Shah Nameh/The Heft-Khan; or, Seven Labors of Rustem

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109017Shah Nameh — The Heft-Khan; or, Seven Labors of RustemJames Atkinson (1780-1852)Hakīm Abol-Qāsem Firdawsī Ṭūsī

First Stage


He rapidly pursued his way, performing two days' journey in one, and soon came to a forest full of wild asses. Oppressed with hunger, he succeeded in securing one of them, which he roasted over a fire, lighted by sparks produced by striking the point of his spear, and kept in a blaze with dried grass and branches of trees. After regaling himself, and satisfying his hunger, he loosened the bridle of Rakush, and allowed him to graze; and choosing a safe place for repose during the night, and taking care to have his sword under his head, he went to sleep among the reeds of that wilderness. In a short space a fierce lion appeared, and attacked Rakush with great violence; but Rakush very speedily with his teeth and heels put an end to his furious assailant. Rustem, awakened by the confusion, and seeing the dead lion before him, said to his favorite companion:--

  "Ah! Rakush, why so thoughtless grown,
  To fight a lion thus alone;
  For had it been thy fate to bleed,
  And not thy foe, my gallant steed!
  How could thy master have conveyed
  His helm, and battle-axe, and blade,
  Kamund, and bow, and buberyán,
  Unaided, to Mázinderán?

Why didst thou fail to give the alarm,
And save thyself from chance of harm,
By neighing loudly in my ear;
But though thy bold heart knows no fear,
From such unwise exploits refrain,
Nor try a lion’s strength again.”

Saying this, Rustem laid down to sleep, and did not awake till the morning dawned. As the sun rose, he remounted Rakush, and proceeded on his journey towards Mázinderán.

Second Stage.—After travelling rapidly for some time, he entered a desert, in which no water was to be found, and the sand was so burning hot, that it seemed to be instinct with fire. Both horse and rider were oppressed with the most maddening thirst. Rustem alighted, and vainly wandered about in search of relief, till almost exhausted, he put up a prayer to Heaven for protection against the evils which surrounded him, engaged as he was in an enterprise for the release of Kai-káús and the Persian army, then in the power of the demons. With pious earnestness he besought the Almighty to bless him in the great work; and whilst in a despairing mood he was lamenting his deplorable condition, his tongue and throat being parched with thirst, his body prostrate on the sand, under the influence of a raging sun, he saw a sheep pass by, which he hailed as the harbinger of good. Rising up and grasping his sword in his hand, he followed the animal, and came to a fountain of water, where he devoutly returned thanks to God for the blessing which had preserved his existence, and prevented the wolves from feeding on his lifeless limbs. Refreshed by the cool water, he then looked out for something to allay his hunger, and killing a gor, he lighted a fire and roasted it, and regaled upon its savory flesh, which he eagerly tore from the bones.

When the period of rest arrived, Rustem addressed Rakush, and said to him angrily:—

Beware, my steed, of future strife.
Again thou must not risk thy life;
Encounter not with lion fell,
Nor demon still more terrible;
But should an enemy appear,
Ring loud the warning in my ear.”

After delivering these injunctions, Rustem laid down to sleep, leaving Rakush unbridled, and at liberty to crop the herbage close by.

Third Stage.—At midnight a monstrous dragon-serpent issued from the forest; it was eighty yards in length, and so fierce, that neither elephant, nor demon, nor lion, ever ventured to pass by its lair. It came forth, and seeing the champion asleep, and a horse near him, the latter was the first object of attack. But Rakush retired towards his master, and neighed and beat the ground so furiously, that Rustem soon awoke; looking around on every side, however, he saw nothing—the dragon had vanished, and he went to sleep again. Again the dragon burst out of the thick darkness, and again Rakush was at the pillow of his master, who rose up at the alarm: but anxiously trying to penetrate the dreary gloom, he saw nothing—all was a blank; and annoyed at this apparently vexatious conduct of his horse, he spoke sharply:—

Why thus again disturb my rest,
When sleep had softly soothed my breast?
I told thee, if thou chanced to see
Another dangerous enemy,
To sound the alarm; but not to keep
Depriving me of needful sleep;
When nothing meets the eye nor ear,
Nothing to cause a moment’s fear!
But if again my rest is broke,
On thee shall fall the fatal stroke,
And I myself will drag this load
Of ponderous arms along the road;
Yes, I will go, a lonely man,
Without thee, to Mázinderán.”

