he saw a cave-like passageway. At the other end, he could see the light of day. The shepherd returned to the surface, took a deep breath, dove back in, and swam into the cave. He swam for several minutes until he reached an opening at the far side of the cave and came up to the surface of the water, gasping for breath.
He came out of the water and looked around. Far away, hiding behind many trees, he saw a very high wall. The stones of the wall were grey and black. The shepherd felt an unexplained sadness as he looked upon it. He decided to find a way to get behind the wall and discover the secret of the sadness that fell upon him. He walked closer and closer to the wall.
The sun was slowly setting, and in the light of the dusk, the shepherd saw a large tree with thick, intertwined branches. He decided to spend the night on top of the tree. He climbed up and found a good branch on which to rest. From there, through the branches and leaves, he looked upon the dark wall. Behind it there was a strange house. Its doors and windows were much larger than ordinary, and the house looked dark and gloomy.
In another branch of the tree, there was a nest with a few baby birds waiting restlessly for the return of their mother. The shepherd suddenly saw that a big snake was creeping towards the nest, ready to attack and swallow the poor little birds. The bold shepherd swiftly caught the snake’s neck with his bare hands, killed it, and flicked it away from the nest.
Soon after, a huge bird circled overhead, swooped down, and landed in the nest. The magnificent bird looked at the shepherd and exclaimed in joy, “You have saved my children! I owe you their lives!” The bird plucked out one of its feathers and gave it to the shepherd. “Take this feather and whenever you need my help, burn it. From the smell, I will know where you are, and come to your aid. But pray tell, what brings you to this dangerous land?”
A huge bird circled overhead then swooped down. (CC0)
A Dangerous Land…
The shepherd told the bird about his adventures and asked, “Who lives behind this dark wall inside of the strange house?” The bird answered, “A wicked and cruel ghoul lives there. Beware, for he often captures innocent people and imprisons them inside of his house!”
When the sun had already set and the night was approaching, a huge and ugly ghoul entered the gate and came into the yard. He sniffed into the air and growled,
“With what right, I shout,
Is a human smell about?”
Then, the ugly ghoul looked around and entered the house. The bird whispered into the shepherd’s ear, “Every day, early in the morning, the ghoul leaves his house and after the sun sets, he returns.”
The next morning, after the ghoul left, the shepherd asked the bird to take him behind the dark wall. The shepherd climbed onto the bird’s back, and they flew over the wall into the ghoul’s courtyard. The shepherd got off, looked around, and saw a half-opened window. He climbed through and entered the huge house.
He checked out each room until he heard a moaning voice coming from behind one of the doors. The shepherd opened the door and saw many people imprisoned inside several cages, which saddened him greatly.
Inside one of the cages, there was a thin, beautiful girl, who looked remarkably similar to the princess. She said to the shepherd, “If you have come to rescue us, before doing anything else, find the ghoul’s Bottle of Life, and break it. Only after you have done this, come back and free us.” One of the other prisoners added, “The ghoul’s Bottle of Life is not inside the house. It is hidden somewhere in the yard.”
Without fear, the shepherd quickly ran outside. He saw a little bird singing beautifully, and flitting among the trees. The shepherd noticed that one tree had one green branch among many dry, brown branches. Again, he remembered the words of the old wise man.
He climbed up the tree and examined the green branch carefully and discovered a hidden crack. The shepherd kicked the branch and broke it. Lo and behold, the Bottle of Life was hidden inside! He took it and quickly scrambled down the tree.
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He quickly took the Bottle of Life. (CC0)
Soon after, the ghoul came rushing back, snorting like thunder and lightning. First, he tried to scare the shepherd but when he saw that the shepherd was not afraid, he tried to fool him. But the shepherd could not be fooled, either. The shepherd did not waste a minute. He bashed the Bottle of Life with one sharp hit on a hard stone, breaking a part of it off .
The ghoul suddenly became weak and fell on the ground with a heavy thud. He said in a weak, tiny voice, “I am almost gone. Take my broken Bottle of Life and hit it one more time so that it will shatter completely and I will no longer suffer.” But the shepherd knew by the wisdom of ages that hitting the Bottle of Life twice would bring the ghoul back to life and make him even stronger. The shepherd buried each piece of the broken bottle under the soil in different corners of the yard.
The ghoul suddenly became weak and fell on the ground with a heavy thud. He said in a weak, tiny voice, “I am almost gone. Take my broken Bottle of Life and hit it one more time so that it will shatter completely and I will no longer suffer.” (CC0)
Then, the shepherd rushed into the ghoul’s house and asked the prisoners, “Where are the keys to your cages?” With their guidance, he found the keys and freed everyone. All of the prisoners crowded around him in gratitude and asked, “Why did you endanger your own life to free us? How can we repay your kindness?”
The shepherd told them the story of his adventures and asked, “Could you help me solve the king’s riddle?”
“What did Rose say to Marigold and what did Marigold say to Rose?”
The thin, beautiful girl spoke up:
“The riddle is about the story of my life. Many years ago, my sister and I were two princesses, happy, and jovial, and carefree. My elder sister’s name is Rose and I am Marigold. Rose always looked after me. One day, my sister and I went outside to play. I carelessly wandered outside of the castle grounds. The cruel ghoul was waiting for such a moment. He suddenly pounced upon me and grabbed me with his ugly claws. The guards of the castle could not release me from the claws of the ghoul but were successful in saving my sister.
Persian Women. (Public Domain)
As I was carried off, Rose cried out,
‘I will free you from the cruel ghoul!’
And I, Marigold, answered with tears in my eyes,
‘I hopefully look forward to that day.’”
Marigold continued. “That fateful day, the ghoul screeched to the soldiers in a piercing voice that the king must give him the throne if he wants his daughter back. But my father, the king, was not ready to let the lives of all of his people fall into such ruin, even if it meant that he could not save his own beloved daughter.”
Anonymous reverse painting on glass of a Persian king, western India, late 19th century, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. (CC0)
The Happy End to Long Journeys
The shepherd took out the magic feather of the bird and burned it. The giant bird quickly landed in the ghoul’s courtyard. The shepherd said, “First, take Marigold and return her to the palace and her waiting family. Then, come back here and take the other prisoners.” The great bird did so. The last one to return safely to his village was the shepherd himself.
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The shepherd said, “First, take Marigold and return her to the palace and her waiting family. Then, come back here and take the other prisoners.” The great bird did so. Credit: Saeid Shammass and Shaunie Shammass
Marigold was reunited with her long lost family, and all were very excited to see her. Happiest of all was her sister Rose. Marigold told them about the courageous and noble shepherd who had freed her and all of the prisoners.
The shepherd felt relieved, and was glad that everyone had reached home safely. He went to the bathhouse and put on his best clothes. Now knowing the answer to the riddle, he rode off to the castle to win Rose’s hand in marriage.
Rose, happier than ever and more beautiful than any flower, was waiting at the gate to see him. The king arranged a beautiful wedding and they lived happily ever after.
Iranian wedding ceremony. (Public Domain)
Top Image: Persian Women dancing. From a wall painting at "Hasht Behesht Palace" (Palace of 8 heavens), Isfahan, Iran. Source: Public Domain
This story is a chapter from the book ‘My Mother’s Persian Stories: Folk Tales For All Ages in English and Farsi’ by Saeid Shammass (Author) and Shaunie Shammass (Contributor), which is available on Amazon.
Updated on September 1, 2021.