Kate Milner Rabb.

National Epics online

. (page 1 of 32)
Online LibraryKate Milner RabbNational Epics → online text (page 1 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by David Starner, S.R. Ellison, and the Online
Distributed Proofing Team


By Kate Milner Rabb




This volume is intended for an introduction to the study of the epics.
While the simplicity and directness of the epic style seem to make such a
book unnecessary, the fact that to many persons of literary tastes some of
these great poems are inaccessible, and that to many more the pleasure of
exploring for themselves "the realms of gold" is rendered impossible by
the cares of business, has seemed sufficient excuse for its being. Though
the beauty of the original is of necessity lost in a condensation of this
kind, an endeavor has been made to preserve the characteristic epithets,
and to retain what Mr. Arnold called "the simple truth about the matter of
the poem." It is believed that the sketch prefacing each story, giving
briefly the length, versification, and history of the poem, will have its
value to those readers who have not access to the epics, and that the
selections following the story, each recounting a complete incident, will
give a better idea of the epic than could be formed from passages
scattered through the text.

The epic originated among tribes of barbarians, who deified departed
heroes and recited legends in praise of their deeds. As the hymn
developed, the chorus and strophe were dropped, and the narrative only was
preserved. The word "epic" was used simply to distinguish the narrative
poem, which was recited, from the lyric, which was sung, and from the
dramatic, which was acted.

As the nation passed from childhood to youth, the legends of the hero that
each wandering minstrel had changed to suit his fancy, were collected and
fused into one by some great poet, who by his power of unification made
this written epic his own.

This is the origin of the Hindu epics, the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," the
"Kalevala," the "Shah-Nameh," "Beowulf," the "Nibelungen Lied," the "Cid,"
and the "Song of Roland."

The conditions for the production of the primitive epic exist but once in
a nation's growth. Its later epics must be written on subjects of national
importance, chosen by the poet, who arranges and embellishes his material
according to the rules of the primitive epic. To this class belong the
"Aeneid," the "Jerusalem Delivered," and the "Lusiad." Dante's poem is
broader, for it is the epic of mediaeval Christianity. Milton likewise
sought "higher argument" than

"Wars, hitherto the only argument
Heroic deemed,"

and crystallized the religious beliefs of his time in "Paradise Lost."

The characteristics both of the primitive and the modern epic are their
uniform metre, simplicity of construction, concentration of action into a
short time, and the use of episode and dialogue. The main difference lies
in the impersonality of the primitive epic, whose author has so skillfully
hidden himself behind his work that, as some one has said of Homer, "his
heroes are immortal, but his own existence is doubtful."

Although the historical events chronicled in the epics have in every case
been so distorted by the fancy of the poets that they cannot be accepted
as history, the epics are storehouses of information concerning ancient
manners and customs, religious beliefs, forms of government, treatment of
women, and habits of feeling.

Constructed upon the noblest principles of art, and pervaded by the
eternal calm of the immortals, these poems have an especial value to us,
who have scarcely yet realized that poetry is an art, and are feverish
from the unrest of our time. If by the help of this volume any reader be
enabled to find a portion of the wisdom that is hidden in these mines, its
purpose will have been accomplished.

My thanks are due to Mr. John A. Wilstach for the use of selections from
his translation of the "Divine Comedy;" to Prof. J. M. Crawford, for the
use of selections from his translation of the "Kalevala;" to Henry Holt &
Co., for the use of selections from Rabillon's translation of "La Chanson
de Roland;" to Roberts Brothers, for the use of selections from Edwin
Arnold's "Indian Idylls;" to Prof. J. C. Hall, for the use of selections
from his translation of "Beowulf;" and to A. C. Armstrong & Son, for the
use of selections from Conington's Translation of the "Aeneid." The
selections from the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are used with the permission
of and by special arrangement with Houghton, Mifflin & Co., publishers of
Bryant's translations of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." Special thanks are
due to Miss Eliza G. Browning of the Public Library of Indianapolis, to
Miss Florence Hughes of the Library of Indiana University, and to Miss
Charity Dye, of Indianapolis.

K. M. R.

INDIANAPOLIS, IND., September, 1896.




