Rustem again went to sleep, and Rakush was resolved this time not to move a step from his side, for his heart was grieved and afflicted by the harsh words that had been addressed to him. The dragon again appeared, and the faithful horse almost tore up the earth with his heels, to rouse his sleeping master. Rustem again awoke, and sprang to his feet, and was again angry; but fortunately at that moment sufficient light was providentially given for him to see the prodigious cause of alarm.

Then swift he drew his sword, and closed in strife
With that huge monster.—Dreadful was the shock
And perilous to Rustem; but when Rakush
Perceived the contest doubtful, furiously,
With his keen teeth, he bit and tore away
The dragon’s scaly hide; whilst quick as thought
The Champion severed off the ghastly head,
And deluged all the plain with horrid blood.
Amazed to see a form so hideous
Breathless stretched out before him, he returned
Thanks to the Omnipotent for his success,
Saying—“Upheld by thy protecting arm,
What is a lion’s strength, a demon’s rage,
Or all the horrors of the burning desert,
With not one drop to quench devouring thirst?
Nothing, since power and might proceed from Thee.”

Fourth Stage.—Rustem having resumed the saddle, continued his journey through an enchanted territory, and in the evening came to a beautifully green spot, refreshed by flowing rivulets, where he found, to his surprise, a ready-roasted deer, and some bread and salt. He alighted, and sat down near the enchanted provisions, which vanished at the sound of his voice, and presently a tambourine met his eyes, and a flask of wine. Taking up the instrument he played upon it, and chanted a ditty about his own wanderings, and the exploits which he most loved. He said that he had no pleasure in banquets, but only in the field fighting with heroes and crocodiles in war. The song happened to reach the ears of a sorceress, who, arrayed in all the charms of beauty, suddenly approached him, and sat down by his side. The champion put up a prayer of gratitude for having been supplied with food and wine, and music, in the desert of Mázinderán, and not knowing that the enchantress was a demon in disguise, he placed in her hands a cup of wine in the name of God; but at the mention of the Creator, the enchanted form was converted into a black fiend. Seeing this, Rustem threw his kamund, and secured the demon; and, drawing his sword, at once cut the body in two!

Fifth Stage.—

From thence proceeding onward, he approached
A region destitute of light, a void
Of utter darkness. Neither moon nor star
Peep’d through the gloom; no choice of path remained,
And therefore, throwing loose the rein, he gave
Rakush the power to travel on, unguided.
At length the darkness was dispersed, the earth
Became a scene, joyous and light, and gay,
Covered with waving corn—there Rustem paused
And quitting his good steed among the grass,
Laid himself gently down, and, wearied, slept;
His shield beneath his head, his sword before him.

When the keeper of the forest saw the stranger and his horse, he went to Rustem, then asleep, and struck his staff violently on the ground, and having thus awakened the hero, he asked him, devil that he was, why he had allowed his horse to feed upon the green corn-field. Angry at these words, Rustem, without uttering a syllable, seized hold of the keeper by the ears, and wrung them off. The mutilated wretch, gathering up his severed ears, hurried away, covered with blood, to his master, Aúlád, and told him of the injury he had sustained from a man like a black demon, with a tiger-skin cuirass and an iron helmet; showing at the same time the bleeding witnesses of his sufferings. Upon being informed of this outrageous proceeding, Aúlád, burning with wrath, summoned together his fighting men, and hastened by the directions of the keeper to the place where Rustem had been found asleep. The champion received the angry lord of the land, fully prepared, on horseback, and heard him demand his name, that he might not slay a worthless antagonist, and why he had torn off the ears of his forest-keeper! Rustem replied that the very sound of his name would make him shudder with horror. Aúlád then ordered his troops to attack Rustem, and they rushed upon him with great fury; but their leader was presently killed by the master-hand, and great numbers were also scattered lifeless over the plain. The survivors running away, Rustem’s next object was to follow and secure, by his kamund, the person of Aúlád, and with admirable address and ingenuity, he succeeded in dismounting him and taking him alive. He then bound his hands, and said to him:

