National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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Public Domain Books

The Story of the Shah-Nameh

Kaiumers was the first King of Persia, and against him Ahriman, the evil, through jealousy of his greatness, sent forth a mighty Deev to conquer him. By this Deev, Saiamuk, the son of Kaiumers, was slain, and the king himself died of grief at the loss of his son.

Husheng, his grandson, who succeeded Kaiumers, was a great and wise king, who gave fire to his people, taught them irrigation, instructed them how to till and sow, and gave names to the beasts. His son and successor, Tahumers, taught his people the arts of spinning, weaving, and writing, and when he died left his throne to his son Jemschid.

Jemschid was a mighty monarch, who divided men into classes, and the years into periods, and builded mighty walls and cities; but his heart grew proud at the thought of his power, and he was driven away from his land by his people, who called Zohak to the throne of Iran.

Zohak, who came from the deserts of Arabia, was a good and wise young man who had fallen into the power of a Deev. This Deev, in the guise of a skillful servant, asked permission one day to kiss his monarch between the shoulders, as a reward for an unusually fine bit of cookery. From the spot he kissed sprang two black serpents, whose only nourishment was the brains of the king’s subjects.

The serpent king, as Zohak was now called, was much feared by his subjects, who saw their numbers daily lessen by the demands of the serpents. But when the children of the blacksmith Kawah were demanded as food for the serpents, the blacksmith defied Zohak, and raising his leathern apron as a standard,–a banner ever since honored in Persia,–he called the people to him, and set off in search of Feridoun, an heir of Jemschid. Under the young leader the oppressed people defeated the tyrant, and placed Feridoun on the throne.

Feridoun had three sons, Irij, Tur, and Silim. Having tested their bravery, he divided the kingdom among them, giving to Irij the kingdom of Iran. Although the other brothers had received equal shares of the kingdom, they were enraged because Iran was not their portion, and when their complaints to their father were not heeded, they slew their brother. Irij left a son, a babe named Minuchihr, who was reared carefully by Feridoun. In time he avenged his father, by defeating the armies of his uncles and slaying them both. Soon after this, Feridoun died, intrusting his grandson to Saum, his favorite pehliva, or vassal, who ruled over Seistan.

Saum was a childless monarch, and when at last a son was born to him he was very happy until he learned that while the child was perfect in every other way, it had the silver hair of an old man. Fearing the talk of his enemies, Saum exposed the child on a mountain top to die. There it was found by the Simurgh, a remarkable animal, part bird, part human, that, touched by the cries of the helpless infant, carried him to her great nest of aloes and sandal-wood, and reared him with her little ones.

Saum, who had lived to regret his foolish and wicked act, was told in a dream that his son still lived, and was being cared for by the Simurgh. He accordingly sought the nest, and carried his son away with great thanksgiving. The Simurgh parted tenderly with the little Zal, and presented him with a feather from her wing, telling him that whenever he was in danger, he had only to throw it on the fire and she would instantly come to his aid.

Saum first presented his son at the court of Minuchihr, and then took him home to Zaboulistan, where he was carefully instructed in every art and science.

At one time, while his father was invading a neighboring province, Zal travelled over the kingdom and stopped at the court of Mihrab, a tributary of Saum, who ruled at Kabul. Though a descendant of the serpent king, Mihrab was good, just, and wise, and he received the young warrior with hospitality. Zal had not been long in Kabul before he heard of the beauties of Rudabeh, the daughter of Mihrab, and she, in turn, of the great exploits of Zal. By an artifice of the princess they met and vowed to love one another forever, though they knew their love would meet with opposition. Saum and Zal both pleaded Zal’s cause before Minuchihr, who relented when he heard from the astrologers that a good and mighty warrior would come of the union. Rudabeh’s mother won the consent of Mihrab, so that the young people were soon married with great pomp. To them a son was born named Rustem, who, when one day old, was as large as a year-old child. When three years old he could ride a horse, and at eight years was as powerful as any hero of the time.

