It’s finally time for Rostam! Our previous episode kicked off our trilogy on the Shahnameh or “Book of Kings,” an epic by Ferdowsi on the history of Persia’s Greatest Kings and Heroes. We last spoke of the Hero Sam and his son Zal so if you are interested in knowing more about them, then make sure to check out our previous episode! Today, we will continue our series on the heroes of the Shahnameh.
Rostam is the archetypical Iranian hero and predates the Shahnameh as a long-standing folk hero. He is among the Greatest literary heroes, including others like Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Achilles, Odysseus, and Sun Wukong.
Birth of the Chosen One
When we left off our love-struck hero, Zal had finally gotten his happily ever after with Princess Rudabeh.
This second part is titled “Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan,” because Rudabeh was pregnant! Her baby was the one we heard prophecies about in our last episode. Her lion, her son, however, grew bigger and bigger but would not be born. She grew sick and weary as her due date came and went.
As a refresher, Zal and Rudabeh struggled to have their marriage approved by the King, Manuchehr. Despite being the son of the hero, Sam, Zal was still the white-haired adopted son of a mythical bird. On her part, Rudabeh was a descendant of the Serpent-King Zahaak. Their union was volatile. However, the astrologers and sages all saw a hero being born from their union.
When Zal saw the state of his wife, he took one of the two feathers the Simurgh had given him and burnt it to summon his mythical mother. Immediately the bird arrived, disguised as a black cloud and set about her work. She ordered Zal to bring her a glittering knife, a man familiar with spells and enough wine to get Rudabeh drunk. She then instructed Zal on how to perform a Cesarean section.
Everyone waited apprehensively as Zal and the priest went ahead as instructed. They brought the magnificent baby into the world painlessly and named him Rostam.
Right from his birth, Rostam was a child between worlds. He was born in Kabul, so he was on the edge of the Iranian empire. His grandmother was the Simurgh, and his great-great-grandfather was a demon king. The birth itself required magical intervention. Even the events that led to his parents being allowed to marry relied on Rostam becoming a faithful warrior.
This theme of being constantly on the edge of two worlds will follow Rostam throughout his life, and we will see the toll it takes on him.
“The Simurgh arrives to assist with the Birth of Rostam,” by Mohammad Zaman (1675 – 1676)
As the boy grew, he became well known for his noble stature and strength. Sam and Zal were both in awe of the boy, as was his maternal grandfather, Mehrab and the descendant of the Demon- Zahhak. Unfortunately, as the wine flowed freely one night, Mehrab confidently proclaimed that Sam and Zal were worthless and Rostam was his hero. They would renew Zahhak’s power, and everyone would bow before them.
No one took this seriously, so we will have to leave Mehrab to do his Jafar-like villain-splaining on his own.
Around this time, Manuchehr was given the news from his astrologers that he will soon die. They began preparing his son, Nozar, to take his place. Before he passed, he told his son that the Turks would wage war against Persia soon and they would break Nozar’s army. He should always stay in God’s way because good and bad will come from him.
As it turns out, his father had prophesied correctly, and the next few years were the war between the Turks and the Persians. For the sake of time and to not bore you with 400 names and 400 locations, we will skip this part, but to read it, please click here. I also recommend the Shahnameh audiobook or Laura’s podcast, Las Plumas de Simurgh, for a more intensive breakdown of individual Shahnameh stories.
The battles mainly involve Zal and Mehrab anyway. King Nozar died, and a revolving door of rulers came and went. Rostam appears towards the end when the Turan Prince, Afrasyab, goes back on his word for a peace treaty and tries to take over Persia again.
The Great Rakhsh and Rostam
With his first war summons, Rostam prepared to fight and declared he would need to don his leopard skin and acquire a horse to ride into battle.
Rostam’s infamous leopard or panther skin cloak has a very dodgy history depending on what version of the tale you read. Some versions say his leopard skin was a dragon skin from when he fought a dragon in India at the age of 15. Others say the simorguh had hidden the armour and given it to him before his seven labours. The magical quality of the armour is also different depending on where you read about it. In some stories, it is resistant to water, fire and weapon damage, similar to the protective animal skins of Gilgamesh and Hercules.
Rostam saw horses of all sizes and strengths, but every horse buckled under his immense strength. He tried and failed to find his horse until a beautiful mare from Kabol passed him with her foal. However, before Rostam could claim her, the herdsman warned him that for the past three years, no noble had been able to tame the horse with its lion-like mother, scaring them off.
Rostam paid no mind and caught the foal. When the mother charged at him, he roared at her, sending her galloping away to the rest of the herd. The horse he chose was strong enough to bear his weight as if it was nothing, so Rostam and his horse, Rakhsh, began their journey together.
