The legend of Shahmeran spans from Persia to Turkey, but is particularly meaningful today to the Kurds, who exhibit her image as a talisman for protection, healing and self sacrifice as a means to sovereignty.
There are numerous variants but here is one I am particularly attracted to:
Djansab was a woodcutter who was wandering in the forest with some friends when they stumbled upon a the hollow of a tree filled with honey. Djansab was lowered down into the hollow to collect the honey but, for reasons unknown, the other wood cutters deserted him and went home. Djansab realizing that he had been abandoned he fell into despair. He expected to die in the hollow, when his attention was drawn to a small hole within the tree with light radiating from it.
Using a knife that he had on him, Djansab began to scratch around the hole. The hole was slowly enlarged, and eventually, it became big enough for him to squeeze through. Crawling through the hole, he found himself in a large empty space. Exhausted from his efforts he fell into a deep sleep .
When he awoke he had the shock of his life, as he was surrounded by thousands of snakes. The snakes seemed to be observing him carefully, and when he moved, they began to approach him.
Djansab was terrified, thinking the snakes would kill him. Once again, he felt a sense of hopelessness, closed his eyes, and prepared to die. Moments passed, but nothing happened. He mustered his courage and forced himself to open his eyes.
He saw before him Shahmeran, the Queen of the Snakes - a beautiful woman with the scaled body of a snake and a snake head at the tail end. Shahmeran told Djansab not to fear and assured him that neither she nor her snakes would harm him.
The snakes that Shahmeran ruled over were not ordinary snakes, but intelligent, compassionate, and peaceful ones. Shahmeran told Djansab that he would be treated as a guest, asked him to rest, and promised that they would talk again the following day.
Djansab thought he must be dreaming, closed his eyes, and went back to sleep. When he awoke the following morning, he found himself in a large hall in which was a table was laid out with food. Shahmeran was reclining at the table.
Djansab was now convinced that he had not been dreaming. Shahmaran invited her guest to dine with her. Throughout his time with her she would tell stories of the history of humanity and instructed him on the virtues of all the healing herbs.
Long did he spend with Shahmeran in her underground queendom, and though he loved her, Djansab began to yearn for his family and wanted to go home. Shahmeran was reluctant to let Djansab leave, but because of her love for him, she eventually agreed to his request.
Before his departure she warned him to tell no one about herself or the whereabouts of her subterranean realm. She added that since Djansab had stayed with her for so long, he had taken on some of the characteristics of the snakes. Therefore he should avoid visiting the hamam (the public baths), as his skin would become scaly when it comes in contact with water, and his secret would be revealed.
Djansab promised Shahmeran that he would heed her warnings, and returned home. He was reunited with his family, and spent several years with them.
But one day The Sultan of the land became very ill. The court physicians told him the only cure was to eat the meat of Shahmeran to acquire her youth and wisdom. It was known that the way to ascertain if a person had been to Shahmaran’s realm was to pour water on their skin which would then reveal scales.
The king ordered all his subjects to present themselves at the public baths. There they would be watched by the king’s soldiers as they immersed themselves in the water. Djansab tried to hide himself, but he was found and brought to the baths.
The soldiers threw Djansab into the water, and immediately, scales appeared on his skin. Dragging him out of the water, they bound him and brought before the Sultan. At first Djansab held strong and would not reveal Shahmeran’s whereabouts, but the Sultan had him tortured until Djansab told the Sultan all that he wished to know.
Shahmeran was brought before the Sultan. Djansab looked upon her and felt tremendous shame.
As she knew that there was no escape for her, she advised all those present that whosoever ate her tail would attain wisdom and long life, whereas the one who ate her head would die. Having delivered this final message, Shahmeran was killed, boiled and cut up.
The Sultan, eager to be healed, ate what he presumed to be a piece of Shahmeran’s tail. Djansab, wishing to die, ate what he assumed to be Shahmeran’s head. The Sultan dropped dead, but Djansab lived to become a wise old man and healer, wandering the earth in shame and sorrow for his beloved Shahmeran.
Snakes are universally associated with protection, fertility, wisdom, healing and transformation. Western culture, however, associating snakes with women, tends to associate them mainly with poison, deceit and treachery.
A rose often figures into the traditional Shahmeran images. I am struck by how the beauty of the flower echoes the beauty of the human head of Queen of the Snakes, while the thorns echo the fangs of the serpent head. There is something about the sum total conveyed by the snake’s symbolic language that leads to the attainment of wisdom. The feminine symbolism of the tree hollow (as well as variants of the story where a cave or a well is the source of the honey, is pretty clear. Many visually repeating motifs. There is much to ponder in this story and why it seems to be particularly timely.
Acid Etched copper with cutwork rose backed with amber/red water glass. Ink oxides and engraving. Framed in mahogany.
21"x19" x 1"