What the mythical figure of Şahmeran in Turkey represents and why activists use it

Christiane Gruber
Posted 3/1/21

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(THE CONVERSATION) At the center of over civil liberties and religious sensibilities in …

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What the mythical figure of Şahmeran in Turkey represents and why activists use it


Eds: This story was supplied by for AP customers. The Associated Press does not guarantee the content.


(THE CONVERSATION) At the center of over civil liberties and religious sensibilities in Turkey looms a half-woman, half-snake figure known as Şahmeran.

The mythical creature in a pro-LGBTQ poster on display at a recent exhibit at the prestigious Bosphorus University in Istanbul. Her image was superimposed over the – a sacred black cuboid structure in Mecca that Muslims the world over face when praying.

Although the artist remained anonymous, several university and charged with insulting Islam in relation to the poster, which also included gender-identity flags. Accompanying the poster was a manifesto that called for respecting the rights of women, members of the LGBTQ community and nature itself.

As a scholar specializing in , I was drawn by the appearance of Şahmeran’s image in these protests. Its use by young college students in Turkey who identify as LGBTQ suggest that they see this mythical creature as embodying their own identity.

The figure of Şahmeran, meaning “Ruler of Snakes,” goes back to pre-Islamic times. Depicted with the face of a beautiful woman wearing a crown in the upper half of her body and the form of a serpent from the waist down, she is at the heart of .

Although details vary, many legends tell the story of a young man named Jamasp, or Jamisav, who falls in love with the beautiful Şahmeran. Forced by a king’s evil adviser, who is also a magician, Jamasp is compelled to reveal the hideout of this mythic creature.

But tortured at seeing Şahmeran being killed, he ingests her toxic flesh to kill himself. Instead, Şahmeran transmits her wisdom to him, while her venom kills the king’s adviser. The tale’s ending thus suggests for a breach of trust.

Recited by storytellers in both the and languages, these tales convey Şahmeran’s ability to cure illness, provide long life and impart wisdom.

Her legends are especially popular in the eastern Anatolia region of Turkey and among Kurds, an ethnic minority comprising in Turkey. In the southeastern Turkish city of Mardin, where there is a diverse population comprising Kurds and Arabs, there are workshops where artists specifically produce images of Şahmeran. These images, as I noticed during my visit to the city a few years ago, appear on wooden panels, metal platters and mirrors.

Some people hang paintings of Şahmeran on their walls to protect their homes or wear the image on ornaments for good fortune. Such images are also popular as amulets, much like the five-digit hand, also known as the , and blue glass beads or believed by some individuals to avert the evil eye.

In more recent years, mythical figures such as Şahmeran and others have been used by activists in the Middle East to raise their voices on several issues.

For example, in 2016 Şahmeran was depicted by Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish journalist and artist, as a double image, each with two heads, to symbolize the redoubled strength of today’s Kurdish women. She painted Şahmeran while being held in prison for another painting critical of the . Through her painting of Şahmeran, she also invokes Kurdish identity with its red, green and yellow pigments that .

Another mythical figure – that of , the prophet Muhammad’s flying, human-headed steed – has also been used to bring attention to LGBTQ issues.

Islamic tales describe as the “steed of prophets” upon which Muhammad rode during his celestial ascension to the heavens. that this heavenly ascent saw Muhammad rise through the skies, encounter angels and prophets, speak with God and visit heaven and hell in one night.

They also tend to stress al-Buraq’s composite nature, which at times is said to include an elephant’s ears, a horse’s rump, a mule’s feet, a bull’s tail, and peacock feathers.

Appearing at the intersection between human and animal as “nonbinary” creatures, such mythical figures are not bound to distinct categories. As a result, members of trans communities in Turkey and elsewhere have embraced al-Buraq and Şahmeran to express their own .

Beyond Turkey, Lebanese artist Chaza Charafeddine also of cross-dressers and transgender individuals on premodern painted images of al-Buraq to call attention to those who face discrimination and violence in predominantly Muslim countries and the world at large.

The Şahmeran poster that landed several university students under house arrest brings together many tense religious, cultural and political issues in Turkey today. Among other issues, the image of this hybrid figure was used to highlight a lack of freedom for women and discrimination against those who embrace diverse gender identities.

The anonymous artist used a , as the backdrop. Superimposed on it was the figure of Şahmeran and a wreath of leaves. As a result, to an observer, Islam’s key architectural symbol of worship appeared to be replaced with a tribute to a female, a snake and nature.

On the one hand, these visual motifs, as the manifesto clearly stated, were intended to send a powerful message against faith-based misogyny, physical violence, animal abuse and ecological collapse; on the other, the Turkish government sees this pictorial manipulation as an “” on Islamic religious values and hence a “crime” requiring punishment.

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For their part, scholars all over the world have , which they see as a serious infringement of academic autonomy and freedom of expression.

As I see it, the age-old figure of Şahmeran has made a strong comeback in the Turkish public sphere, acting as a perilous testing ground, especially for members of the LGBTQ and Kurdish communities.

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