Azhi Dahaka (Avestan Great Snake) is a dragon or demonic figure in the texts and mythology of Zoroastrian Persia, where he is one of the subordinates of Angra Mainyu. Alternate names include Azi Dahak, Dahaka, Dahak.
Zahhak or Zohhak is a figure of Persian mythology, evident in ancient Iranian folklore as Aži Dahaka, the name by which he also appears in the texts of the Avesta. In Middle Persian he is called Dahag or Bevar-Asp, the latter meaning "[he who has] 10,000 horses". Aži (nominative ažiš) is the Iranian Avestan word for "serpent" or "dragon". It is cognate to the Vedic Sanskrit word ahi, "snake", and without a sinister implication. Azi and Ahi are distantly related to Greek ophis, Latin anguis, both meaning "snake".
The meaning of dahaka is uncertain. Among the meanings suggested are "stinging" (source uncertain), "burning" (cf. Sanskrit dahana), "man" or "manlike" (cf. Khotanese daha), "huge" (cf. Pashto loy) or "foreign" (cf. the Scythian Dahae and the Vedic dasas).
Aži Dahaka is the source of the modern Persian word azhdaha or ezhdeha (Middle Persian Azdahag) meaning "dragon", often used of a dragon depicted upon a banner of war.
Azhi Dahaka was created by Angra Mainu (the son of Angra Mainu and Autak), or the Ultimate Evil, to oppose goodness and truth (Allan, et al., 1999). Literally made of the unclean khrafstra, animals such as snakes, toads, scorpions, frogs and lizards, this dragon embodied corruption.
In the Avesta, the Azhi Dahaka is described as a three-headed, six-eyed, dragon-like monster. He is said to have a thousand senses, and to bleed snakes, scorpions, and other venomous creatures. He also is said to bring or control storms and disease. His wings were said to be so enormous that they would block out the sun.
In the Shahnameh written around 1000 AD, Azhi Dahaka was semi-anthropomorphosized as Zahak or Zohak, though many of the older characteristics were retained in the new version.
The dragon roamed through the universe until Angra Mainyu, perhaps regretting his decision to create such a monster, decided to end him. His champion Thraetaona or Feridun could not kill the dragon but chained him instead to Mount Damavand, where Dahak will have to remain for eternity. It is further prophesized that Azhi Dahaka will break free of this prison as part of the Zoroastrian apocalypse, and will kill one-third of humanity before finally being slain by Keresaspa.
Aži Dahaka in Zoroastrian literature
Aži Dahaka is the most significant and long-lasting of the ažis of the Avesta, the earliest religious texts of Zoroastrianism. He is described as a monster with three mouths, six eyes, and three heads (presumably meaning three heads with one mouth and two eyes each), cunning, strong and demonic. But in other respects Aži Dahaka has human qualities, and is never a mere animal.
In a post-Avestan Zoroastrian text, the Denkard, Aži Dahaka is identified as an Arab, as the source of the writings of Judaism (in this context identified as a religion opposed to Zoroastrianism), and possessed of all possible sins and evil counsels, the opposite of the good king Jam. The name Dahag (Dahaka) is punningly interpreted as meaning "having ten (dah) sins". His mother is Wadag (or Odag), herself described as a great sinner, who committed incest with her son.
In the Avesta, Aži Dahaka is said to have lived in the inaccessible fortress of Kuuirinta in the land of Baßri, where he worshipped the yazatas Ar?dvi Sura (Anahita), divinity of the rivers, and Vayu, divinity of the storm-wind. Based on the similarity between Baßri and Old Persian Babiru (Babylon), later Zoroastrians localized Aži Dahaka in Mesopotamia, though the identification is open to doubt. Aži Dahaka asked these two yazatas for power to depopulate the world. Being representatives of the Good, they of course refused.
In one Avestan text, Aži Dahaka has a brother named Spitiyura. Together they attack the hero Yima (Jamshid) and cut him in half with a saw, but are then beaten back by the yazata Atar, the divine spirit of Fire.
