At the Sign of Simorgh:Mythical Birds and the Mystical Discourse in Persian Poetry
Simorgh has from the very beginning of its appearance in extant pre-Islamic records of ancient Iran – i.e., texts in Ancient and Middle Persian – has been characterized by three features, a bird of large size, a healer and protector of sorts, and possessor of certain secrets which, being inaccessible to ordinary mortals, turn the bird into a prime sign of transcendence, physical or intellectual or spiritual. Let me address this last issue, the matter of transcendence, first, as it goes to the most general attributes of mythical winged creatures, therefore separating birds from the other animals in many primitive cultures, bestowing on them a uniquely distinguished status in matters that lie beyond natural elements or physical domains. We know, for example, that in the language of classical Persian poetry, asses are associated with innocence of the sort you do not wish to be associated with, and that dogs, as signs of our animal instincts, are emblems of angry outbursts.
It is through Carl Gustav Jung that we have been made aware of certain half-forgotten universal tendencies that still reside in our mind but are neither accessible to any single individual nor recorded in any tribal or national memory. Jung has given the sum total of those the name “collective unconscious.” Described in J. F. Jacobi’s The Psychology of Jung as “the precipitate of humanity’s typical forms of reaction since the earliest beginnings,” the collective unconscious holds those images that mediate between the human mind and all manner of artistic creativity. While the specific forms of these archaic patterns change, their psychic meaning remains more or less constant. In this scheme, wild and powerful birds have since times immemorial been seen as symbols of release and liberation, be it from death and disease or pain and suffering or, in our modern scientific minds, of release from gravity that propels our space explorations.
Through the centuries and in many specific social configurations, large and powerful winged creatures capable of flying have been the embodiment of the same transcendent principle: deliverance from the human condition into a better and more empowering one. From the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth to the Indian bird Gadura, to caduceus or the winged staff of Mercury which makes a ‘flying man” of the God himself, to the Simorgh, whom I hope we’ll get to know a little better through this research, we see in these creatures the highest manifestation of the principle of transcendence, be they lower transcendences such as that from the underworld into the earth, or passage through earthly reality into some barely known surly sphere, or finally, the modern ambition to attain superhuman strength or a transpersonal reality in the form of flight. I will return to this topic at the end of this presentation.
Returning to Simorgh, this antique bird of Persian mythology, Scholars of ancient Iran tell us that two passages in the Avesta use the word that they believe lies behind all the transformations that can be traced along the line of time to the word Simorgh itself. One refers to the bird Saena, the other to a tree of the same name. They tell us that the latter reference specifies that this tree stands in the middle of a lake whose name means “all-remedies” and that the tree bears the seed of all plants. Etymologically, these scholars have traced all this to the Sanskrit syena, meaning eagle or falcon. What scholarship has yet to clarify is whether the word refers to a specific specie of birds or an individual one. However, the fact that elsewhere in the Avesta the word Saena appears as the name of a person has led most scholars to adopt the latter view. The upshot of all the scholarly speculations has been that Saena, the word to which we can trace the name of Simorgh, has since ancient times been conceptualized as a single big bird with some supernatural ability.
Our big bird has retained many aspects of this characterization throughout the centuries we speak of here, namely the 6th century BC through 2nd century, CE. By the time we explore the image in its Middle Persian reincarantion, its individuality has been affirmed, turning it from a generic symbol of power and healing into a specific larger-than-life character much like the machinery of supernatural creatures in Greek mythology. Marked with supernatural powers and anchored in individual will and intellect, Simorgh enters the Sasanid textual tradition and from there into Islamic era and the Dari Persian language. Throughout this transformative journey, however, our big bird keeps its connection with a magnificent tree – or shrub – and such attributes as its most fateful action in The Shahnameh make clear: healing, protecting, guiding. The mystery here is how Simorgh comes to be connected to the House of Sam and the Sistani cycle of narratives in The Shahnameh. The connection with Sanskrit and India might be helpful here, although what follows must be seen as pure speculation on my part. We know that the Sistani narratives present certain anomalies with the other two major strands of Shahnameh narratives, such as that presented by the color white associated with a deev of the same name, whom Rostam slays in his effort to save the foolish King Kaykavus.
To move forward to Simorgh’s three appearances in The Shahnameh, we know that in her first appearance the fabulous bird adopts and raises an exposed child Zal, in the second, it assists Zal’s wife Rudabeh by healing the wounds she has suffered through the birth of the supersized child Rostam, and in her third and final appearance she heals Rostam’s wounds and tells him how he can overcome his adversary Prince Esfandiar. In this last appearance she also makes a passing reference to her mate, now vanquished at the hand of Rostam’s enemy Esfandiar. All this merits a closer attention, and it is going to get that now, albeit in butter brevity.
