The Canticle of the Birds

 

Late one moonless night

The Sîmorgh first appeared

She let a feather float down through the air,

And rumours of its fame spread everywhere (i)

The Canticle of the Birds written by the mystical poet Attar tells the story of all the birds in the world, who one day gather together to discuss who their Sovereign king is and where he could be found for they all have a yearning to meet the Sovereign Being. Among them, the little bird Hoopoe, chosen and sanctified by King Solomon knows that Sîmorgh is the Sovereign Being’s name and that she lives in Mount Qâf, the mythical mountain which is believed to connect heaven and earth.

According to the legend dating back to Zoroaster, Sîmorgh would blaze up within herself only to be reborn from its ashes.  A single feather of Sîmorgh fallen on earth was enough to give color to the whole world and to stir longing and love within the soul-birds. Though invisible to the naked eye, she is present in all shapes, colors and attributes. Having stirred up in the depth of their souls, thousands of longing birds decided to set on the journey to reach the Sovereign Sîmorgh with the guidance of Hoopoe. But the journey was long and full of danger. It took courage to continue as they had to cross the seven valleys before reaching the gates of Sîmorgh’s place: the valley of the Quest, the valley of Love, the valley of Insight into Mystery, the valley of Detachment and Serenity, the valley of Unity, the valley of Awe; and the valley of Poverty and Nothingness.

The journey is all about perfection of the soul on earth where each valley represented a stage in the process of perfection. The quest is the inner struggle to know oneself, to know the truth by overcoming the weaknesses of the self, by liberating oneself from the pressures of the ego, stripping oneself from vanity and the excessive attachments of the world. Only then as the veils of ignorance are lifted, one can gain a deeper understanding and love for the Supreme Being.

Yet due to the difficulties of the quest, most of the birds gave up on the way, some returned and the rest perished.

The nightingale made his excuses first. He said he already knows the secrets of love and cannot leave his beloved rose behind. Without the love of the rose, he would lose his reason and his song would fail.

The Nightingale’s Excuse (ii)

The sweet notes of the melancholy lute,
The plaintive wailing of the lovesick flute

When love speaks in the soul my voice replies
In accents plangent as the ocean’s sighs.

When winter comes, I see my love has gone –
I am silent then, and sing no lover’s song!

And when the springs return and she is there
Diffusing musky perfumes everywhere

I sing again, and tell the secrets of
My aching heart, dissolving them in love.

My love is for the rose; I bow to her;

From her dear presence I could never stir.

I am so drowned in love that I can find. 
No thought of my existence in my mind.

Her worship is sufficient life for me;
The quest for her is my reality

And nightingales are not robust or strong;
The path to find the Sîmorgh is too long.

My love is here; the journey you propose
Cannot beguile me from my life –the rose.

It is for me she flowers, what greater bliss
Could life provide me –anywhere – than this?

Her buds are mine; she blossoms in my sight –

How could I leave her for a single night?

 The Hoopoe Answers him

The hoopoe answered him: ‘Dear nightingale,
The superficial love which makes you quail

Is only for the outward show of things.
Renounce delusion and prepare your wings

For our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose
And beauty such as hers too quickly goes.

True love will see such empty transience
For what it is –a fleeting turbulence

That fills your sleepless nights with grief and blame –
Forget the rose’s blush and blush for shame!

Each spring she laughs, not for you as you say,
But at you –and has faded in a day.

 The Duck’s Excuse (iii)

The coy duck waddled from her stream and quacked:
Now none of you can argue with the fact

That both in this world and the next I am
The purest bird that ever flew or swam;

I spread my prayer-mat out and all the time
I clean myself of every bit of grime

As god commands. There is no doubt in my mind
That purity like mine is hard to find;

Among the birds, I’m like an anchorite –
My soul and feathers are a spotless white.

I live in water and I cannot go
To places where no streams or rivers flow;

They wash away a world of discontent –
Why should I leave this perfect element?

Fresh water is my home, my sanctuary;
What use would arid deserts be to me?

I cannot leave water –think what water gives;
It is the source of everything that lives.

Water is the only home I’ve ever known;
Why should I care about this Sîmorgh’s throne?

  The Hoopoe Answers her

The hoopoe answered her: ‘Your life is passed
In vague, aquatic dreams which cannot last –

A sudden wave and they are swept away.
You value water’s purity, you say.
But is your life as pure as you declare?

The excuses of the other birds followed the duck. At the end of the journey only thirty birds (sî morgh- thirty birds in Persian) reached Mount Qâf, the ones who accepted to become nothing and ready to annihilate themselves in the valley of nothingness. Only then they could reach the gates and see the sight of Sîmorgh, the Sovereign One. What they saw was nothing but themselves as Sîmorgh reflected them like a pure mirror. They were united all in One, infinitely beautiful and eternal.

Though you have struggled, wandered, travelled far,

It is yourselves you see and what you are

Dispersed to nothingness until once more

You find in Me the selves you were before (iv)

 

Duygu Bruce

February 18, 2018

Farîd-od-Dîn ‘Attâr (1146-1221). The Canticle of the Birds. Translated from the Persian by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. Paris: Diane de Selliers, Éditeur, 2013.

Forward – Spiritual Epic.
i Distiches 736-737
ii Distiches 750-773
iii Distiches 845-857
iv Distiches 4277, 4284

 

 

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