Sīmurgh is a supernatural bird featuring in the Shāh-nāma or ‘Book of Kings’, the legendary and semi-legendary history of Iran written by the poet Ferdowsī in 1010 CE. Sīmurgh is especially known for being the foster mother of the albino prince Zal, who was sent away by his father after his birth due to his condition. Sīmurgh is the creature immediately below God in the epic tale. Her feathers hold magical properties and she herself has medical knowledge. She assists the heroes when in need of advice and can be summoned by burning one of her feathers, a gift only granted to her son Zāl. And she has climatic influence, especially over the thunderstorm. She acts as the protector of Zāl’s dynasty to which Rostam, the greatest hero of the poem, belongs to. She is not a simple animal as she possesses a brilliant intelligence and an angel-comparable spirituality.
Sīmurgh is an equally venerated and feared character in the Shāh-nāma and still represents one of Iran’s best-known symbols.
|Sīmurgh restoring Zāl to his father.|
Shāh-nāma, 1300-1330. 69.74.1.
The Metropolitan Museum, New York
Better known by his Arabic name, Karkadann, Kargadan literally means “Lord of the Desert” in Persian. It was a fantastic animal said to dwell in Iranian and Indian remote prairies. The main characteristic of Kargadan was the one horn that sprouted from the top of its muzzle; this is the reason sometimes it is wrongly called “oriental unicorn”. According to the geographer and historian al-Bīrunī’s description around the 11th century, Kargadan resembled a dark skin buffalo with a dewlap quite recognisable and three hooves in each foot. Its horn was conic and bended towards the back of its head. As the years went by, other authors started writing about said horn’s curative properties, although it was also said that it held a powerful poison inside.
Today, the Persian word kargadan (كرگدن) is the one that designates the rhinoceros, whose ancestors are more than possibly the origin of this legend.
|Kargadan in an ʿAyā’ib al-Makhlūqāt manuscript. |
Turkey, 1717. W659, fol. 112r.
The Walters Arts Museum, Baltimore
3. The Kar or Kara Fish
The Kar or Kara Fish was the largest among the aquatic species as described in the Bundahishn, a pseudo-encyclopaedic work from the Zoroastrian texts that accounted the world as it was created by Ahura Mazda. The Kar Fish was also the chief of all the fish species and dwell in the mythical ocean Fraxkard, home to the primal waters. Two specimens of this magical fish were in charge of guarding over the white Haoma tree, the most sacred of all trees in Zoroastrian mythology, who was menaced by a monster that resembled a frog. These two Kar Fishes would continuously circle the white tree in order to protect it and be always on guard. The Kar Fish was said to have the best sight among the underwater creatures, and they needed no food for their nourishment came from the same Creation Spirit. Their senses were so sharp that they could feel the increase or decrease of the sea water, no matter how subtle.
There are actually no depictions of the Kar Fish, so we don’t know how the ancient Iranians imagined it. Some scholars are inclined to think it looked like the prehistoric form of a shark, based on the texts.
|Depiction of a fish in a Manāfi’ al-Ḥayawān manuscript. |
Iran, Maragheh, 1297-1298 or 1299-1300. MS M.500 fol. 72r.
The Morgan Library, New York
Karshift is another mythical bird from Zoroastrian sources also found within the descriptions of the Bundahishn. Its main deed was carrying the revelation of the Zoroastrian belief into the mountain fortress built by another mythological character: king Yima, the first to know about Zoroastrianism as a religion. Karshift flew after the great flood to the enclosure were the king was and recited the whole Avesta in the language of birds and in the language of humans. Because of his powers of speech, it was considered the chief of all birds in creation. According to some scholars, its name derives from the Avestan word karšiptar, literally meaning ‘the black-winged’, so we can picture it as a black-feathered animal.
Matching its myth with other historical parallels, it could have been a bird from the crow species. These birds also had the significance of messengers and spiritual guides in Indo-European traditions, so could be possible to identify Karshift as one of them.
|Crow Constellation. Detail from a folio in an ʿAyā’ib al-Makhlūqāt manuscript. |
Deccan, India, c. 1500-1600s. EA1978.2576. The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
5. Dīv-e Sepid
Dīv-e Sepid, literally ‘the White Demon’, is one of the main antagonists in the Shāh-nāma poem or ‘The Book of Kings’ and one of the most powerful dark creatures in Iranian mythology. He commanded the armies of demons in the northern province of Māzandarān and captured the human king Kay Kavus, had him blinded and imprisoned in a dungeon. This is not like every other dīv in the epic tale, for dīvs are commonly portrayed as brute, clumsy and stupid. Dīv-e Sepid has great intelligence and necromancy knowledge. He was also of huge size and could conjure storms of hail, tree trunks and boulders.
