A larger image of Rings and Dragons Cycle, The Two Kings Feasting. Sogdian mural from Panjakent.
Photo by Robert Wilson
A larger image of the right of the mural.
Image source: blog.goo.ne.jp
However, among the epic cycles in the Pendjikent murals there are at least two with illustrations to original heroic tales. One of the original cycles had been already revealed in the reception hall (Room 1/Sector VI) in 1951-3, when Stavisky excavated the house (Fig. 4). The house was built in the seventh century, though the paintings are slightly later (c. AD 700-22]. The background is black, but originally it could have been bluish-grey (see above p. 109. Room 50/Sector XXIII). There is no border between the two registers, but no figure crosses their invisible boundary. It is possible that both registers illustrated the single epic that appears in Room 50/Sector XXIII. The hall is the only room with murals in this house. The cult scene with Nanaya on her recumbent lion between two caryatids supporting the arch was placed opposite the door. One of these caryatids is the famous Pendjikent harpist. The other is not preserved.
The sequence of events is from right to left (Figs. 97-102, Pl. 16). The main theme is a battle between two peoples. We do not know their names, but it is necessary to give them names in order to make the description easier. The painter used special indications for each of them. The pommels of all the swords and daggers in one army are ring-shaped, but the second army has them in the form of a dragon’s head. The warriors of the army with the ring-shaped pommels have armour with wavy edges to the lamellć, but their adversaries have rectangular lamellć. In this text we will refer to the first set of warriors as ‘Rings’, and their foes as ‘Dragons’.
The narrative begins near the door. In the first episode the king of the ‘Rings’ holds his court (Fig. 98). A kneeling warrior before the king has come from the battle-field. His forefinger points backwards to where a camel stands. The camel turns its head back(?). The main part of the figure of the camel is gone, but it seems that its burden was terrible because the king drops a bowl in alarm. (Not all details are correctly done in the published drawings because these were derived from photographs of water-colour copies and not from the murals themselves.) The divine protector of this king is represented by a pheasant with fluttering ribbons.
The second episode is set in the country of the other army (Figs. 97-8, Pl. 16). The camp of the ‘Dragons’ is shown on the western wall near the north-west corner. The king of the ‘Dragons’ sits on a camp-stool. His divine protector is symbolized by a flying white winged bull, also with fluttering ribbons. Originally, there must have been a man standing in front of the king, speaking to him. Only the man’s hand is preserved. This figure must have been the hero of the ‘Dragons’ (their prince?). It must also be his brother (or foster brother) who is depicted in the duel scene on the southern wall.
The battle scenes occupied almost the whole of the western wall. They would have included the advance of the army, the battle of the two armies, and the first stages of the duel between the young hero of the ‘Dragons’ and the king of the ‘Rings’. Both kings are mature men with bearded faces. On this wall the duel was shown in two or more episodes: the first on horseback and the second on foot. Of this elongated composition, only a leg in armour and a quiver of the king of the ‘Rings’ fighting on foot are visible, and a scene of the cavalry battle is preserved (Fig. 99). The culmination of the battle is shown round the corner on the southern wall (Fig. 100). Two heroes of the ‘Dragons’ (two brothers?) and their adversary are shown on foot. Only one of them is fighting against the king of the ‘Rings’ with his royal winged diadem bound around his helmet. Two axes are broken and have been thrown away. The scabbards are empty because the swords have also been broken in the previous phase of the duel. It is time to wrestle but the hero of the ‘Dragons’ is fighting with along cavalry lance, while the king of the ‘Rings’ is shooting with his bow and arrows. Both of them use weapons for the very beginning of the regular heroic single combat. An arrow enters deeply into the breast of the ‘Dragons’’ hero and kills him.
This particular moment is very important for the correct interpretation of the heroic tale illustrated by the painter. The same moment from the same duel is shown on the silver dish found in the Northern Urals on the early medieval ‘Fur Road’. This dish, now in the Hermitage, was made by a seventh-century Sogdian silversmith. On the dish, not only their swords and battle-axes, but also their maces are broken, which indicates that the present skirmish is the fourth. At this point, the question is: why is it not the wrestling match? The heroes on the plate are equal and identical in age and attributes. If the duel between two almost equal rivals is fair and all kinds of weapons are tried, the wrestling match is finally the only way to win, whereas the silversmith has depicted the lance against the bow, which are both used in the beginning of a single combat. Three arrows are shown, and the third must be fatal because in the mural an arrow has penetrated the breast of one of the rivals so deeply that only its feathers are still visible. The sacred number three is always very important in the epic traditions of Iran and Central Asia.
However, why is this arrow fatal if the warrior has been invulnerable for so long while fighting with all kinds of other weapon? The only answer is that the archer has had the support of a supernatural power. In the most developed epic traditions the hero usually must win without such help, but he has to ask for it when he cannot otherwise win, because to win is his most important duty. This a truly tragic collision between two imperatives of the heroic ethos: to win and to win honestly.
In several epics. such as the Mahabharata or the Rustam and Isfandiyar tale in the Shahnameh, the heroes choose victory, but their conscience suffers and finally the highest justice punishes them. It is not my aim to argue that the Sogdians were influenced by these Iranian and Indian texts. The similarity of the situations can also he explained within the framework of the logical possibilities of the development of the concept of heroism. The choice made by one of two heroes enables the epic poet to show the honourable death of the other because otherwise the most powerful character, the hero, cannot be killed. However, the heroic life is incomplete without a heroic death. Thus, the analysis of the murals demonstrates that the unknown Sogdian epic poet penetrated deeply into the tragedy of the heroic ethos.
In the next episode, the king of the ‘Rings’ and his army come to the city of the ‘Dragons’ (Fig. 101). A white bull runs from the city gate. It is similar to the bull by the king of the ‘Dragons’ in the second episode. This event could mean that the farn of the ‘Dragons’ has left the conquered city. The cult scene is placed between the last two episodes. It masks a gap in the sequence of events.
The following event takes place in the camp of the ‘Dragons’. Their standing warriors meet a kneeling messenger whose sword is attached to his belt.
The last scene of the register is the battle between the ‘Dragons’ and the ‘Rings’ (Fig. 102). Above the attacking cavalry of the ‘Dragons’ is a boy dressed in rich garments seated in a chariot. He may be the hero’s son who participates in the revenge for his father killed by the king of the ‘Rings’, perhaps in his turn taking revenge for his own son whose body could be the burden of the camel in the first episode. This assumption helps to explain why the king fights against an adversary of a lower status.
There is no dénouernent in the lower register; and the narration probably continued within the upper one, only fragments of which are preserved. Among them there are the figures of dying warriors and the lower part of the scene of the king’s reception. The hands of a man who has been hanged head down are visible there. This scene is situated in the middle of the upper register and, therefore, it is not the final episode.
This long epic narration has no direct literary analogues. However, the murals reveal its important characteristics: a fully developed conception of the tragic aspect of heroism, and the epic objectivity of the painter who followed the poet. It seems that in this chain of revenge. the heroes of both the ‘Dragons’ and the ‘Rings’ were equally (or almost equally) interesting to the author.
Source: Legends Tales & Fables In The Art Of Sogdiana by Boris Marshak, 1995.