Nick Allen


In 2007 Harry Neale’s translation brought to the potential attention of comparativists a story told by a late twelfth century Persian hagiographer, Farīd al-Din ‘Aṭṭār of Nishapur. Among the Sufi saints whose lives are anecdotally narrated by ‘Aṭṭār is al-Tirmidī (also of Nishapur, died ca 892), who tells the story in question to expound the doctrine that Iblīs (i.e. Satan, the Koranic equivalent of Lucifer) is implanted within us. According to Tirmidī, Iblīs engineered this situation via his son Khannās. Placed under the care of Eve, the demonic Khannās is thrice killed by Adam and twice resuscitated by Iblīs; but on the third occasion Adam and Eve cook Khannās and eat him. Iblīs has now achieved his purpose.

Neale presents the story as an instance of the ‘threefold death’, a motif that is often mentioned in Indo-European comparativist literature (cf. Miller 1997). Neale’s suggestion is that this ancient motif survived in the oral traditions of north-east Persia and was drawn into the hagiographic tradition there. In the present paper Neale’s argument about the IE background is picked up towards the end, but my main aim is to compare the Persian story with a story from the Mahābhārata, which is not considered by Neale. The great Sanskrit epic tells of a figure called Kaca who also undergoes a threefold death, and despite fundamental differences the two stories are sufficiently similar to imply a historical connection. Since the Mahābhārata had reached its more or less standardised form several centuries before Tirmidī was writing, west-east diffusion is ruled out as an explanation, and east-west diffusion seems less likely than Indo-Iranian common origin.

Within the vast sweep of the epic Kaca is a very minor character. Book 1 includes an account of the ancestry of the major protagonists, and among their distant forebears is Yayāti, who comes five generations after Manu (the first man) and some twenty generations before the main heroes. The Critical Edition of the Epic has around 2000 adhyāyas (chapters), of which Kaca’s story occupies two, located early in the 19-adhyāya section on Yayāti. The gods have arranged that, in order to learn a magical formula, the youth Kaca join the household of Śukra, the priest of the demons. Kaca is thrice killed by the demons, and then resuscitated. When finally Śukra unknowingly swallows the ash of the cremated Kaca in his wine, the resuscitation enables the gods to achieve their purpose.

Two major differences may be noted straightaway. Firstly, as told here, the Persian story is self-contained, while the story of Kaca forms only the introduction to the story of Yayāti: when Kaca leaves Śukra’s household, his final words influence Yayāti’s marital career and hence the ancestry of the main heroes. Secondly, the Persian story is shorter and simpler, having only four characters where the Sanskrit has seven. Thus I give a full translation of the Persian, while for the Sanskrit a summary will have to suffice.

The Stories

A. The Persian[1]

When Adam and Eve came together and their repentance was accepted, one day, Adam – upon whom be peace – went out to do something. Iblīs came with his own child – named Khannās, brought him before Eve and said: ‘I have something important I must do. Watch over my child until I come back.’ Eve agreed, and Iblīs went away. When Adam came back he asked: ‘Who is this?’ ‘He is the son of Iblīs who has been entrusted to me,’ said Eve. Adam chastised her saying: ‘Why didst thou accept?’ He became angry and slew the child, cutting him into pieces, and hung each piece from the bough of a tree and went away. Iblīs returned and asked where his son was. Eve told him what had happened: ‘He cut him into pieces and hung each piece from the bough of a tree.’ Iblīs called to his son. He became whole again and alive, and came before Iblīs.

A second time he said to Eve: ‘Take him, for I have another important affair.’ Eve did not accept. [Iblīs] entreated her and lamented until she accepted, and then he went away. Adam came back and asked: ‘What is this?’ Eve explained the matter to him. Adam beat Eve and said: ‘I know not what the mystery is in this that thou dost not my bidding but rather the bidding of God’s foe, by whose words thou art beguiled!’ Then [Adam] slew [Khannās] and burned him, scattering half of the ashes in the water and the other half in the wind; then he went away. Iblīs came back and sought his son. Eve told him what had happened, and Iblīs called to his son. The pieces [of his body] came back together, and he became alive and sat before that accursed one, to wit, Iblīs.