As part of Rostam’s Haft Khān or Seven Labours, he had to defeat Dīv-e Sepid. Their fight is among the episodes most represented in art, in multiple media, from the epic poem. The human hero slayed the demon, cut his head and bathe Kay Kavus’ eyes with it to cure his blindness.
|The fight between Dīv-e Sepid and Rostam in a single folio from a Shāh-nāma manuscript. |
Qazvin or Mashhad, Iran, c. 1580
6. The Huma Bird
The Huma bird is a legendary creature from folktales and myth that is actually quite mysterious. Most of what is known about it relays on popular knowledge more than in written sources or ancient descriptions. Legends told this bird was constantly flying over the clouds and never alighted, remaining invisible for humans. This is the reason for some to believe it had no legs, since it would never make use of them. Huma was, in general, a bird of omen. Its shadow was thought to be auspicious and Sufi poets believed spotting the bird could guarantee happiness beyond imagination. However, it was not possible to catch the Huma alive; that who killed and captured the bird would die in a matter of forty days.
Among its powers, the most important was focused on its shadow. If the Huma bird cast its shadow upon a monarch, it would bestow them the power of heavenly kingship and legitimise their reign forever. The Mughal emperors of India embraced this legend and it is widely represented in art.
|Double capital from Persepolis thought to represent the Huma bird. |
Around 500 BCE, Iran.
We find Verethraqna among the yazatas, the lesser divinities in Zoroastrianism. He was conceived as the embodiment of Victory and was worshiped thoroughly through all ancient Iran. He was a shapeshifter, being able to adopt ten different aspects: a furious wind, a bull, a white horse, a ram, a wild goat, a fifteen-year-old boy, a thirty-year-old man, a bird of prey, a camel and boar. He was supposed to be Mithra’s war companion and all his characteristics were those of a fight-spirit. He was strong, swift and lethal, he had the same sight as the Kar Fish. When in his bird shape, his feathers granted protection and almost invulnerability to that who bore them. He also had patronage over masculine fertility and protected the cattle.
Verethraqna was considered a total spirit for his figure combines features from multiple fields, fundamentally the battlefield, but also the common life. He was said to punish brutally those of impure hearts who dare to summon him for their own benefit. Unfortunately, we have no depictions of Verethraqna at all, so we need to stick with the descriptions found on the texts.
|Verethraqna as a crow-warrior by Jessada-Art|
8. The Paris
Paris were winged spirits from Iranian and Armenian mythology that changed quite a lot through time. Originally, these creatures were considered to be mischievous, malign and misleading, being denied the entrance to Paradise until they washed their condemnable behaviour through atonement. They were both masculine and feminine, but there was almost no different between them. All had dark long hear, big round eyes and multiple-coloured wings that shone under the sunlight. One of their favourite hobbies was tricking humans and leading them into disaster. They liked disguising themselves as humans and throw objects to the people’s heads. They were said to dwell in Paristan, a magical land where all mythical beings lived together passed the Caucasus Mountains.
However, with the arrival of Islam these spirits were changed and turned into benevolent beings for their high resemblance to angels. The term passed to designate beautiful young women and it is a widespread symbol in poetry.
|A Pari seated on a carpet, c. 1555. Bukhara, Uzbekistan. |
The British Museum, London.
9. The Manticore
Surprisingly enough, the Manticore was originally from Iran, and its name Mardykhor was formed with the words mardya, ‘man’ (مارتیا) and khor, ‘eat’ (خوار). It was believed to be a monstrous beast that devoured humans. It passed to European folklore through the works of Ctesias, a Greek physician who served at the court of king Atraxerxes II (404-385 BCE). In his book India, Ctesias gathered the Iranian legend of the Manticore. It was said to have a human face with three rows of sharp teeth in each jaw, the body of a lion and spikes at the tip of its tail like a porcupine to defend itself. This monster became extremely popular in Western mythology and from the first account from Ctesias, descriptions were added more details and features that made it scarier.
It was the most popular during the Middle Ages, when sometimes was confused with a tiger by a false etymology mistake, as Manticore resembles Man-Tiger.
|Woodcut of the Manticore by Edward Topsell. The History of Foure-Footed Beasts, 1607.|
The name Shāhmārān is composed by the words shāh, ‘king’, and mārān, ‘snakes’. She was a mythological creature also found in Anatolia and Iraq, not only in Iran. Hers is the legend of how physicians and snakes came to be forever related. A man named Cansab find Shāhmārān’s dwelling by accident and she let him go under the promise he won’t reveal her location. However, sometime after the sultan of the land fell sick and the doctors said the only remedy would be the flesh of Shāhmārān. It was discovered that Cansab had met the Queen of Snakes and he was tortured until he said where she was. Shāhmārān was captured and cut into pieces to feed the sultan, who lives or dies depending on the version of the tale.
Cansab then, feeling guilty, went to see the serpent people but met an old snake that helped him to be protected against his comrade’s rage. The old snake stated that Shāhmārān knew her future and wanted that man to carry on with her legacy. All her knowledge about Nature’s healing properties were now inside him. He was commanded to travel the world to learn Shāhmārān’s teachings, and two serpents decided to escort him. Thus, the two snakes came to represent medicine forever.
|Picture of Shāhmārān from a Kurdish calendar|