ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib: The Poetics of a Mythical Creature

In: Journal of Abbasid Studies
Guy Ron-Gilboa Post-Doctoral Fellow, Mandel Scholion Research Center / The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Jerusalem Israel
Lecturer, The Department of Arabic / Bar Ilan University Ramat Gan Israel

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In early Arabic literature, ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib is the name of the quintessential mythical bird. The ʿAnqāʾ appears in a myriad of medieval sources of different genres: poetical, narrative, proverbial, scientific, philosophical, and mystical. This paper draws attention to the multiple ways in which this bird was represented and the functions it fulfilled in different literary contexts. It explores the intricate web of quotations, allusions, and literary innovations that facilitated its multifarious uses and re-uses. I explore the various manifestations of the ʿAnqāʾ to demonstrate the different and at times contradictory meanings ascribed to it and its diverse literary functions: as a creature of speculative zoology; as metaphor of scarcity or non-existence; as a metaphor of God; as a marker of fictionality; and more.

The Figure in the Carpet

In a lampoon (hijāʾ) on the stinginess of Ismāʿīl b. Abī Sahl b. Naybakht (or Nawbakht) (d. 211/826–27), Abū Nuwās (d. between 198–200/813–15) complains:1

Ismāʿīl’s food is sheltered by stinginess —
It has landed in a place where it is safeguarded from being eaten.
His food is just like Āwā, whose son [ibn āwā, i.e., the jackal] can be seen,
But Āwā [itself] has never been seen on either rough or smooth terrain.
His food is just like ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib,
which is portrayed in the carpets of kings and in muthl;
People talk about it without ever seeing it,
Except [in] an image that tastes neither bitter nor sweet.

The miser’s food is so well guarded that his guests only know about it from hearsay. Abū Nuwās sardonically likens it to two mysterious animals: Āwā and ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib. Āwā is the notional father of banāt āwā (sg. ibn āwā)— jackals. Everyone knows what jackals are, but no one knows what his “father” the Āwā is and what it looks like. The name āwā is an eponym; it exists only as part of a compound linguistic sign and signifies nothing on its own.

What about ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib? From its depictions in other sources, we know that it is a mythical bird. However, Abū Nuwās does not tell us that, nor does he tell us what it looks like.2 He implicitly expects his readers to know what it is, as evinced by his statements that “people talk about it” and that it is “portrayed in the carpets of kings and in muthl.” The last word—muthl (sg. mithāl)—is semantically ambiguous. Like its cognate mathal, it denotes an analogy, a similitude conveyed in words. However, according to lexicographers, it can also denote 1) qālib: pattern, mold, or form; 2) firāsh: bed, mat, or carpet.3 The context in which the word muthl appears in Abū Nuwās’s verse implies that it is this second definition of mithāl—rugs—that is meant here, parallel to busṭ. Nonetheless, the interplay between words and images seems to be at the crux of Abū Nuwās’s astute phrasing; after all, ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib appears in both texts and textile.4

A similar interplay between the existence of fabulous creatures in texts and in art on the one hand and their physical immateriality on the other can be observed in Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet on the Unicorn (Die Sonnete an Orpheus, part 2, IV): “O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht gibt” (“This is the beast that does not exist”),5 —inspired by a sixteenth-century series of tapestries depicting “The Lady with the Unicorn.”6 Like Abū Nuwās, Rilke does not describe the beast to which he is referring; what is more, the Unicorn’s name (Einhorn) only echoes in the poem (Ein Horn; “one horn”) but is never explicitly mentioned. The elusive creature “never was” (“Zwar war es nicht”), and yet, people “loved it;” they “nurtured it … only with the possibility that it might be” (“Sie nährten es … nur immer mit der Möglichkeit, es sei”). But how are mythical creatures “nurtured with the possibility that they might be?”

Previous studies of the ʿAnqāʾ’s representations, both textual and visual, have shown that its image is never entirely fixed: at times it is represented simply as a fantastic bird, and at others as a hybrid creature, incorporating avian, human, and bestial features. Art historians, notably Eva Baer and more recently Lev Kapitaikin, drew on literary sources to analyze its iconography.7 Literary historians, notably Charles Pellat, Katia Zakharia, and Pedro Buendía, reviewed the bird’s occurrences in legends, fables, and allegories, and compared it with other mythical birds.8 Their studies have shown that the main constants in the ʿAnqāʾ’s various representations are its avian nature, its superior power, and its fabulousness.

Following their results, in this paper I discuss the literary qualities of the ʿAnqāʾ along four converging lines: first, its intertextuality, that is, how the ʿAnqāʾ derives its existence as a mythical creature from its recurrence in texts of different genres, and, following Richard Bauman, how “each act of textual production presupposes antecedent texts and anticipates prospective ones;”9 second, how the ʿAnqāʾ became syncretized with other mythical birds through translation; third, the ways in which the ʿAnqāʾ was allegorized and became a metaphor; and fourth, the ways it came to mark its own imaginariness and, by extension, the imaginariness of its textual surroundings. By doing so, I reflect on the ways that the ʿAnqāʾ, like other mythical creatures, is “nurtured with the possibility that it might be.”