Then Iblīs said again to Eve: ‘Accept him again.’ Eve would not accept, saying: ‘Adam will destroy me.’ Iblīs made her swear an oath,[2] and she accepted. Adam came, saw [Khannās], and was wroth. As many times as [Iblīs] entrusted [Khannās] to Eve, Adam beat her and slew Iblīs’ son. At last Adam said: ‘God knows what will happen. Thou heedest [Iblīs’] words and not mine.’ Then he became wroth, slew Khannās, and cooked him. [Adam] ate half and gave the other half to Eve. Some say that, the last time, Iblīs brought Khannās in the shape of a sheep. When Iblīs came back and sought his son, Eve told him what had happened saying: ‘He slew him and cooked [him in a] stew (qaliya kard). I ate half and Adam the other.’ ‘This was my goal,’ said Iblīs, ‘to place myself inside of Adam. Since his breast has become my abode, my goal is achieved.’ Thus has God – may he be exalted – said: ‘[Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind… from the evil of the Whisperer,] Al-Khannās, who whispers in the breasts of mankind among Jinn and men.’

B. The Sanskrit[3]

As usual in Hindu mythology, the Devas and Asuras (the gods and demons), are in conflict, competing for sovereignty of the universe. As their chaplains the gods appoint Br̥haspati, the demons Śukra.[4] Like their employers the two chaplains are rivals; but Śukra possesses a spell enabling him to resuscitate demons killed by the gods, while Br̥haspati cannot reciprocate.

Consequently, the gods go to Kaca, eldest son of the god Bṛhaspati, and ask the lad, given their mutual affection, to seek out Śukra in the city of the demon king Vr̥ṣaparvan and acquire his magic. His youth will enable him to propitiate Śukra, and also Śukra’s much-loved daughter, Devayānī. Departing promptly, Kaca asks Śukra to accept him as a student for a thousand years and, despite knowing that Kaca’s father is Br̥haspati, the sage agrees.

Kaca takes a student’s vow (which includes chastity), and ingratiates himself with father and daughter. After 500 years, discovering Kaca’s identity and wanting their magic to remain secret, the demons kill the youth while he is alone herding cattle away from the settlement. They cut him into tiny pieces and feed him to jackals. Noticing his failure to return, Devayānī tells her father that without Kaca she cannot live. Using his magic, Śukra calls Kaca, who reappears – totally restored; he has torn open the bodies of the jackals. On the second occasion Kaca is in the woods collecting flowers for Devayānī. The demons kill him and dispose of the body in the ocean. Devayānī and Śukra react as before.[5]

Finally, when Kaca is again gathering flowers, he is killed and burned. Mixing the ashes with ‘wine’ (surā), the demons give the mixture to Śukra. Again Devayānī seeks her father’s help, and when Śukra calls to Kaca, the youth answers feebly from his guru’s stomach, explaining what has happened and requesting help. The dilemma is acute. If Kaca stays put, not only will he suffer and presumably die, but Devayānī will die of love; but if Kaca is resuscitated, his emergence will tear open his teacher’s body and Devayānī will die of grief. Śukra sees the solution. He teaches the magic to Kaca, uses it himself to resuscitate his pupil, and is in turn resuscitated by Kaca.

Decreeing that henceforth brahmins shall abstain from wine, Śukra summons and rebukes the demons. The second half of the pupillage passes uneventfully, but when Kaca sets off back to heaven, Devayānī proposes to him. Citing reasons based on dharma, Kaca declines. The two exchange curses: Kaca will be unable to use his magic, but is able to teach it to others – who can use it); and Devayānī will never marry a brahmin (her marriage, to King Yayāti, is not entirely a success). Kaca is welcomed home by the gods, led by Indra.

Similarities and differences

A. Roles

Let us use ‘story-neutral’ terms to bring together corresponding roles. For instance, let us couple Khannās and Kaca, both of whom undergo a threefold death, as ‘the Victim’. But I begin with more powerful beings.

