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Simurg - A Persian Fairy Tale

By Payam Narbaraz

Published at Imbolc 2002

"You didn't need faith to fly, you needed to understand flying. This is just the same. Now try again..." Then one day Jonathan, standing on the shore, closing his eyes, concentrating, all in a flash knew what Chiang had been telling him. "Why, thats true! I AM a perfect, unlimited gull!" He felt a great shock of joy. - Jonathan Livingstone Seagull

"Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced - even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it." - Keats

There are several different versions of this tale in Persian and as they have been orally transmitted from one generation to another, the originality of any of them cannot be proven. A few years ago a writer collected them from people of different provinces in Iran. The following is my adaptation of a compilation from six versions by Homa A. Ghahremani based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. My interpretations are in brackets and are included as footnotes.

There was being and non being, there was none but God, who had three sons: Prince Kiumars [1], Prince Jamshid [2], and the youngest, Prince Khorshid -Mithra [3] who had no mother; he was the king's favorite because he was the bravest of all.

In the garden of the palace there grew a pomegranate tree [4] with only three pomegranates; their seeds were fabulous gems that shone like lamps by night. When ripe, the pomegranates would turn into three beautiful girls who were to become the wives of the three princes. Every night, by the king's order one of his sons guarded the tree lest anyone should steal the pomegranates. One night when Prince Jamshid was guarding the tree he fell asleep and, in the morning, one pomegranate was missing. The next night Prince Kiumars was on guard, but he also fell asleep and the next morning another pomegranate was missing. When it came to prince Khorshid 's turn, he cut one of his fingers and rubbed salt on it so the burning would keep him awake. Shortly after midnight a cloud appeared above the tree and a hand, coming out of it, picked the last pomegranate. Prince Khorshid drew his sword and cut off one of the fingers. The hand and the cloud hurriedly disappeared.

In the morning when the king saw drops of blood on the ground he ordered his sons to track them, find the thief, and bring back the stolen pomegranates. The three princes followed the blood drops over mountains and deserts until they reached a deep well [5] where the trail ended. Prince Jamshid offered to be lowered down the well with a rope to investigate. Less than halfway down he screamed: "Pull me up, pull me up, I am burning. "His brothers pulled him up. Next, Prince Kiumars went down and soon he also cried out that he was burning. When Prince Khorshid decided to go down, he told his brothers that no matter how loudly he shouted, they should not pull him up but let the rope down farther; and they were then to wait for him only until dark. If there was no sign of him, they could go home. Prince Khorshid entered the well and, in spite of unbearable heat, went all the way down to the bottom where he found a young girl, beautiful as a full moon . On her lap lay the head of a sleeping deav/div, whose thunderous snores filled the air with heat and smoke. "Prince Khorshid," she whispered, "what are you doing here? If this deav wakes up, he will surely kill you as he has killed many others. Go back while there is still time." Prince Khorshid, who loved her at first glance, refused. He asked her who she was and what she was doing there. "My two sisters and I are captives of this deav and his two brothers. My sisters are imprisoned in two separate wells where the deavs have hidden the stolen wealth of almost all the world."

Prince Khorshid said: "I am going to kill the deav and free you and your sisters. But I will wake him first; I do not wish to kill him in his sleep." The prince scratched the soles of the deav's feet until he opened his eyes and stood up. Roaring, the deav picked up a millstone and threw it at the prince, who quickly stepped aside, drew his sword, and in the name of God cut the deav in half [6]. Thereafter he went to the other two wells, finished off the deavs and rescued the sisters of his beloved. He also collected the treasure.

 As it was not yet dark, his brothers were still waiting for him and when he called them they started to pull up the rope. The girl whom Prince Khorshid loved wanted him to go up before her, because she knew that when his brothers saw the jewels they would be jealous and would not pull him up.  But the prince insisted she go up first. When she saw that she could not change his mind she said: "If your brothers do not pull you up and leave you here, there are two things you should know: first, there are in this land a golden cock and a golden lantern that can lead you to me.  The cock is in a chest and when you open it, he will sing for you.  And when he sings, all kinds of gems will pour from his beak. The golden lantern is self-illuminated, and it burns forever.  The second thing you should know is this: later in the night there will come two oxen that will fight with each other. One is black, the other white. If you jump on the white ox it will take you out of the well, but if, by mistake, you jump on the black one, it will take you seven floors further down."