If thou wilt speak the truth unmixed with lies,
Unmixed with false prevaricating words,
And faithfully point out to me the caves
Of the White Demon and his warrior chiefs—
And where Káús is prisoned—thy reward
Shall be the kingdom of Mázinderán;
For I, myself, will place thee on that throne.
But if thou play’st me false—thy worthless blood
Shall answer for the foul deception.”
Be not in wrath,” Aúlád at once replied—
“Thy wish shall be fulfilled—and thou shalt know
Where king Káús is prisoned—and, beside,
Where the White Demon reigns. Between two dark
And lofty mountains, in two hundred caves
Immeasurably deep, his people dwell.
Twelve hundred Demons keep the watch by night.
And Baid, and Sinja. Like a reed, the hills.
Tremble whenever the White Demon moves.
But dangerous is the way. A stony desert
Lies full before thee, which the nimble deer
Has never passed. Then a prodigious stream
Two farsangs wide obstructs thy path, whose banks
Are covered with a host of warrior-Demons,
Guarding the passage to Mázinderán;
And thou art but a single man-canst thou
O’ercome such fearful obstacles as these?”

At this the Champion smiled. “Show but the way,
And thou shalt see what one man can perform,
With power derived from God! Lead on, with speed,
To royal Káús.” With obedient haste
Aúlád proceeded, Rustem following fast,
Mounted on Rakush. Neither dismal night
Nor joyous day they rested—on they went
Until at length they reached the fatal field,
Where Káús was o’ercome. At midnight hour,
Whilst watching with attentive eye and ear,
A piercing clamor echoed all around,
And blazing fires were seen, and numerous lamps
Burnt bright on every side. Rustem inquired
What this might be. “It is Mázinderán,”
Aúlád rejoined, “and the White Demon’s chiefs
Are gathered there.” Then Rustem to a tree
Bound his obedient guide—to keep him safe,
And to recruit his strength, laid down awhile
And soundly slept.
         When morning dawned, he rose,
And mounting Rakush, put his helmet on,
The tiger-skin defended his broad chest,
And sallying forth, he sought the Demon chief,
Arzang, and summoned him with such a roar
That stream and mountain shook. Arzang sprang up,
Hearing a human voice, and from his tent
Indignant issued—him the champion met,
And clutched his arms and ears, and from his body
Tore off the gory head, and cast it far
Amidst the shuddering Demons, who with fear
Shrunk back and fled, precipitate, lest they
Should likewise feel that dreadful punishment.

Sixth Stage.—After this achievement Rustem returned to the place where he had left Aúlád, and having released him, sat down under the tree and related what he had done. He then commanded his guide to show the way to the place where Kai-káús was confined; and when the champion entered the city of Mázinderán, the neighing of Rakush was so loud that the sound distinctly reached the ears of the captive monarch. Káús rejoiced, and said to his people: “I have heard the voice of Rakush, and my misfortunes are at an end;” but they thought he was either insane or telling them a dream. The actual appearance of Rustem, however, soon satisfied them. Gúdarz, and Tús, and Bahrám, and Gíw, and Gustahem, were delighted to meet him, and the king embraced him with great warmth and affection, and heard from him with admiration the story of his wonderful progress and exploits. But Káús and his warriors, under the influence and spells of the Demons, were still blind, and he cautioned Rustem particularly to conceal Rakush from the sight of the sorcerers, for if the White Demon should hear of the slaughter of Arzang, and the conqueror being at Mázinderán, he would immediately assemble an overpowering army of Demons, and the consequences might be terrible.

But thou must storm the cavern of the Demons
And their gigantic chief—great need there is
For sword and battle-axe—and with the aid
Of Heaven, these miscreant sorcerers may fall
Victims to thy avenging might. The road
Is straight before thee—reach the Seven Mountains,
And there thou wilt discern the various groups,
Which guard the awful passage. Further on,
Within a deep and horrible recess,
Frowns the White Demon—conquer him—destroy
That fell magician, and restore to sight
Thy suffering king, and all his warrior train.
The wise in cures declare, that the warm blood
From the White Demon’s heart, dropped in the eye,
Removes all blindness—it is, then, my hope,
Favored by God, that thou wilt slay the fiend,
And save us from the misery we endure,
The misery of darkness without end.”