Tracing the Threads: An Intertextual Creature

Mythical creatures like the ʿAnqāʾ are innately intertextual entities: their existence is entirely textual, but never circumscribed to any one specific text. Whatever notion we have of dragons, gryphons, or vampires is dependent on a gamut of cultural representations, both textual and visual: we know that dragons are reptilian creatures that breathe fire or that vampires are immortal human-like monsters that feed on human blood only because they have been portrayed as such in various media. Like stock-figures, they are “ready-made;” their occurrence in any given text is already inscribed with past representations. Each new representation of any of these creatures is therefore—to use Gerard Genette’s term—a palimpsest.10 They accrue their characteristics and significations by the very fact that they are re-told, re-pictured, or, following Richard Bauman, “re-performed;”11 they become “real” by way of a textual process which lends them historical and cultural depth.12

Consequently, we encounter representations of mythical creatures already knowing something about them; and, conversely, writers and artists may portray such creatures with the implied assumption that their audience already has some notion of what they are. This can be gleaned in Abū Nuwās’s poem, where the poet presumably expects his audience not only to know what the ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib is but, moreover, to understand its ironical use as a simile for scarcity. Such an understanding requires an intertextual competence on the part of the readers or listeners; it depends on them having encountered earlier representations of the creature. Apparently, Abū Nuwās’s statement that “people talk about ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib without ever seeing it” reflects the idiomatic usage of the bird’s name in common parlance: according to al-Zajjāj (d. 311/923), ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib is “a bird no one has ever seen;”13 and according to others, “only its name has survived among the people.”14 The ʿAnqāʾ features as a metaphor for scarcity, rarity, or fictitiousness in some proverbs: al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/868–9) mentions that the ʿArab say “ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib flew away with it in the sky” when they want to say that something “was destroyed and became null.”15 Similarly, al-Maydānī (d. 518/1124) explains that the proverb “ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib flew away with it” applies to a thing for which “all hope is forsaken.”16 Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī (d. early fifth/eleventh century) says explicitly that ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib is employed in speech as an analogy or a metaphor (mathal) for “that which does not exist or that which cannot be aspired.”17 It can be assumed that Abū Nuwās’s contemporaries were aware of such idiomatic usages, and that this awareness enabled them to grasp the ironical intertextual references and allusions made in the poem.

To better understand the intertextual nature of ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib, I wish to examine a later representation of the bird in a different context: its description in al-Qazwīnī’s (d. 682/1283) so-called encyclopedia of natural history, ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt.18 This examination will shed light on the thick web of cross-generic quotations, adaptations, borrowings, and allusions from which the ʿAnqāʾ is made and demonstrate how the constant textual dialogue recreates and animates this imaginary bird.

ʿAnqāʾ is the largest bird in its body and appearance. It snatches elephants and buffalos the way a kite (al-ḥidʾa) snatches mice. It is told that in bygone days it had been common among man and that man had been harmed by its transgressions, until one day it snatched a bride on her wedding-day and the prophet Ḥanẓala invoked God against it. God then transplanted it to an island in the ocean, on the equator (taḥta khaṭṭ al-istiwāʾ), out of man’s reach. There are many animals on this [island], such as elephants, karkadann,19 buffalos, tigers and [other] predatory beasts. The ʿAnqāʾ does not hunt them, because they are its subjects. When it hunts something, it eats some of it and leaves the rest to the animals in its dominion. It only hunts elephants, large fish, or dragons (tinnīn). When it finishes eating its prey, it flies to its abode, leaving the remains for the animals in its dominion, and watches as they eat. When it flies, its wings make the sound of an assailing flood or the sound that trees make when stormy winds are raging. They say that the ʿAnqāʾ lives to be 1700 years old. It mates when it reaches 500. When it is time to lay an egg, [the female] suffers awful pain. The male comes to it carrying water from the sea in its beak, which it applies to the female as an enema (wa-yaḥqinuhā bihi); in this manner the egg comes out easily. The male broods the egg while the female goes hunting. After 125 years the egg hatches. If the chick is a female, when it reaches maturity the [older] female ʿAnqāʾ gathers plenty of firewood; the male rubs its beak against the female’s till a flare bursts and catches the firewood. The female then enters the pyre and is consumed in flames. The [female-]chick remains as the mate of the male. If the chick is a male, then the male ʿAnqāʾ does the same as the female, and the male chick becomes the female’s mate. They say many things about the ʿAnqāʾ. However, since they are not related to any reliable source, we shall satisfy ourselves with this much, and may God lead us to what is right.20

Al-Qazwīnī portrays here an exotic bird of gigantic dimensions, immense power, exceptional longevity, and extraordinary life cycle. While for us the bird he describes is entirely fantastic, al-Qazwīnī presents it as a creature that could, at least potentially, exist in a far-away place, “out of man’s reach”, though the reports about it “are not related to any reliable source.” The reports that al-Qazwīnī does rely on are drawn from sources of different literary genres. In tracing al-Qazwīnī’s likely sources, I shall concentrate on three aspects of the report: 1) the physical qualities of the ʿAnqāʾ and the description of its habitat; 2) the ʿAnqāʾ’s vanquishing by a prophet of God; and 3) the ʿAnqāʾ’s life cycle.