As she had predicted, when the princes, Jamshid and Kiumars , saw the girls and the boxes of gold and silver, they became jealous of their brother's achievements. Knowing that their father would surely give him the kingdom, they cut the rope and let him fall to the bottom of the well [7]. Then they went home and told their father that they were the ones, who had rescued the girls, killed the deavs, and brought all the treasure, and that Prince Khorshid had not come back. Prince Khorshid was heartbroken. He saw two oxen approaching and stood up as they started to fight. In his excitement he jumped on the back of the black ox and dropped with it seven floors down [8]. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in a green pasture with a view of a city in the distance.  He started walking toward it when he saw a peasant ploughing. Being hungry and thirsty he asked him for bread and water. The man told him to be very careful and not to talk out loud because there were two lions nearby; if they heard him, they would come out and eat the oxen. Then he said: "You take over the ploughing and I will get you something to eat."

Prince Khorshid started to plough, commanding the oxen in a loud voice. Two roaring lions came charging toward him, but the prince captured the lions, turned the oxen loose and hitched the lions to the plough. When the peasant returned, he was very much taken aback. Prince Khorshid said: "Don't be afraid. The lions are harmless now and will not hurt you or your oxen. But if you are not comfortable with them, I will let them go." When he saw that the farmer was still reluctant to approach the lions, he unfastened them and they went back where they had come from [9]. The man had brought food but no water. He explained: "There is no water in the city because a dragon is sleeping in front of the spring. Every Saturday a girl is taken to the spring so that, when the dragon moves to devour her, some water runs through the city streams and people can collect enough for the following week. This Saturday the king's daughter is to be offered to the dragon."

Prince Khorshid had the peasant take him to the king: "What will be my reward if I kill the dragon and save your daughter's life?" The king replied: "Whatever you wish within my power." [10].

Saturday came and the prince went with the girl to the spring. The moment the dragon moved aside to devour her, Prince Khorshid called the name of God and slew the monster. There was joyous celebration in the city. When Prince Khorshid, asked to name his reward, announced that his one wish was to return to his homeland, the king said: "The only one who could take you up seven floors is Simurgh ." She lives in a nearby jungle. Every year she lays three eggs and each year her chicks are eaten by a serpent. If you could kill the serpent, she surely would take you home." [11].

Prince Khorshid went to the jungle and found the tree in which Simurgh had her nest.  While he was watching, he saw a serpent climbing up the tree to eat the frightened chicks.  In the name of God he cut the serpent into small pieces and fed some to the hungry chicks who were waiting for their mother to bring them food. He saved the rest for later and went to sleep under the tree. When Simurgh flew over the nest and saw Prince Khorshid, she thought he was the one whom each year ate up all her chicks. She was ready to kill him, when her chicks shouted that he was the one who had saved them from the enemy. Realising that he had killed the serpent, she stretched her wings over Prince Khorshid's head to make shade for him while he slept. When he awoke, the prince told Simurgh his story and asked whether she could help him. Simurgh urged him to go back to the king and ask him for the meat of seven bulls .  "Make seven leather bags out of their hides and fill them with water. These will be my provision for the journey; I need them to be able to take you home. Whenever I say " I am hungry you must give me a bag of water, and when I say " I am thirsty you must give me the carcass of a bull ."  On their way up to the ground Prince Khorshid did exactly as Simurgh had instructed him until only one bag of water was left. When, instead of sayings he was hungry Simurgh said she was thirsty, Prince Khorshid cut off some flesh from his thigh and put it in Simurgh's beak. Simurgh immediately realised it was human flesh. She held it gently until they reached their destination. As soon as he dismounted, the prince urged Simurgh to fly back at once but, knowing he could not walk without limping, she refused and with her saliva restored the piece of his flesh to his thigh. Having learned how brave and unselfish the prince was, she gave him three of her feathers, saying that if he were ever in need of her, he should burn one of them, and she would instantly come to his aid, with that she flew away.