According to the post-Avestan texts, following the death of Jam i Xšed (Jamshid), Dahag gained kingly rule. Another late Zoroastrian text, the Menog i xrad, says that this was ultimately good, because if Dahag had not become king, the rule would have been taken by the immortal demon Xešm, and so evil would have ruled upon earth until the end of the world.
Dahag is said to have ruled for a thousand years, starting from 100 years after Jam lost his royal glory (see Jamshid). He is described as a sorcerer who ruled with the aid of demons (divs).
The Avesta identifies the person who finally disposed of Aži Dahaka as Traetaona son of A?ßiya, in Middle Persian called Fredon. The Avesta has little to say about the nature of Traetaona's defeat of Aži Dahaka, other than that it enabled him to liberate Arənavāci and Savaŋhavāci, the two most beautiful women in the world. Later sources, especially the Denkard, provide more detail. Fredon is said to have been endowed with the divine radiance of kings (xvarrah, modern Persian farr) from birth, and was able to defeat Dahag at the age of nine, striking him on shoulder, heart and skull with a mace and giving him three wounds with a sword. However, when he did so, vermin (snakes, insects and the like) emerged from the wounds, and the god Ormazd told him not to kill Dahag, lest the world become infested with these creatures. Instead, Fredon chained Dahag up and imprisoned him on the mythical Mt. Damavand (later identified with Damavand, one of the high mountains of the Alborz chain).
Zahhak in the Shahnama
During the reign of Mahmud of Ghazni (AD 994-1030) the Shahnameh or "book of kings" was written by Firdowsi, who retold the tale with notable differences, including the anthropomorphisation of Azhi Dahaka into Zahak, a human king with snakes on his shoulders who feasted on human brains. As foretold in a vision years earlier, the tyrant king Zahak was eventually overthrown by the hero Faridun (Thraetaona), who imprisoned him on Mount Demavand's desolate slopes (Allan, et al., 1999).
According to Ferdowsi, Zahhak was born as the son of an Arab ruler named Merdas. Because of his Arab origins, he is sometimes called Zahhak-e Tazi, "the Arabian Zahhak". He was handsome and clever, but had no stability of character and was easily influenced by evil counsellors. Ahriman therefore chose him as the tool for his plans for world domination.
When Zahhak was a young man, Ahriman first appeared to him as a glib, flattering companion, and by degrees convinced him that he ought to kill his own father and take over his territories. He taught him to dig a deep pit covered over with leaves in a place where Merdas was accustomed to walk; Merdas fell in and was killed. Zahhak thus became both parricide and king at the same time.
Ahriman now took another guise, and presented himself to Zahhak as a marvellous cook. After he had presented Zahhak with many days of sumptuous feasts, Zahhak was willing to give Ahriman whatever he wanted. Ahriman merely asked to kiss Zahhak on his two shoulders. Zahhak permitted this; but when Ahriman had touched his lips to Zahhak's shoulders, he immediately 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.
Ahriman now appeared to Zahhak in the form of a skilled physician. He counselled 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.
About this time, Jamshid, who was then the ruler of the world, through his arrogance lost his divine right to rule. Zahhak presented himself as a savior to those discontented Iranians who wanted a new ruler (reflecting the embracing of the Arab religion and culture by Persians after the Arab conquest of Persia and the subsequent oppression persians faced).
Collecting a great army, he marched against Jamshid, who fled when he saw that he could not resist Zahhak. Zahhak hunted Jamshid for many years, and at last caught him and subjected him to a miserable death -- he had Jamshid sawn in half. Zahhak now became the ruler of the entire world. Among his slaves were two of Jamshid's daughters, Arnavaz and Shahrnavaz (the Avestan Ar?navaci and Sava?havaci).