Physical Qualities of the ʿAnqāʾ

Al-Qazwīnī’s descriptions of the size of the ʿAnqāʾ, its preying on elephants and buffalos “the way a kite snatches mice,” and its habitat on an island on the equator reproduce almost verbatim the description of the ʿAnqāʾ in the twenty-second epistle of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (active late third-early fourth/late ninth-early tenth centuries). In this literary fable, entitled by its English translators Lenn E. Goodman and Richard McGregor “The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn,” the ʿAnqāʾ appears as the king of the raptors (malik al-jawāriḥ) and its vizier is said to be the karkadann.21 According to the epistle, the ʿAnqāʾ lives on top of the mountains of a verdant island “on the equator” (taḥta khaṭṭ al-istiwāʾ). Its messenger, the parrot (al-babghāʾ), describes it to the king of the Jinn (translation following Goodman and McGregor):

He is the greatest of birds in size, the mightiest in frame, and the strongest in flight. He has a huge head and a mighty beak, strong as a cast-iron pickaxe. His sharp, hooked talons are like iron grapnels; his vast wings, when he spreads them, like two sails of a sea-going ship. […] When he swoops from the sky, the mountains quake as his mighty legs touch down, at the great surges of air stirred by the beating of his wings. He sweeps elephants and buffaloes from the earth in mid-flight, like a kite snatching mice from the earth.22

The Ikhwān’s own description of the ʿAnqāʾ as “king of the raptors” is probably based on the textual precedent of Kalīla wa-Dimna, in which the ʿAnqāʾ figures as “king of the birds” (malik al-ṭayr);23 there is, then, a virtual “chain of transmission” which leads from the second/eighth century Kalīla wa-Dimna (and its Indian prototype, the Pañcatantra), through The Case of the Animals, to al-Qazwīnī’s account, composed several hundred years later.

However, al-Qazwīnī’s work belongs to an entirely different genre from Kalīla wa-Dimna and The Case of the Animals. The difference in genres bears significantly on the way the ʿAnqāʾ is perceived in each. As mentioned, al-Qazwīnī’s work presents itself as a work of natural history; as such, it implicitly claims verisimilitude for the animals depicted in it, including the ʿAnqāʾ. Moreover, al-Qazwīnī describes a species of birds and not a unique one-of-a-kind specimen. In contrast, Kalīla wa-Dimna and The Case of the Animals are fables, viz., counterfactual narratives that use anthropomorphic animals to present spiritual, ethical, and political values in an allegorical manner; they do not attempt to represent historical reality. In both these fables, the ʿAnqāʾ appears as a singular character endowed with speech, but the context in which it appears renders the question of its ontological status irrelevant: readers know from the outset that the talking animals presented in such fables are not real.24 Such epistemological distinctions seem to be of little concern to al-Qazwīnī, who incorporates in his report materials from The Case of the Animals as if they provide evidence about a real bird.

The ʿAnqāʾ’s Vanquishing

Al-Qazwīnī’s tale of how the ʿAnqāʾ was vanquished by the prophet Ḥanẓala has parallels in the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ tradition. Al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035) reports in his ʿArāʾis al-majālis on the Qurʾānic Aṣḥāb al-rass25 (translation following Brinner with adjustments):

They had a prophet called Ḥanẓala b. Ṣafwān, and there was in their land a mountain called Fatḥ(?) rising a mile into the heavens, where the ʿAnqāʾ stayed at night. It was a large bird and had every color. They named her al-ʿAnqāʾ because her neck (ʿunuq) was long. She would swoop down from that mountain, attack birds and eat them. One day she was hungry and there were no birds around, so she pounced on a boy and carried him away, therefore she was called ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib, because she would vanish into the air (tughribu) with whatever she seized and it would be no more. Then she dived down on a girl who had come into the prime of life, grabbed her and held her tight against her two small wings she had besides the two large ones. The people protested that to their prophet, and he said, “O God, seize her, and cut off her progeny, and make a miracle to destroy her!” A thunderbolt struck her, and she burned up, and no trace of her was seen thereafter.26

Al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) gives a similar (though not identical) report on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 68/686–8).27 According to him, the ʿAnqāʾ had a human-like face, feathers of every color, four wings on each side of its body, and two hands with talons; the prophet who put an end to the ʿAnqāʾ and its progeny was called Khālid b. Sinān.28 Beyond the different physical qualities al-Qazwīnī ascribes to the ʿAnqāʾ, his description diverges from al-Masʿūdī’s and al-Thaʿlabī’s accounts in another conspicuous detail: in his version, the prophet banished the ʿAnqāʾ to a remote island, where it supposedly lives on. In contrast, in al-Thaʿlabī’s and al-Masʿūdī’s reports, the prophet destroyed the ʿAnqāʾ and its offspring; in other words, it became extinct in a distant, legendary past. Al-Qazwīnī thus exchanges temporal distance for a geographical one; for him, the ʿAnqāʾ is not a creature of the past, because it still possibly exists somewhere.

The ʿAnqāʾ’s Life Cycle

Al-Qazwīnī’s description of the ʿAnqāʾ’s life cycle shows a similar divergence from his supposed source material. While the details about the ʿAnqāʾ’s longevity and death echo, to some extent, the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ narrative, where the ʿAnqā and its offspring were struck down by a thunderbolt, in al-Qazwīnī’s account the ʿAnqāʾ’s flaring up in flames is not a one-time occurrence, but rather part of the cyclical life course of the ʿAnqāʾ species: upon the death of each of the mates, it is succeeded by the same-sex chick, and thus the species survives. This cyclicality bears a striking resemblance to the legend of the phoenix, a fabulous bird from a different cultural tradition (though often claimed to dwell in Arabia), who dies in flames when it reaches several hundred years, after which it rises from its ashes.29 In recent scholarship, the name of the ʿAnqāʾ has often been translated by phoenix, but as Pedro Buendía notes, al-Qazwīnī’s report seems to be the earliest source from which a connection between the two mythical birds can be deduced.30 It seems, then, that al-Qazwīnī embeds in the report motifs he may have stumbled upon in stories about other mythical birds to create a fuller and rounder portrayal of the ʿAnqāʾ.