The Descent of the Ganges ... _Milman_
The Death of Yajnadatta ... "

Sâvitrî; or, Love and Death ... _Arnold_
The Great Journey ... "

Helen at the Scaean Gates ... _Bryant_
The Parting of Hector and Andromache ... "

The Palace of Alcinoüs ... _Bryant_
The Bending of the Bow ... "

Ilmarinen's Wedding Feast ... _Crawford_
The Birth of the Harp ... "

Nisus and Euryalus ... _Conington_

Grendel's Mother ... _Hall_

How Brunhild was received at Worms ... _Lettsom_
How Margrave Rüdeger was slain ... "

The Horn ... _Rabillon_
Roland's Death ... "

The Rajah of India sends a Chessboard
to Nushirvan _Robinson_
Zal and Rudabeh "

Count Raymond and My Cid _Ormsby_
My Cid's Triumph "

Count Ugolino _Wilstach_
Buonconte di Montefeltro "
Beatrice descending from Heaven "
The Exquisite Beauty of Beatrice "

The Death of Zerbino _Rose_

Inez de Castro _Mickle_
The Spirit of the Cape "

Sophronia and Olindo _Wiffen_

Apostrophe to Light

The Temptation of the Vision of the Kingdoms of the Earth



"He who sings and hears this poem continually has attained to the
highest state of enjoyment, and will finally be equal to the gods."

The Râmâyana, the Hindu Iliad, is variously ascribed to the fifth, third,
and first centuries B.C., its many interpolations making it almost
impossible to determine its age by internal evidence. Its authorship is
unknown, but according to legend it was sung by Kuça and Lava, the sons of
Rama, to whom it was taught by Valmiki. Of the three versions now extant,
one is attributed to Valmiki, another to Tuli Das, and a third to Vyasa.

Its historical basis, almost lost in the innumerable episodes and
grotesque imaginings of the Hindu, is probably the conquest of southern
India and Ceylon by the Aryans.

The Râmâyana is written in the Sanskrit language, is divided into seven
books, or sections, and contains fifty thousand lines, the English
translation of which, by Griffith, occupies five volumes.

The hero, Rama, is still an object of worship in India, the route of his
wanderings being, each year, trodden by devout pilgrims. The poem is not a
mere literary monument, - it is a part of the actual religion of the Hindu,
and is held in such reverence that the mere reading or hearing of it, or
certain passages of it, is believed to free from sin and grant his every
desire to the reader or hearer.


G. W. Cox's Mythology and Folklore, 1881, p. 313;

John Dowson's Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology, Religion,
Geography, History, and Literature, 1879;

Sir William Jones on the Literature of the Hindus (in his Works, vol. iv.);

Maj.-Gen. Vans Kennedy's Researches into Hindu Mythology, 1831;

James Mill's History of British India, 1840, vol. ii., pp. 47-123;

F. Max Müller's Ancient Sanskrit Literature, 1859;

E. A. Reed's Hindu Literature, 1891, pp. 153-271;

Albrecht Weber's History of Indian Literature, 1878, pp. 191-195;

J. T. Wheeler's History of India, 4 vols., 1876, vol. ii.;

Sir Monier Williams's Indian Wisdom, 1863, Indian Epic Poetry, 1863;

Article on Sanskrit Literature in Encyclopædia Britannica;

R. M. Gust's The Râmâyana: a Sanskrit Epic (in his Linguistic and Oriental
Essays, 1880, p. 56);

T. Goldstuecker's Râmâyana (in his Literary Remains, 1879, vol. i.,
p. 155);

C. J. Stone's Cradleland of Arts and Creeds, 1880, pp. 11-21;

Albrecht Weber's On the Râmâyana, 1870; Westminster Review,
1849, vol. 1., p. 34;

J. C. Oman's Great Indian Epics, 1874, pp. 13-81.


The Râmâyana, Tr. by R. T. H. Griffith, 5 vols., 1870-1874 (Follows Bombay
ed., Translated into metre of "Lady of the Lake");

Extracts from the Râmâyana, Tr. by Sir William Jones (in his Works,
vol. 13);

Iliad of the East, F. Richardson, 1873 (Popular translations of a set of
legends from the Râmâyana);

The Râmâyana translated into English Prose, edited and published by
Naumatha Nath Dutt, 7 vols., Calcutta, 1890-1894.


