Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Simurgh: Faizah's Destiny by Marva Dasef

Simurgh, Sassanian Royal Symbol
(Public Domain)
       I recently reviewed Faizah’s Destiny by Marva Dasef, a Middle Grade book set in a fictional Middle East.  The book follows the adventures of four village children as they undergo a process of growing up and learning about themselves.  It draws on Persian and other Middle Eastern myths for its fantasy.   A main plot element is a quest to find the Simurgh, a mythical bird central to significant Persian tales.  In Dasef's story the Simurgh is a large, deathless bird that can speak and is said to know all things and to be a "great teacher and a guardian."  It has arms in addition to wings and the author gives it moving lips at the end of its beak   It resembles a peacock in appearance and proves to be quite benign, giving each child a look into their potential futures.  It is a non-frightening, benevolent creature.
        The Simurgh was mentioned briefly in my post Bird Myths Pt. 4: Greece and the Middle East.  Today I want to investigate the lore of the Simurgh, which is a good deal more complex than the version we see in Dasef's book.  Faizah's Destiny is a book for middle-graders and so some of the more grotesque or ferocious elements of the Simurgh have been adjusted.  This is not a problem in the context of this book; one of the things that makes myth so valuable as a foundation for fiction is the ability to be adapted to an author's purpose.

        The Simurgh occurs in several different Middle Eastern cultures and literatures.  The Wikipedia article is not well documented, but as usual it makes a good starting point for investigation.  The name is Persian in origin, deriving from a Sanskrit word meaning "eagle, bird of prey."  Like the Roc or the Ziz, it is described as large enough to carry off an elephant.  It has the head of a dog, the claws of a lion, and sometimes a human face, which gives it kinship with the Griffin (body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle's talons as its front feet) as one of the mythological hybrids. 
       However, if you search "Simurgh" in Google Images, you will see that most of the iconography is not of the Griffin variety but depicts this creature as a true bird.  Above is a striking example (  - no copyright information given that I can see.)
       Wikipedia cites an online reference that gives an comprehensive overview of the Simurgh:  Many myths in many cultures surround this fabulous "bird."  I'll recount just two of them.
       The Simurgh is associated with the Tree of Life, which is said to stand in the middle of the primal sea.  The Simurgh nests in this tree, which produces the seeds of all plants.  When the Simurgh takes flight, it causes the branches to shake and the seeds to fall. They are then distributed all over the world by wind and rain or by other birds, producing all the plants that we know.  The Simurgh is generally associated with rain, although one source says that sometimes the weight of the bird breaks the branches of the Tree, causing it to wither, thus associating it with the burning sun. 
       The Simurgh can also have an alter-ego, a dark counterpart (quoting from the Encyclopaedia Iranica article cited above): "the exact opposite of those of the Sēnmurw: When Kamak appeared he spread his wings over the whole world, all the rain fell on his wings and back into the sea, drought struck the earth, men died, springs, rivers and wells dried up. Kamak devoured men and animals as a bird pecks grain. Karšāsp showers arrows on him day and night like rain till he succumbs. In killing men Kamak is the opposite of Camrōš, who pecks up the enemies of Iran like grain (Bundahišn 24.24)." ("Chamrosh" is yet another name for the Simurgh, or for a companion bird that sits beneath the Tree of Life and helps to scatter its seeds:
      In Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the national epic of the Persian world, Zal son of Saam was an albino and considered the spawn of the devil. He was abandoned on a mountain top, then, prompted by God, a Simurgh rescued him, raised him, and educated him (example of the epic element of an abandoned infant raised by a wild creature). When Zal returned to the world of men, the Simurgh gave him one of her feathers, which he was to burn if he ever needed assistance. Later, when it appeared Zal's wife would die in labor, he used the feather to summon the Simurgh, who taught him how to do a Caesurean section and so save the child. This child grew up to be Rostam, the great Persian hero, who in a later part of the epic was to be aided by the Simurgh again. 
       This benevolent version had its dark counterpart.  Also quoting the Encyclopaedia Iranica article: "The Simorḡ, protector of Zāl and Rostam, has an evil counterpart called by the same name. She lives on a mountain and looks like a mountain or a black cloud; she can carry off crocodiles, panthers and elephants. She has two young ones as big as herself. This Simorḡ is one of the adversaries Esfandiār kills in the course of his seven exploits on the way to the castle of Arjāsp. To overcome the huge monster Esfandiār constructs a large chariot spiked all over with swords which cut the bird to pieces (IV, p. 509f.). It is not impossible that both birds are originally identical and the Simorḡ is ambivalent. Her benevolent behavior towards Zāl was due to God’s intervention, and went against her nature as a raptor. In the contemptuous description of Zāl’s origin it is said that the Simorḡ spared the child because she could not stomach him (IV, p. 612)."
       Fascinating stuff, isn't it?

