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Zahhak, AKA Azhi Dahāka and Dahāg, is a major antagonist in Zoroastrianism and Persian mythology. He is one of the most evil figures in Zoroastrian theology, a Persian king who ruled with the aid of demons and had snakes growing from his shoulders, which he sated by feeding them two people each day. He ruled for several centuries until he was finally defeated and deposed by the hero Fereydun. However, he will return at the end of time to ravage the world. Zahhak serves as an antagonist in two key Zoroastrian texts, the Avesta and the Shahnameh.

Biography

Origin

Zahhak was born to the Persian king Merdas. He is described by the Shahnameh as being handsome and clever, but weak-willed and easily manipulated. Due to these qualities he was selected by Angra Mainyu as the perfect tool to sow disorder and chaos.

Angra Mainyu appeared on Earth as a member of Merdas's court and made sure to ingratiate himself to Zahhak, convincing him to kill his father and take his kingdom and riches. Zahhak dug a deep pit in a path to the garden where Merdas would go to pray every morning and covered it in a blanket of leaves; Merdas fell in and died and was succeeded by Zahhak.

Angra Mainyu then took the form of a cook and subjected Zahhak to several days of feasting, introducing meat to the previously vegetarian cuisine, after which Zahhak was willing to give him whatever he wanted. Angra Mainyu's only request was to kiss Zahhak's shoulders. Zahhak gave him permission, but Angra Mainyu disappeared immediately after kissing his shoulders and two black snakes emerged. Zahhak's attempts to remove the snakes failed because they grew back whenever they were removed, so he sought the advice of a wise man. Angra Mainyu took the form of a wise man and advised Zahhak that the only way to prevent the snakes from killing him was to feed them a stew made of two humans each day.

Emperor of Persia

Around the same time, emperor Jamshid had grown arrogant and lost his divine right to rule. Taking advantage of growing resentment for Jamshid, Zahhak presented himself as a saviour to those seeking a new ruler and raised a great army to fight against Jamshid. Jamshid's army was defeated and he fled, but was eventually captured by Zahhak and executed by being sawn in half. Zahhak then ascended to Jamshid's position.

Each day, Zahhak's agents would take two random men off the street, kill them and cook their brains into a stew to feed to Zahhak's snakes. Two of his cooks, Armayel and Garmayel, sought to save Zahhak's victims and so every day they would free one of the men and send him into the mountains before substituting the brain of a sheep into the stew. These saved men would go on to spawn the Kurdish peoples.

Zahhak's tyranny over Persia lasted for centuries until one night he dreamt of a young warrior subduing him using a mace with an ox's head, binding him and imprisoning him beneath Mount Damavand. Terrified, Zahhak summoned wise men and scholars and demanded they interpret his dream. He was informed that the dream prophesied his downfall at the hands of Fereydun, who had been born that day. Zahhak ordered his agents to find and kill the infant Fereydun, who was being nursed in the highest meadows by the cow Barmayeh. Eventually Zahhak tracked down Barmayeh, but found that Fereydun's mother had already fled with him to the Arborz mountains. Angered, he slew Barmayeh and burned the meadows, reducing them to a barren desert.

Downfall

Zahhak's paranoia about Fereydun continued for several years. Eventually he decided to make all his kingdom's elders and social elites sign a certificate attesting to the virtue and righteousness of his kingdom in the hope that this would persuade Fereydun that he was a good king. However, when the certificate was presented a blacksmith named Kaveh spoke up against Zahhak. He had had seventeen children, but sixteen of them had been killed to feed Zahhak's snakes and now the last one was awaiting the same fate. In order to appease Kaveh, Zahhak ordered his last son released and gave him the certificate to sign. Instead, Kaveh tore up the certificate, left the court, made a banner from his blacksmith's apron and rallied the people to come with him and find Fereydun.

Fereydun was found and agreed to lead the people against Zahhak, being given an ox-headed mace. Fereydun's forces advanced on Zahhak's capital only to find it practically undefended, as Zahhak was away looking for Fereydun. Fereydun occupied the capital and freed all Zahhak's prisoners, but one of Zahhak's ministers escaped and warned Zahhak. Zahhak returned to the capital but found it was too well-defended to take and instead snuck in in disguise. Entering Fereydun's court, Zahhak attempted to assassinate the palace slaves Arnavāz and Shahrnāz, who had gone over to Fereydun, but Fereydun struck him down with his ox-headed mace. He prepared to execute Zahhak, but an angel appeared and advised him to imprison him instead. On the angel's advice, Fereydun bound Zahhak with a lion's pelt and dragged him to a cave beneath Mount Damavand, where he nailed him to the wall and left him.

Zahhak is to remain bound beneath Mount Damavand until the end of time, when he will break free. He will then ravage the world, killing one third of humans and livestock and bathing in their blood, until he is finally slain by the hero Garshasp.

Trivia

  • Zahhak is portrayed differently in the Avesta than in the Shahnameh, as the Avesta portrays him as a three-headed demon with snakes growing from his shoulders rather than a formerly normal human.

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