Brahma, creator of the universe, though all powerful, could not revoke a
promise once made. For this reason, Ravana, the demon god of Ceylon, stood
on his head in the midst of five fires for ten thousand years, and at the
end of that time boldly demanded of Brahma as a reward that he should not
be slain by gods, demons, or genii. He also requested the gift of nine
other heads and eighteen additional arms and hands.

These having been granted, he began by the aid of his evil spirits, the
Rakshasas, to lay waste the earth and to do violence to the good,
especially to the priests.

At the time when Ravana's outrages were spreading terror throughout the
land, and Brahma, looking down from his throne, shuddered to see the
monster he had gifted with such fell power, there reigned in Ayodhya, now
the city of Oude, a good and wise raja, Dasaratha, who had reigned over
the splendid city for nine thousand years without once growing weary. He
had but one grief, - that he was childless, - and at the opening of the
story he was preparing to make the great sacrifice, Asva-medha, to
propitiate the gods, that they might give him a son.

The gods, well pleased, bore his request to Brahma in person, and
incidentally preferred a request that he provide some means of destroying
the monster Ravana that was working such woe among their priests, and
disturbing their sacrifices.

Brahma granted the first request, and, cudgeling his brains for a device
to destroy Ravana, bethought himself that while he had promised that
neither gods, genii, nor demons should slay him, he had said nothing of
man. He accordingly led the appealing gods to Vishnu, who proclaimed that
the monster should be slain by men and monkeys, and that he would himself
be re-incarnated as the eldest son of Dasaratha and in this form compass
the death of Ravana.

In course of time, as a reward for his performance of the great sacrifice,
four sons were born to Dasaratha, Rama by Kausalya, his oldest wife,
Bharata, whose mother was Kaikeyi, and twin sons, Lakshmana and Satrughna,
whose mother was Sumitra.

Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu, destined to destroy Ravana, grew daily in
grace, beauty, and strength. When he was but sixteen years old, having
been sent for by a sage to destroy the demons who were disturbing the
forest hermits in their religious rites, he departed unattended, save by
his brother Lakshmana and a guide, into the pathless forests, where he
successfully overcame the terrible Rakshasa, Tarika, and conveyed her body
to the grateful sage.

While he was journeying through the forests, destroying countless
Rakshasas, he chanced to pass near the kingdom of Mithila and heard that
its king, Janaka, had offered his peerless daughter, Sita, in marriage to
the man who could bend the mighty bow of Siva the destroyer, which, since
its owner's death, had been kept at Janaka's court.

Rama at once determined to accomplish the feat, which had been essayed in
vain by so many suitors. When he presented himself at court Janaka was at
once won by his youth and beauty; and when the mighty bow, resting upon an
eight-wheeled car, was drawn in by five thousand men, and Rama without
apparent effort bent it until it broke, he gladly gave him his beautiful
daughter, and after the splendid wedding ceremonies were over, loaded the
happy pair with presents to carry back to Ayodhya.

When Dasaratha, who had attended the marriage of his son at Mithila,
returned home, he began to feel weary of reigning, and bethought himself
of the ancient Hindu custom of making the eldest son and heir apparent a
Yuva-Raja, - that is appointing him assistant king. Rama deserved this
honor, and would, moreover, be of great assistance to him.

His happy people received the announcement of his intention with delight;
the priests approved of it as well, and the whole city was in the midst of
the most splendid preparations for the ceremony, when it occurred to
Dasaratha that all he lacked was the congratulations of his youngest and
favorite wife, Kaikeyi, on this great event. The well-watered streets and
the garlanded houses had already aroused the suspicions of
Kaikeyi, - suspicions speedily confirmed by the report of her maid. Angered
and jealous because the son of Kausalya and not her darling Bharata, at
that time absent from the city, was to be made Yuva-Raja, she fled to the
"Chamber of Sorrows," and was there found by the old Raja.

