Who Was Shahmaran? Lover, Trickster, Ancient Persian Snake Lady
Shahmaran is the name given to a mythical creature found in the various cultures of the Middle East, in particular, those of the eastern Anatolian region of Turkey. According to the folklore of these cultures, Shahmaran was a creature with the top half of a woman, and the bottom half of a snake. According to legend Shahmaran had magical powers, which would ultimately lead to her betrayal and death at the hands of human beings.
The legend of Shahmaran resonates even today, as she is believed to have protective powers. Therefore, her images are used as amulets to ward off evil. Shahmaran’s image has also been used by modern day activists in the Middle East to represent their respective causes, which is no doubt a very modern twist to this ancient legend.
Mythical Origins of Shahmaran
The name ‘Shahmaran’ is derived from the Persian language, and is a combination of the words ‘shah’ and ‘maran’. The former is the title used by Persian kings, whilst the latter means ‘ snakes’. Therefore, ‘Shahmaran’ literally translates to mean ‘King of Snakes’. Since Shahmaran is said to be a female, it may be more appropriate to translate her name to mean ‘Queen of Snakes’.
The name of Shahmaran also changes slightly according to the various cultures in which this mythical creature is found. Shahmaran is most notably associated with the Kurds and the Turks, both of whom inhabit in the eastern Anatolian region of Turkey. Other cultures where the legend of Shahmaran is found include the Tatars and Chuvash to the East, both of whom speak Turkic languages.
The legend of Shahmaran is an ancient one, whose origins have been obscured by the passage of time. The central story associated with Shahmaran involves a young man by the name of Tahmasp. This character is known by several other names, including Cansab, Djansab, and Cemshab, depending on the version of the legend.
Mardin, in Turkey (MSinjari / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Some versions of the story note that the city that Tahmasp originated from was Mardin, an ancient Roman city in the southeastern part of modern-day Turkey. Thanks to these versions of the myth, Shahmaran has been adopted as the symbol of Mardin.
In any event, the young man is supposed to have been from a poor family, and that he worked as a wood cutter, earning his living by collecting and selling wood.
Tahmasp and the Cave
One day, whilst Tahmasp and his fellow wood cutters were in a forest collecting wood, they stumbled upon a cave (or well in one version) that was full of honey. Tahmasp was lowered into the cave to collect the honey.
For one reason or another, after Tahmasp had collected the honey, the other wood cutters decided to leave him in the cave, and went home. When Tahmasp realized that he had been abandoned by his friends, he fell into despair. Tahmasp thought that he would die in the cave, when he suddenly saw a small hole in the cave.
Statue of Shahmaran in Tarsus, Turkey (Nedim Ardoğa / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Using a knife that he had on him, Tahmasp began to scratch around the hole. The hole was slowly enlarged, and eventually, it became big enough for Tahmasp to squeeze through. Having crawled through the hole, Tahmasp found himself in a large empty space. As Tahmasp was exhausted from all the work he had done, he fell into a deep sleep .
When he woke up, Tahmasp had the shock of his life, as he realized that he was surrounded by thousands of snakes. The snakes seemed to be observing Tahmasp carefully, and when he moved, they began to approach him.
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Tahmasp was terrified, and thought that the snakes would kill him. Once again, Tahmasp felt a sense of hopelessness, closed his eyes, and prepared to die. Moments passed, but nothing happened. Tahmasp mustered his courage, and forced himself to open his eyes.
Tahmasp and Shahmaran
Tahmasp saw before him a beautiful young woman – Shahmaran. When Tahmasp noticed that Shahmaran had the lower body of a snake, he was greatly surprised, and was left speechless. Shahmaran, however, introduced herself, told Tahmasp not to be afraid, and assured him that neither she nor her snakes would harm him.
The Shahmaran image involves many elements. (MikaelF / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
It turned out that the snakes that Shahmaran ruled over were not ordinary snakes, but intelligent, compassionate, and peaceful ones. Shahmaran told Tahmasp that he would be treated as a guest, asked him to rest, and promised that they would talk again the following day. After that, Shahmaran went away.
Tahmasp did not know what to make of all this, and thought that he was dreaming. In any case, he closed his eyes, and went back to sleep. When Tahmasp woke up the following morning, he found himself in a large hall, in which was a table laid out with food. Shahmaran was reclining at the table.
Tahmasp was now convinced that he had not been dreaming the night before. Shahmaran invited her guest to have breakfast with her, and began to share with him stories about the history of humanity. Tahmasp was attracted by Shahmaran’s wisdom and kindness, and in time, the two became lovers.
Tahmasp And The King
Tahmasp enjoyed his time with Shahmaran in her underground kingdom . Eventually however, and in spite of his happiness, Tahmasp began to yearn for his family, and wanted to go home. Shahmaran was reluctant to let Tahmasp leave, but because of her love for him, she eventually agreed to his request.
Before letting Tahmasp leave her kingdom, she warned him to not tell anyone about this subterranean realm. She added that since Tahmasp had stayed with her for so long, he had taken on some of the characteristics of the snakes. Therefore, he should avoid visiting the public baths , as his skin would become scaly when it is contact with water, and his secret would be revealed.