When we first meet Simorgh in The Shahnameh, Simorgh is swooping down from Mount Alborz, where her recently hatched hungry chicks are waiting and wailing for lunch. As the mother bird gets close to the earth, she sees, wonder of wonders, a human infant, alone, helpless, crying at the top of his lungs. At first, as she thrusts her claws into the screaming baby’s skin, she has no thought of sparing the exposed child; all she is instinctively thinking of is lunch for the chicks. Even after she has climbed all the way near the top, where she has her nest and offers the human infant to her chicks she does not feel anything but accomplishment as provider for her own brood. The story makes this clear as it states:
Su-ye bachegan bord ta beshkarand
Bedan naleh-ye zar-e u nangarand
(She offered him to her brood to eat
and pay no heed to his bitter weeping)
It is only after the voice of the poet’s persona assures us that God the benevolent (yazdan-e niki dahesh) took pity on the hapless baby that the mother bird and her chicks stare at the living thing that they feel love (mehr) toward it. Let us pause here for a brief moment. Does this not mean that Simorgh is not being guided by the good God to become something more than an animal? That she is receiving the blessings of a benevolent deity who has selected her to be not just more than a mother bird or even better than the human father who has so ignorantly exposed his son just because of his white hair and skin, but that she is being selected for a greater mission still. I’ll return to this motif as we read Sohrevardi’s retelling of the incident.
Let us move forward to the defining moment when Zal’s father, Sam, is accosted in a dream as one who, because he has neglected his worthy son, is not fit to be a hero:
To ra dayeh gar morgh shayesteh’i
Pas in pahlavani cheh bayesteh’i
(When you leave a bird to raise your son
would you merit the name of a pahlavan?)
Sam decides to go to the foothills of Alborz Kuh and see for himself. It is there, as he stands shamefaced before Simorgh and his own son, that the bird shows her moral superiority by urging Zal to try to forgive his father because Sam has now realized the error of his deed in abandoning and exposing him. Understandably, Zal is reluctant to go home to such a father, and that is why Simorgh gives him a feather from his plumage:
Aba khishtan bar yeki parr-e man
Hamisheh hami bash dar farr-e man
Keh dar zir-e parr-at beparvardeh-am
Aba bachegan-at bar avardeh-am
Gar-at hich sakhti beh ruy avarand
Gar az nik o bad goftoguy avarand
Bar atash barafgan yeki parr-e man
Bebini ham andar zaman farr-e man
Hamangah bia-yam cho abr-e siah
Biazar-at ar-am bedin jaygah
(Take with you a feather of mine
And you shall always be in my protection
For, along with my own chicks,
I have raised you under my wing.
Should they give you a hard time
If they even speak of your good and bad
Throw this my feather in flames
And you shall see my glory instantaneously.
I shall appear like the dark cloud
and shall carry you back here unharmed.)
Once again, Simorgh’s bird’s eye view of the world of humans places her perched at a vantage point from which he can view human frailties, see their proclivities and predict both prejudice and discrimination – a superior moral ground indeed. I stress this because by the time we get to the mystical re-articulation of the bird and the recasting of this image we will see this trait magnified manifold. For now, Simorgh’s awareness of and reference to her own farr or glory implies not just a creature that transcends the world of mortals, but a godlike figure who can use that transcendent benevolence for the good of humanity, ever so prone to error.
Simorgh’s final appearance in the Persian epic, occurring toward the end of Rostam’s last great battle, is at once more detailed in itself and more dramatic in its consequences. The old hero has been dragged out of his retirement by the young Prince Esfandiar who, having set himself the mission to propagate the din-e behi, a new creed, comes knocking on his door in Zabol, demanding to take him to the Shah, in shackles. Of course Rostam would not agree, and they end up doing battle. However, Esfandiar’s body is invulnerable and, as a result, Rostam and Rakhsh receive multiple wounds, some so severe as to make Zal fearful of their imminent demise.