Though Kaikeyi was his youngest and most beautiful wife, her tears,
threats, and entreaties would have been of no avail had she not recalled
that, months before, the old Raja, in gratitude for her devoted nursing
during his illness, had granted her two promises. She now demanded the
fulfilment of these before she would consent to smile upon him, and the
consent won, she required him, first, to appoint Bharata Yuva-Raja; and,
second, to exile Rama for fourteen years to the terrible forest of

The promise of a Hindu, once given, cannot be revoked. In spite of the
grief of the old Raja, of Kausalya, his old wife, and of all the people,
who were at the point of revolt at the sudden disgrace of their favorite
prince, the terrible news was announced to Rama, and he declared himself
ready to go, to save his father from dishonor.

He purposed to go alone, but Sita would not suffer herself to be thus
deserted. Life without him, she pleaded, was worse than death; and so
eloquent was her grief at the thought of parting that she was at last
permitted to don the rough garment of bark provided by the malicious

The people of Ayodhya, determined to share the fate of their favorites,
accompanied them from the city, their tears laying the dust raised by
Rama's chariot wheels. But when sleep overcame them, Rama, Sita, and
Lakshmana escaped from them, dismissed their charioteer, and, crossing the
Ganges, made their way to the mountain of Citra-kuta, where they took up
their abode.

No more beautiful place could be imagined. Flowers of every kind,
delicious fruits, and on every side the most pleasing prospects, together
with perfect love, made their hermitage a paradise on earth. Here the
exiles led an idyllic existence until sought out by Bharata, who, learning
from his mother on his return home the ruin she had wrought in the Raj,
had indignantly spurned her, and hastened to Dandaka. The old Raja had
died from grief soon after the departure of the exiles, and Bharata now
demanded that Rama should return to Ayodhya and become Raja, as was his
right, as eldest son.

When Rama refused to do this until the end of his fourteen years of exile,
Bharata vowed that for fourteen years he would wear the garb of a devotee
and live outside the city, committing the management of the Raj to a pair
of golden sandals which he took from Rama's feet. All the affairs of state
would be transacted under the authority of the sandals, and Bharata, while
ruling the Raj, would pay homage to them.

Soon after the departure of Bharata the exiles were warned to depart from
their home on Citra-kuta and seek a safer hermitage, for terrible
rakshasas filled this part of the forest. They accordingly sought the
abode of Atri the hermit, whose wife Anasuya was so pleased with Sita's
piety and devotion to her husband that she bestowed upon her the crown of
immortal youth and beauty. They soon found a new abode in the forest of
Pancarati, on the banks of the river Godavari, where Lakshmana erected a
spacious bamboo house.

Their happiness in this elysian spot was destined to be short-lived. Near
them dwelt a horrible rakshasa, Surpanakha by name, who fell in love with
Rama. When she found that he did not admire the beautiful form she assumed
to win him, and that both he and Lakshmana laughed at her advances, she
attempted to destroy Sita, only to receive in the attempt a disfiguring
wound from the watchful Lakshmana. Desiring revenge for her disfigured
countenance and her scorned love, she hastened to the court of her brother
Ravana, in Ceylon, and in order to induce him to avenge her wrongs, dwelt
upon the charms of the beautiful wife of Rama.

Some days after, Sita espied a golden fawn, flecked with silver, among the
trees near their home. Its shining body, its jewel-like horns, so
captivated her fancy that she implored Rama, if possible, to take it alive
for her; if not, at least to bring her its skin for a couch. As Rama
departed, he warned Lakshmana not to leave Sita for one moment; he would
surely return, since no weapon could harm him. In the depths of the forest
the fawn fell by his arrow, crying as it fell, "O Sita! O Lakshmana!" in
Rama's very tones.

When Sita heard the cry she reproached Lakshmana for not going to his
brother's aid, until he left her to escape her bitter words. He had no
sooner disappeared in the direction of the cry than a hermit appeared and
asked her to minister unto his wants.

Sita carried him food, bathed his feet, and conversed with him until, able
no longer to conceal his admiration for her, he revealed himself in his
true form as the demon god of Ceylon.

When she indignantly repulsed him he seized her, and mounting his chariot
drove rapidly towards Ceylon.