Tahmasp promised Shahmaran that he would heed her warnings, and returned home. Tahmasp was reunited with his family, and spent several years with them. Everything was well, until one day, news arrived that the king of the city Tahmasp was living in (or, in one version of the story, the king’s daughter) had contracted a mysterious illness.
The royal physicians, having examined the king, concluded that the king could only be healed if he were to consume the flesh of Shahmaran. Consequently, the king issued a decree to seek out anyone in the city who knew about Shahmaran, and who had been to her kingdom.
The king’s physicians and vizier told him that the only way to ascertain that a person had been to Shahmaran’s realm was to pour water on their skin. As Shahmaran had already warned Tahmasp, this would cause the skin to become scaly, therefore revealing that the person had been to the underground kingdom of the snakes.
Tahmasp was unable to evade the King (MJ Starling / CC BY 4.0 )
Therefore, the king ordered all his subjects to present themselves at the public baths. There, they would be watched by the king’s soldiers as they immersed themselves in the water. Tahmasp tried to get away by hiding himself, but he was found by the soldiers, and brought to the baths.
The soldiers threw Tahmasp into the water, and immediately, scales appeared on his skin. Tahmasp was dragged out of the water, bound, and brought before the king. At first Tahmasp would not reveal where Shahmaran lived, but the king had him tortured and Tahmasp told the king all that he wanted to know.
Shahmaran Is Betrayed
Shortly after this, the king sent his soldiers to the cave, captured Shahmaran, and brought her to the palace. When Tahmasp saw Shahmaran, he felt extremely ashamed, and regretted what he had done.
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As Shahmaran knew that there was no escape for her, she revealed a secret to the king and those who were with him. She told them that whoever ate her tail would attain wisdom and long life, whereas whoever ate her head would die. Having delivered this final message, Shahmaran was killed, and cut up into three parts.
The king, eager to be healed, ate a piece of Shahmaran’s tail. In some versions of the story, the vizier too consumed a piece of the tail, whilst others claimed that it was the captain of the king’s guard who did so. Tahmasp, on the other hand, did not wish to go on living , and ate Shahmaran’s head instead. To everybody’s surprise, the king, and his vizier (or the captain of his guards) both dropped dead, whereas no harm came to Tahmasp.
The stories do not explicitly give the cause of this. The images of Shahmaran, on the other hand, may provide a clue as to what happened. In many of the images depicting Shahmaran, the mythical creature is shown with two heads, one being the human head on the upper half of her body, whilst the other being a snake’s head at the end of her tail. In this case, one might say that Shahmaran’s human head was in fact her tail, whilst her snake head was her actual head.
The story of Shahmaran concludes with Tahmasp leaving his home to wander the lands alone. As a result of gaining the wisdom of Shahmaran, Tahmasp became known as a wise man . Nevertheless, he regretted betraying Shahmaran till the end of his life.
In some versions Tahmasp returns to accept punishment from the snakes (Max Pixel / Public Domain )
In one version of the story, the snakes under Shahmaran’s rule knew that their queen had been betrayed by Tahmasp, and killed by his king. As a result, they became the sworn enemies of humanity. In yet another version of the story, Tahmasp returns to the cave, and allows the snakes to punish him. The story, however, does not say whether the snakes punished or forgave Tahmasp.
Today, Shahmaran is regarded as a protective symbol. Paintings of Shahmaran, for instance, are hung on the walls of houses, whilst some wear ornaments bearing her image.
Shahmaran has also been adopted as a cultural symbol. This is seen, for instance, in the case of Mardin. In 2020, for example, a public art exhibition called ‘Shahmaran Mardin’ was hosted by the Mardin Metropolitan Municipality. Statues of Shahmaran were created, and put on public display for several months, from April 20 to July 20.
At the end of the exhibition, the statues were auctioned away, and the proceeds, according to the Daily Sabah article written in March 2020, would be used to fund excavations in the nearby ancient site of Dara. Other events held during the exhibition include concerts, workshops, and tours.
Lastly, Shahmaran has been turned into a symbol for activism. In 2016, for instance, a Kurdish journalist and artist by the name of Zehra Doğan made a double image of Shahmaran. This image was painted whilst Doğan was held in a Turkish prison, where she was held due to another painting of hers which criticized the Turkish military’s destruction of Nusaybin, a Kurdish town.
Therefore, the painting of Shahmaran was meant to symbolize the redoubled strength of modern Kurdish women. Additionally, the image was painted using red, green, and yellow pigments, the colors of the Kurdish flag. Thus, the image was also a representation of Kurdish identity.
In another instance, an image of Shahmaran was included on a pro-LGBTQ poster in an exhibition at the Bosphorus University, Istanbul. The rationale for the use of Shahmaran for this cause is that since she is a composite creature, she is non-binary, and therefore is a suitable symbol for its activists.
Top image: Traditional representation of Shahmaran. Source: Kulturveyasam
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/arts/events/shahmaran-tale-to-resonate-through-mardin-streets-with-the-art-of-sculpture
Gruber, C., 2021. What the mythical figure of Şahmeran in Turkey represents and why activists use it. [Online]
Available at: https://theconversation.com/what-the-mythical-figure-of-sahmeran-in-turkey-represents-and-why-activists-use-it-155606
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