Nauder succeeded the good Minuchihr, and under him Persia was defeated by the Turanians, and Afrasiyab occupied the Persian throne. But Zal, whose father, Saum, had died, overthrew him and placed Zew upon the throne. Zew’s reign was short, and Garshasp, his son, succeeded him. When he was threatened by the Turanians, his people went for aid to Zal, who, because he was growing old, referred them to Rustem, yet of tender age. Rustem responded gladly, and his father commanded that all the horses from Zaboulistan to Kabul be brought forth that his son might select a steed therefrom. Every horse bent beneath his grasp until he came to the colt Rakush, which responded to Rustem’s voice, and suffered him to mount it. From that day to his death, this steed was his faithful companion and preserver.

Garshasp was too weak to rule over the kingdom, and Zal despatched Rustem to Mt. Alberz, where he had been told in a dream a youth dwelt called Kai-Kobad, descended from Feridoun. Kai-Kobad welcomed Rustem, and the two, with the noblest of the kingdom, defeated the power of Turan.

After a reign of a hundred years, the wise Kai-Kobad died, and was succeeded by his son, the foolish Kai-Kaus, who, not satisfied with the wealth and extent of his kingdom, determined to conquer the kingdom of Mazinderan, ruled by the Deevs. Zal’s remonstrances were of no avail: the headstrong Kai-Kaus marched into Mazinderan, and, together with his whole army, was conquered, imprisoned, and blinded by the power of the White Deev.

When the news of the monarch’s misfortune came to Iran, Rustem immediately saddled Rakush, and, choosing the shortest and most peril-beset route, set forth, unaccompanied, for Mazinderan. If he survived the dangers that lurked by the way, he would reach Mazinderan in seven days.

While sleeping in a forest, after his first day’s journey, he was saved from a fierce lion by Rakush, who stood at his head.

On the second day, just as he believed himself perishing of thirst, he was saved by a sheep that he followed to a fountain of water; on the third night, Rakush, whom he had angrily forbidden to attack any animal without waking him, twice warned him of the approach of a dragon. The first time the dragon disappeared when Rustem awoke, and he spoke severely to his faithful horse. The second time he slew the dragon, and morning having dawned, proceeded through a desert, where he was offered food and wine by a sorceress. Not recognizing her, and grateful for the food, he offered her a cup of wine in the name of God, and she was immediately converted into a black fiend, whom he slew.

He was next opposed by Aulad, whom he defeated, and promised to make ruler of Mazinderan if he would guide him to the caves of the White Deev. A stony desert and a wide stream lay between him and the demon; but the undaunted Rustem passed over them, and choosing the middle of the day, at which time Aulad told him the Deevs slept, he slew the guards, entered the cavern, and after a terrible struggle, overcame and slew the great Deev.

He then released Kai-Kaus and his army, and restored their sight by touching their eyes with the blood from the Deev’s heart.

Kai-Kaus, not satisfied with this adventure, committed many other follies, from which it taxed his warrior sorely to rescue him.

Once he was imprisoned by the King of Hamaveran after he had espoused his daughter; again he followed the advice of a wicked Deev, and tried to search the heavens in a flying-machine, that descended and left him in a desert waste. It was only after this last humiliation that he humbled himself, lay in the dust many days, and at last became worthy of the throne of his fathers.

At one time Rustem was hunting near the borders of Turan, and, falling asleep, left Rakush to graze in the forest, where he was espied by the men of Turan and at once captured. When Rustem awoke he followed his steed by the traces of its hoofs, until he came to the city of Samengan. The king received him kindly, and promised to restore the horse if it could be found. While his messengers went in search of it, he feasted his guest, and led him for the night to a perfumed couch.

In the middle of the night Rustem awoke, to see a beautiful young woman enter the room, accompanied by a maid. She proved to be the princess, who had fallen in love with Rustem. She pleaded with him to return her love, promising, if he did so, to restore his cherished horse. Rustem longed for his steed; moreover, the maiden was irresistibly beautiful. He accordingly yielded to her proposals, and the two were wedded the next day, the king having given his consent.

After tarrying some time in Samengan, Rustem was forced to return to Iran. Bidding his bride an affectionate farewell, he presented her with a bracelet.

“If thou art given a daughter, place this amulet in her hair to guard her from harm. If a son, bind it on his arm, that he may possess the valor of Nariman.”

