The Sacrifice of Er-Heb

(notes by John McGivering and Sharad Keskar)

Publication history

This poem was first published in the U.K. in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses in 1892, though it is dated 1887 in Inclusive Verse and later collections, including the Sussex Edition. See David Alan Richards (p. 74). See also ORG Volume 8, page 5341 (Verse No. 553).

It is collected in:

  • Inclusive Verse
  • Definitive Verse
  • Sussex Edition Volume 32, p. 287
  • Burwash Edition, Volume 25
  • The Works of Rudyard Kipling (Wordsworth Poetry Library)

It is also to be found in ‘Stories, Poems, and Articles 1887-1891. 28/4 – A Scrapbook in the Kipling Papers’, at the University of Sussex.

The theme

This is a tragic story—whether legend or Kipling’s invention is not known—set in an inhospitable and perhaps imaginary country in the mountains to the north of British India. A terrible sickness is inflicted as a punishment upon a people who have neglected their god. A devoted girl sacrifices her life to save them (see lines 10 and 11).

The story echoes the enduring biblical theme of sacrifice for redemption from sin. Some twenty years later, in “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” (1909) in Rewards and Fairies, Kipling writes of the flint man in neolithic Sussex, sacrificing his eye so that his people can be given ‘magic’ iron knives to save their sheep from the wolves.

In its exotic setting the poem also has echoes of the immensely popular novels of Kipling’s friend Rider Haggard (1856-1925)—King Solomon’s Mines (1885), She and Allan Quatermain (1887)—written at about the same time, though they are set in Africa rather than India or Afghanistan. Kipling met Haggard when the younger man came to London in 1889 to make his mark as a writer, and they remained friends until Haggard’s death in 1925. Andrew Lycett (p.185) remarks:

Rudyard’s ’native’ and soldier stories struck most chords with reviewers, who saw them as natural extensions of the exotic escapism of Rider Haggard.

This was a time when the young Kipling was seeking to find his voice as a poet, and experimenting with different forms and techniques. Ann Weygandt notes (p. 114) that in its blank verse style, use of repetition, and of a legend, this poem is interesting as an imitation—either directly or through Sir Edward Arnold—of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the eighty-year-old Poet Laureate. Tennyson thought well of Kipling. (See also our notes on “The Last of the Light Brigade”.)


Sharad Keskar writes: Anyone who spends time in India soon discovers a guru-ridden society, a community of saints, a plethora of gods, and a surround of spiritual ideas and thoughts. This creates a mental state requiring one to seek a guru and find refuge in words. But each guru has his own interpretation. He is the giver of a wisdom that is not for his disciple to command. Should the disciple reach a closer understanding, the Guru may see an advantage in shifting the goalposts. For his disciple’s quest must simply lie in seeking rest in words and in the mantras he provides. Those “words” set the disciple free, and the final word of peace and salvation is in the reverberating sound of “OM”. To take God’s name is neither in vain, nor is it vanity.

From times immemorial, military and missionary influences have come over the hills into India and foundered in its morass of spiritualities. So, when a young, talented, impressionable wordsmith enters this domain from a Greco-Hebraic-Christian culture, armed with an indelible knowledge of the Bible, complexities will spring under a “cloud of unknowing”; the result is “The Sacrifice of Er-Heb”—a bog where one has to be very still, because struggle makes one sink further.

The poem is essentially one in which sound matters and meaning weaves a path through acquired echoes of scriptural language and thought; the reason is in the rhyme. Remember that in 1887 Kipling is twenty-one, at his most imaginative stage, bombarded by the sights and sounds, the heat and dust of India. Just as Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” was an opium dream, this is Kipling’s heat-induced vision that deeply regrets the destruction of a native culture, by Greek, Mughal, and British invasions, literally and figuratively coming “o’er the peaks to India”.

This “strange ride”, full of Biblical imagery and allusion, is pierced by half-understood Indian philology, picked up in his somnambulant and, at times delirious, wanderings on the streets of Lahore. We also know that Kipling liked using a corrupted version of Hindustani, which he garnered from the Indian Army.[S.K.]
Charles Allen comments: This is a weird poem, which puts me in mind of the dirge “The Story of Paul Vaugel” which Kipling wrote as a schoolboy. [See Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling, Ed. Rutherford, Oxford 1980]. “The Sacrifice of Er-Heb” has obvious links with Kafiristan, which was the setting for “The Man who would be King” (1888) in Wee Willie Winkie.

See also the poem “Itu and his God”  published in the CMG in October 1887 and “Evarra and his God” published in 1890.

Notes on the Text

[Title] Er-Heb Er means ‘watchful’ in Hebrew, and Heb may imply a Hebrew tribe; here it obviously refers to a place and a people.

The only place of this name we have traced is the village mentioned in “The Man who would be King” (Wee Willie Winkie, p. 229 line 31) in Kafiristan, a mountainous region in Afghanistan, north of Jalalabad, adjoining the Hindu Kush.

