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The Simorgh and Escher

by Daniel Galef

Ordinarily there are two kinds of flight: (1.) The flight of the mind; (2.) The flight of the body. As there are two kinds of birdmen: (1.) The body of a man with the head of a bird; (2.) The body of a bird with the head of a man.

—Note to the poem “I” by Harold Dull


Although often described as a bird and likened to a thunderbird or phoenix, the simorgh or simurg has over centuries been represented in art as everything from leonine to anthropoid. When avian, it may resemble an eagle or a peacock. It has been known to possess the head of a dog. Like the sphinx, it is invariably female. The simorgh derives from Persian mythologies and is well-analysed in Borges’ 1948 essay “El Simurgh y el Águila,” in which the creature is interpreted as allegorically comprising all other birds thinking and acting as one and is compared to the great shining eagle in Canto XVIII of the Paradiso. This image, a symbol of the Lord composed of a host of human souls, is mirrored in the Mantiq al-Tayr, a fable by the Persian Sufi Attar of Nishapur.

One specific depiction of the simorgh that is commonly reproduced without acknowledgment to its origins is in the art of M. C. Escher, who used the image of the simorgh in his lithographs Still Life (1932) and Still Life with Spherical Mirror (1934) as well as the woodcut Another World (1947). The model exists—it is an iron figurine given to Escher by his father-in-law, who purchased the simorgh at Baku in what is now Azerbaijan. The representation is of an ordinary bird, neither eagle nor peacock, and incorporating no features of either lion or dog. It is black and undetailed, and its human head is stylized to abstraction, with the exception of a broad, unsettling smile.

Escher filled his work with spacial paradoxes, hyperbolic and non-Euclidean geometries, and an obsession with infinite regression and fractaline imagery. There is no explicit reason to conclude that Escher was aware of and consciously drawing upon the recursive identity of the Mantiq al-Tayr for his association of the mythical bird with infinites, nor, for that matter, that Borges, who admired Escher greatly, was aware of the Dutch artist’s use of the simurgh in the composition of his 1948 essay.

But it is not undue to note the connection made both by Escher and Borges, and by the ancients, which is that there is something mystical about chimerism. Even to those who believed such creatures breathed and walked among the ordinary, all-of-one-kind animals, creatures described in parts usually possessed additional significance, be it longevity, intelligence, or supernatural powers like petrifaction. The combining of parts that are ordinary creates something extraordinary, even divine—the whole greater than the sum. Many gods of the Classical and pre-Classical periods took the form of humans with animals’ heads.

Egyptian deities frequently followed this pattern, known as theriocephaly. Bird-headed gods Horus and Thoth neatly fit the first category of the bird-man so elegantly obnubilated in the epigraph (and the other is evident in the ba, the essence of the soul that after the death of the body takes a form identical to Escher’s figurine.[1] The Greeks’ gods were generally more anthropomorphic, at least in their perceivable form (at least one other, truer form is hinted at, e.g. in the myth of the birth of Bacchus, when the Theban princess Semele is burned alive by seeing the true face of her lover Zeus). At times, they took the forms of creatures of the earth for various purposes, but rarely did Zeus or Athena assemble their assumed forms from others. An exception is Pan, the sub-Olympian nature and trickster god.

To the Greeks, it may have been this animal, vital association that allowed Pan to be the first and only god to die, wholly and permanently (unlike Saturn or Proserpina, who perish but remain or are reborn). According to Plutarch, writing during the life of Christ, word came to mortals over the water that for the first time, one of the endless had truly died. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Pan died because Christ was born.” Indeed, the Christian god, whether man, lamb, or lion, or three beings as one, is never physically chimerical—the sole exception being in the Palatine graffito blasfemo, showing the crucified god with the head of an ass.[2]

The fable of the Mantiq al-Tayr is not merely Attar’s fairytale. It is a Sufi mystic text intended to illustrate theological themes of the abstract infinite as composed of concrete finites. Each of the birds individually demonstrates a different human flaw, but the simorgh is without flaw and total. Why is the bird-of-birds sculpted as an ordinary bird with a human head? Because it is only the human mind that can hold infinites within itself.


[Footnote 1] This combination is also common in the representation of several Greek monsters, including the harpies, furies, and sirens, all of which possess the power of speech and hound humans. (Later, in the medieval period, the siren would be conflated with the mermaid and become a fish-person rather than a bird-person.)

There are still other types of birdman: Angels, for one (or the popular modern conception of them at least—take one human, add wings—a far cry from the Scriptural beings of wheels and eyes and flames, who for good reason begin their revelations with “Be not afraid”). Also, such angels’ inverse: The Dodo in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland—who plays the part of Dodgson himself—is depicted in Tenniel’s original illustrations with extraneous human hands projecting from beneath his wings. Back to the Text

[Footnote 2] Demigods are generally their own class. No part-man-part-god, Theseus, Perseus, or Achilles, was distinguished partwise as was the chimera. There was never a hero who was human to the waist and Olympian below; no name in Ovid has the nose of Poseidon with no other distinguishing feature. The closest example is to be found in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, in which the half-mortal, half-divine Herakles is likened by Diogenes to a god-man centaur split in two at death. Back to the Text


Daniel Galef is a writer, teacher, actor, and a dictionary definition (Merriam-Webster, adj. "interfaculty"). His fiction and nonfiction appear in the American Bystander, the Surreal Grotesque, Defenestration Magazine, and Bull & Cross, among others. He also writes poetry and plays, collects counterfeit coins, and is the most interfaculty fellow around (it means "handsome" . . . trust me on that).


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