At this point, the hoary-headed Zal, who has been holding on to Simorgh’s feather for over six hundred years, has no way but to put it on fire in accordance with Simorgh’s instructions so many centuries before. Let’s hear the rest from Ferdowsi, this time in Jerome W. Clinton’s translation published as In the Dragon’s Claws:
Cho yek pas az an tireh shab dargozasht
To gofti hava chon siah-abr gasht
Ham angah cho morgh az hava bengarid
Derakhshidan-e Atash-e tiz did
Neshasteh bar-ash zal ba dagh o dard
Ze parvaz-e morgh andar amad beh gard
Beshod tiz ba ud zal az faraz
Sotud-ash faravan o bord-ash namaz
Beh pish-ash seh mejmar por az buy kard
Ze khun-e jegar bar do rokh juy kard
bedu goft Simorh shaha cheh bud
keh amad az in san niaz-at beh dud.
(The first watch of
The night went by, then suddenly it seemed
The clouds turned iron black. From high above,
Simorgh looked down and saw the three hot fires
And seated by their side the grief-struck Zal.
Sadly, Simorgh descended from the air.
With fragrant aloes Zal approached and praised
Her greatly, bowing low. As bloody tears
Coursed down his cheeks, he set three braziers there
Before her, and heaped them high with scented wood.
She said to him, “O shah! What has distressed
You so that you have called me with this smoke?”)
Of the many features of this scene and the exchanges that follow, three relate most closely to the portrayal of the fabulous Simorgh in The Shahnameh. First, the bird is not completely prescient; she has arrived but knows not what has caused Zal to summon her. She does know that whoever ends up killing Esfandiar will soon come to an ignominious end, though, and warns Rostam of this. Second, she cherishes her functions as a healer, guide and protector far more than that as one who can craft victory for the household to whom she has pledged her guardianship. She asks no questions, displays no hesitation in healing Rostam’s and Rakhsh’s wounds by gently rubbing her feather over them, and counsels Rostam to stay away from Prince Esfandiar, citing the deeply personal and most sobering episode of Esfandiar slaying of her own mate. However, when it comes to showing how Rostam can eliminate his enemy, the mother bird is extremely reluctant to divulge the information, perhaps because this involves violence. “Why,” she asks twice, “did/ you wish to fight Esfandiar? Why choose to burn yourself within his fire?” And a moment later, “why did you wish to fight Esfandiar? . . . To hold back now from fighting more would not seem strange but shrewd.” Even then, she first issues her direst warning in a statement that indicates she too has been badly stung by the might of the invulnerable prince, but that, unlike Rostam, she harbors no ill will against him:
To ra az man andazeh bayad gereft
Keh an joft-e man morgh-e ba dastgah
Beh dastan o shamshir kard-ash tabah.
(Be warned by my own case. With his sharp sword
And clever tricks she slew my mate, a bird
Of strength and majesty.)
If we are to locate the notion of transcendence in The Shahnameh’s portrayal of Simorgh beyond her mighty size and healing powers, it is in her benevolent spirit, expressed as asides in supple passages like this, where examples are set to guide the steps of posterity in coming to learn and reconcile to human limitations. Having thus issued all the warning she can, both about the harm that killing Esfandiar can do to Iran as well as to what Rostam himself cherishes most – i.e., a good old age and an unscathed reputation after death – she tells him she will reveal the secret of how Esfandiar can be overcome and she does: Rostam is to shoot an arrow made of tamarisk wood into his eyes and leave the rest to zamaneh (fate, destiny, time, fortune).
Returning to the ancient connection between the bird, the lake and the tree, we see Simorgh guide Rostam’s path to victory step by step to the edge of a darya (river, lake, sea or ocean), showing him where and how to find the tamarisk branch that will do the work, how to straighten it over fire and affix a two-pronged arrowhead to its tip and three feathers on its base, and how to structure and articulate his last humble plea to the powerful prince before releasing the arrow toward its destined aim. Among other precautions, Rostam is to refrain from all trickery and deceit, honestly supplicate himself before Esfandiar, speaking only honest and gentle words, and end his speech by reminding the prince of his long and distinguished service to the courts of Iran and of his desire for peace and quiet in his old age. Violence must be the absolute last resort:
Cho puzesh koni chand o napzirad-at
Hami az forumayehgan girad-at
Beh zeh kon Kaman ra vo in chub-e gaz
Bedin guneh parvadeh dar ab-e raz
Abar chashm-e u rast kon har do dast
Chonan chun bovad mardom-e gaz-parast
Zamaneh barad rast an ra beh chashm
Beh khashm ast bakht ar nadari to kjhashm.
(Should he reject
Your supplications, and treat you as a man
Of little worth, then string your bow and take
This arrow made of tamarisk, which first
You’ll soak in wine, and then, with both hands,
Send it straight toward his eyes, as those who worship
The tamarisk would do. Your rage and fate
Together will bear that fateful tamarisk
Directly to his eyes.)
