Friday, April 22, 2011

Mystical birds of the Middle East

Quick, off the top of your head, how many mythological or legendary birds can you think of? And what are they symbolic of?

If you're like me, the first thing that comes to mind is the phoenix, "the bird of fire," a symbol of rebirth and renewal, as the creature can literally rise again out of its own ashes. With a different twist, the phoenix is also an important symbol in Eastern imagery and legend. After that, maybe the roc? Which, as an imaginary beastie, is perhaps a symbol of mayhem against unsuspecting explorers?

Originally I had planned to go birding and looking at wildflowers today, having the good fortune to get Good Friday off work as a paid holiday. I'd been dreaming of it all month, an extra day to wander through woods and fields in the gentle spring sunshine, looking for more spring migrants.... Alas, the weather has been downright penitential, alternating between drizzle, heavy rain and ultimate downpour.

So, I decided to learn something new, opened up my laptop, and typed "mythological birds" into my search engine. And although there was lots of stuff on the phoenix, as expected, I was actually most taken with the story of the Persian variant of that creature, the Simurgh.

In the above photo, the man appears to be fighting the Simurgh, which I'm a bit puzzled by, as the bird is a benevolent creature. The Simurgh is an important figure in Persian legend, and its legend has spread throughout Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Central Asia. The Turks call it -- or rather she, as the Simurgh is definitely female-- the Anka Bird, and in the Kurdish tongue she is known as Simir.

In some depictions, she is presented as a griffin-like conglomeration of various animal parts, large enough to grab a whole elephant in her talons. She is so old that some legends claim that she has seen the destruction of the world three times, and thus has all the knowledge of the ages, and roosts in the Tree of Life. Phoenix-like, every couple of millenia, she plunges herself into fire in order to be reborn.

If this barrage of random Simurgh factoids sounds like I'm just cobbling together random notes taken while scanning Wikipedia articles on the Internet...well, guilty as charged! Consider this Mystical Birds 101. And if you're wondering about my sources...they're from the aforementioned Wikipedia and other sites that came up on the first page of my search, which in the spirit of academic honesty I should document, but sometimes I am a bit lazy. (I do believe all the pictures are common domain or not copyrighted, but if I've stolen yours, please let me know.)

One of the things I found most interesting is that in Sufi poetry and symbolism, the Simurgh can be seen as a metaphor for God and the spiritual quest. I fully intend to explore this in more detail, and read the twelfth-century work "Conference of the Birds" by the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, about a group of pilgrims questing for the bird, as this blend of birds/comparative religion/spirituality is right up my alley!

I was also intrigued by all the images of the Simurgh from modern artists, some of which are very beautiful, making me wonder how I can get ahold of good reproductions. It appears that, like all vibrant symbols from the past, this is an image that continues to speak to people.

Another mystical bird is the Melek Taus of the Yazidi, a Kurdish religious group. From my quick introduction, I understand that the Yazidi religion is a blend of traditional Kurdish beliefs and Sufism, and that they believe that God placed the care of the world under seven holy beings, the most important one being Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel.

Jewish tradition also has a legendary bird, the Ziz, a giant, griffin-like creature that can block out the sun with its wingspan as it soars past. The Ziz is considered a symbol of air and space, as Behemoth represents the land and Leviathan the seas. Some legends state that the Ziz was created to protect all the small, helpless birds of the which case, it's definitely time for the Ziz to pay us a visit.

If all of these mystical birds sound a bit far-fetched to you (how I would love to add them to my life list, though), consider the fact that bird symbolism plays a part in the Western tradition as well, as my favorite painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti shows.

And now, the rain appears to have stopped for a while--there's even a hint of sunshine peeking through--so it's time for this birder to put down the computer and go for a walk!


  1. What a fascinating post! I didn't know any of this (well, I had heard of the phoenix and the griffin). My favorite is the Ziz. And I love the painting by Rossetti. "Conference of the Birds" sounds interesting; I think I'll try it. Is it the Griffin that only allows you to speak the truth? How inconvenient! Mom PS What lovely images!

  2. Honestly, the only one I can think of is the Indian's, "Thunderbird."

  3. The "Thunderbird" is featured in one of my favorite fantasy novels, "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman. I've been meaning to do more research into native American legends as many interests, so little time!