Robert Landau Ames, Ph.D.--Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University:


On Monstrosity in Iran’s National Epic: Philosophizing with Zahhak


Although studies of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (d. 1019 or 1025), abound, few attend closely to the role of monsters or monstrosity as such. Instead, most research on medieval Islamicate literatures that has explicitly addressed the theme has done so not by studying classical Persian poetry, but instead, by studying prose compendia of wonders (known as ‘aja’ib and ghara’ib in Arabic and Persian). I aim to correct this by studying one character from the Shahnameh, the serpent-shouldered king Zahhak as a monster.

As the Shahnameh tells the myth, Zahhak is an Arab prince who the devil convinces to commit patricide, invade and conquer Iran, and kill its king (Jamshid). Following Zahhak’s conquest of Iran, the devil appears again and kisses Zahhak’s shoulders. After the kiss, a voraciously hungry serpent grows from each of Zahhak’s shoulders, and he rules over Iran for a millennium, attempting to sate his snakes’ hunger by feeding them the brains of Iranian youths all the while. A rebellion led by the blacksmith Kaveh eventually overthrows Zahhak and restores a native Iranian, Fereydun, to the throne.

While most interpretations of this myth tend to focus on its apparent nationalist dimensions, I intend to focus on Zahhak’s monstrosity instead; although, in Ferdowsi’s telling, he is a human king from whose shoulders snakes grow, in earlier Iranian mythology, Zahhak was a dragon; in Avestan Persian, he was known as Azhi Dahaka, from which both the word Zahhak and the New Persian word for dragon, ezhdeha, derive. These draconic origins, alongside the grotesque content of Ferdowsi’s telling of the myth and Zahhak’s apparent ability to overturn Iran’s moral and political order, make a strong case for his monstrosity.




Chiara Benati


Dipartimento di Lingue e Culture Moderne

Università degli Studi di Genova


Imaginary Creatures Causing Real Diseases: Projective Etiology in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine



From a contemporary point of view, the causes of most diseases are well-known or can, in some way, be scientifically related to environmental factors and genetic disposition. However, this is a fairly recent development, and in the Middle Ages and the early modern time people were not, for example, aware of the existence of microscopical, invisible entities as germs causing contagion and transmitting diseases. For this reason, when the explanations based on theories of Hippocrates and Galen – still extremely influential at the time – were not considered satisfactory or when a condition was not simply labelled as divine punishment, medieval and early modern people (and ancient people before them) did not behave much differently from what we still do (consider, for example, the thriving on the internet of the theories linking autism and vaccines!) and found other, more imaginative, explanations for the onset of a given pathology or of its symptoms. In doing this, the responsibility for real diseases and symptoms was often projected onto imaginary creatures, such as worms. In this way, toothache was, for example, ascribed to worms eating the tooth from the inside and, therefore, causing pain.

In this paper, I will focus on these imaginative projective etiologies and on how people elaborated on them (e.g. classifying worms according to color and size, or claiming to have seen them), taking into consideration a corpus of both medical and magical (e.g., charms aimed at healing the pathology they caused) Germanic texts from the Middle Ages and early modern age and paying particular attention to both their origin and their survival in popular belief.


Albrecht Classen, The University of Arizona: The World of Hybrid Women in Medieval and Early Modern Literature

This paper focuses on the surprisingly large number of hybrid female figures in the pre-modern world, especially Melusine, but then also many fairy-like creatures (Marie de France, Lanval; Peter von Stauffenberg). The erotic element in all those projections is very obvious, but the interest in hybridity also reveals a strong subliminal urge to investigate alternative forms of human existence, combining magic with sexuality, political power with economic force. This paper will investigate relevant narratives from the twelfth through the sixteenth century (Paracelsus).


John Pizer, Louisiana State University: Dream and Prophetic Projection in Andreas Gryphius’s Historical Tragedies: Traces of the Symbol

Particularly since Walter Benjamin’s Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels began to exercise a seminal influence on studies of German Baroque drama, scholars have highlighted allegory as the overarching representational mode of this genre. From this perspective, tragedy during this literary period eschews the symbol, employed to conjure a transcendent unity between aesthetic appearance and external facticity, between representational status and objective reality, even though that reality might be projected into the future. Bridging past and future, the symbol thus evokes a mode of transcendent timelessness. Allegory, by contrast, suggests a postlapsarian fallen human domain in which such continuity is effectively cancelled. In conjuring a shattered, ruined world, allegory breaks the prelapsarian link between signifier and signified, representational form and represented content. To highlight this disjunction, Benjamin focused in his oeuvre on modes of experiencing such as dream and melancholic reflection that are seen to disrupt attempts at establishing symbolic continuity and found the Baroque mourning plays of Andreas Gryphius exemplary in this regard. My paper would argue that Gryphius employs fantasy and imagination in the dream sequences of his historical tragedies, but their prophetic projection into a realized future, the link between dream and history, must constellate the trace of a symbolic, indeed ontic link between on stage present-moment reverie and a historic reality to take place during or shortly after the dramatic time frame. To cite several examples: the chorus of courtly landed aristocracy in Leo Armenius debates whether dreaming and ghosts foreshadow an actual future, and a concluding “Zusatz” to the debate establishes that the heavens issue warnings through signs (“Zeichen”) even though those forewarned cannot escape their portended fate. Leo himself receives such portents in imaginative dream sequences, but because his downfall is realized in historical fact, a symbolic link between fantastic dream and its future realization is inevitably suggested. The same holds true for the eponymous heroine of Catharina von Georgien and the Persian king who instigated her martyrdom because she refused to become either his paramour or his bride. Relational dynamics like those between chief protagonist and chief royal villain in Catharina are at play for the imperial legal advisor Papinianus in Gryphius’s thusly titled tragedy and the Roman Emperor who has him put to death for refusing to judicially whitewash the latter’s murder of his half-brother; both experience fantastic dreams that become historically realized. There is a corporeal sensuousness to these imaginative reveries that sustains the somatic character of Benjaminian allegory, but they are nevertheless informed by the temporal and morphological transcendence of the symbol.


Tom Willard, The University of Arizona: The Dream World’s Map, Directions, and Visit in Thomas Vaughan’s Lumen de Lumine (1651)

Between 1648 and 1655, the Anglo-Welsh alchemist Thomas Vaughan wrote a half-dozen small books on the magical arts. In one of the last, he offered what he called “the only Clavis” to his earlier work. This “key” turned out to be an allegory, presented as a symbolic engraving, a Rosicrucian parable, and the narrative of a dream vision with a poem and a prose commentary. The map was labelled an image of the magical school (scholae magicae typus) engraved by the portrait artist Robert Vaughan, who prepared the famous illustrations for the Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (1651). It included mythical beasts such as the cockatrice and ouroborous along with the invisible mountain of the magi (mons magorum invisibilis) described in the Rosicrucian text. 
This paper will offer an interpretation of the map, including all the features Vaughan sees there. A few of them are standards of alchemy: “The First Matter,” “The Philosophicall Fire,” “The Heavenly Luna,” and “The Green salt.” Others are farther fetched: “The River of Pearl,” “The Aether, or the Aire of Paradise,” “The Star-Soule,” and “The Diapasm, or Magicall Perfume.” Vaughan’s dream vision has symbolism in common with other visual works in the Rosicrucian tradition, including Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (1595) and the Geheimne Figuren der Rosenkreuzer aus dem 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (1785). The proposed paper will attempt to draw some connections and distinctions.