In the course of time, the princess bore a boy, who was like his father in beauty and boldness, whom she christened Sohrab. But for fear that she would be deprived of him, she wrote to Rustem that a daughter had been born to her. To her son she declared the secret of his birth, and urged him to be like his father in all things; but she warned him not to disclose the secret, for she feared that if it came to the ears of Afrasiyab, he would destroy him because of his hatred of Rustem.

Sohrab, who had already cherished dreams of conquest, was elated at the knowledge of his parentage. “Mother,” exclaimed he, “I shall gather an army of Turks, conquer Iran, dethrone Kai-Kaus, and place my father on the throne; then both of us will conquer Afrasiyab, and I will mount the throne of Turan.”

The mother, pleased with her son’s valor, gave him for a horse a foal sprung from Rakush, and fondly watched his preparations for war.

The wicked Afrasiyab well knew that Sohrab was the son of Rustem. He was also aware that it was very dangerous to have two such mighty warriors alive, since if they became known to each other, they would form an alliance. He planned, therefore, to aid Sohrab in the war, keeping him in ignorance of his father, and to manage in some way to have the two meet in battle, that one or both might be slain.

The armies met and the great battle began. Sohrab asked to have Rustem pointed out to him, but the soldiers on his side were all instructed to keep him in ignorance. By some strange mischance the two men whom his mother had sent to enlighten him, were both slain. Rustem was moved at the sight of the brave young warrior, but remembering that Tahmineh’s offspring was a daughter, thought nothing more of the thrill he felt at sight of him. At last Sohrab and Rustem met in single combat. Sohrab was moved with tenderness for his unknown opponent, and besought him to tell him if he was Rustem, but Rustem declared that he was only a servant of that chief. For three days they fought bitterly, and on the fourth day Rustem overthrew his son. When Sohrab felt that the end had come he threatened his unknown opponent. “Whoever thou art, know that I came not out for empty glory but to find my father, and that though I have found him not, when he hears that thou hast slain his son he will search thee out and avenge me, no matter where thou hidest thyself. For my father is the great Rustem.”

Rustem fell down in agony when he heard his son’s words, and realized that his guile had prevented him from being made known the day before. He examined the onyx bracelet on Sohrab’s arm; it was the same he had given Tahmineh. Bethinking himself of a magic ointment possessed by Kai-Kaus, he sent for it that he might heal his dying son; but the foolish king, jealous of his prowess, refused to send it, and Sohrab expired in the arms of his father.

Rustem’s heart was broken. He heaped up his armor, his tent, his trappings, his treasures, and flung them into a great fire. The house of Zal was filled with mourning, and when the news was conveyed to Samengan, he tore his garments, and his daughter grieved herself to death before a year had passed away.

To Kai-Kaus and a wife of the race of Feridoun was born a son called Saiawush, who was beautiful, noble, and virtuous. But his foolish father allowed himself to be prejudiced against the youth by slanderous tongues, so that Saiawush fled from the court and sought shelter with Afrasiyab in Turan. There he speedily became popular, and took unto himself for a wife the daughter of Afrasiyab. But when he and Ferandis his wife built a beautiful city, the hatred and jealousy of Gersiwaz was aroused, so that he lied to Afrasiyab and said that Saiawush was puffed up with pride, and at last induced Afrasiyab to slay his son-in-law.

Saiawush had a son, Kai-Khosrau, who was saved by Piran, a kind-hearted nobleman, and given into the care of a goatherd. When Afrasiyab learned of his existence he summoned him to his presence, but the youth, instructed by Piran, assumed the manners of an imbecile, and was accordingly freed by Afrasiyab, who feared no harm from him.

When the news of the death of Saiawush was conveyed to Iran there was great mourning, and war was immediately declared against Turan. For seven years the contest was carried on, always without success, and at the end of that time Gudarz dreamed that a son of Saiawush was living called Kai-Khosrau, and that until he was sought out and placed at the head of the army, deliverance could not come to Iran. Kai-Khosrau was discovered, and led the armies on to victory; and when Kai-Kaus found that his grandson was not only a great warrior, skilled in magic, but also possessed wisdom beyond his years, he resigned the throne and made Kai-Khosrau ruler over Iran.

Kai-Khosrau ruled many long years, in which time he brought peace and happiness to his kingdom, avenged the murder of his father, and compassed the death of the wicked Afrasiyab. Then, fearing that he might become puffed up with pride like Jemschid, he longed to depart from this world, and prayed Ormuzd to take him to his bosom.