The curious details about the way the ʿAnqāʾ lays its egg present a similar case, in which al-Qazwīnī apparently adapted nuggets of information he had found in (pseudo-) zoological records of real birds. Al-Jāḥiẓ notes:

The physicians claim that they gained the knowledge of applying enema (al-ḥuqna) from birds. When a bird suffers from constipation, it goes to the sea and takes saltwater in its beak, which it then inserts to its body and injects [the water] inside it. It can do so because it has a long neck and a long beak. After it does so, it drops excrement and is relieved.31

Pliny the Elder (d. 79 CE) makes a similar note about the Egyptian Ibis,32 and Galen (d. circa 210 CE) seems to allude to the same tradition in passing in De venaesectione adversus Erasistratum, a work known to have been translated into Arabic during the third/ninth century.33 However, in none of these cases is this behavior attributed to the ʿAnqāʾ or to any other mythical bird—this seems to be an innovation introduced by al-Qazwīnī.

Al-Qazwīnī’s description of the ʿAnqāʾ revels in the opportunities that fantastic and marvelous creatures afford for investigating the boundaries of the possible, for narrating anecdotes, and for inspiring amusement and amazement in the readers. Al-Qazwīnī weaves together details found in literary fables with materials drawn from legendary traditions and zoological lore. In so doing, al-Qazwīnī draws a picture of a mythical bird that is at once familiar and novel. In his work, the ʿAnqāʾ is not only recreated but is also concretized; from a creature of legend, it transforms into a creature of speculative zoology, one that could possibly exist beyond the tropical horizon. This is in concert with what Travis Zadeh defined as “Qazwīnī’s larger vision of the marvelous, which consistently confirms that ʿajāʾib are to be found throughout existence, often dwelling on the margins of the world.”34

Reviewing al-Qazwīnī’s creative use of his sources demonstrates that although later representations of mythical creatures are in constant dialogue with previous ones, they are never entirely determined by them. The character and features of the ʿAnqāʾ are therefore never entirely fixed, but, with each new context, it assumes certain features and omits others. Again, to use Bauman’s conceptualization of intertextuality, each representation is a new “‘performance’” that draws on and modifies past performances. Such new performances of the ʿAnqāʾ are not simple reproductions of the bird but, in a way, reinventions of it: authors and artists can always refashion, recharacterize, and reinterpret mythical creatures.35 The metaphor of the phoenix might be fitting here, as old representations are consumed by newer ones, which, in turn, give rise to further representations. In this manner, the ʿAnqāʾ is revived between one textual performance to another.

Translation and Syncretism

The intertextual process that animates the ʿAnqāʾ is neither closed nor limited to a single cultural tradition: it is open to other cultures, other literary traditions, other mythologies. As seen in al-Qazwīnī’s description, the ʿAnqāʾ can assume qualities reminiscent of mythical birds of other cultures, such as the phoenix. In various other contexts, the name ʿAnqāʾ translates the names of mythical creatures of other cultures.36

This “translatability” is manifested in various ways.37 Ostensibly, the simplest expression of it is in cases where the ʿAnqāʾ translates the name of another mythical creature without, however, assuming its qualities. Thus, in Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn’s (d. 289/910–11) translation of Aristotle’s Physics, the name ʿAnqāʾ serves as a translation of “sphinx,” which, alongside “goat-stag” was given by the Stagirite as an example of non-existent things.38 In this case, the translator exchanges a foreign mythical signifier with a mythical signifier of his native culture.39 What facilitates this exchange is the simple fact that the names of mythical creatures in general have non-existent referents, and, moreover, that both names signify “winged mythical creatures.” However, the wider cultural connotations of the foreign sign (“sphinx”) do not cross over to the realm of the sign that translates it (ʿAnqāʾ) in this case.

In more complex cases, the name ʿAnqāʾ does more than simply substitute the name of another mythical creature, as it also absorbs the qualities of the creature it translates. The ʿAnqāʾ in such cases is syncretized with mythical birds of other cultures. Such mythical identifications deserve special attention: they form a central part in the textual history of the ʿAnqāʾ and, moreover, they afford a vantage point from which to view processes of cross-cultural borrowing in medieval Arabic literature. I shall examine this mythical syncretism by looking into the different contexts in which the ʿAnqāʾ appears in al-Muṭahhar b. Ṭāhir al-Maqdisī’s (or al-Muqaddasī, fl. fourth/tenth century) treatise of universal history, Kitāb al-Badʾ wa-l-taʾrīkh (composed circa 355/966). Tracing the different cultural origins of al-Maqdisī’s uses of the ʿAnqāʾ will shed light on how the ʿAnqāʾ was created in the image of other mythical birds.

Al-Maqdisī mentions the ʿAnqāʾ in four different contexts: 1) in his exposition of Indian creeds, al-Maqdisī tells that the “monotheists among the Brahmans” (al-muwaḥḥida min al-barāhima) claim that God sent them His divine Message (risāla) carried by an anthropomorphic angel with four hands and twelve heads who rode the ʿAnqāʾ;40 2) in recounting pre-Islamic Iranian history, al-Maqdisī tells of Rustam son of Zāl’s miraculous salvation by the ʿAnqāʾ;41 along the way, al-Maqdisī further mentions 3) reports about a giant bird “in the south” (fī jihat al-janūb) that can carry elephants; and 4) a story about a maid abducted by the ʿAnqāʾ during the reign of king Solomon.42

The last two instances (3 and 4) parallel materials also utilized by al-Qazwīnī, namely, the ʿAnqāʾ’s depiction in The Case of the Animals and in Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ.43 In contrast, the first two instances place the ʿAnqāʾ in two foreign cultural contexts; in one it translates a mythical bird of the Indian tradition and in the other a bird of the Iranian tradition. The two underlying birds can be easily identified by tracing textual precedents and parallels to al-Maqdisī’s reports.

