Shah Nameh/The Heft-Khan of Isfendiyár


  Rustem had seven great labours, wondrous power
  Nerved his strong arm in danger's needful hour;
  And now Firdusi's legend-strains declare
  The seven great labours of Isfendiyár.

The prince, who had determined to undertake the new expedition, and appeared confident of success, now addressed himself to Kurugsar, and said, "If I conquer the kingdom of Arjásp, and restore my sisters to liberty, thou shalt have for thyself any principality thou may'st choose within the boundaries of Irán and Túrán, and thy name shall be exalted; but beware of treachery or fraud, for falsehood shall certainly be punished with death." To this Kurugsar replied, "I have already sworn a solemn oath to the king, and at thy intercession he has spared my life--why then should I depart from the truth, and betray my benefactor?"

"Then tell me the road to the brazen fortress, and how far it is distant from this place?" said Isfendiyár.

"There are three different routes," replied Kurugsar. "One will occupy three months; it leads through a beautiful country, adorned with cities, and gardens, and pastures, and is pleasant to the traveller. The second is less attractive, the prospects less agreeable, and will only employ two months; the third, however, may be accomplished in seven days, and is thence called the Heft-khan, or seven stages; but at every stage some monster, or terrible difficulty, must be overcome. No monarch, even supported by a large army, has ever yet ventured to proceed by this route; and if it is ever attempted, the whole party will be assuredly lost.

 "Nor strength, nor juggling, nor the sorcerer's art
  Can help him safely through that awful path,
  Beset with wolves and dragons, wild and fierce,
  From whom the fleetest have no power to fly.
  There an enchantress, doubly armed with spells,
  The most accomplished of that magic brood.
  Spreads wide her snares to charm and to destroy,
  And ills of every shape, and horrid aspect,
  Cross the tired traveller at every step."

At this description of the terrors of the Heft-khan, Isfendiyár became thoughtful for awhile, and then, resigning himself to the providence of God, resolved to take the shortest route. "No man can die before his time," said he; "heaven is my protector, and I will fearlessly encounter every difficulty on the road." "It is full of perils," replied Kurugsar, and endeavored to dissuade him from the enterprise. "But with the blessing of God," rejoined Isfendiyár, "it will be easy." The prince then ordered a sumptuous banquet to be served, at which he gave Kurugsar abundant draughts of wine, and even in a state of intoxication the demon-guide still warned him against his proposed journey. "Go by the route which takes two months," said he, "for that will be convenient and safe;" but Isfendiyár replied:--"I neither fear the difficulties of the route, nor the perils thou hast described."

  And though destruction spoke in every word,
  Enough to terrify the stoutest heart,
  Still he adhered to what he first resolved.
  "Thou wilt attend me," said the dauntless prince;
  And thus Kurugsar, without a pause, replied:
  "Undoubtedly, if by the two months' way,
  And do thee ample service; but if this
  Heft-khan be thy election; if thy choice
  Be fixed on that which leads to certain death,
  My presence must be useless. Can I go
  Where bird has never dared to wing its flight?"

Isfendiyár, upon hearing these words, began to suspect the fidelity of Kurugsar, and thought it safe to bind him in chains. The next day as he was going to take leave of his father, Kurugsar called out to him, and said: "After my promises of allegiance, and my solemn oath, why am I thus kept in chains?" "Not out of anger assuredly; but out of compassion and kindness, in order that I may take thee along with me on the enterprise of the Heft-khan; for wert thou not bound, thy faint heart might induce thee to run away.

 "Safe thou art when bound in chains,
    Fettered foot can never fly.
  Whilst thy body here remains,
    We may on thy faith rely.
  Terror will in vain assail thee;
  For these bonds shall never fail thee.
  Guarded by a potent charm,
  They will keep thee free from harm."

Isfendiyár having received the parting benediction of Gushtásp, was supplied with a force consisting of twelve thousand chosen horsemen, and abundance of treasure, to enable him to proceed on his enterprise, and conquer the kingdom of Arjásp.

First StageEdit

Isfendiyár placed Kurugsar in bonds among his retinue, and took with him his brother Bashútan. But the demon-guide complained that he was unable to walk, and in consequence he was mounted on a horse, still bound, and the bridle given into the hands of one of the warriors. In this manner they proceeded, directed from time to time by Kurugsar, till they arrived at the uttermost limits of the kingdom, and entered a desert wilderness. Isfendiyár now asked what they would meet with, and the guide answered, "Two monstrous wolves are in this quarter, as large as elephants, and whose teeth are of immense length." The prince told his people, that as soon as they saw the wolves, they must at once attack them with arrows. The day passed away, and in the evening they came to a forest and a murmuring stream, when suddenly the two enormous wolves appeared, and rushed towards the legions of Isfendiyár. The people seeing them advance, poured upon them a shower of arrows. Several, however, were wounded, but the wolves were much exhausted by the arrows which had penetrated their bodies. At this moment Bashútan attacked one of them, and Isfendiyár the other; and so vigorous was their charge, that both the monsters were soon laid lifeless in the dust. After this signal overthrow, Isfendiyár turned to Kurugsar, and exclaimed: "Thus, through the favor of Heaven, the first obstacle has been easily extinguished!" The guide regarded him with amazement, and said:--"I am indeed astonished at the intrepidity and valor that has been displayed."

  Seeing the bravery of Isfendiyár,
  Amazement filled the soul of Kurugsar.

The warriors and the party now dismounted, and regaled themselves with feasting and wine. They then reposed till the following morning.

Second StageEdit

Proceeding on the second journey, Isfendiyár inquired what might now be expected to oppose their progress, and Kurugsar replied: "This stage is infested by lions." "Then," rejoined Isfendiyár, "thou shalt see with what facility I can destroy them." At about the close of the day they met with a lion and a lioness. Bashútan said: "Take one and I will engage the other." But Isfendiyár observed, that the animals seemed very wild and ferocious, and he preferred attacking them both himself, that his brother might not be exposed to any harm. He first sallied forth against the lion, and with one mighty stroke put an end to his life. He then approached the lioness, which pounced upon him with great fury, but was soon compelled to desist, and the prince, rapidly wielding his sword, in a moment cut off her head. Having thus successfully accomplished the second day's task, he alighted from his horse, and refreshments being spread out, the warriors and the troops enjoyed themselves with great satisfaction, exhilarated by plenteous draughts of ruby wine. Again Isfendiyár addressed Kurugsar, and said: "Thou seest with what facility all opposition is removed, when I am assisted by the favor of Heaven!" "But there are other and more terrible difficulties to surmount, and amazing as thy achievements certainly have been, thou wilt have still greater exertions to make before thy enterprise is complete." "What is the next evil I have to subdue?" "An enormous dragon,

 "With power to fascinate, and from the deep
  To lure the finny tribe, his daily food.
  Fire sparkles round him; his stupendous bulk
  Looks like a mountain. When incensed, his roar
  Makes the surrounding country shake with fear.
  White poison-foam drops from his hideous jaws,
  Which yawning wide, display a dismal gulf,
  The grave of many a hapless being, lost
  Wandering amidst that trackless wilderness."

Kurugsar described or magnified the ferocity of the animal in such a way, that Isfendiyár thought it necessary to be cautious, and with that view he ordered a curious apparatus to be constructed on wheels, something like a carriage, to which he fastened a large quantity of pointed instruments, and harnessed horses to it to drag it on the road. He then tried its motion, and found it admirably calculated for his purpose. The people were astonished at the ingenuity of the invention, and lauded him to the skies.

Third StageEdit

Away went the prince, and having travelled a considerable distance, Kurugsar suddenly exclaimed: "I now begin to smell the stench of the dragon." Hearing this, Isfendiyár dismounted, ascended the machine, and shutting the door fast, took his seat and drove off. Bashútan and all the warriors upon witnessing this extraordinary act, began to weep and lament, thinking that he was hurrying himself to certain destruction, and begged that for his own sake, as well as theirs, he would come out of the machine. But he replied: "Peace, peace! what know ye of the matter;" and as the warlike apparatus was so excellently contrived, that he could direct the movements of the horses himself, he drove on with increased velocity, till he arrived in the vicinity of the monster.

  The dragon from a distance heard
    The rumbling of the wain,
  And snuffing every breeze that stirred
    Across the neighbouring plain,

  Smelt something human in his power,
    A welcome scent to him;
  For he was eager to devour
    Hot reeking blood, or limb.

  And darkness now is spread around,
    No pathway can be traced;
  The fiery horses plunge and bound
    Amid the dismal waste.

  And now the dragon stretches far
    His cavern throat, and soon
  Licks in the horses and the car,
    And tries to gulp them down.

  But sword and javelin, sharp and keen,
    Wound deep each sinewy jaw;
  Midway, remains the huge machine,
    And chokes the monster's maw.

  In agony he breathes, a dire
    Convulsion fires his blood,
  And struggling, ready to expire,
    Ejects a poison-flood!

  And then disgorges wain and steeds,
    And swords and javelins bright;
  Then, as the dreadful dragon bleeds,
    Up starts the warrior-knight,
  And from his place of ambush leaps,
    And, brandishing his blade,
  The weapon in the brain he steeps,
    And splits the monster's head.

  But the foul venom issuing thence,
    Is so o'erpowering found,
  Isfendiyár, deprived of sense,
    Falls staggering to the ground!

Upon seeing this result, and his brother in so deplorable a situation, Bashútan and the troops also were in great alarm, apprehending the most fatal consequences. They sprinkled rose-water over his face, and administered other remedies, so that after some time he recovered; then he bathed, purifying himself from the filth of the monster, and poured out prayers of thankfulness to the merciful Creator for the protection and victory he had given him. But it was matter of great grief to Kurugsar that Isfendiyár had succeeded in his exploit, because under present circumstances, he would have to follow him in the remaining arduous enterprises; whereas, if the prince had been slain, his obligations would have ceased forever.

"What may be expected to-morrow?" inquired Isfendiyár. "To-morrow," replied the demon-guide, "thou wilt meet with an enchantress, who can convert the stormy sea into dry land, and the dry land again into the ocean. She is attended by a gigantic ghoul, or apparition." "Then thou shalt see how easily this enchantress and her mysterious attendant can be vanquished."

Fourth StageEdit

On the fourth day Isfendiyár and his companions proceeded on the destined journey, and coming to a pleasant meadow, watered by a transparent rivulet, the party alighted, and they all refreshed themselves heartily with various kinds of food and wine. In a short space of time the enchantress appeared, most beautiful in feature and elegant in attire, and approaching our hero with a sad but fascinating expression of countenance, said to him (the ghoul, her pretended paramour, being at a little distance):--

  "I am a poor unhappy thing,
  The daughter of a distant king.
  This monster with deceit and fraud,
  By a fond parent's power unawed,
  Seduced me from my royal home,
  Through wood and desert wild to roam;
  And surely Heaven has brought thee now
  To cheer my heart, and smooth my brow,
  And free me from his loathed embrace,
  And bear me to a fitter place,
  Where, in thy circling arms more softly prest,
  I may at last be truly loved, and blest."

Isfendiyár immediately called her to him, and requested her to sit down. The enchantress readily complied, anticipating a successful issue to her artful stratagems; but the intended victim of her sorcery was too cunning to be imposed upon. He soon perceived what she was, and forthwith cast his kamund over her, and in spite of all her entreaties, bound her too fast to escape. In this extremity, she successively assumed the shape of a cat, a wolf, and a decrepit old man: and so perfect were her transformations, that any other person would have been deceived, but Isfendiyár detected her in every variety of appearance; and, vexed by her continual attempts to cheat him, at last took out his sword and cut her in pieces. As soon as this was done, a thick dark cloud of dust and vapor arose, and when it subsided, a black apparition of a demon burst upon his sight, with flames issuing from its mouth. Determined to destroy this fresh antagonist, he rushed forward, sword in hand, and though the flames, in the attack, burnt his cloth-armor and dress, he succeeded in cutting off the threatening monster's head. "Now," said he to Kurugsar, "thou hast seen that with the favor of Heaven, both enchantress and ghoul are exterminated, as well as the wolves, the lions, and the dragon." "Very well," replied Kurugsar, "thou hast achieved this prodigious labor, but to-morrow will be a heavy day, and thou canst hardly escape with life. To-morrow thou wilt be opposed by the Símúrgh, whose nest is situated upon a lofty mountain. She has two young ones, each the size of an elephant, which she conveys in her beak and claws from place to place." "Be under no alarm," said Isfendiyár, "God will make the labor easy."