Note the way in which Simorgh distinguishes an the individual hero’s desire to overcome his enemy from a higher notion of justice anchored in a sense of righteous anger, one that governs the universe and can be implemented by forces like zamaneh and bakht that are larger than any single individual. Only if Rostam can overcome his own personal wrath in wishing to lay his enemy low will the governing principles of fate, time and fortune will be moved to allow the death of Esfandiar at his hands.
In purely narratological terms, the discourse of The Shahnameh rests on the assumption of the existence of a real world out there, a dimension of reality that necessitates conceptualizing the work as an objective epic, not in terms similar to Homer’s works, but in a more specific sense. Each story can be seen as a window into a really existing world of men and their interactions, each episode or incident an instance of the challenges that everyone may face in that world. As we read on, we begin to see a gradual accumulation of insights into the workings of the relationship between man and nature, among men, or, in a few significantly illustrative instances, between man and God.
In course of the growth of Persian literature, as we move in time, we begin to detect a gradual movement to the center of what we can term the literature’s mirror function. This window/ mirror distinction is meant to serve as a tool of analysis, at least insofar it elucidates the types of challenges that human beings face in themselves as well as between themselves and the world – or worlds – in which they see themselves living. It is important to mention, however, that the distinction is a matter of difference and not of opposition, which is why I try to stay away from the binary of mirror versus window, preferring instead to speak of a primarily afaqi (one of horizons of signification), such as we have in The Shahnameh, and a predominantly anfosi (one of visions or self-perceptions of signification), such as we see in the narratives we associate with the Persian mystical tradition. One way to conceptualize the process by which this change comes to be textualized would be to think that the “representation function” of poetry by and large gives way to a “reflection function”, providing occasions for inward glances, for re-examining one’s own existence in the world, in short, for introspection. That, in sum, is what turns an afaqi text (i.e., one that provides us with a the window through which to look at the world out there) to an anfosi text (i.e., one that holds a mirror before us in which to behold ourselves). I have tried to capture the difference in as many angles as I have been able to and what I am privileging here is one such perspective. No wonder, then, that the mirror becomes such a central emblem in the mystical literature in Persian, as we shall see presently in the case of `Attar’s Conference of the Birds.
Let me give a single example before moving on, as we must. If we compare the challenges that Shaykh San`an faces in The Conference of the Birds with those of any major Shahnameh hero, say Rostam, Siavash, or Esfandiar, the distinction may well begin to make sense in more concrete ways. To the protagonist of the mystical narrative, it seems as though the greater struggle lies within the individual rather than between him and the forces outside him, whether natural or supernatural. This gives life a more pronounced subjective – one can even say even psychological – dimension that, while we may detect in a nascent form in The Shahnameh, now becomes a focal point of the narrative’s concerns. For other examples we can compare the figures of Alexander, Khosrow or Bahram Gur in the Shahnameh and Nezami’s romances.
In a similar move and perhaps as a result of this development, the numerous philosophical treatises written after the various Shahnamehs made their impact, we see episodes taken from the Persian epic that undergo several mutations. Of course these later articulations cannot be classed, strictly speaking, as complete or coherent literary artifices. Rather, they constitute vignettes that provide occasions for philosophical observations by presenting rather vivid scenes illustrative of the ideas they privilege or propagate. They also include important alterations in the turns and twists of plot and character, of the various personages and their conduct, and of the ways in which they conceptualize the relationship between the story and the moral. I will only allude briefly to one such vignette that shows the nature of the relationship between the infant Zal and Simorgh, focusing on the latter, both as character and as a poetic sign. It appears in Sohrevardi’s Aql-e Sorkh, a treatise in which different birds play various parts. In the passage I cite here, the narrator, a falcon who has just liberated himself from a hunter’s net, is recounting Simorgh’s protective function in the case of the abandoned Zal:
When Zal came out of his mother and into existence, he had white colored hair and face. His father Sam ordered him thrown onto the plains. It was the season of winter – and cold; none imagined he would survive for long. After some days passed, his mother, having recovered from the injuries [of the delivery], felt compassion in her heart for her child. “Let me go onto the plains and see the child’s condition,” she said. When she went out onto the plains, she saw her child alive, Simorgh holding him under her wing. He smiled as he cast a glance on the mother, and she took him in her embrace and fed him milk from her breast. She wanted to take him back home then, but said: “I will not go home before I learn what condition Zal has been in to have survived these many days.” She placed Zal back in the same spot under Simorgh’s feather and herself hid nearby. As night fell and Simorgh flew away from the plain, a deer appeared over Zal’s head and placed her breast in his mouth. After Zal drank the [deer’s] milk, the deer put herself to sleep over Zal’s head. Zal’s mother rose up, drove the deer away from over her son’s head, and carried him back home.
