For the July window display of the Swap Market, I interpreted through drawing an influential female Mesopotamian folk creature, Shahmaran, who is half woman and half snake, and believed to bear the power to cure through her knowledge of herbal medicine and wisdom. I have chosen this figure particularly for its optimistic significations as ‘the cure’, at such uncertain times, in which we were hit not only by Covid19’s physiological consequences , but also the loss of well-being through extensive gender and racial discrimination as a result of the ‘politics’ of this pandemic. I wish Shahmaran ‘the medicine woman’ may become the symbol for cure and wellbeing to the communities in Govanhill, during her time on Swap Market’s window.
Although Shahmaran’s healing powers are not in question in any variations of the story, the widely accepted narrative itself has problematic, underlying male dominant connotations. Different variations of her story feature in Farsi, Turkish, Iraqi, and Kurdish folklore, yet all these narratives eventually yield to the ratification of the male character’s upper-hand status, which he gains through betraying Shahmaran.
However imposing she sounds – as the medicine goddess who has the power to cure, to kill and to transcend; Shahmaran, in the narrative’s classical form, is depicted as the “other” which positions man against woman, human against beast, culture against the forces of nature, and the “above ground” forces of male dominance against the female forces of the subterranean.
According to the traditional narrative, the queen of Marans, Shahmaran, comes across Camasb, a young man who was looking for the greatest quality of honey, deep down in a cave. Camasb falls in love and decides to stay there with Shahmaran, and learns the secrets of herbal medicine from her, while gaining her trust. Camasb then misses living above ground and wants to leave; he promises Shahmaran that he will not share the secret of her living there.
After years, the Sultan becomes ill and the vizier discovers that the treatment of his illness requires the flesh of Shahmaran. Camasb betrays Shahmaran, and informs the palace about where she lives. The forgiving Shahmaran wants to help Camasb, and ‘victimises’ herself by telling him to boil her body, give her extract to the vizier, and feed her flesh to the Sultan. In other variations of the story Shahmaran is dissected into pieces, and each dissected part has different powers: curing, killing and wisdom. The two-part split representation of my Shahmaran takes its inspiration from this version of the narrative. Eventually, Shahmaran gets killed; the Sultan eats her flesh and lives, the vizier drinks the extract and dies. Finally, Camasb ‘ingests’ the water of Shahmaran and unfairly becomes the legendary medicine man “Lokman Hekim”, by seizing Shahmaran’s wisdom, and her curing magic. In a way, he embodies Shahmaran’s powers within his male human body.
On the other hand, despite the unjustifiable victory of the male figure in the story, Shahmaran, whose flesh has been ingested by men to seize her wisdom, today has become omnipresent through the countless reproductions of her image. For centuries, Shahmaran pictures have decorated walls of houses in the Anatolian region of Turkey; crafted through a traditional folk glass painting technique called ‘camalti’. These pictures of Shahmaran are believed to bring wealth and health to the household, which means she still holds the power of knowledge through the reproduction of her image; through expansion. Therefore, the male dominant narrative of this folk story has been deconstructed by another folk ritual which attributes a feminist reading to the story. In contemporary Turkey, women wear this image on their t-shirts, carry on their handbags, and on their necks as necklaces. In this way Shahmaran is embodied in many Anatolian women. As an artist originating from Turkey, I keep my very own Shahmaran representation on our wall as a good luck charm for our household.
For my window display, I referred to the traditional ‘camalti’ painting technique and drew Shahmaran split between both windows, in order to broaden her imagery to reach a wider audience. Her image is accompanied by a short but empowering version of the story in poetry form that I have written, and this is integrated into the image, ascribed to the flow of Shahmaran’s lines. This text appears in four languages spoken in Mesopotamia; Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi and Arabic as well as the English version ascribed on the opposite window.
The poem is as follows:
Shahmaran was her name, she was the queen of snakes.
She was the cure, the death, and the wisdom.
She was many, and her flesh was power.
Man betrayed her, but she became omnipresent.
Şahmaran’dı adı, yılanların şahıydı.
êr pê re xayîn derket lê ew li ser xwe ma û li her derê