'The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon' (detail) by Edward Burne-Jones
I find the return of King Arthur to be one of the most poignant of British legends. Apparently this tale of the King slumbering beneath the earth to awake in time of Albion’s peril was first related in the Twelfth Century work ‘Otia Imperialia’ by Gervase of Tilbury. It was a tale enthusiastically taken up by British folklorists in the Nineteenth Century along with the poets and thinkers of Romanticism, Medievalism, and the Gothic Revival.
At the same time as this resurgence of interest in the Arthurian legend in the West, in Iran in 1844 the Báb revealed his status as the’ Mahdi’ or ‘Guided One’ prophesised in the Qur’an- a prophecy often conflated with the return of the ‘Hidden Imam of Shia eschatology. I see the Báb and his followers as practicing an almost Arthurian chivalric code when faced by the tyrannical forces ruling Iran at that time. Bábi history is replete with martial imagery such as the unfurling of the black banner of the Mahdi in the Iranian province of Khorrassan and the chivalry of the Báb’s faithful follower Mulla Husayn Bushrui, his first disciple or ‘Letter of the Living’.
The Báb was cruelly martyred in Tabriz in 1850 but not before prophesising the return yet again of mankind’s eternal spiritual hero…
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.