Rustem accordingly, after having warned his friends and companions in arms to keep on the alert, prepared for the enterprise, and guided by Aúlád, hurried on till he came to the Haft-koh, or Seven Mountains. There he found numerous companies of Demons; and coming to one of the caverns, saw it crowded with the same awful beings. And now consulting with Aúlád, he was informed that the most advantageous time for attack would be when the sun became hot, for then all the Demons were accustomed to go to sleep, with the exception of a very small number who were appointed to keep watch. He therefore waited till the sun rose high in the firmament; and as soon as he had bound Aúlád to a tree hand and foot, with the thongs of his kamund, drew his sword, and rushed among the prostrate Demons, dismembering and slaying all that fell in his way. Dreadful was the carnage, and those who survived fled in the wildest terror from the champion’s fury.

Seventh Stage.—Rustem now hastened forward to encounter the White Demon.

Advancing to the cavern, he looked down
And saw a gloomy place, dismal as hell;
But not one cursed, impious sorcerer
Was visible in that infernal depth.
Awhile he stood—his falchion in his grasp,
And rubbed his eyes to sharpen his dim sight,
And then a mountain-form, covered with hair,
Filling up all the space, rose into view.
The monster was asleep, but presently
The daring shouts of Rustem broke his rest,
And brought him suddenly upon his feet,
When seizing a huge mill-stone, forth he came,
And thus accosted the intruding chief:
“Art thou so tired of life, that reckless thus.
Thou dost invade the precincts of the Demons?
Tell me thy name, that I may not destroy
A nameless thing!” The champion stern replied,
“My name is Rustem—sent by Zál, my father,
Descended from the champion Sám Súwár,
To be revenged on thee—the King of Persia
Being now a prisoner in Mázinderán.”
When the accursed Demon heard the name
Of Sám Súwár, he, like a serpent, writhed
In agony of spirit; terrified
At that announcement—then, recovering strength,
He forward sprang, and hurled the mill-stone huge
Against his adversary, who fell back
And disappointed the prodigious blow.
Black frowned the Demon, and through Rustem’s heart
A wild sensation ran of dire alarm;
But, rousing up, his courage was revived,
And wielding furiously his beaming sword,
He pierced the Demon’s thigh, and lopped the limb;
Then both together grappled, and the cavern
Shook with the contest—each, at times, prevailed;
The flesh of both was torn, and streaming blood
Crimsoned the earth. “If I survive this day,”
Said Rustem in his heart, in that dread strife,
“My life must be immortal.” The White Demon,
With equal terror, muttered to himself:
“I now despair of life—sweet life; no more
Shall I be welcomed at Mázinderán.”
And still they struggled hard—still sweat and blood
Poured down at every strain. Rustem, at last,
Gathering fresh power, vouchsafed by favouring Heaven
And bringing all his mighty strength to bear,
Raised up the gasping Demon in his arms,
And with such fury dashed him to the ground,
That life no longer moved his monstrous frame.
Promptly he then tore out the reeking heart,
And crowds of demons simultaneous fell
As part of him, and stained the earth with gore;
Others who saw this signal overthrow,
Trembled, and hurried from the scene of blood.
Then the great victor, issuing from that cave
With pious haste—took off his helm, and mail,
And royal girdle—and with water washed
His face and body-choosing a pure place
For prayer—to praise his Maker—Him who gave
The victory, the eternal source of good;
Without whose grace and blessing, what is man!
With it his armor is impregnable.

The Champion having finished his prayer, resumed his war habiliments, and going to Aúlád, released him from the tree, and gave into his charge the heart of the White Demon. He then pursued his journey back to Káús at Mázinderán. On the way Aúlád solicited some reward for the services he had performed, and Rustem again promised that he should be appointed governor of the country.

But first the monarch of Mázinderán,
The Demon-king, must be subdued, and cast
Into the yawning cavern—and his legions
Of foul enchanters, utterly destroyed.”

Upon his arrival at Mázinderán, Rustem related to his sovereign all that he had accomplished, and especially that he had torn out and brought away the White Demon’s heart, the blood of which was destined to restore Kai-káús and his warriors to sight. Rustem was not long in applying the miraculous remedy, and the moment the blood touched their eyes, the fearful blindness was perfectly cured.

The champion brought the Demon’s heart,
And squeezed the blood from every part,
Which, dropped upon the injured sight,
Made all things visible and bright;
One moment broke that magic gloom,
Which seemed more dreadful than the tomb.

