The Indo-Iranian origins of the Torii gate as a perch for the Simorghian-Phoenix


“The Phœnix, like the bird Feng, is a mystical bird said to live 500 or 600 years and then to build for itself in the desert a funeral pyre of dried grasses and sweet spices. To this it sets fire by fluttering its wings whilst hovering over it, is then consumed, but from the ashes it rises again renewed in youth and in its gorgeous plumage; an idea appropriated by old-established fire insurance offices, the symbol of which is familiar to all.

The Phœnix is believed by the Chinese to uphold their Empire and preside over its destiny; it is also worn as a Talisman for Longevity and Conjugal Happiness; whilst in the mystic sense it typifies the- whole world, its head the heavens, its eyes the Sun, its beak the Moon, its wings the wind, its feet the earth, and its tail the trees and plants.

To the Japanese the Phœnix, or ho-wo bird, is a Talisman for Rectitude, Obedience, Fidelity, Justice, and Benevolence, and they consider it a manifestation of the Sun, its appearance on earth being considered a portent of great events. The torii, a kind of gate elaborately carved and decorated at the entrances of Shinto temples, is erected for the Phœnix to perch upon should it visit the earth (see Illustration No. 40, Plate III).

Source: The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems, by William Thomas and Kate Pavitt, [1922], at  p. 38-39 [The phoenix is also a common emblem adorning the top of the roof of the portable mikoshi shrine].

The torii is explained as a sacred perch where the Phoenix alights In the excerpt “The Torii. [Shinto Gateway.] from the 1902 copy of the “Mythological Japan : the symbolisms of mythology in relation to Japanese art, with illustrations drawn in Japan, by native artists” by Alexander F. Otto and Theodore S Holbrook:

“The whispering voices of tradition — how we treasure them — tell us that the Torii, the stately, well poised gateway of Shinto faith, has an office that lifts it far above the commonplace. The Sun at divers times and places, comes down to earth in the form of the great and wondrous Ho- Wo Bird, or Heavenly Phoenix, using for its perch one of the many Torii Gates, which the good people of Japan have built and placed throughout the land for that most exalted purpose.

The traveller may still see the Torii at the entrance to the Shinto temple grounds, where it appears as the signification of the true gateway to a life of grace ; in art, it is used innumerable times in the decoration of Japan’s fairest ornaments.”

This suggests a original and remoter provenance from some Persian influenced ideology upon early relic technology from Shandong (or other early Chinese tribes) where a rare small torii has been excavated from an underground burial tomb chamber. Alternatively, as the earliest torii is said to have been from the Kofun kurgan period, the torii may in fact have been of Indo-Iranic influences from incoming Saka migrants.

In India, the torana (Wikimedia Commons)

The Korean hongsalmun, at the shrine of the clan Yi of Jeonju (Wikimedia Commons) The Korean hongsalmun has the same function and role of demarcate the area and the sacred space inside the shrine.


On the further evolution of torii structural styles see the JAANUS article “torii for elaboration of the topic.


The Simurgh or Simorgh’s Perch

The Persians have a mystical tale of the Touba was a (pomegranate) tree in Paradise where the mythical bird, the Simorgh loved to perch, according to Persian literature “Touba and the Meaning of Night” by Shahrnush Parsipur, Havva Houshmand. Although according to Hafiz, the Persian Poet, the Simorgh perched ” on the dewy boughs of stately pine”

The Simorgh was a creature of Middle Eastern mythology which took hybrid form of a human head and  figure of a bird.  The legendary Simorgh was believed to be so old that it had seen the destruction of the world three times over.


M. C. Escher owned this Simorgh figurine, a gift from his father-in-law, who acquired it as a wedding gift in Azerbaijan Photo courtesy: Cordon Art B.V., Baarn, The Netherlands

The tale of the Simorgh

“there was a carved wooden statue of a phoenix at the tip of the cliff.  What’s that I asked my mother? It’s a phoenix, it’s really like our bird. The Simorgh she explained was a mystical bird, the leader king of all birds  thousands of years ago . One day the birds were summoned and asked to undertake a journey to reach their king They accepted, though it was a hazardous journey fraught with obstacles and Some of the birds, the nightingale, the sparrow dropped out along the way. …in the end, the birds made it to the final valley gathered and waited expectantly to meet their leader. Their guide turned to them and announced there was no leader, no Simorgh,  just themselves. That if they looked around them–they would realize that they themselves were the Simorgh. The tale relied on a play of words. In Farsi ‘si’ meant thirty, ‘morgh’ meant bird. The birds looked around and realized there were thirty of them. The goal of their journey which they had imagined as a quest for their king, was actually their quest  for self.”

Source: “Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran” By Azadeh Moaveni.

The tale of the Simorgh is found in the tale of Zal or Zaal, a legendary Persian warrior from the old Persian “The Book of Kings/ The king of books” or Shahnameh, as well as in Peter Sis’ illustrated “The Conference of the Birds“, an adaptation of the classic twelfth-century Sufi epic, see review by Randall Hayes for the Audubon Bird Society excerpted below.

The Conference of the Birds


Look at the troubles happening in our world!


Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!

Poisoned air! Unhappiness!

I fear we are lost. We must do something!

I’ve seen the world. I know many secrets.

Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers.

We must go and find him

After a good bit of funny and very human arguing, the birds flap off to find their king, called Simorgh. Their search covers half the world, and at the end they realize that THEY are Simorgh. This seemed like a good message for us to think about as we enter into the Visioning Session planned for 7pm tomorrow night at the Kathleen Clay Library. Who are we?