Entering the town, Prince Khorshid learned that three royal weddings were about to take place: for Prince Jamshid , and Prince Kiumars , and the third for the Vizier's son, because the youngest son of the king, Prince Khorshid, had never returned. One day some men came to the shop where Prince Khorshid was apprenticed, saying they had been to all the jewellery stores in town but no one would undertake to make what the king had ordered. Prince Khorshid asked them what it was and was told: "The girl who is to marry the Viziers son has put forward one condition to the marriage! She will only marry one who can bring her a golden cock from whose bill gems will pour when it sings; she also wants a golden lantern, which is self-illuminated and burns forever. But so far no jeweller can build such things." Prince Khorshid, recognising the signs, spoke up: "With my master's permission I can build you a chest with such a golden cock and also the golden lantern by tomorrow."  The men gave him the jewels needed to build those items and left.  Prince Khorshid gave them all to his master for, he said, he did not need them. That night Prince Khorshid left the town and burned one of the feathers. When Simurgh came, he asked her to bring him what the girl had demanded, and she did so. In the morning, the astounded men took the precious items to the king, who at once summoned the young man to the court and was overjoyed to discover it was none other than his favourite son.  Prince Khorshid told his story but he begged the king not to punish his brothers for the wrong they had done him. The whole town celebrated his return and there were three weddings indeed. The king made Prince Khorshid his successor to the throne and all lived happily ever after.

An interpretation: The word Naqsh-bandi, name of the famed Sufi order, can be translated as painters or weavers of the pattern, plan, diagram, and matrix; symbolising the role of the Sufi like a Shaman as one who sees and is aware of the plan or the Web of Wyrd. As Rumi puts it: 'I am a form-making engraver (Naqash) each instant I shape an idol.'  The Story of Simurgh is a story that has many patterns woven into it, and what follows here is an attempt to bestow some light on this matrix. 

1: Prince Kiumars the first human in Ferdusi's Shahnameh, Book of kings (book of God), and the Avesta (Zoroastrian holy text) Kiumars, like Adam, is described as the first human, as wide as he was tall and as bright as the sun and he wore the skins of leopards. He and his people dwelt in the mountains and lived on fruits and roots and wore garments of leaves and were happy. This period probably reflects the Stone Age. The paradise is lost not by temptation in this story but by Ahriman sending a black demon (Deav /Div) and Killing his son Siamak.  Siamak's son Hushang's and his army of animals eventually defeated the black demon: lions and tigers, all the birds of air, grass-eating beasts, the Ox and the noble horse. It was a time emphasising the closeness of humans to the rest of the animal kingdom.   Hushang during another battle with a monster discovers fire, the monster flees and with fire he cooks and keeps warm.

2: Prince Jamshid , the grand son Hushang, forged not only tools but weapons of war, sword, spear, arrow heads and coats of mail, and used these iron weapons to defeat many armies of darkness.  His people learned how to spin and weave and wore garments of wool, silk and linen. Here the society divides into a social class system with specific tasks. The warrior class, priest class, and farmer class.  Jamshid's reign ends due to his pride, seeing himself above God, his army abandons him and era of darkness follows.  

3: The youngest, Prince Khorshid , had no mother. He was the king's favourite because he was the bravest of all. Khorshid or Mithra /Mehr means the Sun , light, love, friend. According to one story Mithra had no mother because he was born of a rock or the cosmic egg, dagger in a one hand and burning torch in another. The Simurgh story follows the Indo-European tripartite ideology pattern. Here we have three princes and three princesses we perceive the Indo-European tripartite of the gods, heroes, and society. In India the original classes were Brahmanas (priests) ksatriya (warriors ) and Vaisya (producers), these correspond with gods Varuna , Mithra and Indra. The pattern could be seen from India, Iran and right across Europe, the Celts segregated society into Druids (Priests), Flaith (warriors), and Boairig (herders). The story of Simurgh is indeed a very old fable, the hero of the story like other Indo-European folk heroes will be expected to face three adversaries, or a monster with three heads, or perhaps like the Irish hero Cuchulainn , fight three brothers. 