An Indian Mythical Bird

ʿAnqāʾ was used to translate the name of an Indian mythical bird as early as the second/eighth century: as already noted, the ʿAnqāʾ appears as “king of the birds” in one of the narratives of ʿAbdallāh b. al-Muqaffaʿ’s (d. 139/756) Kalīla wa-Dimna, a work based on a lost Pahlavi translation of the Sanskrit Pañcatantra (composed circa 300 BCE). As the story goes, after the sea-tide had washed away the sandpiper’s (ṭīṭawā) nest with its chicks, the birds turned to their king, the ʿAnqāʾ, for help:

[The ʿAnqāʾ] appeared to them and asked: “Why have you gathered? Why have you summoned me?” They related to her what had happened to them with the sea and its steward and said: “You are our king, and the angel (malak) that rides you is more powerful than the steward of the sea (wakīl al-baḥr). Go to him so that he may help us against him.” And so she did. The angel complied with her request and set out to battle the steward of the sea. When the steward of the sea learned of this, knowing his own weakness compared to the [angel’s] might, he gave back the sandpiper his chicks.44

In the extant version of the Pañcatantra, the same story is told of the mythical Garuḍa, the heavenly king of the birds in Hindu mythology, who serves as the vehicle of the god Viṣṇu (or Nārāyaṇa, as he appears in the Pañcatantra).45 It is noteworthy that both the ʿAnqāʾ and “the angel who rides it” appear also in al-Maqdisī’s report, albeit in a somewhat different guise. Both the name ʿAnqāʾ and the term “angel” (malak) serve in Ibn al-Muqaffaʿs Arabic version, and probably also in al-Maqdisī’s report on the religion of the Brahmins, as translations of terms that are religiously and culturally foreign to their medieval readers:46 in the context of Kalīla wa-Dimna, if the mysterious angel (~Nārāyaṇa) that rides the ʿAnqāʾ (~Garuḍa) is more powerful than the steward of the sea, then surely the ʿAnqāʾ is on par with the sea itself.47

As already noted, the ʿAnqāʾ’s portrayal as king of the birds in Kalīla wa-Dimna influenced its depiction as “king of the raptors” in the twenty-second epistle of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (which, again, influenced al-Qazwīnī’s report); and moreover, it influenced its portrayal as “king of the birds” in the mystical allegories that will be discussed later in this paper. Thus, in translating the name of the Garuḍa, the ʿAnqāʾ did not simply substitute it, but also absorbed some of its features so that they became part of its own mythology; following the Garuḍa’s example, it became the mythical king of the birds, and not just a mythical bird (as it was portrayed in the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, for example).

An Iranian Mythical Bird

Al-Maqdisī’s story about Rustam son of Zāl’s saving by the ʿAnqāʾ is a rendering of an Iranian legend well known from other sources, notably Firdawsī’s (d. circa 411/1020) Shāhnāmeh (completed circa 400/1010). In Firdawsī’s account, the infant prince Zāl, who had been born an albino, was abandoned by his father Sām at the Alburz mountains. A female Sīmurgh found him there while searching for food for its young. The bird pitied the boy and brought him to its nest, where it reared him with its young. When he grew up, Zāl made peace with his father and returned to his kingdom. Before letting him go, the Sīmurgh had given him one of its feathers; by burning it he would be able to call it for help. The Sīmurgh was called twice: once when Zāl’s son, Rustam, was born; and second, when Rustam and his horse were wounded by poisoned arrows. The Sīmurgh extracted the arrows, healed the wounds, and carried Rustam over night to the tree from which the arrows were cut, thus saving him.48

The identification of the Iranian Sīmurgh with the ʿAnqāʾ is also attested in al-Thaʿālibī’s (fl. fourth-fifth/tenth-eleventh century) account of Persian national history, based on similar sources to Firdawsī’s Shāhnāmeh and composed around the same time.49 However, this identification of the two mythical birds predates al-Maqdisī and al-Thaʿālibī. It can be found already in al-Jāḥiẓ’s (d. 255/868–69) Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, alongside the folk etymology of Sīmurgh as derived from sī-murgh, meaning “thirty birds.”50 According to al-Jāḥiẓ, the only people who believe in the ʿAnqāʾ’s existence are members of a Shīʿite sect called al-Shumayṭiyya, the followers of Imam Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq.51 Al-Jāḥiẓ supports this claim through verses composed in praise of the Imam by two supposed members of the sect,52 according to which the ʿAnqāʾ, who is barren, made the infant Imam’s cradle,53 and the Imam will one day perform the marvel of putting a bridle on it.54 The verses echo the abovementioned legends of Zāl and his son Rustam; the Shīʿite Imam’s special relationship with the ʿAnqāʾ seems to mirror the Iranian epic hero’s connection with the Sīmurgh, and it may be suggested that the Shumayṭī poets borrowed old mythological motifs in order to convey the Imam’s preeminence as the divine leader.55

As noted, Kalīla wa-Dimna and al-Jāḥiẓ’s report are two of the earliest attestations for the ʿAnqāʾ in Arabic literature, and in both the ʿAnqāʾ is identified with mythical birds of other cultural traditions. The traces of these identifications are discernible in al-Maqdisī’s use of the ʿAnqāʾ’s name, which incorporates all into one the bird of Arabic-Islamic lore and the birds of Indian and Iranian mythologies. Through translation, the ʿAnqāʾ spread its wings beyond Arabic textual tradition and assimilated other peoples’ myths. These, in turn, became an integral part of the rich intertextual web that shaped the ʿAnqāʾ for further textual performances.