       I also want to add quotations from the Encyclopaedia Iranica article that deal with the relationship of the Simurgh to the other giant mythical birds of the region (some of which are benevolent and some malevolent).  I have indicated in bold interesting points that tie this post to some of my other discussions and demonstrate the universality of the Big Bird concept:
       "The Simorḡ’s equivalent in Arabic sources is the ʿAnqāʾ. The ambivalent nature of this bird is attested in the Hadith: the bird was created by God with all perfections, but became a plague, and a prophet put an end to the havoc it wrought by exterminating the species (Pellat, p. 509). In the Sumerian Lugalbanda Epic the mythical bird Anzu is a benevolent being. The hero frees the young of the bird, which in return blesses him. In the Sumerian Lugal-e and the Akkadian Anzu Epic the bird represents demonic powers and is vanquished by the god Ninurta. In the Akkadian Etana Epic the hero is carried by the eagle to the heaven of Anu. The correspondence of these motifs with the Simorḡ stories in the Šāhnāma and the Kurdish folktales is obvious, showing that they are of common Near Eastern heritage (Aro, p. 25ff.). In an illustration of a manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights the Simorḡ is identified with the monstrous bird Roḵ (cf. Casartellli, p. 82f.).
       "The Sēnmurw has many traits in common with the Indian Garuḍa, the steed of the god Viṣṇu (cf. Reuben, pp. 489ff., 495, 506f., 510, 515, 517). It is of particular interest that the comparison was made already in Sasanian times. In the first book of the Sanskrit Pañcatantra (the cognate of Kalila and Dimna) is a story of the birds of the shore who complain to their king Garuḍa. In Sogdian, synmrγ is used to translate garuḍa (see Utz, p. 14); and in the old Syriac translation of the Middle Persian original of Kalila and Dimna, Garuḍa is rendered by Simorḡ (cf. de Blois). Fauth (p. 125ff.) has argued that all the mythical giant birds—such as Simorḡ, Phoenix, Garuḍa, the Tibetan Khyuṅ, and also the Melek Ṭāʾus of the Yezidis—are offshoots of an archaic, primordial bird that created the world. Thus Simorḡ as God in Persian mysticism would, curiously, represent a return to the original meaning."

       I really find it more than a little cool to regard the Creator God as a giant bird!  And I can see enough material in the many Simurgh myths to inspire any number of great fantasy stories!


  1. Great compilation of the Simurgh mythos. When I was researching for Faizah's Destiny, I noted a number of the sources you have here. I did have a specific purpose for the Simurgh, so I didn't want to get into its destructive and evil side.

    In the book, I needed a focal point for the kids' search for Master Wafai. Since the old man saw the Simurgh as the epitome of the magic he loved, it became the goal in Faizah's mind. Of course, an all-knowing bird who Master Wafai worships would be the primary source of information. To that end, I needed the good side of the Simurgh to stand out.

    Lorinda: Thanks for the nice review you posted on Amazon and Goodreads.

    1. You're welcome! There can never be too many versions of wonderful myths. Thanks for stopping by, Marva!