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Simurgh or Simorgh, sometimes spelled Simurg or Simoorg, also known as Angha, is the modern Persian name for a fabulous, benevolent, mythical flying creature. The figure can be found in all periods of Greater Iranian art and literature, and is evident also in the iconography of medieval Armenia, Byzantium and other regions that were within the sphere of Iranian cultural influence.

The name "Simorgh" (Persian: سيمرغ) derives from Middle Persian Pahlavi Senmurv, Sēnmurw (and earlier Sēnmuruγ), also attested in Middle Persian Pāzand as Sīna-Mrū. The Middle Persian term derives in turn from Avestan mərəγō Saēnō "the bird Saēna", originally a raptor, likely an eagle, falcon or sparrowhawk, as can be deduced from the etymologically identical Sanskrit śyenaḥ that also appears as a divine figure. Sa?na is also found as a personal name which is derived from the bird"s name.



Form and function

Sassanid silver plate of a Simorgh (Sēnmurw), 7-8th c. CEThe simorgh is depicted in Iranian art as a winged creature in the shape of a bird, gigantic enough to carry off an elephant or a whale. It appears as a kind of peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion; sometimes however also with a human face. The simorgh is inherently benevolent and unambiguously female. Being part mammal, she suckles her young. The Simorgh has teeth. It has an enmity towards snakes and its natural habitat is a place with plenty of water. Its feathers are said to be the colour of copper, and though it was originally described as being a Dog-Bird, later it was shown with either the head of a man or a dog.

"Si-", the first element in the name, has been connected in folk etymology to Modern Persian si ("thirty"). Although this prefix is not historically related to the origin of the name Simorgh, "thirty" has nonetheless been the basis for legends incorporating that number, for instance, that the Simorgh was as large as thirty birds or had thirty colours (siræng).

Iranian legends consider the bird so old that it had seen the destruction of the World three times over. The Simorgh learned so much by living so long that it is thought to possess the knowledge of all the Ages. In one legend, the Simorgh was said to live 1700 years before plunging itself into flames (much like the phoenix).

The Simorgh was considered to purify the land and waters and hence bestow fertility. The creature represented the union between the earth and the sky, serving as mediator and messenger between the two. The Simorgh roosted in Gaokerena, the H?m (Avestan: Haoma) Tree of Life, which stands in the middle of the world sea Vourukhasa. The plant is potent medicine, is called all-healing, and the seeds of all plants are deposited on it. When the Simorgh took flight, the leaves of the tree of life shook making all the seeds of every plant to fall out. These seeds floated around the world on the winds of Vayu-Vata and the rains of Tishtrya, in cosmology taking root to become every type of plant that ever lived, and curing all the illnesses of mankind.

The relationship between the Simorgh and the H?m is extremely close. Like Simurgh, Hōm is represented as a bird, a messenger, and as the essence of purity that can heal any illness or wound. H?m - appointed as the first priest - is the essence of divinity, a property it shares with Simorgh. The H?m is in addition the vehicle of farr(ah) (MP: khwarrah, Avestan: khvarenah, kavaēm kharēno) "[divine] glory" or "fortune". Farrah in turn represents the divine mandate that was the foundation of a king"s authority. It appears as a bird resting on the head or shoulder of would-be kings and clerics, so indicating Ormuzd"s acceptance of that individual as His divine representative on earth. For the commoner Bahram wraps fortune/glory "around the house of the worshipper, for wealth in cattle, like the great bird Saena, and as the watery clouds cover the great mountains" (Yasht 14.41, cf. the rains of Tishtrya above). Like Simorgh, farrah is also associated with the waters of Vourukasha (Yasht 19.51,.56-57).

In the 12th century Conference of the Birds, Iranian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar wrote of a band of pilgrim birds in search of the Simurgh. According to the poet"s tale, the Simurgh has thirty holes in her beak and drew the wind through them whenever she was hungry. Animals heard a pretty music and gathered at the peak of a mountain where they were eaten by the Simurgh. Through cultural assimilation the Simurgh was introduced to the Arabic-speaking world, where the concept was conflated with other Arabic mythical birds such as the Ghoghnus and developed as the Rukh (the origin of the English word "Roc").


In the Shahnameh

The Simorgh made its most famous appearance in the Ferdowsi"s epic Shahname (Book of Kings), where its involvement with the Prince Zal is described. According to the Shahname, Zal, the son of Saam, was born albino. When Saam saw his albino son, he assumed that the child was the spawn of devils, and abandoned the infant on the mountain Alborz.

The child"s cries were carried to the ears of the tender-hearted Simorgh, who lived on top this peak, and she retrieved the child and raised him as her own. Zal was taught much wisdom from the loving Simorgh, who has all knowledge, but the time came when he grew into a man and yearned to rejoin the world of men. Though the Simorgh was terribly saddened, she gifted him with three golden feathers which he was to burn if he ever needed her assistance.

Upon returning to his kingdom, Zal fell in love and married the beautiful Rudaba. When it came time for their son to be born, the labour was prolonged and terrible; Zal was certain that his wife would die in labour. Rudabah was near death when Zal decided to summon the Simurgh. The Simorgh appeared and instructed him upon how to perform a cesarean section thus saving Rudabah and the child, who became one of the greatest Persian heroes, Rostam.

Photo: Sassanid silk twill textile of a Simurgh in a beaded surround, 6-7th c. CE


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