Myths and Fables

Myths and fables were used to prepare Princes for their reign.

Books containing fables with amusing, moralizing stories in which animals were the main characters, were used to prepare Princes to rule their respective regions. The fables addressed the moral education of the Princes through animals as main characters, illustrating universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth. Many of the fables were thought to have been introduced into the Muslim world from India.

Derived from the Indian Panchatantra and Mahabharata written in Sanskrit around the year 200 A.D., many of the fables were adapted and translated into numerous languages including Persian and Arabic. The fables were collected and illustrated in manuscripts from the thirteenth century onward in the Arab lands, and from the fourteenth century in Iran.

Although tales of beasts are deeply rooted in the pre-Islamic traditions of Iran, Central Asia, and India, their depiction in metalwork, pottery, and manual illustration became frequent only from the twelfth century. Dragons in Persian painting, ceramics, and metalwork acquired their common attributes – a winding body, four feet, a horned head, and flaming shoulders – after the Mongol conquest in the thirteenth century. Similarly, the simurgh, the magical bird of the Shahnama (the Persian national epic composed by the poet Firdausi in the year 1000) inherited its streaming tail feathers and long neck from Chinese mythical sacred firebirds introduced to Islamic art by the Mongols. The tales of these beasts continued to be told well into the seventeenth century, long after people had stopped expecting to actually encounter these beasts.

Azim Nanji, Fables & Myths, Spirit and Life Catalogue
(Published by Aga Khan Trust for Culture)

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