The Shah of Snakes

Why Shahmaran Matters

Shahmaran by Aynur Ocak-Gundogan
Shahmaran. Photo courtesy Aynur Ocak-Gundogan

Within the cultural fabric of Anatolia and the plains of Mesopotamia lies the story of Shahmaran, a beautiful woman with the lower half of her body shaped in the form of a snake. Varied versions of the legend exist which play a critical role in the expressions and understandings of gender, sexuality, and identity across the region. At first sight, Shahmaran seems to be a female phantasmic figure that captures and fulfills the familiar patriarchal imaginary of woman as a treacherous serpent. Her name ‘the shah of snakes’ in Persian seems to allude to essentialist myths about the female body. However, her portrayal in oral narratives and glass-bottom paintings which adorn the walls of homes in southeastern Turkey and beyond foreground a subversive female subjectivity and sexuality.

Legend has it that Shahmaran lived in the depths of the earth and possessed knowledge of the world which only she had access to. However, her status as a knower and knowledge producer formed a fundamental problem for the patriarchal prerequisite of female silence and rendered her a target of male perpetration. Therefore, she detached herself from the world and remained unseen in her dwelling far away from the hostility that could hurt her. In spite of her wish to remain invisible, Shahmaran’s efforts proved to be of no avail when a lost and frightened young man coincidentally discovered her.

This is where the story takes a striking shift and serves as a framework by which Shahmaran’s untimely and seemingly impossible capture provides an engaging platform for research and inquiry into patriarchal models and feminist discursive interventions in the Middle East. Given the imagery of a geography that is populated by orientalist presumptions and homogenized notions of womanhood, Shahmaran’s captivity and her strategic discursive maneuvers offer a much needed alternative lens through which older intellectual alignments can be replaced with new voices and perspectives on gender and sexuality in the Middle East.

Hence, it is in the hollow darkness of a well that Shahmaran’s story takes a new turn. A young man agrees to recover the riches that he and his friends spot at the bottom of a well but is left behind after he retrieves them. In despair, the young man searches for a way out to combat his inevitable fate and stumbles upon the beautiful half snake, half woman figure. Shahmaran offers the young man shelter and saves his life. Day after day, she tells him stories which reflect on her knowledge of the world and of humanity. The young man soon discovers that listening to Shahmaran cultivates his mind but he is also homesick. As he is ready to depart, he discovers that his body is transformed into a snake skin pattern and Shahmaran warns him that he must never reveal his skin to others in order to keep their encounter a secret. Nevertheless, the young man is unsuccessful in keeping his promise and falls victim to the king’s hostile and zealous vizier who is eager to capture Shahmaran. In pursuit of his goals, the vizier announces that only her flesh can save the ailing king’s life. In a deliberative search for Shahmaran across the king’s land, the young man’s snake patterned skin is revealed and he is forced to disclose Shahmaran’s location to the king’s infantry. Just before Shahmaran is killed and served to the king, she declares to all present at the scene of her execution, “My flesh is a cure to any illness but whoever eats a piece of my tail will possess knowledge that entails the secrets of the world and whoever eats a piece of my head will die.” As soon as she utters the last words of her sentence, the vizier grabs his sword and cuts Shahmaran into pieces. With intense greed and a voracious appetite, the vizier devours a piece of Shahmaran’s tail and the king gulps a piece of her body. The young man who is regretful and eager to end his life, quickly eats a piece of Shahmaran’s head but to his bewilderment discovers that he does not die and that all the knowledge Shahmaran possessed is now his. Inevitably, the vizier dies.

Developed and passed down through generations for hundreds of years, Shahmaran is a subversive story that mobilizes a feminist language. It is ill at ease with patriarchal discourse and society, and it attests to authorial female voice and power. And, it is the mental and political domain of patriarchal ideology, the hollow darkness of the well that it seeks to undo. Hence, the abandonment of the young man by his friends not only sets out to unfold the patriarchal configuration that exploits his toilsome efforts and labor, but also hints at the patriarchal competitive design which is highly motivated by a profit oriented assertive ideology. This onerous ideology further deepens and intensifies its might when Shahmaran is captured by the ailing king’s vizier and infantry. Yet, it is Shahmaran’s voice and authority that redesigns the patriarchal scheme. Her stories and her speech construct a female space that supersedes male power and recognizes the female body as a site of knowledge production.

Central to the story is Shahmaran’s emancipatory and transformative portrayals of womanhood which account for a woman in charge of her feminine subjectivity and sexuality. And, her story mobilizes a feminist language that destabilizes essentialist accounts of womanhood in the region. Hence, Shahmaran is an opportunity to revisit images and ideals associated with womanhood in the Middle East and to explore the beliefs and practices that have incorporated woman into the everyday. Today, as the story is retold through narratives and works of art in Turkey and beyond in the Middle East, individuals continue to rework meanings associated with Shahmaran and womanhood. At the heart of Shahmaran’s reception lies the value given to her and the desire to articulate those values. Therefore, Shahmaran is crucial in broadening and contextualizing the status of woman across academic disciplines and in the anthropology of the region.

Iklim Goksel is an ethnographer specializing in rhetorical theory/criticism, gender and sexuality studies, Turkey, and the Middle East and North Africa. She earned her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Rhetoric from the U of Illinois at Chicago.

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