Birds, the symbol of our souls and deeply embedded in myth and mystical literature the world over, represent the ultimate freedom a poet can attain upon qualifying after their course yields - in original voice long imitative study and practice sets free to sing in its own note -- a spread of wings spanning the spectrum of skill and artistry needed to swim out amongst one's peers and capture the public imagination.
The 4500 line Persian poem منطق الطیر, Mantiq at-Tayr, (The Conference of the Birds) composed in 1177 by Sufi herbalist Farid ud-Din Attar is perhaps, besides being an exquisite example of Persian poetry - one of the most sublime and moving of anagogic texts of the Medieval Middle East.
The world's avian race, led by a leader in the form of the brightly coloured hoopoe, set out on a journey seeking the land of Simorgh.
Simorgh is the benevolent, female phoenix-like creature with the body of a peacock, claws of a lion and human head, large enough to carry off a whale and who roosts in the mythical Gaokerena tree (trans. ox-horn), or Tree of Life in Persian legend - with the juice of its fruit being an elixir of immortality in both Vedic and Zoroastrian tradition.
Rigveda (8.48.3, tr. Griffith) states:
"We have drunk Soma and become immortal;
we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
Now what may foeman's malice do to harm us?
What, O Immortal, mortal man's deception?"
This being was a messenger between earth and sky and symbol of fertility and purification. So old it was said to have witnessed the destruction of the world three times, and every 1700 years, cast itself into flames and was reborn.
The birds of the world were seeking out the land of Simorgh and the name of the poem hinges on a very clever bit of wordplay, as simorgh also in Persian, means "thirty birds."
They travel through seven variously named valleys, each one bringing trials and tribulations, and one by one the birds drop out until thirty of them arrive at the fabled destination, and on doing so, discover that there is no mythical bird, only their own reflections in a lake, and this point attain transcendence on the realisation that the seed of enlightenment leading to the highest spiritual plane of understanding and acceptance, comes from within and is a process of drawing out. That we are merely a reflection of the Creator and cosmic pattern.
A super allegory.
Bird symbols are present throughout the poetries of the world and can represent many different aspects of civilisation and culture, as the image of flight can be used to depict anything the poet is capable of rendering it to. Birds of peace and of war.
The Tuatha Dé Danann triumvirate of war-goddess crows and ravens in Galeic legend, Badb, Macha and Nemain, daughters of Ernmas and apsects of the Mórrígan - all appear in numerous poetic narratives and reflect the opposite of peace and acceptance.
Scavengers of the battlefield who took on supernatural motifs in the pan-European Celtic culture prior to its eradication by Rome - Cúchulainn encounters the Mórrígan in both the Táin Bó Regamna (The Cattle Raid of Regamain) and the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley).
In the first cattle tale, she appears as a woman driving a heifer from Ulster and Cúchulainn, not realising her true identity, insults her and she retorts with threats and prophecying a coming battle in which he will be killed. Her final words:
"I guard your death."
In the Cooley narrative, four times during the intervals in the bouts of single-combat he is engaged in with Maeb of Connacht's various championswith at river fords, she appears in various forms. The first time as a young woman offering herself to him and which he refuses, then as an eel who trips him up: next as a wolf leading cattle to stampede across the ford, as a red heiffer leading the stampede and finally as an old woman milking a cow, bearing the scars he inflicted in her prior guises. She gives him a drink of milk and he blesses her wounds, healing them.
When his death comes, after being wounded in battle, he ties himself to a pillar of stone so he can die standing up, and it is only after the Mórrígan in raven form has landed on his shoulder, those present are brave enough to approach him, knowing he must be dead.
These are just two ways that birds in two of the most ancient poetic cultures, can appear in their respective traditions, and which embody and illustrate the inherent freedom of poetic expression such avian symbols are capable of effecting within our imaginations.
Another powerful bird, particularly in the bardic tradition, is the cuckoo, whose first sound at Beltane in May, signalled the end of another six month semester which had begun at Samhain, and the various grades of students, from focloc through to anruth, would put away the Auraicept na n-éces (learning methods of the knowing ones) on which the basis of their art was founded, and set forth to sing out of the woods.
This piece originally appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on Monday, in response to a blog about Poetry and Birds - but was deleted within hours of being posted under the username Senachie.