The king; after many prayers to Ormuzd, dreamed that his wish would be granted if he set the affairs of his kingdom in order and appointed his successor. Rejoiced, he called his nobles together, divided his treasure among them, and appointed his successor, Lohurasp, whom he commanded to be the woof and warp of justice. Accompanied by a few of his faithful friends, he set out on the long journey to the crest of the mountains. At his entreaties, some of his friends turned back; those who stayed over night, in spite of his warnings, found on waking that they were covered by a heavy fall of snow, and were soon frozen. Afterwards their bodies were found and received a royal burial.

Lohurasp had a son Gushtasp who greatly desired to rule, and was a just monarch, when he succeeded to the throne. Gushtasp, however, was jealous of his son, Isfendiyar, who was a great warrior. When Gushtasp was about to be overcome by the forces of Turan, he promised Isfendiyar the throne, if he would destroy the enemy; but when the hosts were scattered, and Isfendiyar reminded his father of his promise, he was cast into a dungeon, there to remain until his services were again needed. When he had again gained a victory, he was told that the throne should be his when he had rescued his sisters from the brazen fortress of Arjasp, where they had been carried and imprisoned.

On his way to this tower Isfendiyar met with as many terrible foes as Rustem had encountered on his way to the White Deev, and as successfully overcame them. Wolves, lions, enchantresses, and dragons barred the way to the impregnable fortress, which rose three farsangs high and forty wide, and was constructed entirely of brass and iron. But Isfendiyar, assuming the guise of a merchant and concealing his warriors in chests, won his way into the castle, gained the favor of its inmates, and made them drunk with wine. This done, he freed his sisters, slew the guards, and struck down Arjasp.

Instead of keeping his promise, Gushtasp hastened to set his son another task. Rustem was his Pehliva, but it pleased him to send forth Isfendiyar against him, commanding him to bring home the mighty warrior in chains. Isfendiyar pleaded in vain with his father. Then he explained the situation to Rustem, and begged that he would accompany him home in peace to gratify his father. Rustem refused to go in chains, so the two heroes reluctantly began the hardest battle of their lives.

At the end of the first day, Rustem and Rakush were severely wounded, and on his return home Rustem happened to think of the Simurgh. Called by the burning of the feather, the kind bird healed the wounds of the hero and of Rakush, and instructed Rustem how to slay his foe. “Seek thou the tamarisk tree, and make thereof an arrow. Aim at his eye, and there thou canst blind and slay him.”

Rustem followed the directions, and laid low the gallant youth. Isfendiyar died exclaiming, “My father has slain me, not thou, Rustem. I die, the victim of my father’s hate; do thou keep for me and rear my son!”

Rustem, who had lived so long and accomplished such great deeds, died at last by the hand of his half-brother. This brother, Shugdad, stirred up the king of Kabul, in whose court he was reared, to slay Rustem because he exacted tribute from Kabul.

Rustem was called into Kabul by Shugdad, who claimed that the king mistreated him. When he arrived, the matter was settled amicably, and the brothers set out for a hunt with the king. The hunters were led to a spot where the false king had caused pits to be dug lined with sharp weapons. Rustem, pleased with his kind reception and suspecting no harm, beat Rakush severely when he paused and would go no further. Stung by the blows, the gallant horse sprang forward, and fell into the pit. As he rose from this, he fell into another, until, clambering from the seventh pit, he and Rustem fell swooning with pain.

“False brother!” cried Rustem; “what hast thou done? Was it for thee to slay thy father’s son? Exult now; but thou wilt yet suffer for this crime!” Then altering his tone, he said gently: “But give me, I pray thee, my bow and arrows, that I may have it by my side to slay any wild beast that may try to devour me.”

Shugdad gave him the bow; and when he saw the gleam in Rustem’s eyes, concealed himself behind a tree. But the angry Rustem, grasping the bow with something of his former strength, sent the arrow through tree and man, transfixing both. Then thanking his Creator that he had been given the opportunity to slay his murderer, he breathed his last.


Preface  •  The Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Râmâyana  •  Selections From the Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  Selections From the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained