Rostam and his Horse Rakhsh (Shahnameh Reading Project 10)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh

Synopsis: Rostram chooses a horse that was foretold to be his.

TG: This was a nice, short episode to dig into, and I was most struck at what an important role the mare had. She protected her foal for his destiny by attacking anyone tried to take him like a lioness, and even though she doesn’t have a name, she was the first horse described in this section, and described beautifully.

Interesting to me that the horses are linked to lions and dragons — I’ve read some in the past about war horses, and they truly are vicious when trained for war.

My favorite part of this piece, though, was the line “the price of this horse is Iran itself.” The horse is quite literally priceless, but also costs a very important promise. I love the symbolism of this exchange.

I went looking for some images of Rakhsh, and they’re plentiful, but very interestingly I also discovered that Rakhsh is the name for an Iranian armoured truck.

Some of my favorite images of the horse Rakhsh:

Sleeping_Rustam (Image from the British Museum)’s%20horse%20Rakhsh.jpg Here’s another painting from one of the illustrated versions of Shahnameh! This one on a webpage through the British Library. Interesting that the horse is painted in a pattern like a leopard or giraffe! that is not what I was imagining by the description of “saffron petals, mottled red and gold” but I can see how that’s near what they meant.

Rostam's horse Rakhsh



The price of this horse is Iran

This line is everything. This is why I read. This is why I write. If a story started off with this sequence it would be nice but it wouldn’t mean anything special; it wouldn’t have weight and resonance. It’s only after the build up of episodes, after the disasters of the war with Turan and the lack of a king, that it hits with all the power and majesty that I want from a story.

I actually read this section and the next one right after finishing the Turan/Iran war section because I was so filled with adrenalin and with all the “what happens next!” feels. We are really headed into the famous meat of the tale.


Next week: Rostam and Kay Qobad

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan

9 thoughts on “Rostam and his Horse Rakhsh (Shahnameh Reading Project 10)

  1. As a horse lover (the only thing that competes with time spent with my horse is time spent with my books – oh, and that pesky thing called work) I was so stoked for this! An entire section devoted to choosing a horse? My kind of epic!! But then that ole meanie head Rostam goes and breaks a bunch of horse’s backs!?! It’s not that hard to see with eyes that a horse is too long-backed for good strength. I’m trying very hard to see it as a metaphor but it’s actually described that the belly hits the earth. Ouch! Ok, literal brain moving past that because holy crap talk about wish fulfillment opportunity: a horse destined for you! So very much destined for you that its mother protects it and no one else can even come near it to start it under saddle??!!!??? That’s just described my greatest childhood fantasy (ok, probably a little my adulthood fantasy, too). Seriously, I was so delighted to read that.

    The price of the horse was, as you’ve both stated, awesome! It completely flips the whole “this horse is destined for you” into “this thing that is so special and that you covet? yeah, it comes at a price and it’s a heavy price. to accept one fate is to accept all fate.” Amazing!

    From the description of the horse I immediately pictured a dappled up chestnut. Dappling is something that many horses do in Spring and maintain through Summer. Anecdotally it’s seen as a sign of good health and vigor. I’ve never actually looked to back that up with any real evidence. A horse I used to have always dappled in Spring when his winter woolies were shedding out and his shiny summer coat was coming in and would have been “mottled with gold.”

    When the mare was first described I thought he was going to take the mare. This is because of something I read many years ago about mares often having been preferred because they are less likely to call out than stallions when you’re doing stealthy work. These battles aren’t exactly stealthy but it’s made me curious about researching that again to see if it’s actually true.

    OMG an armored vehicle named for a warhorse? Best. Section. Ever!!! 🙂

  2. Rachel, thank you for all these interesting details and observations. I have a very basic entry layer of horse knowledge so this was excellent.

  3. Paul, we skipped a week so it was easy to lose track. I forgot to post a “no post this week” post last week

  4. Is there any situation in which a troop of royal guardsmen would all be riding stallions? To show off that they were all ace horsemen?