Fifth StageEdit

On the fifth day, Isfendiyár resumed his journey, travelling with his little army over desert, plain, mountain, and wilderness, until he reached the neighborhood of the Símúrgh. He then adopted the same stratagem which he had employed before, and the machine supplied with swords and spears, and drawn by horses, was soon in readiness for the new adventure. The Símúrgh, seeing with surprise an immense vehicle, drawn by two horses, approach at a furious rate, and followed by a large company of horsemen, descended from the mountain, and endeavored to take up the whole apparatus in her claws to carry it away to her own nest; but her claws were lacerated by the sharp weapons, and she was then obliged to try her beak. Both beak and claws were injured in the effort, and the animal became extremely weakened by the loss of blood. Isfendiyár seizing the happy moment, sprang out of the carriage, and with his trenchant sword divided the Símúrgh in two parts; and the young ones, after witnessing the death of their parent, precipitately fled from the fatal scene. When Bashútan, with the army, came to the spot, they were amazed at the prodigious size of the Símúrgh, and the valor by which it had been subdued. Kurugsar turned pale with astonishment and sorrow. "What will be our next adventure?" said Isfendiyár to him. "To-morrow more pressing ills will surround thee. Heavy snow will fall, and there will be a violent tempest of wind, and it will be wonderful if even one man of thy legions remains alive. That will not be like fighting against lions, a dragon, or the Símúrgh, but against the elements, against the Almighty, which never can be successful. Thou hadst better therefore, return unhurt." The people on hearing this warning were alarmed, and proposed to go back; "for if the advice of Kurugsar is not taken, we shall all perish like the companions of Kai-khosráu, and lie buried under drifts of snow.

 "Let us return then, whilst we may;
  Why should we throw our lives away?"

But Isfendiyár replied that he had already overcome five of the perils of the road, and had no fear about the remaining two. The people, however, were still discontented, and still murmured aloud; upon which the prince said, "Return then, and I will go alone.

 "I never can require the aid
  Of men so easily dismayed."

Finding their leader immovable, the people now changed their tone, and expressed their devotion to his cause; declaring that whilst life remained, they would never forsake him, no never.

Sixth StageEdit

On the following morning, the sixth, Isfendiyár continued his labors, and hurried on with great speed. Towards evening he arrived on the skirts of a mountain, where there was a running stream, and upon that spot, he pitched his tents.

  Presently from the mountain there rushed down
  A furious storm of wind, then heavy showers
  Of snow fell, covering all the earth with whiteness,
  And making desolate the prospect round.
  Keen blew the blast, and pinching was the cold;
  And to escape the elemental wrath,
  Leader and soldier, in the caverned rock
  Scooped out by mouldering time, took shelter, there
  Continuing three long days. Three lingering days
  Still fell the snow, and still the tempest raged,
  And man and beast grew faint for want of food.

Isfendiyár and his warriors, with heads exposed, now prostrated themselves in solemn prayer to the Almighty, and implored his favor and protection from the calamity which had befallen them. Happily their prayers were heard, Heaven was compassionate, and in a short space the snow and the mighty wind entirely ceased. By this fortunate interference of Providence, the army was enabled to quit the caves of the mountain; and then Isfendiyár again addressed Kurugsar triumphantly: "Thus the sixth labor is accomplished. What have we now to fear?" The demon-guide answered him and said: "From hence to the Brazen Fortress it is forty farsangs. That fortress is the residence of Arjásp; but the road is full of peril. For three farsangs the sand on the ground is as hot as fire, and there is no water to be found during the whole journey." This information made a serious impression upon the mind of Isfendiyár; who said to him sternly: "If I find thee guilty of falsehood, I will assuredly put thee to death." Kurugsar replied: "What! after six trials? Thou hast no reason to question my veracity. I shall never depart from the truth, and my advice is, that thou hadst better return; for the seventh stage is not to be ventured upon by human strength.