Speaking of roars, did you know that the iconic lion king roar was not from an actual lion? It was produced by American voice actor Frank Welker screaming and growling into a metal trash can. I wonder if he would have been more intimidating than Rostam.Sparrow
During his first day of battle against the Turans, Rostam fought like a madman, and this is my favourite description of a fight ever- he found King Afrasyab, struck his saddle with his mace and then lifted the King over his head by the belt.
There is an excellent manuscript miniature of this moment that we will put on the website, but I love the idea of this young warrior just showing up and lifting the King over his head.
The ancient equivalent to “Do you even lift bro?“
Image by Hamid Rahmanian from his illustrated edition of Shahnameh.
Afrasyab’s belt snapped, and he fell to the ground. It wasn’t until after the Turans rescued their King that Rostam realized he should have tucked the man under his arm instead. Still. What a power move.
News of Rostam’s brash fierceness strengthened the Persians, and they won a stunning victory against the fleeing Turans. A new Persian King with the divine faar, Kay Qobad was installed, and he achieved peace with the Turks and drafted a new agreement.
Jumping forward about 100 years to his son’s reign, King Kay Kavus. During this time, Rostam grew from a young boy to a young adult. You might be thinking, “a young adult?” Rostam is a hundred! He’s an old man! That would be correct if time worked the same for the heroes and Kings as it did for others. Rostam and Zal, as well as other heroes in the Shahnameh, live long, fruitful lives. Rostam will live up to 600, and at the time of his death, Zal is still alive. Concerning his overall age, Rostam is really still in his youth. If we think of fantasy races like elves and dwarves, they all age differently from humans. So Rostam is technically a late teenager, an early adult here.
As it usually goes with Kings, Kay Kavus was not his father’s equal and quickly became a man after glory and power. So no surprise that a demon managed to trick him easily. The Demon, disguised as a musician, sang about his country of Mazandaran, a paradise on earth. It was also the home to Demons. Kay Kavus thought it would be a splendid idea to conquer these lands and plunder them for their treasures. Zal and other nobles tried to advise him, but the King refused to listen and took his army against the demons.
An Illustration of the Flying Throne of Kay Kavus, circa 975-1010A
Plot twist, the demons did not appreciate having their lands plundered and captured. So the King of Mazandaran and an army led by the White Demon rode out to meet the invaders. Instead of killing them, they delighted in torture. The Persians were held captive, and they were all blinded.
Zal and Rostam heard of this news, and Zal sent Rostam off on a quest to save the King. These will be called the Haft Khan.
The first trial came on the second day of his journey when he grew hungry enough to rest. Rostam missed his boy scouts camping manual because the place he chose to rest after hunting was … a lion’s den. When the lion came home from his hunt, he was confused to see a massive warrior in his bed. He charged at Rakhsh first, thinking it would be an easy move but instead, the horse reared and slammed his hooves on the lion’s head before tearing it to pieces … with his teeth. I have never seen a horse with sharp enough teeth to do this, but we love a good mythical pegasus-like sidekick.
When Rostam woke from his nap, he chided his horse, “who told you to fight with lions?”Obviously not thinking about the life-saving that just happened.
The next day, the two headed off. They rode for several days but had no luck finding any water. They were both getting weary and desperate. Rostam dismounted and began wandering like a madman, praying to God for aid, until he saw a ram. Taking it as a sign of God, he followed the creature to a spring where he rested after warning his horse not to get into fights with lions or demons.
So that was the second trial, and it may seem like a bit of a wash, BUT it helps reinforce the imagery of Rostam as a religious hero who ultimately puts his trust in fate. Also, the third task makes up for it because we finally meet a DRAGON!
Once again, Rostam fell asleep in a dangerous place. A Dragons lair.
Flying overhead, the dragon was wondering who had the nerve to climb into his bed of reeds. Ever vigilant, Rakhsh spotted the creature and woke Rostam at once. However, the dragon was cunning and made himself invisible, so Rostam saw nothing in the darkness and fell asleep again. This is the same hero who claimed he would not leave his horses back until he saved the King. So. Anyway, Rakhsh was getting annoyed, like the horse from Tangled annoyed. He reared and stomped on Rostam’s pillow. The fearsome hero grumbled at his horse and threatened to cut off its legs if he was bothered again. For the third time, the mighty hero fell asleep. His horse was caught between his fear of this fire-breathing dragon and his loyalty to Rostam.
This horse is way too good for Rostam, the sleeping hero and should honestly ditch him. It feels like he is solving these challenges anyways. Maybe the horse was the true hero all along?
He reared at the ground again, and this time when Rostam woke, he saw the dragon and jumped up. Rostam and Rakhsh fought, side by side, slashing and tearing until the dragon was nothing but a stream of blood.
Rostam was horrified at his kill, and after praying and cleansing, he rode away. He rode for a long time until he came upon what looked like a deserted feast. Hungry and used to such comforts, Rostam made himself at home. He picked up a nearby tanbur and composed his version of “Rostam of Riveria.” A pretty cool fourth task.