Afghans are over 99% Muslims: approximately 80% Sunni, 19% Shi’a, and 1% other. However, until the 1890s, the region around Nuristan was known as Kafiristan—land of the ‘Kafirs’—referring to its inhabitants, an ethnically distinct people who practised animism, polytheism and shamanism.

It is possible that the country of the story has elements of both Afghanistan and Nepal. (See lines 4 and 206) See our notes on “The Man who would be King” (1888), for Kipling’s interest in the strange mountainous lands north of British India.

John Walker writes: I came across a reference to Er-Heb recently, in Small Wars Journal. Now, erheb means “significant” in German, and the separate words mean “there have” in Dutch. However, the explanation that I like most is that Er was the first-born son of the Patriarch Judah (given that er means ‘watchman’ in Hebrew). Could Kipling have run across Er (Heb.), the watchman. This fits the story and the verse satisfyingly.

So is the village Er Hebrew ? In Genesis, God kills Er because he is wicked.[J.W.]

[Line 1] Ao-Safai: ao (Persian ‘ah-oo’) means ‘come’. safed means ‘white’, and saf ‘clean’, or ‘pure’. The Safed-Koh is the ‘White Mountain’

Sheik Saf-ud-Din, head of the Sufi of Safawiyah, switching loyalty from Sunni to Shi’ah, founded the Safavid Dynasty in the early sixteenth century, and as the first Shah of Iran, established Shi-ism there. Also in Afghanistan, there is a tribe of Shias who wear white (safed) robes. But clearly, in the context of the poem, this is a mountain pass that gets snowed up (line 72). [cf Ao with the Tibetan/Ladakh prefix of Lo & La before a name for a mountain pass. [lines 71/72]

In India, the road through the Khyber Pass has long been seen as ‘a road of enemies’.

[Line 3] Gorukh:  Gorukh is a Hindu term sometimes used for the cult of the Guru. It is an old Sanskrit name popular in Nepal, with links with Shaivism but also Jainism. Gorakhpur is a town in central-eastern India, where there is the tomb of Kabir, the 15th-century saint, and poet, with whose works Kipling was fascinated (see Kim p.358).

Also, he would have heard of Ghor, once an important centre in Afghanistan from where the Ghorid Dynasty ruled northern India in the 12th century; now the site of the rediscovered Minaret of Djam.

[Lines 4 and 206] westward o’er the peaks to India: This is another example of Kipling’s geographical licence. But while the one in “Mandalay” is defensible, at a stretch (where strictly the dawn does not come up ‘outer China ‘crost the Bay’) this one is more glaring. ‘Comes westward o’er the peaks to India’ would mean from China over the Himalayas. Invasions into India almost invariably came via the Khyber Pass. The incursions would, therefore, be ‘Eastwards’. The vocabulary used by Kipling of the people of Er-Heb is phonetically Mediterranean Middle Eastern and not Chinese. But perhaps it would be small-minded to make too much of the points of the compass in considering this moving piece.

[Line 5] Bisesa:  Kipling makes Bisesa in this poem the daughter of Armod, so it is not to be linked with the other tragic Bisesa in “Beyond the Pale” in Plain Tales from the Hills, published in 1888.

Armod is possibly a corruption of “Ahmad”, but he is later described as the ‘first of Er-Heb’ [line 97] invoking a correspondence with “Abraham” from the Chaldean city of Ur [Er?].

[Line 8] Thibet: more usually ‘Tibet’; an ‘autonomous region’ of China, high in the mountains north of India.

[Line 9] Budh: (the spelling varies) The Lord Buddah of whom Kim’s lama was a follower.
See also
Hobson-Jobson, p. 118.

[Line 12] Taman:  Taman is close to the Urdu tamam meaning total, all-encompassing, therefore ‘God of Gods’, equated with Allah or Yahweh.

[Line 15] a stallion’s croup: in this context, the hindquarters of a male horse.

[Line 22] milk-dry ewes: sheep who can no longer provide milk to feed their lambs.

[Lines 25-6] Kysh … Yabosh: Kipling referred to Kysh and Yaboosh as deities worshipped in Kafiristan in an article in the CMG of May 6th, 1887. See Andrew Rutherford (Ed.) p. 386, and our notes on the poem “Itu and his God.”

Kipling later used the name ‘Kysh’ for a character in “Steam Tactics” in Traffics and Discoveries (p. 201), a genial Englishman, and the owner of a splendid motorcar, with no evident interest in pagan gods.

[Line 29] the Red Horse Sickness: Dr. Gillian Sheehan writes I think Red Horse Sickness is Kipling’s own invention as there is no human illness of that name. He might have meant cholera, plague or smallpox. See my notes on “Kipling and Medicine” [G.S.].