The many large questions this account raises aside, the scene shows how the personages – Zal’s mother, the deer, and Simorgh – have now begun to serve, not just as characters in a human drama, but as signs of the protection and favor that God has granted the helpless baby Zal. Both the bird and the deer serve to show to Zal’s mother that the baby must live on. That lesson learned, they have no other function, not even a trace of individuality; nor can any be gleaned from the narrative inasmuch as the author or his persona may wish. It is this trend that leads in the end to the great mystic’s understanding of providence such as we see in Sa`di’s testimonial about the inclusiveness of God’s providence, attested to by the fact that he provides even for Simorgh, in distant Qaf.
Chonan pahn khan-e karam gostarad
Keh simorgh dar qaf ruzi khorad
(So wide has He spread his feast of generosity
That even Simorgh takes her day share atop Mount Qaf)
In the high mystical tradition in Persian, where I include luminaries such as Sana’i, `Attar, Rumi, the process gathers steam and the system of literary signification begins to reflect this. We do not have space enough to discuss the various versions and manners in which this process, which elsewhere I have termed “grand internalization” of literary devices great and small, manifests itself in so many Sufi texts. Let me focus instead on the most celebrated and most concentrated case, the sign of Simorgh in `Attar’s Conference of the Birds. Now, `Attar in general, and in the allegory of the avian quest for a king particularly, have received increased attention in the past two decades or so, both in the Persian-speaking world and, most relevant to our enterprise here, in the West. This is in no small measure due to Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis’s translation, of course, and I can do no better than to refer to that English version. I will have time only to cite and discuss briefly the two most substantive descriptions of the king of birds, one provided by the hoopoe at the beginning of the story, the other described by the narrator at the culmination of it.
In the first instance, after the narrator’s masterful parading of the birds onto the story’s stage and precise and pithy announcing of their essential attributes in the guise of words of welcome, the hoopoe presents a rather cogent brief on his own superiority before giving an idea of the king that the bird-kind is to seek but that he alone knows anything about. Here, in part, is what he says:
Hast ma ra padeshahi bikhelaf
Dar pas-e kuhi keh hast an kuh Qaf
Nam-e u Simorgh, soltan-e toyur
U beh ma nazdik o ma zu dur-e dur
Dar harim-e `ezzat ast aram u
Nist hadd-e har zafani nam-e u
Sad hezaran pardeh darad bishtar
Ham ze nur o ham ze zolmat pish-e dar
Dar do `alam nist kas ra zahreh’i
K-u tavanad yaft az vay bahreh’i
Da’aman u padeshah-e motlaq ast
Dar kamal-e `ezz-e khod mostaghraq ast
(We have a king; beyond Kaf’s mountain peak
The Simorgh lives, the sovereign whom we seek,
And He is always near to us, though we
Live far from His transcendent majesty.
A hundred thousand veils of dark and light
Withdraw His presence from our mortal sight,
And in both worlds no being shares the throne
That marks the Simorgh’s power and His alone –
He reigns in undisturbed omnipotence,
Bathed in the light of His magnificence).
Accomplished as he is, the hoopoe is still one of the birds and thus incapable of doing justice to the creature he is trying to describe. In this very shortcoming, we see a central problematic of articulating mystical concepts or experiences. Still, the similarity of Simorgh to the kings of this world begins the process, in his speech, of simultaneous construction and implosion of specific resemblances, even as it instills the image of King Simorgh in the minds of the assembled birds as the ultimate their finite minds are capable of grasping. For one thing, Simorgh is near to the birds and they far from him, whether they know this or not. Proximity (nazdiki, qorb) and distance (duri, bo`d) are of course tropes that Sufi teachings use regularly to measure the inadequacies that separate the human from the divine. What `Attar adds here is a momentary fixation of the two subjects: it is the birds that have distanced themselves from the divine in spite of the divine inclination to be near to them. Secondly, his majesty is transcendent in the way that no other king’s is or can be. While in the philosophical literature of Islamic mysticism the subject of God’s transcendence goes to the heart of the nature of human reason and intelligence, it also posits the possibility that each individual Sufi may be able to transcend the limitations that bind him to materiality; after all the birds will have to be persuaded that they can go through the various valleys that separate them from the object of their journey and reach their destination. Besides, the veils that hide Simorgh are there because birds and humans alike are mortal. Finally and most tellingly within the universe of power relations known to the Sufi seekers allegorized here as birds, no other being shares Simorgh’s throne – or majesty – in this or the next world. It is here and through such simultaneous making and undermining of the analogy between Simorgh and all human kings living or in the distant past that the fluidity of the two subjects – Simorgh and the birds – comes to highlight the inadequacy of human language to provide an adequate description for the divine.
