There’s something oddly compelling about the word simurgh; it sounds exotic and wondrous, and when you find out (at an early age, if you’re lucky) that it’s “an immortal bird that nests in the branches of the Tree of Knowledge” and “is known to take children into its nest to nurse them or foster them,” the name seems somehow fitting. Now, the OED says Persian sīmurgh is from “Pahlavi sīn (Av. saēna, Skr. çyena) eagle + murgh bird,” but the first syllable sounds like the Persian word sī ‘thirty,’ a coincidence that led to one of the masterpieces of world literature, Fariduddin Attar’s Mantiq at-tayr or Conference of the Birds, available in many translations. I have the Penguin edition translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis, who summarize the story in their Introduction as follows:
The birds of the world gather together to seek a king. They are told by the hoopoe that they have a king—the Simorgh—but that he lives far away and the journey to him is hazardous. The birds are at first enthusiastic to begin their search, but when they realize how difficult the journey will be they start to make excuses… [In the end the thirty who persevere] are finally admitted and find that the Simorgh they have sought is none other than themselves. The moment depends on a pun—only thirty (si) birds (morgh) are left at the end of the Way, and the si morgh meet the Simorgh, the goal of their quest.
Attar’s work has been an inspiration for artists both classic and modern, not to mention a great jazz record by Dave Holland, and the simurgh inspired a great MonkeyFilter post by the quidnunc kid, which I urge you to visit for many more links, including some gorgeous illustrations and a long and involving Mandean tale about the bird’s visit to the noble king Hirmiz Shah.