The image of the serpent is widely acknowledged in western culture to symbolize medicine. One of the most recognizable symbols for medicine today is the rod of Aesculapius with its entwined single serpent. It was originally a symbol representing Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, from around the 6th century BC. In the early 20th century the US Army Medical Corps (USAMC) adopted the caduceus of the Roman god, Mercury, with its double entwined serpents capped with wings as a medical symbol, although it had no medical association in early Greek or Roman tradition. In contrast, Iranian mythology has no recorded evidence that the image of the serpent was ever associated with the practice of medicine or pharmacy. Instead, it was the mythical bird, Simurgh.
The Simurgh was described as a peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion. She was a creature big enough to comfortably carry an elephant or a whale. The Simurgh was said to be so old that she had seen the destruction of the world three times over. This afforded her so much wisdom and learning that she possessed the knowledge of all the ages. In one legend, the Simurgh was said to have lived for 1,700 years before plunging herself into flames, much like the Phoenix. The figure of the Simurgh can be found in all periods of Iranian art and literature, as well other regions that were within the realm of Persian cultural influence. In the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, containing the oldest record of the Simurgh, the Simurgh is written as Meregho Saena. Later, the name ‘Saena’ was also associated with healers. In Farvardin Yasht, verses 97 and 126, several physicians have also been mentioned bearing the name ‘Saena’. In the Dinkard, a 10th century compendium of the Mazdaen Zoroastrian beliefs and customs, it is mentioned that there was a physician by the name of ‘Saena’ who was born 100 years after Zoroaster and who trained 100 students to be physicians, during his long life.
The Simurgh represented the union and served as a mediator and messenger between the Earth and the Sky. She lived in the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ and, when she took flight, her powerful ascent shook the tree’s branches so violently that the seeds from every plant that had ever existed, were scattered throughout the world, bringing a wealth of valuable plants to mankind. Later, the Simurgh nested in seclusion on the sacred Persian mountain of Alburz, far beyond the climbing abilities of any man.
The most famous legend associated with the Simurgh is the birth of Rustam in the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), a book of Iranian epic poetry written by Ferdowsi (936 – 1020 AD). According to the Shahnameh, Zal was an albino baby born to Saam, Iran’s mythical hero, as well as the ruler of Zabulistan and Mazandaran. When his powerful father saw his albino son, he assumed that the child was the spawn of devils and abandoned the infant on the mountain of Alburz.
The baby’s cries were heard by the tender-hearted Simurgh, who lived on top of the mountain. The Simurgh retrieved the child and raised him as her own. The loving Simurgh taught Zal wisdom. However, like all young men, the time came when Zal grew into a man and wished to rejoin the world of men. The Simurgh, although saddened by this, gave him three golden feathers which he was to burn if he ever needed her assistance.
Upon returning to his kingdom, Zal fell in love and married the beautiful Rudaba. Rudaba experienced a very prolonged and difficult delivery of their son. Fearing that his wife would die in labor, Zal decided to summon the Simurgh. Zal burned a small piece of the wing that the Simurgh herself had given to him years before. As soon as the wing touched the fire, the sky suddenly darkened and the giant bird reigning over the world came down like a cloud. Grasping Zal’s predicament, she told Zal: “Do not be afraid and free your heart from all anxiety. Bring me a wise man and a dagger made of steel. You must make sure that the moon-faced Rudaba is drunk with wine to calm her and free her from the anxiety in her heart. Under my guidance, the wise man you call will deliver the child from the womb of Rudaba. He is to open the womb without giving her any pain, deliver the child and then stitch the bleeding cut. Get the plant I am going to tell you now, pound it with milk and musk and, after you dried them all in the shade, apply them to Rudaba’s wound. You will see for yourself that, after this treatment, your wife will stop feeling any pain. Then, when you rub my feather on it you will see the effect of my power.” The grateful husband immediately carried out the Simurgh’s instructions.
After Zal got his wife drunk with wine, soon a wise man with skillful hands came. Under the guidance of the Simurgh, the man then made an incision on the womb of Rudaba and, taking the head of the baby away from its natural route, delivered the baby safely in such a way that no one had ever seen before. All through this operation, the baby’s mother was in deep sleep. After delivering the baby, the wise man stitched her wound and applied medicine to it. They named the baby Rostam. This story is the earliest Islamic illustrations of birth by means of Cesarean section. Later in Rostam’s life, the Simurgh still watched over her patient. When Rostam and his horse, Rakhsh, were wounded in his legendary fight with Isfendiyar, the Simurgh was also the one who treated them.