Zahhak's two snake heads still craved human brains for food, so every day Zahhak's spies would seize two men, and execute them so their brains could feed the snakes. Two men, called Armayel and Garmayel, wanted to find a way to rescue people from being killed for the snakes. So they learned cookery and after mastering how to cook great meals, they went to Zahhak's palace and managed to become the chefs of the palace. Everyday they saved one of the two men and put the brain of a sheep instead of his into the food, but they could not save the lives of both men.
Zahhak's tyranny over the world lasted for centuries. But one day Zahhak had a terrible dream – he thought that three warriors were attacking him, and that the youngest knocked him down with his mace, tied him up, and dragged him off toward a tall mountain. When Zahhak woke he was in a panic. Following the counsel of Arnavaz, he summoned wise men and dream-readers to explain his dream. They were reluctant to say anything, but one finally said that it was a vision of the end of Zahhak's reign, that rebels would arise and dispossess Zahhak of his throne. He even named the man who would take Zahhak's place: Fereydun.
Zahhak now became obsessed with finding this "Fereydun" and destroying him, though he did not know where he lived or who his family was. His spies went everywhere looking for Fereydun, and finally heard that he was but a boy, being nourished on the milk of the marvelous cow Barmayeh. The spies traced Barmayeh to the highland meadows where it grazed, but Fereydun had already fled before them. They killed the cow, but had to return to Zahhak with their mission unfulfilled.
Zahhak now tried to consolidate his rule by coercing an assembly of the leading men of the kingdom into signing a document testifying to Zahhak's righteousness, so that no one could have any excuse for rebellion. One man spoke out against this charade, a blacksmith named Kava (Kaveh). Before the whole assembly, Kava told how Zahhak's minions had murdered seventeen of his eighteen sons so that Zahhak might feed his snakes' lust for human brains – the last son had been imprisoned, but still lived.
In front of the assembly Zahhak had to pretend to be merciful, and so released Kava's son. But when he tried to get Kava to sign the document attesting to Zahhak's justice, Kava tore up the document, left the court, and raised his blacksmith's apron as a standard of rebellion – the Kaviyani Banner, derafsh-e Kaviyani. He proclaimed himself in support of Fereydun as ruler.
Soon many people followed Kava to the Alborz mountains, where Fereydun was now living. He was now a young man and agreed to lead the people against Zahhak. He had a mace made for him with a head like that of an ox, and with his brothers and followers, went forth to fight against Zahhak. Zahhak had already left his capital, and it fell to Fereydun with small resistance. Fereydun freed all of Zahhak's prisoners, including Arnavaz and Shahrnavaz.
Kondrow, Zahhak's treasurer, pretended to submit to Fereydun, but when he had a chance he escaped to Zahhak and told him what had happened. Zahhak at first dismissed the matter, but when he heard that Fereydun had seated Jamshid's daughters on thrones beside him like his queens, he was incensed and immediately hastened back to his city to attack Fereydun.
When he got there, Zahhak found his capital held strongly against him, and his army was in peril from the defense of the city. Seeing that he could not reduce the city, he sneaked into his own palace as a spy, and attempted to assassinate Arnavaz and Shahrnavaz. Fereydun struck Zahhak down with his ox-headed mace, but did not kill him; on the advice of an angel, he bound Zahhak and imprisoned him in a cave underneath Mount Damavand, binding him with a lion's pelt tied to great nails fixed into the walls of the cavern, where he will remain until the end of the world. Thus, after a thousand years' tyranny, ended the reign of Zahhak.
This story is Ferdowsi's way of reconciling the descriptions of Dahag as a three-headed dragon monster and those stories which treat him as a human king. According to Ferdowsi, Zahhak is originally human, but through the magic of Ahriman he becomes a monster; he does, in fact, have three heads, the two snake heads and one human head; and the snakes remind us of his original character as a dragon.
The characterization of Zahhak as an Arab in part reflects the earlier association of Dahag with the Semitic peoples of Iraq, but probably also reflects the continued resentment of many Iranians at the 7th century Arab conquest of Persia.
Art / Fiction