Sassanid silver plate of a simurgh (Sēnmurw), 7-8th c. CE

Excerpted from Simurgh:

“The simurgh is depicted in Iranian art as a winged creature in the shape of a bird, gigantic enough to carry off an elephant or a whale. It appears as a kind of peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion; sometimes however also with a human face. The simurgh is inherently benevolent and unambiguously female…

The simurgh has teeth. It has an enmity towards snakes and its natural habitat is a place with plenty of water. Its feathers are said to be the colour of copper, and though it was originally described as being a Dog-Bird, later it was shown with either the head of a man or a dog. …

Iranian legends consider the bird so old that it had seen the destruction of the World three times over. The simurgh learned so much by living so long that it is thought to possess the knowledge of all the Ages. In one legend, the simurgh was said to live 1,700 years before plunging itself into flames (much like the phoenix).

The simurgh was considered to purify the land and waters and hence bestow fertility. The creature represented the union between the earth and the sky, serving as mediator and messenger between the two. The simurgh roosted in Gaokerena, the Hōm (Avestan: Haoma) Tree of Life, which stands in the middle of the world sea Vourukhasa. The plant is potent medicine, is called all-healing, and the seeds of all plants are deposited on it. When the simurgh took flight, the leaves of the tree of life shook making all the seeds of every plant to fall out. These seeds floated around the world on the winds of Vayu-Vata and the rains of Tishtrya, in cosmology taking root to become every type of plant that ever lived, and curing all the illnesses of mankind. 

Dastan takes leave of the Simorgh
The relationship between the simurgh and Hōm is extremely close. Like the simurgh, Hōm is represented as a bird, a messenger and as the essence of purity that can heal any illness or wound. Hōm – appointed as the first priest – is the essence of divinity, a property it shares with the simurgh. The Hōm is in addition the vehicle of farr(ah) (MP: khwarrah, Avestan: khvarenah, kavaēm kharēno) “[divine] glory” or “fortune”. Farrah in turn represents the divine mandate that was the foundation of a king’s authority.

It appears as a bird resting on the head or shoulder of would-be kings and clerics, so indicating Ormuzd’s acceptance of that individual as His divine representative on earth. For the commoner, Bahram wraps fortune/glory “around the house of the worshipper, for wealth in cattle, like the great bird Saena, and as the watery clouds cover the great mountains” (Yasht 14.41, cf. the rains of Tishtrya above). Like the simurgh, farrah is also associated with the waters of Vourukasha (Yasht 19.51,.56-57). In Yašt 12.17 Simorgh’s (Saēna’s) tree stands in the middle of the sea Vourukaša, it has good and potent medicine, is called all-healing, and the seeds of all plants are deposited on it. 

In the Shahnameh

The Simurgh made its most famous appearance in the Ferdowsi’s epic Shahname (Book of Kings), where its involvement with the Prince Zal is described. According to the Shahname, Zal, the son of Saam, was born albino. When Saam saw his albino son, he assumed that the child was the spawn of devils, and abandoned the infant on the mountain Alborz.

The child’s cries were carried to the ears of the tender-hearted Simurgh, who lived on top this peak, and she retrieved the child and raised him as her own. Zal was taught much wisdom from the loving Simurgh, who has all knowledge, but the time came when he grew into a man and yearned to rejoin the world of men. Though the Simurgh was terribly saddened, she gifted him with three golden feathers which he was to burn if he ever needed her assistance.

Upon returning to his kingdom, Zal fell in love and married the beautiful Rudaba. When it came time for their son to be born, the labor was prolonged and terrible; Zal was certain that his wife would die in labour. Rudabah was near death when Zal decided to summon the simurgh. The simurgh appeared and instructed him upon how to perform a cesarean section thus saving Rudabah and the child, who became one of the greatest Persian heroes, Rostam. Simurgh also shows up in the story of the Seven Trials of Esfandiar and the story of Rostam and Esfandiar.

In Azeri folklore

Simurgh also goes by the name of Zumrud (emerald). It was an ancient tale about Malik Mammad, the son of one of the wealthiest kings of Azerbaijan. That king had a big garden. In the center of this garden is a magical apple tree which yields apples every day. One ugly giant called Div decides to steal all the apples every night. The king sends Malik Mammad and his elder brothers fight the giant. In the middle of this tale Malik Mammad saves Simurgh’s babies from a dragon. Simurgh takes pleasure of Malik Mammad and decides to help him. When Malik Mammad wants to pass form The Dark world into the Light world Simurgh asks him to provide 40 half carcasses of meat and 40 wineskin filled with water. When Simurgh puts water on its left wing and meat on its right wing Malik Mammad is able to enter the Light world….

In Kurdish folklore

Simurgh is shortened to Sīmīr in the Kurdish language. The scholar Trever quotes two Kurdish folktales about the bird. These versions go back to the common stock of Iranian Simorḡ stories. In one of the folk tales, a hero rescues Simurgh’s off-springs by killing a snake that is crawling up the tree to feed upon them. As a reward Sīmīr(Simurgh) gives him three of her feathers; which the hero can call for help by burning them. Later the hero uses the feathers, and Simurgh carries him to a distant land. In the other tale, Simurgh carries the hero out of the netherworld; here Simurgh feeds its young with its teats, a trait which agrees with the description of the Simurgh in the Middle Persian book of Zdspram. “

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