In another post, I mentioned Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings. What I didn’t mention was that my edition (Penguin, 2006) is illustrated by Peter Sis, an amazing (and award-winning) childrens’ author and illustrator. Aside from the Borges’ text, Sis’ first work for adults is a re-imagined classic Persian/Sufi inspired poem originally known as Mantiqu’t-Tair, which Sis translates as The Conference of the Birds (this is a common translation, but as we’ll soon see, not the only one).
This is a beautiful, short book that visually depicts a flock of birds (or souls) as they search for their King (or True Self/God), the mythic Simorgh, who lives on the very distant mountain of Kaf.
They are led by a Hoopoe bird, and that’s where we will digress:
Hoopoes were sacred to the Egyptians; in Old Kingdom iconography, they indicated which child was heir to the Pharaoh; there were similar practices in Minoan Crete (home of the Minotaur).
While the Torah lists Hoopoes as un-kosher and among the detestable animals (see Leviticus and Deuteronomy for other condemned creatures), the Muslims had a kinder take on the birds; a Hoopoe plays a key part as a messenger in the Quaranic telling of Solomon’s quest for Sheba.
Still, other cultures feared the Hoopoe; they were considered harbingers of war for Scandinavians, while Estonians regarded them as Underworld intermediaries, their songs forewarning death for humans and livestock alike.
Moving on to the Greeks, Aristophanes’ comedy the Birds features the Hoopoe as the avian King, a theme that is repeated in the Conference; also, there is a human-to-Hoopoe transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, based in part on the birds’ crown like plumage.
So, the Hoopoe has gotten around…
While the Hoopoe has a had a mixed global reception, in Persia, he remained popular.
When 12th century North Iranian poet Attar (Farid Ud-Din Attar to be precise) decided to create an epic mystic poem, he chose a Hoopoe to lead a metaphorical flock of birds on the ultimate quest:
To find the true King of All Birds, the Simorgh.
Sis’ version is the lightest; he’s going for a work of art, not an academic translation.
However, since I have two other editions at my disposal, I’ll mention them:
One is the Penguin edition, translated by Afhkam Darbandi and Dick Davis; it’s relatively small (under 300 pages with notes) and makes for fairly easy reading. plus it rhymes. The other is the Speech of the Birds, presented by Peter Avery, which is fully annotated to situate the work within the context of 12th century Persia; it’s a work of extreme scholarship, suitable for academic exploration.
Neither of them have pretty pictures, covers notwithstanding…
(poet Sholeh Wolpé also has a translation; I’ve enjoyed the excerpts I’ve read, but I still haven’t acquired a copy. Alas, her version is also lacking in paintings.)
One day the poet Attar, who was working as an apothecary, saw a whirling dervish pass his store front. As he saw the dervish dancing in ecstasy, he decided to pursue Sufism, which encourages song and dance (hence the whirling dervishes) as paths to directly experiencing divine rapture.
The Conference (or Speech) of the Birds is his poetic expression of his journey as a Sufi mystic and seeker; in his poem, this journey is lead by a Hoopoe…
The Hoopoe summons all of the world’s birds, telling them he understands their plights; however, the only resolution for their despair is to find the Simorgh (last spotted in China), because only he holds their answers.
However, flying to the Simorgh’s palace, now on the mystic hill of Kaf, is perilous…
Do birds drop out?
Do birds die?
As with most endeavors, many souls attempt the journey; few ever complete it.
There are seven valleys that have to be crossed:
[note: these are Peter Sis’ descriptions; translations vary]
In the end, only thirty birds remain to reach the goal: The mountain of Kaf…
Do they find the Simorgh, the All Soul, God?
Yes, thirty birds make it.
So what do they find?
In Persian, Si-morgh means “thirty birds”.
You figure out the rest.
Or even better, find yourself a copy…