This poetic strategy in turn prepares the ground for the ending scene where the birds come face to face not with a real being but with an all-embracing presence, a transcendent majesty speaking not just in silence but through silence:
Bizafan amad az an hazrat khetab
K-ayeneh-st in hazrat-e chun aftab
Harkeh ayad khishtan binad dar u
Jan o tan ham jan o tan binad dar u
Chun shoma si morgh inja amadid
Si dar in ayineh payda amadid
Gar chel o panjah morgh ayid baz
pardeh’i az khish bogshayid baz
Garcheh besyari beh sar gardideh’id
Khish ra binid o khod ra dideh’id.
(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 and therefore saw
These selfsame 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, traveled far,
It is yourselves you see and what you are.’)
Together the two passages beautifully capture the expanse that the figure of Simorgh has traversed from being a character in a work that deals with horizons near and far and that communicates wisdom about the ways of the world to an ethereal signifier of perfection in a work focused on human potentials subjectively experienced. In the latter context, the paradoxes that govern the relations between the seeker birds and the perfect, changeless Simorgh seated on top of Mount Qaf make it possible to get a glimpse of a state of existence that is at once near and far, utterly immutable, on the one hand, and perceived only in part by those finite creatures who can grasp neither his majesty nor his tender nature, on the other. Such paradoxes create a tension between the message as overheard communication externally referential and a sort of self-referential incommunicative pondering that we happen to overhear.
How, we may ask, is this achieved textually? While I do not claim to have any final or definitive answers, here are some thoughts: on closer reading, we see that single, simple binaries such as “nazdik” and “dur” (near and far), “tan” and “jan” (body and soul), and “nur” and “zolmat” (light and darkness) sit next to more abstract concepts with divergent, yet overlapping, connotations like “`ezzat” (awe, majesty) and “aram” (peace, detachment). At the same time, attributes like possessing a brilliant nature akin to the polished surface of a mirror or the dazzling surface of the most splendid sun from which the eye can only turn away invite our attention. The sheer power vested in such words and concepts seems to elevate the quality of thought we bring to bear on the discourse expounded here, only later to negate and surpass the entire enterprise in privileging an activity like “speaking without a tongue.” The cumulative effect is felt ultimately on a level of discursive activity that catapults the listener onto the kind of speechlessness that lies beyond all speech, an experience of individuality that manifests itself beyond all collective consciousness, or a condition of existence where all dichotomies and distinctions – the terrestrial and the celestial or the human and the divine – disintegrate. Here my speech must come to an end too. In an attempt to make a fitting end, let me cite a Rumi poem where the same lesson is imparted in different words. While the vision of a heavenward flight as the catalyst that connects the Sufi seeker’s individual intellect to the universal intellect creates the impression of a different outward experience, the similarity between the hoopoe and the spaceship as the means and between the each individual intellect and the ocean of eternality in which all individual intellects are immersed as the ultimate destination and end of all mystical quests should suffice to make the connection clear:
A luminous vessel appeared at dawn in the sky,
it descended from the sky and looked upon me,
then like an eagle picking up a bird in the hunt
that vessel picked me up and sped across the sky.
As I looked inward at me I did not see my self
inside that vessel my body had turned tender as the soul
and as I traveled through my soul I saw nothing but the vessel
until the mystery of the pre-eternal epiphany was revealed to me.
When the nine heavenly firmaments sank into the luminary vessel
the whole ship of my being hid beneath the ocean
and as the ocean’s waves heaved, reason reared its head
roaring about how things were and what things became.
And when the ocean’s waves made foam, each piece
made manifest the likeness of this, a body of that.
Every foamy particle that took in a glimpse of the ocean
melted at once, flowed, and became one with the ocean.
Without the fortune of serving the true Sun of Tabriz
you neither can see that luminary vessel nor will be one with the ocean.
University of Maryland