The Simurgh features strongly in Persian mythology and a number of the great epic poems of Persian literature. It is said to be a mixture of peacock, griffon and lion symbolises the union of heaven and earth.
In his epic poem The Conference of the Birds, Fariduddin Attar describes how millions of birds went in search for their perfect king, the great bird Simurgh. Many of the birds were killed during their ordeals in search of the Simurgh – climbing high peaks and plunging into dark valleys as well as fighting their own doubts and fears.
At the end of their search only thirty birds remain to reach the gates of Simurgh’s palace. They all alight onto the throne or masnad which is described as being the seat of the Majesty and the Glory. The throne, however, remains empty and there is no sign of the Simurgh. It then becomes clear to the birds, through an inner glow which spreads through them all, that they, together, make up the Presence of the Simurgh and that the Simurgh is really just their joint presence. A literal translation of Simurgh is “Thirty Birds”.
The Simurgh is not always depicted as a benevolent ruler and is depicted complacently watching the destruction of the world three times from her nest in the branches of the Tree of Knowledge.
In Firdausi’s epic Shahnameh, the Simurgh has built her nest on the Mount Alberz whose head was thought to reach the stars and where no mortal had ever set foot. Saum the Pehliva, the glorious ruler of Seistan (a province in the Southeast of Iran) had everything he could wish for in life save that he was childless. When it eventually came to pass that he was blessed with a son it was perfect in every respect save that the boy had pale skin and white hair like an old man. Saum was appalled and ashamed that an heir to his kingdom should be so weak in appearance and commanded his servants to take the child to Mount Alberz and leave it there.
When the Simurgh looked down from her nest she saw the infant lying on the ground sucking his fingers and without food or clothing and she swooped down and carried him back to her nest to feed him to her young. But when she reached her nest, her heart was filled with compassion for the helpless infant and instead she decided to look after him and raise him. The boy grew to be a youth full of strength and beauty and his fame as an athlete and a scholar spread across the land. When Saum heard of the success of the boy he was filled with shame and set out to rescue his son. He brought his army to the Mount and straight to the nest of Simurgh. When Simurgh saw the king and his army she knew that the ruler ad come to save his son. She had grown to love him as her own but she said to the boy:
‘O my son; nay I would keep thee beside me forever, but another destiny is better for thee. Go forth therefore my son and try your fortune in the world. But take with you this feather from my breast and on the day when you need t, cast it into the fire and I will come to you like a cloud and deliver you from the danger.’
And having given the boy the feather talisman, she lifted him in her might talons and carried him to where Saum was bowed in the dust in penitence for having abandoned his son so many years before. And when Saum looked at his son, and saw that his strength was like that of an elephant and whose beauty was as large, he cried out:
‘O shah of birds, O bird of God, who confounds the wicked, may thou be great forever!’