Red Horse: also recalls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. ‘The ‘Red Horse snuffed thrice…stamped thrice upon the snow…’ Traditionally the Red Horse symbolised War and the Black Horse, Pestilence. [Did Walter De la Mare borrow this vision for his poem “The Listeners”—particularly as it is followed by an eerie “silence” and “moonlight”? Lines 44 & 50]

[Line 41] the slow mists of the evening dropped: Charles Allen writes: RK of course had a horror of Cholera Morbus from his Lahore days and seems to have clung to the old fashioned idea of it being a miasma or mist, which retained its power in the India Army long after it had been shown to be water-borne, so much so that right up to about 1900 British and Indian Army troops in India retained the practice of marching up wind away from an area where an outbreak of cholera had occurred.
My copy of Surgeon-General Sir William Moore’s A Manual of Family Medicine and Hygiene for India, sixth edition, 1893, advises:

The precise cause of cholera is not known, but it is generally admitted to be a poison, which may be admitted to adjacent places through the air.

This is almost 40 years after Snow had established that cholera was water-borne. For the prevention of cholera, Moore urges disinfection by burning fires of sulphur and adds, ‘tents should be pitched so as to let the wind blow away from the tents to the village, instead of the reverse’ !!! [C.A.]

See also Dr Gillian Sheehan’s notes on “Kipling and Medicine”

[Line 70] Gorukh:  See the note on line 3.

[Line 76] Unlighted Shrine: From here and much of the poem after, one is reminded of the story in the First Book of Kings, where the Prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal. Both build altars/shrines and call upon their gods to send down fires to consume their sacrifices. Only Yahweh responds and Elijah then mocks the shamed-faced worshippers of Baal…. ‘Yabosh and Kysh avail not.’

[Line 88] Sapphire: a gemstone variety of the mineral corundum, an aluminium oxide . When it is red or dark pink it is called a ruby See line 203.

[Line 91] the Sapphire Shrine: See Exodus 24,10. Some Christian hymns, inspired by the Book of Revelations and Ezekiel 1.26, refer to the “sapphire throne”.

[Lines 104 & 106] These lines conjure up a vision of Bisesa not unlike the Annunciation in which the Virgin Mary is told that she has been chosen to bear the child Jesus. (Luke, 1, 26-38) ‘I am chosen of God…’

the Mound of Skulls: is reminiscent of Golgotha, “the place of a skull” and the hill of the Crucifixion in the New Testament [Mark 15.22] It also recalls “The Grave of the Hundred Head”.

[Line 111] water-gold: probably gold that has been washed out of the gravel in a stream.

Used also in verse 10 of ‘The Native-Born’ [D.H.]

[Line 112] breast-plate armour covering the front of the body. The high priests of ancient Israel wore richly decorated breast-plates as a mark of authority (urim and thummim).

jade: a translucent soft green to milky white stone, from nephrite, a silicate of calcium and magnesium. It has been much prized for centuries in China and Central Asia.

[Line 113] turquoise: a blue or white hydrous aluminium phosphate stone, mainly found in Iran, and valued as a jewel.

[Line 128] taloned …Snow-Eagle: not specifically identified but clearly a big bird of prey.with large claws.

[Line 130] ‘counted dumb among the Priests … impotent tongue found utterance’:  This has an echo of the story of Zacharias, father of John the Baptist (Luke, ch.1).

[Line 142] murrain: a disease of cattle.

[Line 145] wheel: in this context, her spinning-wheel

[Line 154] Ao-Safai: See the note on line 1 above.

[Line 173] Wall of Man: not traced

[Line 179] the doors were rent apart:  The New Testament vision, after the death of Jesus on the cross, when the veil of the Temple is ‘rent’ from top to bottom, and darkness, thunder and earthquakes ‘filled men with fear’.

There are many instances in the Bible of Israel turning away from their true God and for which her religious leaders plead to Yahweh to spare His people. There is also an incident in the Acts of the Apostles, when St Paul in Athens sees an altar “To the Unknown God”—lines 195 & 196. But the story of the poem may end as it says at the beginning [lines 7 to 11] that after Bisesa has ‘died to save the tribe’, the man to whom she was “plighted” leaves to ‘seek his comfort of the God called Budh…’

[Line 198] lichen: a fungus of the group Lichenes, found on trees, rocks, etc.

[Line 199] leprosy: a chronic disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. is primarily a granulomatous disease of the peripheral nerves and mucosa of the upper respiratory tract which untreated, can be progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. [See “Gehazi” , and “The Mark of the Beast” in Life’s Handicap.

The Basin of the Blood: Blood plays an important part in many faiths described by Frazer (The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion. but we have not found any particular significance here.

[Line 201] ruby: a pink to blood-red colored gemstone, a variety of the mineral corundum (aluminium oxide). The red color is caused mainly by the presence of the element chromium. Its name comes from ruber, Latin for red. Other varieties of gem-quality corundum are called sapphires. See line 88.

[Line 206] westward o’er the peaks to India: See the note on line 4 above.

[J McG./S.K.]

©John McGivering and Sharad Keskar 2010 All rights reserved