16 enero, 2016

The identity of the Griffin bird in Avesta: Saēna as a prefiguration of Simurgh

[Foreword: this article contains the information provided on the paper presented during the 5th International Medieval Meeting Lleida, hosted at Lleida University (Spain) between 25th and 26th June 2015] 

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Abstract: Medieval Ages were not limited to Europe, but extended far and beyond to another side of the world that Medievalists sometimes fail to mention, a side that offers a whole new world of knowledge and enlightenment. At first stage, a brief introduction will be made to the subject of this paper and the manner in which it shall develop. The following pages will deal with the main purpose of this research, that is exposing the importance of Avesta’s influence inside the writing of Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāmeh, since it has been already established that this poet indeed made use of these compilation of sacred Zoroastrian texts as a source to compose his work. All along this journey through Ancient Religion and Literature, some proofs will be provided to show how the Avestan roots remained in Persian Medieval Literature’s masterpiece, the Šāh-nāmeh, especially in one of its most famous characters, the Great Bird, Simurgh.
Keywords: Simurgh, Avesta, Zoroastrianism, Saēna, Šāh-nāmeh, Persian Literature.

Resumen: La Edad Media no estuvo limitada a Europa, sino que se extendió hasta el otro lado del mundo, un mundo que a menudo los medievalistas olvidan mencionar. Otro lado que ofrece todo un mundo nuevo de conocimiento e iluminación. Para empezar, se proporcionará una breve introducción al objeto de este trabajo, y la manera en que se desarrollará. En las siguientes páginas lidiaran con el propósito principal de esta investigación, que es poner de manifiesto la importante influencia del Avesta durante la escritura del Šāh-nāmeh de Ferdowsī, ya que ha sido establecido que el poeta utilizó esta compilación de textos sagrados del Zoroastrismo como fuente para componer su trabajo. A lo largo de este viaje a lo largo de este viaje a través de la religión antigua y la literatura, se mostrarán pruebas que ilustren cómo las raíces avésticas se mantuvieron en la obra maestra de la literatura persa medieval: el Šāh-nāmeh, especialmente en uno de sus personajes más famosos: el Gran Ave, Simurgh.
Palabras clave: Simurgh, Avesta, Zoroastrismo, Saēna, Šāh-nāmeh, Literatura Persa.

1. Introduction to Zoroastrianism
First and foremost, it is essential to make this brief introduction to Zoroastrianism as a religion. Unless indicated, temporal framework referred in this article about Mazdean religion will oscilate between 5th century BCE, when Zoroastrians can be found for first time on written registers[1], and the Islamic conquest of Persia, around 650 CE. This was the official worship of Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanids, and, surprisingly, it is one of the earliest monotheist examples of cult. Avesta refers to the compilation of sacred texts in this worship. Jean Kellens highlighted the double importance of these texts, as they are the only testimonies of the Mazdean culture and the Avestan language at the same time[2]. Despite its documental apparition did not took place until 5th century BCE, it is quite possible its true origins date back from a thousand years before, at least[3].
The main root of Avestan cult may have had its origin inside an indo-iranian system that combined both traditions and mystical thoughts[4]. In fact, Avesta itself took a high percentage of the famous Indian gveda, which is quite an example of this common birth. Generally it is significant how much Zoroastrian religion shares with the Vedic cult, and a number of good works have been written about this matter[5]. Although it is not possible to deal with this topic at the moment, as a starting point to know Zoroastrianism there is an important idea to bear in mind: it is inseparable from its Indian neighbour.

Faravahar, the human representation of the Glory, which iconography and true meaning are still under study

It has been considered important to briefly describe the sources included in this research individually, as they represent important exemplars inside Pahlavi Literature. First of all, Dādestān Mēnōg ī Kherad, «Judgements of the Wisdom Spirit», translated by Edward William West inside the collection Sacred Books of the East in 1885. Mary Boyce points out this text as an extended version of the andarz literature, wisdom literature, which was very popular at the time of the Sassanid dynasty[6]. Through the path of knowledge, the main character embarks on his journey in search of wisdom.
Next come Bahrām Yašt and Rašn Yašt, both translated by James Darmesteter and included in his publication of the Zend Avesta, second volume, in 1883. The Yašt are hymns in praise of different divinities or genies, compiled in Achaemenid times as Boyce and Carlo Gereti suggest, but ultimately gathered during the reign of Khosrow II[7]. Straightaway was chosen Vizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, «Selections of Zādspram», as well translated by West in 1880. Written in the 9th century, consists of excerpts on the Avesta in several matters, becoming a summary of the fundamental beliefs in Sassanian church.  
And last but not least, the Bundahišn, the «Primal Creation», again brought into English by West in 1897. This text was compiled between the Arab conquest of Persia around 650 and 1198, according to Gereti and Boyce. It is a complex cosmographic and cosmological piece of work, which relates the detailed and particular vision of the world in the Avestan religion.
All these sources were read and analyzed in this study, as they all include mentions of a particular Avestan character, the bird Saēna. This is, precisely, the one West, Darmesteter and others distinguished as the main prefiguration of Simurgh; however, it is not exactly that Saēna will became Simurgh, per se, or that the only Avestan features Simurgh got came from previous ancient bird. That would be a mistaken assumption. The main point is that Ferdowsī assembled many different Avestan characteristics in his birdlike character, creating a creature quite similar to the former Saēna.

