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 ‘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.


  1. The etymology of simurgh brought to mind Jack Handey’s etymology of “mankind”: the compound of “mank” + “ind”.
    This is in no way a criticism of Attar or of LH, or in any way meant seriosuly, but it popped into my head and I couldn’t help myself.

  2. Margaret Fex says

    Here is the Page 23 Exquisite Corpse:
    1) A couple hundred feet away from a New Bank Exchange, 2) were a handful of middle-aged citizens, among whom was the mother of a fourteen-year-old heroin addict. 3) But the cracks were there, and I knew it, and they frightened me. 4) He’d decided to devote his life to politics. He had already served two years in the 5) bushes, in the outhouse. 6)Not even incense or open windows could overcome the stench.
    1) “My Life on Trial” by Melvin Belli
    2) “The Last Italian” by William Murray
    3) “An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison
    4) “Love Is Eternal” by Irving Stone
    5) “Apple in the Attic” by Mildred Jordan
    6) “The Invisible Invaders” by Peter Radetsky
    I guess politics really does (or do) STINK!

  3. Margaret Fex says

    We WERE still legally husband and wife, she reminded me, and said the lawyer had told her she would have a pretty children and didn’t know what to do! MY stepfather was very similar to what you hear at Democratic Party dinners when someone mentions a deviation from the usual. Since my father is an unfriendly criticism of Dr. Cutter….

  4. But what of the senmurv, or dog-bird? Is it the same creature as the simurgh? The book of magical creatures I had as a child (which contains a version of the story of Zal) isn’t sure. Are the names cognate?

  5. Are the names cognate?

  6. I once dabbled in Persian and the si plus murgh etymology occurred to me too. Nowadays I tend to encounter murgh on the menu at Indian restaurants (=chicken, I think). I wonder what Tandoori Simurgh Balti would taste like?

  7. theophylact says

    Salman Rushdie’s first (and now largely disowned) novel was Grimus, a science-fiction/fantasy whose plot I now mercifully forget, but a basic element was the slow revelation (warning: spoiler, as if you cared) that the eponymous hero was anagrammatically a simurg.
    So now you know.

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