 "Along those plains of burning sand
    No bird can move, nor ant, nor fly;
  No water slakes the fiery land,
    Intensely glows the flaming sky.
  No tiger fierce, nor lion ever
    Could breathe that pestilential air;
  Even the unsparing vulture never
    Ventures on blood-stained pinions there.

"At the distance of three farsangs beyond this inaccessible belt of scorching country lies the Brazen Fortress, to which there is no visible path; and if an army of a hundred thousand strong were to attempt its reduction, there would not be the least chance of success."

Seventh StageEdit

When Isfendiyár heard these things, enough to alarm the bravest heart, he turned towards his people to ascertain their determination; when they unanimously repeated their readiness to sacrifice their lives in his service, and to follow wherever he might be disposed to lead the way. He then put Kurugsar in chains again, and prosecuted his journey, until he reached the place said to be covered with burning sand. Arrived on the spot, he observed to the demon-guide: "Thou hast described the sand as hot, but it is not so." "True; and it is on account of the heavy showers of snow that have fallen and cooled the ground, a proof that thou art under the protection of the Almighty." Isfendiyár smiled, and said: "Thou art all insincerity and deception, thus to play upon my feelings with false or imaginary terrors." Saying this he urged his soldiers to pass rapidly on, so as to leave the sand behind them, and they presently came to a great river. Isfendiyár was now angry with Kurugsar, and said: "Thou hast declared that for the space of forty farsangs there was no water, every drop being everywhere dried up by the burning heat of the sun, and here we find water! Why didst thou also idly fill the minds of my soldiers with groundless fears?" Kurugsar replied: "I will confess the truth. Did I not swear a solemn oath to be faithful, and yet I was still doubted, and still confined in irons, though the experience of six days of trial had proved the correctness of my information and advice. For this reason I was disappointed and displeased; and I must confess that I did, therefore, exaggerate the dangers of the last day, in the hope too of inducing thee to return and release me from my bonds.

 "For what have I received from thee,
  But scorn, and chains, and slavery."

Isfendiyár now struck off the irons from the hands and feet of his demon-guide and treated him with favor and kindness, repeating to him his promise to reward him at the close of his victorious career with the government of a kingdom. Kurugsar was grateful for this change of conduct to him, and again acknowledging the deception he had been guilty of, hoped for pardon, engaging at the same time to take the party in safety across the great river which had impeded their progress. This was accordingly done, and the Brazen Fortress was now at no great distance. At the close of the day they were only one farsang from the towers, but Isfendiyár preferred resting till the next morning. "What is thy counsel now?" said he to his guide. "What sort of a fortress is this which fame describes in such dreadful colors?" "It is stronger than imagination can conceive, and impregnable."--"Then how shall I get to Arjásp?

 "How shall I cleave the oppressor's form asunder,
  The murderer of my grandsire, Lohurásp?
  The bravest heroes of Túrán shall fall
  Under my conquering sword; their wives and children
  Led captive to Irán; and desolation
  Scathe the whole realm beneath the tyrant's sway."

But these words only roused and exasperated the feelings of Kurugsar, who bitterly replied:--

  "Then may calamity be thy reward,
  Thy stars malignant, and thy life all sorrow;
  And may'st thou perish, weltering in thy blood,
  And the bare desert be thy lonely grave
  For that inhuman thought, that cruel menace."

Isfendiyár, upon hearing this unexpected language, became furious with indignation, and instantly punished the offender on the spot; with one stroke of his sword he cleft Kurugsar in twain.

When the clouds of night had darkened the sky, Isfendiyár, with a number of his warriors, proceeded towards the Brazen Fortress, and secretly explored it on every side. He found it constructed entirely of iron and brass; and, notwithstanding a strict examination at every point, discovered no accessible part for attack. It was three farsangs high, and forty wide; and such a place as was never before beheld by man.