Easter Imperial Eagle. Pekka Fagel, 2012

2. Saēna, the griffin bird
It is important to begin by defining who or what is Saēna. Saēna appears in all the sources previously mentioned in many different forms. The most popular is this one, mərəgō saēnō, which already provides interesting information about the bird. According to the English-Avesta Dictionary published in 1909 by Kavasji Edalji Kanga, from Bombay University, the first word corresponds to «bird». The second one, however, was not found in this dictionary, but linked to Sanskrit as Hans-Peter Schmidt proposed in his own research about Simurgh in 2002. Schmidt connected the term saēnō with śyená/zyena, the Sanskrit word for «bird of prey», «eagle» more specifically[8]. It has been then assumed this is a loanword from Sanskrit to Avestan, and Saēna shows up as a gigantic bird of prey.
Enormous and powerful, Saēna is also related to the power of the weather and, in that way, strongly correlated to the agricultural cycles and fertility of the lands. This passage provides a very illustrative depiction of the size and rain powers of the bird:
«He is like that great brid, Saēna; he is like the big clouds, full of water, that beat the mountains», (Bahrām Yašt, XIV, XV, 41)[9].
According to the hymns, the bird Saēna lives in the Tree known as the many-seeded:
«Wheter thou, O holy Rašnu! art on the tree of the eagle, that stands in the middle of the sea Vourukaṧa, that is called the tree of good remedies, the tree of powerful remedies, the tree of all remedies, and on which rest the seeds of all plants; we invoke, we bless Rašnu, the strong. I invoke his friendship towards this var prepared», (Bahrām Yašt, XIII, X, 17)[10].
But what is exactly the task of Saēna in this Avestan universe and what does it have to do with the Tree of Many Seeds? In this passage, a different form can be seen referring to the creature, using the «griffin bird» term. All the translators state this griffin bird is no other than the eagle, the bird of prey, Saēna:
«The nest of the griffin bird is on the tree opposed to harm, the many-seeded. Whenever he rises aloft a thousand twigs will shoot out from that tree, and when he alights he breaks off the thousand twigs and bites the seed from them. […] and his work is this, that he collects those seeds which are bitten from the tree of many seeds, which is opposed to harm, and he scatters (parganded) them there where Tishtar seizes the water; so that, while Tishtar shall seize the water, together with those seeds of all kinds, he shall rain them on the world with the rain» (MK, LXIII, 37-42)[11].
So, inside the Avestan cosmological thought, Saēna was in charge of spreading those thousands of seeds into the water of the star Tištar, and together they could rain all these seeds on the land. This reinforces the strong bond between Saēna and fertility and agriculture; along with Tištar, they allowed plants to grow. In that land and in that period, rain and storm were feared and adored simultaneously. If all this information is taken under account, we could also assume that this tree could most definitely called the tree of life, as it’s from this tree that all the seeds sprout, giving life to the land of men.

Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II. Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 883-859 BCE

3. Simurgh and the Šāh-nāmeh
What could be said about Saēna is already exposed. Now we are travelling to the 10th century, in Persia, when the Great Bird Simurgh was conceived and to this day remains. Completed in 1010, the Šāh-nāmeh or the «Book of Kings» is the most famous example of Persian Medieval Literature. Following a structure in three great dynasties with fifty different kings and heroes, it was ordered as a compilation of all the glorious past of Persia, from the same beginning of Humanity until the last of Sassanid Kings. It is also the longest composition ever made by a single author, reaching 60,000 verses.
As it was mentioned before, it’s taken for granted that Ferdowsī made use of the Avestan sources to gather information for his poem, as well as other previous texts[12]. But it’s in his masterpiece where Simurgh can be found. She, because it’s a female bird, is mentioned throughout the work, but has her special and particular prominence in the story of the White Prince Zāl, father of the notorious warrior Rostam[13].  
King Sām was praying for a male heir, but none of his concubines could get pregnant. Finally his favourite one gave birth to a child who was completely white. He suffered from albinism, which was interpreted as a demoniac sign. Consequently, Sām sent the baby away, into the ladder of Mount Alborz, so the wild beasts will devour this days old baby. However, it happened that the Queen of Heavens, Simurgh, heard the baby’s cry and felt sorry for him. She took prince Zāl to the peak of the Alborz and raised him as one of her offspring. When the moment came for Zāl to come back to his father, who by then was begging the Empress of Heavens to bring his child back, Simurgh descended the White Prince from the Alborz so he could fulfill his destiny: to be the father of the greatest warrior of them all, Rostam.