Winners. The Persian story as a whole is driven by Iblīs, the Sanskrit by the gods; both parties eventually achieve their goal, essentially by guile. Several differences will come to mind. If Iblīs is singular, the gods are plural; but this is hardly fundamental. The Indra who led the gods in congratulating Kaca after his mission could easily (perhaps in other versions) have led them in dispatching him. Again, Iblīs intervenes repeatedly, while the gods stand back and let Kaca take his time; but this difference probably reflects the relative shrinkage of the Persian both in number of roles and spatiotemporal scale. Thirdly, Iblīs contrasts with Allah as evil, while the gods contrast with Asuras as (essentially) good. Iblīs and the gods both belong to well-marked dualities – Iblīs versus Allah, Devas versus Asuras – but here we shall emphasise a major difference between Avestan and Sanskrit. Notoriously, Avestan daēva is cognate with Sanskrit deva ‘god’ but means ‘demon’. Whatever one makes of the history of ahura/asura (cf. Skjærvø 2011: 64-5), in this context they possess the opposite moral values to daēva/deva. By way of formula, we can write Winner = Iblīs + the gods.

Father = Iblīs + Br̥haspati. Apart from filling the Winner role, Iblīs is the Victim’s father, and as such corresponds to the gods’ chaplain, Br̥haspati. The latter does not intervene in the action, but is congratulated along with Kaca at the end. Whether good or bad, the moral status of the Father applies equally to their respective sons. One can also note a negative similarity: nothing is said of any father-son emotions.

Resuscitator = Iblīs + Śukra. In both stories the act of resuscitation consists in calling the victim. The Persian says simply ‘Iblīs called to his son’. After the first killing Śukra tells his daughter that, if necessary, he will revive Kaca simply by saying ‘This one – come!’ (ayam ehi iti śabdena, 71.30); whereupon, applying his magic knowledge, he summons him (āhvayat). Neither story tells how the Resuscitator acquired the skill.

Iblīs’ role as Resuscitator is not particularly foregrounded, since it is adopted merely as a way of pursuing his goal of implanting himself within humanity. In contrast Śukra’s resuscitation magic is at the heart of the story, and is named and referred to in similar vocabulary several times. Śukra uses it primarily because he loves Devayānī. However, he also seems to like his student, whom he describes as deserving of honour (arcyaṃ 71.19) and as innocent (nāgasaṃ 71.39). Moreover, he trusts Kaca to revive him.

So Iblīs cumulates three roles – Winner, Father, Resuscitator – which the Sanskrit distributes among different figures. But in one case the Sanskrit cumulates where the Persian distinguishes: Śukra not only resuscitates his pupil, but also swallows him.

Swallower = Adam + Śukra. The two male figures who consume or swallow the Victim (in a stew or in wine) offer clear contrasts. Adam has only his human capacities, Śukra is a demonic magician. Moreover, Adam consumes Khannās deliberately, wanting to eliminate the child, to whom he is hostile throughout. Śukra is well disposed towards his pupil and, when drinking his remains, is unaware of doing so.

On the other hand, both Swallowers are household heads, and their acts of consumption are comparable. Admittedly, Khannās is a supernatural while Adam is a mortal, but since in both stories Swallower and Victim alike are anthropomorphic, one is given the impression of cannibalism. Perhaps it was to counter this impression that some narrators give Khannās the form of a sheep at the third killing.

Obvious though it is, the structural position of the swallowing merits a note. If each death forms a separate subepisode, the first two are preparatory: they establish the pattern. The third subepisode starts as if it will follow the same pattern but the act of consumption gives it a new direction and brings us to the climax. In the Persian the climax is emphasised by Adam’s steadily increasing anger towards his wife.

Apart from the swallowing the third subepisode is distinguished by certain other features. (a) It refers openly to the repetitive nature of the story. ‘As many times as [Iblīs] entrusted [Khannās] to Eve, Adam beat her and slew Iblīs’ son. At last…’ Compare Śukra’s remark: ‘It is impossible to keep this brahmin alive, for revived (by me) he is killed anew’ (bhūyaḥ 709*). (b) The Swallower expresses fatalism or uncertainty: ‘God knows what will happen,’ says Adam; ‘What am I to do?’ asks Śukra, urging his daughter not to grieve. (c) In both stories this mood soon passes. Adam becomes angry and kills Khannās. Śukra, without responding to Devayānī’s admission of her love, expresses his anger against the demons (who must have departed). In trying to implicate him in responsibility for the death of his innocent pupil, they are also rendering him guilty of the heinous sin of brahminicide. Adam’s anger is paralleled in the previous subepisodes, but Śukra’s is not.

