Among the many stories told in the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, is that of Haftvad. Haftvad had seven sons, as his name indicates, and lived in a poor but hard-working town on the Persian Gulf during the reign of Shah Ardashir.
It came to pass that Haftvad’s daughter, who was busy spinning cotton, interrupted her work to eat an apple. Inside her apple there was a worm. Instead of tossing it aside in disgust, she saw it as a good omen, and put it in her spindlecase. “Thanks to this lucky worm”, she told her friends, “you will be amazed at what I’ll do”. The other girls laughed, but by the evening she had spun twice as much as she usually did.
Thus Haftvad’s daughter went on spinning, and every day she fed the worm a piece of apple, and the cotton practically spun itself into fine thread. Her industriousness did not go unnoticed by her parents, and she willingly showed them her secret. Haftvad decided to abandon all his work to care for the wondrous worm. He fed it nourishing food, and the worm grew larger and larger, outgrowing the spindlecase. Its skin was like black musk with a saffron-colored pattern on it, and Haftvad put it in a black chest.
The worm brought fortune to Haftvad and the whole town. Eventually a nobleman complained about Haftvad’s success, but Haftvad recruited an army from among his followers, took control of the town, and killed the nobleman.
By then Haftvad’s power had grown – and so had the worm. Now too big for the chest, it was relocated to Haftvad’s mountain fortress, where a specially-built stone cistern accommodated it. There it was fed on rice, milk, and honey by Haftvad’s daughter till it grew as large as an elephant.
Haftvad was unstoppable. Backed by armies, a fortune, and the good luck that the worm brought, no power on earth could stand up to him. His renown finally reached Shah Ardashir, who sent two armies to destroy Haftvad – but the power of the worm could not be undone, causing the defeat of the first army and the demoralization of the second.
It was then that Ardashir was informed of the worm’s true nature. It was no ordinary worm, but a devil in disguise, a creation – perhaps even an incarnation – of Ahriman. Only its death would allow the defeat of Haftvad.
Armed with this knowledge, Ardashir and a hand-picked group of men infiltrated the fortress disguised as merchants. They brought with them gold, jewels, wine, two chests of lead, and a bronze cauldron. “I have prospered thanks to the worm”, announced Ardashir to the guardians of the fortress, “and have come to pay homage to it”. As a further sign of good faith, he offered wine to all those that the worm commanded – and soon, the keepers were drunk.
That was when Ardashir made his move. The lead was melted in the cauldron and brought over to the worm’s cistern. The worm raised it head, opened its mouth, and stuck out its red tongue in anticipation of its meal, only to have boiling lead poured down its throat. Its death throes shook the very foundations of the fortress.
The death of the worm brought an end to Haftvad’s fortunes. His fortress was rapidly captured, and he and his eldest son were gibbeted and riddled with arrows.
Ferdowsi, A.; Davis, D. trans. (2006) Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Viking, New York.
Welch, S. C. (1976) A King’s Book of Kings: The Shah-Nameh of Shah Tahmasp. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.