Tabriz, Iran. Attributed to Abd al-Aziz. Šāh-nāmeh of Šah Tahmasp, ca. 1525-1535. The Freer Gallery and Arthur Sackler Gallery, Washintong

During the lecture of the Šāh-nāmeh, all the special features or characteristics of Simurgh were put together, so now they could be offered in a shorter more concise manner. The first attribute of the Queen of Heavens is the power of storm. Every time she appears on scene, the sky gets darker and storm clouds crowd together up above[14]. Much like Saēna, this gives Simurgh a great deal of power over  agriculture and fertility of the lands that would produce nothing without the rain.
She also possesses curative powers, and what is healing but taking away the harm and bringing the good. Simurgh cures many wounds throughout the story by licking them or caressing them with her feathers. Furthermore, she has the knowledge of physicians and knows how to prepare mixtures for the injured. Here a union of skills can be found, as Simurgh has healing abilities within herself, but also owns a special herb that can cure human illness. In Mesopotamian tradition, there existed a particular plant called Haomā which was widely used as a powerful narcotic. This herb appears in Avestan texts as part of the Tree of Many Seeds that grows in the sea Vourukaṧa[15], which was mentioned before. The tree stands in the middle of that cosmic ocean, and according to the Yašt, also Mount Alborz grows straight from the depths of that mass of water[16].
To conclude, it seemed appropriate to bring up another passage from the Yašt related to one of the most important actions of Simurgh in the Šāh-nāmeh. The passage where she brought the White Prince back to his father was described previously. In this episode, Simurgh gave Zāl two of her magical feathers as a symbol of royalty, glory and protection:
«Take these feathers of mine with you, so that you will always live under my protection, since I brought you up beneath my wings with my own children. If any trouble comes to you, if there is talk of good and ill, throw one of my feathers into the fire, and my glory will at once appear to you. I shall come to you in the guise of a black cloud and bring you safely back here»[17].
If we move back to the Avesta this same story can be found:
«Ahura Mazdā answered: ‘Take thou a feather of that bird with… feathers, the Vərəthraqna, O Spitama Zarathustra! With that feather thou shatl rub thy own body, with that feather thou shalt curse back thy enemies’. ‘If a man holds a bone of that strong bird, or a feather of that strong bird, no one can smite or turn to flight that fortunate man. The feather of that bird of birds brings him help; it brings unto him the homage of men, it maintains him his glory.’ […]‘All tremble therefore before me; all my enemies tremble before me and fear my strength and victorious force and the fierceness established in my body’» (Bahrām Yašt, XIV, XIV, 35-38)[18].
Thus it has been shown how these Avestan features can be tracked along all the verses of the poem, mostly inside the creation of such an important character as the bird Simurgh. It is a sample of how the Šāh-nāmeh was not only considered as a literary work, but at the same time as a powerful tool to recover and gather up all the glorious Persian past that threatened to withdraw under the Islamic dominion.

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[1] KHLOPIN, I. N.: «Zoroastrism – Location and time of its origins», Iranica Antiqua, vol. XXVIII, 1993, p. 95.
[2] Kellens, J.: «Avesta, the holy book of zoroastrians», Encyclopædia Iranica. Nueva York, edición digital, 1987, p. 2.
[3] FOLTZ, R. : Religions of Iran: from Prehistory to the Present, Oneworld Publications, London, 2013, p. 4. Boyce, M.: A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. I. Leiden, Brill, 1975.
[4] FOLTZ, R. (op.cit.) pp. 4-6.
[5] Referenced the publications of Mary Boyce, Richard Foltz, Jean Kellens y Carlo Gereti.
[6] Boyce, M.: «Middle Persian Literature», Handbuch der Orientalistik. Leiden, p. 34.
[7] Ibidem,, p. 34. Gereti, C. G.: «Middle Persian Literature i. Pahlavi Literature», Encyclopædia Iranica. Nueva York, 2009, p. 1.
[8] Ibidem, p. 1.
[9] Darmesteter, J.: The Zend-Avesta. Part II: The Sirozahs, Yasts and Nyayis. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, ed. 2007, p. 242.
[10] Ibidem, p. 173.
[11] West, E. W. (trad.): Pahlavi Texts. Part III, Dina-i Mainog-i Khirad, Sikand-Gümanik Vigar, Sad Dar. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, ed. 2005, p. 112.
[12] Blois, F. de: Persian Literature, a bio-bibliographicalsurvey. Begun by the late C. A. Storey. Vol. v, parts 1-3, Londres, The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1992-1997, p. 121; Brujin, J. T. P. de: General introduction to Persian Literature. Londres, Tauris, 2009, p. 338.
[13] The mentioned passage can be found in: Davis, D. (trad.): The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Londres, Penguin Books Classics, 2007, pp. 63-103.
[14] Davis, D. (trad.), op. cit., p. 409, 410
[15] West, E. W., op. cit. (nota 27), ed. 1993, p. 111.
[16] Anklesaria, B. T. (trad.): Greater Bundahishn, Bombay, 1956. Edited by J. H. Peterson, 2002.
[17]  Davis, D. (trad.), op. cit., p. 66.
[18] Darmesteter, J., op. cit., p. 241.

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