Thus in both stories the Swallower (a) has repeatedly experienced failure, (b) is discouraged by this, and finally (c) becomes angry.

Killer = Adam + Vr̥ṣaparvan /demons. Whereas Adam by himself kills Khannās, the demons collectively kill Kaca. However, later in the Yayāti story, when Śukra’s daughter has quarrelled with Vr̥ṣaparvan’s, the chaplain accuses the king of having personally ordered the killing of Kaca (aghātayathā 75.3). That Vṛṣaparvan’s responsibility is not mentioned earlier hardly matters – compare the failure to mention a leader or spokesman when the gods first approach Kaca.

Like Adam, the demons kill in anger (amarṣitāḥ, 71.26). But the fundamental similarity is that in their struggle with the Winners both Killers end up as Losers. Their third attack has precisely the opposite effect to that intended. Rather than eliminating Khannās, the consumption lodges him permanently in the body of Adam and his descendants. Rather than disposing of Kaca and the threat he poses, the consumption of wine results in Kaca gaining the magic he wants.

Female = Eve + Devayānī. Though Yayāti will eventually marry the daughters both of Devayānī and Vr̥ṣaparvan, the triple death stories each involve only a single female who, surrounded by males, is central to the action. Eve repeatedly admits Khannās into the household, and in their instructions to Kaca the gods give as much weight to Devayānī as to Śukra – it is her urging that will lead to Kaca’s resuscitations.

In themselves the two Females are not particularly similar. Eve is married to the Swallower/Killer; Devayānī is unmarried, daughter to the Swallower/Resuscitator. Eve is reproached and beaten by her husband, Devayānī has a doting father. Their relationships with the Victim differ accordingly. Eve has no special feelings for Khannās. At first she agrees to look after him, apparently as a favour granted in response to a reasonable request; but Adam’s reaction makes her increasingly reluctant to accept him, and she swallows without protest her share in the cannibal meal. In contrast, Devayānī falls in love with Kaca, as the gods planned.

Victim = Khannās + Kaca. Both Victims are young. Khannās is so young that someone still needs to act as his childminder. Kaca, ‘at the height of his youth’ (71.22b), is no doubt a teen-ager (he seems not to age during his lengthy pupillage). It is the Victim’s youth that makes it possible for him to enter his hosts’ household.

In addition, both Victims are little more than extensions of their fathers. Khannās is given no individual characteristics, and nothing is said of the child’s behaviour. This is negative evidence, but Iblīs triumphs because he has placed himself within the Swallowers. The Sanskrit – so much longer – may seem to give Kaca a little more personality, but his final rejection of Devayānī implies that, when he seemed to be courting her, he was not expressing genuine feelings but simply following his instructions. If Br̥haspati participated in issuing the instructions, the son would again be essentially his father’s instrument. The Epic says nothing of Kaca’s life after his return to heaven, except that he will share in sacrificial offerings (72.23d).

In both stories the three subepisodes differ as to the treatment of the Victim’s corpse, and the details of the six deaths are fairly complicated. Since it would be difficult to treat them satisfactorily without reference to the triple death literature and to material lying outside the Indo-Iranian domain, I omit discussion here, and summarise the results so far in Table 1.


Persian story-neutral Sanskrit
Iblīs Winner(s) gods
Victim’s Father Br̥haspati
Resuscitator Śukra
Adam Swallower
Killer (and Loser) Vr̥ṣaparvan
Eve Female Devayānī
Khannās Victim Kaca

Table 1. The two sets of agents and the roles that connect them.