The monarch immediately ascended his throne surrounded by all his warriors, and seven days were spent in mutual congratulations and rejoicing. On the eighth day they all resumed the saddle, and proceeded to complete the destruction of the enemy. They set fire to the city, and burnt it to the ground, and committed such horrid carnage among the remaining magicians that streams of loathsome blood crimsoned all the place.

Káús afterwards sent Ferhád as an ambassador to the king of Mázinderán, suggesting to him the expediency of submission, and representing to him the terrible fall of Arzang, and of the White Demon with all his host, as a warning against resistance to the valor of Rustem. But when the king of Mázinderán heard from Ferhád the purpose of his embassy, he expressed great astonishment, and replied that he himself was superior in all respects to Káús; that his empire was more extensive, and his warriors more numerous and brave. “Have I not,” said he, a hundred war-elephants, and Káús not one? Wherever I move, conquest marks my way; why then should I fear the sovereign of Persia? Why should I submit to him?”

This haughty tone made a deep impression upon Ferhád, who returning quickly, told Káús of the proud bearing and fancied power of the ruler of Mázinderán. Rustem was immediately sent for; and so indignant was he on hearing the tidings, that “every hair on his body started up like a spear,” and he proposed to go himself with a second dispatch. The king was too much pleased to refuse, and another letter was written more urgent than the first, threatening the enemy to hang up his severed head on the walls of his own fort, if he persisted in his contumacy and scorn of the offer made.

As soon as Rustem had come within a short distance of the court of the king of Mázinderán, accounts reached his majesty of the approach of another ambassador, when a deputation of warriors was sent to receive him. Rustem observing them, and being in sight of the hostile army, with a view to show his strength, tore up a large tree on the road by the roots, and dexterously wielded it in his hand like a spear. Tilting onwards, he flung it down before the wondering enemy, and one of the chiefs then thought it incumbent upon him to display his own prowess. He advanced, and offered to grasp hands with Rustem: they met; but the gripe of the champion was so excruciating that the sinews of his adversary cracked, and in agony he fell from his horse. Intelligence of this discomfiture was instantly conveyed to the king, who then summoned his most valiant and renowned chieftain, Kálahúr, and directed him to go and punish, signally, the warrior who had thus presumed to triumph over one of his heroes. Accordingly Kálahúr appeared, and boastingly stretched out his hand, which Rustem wrung with such grinding force, that the very nails dropped off, and blood started from his body. This was enough, and Kálahúr hastily returned to the king, and anxiously recommended him to submit to terms, as it would be in vain to oppose such invincible strength. The king was both grieved and angry at this situation of affairs, and invited the ambassador to his presence. After inquiring respecting Káús and the Persian army, he said:

And thou art Rustem, clothed with mighty power,
Who slaughtered the White Demon, and now comest
To crush the monarch of Mázinderán!”
“No!” said the champion, “I am but his servant,
And even unworthy of that noble station;
My master being a warrior, the most valiant
That ever graced the world since time began.
Nothing am I; but what doth he resemble!
What is a lion, elephant, or demon!
Engaged in fight, he is himself a host!”

The ambassador then tried to convince the king of the folly of resistance, and of his certain defeat if he continued to defy the power of Káús and the bravery of Rustem; but the effort was fruitless, and both states prepared for battle.

The engagement which ensued was obstinate and sanguinary, and after seven days of hard fighting, neither army was victorious, neither defeated. Afflicted at this want of success, Káús grovelled in the dust, and prayed fervently to the Almighty to give him the triumph. He addressed all his warriors, one by one, and urged them to increased exertions; and on the eighth day, when the battle was renewed, prodigies of valor were performed. Rustem singled out, and encountered the king of Mázinderán, and fiercely they fought together with sword and javelin; but suddenly, just as he was rushing on with overwhelming force, his adversary, by his magic art, transformed himself into a stony rock. Rustem and the Persian warriors were all amazement. The fight had been suspended for some time, when Káús came forward to inquire the cause; and hearing with astonishment of the transformation, ordered his soldiers to drag the enchanted mass towards his own tent; but all the strength that could be applied was unequal to move so great a weight, till Rustem set himself to the task, and amidst the wondering army, lifted up the rock and conveyed it to the appointed place. He then addressed the work of sorcery, and said: “If thou dost not resume thy original shape, I will instantly break thee, flinty-rock as thou now art, into atoms, and scatter thee in the dust.” The magician-king was alarmed by this threat, and reappeared in his own form, and then Rustem, seizing his hand, brought him to Káús, who, as a punishment for his wickedness and atrocity, ordered him to be slain, and his body to be cut into a thousand pieces! The wealth of the country was immediately afterwards secured; and at the recommendation of Rustem, Aúlád was appointed governor of Mázinderán. After the usual thanksgivings and rejoicings on account of the victory, Káús and his warriors returned to Persia, where splendid honors and rewards were bestowed on every soldier for his heroic services. Rustem having received the highest acknowledgments of his merit, took leave, and returned to his father Zál at Zábulistán.