Allegory and Fiction

The ʿAnqāʾ’s translatability has other manifestations. Beyond translating the names of other creatures, it also translates ideas by becoming a metaphor. The most striking examples of this are the ʿAnqāʾ’s appearance in a series of mystical-allegorical texts, beginning with a short treatise titled Risālat al-Ṭayr (“The Epistle of the Birds”), apocryphally attributed to either Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111) or to his brother, Aḥmad al-Ghazālī (d. 520/1126). In this mystical allegory, which draws its narrative frame from Kalīla wa-Dimna (and was probably also inspired by the fable of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ), the birds embark on a quest for their king—the ʿAnqāʾ:

The birds of all kinds in their different species and separate natures gathered and claimed that they must have a king. They agreed that only the ʿAnqāʾ was fit for that purpose after they had found information that it resided on an island in the lands of the west. The call of Love and the desire for search brought them together and they resolved to fly to it and seek shelter in its shadow.56

As is made apparent by the use of Ṣūfī terminology in the epistle, the birds’ journey is an allegory for the mystical quest for God, who appears here under the allegorical guise of the beloved king of the birds, the ʿAnqāʾ. Later Ṣūfī authors reworked this narrative time and again, adding or changing the stations (maqāmāt) along the way as they saw fit.57 One of its major adaptations was Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār’s (d. 627/1230) mystical epic, Manṭiq al-ṭayr, composed in Persian.58 ʿAṭṭār naturally replaced the ʿAnqāʾ of Arabic tradition with the Persian Sīmurgh. In this version, only thirty birds survive the arduous journey, having traversed the seven dangerous valleys that separated them from their King. Upon reaching Him, they see themselves in Him, in realization of the folk etymology of the name Sīmurgh (sī murgh = thirty birds), and then, in their last fanāʾ, merge in His divinity.59

As noted earlier, the generic framework of such allegories makes it known to the readers from the outset that the literal sense of their narratives is fictional and that their veracity lies in their figurative meaning. In such cases, then, it is not the ʿAnqāʾ that is significant, but what it stands for; and here, the ʿAnqāʾ stands for the divinity. This allegorization of the ʿAnqāʾ was facilitated by the qualities attributed to it in antecedent texts—its identification as “king of the birds” (following its Indian and Iranian parallels), its beauty (in Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ), its supernatural power (and in ʿAṭṭār’s case, also its hybridity). In the mystical fables, these qualities were reinterpreted as allegorical expressions of divine attributes—God’s sovereignty, magnificence, and omnipotence. Moreover, the very fact that the ʿAnqāʾ was a mythical creature that no one has ever seen made it into an especially appropriate metaphor for God: both the vehicle and the tenor are, in some sense, invisible; both belong to a realm beyond the mundane. In this manner, the ʿAnqāʾ’s intertextuality paved the way to its use as a multilayered metaphor.

However, it was only the tenor of the metaphor—God—that was truly attributed with the fullness of Existence. On its own, the vehicle—the ʿAnqāʾ—was presented in multiple cases as insubstantial and empty. The question of its ontic status was repeatedly raised by medieval authors. In a passage that echoes Abū Nuwās’s poem, al-Masʿūdī observes:

People mention ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib and make pictures of it in bathhouses and elsewhere. But I have not found anyone in these realms, neither among those whom I have personally met nor among those about whom I have only heard, who said that he had seen it. I do not know how it is possible. Perhaps it is merely a name without a referent (ism lā musammā lahu)!60

What al-Masʿūdī had presented as a speculation became axiomatic in the works of the falāsifa, in which the ʿAnqāʾ was used as an example of a thing that does not exist. Following Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn’s translation of Aristotle’s Physics mentioned earlier, al-Fārābī (d. 350/961) used the ʿAnqāʾ in his commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione as an example of an “image in the soul which [is] not founded on anything existing outside.”61 Similarly, Avicenna (d. 428/1037) used the ʿAnqāʾ as an example of an imaginal (mutkhayyila) or an impossible (muḥāla) form opposed to the real (mukhālifa li-l-ḥaqq), which may, nonetheless, be universal (kulliyya) and intelligible (maʿqūla).62 Thus, in Arabic philosophical tradition, the ʿAnqāʾ was established as a paradigmatic example of a figment of the imagination.63

The explicit definition of the ʿAnqāʾ as a non-existent being in the philosophical tradition, alongside its implicit definition as an imaginary being in proverbs, lexicography, and poetry, indicate that the ʿAnqāʾ’s illusoriness was an intrinsic part of its signification from an early point in its textual history. There were authors who benefited from this imaginal quality of the ʿAnqāʾ in composing their own original narratives. I shall briefly examine two such cases, in order to demonstrate how the ʿAnqāʾ signified its own fictionality and the sort of literary-aesthetic responses that it could elicit from readers.

