In a land far, far away and in a time before time, the Tree of Wisdom grew beside a vast sea at the center of the world, and the seeds of every plant fell upon its branches. At the top of this tree lived a magical bird with the body of a peacock, the claws of a lion, and the head of a dog. Her name was Simorgh, and she possessed the wisdom of the ages. Every time Simorgh took flight, a thousand new branches sprouted from her tree, and when she returned to her nest, a thousand more branches broke, scattering seeds throughout the world.
Simorgh (also spelled Simurgh) is the mythical bird of Persian legend, and she first appears in ancient Zoroastrian texts. Her feathers are the color of copper and, in some stories, she is the size of thirty birds. Simorgh is so old she has seen the world destroyed three times, and after each catastrophe, she emerges stronger and wiser than before. It is said that after 1,700 years, she will rise from the ashes like the phoenix.
Most Iranians today know Simorgh from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the epic poem by the eleventh century Persian poet, Ferdowsi, who tells the mythical and actual history of Persia from the creation of the world until the Arab conquest of Iran in the 7th century A.D.
In the Shahnameh, Simorgh’s tale begins when Zaal is born to King Saam of Sistan. Because Zaal is albino, Saam fears the baby boy has been cursed by demons and abandons him in the wilderness. In Ferdowsi’s version of the story, the Tree of Wisdom grows high in the Alborz Mountains, and Simorgh swoops down to rescue the infant. She bears him away to her nest and raises him to manhood. When the time comes for Zaal to rejoin humanity, she sends him away with a feather from her back.
“If you ever need me,” she says, “burn this feather and I will come.”
Years later, when Zaal’s wife, Rudabeh, is dying in childbirth, her husband remembers Simorgh’s words and burns the feather. The mythical bird arrives and gives Zaal yet another feather, this one with medicinal properties, which he uses to save both mother and child. The boy grows up to be Rostam, the central figure in the Shahnameh. As an adult, Rostam embarks on his own adventures as the greatest of all Persian warriors, and Simorgh appears again with more sage advice and a personal choice: Rostam can accept defeat at the hands of his nemesis, Prince Esfandiar, or kill this enemy and live the rest of his life in sorrow. Being a proud warrior, Rostam chooses the latter.
Simorgh captured my imagination the first time I read about her legend in the Shahnameh. The love intrigues, battles, and tragedies recounted in the epic poem are absorbing, but who can resist a talking, magical bird who looks ferocious enough to tear flesh from bone yet has wisdom, compassion, and the skill of a healer?
Apparently, I am not alone in my fascination with this mythical creature, for Simorgh’s image appears often in Iranian art and culture. She has even lent her name to a band whose music is a fusion of Persian classical, rock, and rap. They performed in the movie, Prince of Persia, and have a Facebook page. Although the group disbanded last year, their special blend of tradition and modernity lives on in the London-based group, Ajam. It’s almost as though Simorgh has risen from the ashes.