In the Avesta, in verse 41 of Bahman Yasht, the Simurgh is mentioned as she brings life-refreshing rain and also wraps Xvarnah (fortune) around the house of worshipers of Ahuramazda. The Yashts are each a collection of 21 hymns in the Younger Avestan language – each of them invoking a specific Zoroastrian divinity or concept. The bird is mentioned again in Rashnu Yasht, verse 17 where it is mentioned that the bird Saena roosts on the tree that stands in the middle of the Vourakasha sea, the tree is called ‘all- healing’ and contains the seeds of all living plants in the world. Although these Yashts may have been written during the Achaemenid era (521 – 331 BC), the myths contained within were much older and probably date back to 1500 to 1200 BC, making them contemporaries of the Indian Rigvedas.
The Minooye Kherad, a Zoroastrian book of wisdom and advice written in the Pahlavi language during the late Sassanid era in the 6th century AD, also mentions the Senmurw (Pahlavian language for the Avestan Meregho Saena) roosting on top of the mythical Vispo-bish (many seed) tree that grew in the middle of the Farakhkart sea and contained the seeds of all medicinal plants that cured all diseases. It is therefore well established that in the Zoroastrian tradition from the Achaemenid era to the end of the Sassanid era, a period spanning well over 1000 years, the bird Simurgh was associated with medicine and medicinal herbs.
Although the concept of the Simurgh is generally considered to be Persian in origin, its mythological features resemble the Indian mythology of the Garuda bird. Similarities of several other of its features are also found in the ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Greek mythologies.
The Simurgh also varies in different cultures in the Middle East. Mythological healing birds existing from the pre-Islamic Turkish culture period survived in the memory of the society and preserved its symbolic expression by their many appearances in Turkish art and literature. In Central Asian and Middle Eastern mythologies, the eagle or the black bird and the ‘Tree of Life or Knowledge’, where it is usually perched, as well as the influence of the Indian mythological Garuda and the symbols related with the Simurgh called Zumrut-u Anka by the Arabs and Muslim Turks, survived as an archetype in the Seljuk and Ottoman Turkish cultures.
The two-headed bird named ‘Semurk’ by the Baskurd Turks was also believed to live on the peak of the mountain Qaf, like the Simurgh. Some birds are even accompanied by serpents. In the Er-Tostuk’s tale in the Turkish mythology, the dragon named ‘Acirga’ was the guard under the ‘Life Tree’ where the bird perched. In one part of the epic, Er-Toshtuk killed the dragon which ate a young black bird. Thinking that Er-Toshtuk wanted to harm her young, the birds’ mother swallowed Er-Toshtuk next to the tree. When she learned the truth, the bird spat him out and created a young man by means of the life energy supplied from the ‘Life Tree’. Er-Toshtuk rode on the bird’s back and asked her to take him down to earth. Thus Er-Toshtuk and the bird flew towards their destination. As it was a very long journey, they ran out of food. Er-Toshtuk lent his own meat and eye to the bird to eat. When they reached earth, the bird swallowed and spat him out again to revive him as a young man, with meat on his bones and a set of healthy eyes. Similar to this tale, the Simurgh is also illustrated fighting the dragon which ate her young. This theme is depicted in Palace albums, specifically in the Yakub Bey albums of the 14th and 15th centuries Timurid and Turcoman periods.
In classical and modern Persian literature, the Simurgh is frequently mentioned as a metaphor for God in Sufi mysticism. Iranian poet, Faridud Din Attar, wrote Mantiq-al Tayr (The Conference of the Birds) in the 12th century. It is an allegorical piece of writing, describing a group of pilgrim birds who were in search of the Simurgh, their true king. In the poem, the birds of the world gathered together to decide who was to be their king, as they had none. The hoopoe, the wisest of them all, suggested that they should find the legendary Simurgh. The hoopoe led the birds, each of whom represented a human flaw, which prevented man from attaining enlightenment. When the group of 30 birds finally reached the dwelling place of the Simurgh, all they found was a lake where they could see their own reflections. There were 30 birds in total, which led to the Persian expression si-murgh (30 birds). When they reached the dwelling of the Simurgh, the birds were confronted with an insightful metamorphosis in themselves. Upon seeing the Simurgh, each of the birds took the giant bird for a mirror image, where each one of them found its own reflection, leading it to believe that it was the Simurgh himself.
Observing their confusion, the Simurgh explained that he was the true reflection of each one of them. Further, he explained that everyone can see his own image and his inner-self in himself. The Simurgh continued to clarify that he himself was a multitude of numbers, essential and eternal in nature. He therefore advised the birds on the power of reflection, so that they may become a symbol of unity and oneness in themselves. In the larger context of story, Attar teaches the reader moral lessons regarding the idea of God and the divine qualities that exist in every living creature.