B. Events in space and time

Both stories focus on a household consisting of a senior male, a female and, from time to time or temporarily, the Victim. Let us call the group the ‘domestic triangle’.

senior male/Swallower Adam Śukra
female Eve Devayānī
younger male/Victim Khannās Kaca

Their dwelling is the location for the climactic act of consumption, and in the Persian other locations are only hinted at – the normal home of Iblīs and Khannās, and Iblīs’ destination when he leaves Khannās with Eve. Adam’s destinations when he leaves Eve are equally unclear. Finally, to dispose of the body, Adam goes to the tree or to the water. The Sanskrit is more precise. The story starts and finishes in heaven, ‘the realm of the thirty gods’ (72.1), and Śukra’s dwelling is in the kingdom of the demons, not far from Vṛṣaparvan’s palace (71.12a). In addition, the demons’ realm will include the uninhabited woods or forest where Kaca herds cattle, collects flowers, and encounters his killers. The Demons also visit the Ocean.

The timetable of events is governed by the comings and goings of males – neither female leaves her home. The Persian text does not mention every movement in every subepisode, leaving some to be inferred. But the pattern that emerges is as follows.

Adam leaves home. Iblīs arrives, converses with Eve, leaves Khannās, and departs. Adam returns, converses with Eve, kills and disperses Khannās, and again departs. Iblīs returns, converses with Eve, resuscitates Khannās, and departs with him. But in the third subepisode the last two events are missing: instead, Iblīs explains to Eve that he has achieved his goal. No doubt he himself now departs. In our version Iblīs the Winner and Adam the Loser are never co-present; they interact only via Eve.[6]

In the Sanskrit, Kaca’s cosmic journeys between heaven and the demons’ realm contrast with his displacements within the demons’ realm. Locally, he goes by himself to visit the woods, and the demons go there too to kill and disperse him, before going home. Twice his dismembered remains are brought back and synthesised by Śukra’s summons (the two steps are separated in ‘Aṭṭār 1976b). The third time the demons bring back the remains to Śukra and introduce them into the chaplain’s stomach (jaṭhara, udara 71.41) – before no doubt departing. Extracted from his teacher’s stomach, Kaca returns to normal life in Śukra’s household.

Neither text mentions the interval between the subepisodes. Though it is not explicit, one’s impression is that each Persian subepisode is limited to a single day, and the same duration is implied in the Sanskrit: it is in the evening of the first death that Devayānī tells her father of Kaca’s failure to return from the forest (71.27-28).


A. Taken one by one

Let us now move from synchronic comparison to diachronic considerations. The most economical method seems to me to hypothesise a protonarrative told in Indo-Iranian and transmitted orally in the western and eastern branches of that language taxon until it eventually reaches written form. In addition, I hypothesise that the Sanskrit, which reached written form about half a millennium before the Persian, is the more conservative; of course a story told in epic Sanskrit cannot be identical with the common ancestor told in the protolanguage some two millennia earlier, and if I sometimes speak as if it were, this is for brevity. The transformations linking the two stories could be expressed without the aid of historical hypotheses, but I doubt the advantages of that method.

Let us first consider the moral status of participants. In 1971 Dumézil entitled his analysis of Śukra “Entre les Dieux et les Démons: un Sorcier’, and the sorcerer is indeed ambiguous. On the one hand he is chaplain to the demons and rival to the chaplain of the gods, on the other he welcomes Kaca and teaches him patiently. We can schematise as follows:

SANSKRIT good ambivalent bad
authority figures gods, incl. Br̥haspati Śukra demons, incl. Vr̥ṣaparvan
their offspring B’s son Kaca Ś’s daughter (V’s daughter, irrelevant)
their homes heaven Ś’s home palace of demon king

However, within the Persian story Allah plays no role: he is mentioned only in the concluding reflection, which stands outside the sequence of events. Thus the Sanskrit triad of moral categories is replaced by a duality: the bad Iblīs plus son and the ambivalent Adam plus wife, now wholly humanised. But the seven roles falling under the good category in the Sanskrit have not dropped out of the Persian: like the other roles, they have been redistributed. Schematically (Table 2):

SANSKRIT good ambivalent bad
G+1 Winner; Father Resuscitator = Swallower Killer
G0 Victim Female
PERSIAN bad ambivalent
G+1 Winner = Father = Resuscitator Swallower = Killer; Female
G0 Victim

Table 2. Distribution of roles between moral categories. G+1 stands for parental generation, G0 for children’s generation.

