Symbols are powerful images that, in one pictogram, contain a host of associated ideas or cultural myths. Simurgh is a mythical Iranian bird whose history goes back to at least 2500 years ago or even longer in the Aryan mythologies and Sanskrit scriptures. The evolution of the myth has had three distinct phases:
1) Simurgh in Zoroastrian Mythology
Simurgh is an Iranian mythical bird which is mentioned twice in the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta; as Saêna (Méréghô Saêna) in Bahman Yasht, verse 41 and again in Rashnu Yasht, verse 17. These Yashts were probably written during the Achamenid era (521-331 BCE), but the myths contained within them probably go back to 1500-1200 BCE, contemporaneous with the Indian Rigvedas.
In Bahman Yasht the great bird Saêna brings life-refreshing rain and also wraps Xvarnah (fortune) around the house of worshipers of Ahuramazda. In Rashnu Yasht it is mentioned that the bird Saêna “roosts on the tree that stands in the middle of the ‘Vourakasha’ sea, the tree that has good and potent medicines, the tree that is called ‘allhealing’, and the seeds of all plants are contained within it’”.
Again, in ‘Minooye Kherad’, a Zoroastrian book of wisdom and advice which was probably written in the late Sassanid era during the 6th century CE in the Pahlavi language; it is mentioned that the Sênmurw (Pahlavi language for the Avestan Méréghô Saêna) roosted on top of the mythical ‘Vispô-bish’ (many seed) tree that grew in the middle of the ‘Farakhkart’ ea (Avestan ‘Vourakasha’) which contained the seeds of all medicinal plants that cured all diseases.
Poure-Davoud2 writes that in Farvardin Yasht, verses 97 and 126, several physicians have been mentioned bearing the name Saêna and also in Dinkard (a Zoroastrian text) it is mentioned that there was a physician by the name of Saêna (the son of Ahüm-stüd) who was born one hundred years after Zoroaster who, during his long life, trained 100 students to be physicians. It is thus established that in the Zoroastrian tradition from the Achamenid (550-331 BCE) to the end of the Sassanid (226-651 CE) era, a period ranging well over 1000 years, the bird Saêna or Sênmurw was firmly associated with medicine and medicinal herbs.
2) Simurgh in the Shahnameh
In the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), a book of Iranian epic poetry written over 1000 years ago by Ferdowsi (936-1020 CE) in the modern Iranian language (Farsi), the mythical bird Simurgh (Avestan Saêna; Pahlavi Sênmurw) appears three times.
First in raising Zal the Albino hero abandoned by his father, Sam, on mount Alborz, and twice in relation with the hero Rostam; first in aiding his birth and second in healing his wounds during a battle with Esfandiar.
Simurgh’s surgical and medical prowess are demonstrated when Roodabeh, Zal’s wife, is pregnant with their son Rostam, but due to the child’s large size has great diffiulty during delivery and becomes moribund.
At this time Zal burns Simurgh’s magical feather and the bird appears and gives instructions to a mobed (a Zoroastrian priest adept in surgery) on how to cut open Roodabeh’s lower abdomen with a sharp knife, after having given her an herbal potion mixed with wine to anesthetize her.
The huge child, Rostam, is delivered safely. The incision is sewn up and covered with a healing emulsion of milk, musk and herbs and finally rubbed with the magical feather of Simurgh to heal.
Roodabeh regains consciousness the next day and recovers fully in due course and Rostam survives to become the central hero of the epic Shahnameh. Simurgh’s next medical episode is when Rostam and his horse, Rakhsh, have been fatally wounded by Esfandiar’s arrows and Simurgh is once again summoned by Zal. When the bird extracts the arrows from Rostam’s chest and the horse’s neck and rubs the wounds with herbal potions and his magical feather, they both recover fully to pursue their heroic tasks.
3) Attar and ‘The Parliament of the Birds’
The final phase of the Simurgh in Iranian mythology is a mystical poem by Farid-ud-Din Attar written in modern Farsi in the 12th century C.E. wherein Simurgh is an allegorical symbol for the mystical idea of absolute truth embodied in the Godhead. In the story, all the birds of the world seek to journey to the land of Simurgh and choose the bird Hoopoe to lead them there, but on the way, most of the birds and the journey too arduous and refuse to go further.
Finally, only thirty birds are left when they reach the abode of Simurgh and when they look upon him they see only a reaction of themselves. In this story Attar uses a clever word play on Simurgh, the mythical bird, and ‘si- murgh’, meaning thirty birds (si=thirty and murgh=bird in the Farsi language), and thus he conveys the mystical Sufi notion that the ‘Truth’ is within one’s own self and not outside of it. this later phase of the Simurgh myth has no medical connotations except that Attar himself was a pharmacist and had a drug dispensary before he turned to mysticism.