Suddenly an ardent desire arose in the heart of Káús to survey all the provinces and states of his empire. He wished to visit Túrán, and Chín, and Mikrán, and Berber, and Zirra. Having commenced his royal tour of inspection, he found the King of Berberistán in a state of rebellion, with his army prepared to dispute his authority. A severe battle was the consequence; but the refractory sovereign was soon compelled to retire, and the elders of the city came forward to sue for mercy and protection. After this triumph, Káús turned towards the mountain Káf, and visited various other countries, and in his progress became the guest of the son of Zál in Zábulistán where he stayed a month, enjoying the pleasures of the festive board and the sports of the field.

The disaffection of the King of Hámáverán, in league with the King of Misser and Shám, and the still hostile King of Berberistán, soon, however, drew him from Nímrúz, and quitting the principality of Rustem, his arms were promptly directed against his new enemy, who in the contest which ensued, made an obstinate resistance, but was at length overpowered, and obliged to ask for quarter. After the battle, Káús was informed that the Shah had a daughter of great beauty, named Súdáveh, possessing a form as graceful as the tall cypress, musky ringlets, and all the charms of Heaven. From the description of this damsel he became enamoured, and through the medium of a messenger, immediately offered himself to be her husband. The father did not seem to be glad at this proposal, observing to the messenger, that he had but two things in life valuable to him, and those were his daughter and his property; one was his solace and delight, and the other his support; to be deprived of both would be death to him; still he could not gainsay the wishes of a king of such power, and his conqueror. He then sorrowfully communicated the overture to his child, who, however, readily consented; and in the course of a week, the bride was sent escorted by soldiers, and accompanied by a magnificent cavalcade, consisting of a thousand horses and mules, a thousand camels, and numerous female attendants. When Súdáveh descended from her litter, glowing with beauty, with her rich dark tresses flowing to her feet, and cheeks like the rose, Káús regarded her with admiration and rapture; and so impatient was he to possess that lovely treasure, that the marriage rites were performed according to the laws of the country without delay.

The Sháh of Hámáverán, however, was not satisfied, and he continually plotted within himself how he might contrive to regain possession of Súdáveh, as well as be revenged upon the king. With this view he invited Káús to be his guest for a while; but Súdáveh cautioned the king not to trust to the treachery which dictated the invitation, as she apprehended from it nothing but mischief and disaster. The warning, however, was of no avail, for Káús accepted the proffered hospitality of his new father-in-law. He accordingly proceeded with his bride and his most famous warriors to the city, where he was received and entertained in the most sumptuous manner, seated on a gorgeous throne, and felt infinitely exhilarated with the magnificence and the hilarity by which he was surrounded. Seven days were passed in this glorious banqueting and delight; but on the succeeding night, the sound of trumpets and the war-cry was heard. The intrusion of soldiers changed the face of the scene; and the king, who had just been waited on, and pampered with such respect and devotion, was suddenly seized, together with his principal warriors, and carried off to a remote fortress, situated on a high mountain, where they were imprisoned, and guarded by a thousand valiant men. His tents were plundered, and all his treasure taken away. At this event his wife was inconsolable and deaf to all entreaties from her father, declaring that she preferred death to separation from her husband; upon which she was conveyed to the same dungeon, to mingle groans with the captive king.

Alas! how false and fickle is the world,
Friendship nor pleasure, nor the ties of blood,
Can check the headlong course of human passions;
Treachery still laughs at kindred;—who is safe
In this tumultuous sphere of strife and sorrow?