The nature of the ambivalent category deserves a note. Both Śukra and Adam are ambivalent in that they stand between gods and demons, but Śukra has a dimension missing in Adam, which gives him a certain psychological complexity. Although Br̥haspati is his rival, Śukra is linked with him, and hence with his son, by a general brahmin solidarity, and also, it seems, by a more personal spiritual link, for Devayānī says that her father honours Br̥haspati’s father Aṅgiras (72.3). Adam has no such link with Iblīs or Khannās, who are simply his enemies.

Apart from the absence of the good category, several other changes can be noted. The roles of Winner and Father of Victim, which were formerly distinguished and fell under the good category, are now conflated under bad: Iblīs has taken over the roles of gods and Br̥haspati, conflating them. But he has also taken on a third role – that of Resuscitator, formerly filled by the ambivalent Śukra, who combined it with that of Swallower. This transformation can be viewed as a swap: two roles change places. Killer moves from bad devils to ambivalent Adam, while resuscitator moves from ambivalent Śukra to bad Iblīs. Similarly, like his Father the Winner, the Victim moves from good to bad, and more straightforwardly perhaps, Female moves from junior generation to senior, from Victim’s potential bride to his child-minder or quasi-mother. As for the action of Killers, it shifts location from forest to home of Swallower.

Despite the reshuffling, the roles survive as do two other familiar themes that are worth making explicit. To and fro journeys: those of Kaca (cosmic and local) and of the devils; of Adam and of Iblīs – with or without Khannās. Requests with answers: Kaca to Śukra initially and after his third death (male-male); Devayānī to her father, Iblīs to Eve (male-female). Half and half: Adam and Eve divide the stew in this way, and at his second death the ashes of Khannās are dispersed half into water, half into the wind. Perhaps compare the eating of Kaca by wolves and jackals at his first death, and the situation of his adventures exactly half way through his pupillage.

B. Transformations as interrelated

Could the comparison we are undertaking enable us to reconstruct a protonarrative and to sequence the various changes in both branches of the tradition? For the moment such an aim would be premature, but I shall try to go a little way towards explaining and linking the transformations listed in the last section.

One approach is to bring into the account the cultural history of India and Persia. As regards India, I do not try to relate the story to the culture of the Vedic period, but in Persia I presume that it had to traverse both the Zoroastrian ‘reform’ and Islamization. Such changes in the religious environment were surely more radical than whatever took place in India – another argument favouring the hypothesis of Sanskrit conservatism.

As has already been suggested, one of the deepest differences between the two stories may be ascribable to Zoroastrianism. We know that, somehow or other, within this movement the Indo-Iranian term for gods came to refer to demons; so it would not be surprising if, at the same time, a role originally associated with the gods was transferred to demons. In more concrete terms, the role of Winner, originally played by gods, would now transfer to the demon par excellence – whatever he was called; and Br̥haspati’s role as Father could have followed the same path. Once Winner and Father have fused in the demonic being, it makes sense that the same change in moral status should apply to the son.

The names and some of the attributes of Adam, Eve and Iblīs no doubt entered the story during the process of Islamization. Perhaps specialists in the history of Abrahamic religions could take this argument further, but my aim has simply been to look for features surviving in the Sanskrit that, if they were present in the protonarrative, could have enabled or facilitated the development of the Persian story.  An obvious problem is the swap-over between the roles of Killer and Resuscitator: the demonic Killers of Kaca become the demonic Resuscitator of Khannās, while the ambivalent Resuscitator Śukra becomes the ambivalent Killer Adam. In thinking about this we can draw on a detail about Śukra that has not been mentioned so far. After the swallowing, when Śukra announces his plan, he says ‘I shall bear thee as a son (putra 71.48a).’ He is alluding to the fact that Kaca will emerge from his abdomen, an idea that is taken up by Kaca himself when he tries to justify his refusal of Devayānī’s proposal: he claims that she is his sister in the sense that she too has physically emerged from Śukra (72.13-14). If the resuscitated Kaca is viewed as a new-born son of Śukra, then in both stories the Swallowers consume a child.

