Many, many years ago I read Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary and was quite taken with a story Bierce told about an “Arabian” myth of an all-powerful entity that held all the power in the universe on the condition that it never use that power:
RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable—omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, "soaring swine.")
When I was a kid, I assumed that Bierce had made up the story, but I liked the idea. However, over time I did begin to wonder if there were something behind his when I ran across the name of the Simurgh in my readings and discovered that it was a giant Persian flying dog-headed peacock. That certainly didn’t sound anything like Bierce’s version. So, I started to do some research.
It turns out that Bierce’s 1906/1911 reference in the Devil’s Dictionary runs parallel to another allusion to the story that he gave in an 1897 essay on “The Novel,” in which he offered few but different details. Here he begins by describing the power of the author over his novel and compares it to the Simurgh:
His materials are infinite in abundance and cosmic in distribution. No thing that can be known, or thought, or felt, or dreamed, but is available if he can manage it. He is lord of two worlds and may select his characters from both. In the altitudes where his imagination waves her joyous wing there are no bars for her to beat her breast against; the universe is hers, and unlike the sacred bird Simurgh, which is omnipotent on condition of never exerting its power, she may do as she will.
Here, Bierce betrays that he does indeed know that the Simurgh is a bird. This confused me greatly, since there is no obvious reference in Persian literature to the Simurgh having omnipotence or the inability to use it.
Now, Bierce was a writer of horror literature, and he was well-read in his field. It turns out that William Thomas Beckford’s Arabesque Gothic novel Vathek contained a few references to the Simurgh, a rarity in Western literature of the time, though the book did not do anything more than allude to the bird. However, the notes in the standard edition of Vathek offered some guidance:
That wonderful bird of the East, concerning which so many marvels are told, was not only endowed with reason, but possessed also the knowledge of every language. Hence it may be concluded to have been a dive in a borrowed form. This creature relates of itself that it had seen the great revolution of seven thousand years, twelve times commence and close; and that, in its duration, the world had been seven times void of inhabitants, and as often replenished. The simurgh is represented as a great friend to the race of Adam, and not less inimical to the dives. Tahamurath and Aherman were apprised by its predictions of all that was destined to befal them, and from it they obtained the promise of assistance in every undertaking. Armed with the buckler of Gian Ben Gian, Tahamurath was borne by it through the air, over the dark desart, to Kaf. From its bosom his helmet was crested with plumes, which the most renowned warriors have ever since worn. In every conflict the simurgh was invulnerable, and the heroes it favoured never failed of success. Though possessed of power sufficient to exterminate its foes, yet the exertion of that power was supposed to be forbidden.—Sadi, a serious author, gives it as an instance of the universality of Providence, that the simurgh, notwithstanding its immense bulk, is at no loss for sustenance on the mountain of Kaf.
So, there you have it: “Though possessed of power sufficient to exterminate its foes, yet the exertion of that power was supposed to be forbidden.” Bierce has misunderstood the reference slightly, and conflated its near-omniscience with its invulnerability to produce imagined omnipotence. Since Vathek is a novel in the style of an Arabian romance, Bierce naturally confused the Persian story for an Arabian one.
Beckford clearly had some source or another, but what that is, he did not say, and it took me longer than necessary to find it. The last line of his note is found in the seventeenth century French dictionary Bibliotheque Orientale, by Barthélemy d'Herbelot under the subject heading Simorg. However, the rest of the passage actually occurs in the entry for Thahamurath (a Persian hero). I translate here from the French:
To say a few more particular things concerning Simorg Anka, he was always inviolable in the battles he waged against the Demons, and all the Heroes he favored also won great advantages over them by means of him; and with his own strength he could exterminate this race, but some secret order of God prevented it.
So there you have it. The original. Or close to it. The French text has underlying Persian sources, but they are beyond our interest. The important thing is that a story from a French summary of Persian literature got processed through many different filters until it came out the other end in a very different final product.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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