When Rama and Lakshmana returned home, soon after, they found the house
empty. As they searched through the forest for traces of her they found a
giant vulture dying from wounds received while endeavoring to rescue the
shrieking Sita. Going farther, they encountered the monkey king Sugriva
and his chiefs, among whom Sita had dropped from the chariot her scarf and

Sugriva had been deposed from his kingdom by his brother Bali, who had
also taken his wife from him. Rama agreed to conquer Bali if Sugriva would
assist in the search for Sita; and, the agreement made, they at once
marched upon Kishkindha, together slew Bali, and gained possession of the
wealthy city and the queen Tara. They were now ready to search for the
lost Sita.

In his quest through every land, Hanuman, the monkey general, learned from
the king of the vultures that she had been carried to Ceylon. He
immediately set out for the coast with his army, only to find a bridgeless
ocean stretching between them and the island. Commanding his soldiers to
remain where they were, Hanuman expanded his body to enormous proportions,
leaped the vast expanse of water, and alighted upon a mountain, from which
he could look down upon Lanka, the capital city of Ceylon. Perceiving the
city to be closely guarded, he assumed the form of a cat, and thus,
unsuspected, crept through the barriers and examined the city. He found
the demon god in his apartments, surrounded by beautiful women, but Sita
was not among them. Continuing his search, he at last discovered her, her
beauty dimmed by grief, seated under a tree in a beautiful asoka grove,
guarded by hideous rakshasas with the faces of buffaloes, dogs, and swine.

Assuming the form of a tiny monkey, Hanuman crept down the tree, and
giving her the ring of Rama, took one from her. He offered to carry her
away with him, but Sita declared that Rama must himself come to her
rescue. While they were talking together, the demon god appeared, and,
after fruitless wooing, announced that if Sita did not yield herself to
him in two months he would have her guards "mince her limbs with steel"
for his morning repast.

In his rage, Hanuman destroyed a mango grove and was captured by the
demon's guards, who were ordered to set his tail on fire. As soon as this
was done, Hanuman made himself so small that he slipped from his bonds,
and, jumping upon the roofs, spread a conflagration through the city of

He leaped back to the mainland, conveyed the news of Sita's captivity to
Rama and Sugriva, and was soon engaged in active preparations for the

As long as the ocean was unbridged it was impossible for any one save
Hanuman to cross it. In his anger at being so thwarted, Rama turned his
weapons against it, until from the terrified waves rose the god of the
ocean, who promised him that if Nala built a bridge, the waves should
support the materials as firmly as though it were built on land.

Terror reigned in Lanka at the news of the approach of Rama. Vibishana,
Ravana's brother, deserted to Rama, because of the demon's rage when he
advised him to make peace with Rama. Fiercely fought battles ensued, in
which even the gods took part, Vishnu and Indra taking sides with Rama,
and the evil spirits fighting with Ravana.

After the war had been carried on for some time, with varying results, it
was decided to determine it by single combat between Ravana and Rama. Then
even the gods were terrified at the fierceness of the conflict. At each
shot Rama's mighty bow cut off a head of the demon, which at once grew
back, and the hero was in despair until he remembered the all-powerful
arrow given him by Brahma.

As the demon fell by this weapon, flowers rained from heaven upon the
happy victor, and his ears were ravished with celestial music.

Touched by the grief of Ravana's widows, Rama ordered his foe a splendid
funeral, and then sought the conquered city.

Sita was led forth, beaming with happiness at finding herself re-united to
her husband; but her happiness was destined to be of short duration. Rama
received her with coldness and with downcast eyes, saying that she could
no longer be his wife, after having dwelt in the zenana of the demon. Sita
assured him of her innocence; but on his continuing to revile her, she
ordered her funeral pyre to be built, since she would rather die by fire
than live despised by Rama. The sympathy of all the bystanders was with
Sita, but Rama saw her enter the flames without a tremor. Soon Agni, the
god of fire, appeared, bearing the uninjured Sita in his arms. Her
innocence thus publicly proved by the trial by fire, she was welcomed by
Rama, whose treatment she tenderly forgave.

The conquest made, the demon destroyed, and Sita restored, Rama returned
in triumph to Ayodhya, and assumed the government. The city was
prosperous, the people were happy, and for a time all went well. It was

Online LibraryKate Milner RabbNational Epics → online text (page 1 of 32)