In one of the versified narratives of Ibn al-Habbāriyya’s (d. 504 or 509/1110–11 or 1115–1116) al-Ṣādiḥ wa-l-bāghim, the narrator, having lost his way, arrives at an oasis; from his hiding place on top of a palm tree, he sees the animals convene and listens to the ʿAnqāʾ’s solemn speech. The ʿAnqāʾ, who appears here as “emir of the birds” (amīr al-ṭayr), defends its own existence against the foolish people who deny it, whom it compares to those who deny the existence of God and His miracles.64 While the scene recalls the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ’s fable, the ʿAnqāʾ’s indignation at those who deny its existence clearly alludes to its aforementioned use in proverbs (and perhaps also in philosophical tradition). The ʿAnqāʾ’s speech, though ostensibly straightforward, is perplexing: should it be taken at face value? Are the readers supposed to be convinced that the ʿAnqāʾ does really exist? Or else, should it be read ironically?

A similar ambiguity arises from the ʿAnqāʾ’s appearance in one of al-Saraqustī’s (d. 538/1143) al-Maqāmāt al-luzūmiyya, labeled “the maqāma of the ʿAnqāʾ.”65 While in China, the narrator, al-Sāʾib b. Tammām, encounters an eloquent orator who tells of his wonderous journey to the west (al-maghrib). During his journey, he and his companions were stranded on an island, where they came across a gigantic bird (in James T. Monroe’s translation) “bathing itself in the water, emitting a cry like echoing thunder, and turning the sea deep red as it devoured its fish. It began to move and stir the water with its beak, and to churn it into froth.”66 The travelers’ fear was abated when they encountered an ascetic who told them that the bird was an ʿAnqāʾ’s chick that had been reared by him since its mother had died. The chick, he told them, would visit him every month and bring him fresh water and sustenance. Upon the ascetic’s command, the chick carried the travelers on its back and flew them to the bank of the Nile. When the orator finishes his wonderous tale, the narrator recognizes him for who he is: the disguised protagonist of al-Saraqusṭī’s maqāmāt.

In contradistinction to Ibn al-Habbāriyya’s bird, al-Saraqusṭī’s ʿAnqāʾ remains silent throughout the maqāma,67 even though at one point the ascetic declares that it “possesses a gifted tongue” and “intellects are baffled when it speaks.”68 Nonetheless, in both texts, the ʿAnqāʾ appears within narratives which have the semblance of “true stories”—in Ibn al-Habbāriya’s case, the narrator is even said to be “an old Bedouin” known for his “veracity in speech;”69 and in both, its appearance creates a rupture in the fabric of reality. This rupture affects the ways both texts are read. The readers first face the possibility that these stories are fables like Kalīla wa-Dimna, and thus the supernatural events depicted in them should be understood allegorically. This cannot be ruled out a priori, as both Ibn al-Habbāriyya and al-Saraqusṭī avow their indebtedness to Kalīla wa-Dimna.70 Other than that, however, there is nothing in the texts to suggest that an allegorical reading is justified; after all, if they are allegories, what are they allegories of? If this possibility is to be ruled out, the readers are still left with three other baffling options: 1) that the narrators told the truth and the supernatural events took place in reality; 2) that the narrators were delusional or were tricked to believe such things; or 3) that the narrators invented these stories after their own imagination.

This bafflement corresponds to Tzvetan Todorov’s conceptualization of the fantastic in literature. According to Todorov, when faced with reported supernatural occurrences, the reader must decide if these were “an illusion of the senses, or a product of the imagination—and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality—but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us. […] The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty.”71 In Ibn al-Habbāriyya’s case, the ambiguity is maintained throughout the narrative. In al-Saraqusṭī’s maqāma, on the other hand, the tension is resolved within the text, framed, as it were, as the fictional speech of the maqāmāt’s rogue hero Abū Ḥabīb, “that deceitful master and predatory wolf.”72 Nevertheless, in both cases, the ʿAnqāʾ undermines the realism of the plot simply by appearing in it. Because it is innately an imaginary being, its outlandishness signals that the narratives in which it appears are fantastic. In such cases, then, the ʿAnqāʾ, as a mythical creature, becomes a marker of fictionality.

In the Interstices—Conclusion

The ʿAnqāʾ, like Rilke’s unicorn, was “fed with the possibility that it might be” by its multiple portrayals in various texts and contexts. As an intertextual being, as a translation for other beings, as a metaphor, it became the quintessential mythical bird of Arabic literary tradition that can stand for any number of mythical birds and can have any number of meanings. Like the Sīmurgh in ʿAṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr, it is not just one bird, but an entire flock—the Sīmurgh, the Garuḍa, the Sphinx, the Phoenix.

The great Andalusian mystic, Muḥyī l-Dīn Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 638/1240), encountered the ʿAnqāʾ in a mystical vision, as he recounts in beautiful rhymed prose and verse in Risālat al-Ittiḥād al-kawnī (“The Epistle of Existential Unity”).73 In his vision, he reached the Universal Tree (shajarat al-kawn), between whose branches perched four birds: the Royal Eagle (al-ʿuqāb al-mālik); the Ringdove (al-muṭawwaqa al-warqāʾ); al-Gharība al-ʿAnqāʾ; and the Black Crow (al-ghurāb al-ḥālik). The mystic conversed with each of them, and they revealed to him the secrets of their being. From their discourse it transpires that the tree and the four birds correspond with Neoplatonic principles: the Universal Tree is the Universal Man (al-insān al-kullī)—an intermediary between the human and the divine; the Royal Eagle is the First (or Universal) Intellect; the Ring Dove is the Universal or Singular Soul (al-nafs al-wāḥida). From the dove’s and the eagle’s mating emanated the ʿAnqāʾ, who is identified with the Prime Matter (hayūlā); the ʿAnqāʾ, in turn, begets the Black Crow, identified as the Universal Body.74 The ʿAnqāʾ proclaims (in Angela Jaffray’s translation):