The other half of the swap-over also needs consideration: how could a life-giving Resuscitator like Śukra become the persistent Killer Adam? The negative side of the ambivalent Śukra (employee of demons, rival of the gods’ chaplain) may play a part, but so too does the reduction of moral categories from three to two. If there are only two categories and resuscitation is taken over by the demon, the role of Killer can only be allocated to the sole remaining category. Moreover, raising the dead is a supernatural power such as would hardly be appropriate to the human Adam.

The change from Resuscitator to Killer is accompanied by the change from involuntary to voluntary consumption, but the contrast must not be exaggerated. Both Swallowers are taken in by the Winner’s guile. Śukra does not know what is in his drink, but in a sense Adam is equally ignorant. He does not know that his meal will effect exactly what his enemy wants.

The generational shift of the Female clearly relates to other stories about Adam and Eve as a couple, but could have been facilitated by the earlier absence of any senior generation female. Neither Śukra’s wife nor Devayānī’s mother is mentioned, so assuming that the Sanskrit is conservative here too, it is as if the successor to the proto-Devayānī moves into a vacant slot. Whenever and however it happened, this transformation of the Female changes the configuration of the domestic triangle. In the junior generation the romantic quasi-flirtation is lost, and the age of the Victim can be reduced so that he is young enough to need a child-minder.

Furthermore the affective relations within the triangle take on a negative tone. Devayānī’s love of Kaca becomes Eve’s reluctance to accept Khannās; Śukra’s approval of his pupil becomes Adam’s hostility to the child intruder; and the mutual love of Śukra and Devayānī gives way to reproaches, beatings and fear (‘Adam will destroy me’). More generally, a story in which any misogyny is well concealed becomes one where it is overt: the Female is now blamed for succumbing to the blandishments of the Devil and thereby condemning humanity to interiorise evil.

So far we have been trying to interlink the transformations of particular roles, but the whole process takes place within a context of shrinkage. For a proto-story resembling the Sanskrit to change into the Persian it would have to shrink in many ways. Most of these have already been noted and can simply be listed. We have noted decreases in the number of moral categories and roles; and the three resuscitations fall to two. As regards space, the focus shifts to the Swallower’s home and away from the locations where the first two corpses were dispersed. Reductions also occur in the time scale[7] and in the length, detail and psychological complexity of the whole story. The final scene of the Sanskrit, namely the exchange of curses between Kaca and Devayānī, is totally lost, as is Śukra’s prohibition on alcohol – not to mention the wider narrative context (ancestry of the Pāṇḍavas, etc.). What was once (hypothetically!) part of a substantial versified epic has shrunk to the dimensions of an anecdote, and has lost the cultural prestige and centrality that surely belonged to the proto-epic.

Wider picture

This paper has been an exercise in comparative method, and may be of some interest to those who theorise about comparing narratives. But whatever is made of the comparison presented here, each story, taken by itself, deals with themes of comparative interest and, however superficially, it seems worth selecting a few of them (Dange 1969 emphasises initiation). Let us consider how the Sanskrit relates to father-son relationships and, more precisely, to ‘reversible parenthood’. We have seen that, in a sense, Śukra becomes the father of Kaca, but equally, by resuscitating his dead teacher, Kaca in a sense becomes Śukra’s father. Though Kaca’s paternity is not made explicit, the reciprocity in the relationship is clear.[8] Compare the classic instance of reversible parenthood in the Puruṣasūkta, where Virāj is born from Puruṣa and Puruṣa from Virāj (RV 10.90.5); but the motif also appears in Roman material (see De Martino 2015 on Jupiter and Fortuna).

Khannas’ story points in a different direction. The evil component of human nature is ascribed to Eve’s failure to resist Iblīs, much as the Fall of Man is ascribed in Genesis to Eve’s failure to resist the serpent (both stories involve trees and consumption). But a comparison that may be less obvious is an Orphic myth (e.g. Burkert 1985: 297-8). Dionysus, god of wine, is the son of Persephone and Zeus, who makes him king of the world. Sent by the jealous Hera, Titans kill, dismember, cook, and eat the child. Zeus responds by incinerating the Titans with his thunderbolt, and men spring from the rising soot. So in this anthropogony humanity derives in part from the more or less demonic Titans. The fullest sources are late, but allusions to the myth probably appear earlier – it may have been deliberately kept secret as relating to the Mysteries. Perhaps it is more than coincidence that the Khannās story is so marginal within Islamic tradition.[9]


‘Aṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn 1383. Tadkiratu ‘l-‘awliyā’, ed. M. Isti’lami. Tehran: Intišārāt-i Zavvār.