4: The Pomegranate is the tree of knowledge in some myths, it is also linked with the underworld as seen in the Greek story of Persephone, which lies at the centre of Eleusinian mysteries.  Persephone is taken to the underworld by Hades to be his Queen.  She willingly eats a seed of pomegranate and is forced to spend every winter with her husband in the land of the dead, symbolising the decay and revival of vegetation. This myth is identical with the Syrian tale of Astarte (Aphrodite) and Adonis, the Phrygian version features Cybele and Attis, and in Egypt Isis and Osiris ; this is the Persian version of the same story. In Sufism the pomegranate also is an important symbol.  Saint Ali said: 'the light of Allah is in the heart of whoever eats pomegranates' and the Prophet Mohammed said: the 'pomegranate cleanses you of Satan and from evil aspirations of forty days'. This is also the fruit still eaten traditionally by Iranians at Shab Yalda (Yule, the winter solstice) which is the longest night of year, meaning that the sun/light at its weakest point. By eating the pomegranate one symbolically aligns oneself with the sun, and keeps a night vigil waiting for dawn. The three pomegranates of our tale are becoming ripe and will turn into three princesses, thus the fruit in essence acts as mediatrix between the two divine worlds of heavens and underworld.

5: The well is an entrance to the underworld, and its fires burn the princes during their descent and they bail out. Prince Khorshid on other hand makes the leap of faith into the vat and like the grape starts his transformation into wine. He continues his journey despite being burned and cooked. On the bottom of the well Prince Khorshid (sun) finds a young girl beautiful as the moon . The Sun and the Moon meet and immediately fall in love. In Sufism the sun represents the Spirit which lights the heavens while the moon symbolises the light of this world. Light is seen as the Divine knowledge, hence the soul of the mystic is symbolised by the moon, which reflects the light of the sun. When moon and the sun meet love flows between them, the moon warns the sun of the perils of this meeting and his quest. Many have come here and the demon has killed them, go back while there is time.  It is too late for Khorshid , as he has seen his beloved, or perhaps his own soul, or his queen to be, or may be he has caught a glimpse of the Ocean of unity.

6: [Prince Khorshid wakes the demon and faces his demon consciously, by saying God's name: ziker or mantra he defeats the three demons.

7: The Lady tells Khorshid to ascend first, knowing how his brothers might react. He ignores her advice, a sign his journey is not yet complete. She gives him instruction on how to find her. First there is a golden cock and a golden lantern. The golden cock represents Saroush (Sarousha in Pahlavi). Saroushais a godlike bird who is the most powerful of the gods, since he is the manifestation of righteousness, honesty, and striving. He fights the Deav of frailty and weakness. In some versions of this story, instead of the golden cock in a chest there is a golden nightingale in a golden cage. In Sufi poetry, the nightingale is in love with the rose, the nightingale represents the aspect of self caught in the exterior form of things hence is unable to leave the rose behind.   In some versions, Prince Khorshid must bring back a golden lantern, the light of wisdom; while in other versions, he must retrieve a golden hand-mill representing the wheel of destiny (or civilisation and culture).

