The firebird is a recurring motif in world mythology from the Phoenix of classical times referred to by the Roman poet Ovid to the mythical Garuda of Ancient India.
In Iranian legend the ‘Simurgh’ (or ‘Angha’) is a magical bird so long lived that it is considered to be the wisest of all God’s creatures. (The name ‘Simurgh’ has been seen as meaning ‘thirty birds’- perhaps a reference to it’s majesty). In one form of the legend the Simurgh is said to live for over a thousand years before being consumed by fire. I find this an interesting reversal of the legend of the Phoenix which finds it’s rebirth in fire instead.
The Simurgh is a common reference in both classical and contemporary Persian literature. Arguably the most notable appearance is in Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahname’ (or ‘Book of Kings‘) where Prince Zal- cruelly abandoned on Mount Alborz -is raised by the kindly Simurgh.
In the poems of the Sufis the Simurgh is often used as a symbol for God. An example of this is the poem’ Conference of the Birds’ by the 12th Century poet Farid ud-Din Attar. This poem concerns the quest of a flock of birds for the wondrous Simurgh. The poet describes the Simurgh luring creatures siren-like to it’s nest and consuming them (arguably a metaphor for Sufi ideal of being ‘consumed’ by the beloved).
This literary tradition continues in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh with a reference to the ‘immortal phoenix’ which can be read as a metaphor for the soul.
‘O immortal phoenix! dwell not save on the mount of faithfulness. Therein is thy habitation, if on the wings of thy soul thou soarest to the realm of the infinite and seekest to attain thy goal’.
‘O SON OF SPIRIT! Burst thy cage asunder, and even as the phoenix of love soar into the firmament of holiness. Renounce thyself and, filled with the spirit of mercy, abide in the realm of celestial sanctity‘.
I personally also see ‘the immortal phoenix’ and ‘the phoenix of love’ as references to Bahá’u’lláh’s station as a spiritual educator of humankind and was interested to find `Abdu’l-Bahá make this connection explicit when he wrote-
‘O phoenix of that immortal flame kindled in the sacred Tree! Bahá’u’lláh’
This is a particularly rich metaphor as the mythical Simurgh is pictured as an agent of purification and fertility; like the great spiritual educators the Simurgh is also described as uniting both ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ as a messenger.
According to official figures the unemployment rate in the United Kingdom for the three months to October 2010 was 7.9 per cent, up 0.1 on the quarter. In my view unemployment is a key economic issue of today. To be employed has an obvious material benefit but is an important part of spiritual well-being as well. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá equated work with worship saying
‘Man must work with his fellows. Everyone should have some trade, or art or profession, be he rich or poor, and with this he must serve humanity. This service is acceptable as the highest form of worship.”
We seem to have constructed an economic system which actively destroys jobs in a quest for higher profits and lost sight of the ideal of full employment set out in ‘The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights‘ –
* (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
* (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
* (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
* (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
* Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
* (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
* (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
When I first read the ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as a young boy I must confess that I did not read them as allegory- being childishly ignorant of the author’s intent. ( According to C.S. Lewis “The whole Narnian story is about Christ..).’ Instead I enjoyed the series as simple stories of fantasy and adventure.
During a pre-release interview for the film version of ‘The Voyage Of the Dawn Treader’ Liam Neeson, who voices Aslan caused something of a stir when he said that Aslan does represent a Christ-like figure but also symbolises for him Muhammad, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.
As a Baha’i I certainly share Neeson’s sentiments. I remember when watching ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ a few years ago how taken I was by Aslan as a representation of the universal self- sacrificing spiritual teacher- reminding me of Bahá’u’lláh in chains in the Shah’s dungeon or the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary. (This is of course a recurring motif in classical religions- for example the sacrifice and rebirth of Osiris). I was also struck by the image of winter being rolled back by a spiritual spring-time – a common theme in the writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá who wrote
Just as the surface of the material world becomes dark and dreary, the soil dormant, the trees naked and bare and no beauty or freshness remain to cheer the darkness and desolation, so the winter of the spiritual cycle witnesses the death and disappearance of divine growth and extinction of the light and love of God. But again the cycle begins and a new springtime appears. In it the former springtime has returned, the world is resuscitated, illumined and attains spirituality; religion is renewed and reorganized, hearts are turned to God, the summons of God is heard and life is again bestowed upon man.
I have always loved the rose- which is of course a traditional symbol of beauty and love. It has also been the flower of choice of many a poet including W.B Yeats who amongst other devices used the rose as a symbol of his personal muse and poetry in general. See for example the following line from ‘To The Rose Upon The Rood Of Time’
‘RED Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways…’
Apparently in classical times the rose was sacred to a number of goddesses including Aphrodite and Isis. It is also a symbol of love and beauty in Persian poetry and the writings of the Sufis. I am struck by the amount of rose imagery in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh (who for some time assumed the guise of a dervish on the banks of the Tigris). My favourite example is this from the ’The Hidden Words’
‘O FRIEND! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold. Treasure the companionship of the righteous and eschew all fellowship with the ungodly‘.
Bahá’u’lláh also uses the rose as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment referring to ‘the rose-garden of knowledge’ and the ‘rose-garden of My wisdom’. He also exhorts the reader to
‘…soar upward from the clay of self and dwell in the rose bower of the heart’
The rose symbolising spiritual enlightenment is also contrasted with clay as a symbol of materialism
‘O MY CHILDREN! I fear lest, bereft of the melody of the dove of heaven, ye will sink back to the shades of utter loss, and, never having gazed upon the beauty of the rose, return to water and clay‘.
Bahá’u’lláh also appears to use the rose as a symbol of the arrival of a new spiritual era-
‘Hear Me, ye mortal birds! In the Rose Garden of changeless splendour a Flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn’
(All quotations taken from the Bahá’í Reference Library)