––- 1976a. Le Mémorial des Saints, tr. (via Uigur) A. Pavet de Courteille (orig. 1889). Paris: Seuil.

––- 1976b. Ilāhī nāma, or, Book of God of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār, tr. John Andrew Boyle. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

––- 1990. Muslim saints and mystics: episodes from the Tadhkirat al-auliya’ (“Memorial of the saints”), tr. J. A. Arberry. London: Arkana.

Awliya, Nizam ad-Din 1992. Fawa’id al fu’ad: Morals for the heart, tr. Bruce R. Lawrence. Mahwa, NJ: Paulist.

Burkert, Walter 1985. Greek religion: archaic and classical, tr. John Raffan. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Dange, Sadashiv Ambadas 1969. ‘The legend of Kaca (a study in motif)’, pp. 175-237 in Legends in the Mahābhārata with (a brief survey of folk-tales). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

De Martino, Marcello 2015. ARCANA VERBA, Fortuna e Jupiter nel loro background indoeuropeo: II, Il “motivo della Sorte esteso”. Bari: Edipuglia.

Dumézil, Georges 1971. Mythe et épopée, II. Paris: Gallimard; tr. of relevant section (1986): The plight of a sorcerer, ed. Jaan Puhvel & David Weeks. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ganguli, K.M. (tr.) 1993. The Mahābhārata of Krishna-Dwaipāyana Vyāsa, vols. 1-4 Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Miller, Dean A. ‘Threefold death’, pp. 577-8 in J. P. Mallory & D. Q. Adams (eds) Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture. London, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Neale, Harry 2007. Iblīs and the threefold death motif in a medieval Persian hagiography. Journal of Indo-European studies 35 (3-4): 275-284.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger 1975. Hindu myths: a sourcebook translated from the Sanskrit. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Skjærvø, Prods Oktor 2011. ‘Zoroastrian dualism’, pp. 55-91 in Armin Lange, E. M. Meyers et al (eds) Light against darkness: dualism in Ancient Mediterranean religion and the contemporary world. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

van Buitenen, J.A.B. (tr., ed.) 1973. The Mahābhārata I: the Book of the Beginning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] As translated by Neale 2007: 276-7 (punctuation retouched, footnotes omitted) – from ‘Aṭṭār 1383. I have consulted other translations of the same text (‘Aṭṭār 1990: 248-9 and, via Uigur, ‘Aṭṭār 1976a: 283-5), and translations of some very similar texts (‘Aṭṭār 1976b: 123-4, Awliya 1992: 164-5). All attribute the story to Tirmidī.

[2] According to ‘Aṭṭār 1990 and 1976b it is Iblis who swears oaths, in order to persuade Eve.

[3] Critical Edition (CE) 1.71.3-73.1. For translations of CE see van Buitenen 1973: 175-181; of Vulgate Ganguli 1993: 1.166-172; also Dange 1969: 157-162, and O’Flaherty 1975: 281-289. The story is presented with characteristic verve by Dumézil 1971: 160-166 (trans. 1986: 27-34). Since my references normally refer to CE book 1, citations usually omit this fact.

[4] Śukra is also called Uśanas Kāvya, but I here ignore the copious literature surrounding that name.

[5] CE main text omits this second death, but here I follow the Vulgate (CE footnote passages 699*-701*).

[6] Adam is away and Khannās answers Iblīs’ summons from the breast of Eve (‘Aṭṭār 1976b); but Awliya has Khannas’ answer coming from the heart of Adam.

[7] According to Manu (1.67), ‘For the gods a year is a day and a night.’ Should we infer that for Kaca, son of a god, his thousand-year pupillage actually lasts a thousand days?

[8] Śukra says: putro bhūtvā bhāvito bhāvaya mām (71.48ab): ‘Having become my son, having been given life, give life to me’ (causative of bhū- ‘be, come into being’).

[9] I would like to thank Arezou Azad and my colleague Yuhan Vevaina, for helpful criticism of drafts.