8: The two Oxen represent life that could lead to light or darkness. According to the Zoroastrian tradition the first animal in the world was a 'uniquely created bull ' white in colour and as bright as the moon , the bull was killed and its carcass was carried to the moon and from it came the seed of many species of animals and plants.  The Ox is seen as a symbol of ego (nafs ), and by jumping on the back of the white ox , it would carry him up to seven heavens. But he sits on the black ox and falls seven floors.  In order for him to return he later has to slay seven bulls . The seven bulls or the stages of ego (nafs) are 1) Nafs-i-ammara (the depraved-commanding ego), 2) Nafs-i-lawwama (accusing nafs), 3) Nafs-imulhama (the inspired nafs), 4) Nafs-i-mutmainna (serene nafs) 5) Nafs-i-radiyya (fulfilled nafs), 6) Nafs-i-mardiyya (fulfilling nafs) 7) Nafs-i-safiyy wa kamila (the purified and complete nafs). The seven stages of development correspond to seven heavens which in Sufism are Ether (moon), Reflection (Mercury ), Divine fantasy (Venus ), Light of heart (Sun ), Divine judgement (Mars ), gods meditation (Jupiter ), divines decree (Saturn ). Similar arrangement of divine attributes could also be seen in the Jewish Kabbalah with its Sphere on its Tree of Life, to Christian Gnosticism, Seven Chakras of Hinduism and in the Mithraic Mysteries where Mithras ascends seven heavens by killing a bull . Each heaven represents a specific initiatory degree. The seven valley of Attar 's conference of birds also represent the same journey. Also Ursa Major/Big Dipper with its seven stars represents the direction of Northern Lights, a symbol of enlightenment.

9: The lion symbolised action rather than contemplation, gold and the sun. Another interpretation could be the astronomical one. The Lion attempting to kill the bull is also an old symbol representing constellation Leo at Summer Solstice (the sun and light at its peak) killing constellation Taurus (the bull), and moving out of the Age of Taurus.

10: "In Sufism the dragon relates two astronomical nodes, two diametrically opposed points of intersection between the moon and the sun. Its head is the ascending node, its tail the descending node. An eclipse can only occur when both sun and moon stand at the nodes. To the mystic, the dragon symbolises the place of encounter between the moon and the sun within.  The dragon can either devour the moon, seen symbolically as the mystic's spiritual heart, or it can serve as the place or container of conception. By entering the dragon when the sun is in the nodes, the moon or the heart conceives. Thus, in full consciousness of the perils, one must enter the dragon to await the eclipse in its cosmic womb ." --Sufi Expressions of the Mystic Quest by l. Bakhtiar. The dragon in this story sits at the source of the waters, and Khorshid slays him.  In Hindu mythology, Vitra is the dragon of the waters, which was slain by Indra to release the waters. The Babylonian dragon Tiamat which represented the primordial waters, chaos and darkness was slain the sun god Marduk and In Egyptian mythology Apophis dragon of darkness was overcome each morning by the sun god Ra.

11:[Simurgh is a fabulous creature having affinities with the Arabian Roc and the Indian Garuda (half-man half-eagle and nests in the Wish-fulfilling tree of life).  Simurgh is half-bird, half-mammal, symbolising the union of heaven and earth; she suckles her young.  It appears in Persian , Russian and Caucasian tradition and is the bird of the Persian Tree of Life (seeds) and lives in the land of the sacred Homa (Indian, Soma ) plant whose seed cure all evil. An Eagle also nests in Yggdrasil the Scandinavian World Tree, whose branches are said to bind together heaven and hell.  According to some fables Simurgh lives for 1700 years and then immolated itself like the Phoenix.  By beating her wings, the seeds on the tree of seeds are scattered and carried away by wind and rain over the earth. The bird offers shelter to the Spirit in the other world, or the emblem of developing soul. The Mount Davamad in Alborz Mountains also known as Mount Qaf or Mount Hara, the 'axis mundi ' is the mountain that seeker has to climb to find him/herself. At the summit sits the Emerald rock, acting as the pole or Qutub which seeker walks toward which sits symbolically at the North . " In Sufism the quest for the dawning of light in the cosmic North symbolises the mystic's search for realisation. In this spiritual journey, the light arising in man's inner darkness-the Northern Light or Midnight Sun - represents the impartial but brilliant light of Truth, that which sets us free from egotism and from slavery of material existence "- - The Man of light in Iranian Sufism by Henry Corbin.

