Headgear: Helmet of Rostam (Persian mythology)

Headgear: Helmet of Rostam – upon which was fixed the head of the white giant Div-e-Sepid – from the Persian epic Shahnameh (Persian mythology)

Rostam (Persian: رستم‎ [rosˈtæm]) is a legendary hero in Persian mythology, the son of Zāl and Rudaba, whose life and work was immortalized by the 10th-century Persian poet Ferdowsi in the Shahnameh, or Epic of Kings, which contains pre-Islamic Iranian folklore and history. However, the roots of the narrative date much earlier, to the seventh century.

In the Shahnameh, Rostam and his predecessors are Marzbans of Sistan (present-day Iran and Afghanistan). Rostam is best known for his tragic fight with Esfandiyār, the other legendary Iranian hero; for his expedition to Mazandaran (not to be confused with the modern Mazandaran Province); and for tragically fighting and killing his son, Sohrab, without knowing who his opponent was. Rostam was eventually killed by Shaghad, his half-brother.

Rostam was always represented as the mightiest of Iranian paladins (holy warriors), and the atmosphere of the episodes in which he features is strongly reminiscent of the Parthian Empire. He rode the legendary stallion Rakhsh and wore a special suit named Babr-e Bayan in battles.


While the narrative of the Shahname is the definitive work on Rostam, Ferdowsi did not invent the character; Rostam stories were popular date back to the seventh century in Pars and originated much earlier, likely in Eastern Iranian-speaking territories. He famously wears the zīn-i palang or “panther-skin garment”:

The material surveyed so far proves that the Rustam legend was fully formed and well known in Western Iran by the seventh century AD at the latest and in the Eastern Iranian lands by the early eighth century. In some recent publications Frantz Grenet has attempted to find pictorial allusions several centuries earlier, in the “sīmurgh” depicted on the buckle of Shapur I (AD 240–272) on the Rag-i Bībī rock relief in northern Afghanistan, and in the scene of a prince breaking in a foal depicted on an Eastern Sasanian silver dish attributed to the first half of the fourth century. Nicholas Sims-Williams has referred to the personal name Purlang-zin, spelt πορλαγγοζινο in Greek script, in a Bactrian document which was almost certainly written in the fourth century under Sasanian rule, claiming that this may be translated as “the man with the panther’s skin” and that it represents “a clear reference to the zīn-i palang of Rustam.” […] the first element of this name, is the Bactrian word for “panther” or “leopard”.

Rustam’s background

In the Shahnameh, Rostam is a native of Zabulistan, a historical region roughly corresponding to today’s Zabul Province, southern Afghanistan. His mother Rudaba was a princess of Kabul. Rostam is the champion of champions and is involved in numerous stories, constituting some of the most popular (and arguably some of most masterfully created) parts of the Shahnameh. In Shahnameh, Rostam—like his grandfather Sam—works as both a faithful military general as well as king-maker for the Kayanian dynasty of Persia.

As a young child, he slays the maddened white elephant of the king Manuchehr with just one blow of the mace owned by his grandfather Sam, son of Nariman. He then tames his legendary stallion, Rakhsh.

The etymology of Rostam’s name is from Common Iranian “*rautas-taxma-, “‘river-strong’, i.e. ‘as strong as a river’, Rostam’s mother is Rūdāba “(she) of the River Water”, and his father is Zāl, who has white hair.

Birth and early life

Rostam’s mother Rudaba, the princess of Kabul, was known for her peerless beauty, and Rostam’s father was Zāl. Zāl was one of Persia’s most powerful warriors and a great general who conquered many rebellious tribes and ruled over Zabulistan. Zāl was known for his wisdom and was unparalleled in riding and fighting on horseback. He once demonstrated his skills to Emperor Manuchehr to seek his approval to marry his lover Rudaba.

In Persian mythology, Rudaba’s labor of Rostam was prolonged due to the extraordinary size of her baby. Zāl, her lover and husband, was certain that his wife would die in labor. Rudaba was near death when Zāl decided to summon the Simurgh. The Simurgh appeared and instructed him upon how to perform a Rostamzad, a Caesarean section, thus saving both Rudaba and the child.

After Zāl’s father, Sam came to know of his grandchild’s birth, he rushed to see Rostam and was overjoyed. Rostam was brought up and trained by Zāl in warfare. When Rostam single-handedly slew a mad elephant, his father sent him on his first military assignment.

Rostam’s task was to conquer the fortress on the summit of Mt Sipand where his great grandfather, Nariman, once besieged it and was slain in the battle. Rostam breached the fortress, defeated the enemy, ransacked its treasury and reported his success to his father, Zāl and grandfather, Sam.

Haft Khan

Rostam kills Esfandiyār. Medieval Persian miniature
He passes through a hero’s journey to save his sovereign, Kay Kāvus who is captured by the Divs of Mazandaran. This journey is called “Rostam’s Seven Quests”.

There are some similarities between the legends of Rostam and those pertaining to the great Irish hero Cú Chulainn. They both defeat a ferocious beast as a very young man, slay their sons in combat (“Rostam and Sohrab”, a motif also found in the Hildebrandslied), are virtually invincible in combat, and are murdered by treachery while killing their murderer on their last breath.

Two Persian heroes, Rostam and Esfandiyār, share stories with the Labours of Hercules.

Alternate views

It is written by the Royal Central Asian Society in the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society that the struggle between Rostam and the Div-e Sepid “White Demon” represents a struggle between Persians and invaders from the northern Caspian provinces.


With Tahmineh, princess of Samangan, Rostam had a son called Sohrab, who was killed accidentally by his father in the time of Kay Kavus. Rostam later had a daughter called Banu Goshasp, who had a full brother called Faramarz, and both became renowned heroes in Turan and India. Goshasp, through her marriage with Giv had a son, Bijan.

Rostam had also a half brother called Shaghad, who was always jealous of him and provoked his death.

Just as famous as Rostam was his horse Rakhsh, which had an incredibly long life like Rostam, due to divine protection, and died at the same time as Rostam.

Historical basis

Ernst Herzfeld maintained that the dynasty of Gondophares represented the House of Suren, highest of the five premier families of Parthian Empire, invested with the hereditary right of commanding the royal armies, and placing the crown on the king’s head at the coronation. Probably when around 129 BCE, nomad peoples, especially the Indo-Scythians (Sacaraucae, Old Persian Sakaravaka “nomadic Saka” or Saraucae) and the Tocharians attacked the eastern frontier of Parthia, defense was entrusted by the Parthian emperors to the Surens; and the latter eventually not only repelled the Indo-Scythians, but pursued them into Arachosia and the Punjab, this event probably representing interitus Saraucarum ( the perishing of the Sacaraucae) of Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus (Prologue 42).

Echoes of these events are preserved in the legends of the Sistān cycle, partly incorporated in the Shahnameh, but once also surviving as independent epics, such as the Garšāspnāma mentioned in the Tārikh-e Sistān, and the Ketāb al-Sakisarān cited by al-Masudi. These related the deeds of the hero Garshasp and his descendants, Narimān, Sām, Zāl or Dastān, and above all of the latter’s son Rostam. It is difficult to relate the Indo-Parthian names known from coins and history to those of the epic, which are possibly honorific titles, since a recently reported silver coin describes Gondophares (spelt in Greek script Hyndopharres) as surnamed Sām. A single ruler may of course have received more than one such title, and the historical names may be repeated in succeeding generations.

This artifact is a part of SwordTemple Library

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