Limits derive from me, and upon me existence depends. One hears mention of me but I am invisible, and the report of me is not one that can be declared a lie. I am the strange one, the ʿAnqāʾ. My mother is the Ringdove and my father the Royal Eagle. My son is the Jet-Black Crow. I am the element of light and darkness, the place of trust and suspicion. I do not receive the unqualified light, for it is my contrary. I am unacquainted with knowledge, for I cannot produce or reproduce. […] The bodily frames of superior and inferior creation trace their origin to me. I am the reality that has no character, because of the vastness that I have. I clothe every condition with either happiness or misery. I am capable of bearing any form. I have no rank in any known form. But I have received the gift of transmitting the sciences although I am no knower, and of bestowing determinations although I am no judge. Nothing can be manifested that I am not in, but no seeker can attain it as something grasped or perceived in its entirety. I am of very great value in the eyes of those who realize the truth. I wander through the gathering of those with bowed heads. Thus I have explained my state and have made manifest what is true and what is impossible about myself.75

In Ibn al-ʿArabī’s vision, then, ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib embodies the limitless and formless matter that can take any form whatsoever, and on which the entirety of physical existence is founded. For Ibn al-ʿArabī, the ʿAnqāʾ and the other envisioned beings, though “imaginal,” are neither allegorical nor fictional. Rather, the vision takes place in what Ibn al-ʿArabī termed ʿālam al-mithāl, the world of images or imagination.76 It is an interstitial realm between the physical world (ʿālam al-shahāda; ʿālam al-mulk) and the transcendental or spiritual world (ʿālam al-malakūt). This is where mystical visions and prophetic revelations take place. The images revealed in this realm are no less real than physical entities. For Ibn al-ʿArabī, ʿAnqāʾ Mughrib has a very real existence: it does not stand for Prime Matter, it is Prime Matter.

The simultaneous presence and absence of the ʿAnqāʾ in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s vision, its boundlessness, and its ability to receive any form and to give meanings to every existent thing are evocative of an illuminating passage in Roland Barthes’s “Myth Today:”77

[I]f I am in a car and I look at the scenery through the window, I can at will focus on the scenery or on the window-pane. At one moment I grasp the presence of the glass and the distance of the landscape; at another, on the contrary, the transparence of the glass and the depth of the landscape; but the result of this alternation is constant: the glass is at once present and empty to me, and the landscape unreal and full. The same thing occurs in the mythical signifier: its form is empty but present, its meaning absent but full.

The ʿAnqāʾ, as a mythical signifier, is characterized by the same simultaneous absence and fullness: it gives things their meaning but has no fixed meaning of its own. It is a mold or a form (qālib, mithāl) that can receive any content, and vice-versa, in Ibn al-ʿArabī’s formulation, it is a content that can be molded into any form. The ʿAnqāʾs semiotic pliability allows it to become a manifestation of prime matter, without which things have no corporeal existence; a metaphor for God (who is the Prime Existent); and an example for non-existence. The only constant in its signification is that of “mythological bird”—an entity that belongs to the realm of the supernatural and the imaginal. It is this constant, this imaginary quality, that allows creatures such as the ʿAnqāʾ to fulfill all those literary functions that they do. But it does more than just that: the ʿAnqāʾ’s constant signifying of its own imaginariness “spills over” and marks every context and every text in which it appears as pertaining in one way or another to the realm of imagination.

The ʿAnqāʾ, then, facilitates thinking about imagination and the role of the imaginary in literature and in culture. As a “contingent being,” it offers a way of speculating over what forms life can take: what can exist, what might have existed and is no more, and what may one day come to be. As an intertextual creature, the ʿAnqāʾ is a mirror of the cultures that fashioned it and of the literary traditions that gave it life. As an “image in the soul,” it offers a way of searching for the boundaries of meaning and signification—from the absence of being to its utmost fullness. As a creature of literature, it is a synecdoche for the imagination itself.


I would like to thank the participants of the “Animals, Adab, and Fictivity” workshop (Berlin, 2019) for their helpful questions and comments. I am especially grateful to Dr. Matthew L. Keegan for inviting me to participate in the workshop, for supplying me with some excellent references and for his wise advice. I also wish to thank Prof. Sara Sviri, Dr. Joseph Witztum, and Dr. Oded Zinger, who read earlier versions of this paper and made valuable suggestions. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Dr. Tom Kellner and Mr. Kedem Golden, whose astute editorial suggestions helped me improve this paper beyond what I thought was possible. Any fault, of course, is mine alone.


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  • Al-Saraqusṭī, Abū l-Ṭāhir Muḥammad b. Yūsuf, Al-Maqāmāt al-Luzūmiyya, ed. by Badr Aḥmad Ḍayf, Alexandria: Al-Hayʾa al-Miṣriyya al-ʿĀmma li-l-Kitāb, 1982.

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  • Al-Saraqusṭī, Abū l-Ṭāhir Muḥammad b. Yūsuf, Al-Maqāmāt al-Luzūmiyya, ed. by Ḥasan al-Warāglī, Rabat: Manshūrāt ʿUkāẓ, 1995.