    (I read this in a book and gave it a big side-eye)

  5. Kate: It’s been a few years since I was reading about this, but I think most knights in the Middle Ages Europe, if they could afford the full armor and were dressed up to show off as royal guards WOULD have used stallions, bc that was the mark of status and also strength. They used usually destrier horses, which just meant biggest and strongest types of horses. Of the kinds of horses used in Middle Ages European military, destriers were the most likely to be stallions. So while a troop of guardsman using all stallions wouldn’t be doing it to show off horseman skills, they might be doing it to show off power? They were specialized for strength and power, NOT charging into battle.


  7. KE – From what I’ve seen regarding horse use in the past it’s as Tessa said. European Middle Ages lords and knights exclusively used stallions (even as riding horses). However it was standard so I agree that the odd part is mentioning that it was for showing off. From what I know of tack at the time harsh bits and spurs were used for control and at times the horses were even muzzled so as not to bite (perhaps during training?). Knights would supply their own horses and gear and cavalry was a small part of fighting units (I think? I’m sure both of you would be more conversant than me in that) so I’m imagining on campaign each knight would have their own little crew for care of the horse and keeping it separate from the others. I wonder if breeding was used to get stallions that were more willing to fight as a unit. For example, modern TB stallions are not at all selected for temperament (only speed) and so many of the stallions can behave as nastily as possible and no one does anything other than deal with it. Counter that with the Lipizzaners used by the Spanish Riding School (all stallions) which work beautifully together and actually have to pass confirmation AND behavior tests to be accepted into the stud book. In any case, mares are the most distracting thing to a stallion and if everyone was using stallions then training and control probably took care of most problems.

    As an aside (I can go on forever about horses) I looked very briefly into when this notion of stallions being superior in battle faded in the first part of the 1800s (again this is limited to W. Europe and then US North American notions) and it seems to have a lot to do with the size of cavalry. Stallions are a lot of work and trouble and once cavalry became quite large the economics of all stallion units were no longer feasible, I guess. Especially when it became apparent that geldings and mares could accomplish the same thing with far less trouble. That did make me curious about Roman cavalry though which I thought was fairly large (sometimes up to 600 horses? but I don’t know what the corresponding infantry numbers would have been and so how small the individual horse units would have been) and Romans used stallions, also.

    Speaking of mares, my dim memory of them being preferred was true but that was for the Bedouin who developed and maintained Arabians. Since much of their fighting was small raiding parties that needed the element of surprise a stallion that would challenge other stallions or call out to mares was pretty useless. They didn’t maintain “stud” books as all their great lines were traced through the mares (womb books?) and their war mares were considered priceless. Interestingly, these were all oral records and each different well-reputed strain’s genealogy would be recited along with stories about the most important feats of particular war mares.

    So, coming back to our reading obviously the Persians were fine with stallions but hasn’t it also been mentioned that they have Turkish and Arab horses? I don’t know about the Turkish but perhaps many of the Arab horses would have been mares (probably not the most prized war mares unless they managed to take them in battle)? Or, haha, maybe they just had all the cast off Arabian stallions. 🙂

    TG – Happy to supply horse facts. I really could talk about horses forever but as I’m sure is obvious from my patchwork of historical info above, my knowledge is mostly just modern horse stuff. 🙂 A fact borne in on me these days is that grass type affects manure production. My horse is on limited grazing during summer and I’ve just switched him off lush green summer grass to grazing the edges of the recently harvested hay field and his manure production has increased from 0.7 piles/hour to 1.1 piles/hour. One’s mind wanders to irrelevant math when picking out paddocks, I guess. lol

  8. This is all very fascinating. I had the idea that geldings and mares were simply more reliable for serious business like war, but maybe that is a more modern thing (I mean, besides the Bedouins, and other exceptions like that).

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