Indeed the Simurgh even heals the self-inflected/sacrificial thigh wound that Khorshid gives himself.  Simurgh doesn't eat the flesh Khorshid cut from his own thigh, and restores the flesh to his thigh. The symbol of the thigh wound and limps of heroes are seen in many stories: the Fisher King, Greek Adonis, Phrygian Attis, Egyptian Osiris , Jesus , and Iron John. Robert Bly in Iron John suggests the symbolic wound allows the soul to enter the body, and quotes Rumi 's poem about a lame goat. 

The enemy of the Simurgh like the Indian Garuda is the Serpent who will eat her young. The serpent (Indian Nagas) represents the underworld and at perpetual enmity with the solar Garuda bird.  The serpent is also seen as guardians of knowledge, so Khorshid after killing the serpent, feeds it to the hungry chicks, hence giving the knowledge to the Simurgh 's chicks and save the rest for later. The Eagle and the Serpent are an old alchemical formula. For Simurgh to carry Khorshid up seven levels, he has brought the meat of seven bulls . That is he to go through the seven stages of the ego (nafs ) to ascend seven heavens, or as Attar (12th century Sufi poet) puts it in to reach the king of birds the Simurgh, seven valleys has to be crossed. In Attar's 'Conference of birds' all the birds gather to begin a quest for the fabulous bird Simurgh, the King of Birds. The bird hoopoe symbolising inspiration tells all the birds of existence of Simurgh, who lives a far away, beyond seven valleys. Many of the birds make their excuses and decide not to make the journey, eventually a group of birds makes their way across the seven valleys which are: Search, Love , mystic apprehension, Detachment, unity, bewilderment, and fulfilment in Annihilation. After many trials and tribulation across the seven valleys only thirty birds finally reach the court, at first they are turned back, but finally admitted. The crucial moment depends on a pun: 'si' means thirty, 'murgh' means birds, and hence si-murgh literally means thirty birds. Once in the presence of Simurgh :

. . .

"A new life flow towards them from that bright

Celestial and ever living light.  

Their souls rose free of all they had been before;

The past and all its actions were no more.

Their life came from that close, insistent sun.

And in its vivid rays they shone as one.

There in the Simurgh 's radiant face they saw themselves,

the Simurgh of the world with awe.  They gazed,

and dared at last to comprehend.  

They were the Simurgh and at the journey's end.  

They see the Simurgh at themselves they stare,

and see a second Simurgh standing there;

They look at both and see the two are one.

That this is that, that this, the goal won.

They ask (but inwardly; they make no sound).

The meaning of these mysteries that confound.  

Their puzzled ignorance-how is it true

That 'we' is not distinguished here from 'you'?  

And silently their shining lord replies:

I am a mirror set before your eyes,

And all who come before my splendour see,

Themselves, their own unique reality;

You came as thirty birds, not less nor more;

If you had come as forty, fifty- here,

An answering forty, fifty would appear,

Though you have struggled, wandered, travelled far,

It is yourselves you see and what you are

' Who see the divine?  It is himself each sees;

What ant's sight could discern the Pleiades?

What anvil could be lifted by an ant?  

Or could a fly subdue an elephant?  

How much you thought you knew and saw; but you

Now know that all you trusted was untrue.

Through you traversed the Valley's depths and fought

With all the dangers that the journey brought,

The Journey was in Me, the deeds were Mine-

You slept secure in Being's inmost shrine.

And since you came as thirty birds, you see

These thirty birds when you discover Me,

The Simurgh , Truth's last flawless jewel, the light

In which you will be lost to mortal sight,

Dispersed to nothingness until once more

You find in Me the selves you were before.'

Then, as they listened to the Simurgh 's words,

A trembling dissolution filled the birds-

the substance of their being was undone,

And they were lost like shades before the sun;

Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained.

The Simurgh ceased to speak, and silence reigned". ]

The same spirit is beautifully echoed in the concluding lines of the 'Charge of the Goddess' :

"To thou who thinkest to seek Me, know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou knowest the Mystery. If that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without. For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning; and I am that which is attained at the end of desire."