The Haft Khans of Rostam are often compared to Hercules’ Twelve Labours, but the two are vastly different. Hercules was completing his tasks to regain his honour and be cleansed of his blood crime by King Eurystheus. Rostam’s goals are as a young, largely untested hero. He has an obligation to his King and his legacy. The scale of Rostam’s tasks is not predetermined. Instead, they are a metaphorical or spiritual commentary on fathers and sons. The focus on his trials and the idea of sleep gives the entire sequence a dream-like quality, and we are often confused by the scale of events.
His music caught the attention of one of the witches who had created this fairy feast. She was curious, so she disguised herself as a young maid and went to sit with him. Rostam, young sweet Rostam, was elated at God’s gifts to him and began praising God, but the witch, a vessel of Ahriman, could not keep her disguise up. As soon as her true form came out, Rostam freaked out. He slashed her and moved on, unable to enjoy the feast.
He rode on until he reached a place where there was nothing but blackness in the sky and wheat in the fields. Rostam decided to take another one of his infamous naps, but this time it was a farm hand that spotted him. He was furious at the two trespassers. Instead of dealing with the man calmly, Rostam cut his ears off. The man ran to his master, a hero of Mazandaran, Olad, who went to confront Rostam with his men. Rostam handled the men, and when he chased Olad down, he made him a deal. He would spare the man if Olad told him how to get to the White Demon. Olad’s description of the lands was unforgiving and promised a difficult journey, yet Rostam laughed and said, lead the way.
On their way to the King, they came across the demon army of Arzhang, and Rostam wasted no time in riding into a camp full of demons, headed straight for Arzhang. Rostam ripped his head off (like literally grabbing hold of his ear and shoulder and just – ripping the head off). The other demons were understandably afraid and began fleeing while Rostam slaughtered everyone in his path until he and Olad reached the trapped Persians. He found the nobles and King Kavus blind and helpless.
The King, who has somehow learnt about the White Demon’s whereabouts, instructs Rostam to cross seven mountains until he reaches a cave filled with warrior demons. If Rostam can kill the White Demon and bring them the demon blood, they can heal their eyesight.
I’d be saving the Persians and getting out of there, but Rostam is a hero, so for his seventh labour, he crossed the seven mountains with his captive-sidekick Olad at his side to find the White Demon.
The White Div is a very controversial image for scholars. One of the most popular theories is that the White Demon either represents a white race of man or a white diety from the North. However, scholars like Mahmoud Omidsalar focus on the fact that the White Demon is an Oedipal conflict and the White Demon (White Div) represents his albino father. Rostam overtakes his father’s power, and this story is a coming-of-age task for Rostam to discover his own identity away from his lineage. Omidsalar uses the fact that Ferdowsi begins the chapter on Rostam’s trials by mentioning that his upcoming poem was about fathers and sons
The White Div Image by Hamid Rahmanian from his illustrated edition of Shahnameh.
Rostam slashed through the mountains of demons by waiting until they were asleep. He conquered everything but the Cave of the White Demon. His heart was full of fear, and he stalled when he saw the massive body of the Div lying in the Cave. It looked like a black mountain with white hair and iron armour. Before Rostam could move, the Demon woke and flew at him. Rostam had no choice but to attack, jumping forward like a maddened elephant. He sliced through the Demon’s leg, but it didn’t stop the Div, and the two fought relentlessly against each other. Rostam thought that if he survived this, then he would live forever. While the Demon lamented that if he survived this, he would never have any of his previous nobility or power with a severed leg.
After fearsome combat, Rostam got the upper hand and threw the Demon to the ground, cutting out his heart and liver. In some versions, Rostam cuts the Demon’s head off and wears it as a helmet.
Battle Rages On
Rostam returned to his King, freeing them and restoring their sight. Not easily beat, King Kay Kavus took to sending a strange set of letters to the King of Mazanderan (who did not appreciate the random threats). So, the battles continued. On the eighth day, Rostam flung his spear at the King of Mazandaran, but instead of collapsing, the man transformed himself into granite.
Tired of this sorcery, Rostam approached the granite and said that the King could either turn back or be hacked away with axes. The King turned back, only for Rostam to tell the executioner to hack him to pieces anyway. So, I guess that ends that chapter. Olad was granted the dead King’s throne, and the Persians marched home.
The story of Rostam does not end there. In the following chapters, Ferdowsi outlines other ways in which Rostam and Zal prove their heroism (a lot of it by saving Kay Kavus from more of his own exploits). For our final Shahnameh episode to close off our trilogy, we will be exploring the story of Rostam’s son (Sohrab) and the eventual death of Rostam.
To see a full list of sources, please check out our first blog post on the story of Zal and Rudabeh!