Are metaphors always culture-specific, or can metaphors have similar connotations in different cultures and have universal meanings by transcending geographies? Two important works reflecting the Islamic culture in Iranian geography, The Conference of Birds by Feridüddin Attar, and the Divan of Hafez, and Dante Divine Comedy written in Italy which reflects the Christian culture interestingly contain the resembling metaphors in very similar meanings. In this paper, the use of light and bird metaphors which are used in two civilizations will be analyzed comparatively with these three works. Simurg (bird) and nur (light) in Conference of the Birds, Moth and Candle in Divan (and also in Conference of the Birds), and Gryphon (eagle) and light concepts in Dante will be compared. I would say that the metaphor of bird symbolizes Jesus in Dante, lover in Divan, and God and lover in Conference of the Birds while the concept of light points to God in all three texts.
Concept of Bird
It is striking that the bird metaphor is used in similar meanings in all three works written in different civilizations.
Bird / Hafez
First of all, I will start with how the concept of the bird is used in Hafez. In the story of moth and candle, which also takes place in other Persian poetries like Conference of the Birds, moths fall in love with the candle, but they know that they will burn if approach, but they still cannot stop themselves and eventually get the candle, but then they burn in the fire of candle’s love. Here candle symbolizes the beloved-God with all its brilliance and splendor, while moths represent the lovers who want to reach the God. In addition, it can be seen that this metaphor bears traces of the wahdat al-wujud (body of unity) understanding that has taken place in Islamic mysticism. According to this belief, the only being is God. When the lover gives up himself, he reaches God. Hafez in other parts of the book says ”Come, and ensure Hafez’s being will disappear/Since You exist, no one will hear me say, I’m here” (132). The couplet of Hafez suggests that with the moths metaphor in the story, he refers to those who give up their own existence and disappear in the existence of the only being.
Bird / Ferîdüddin Attâr
As for Simurg in Conference of the Birds, it can be said that the story was written under the influence of the wahdat al-wujud too. The understanding that there is only one that exists and that one is God is also seen in this text. In the story, 30 birds reach Simurg, but what they find at the end of the road is none other than themselves. Those 30 birds are creatures whose unity consists of the manifestation of the attributes of God on earth. However Simurg, unlike moths, symbolizes both the seeking and the achieved in this story. Similarly, in these two works written in Iranian geography, the bird is used to express the understanding of wahdat al-wujud. However, in the Conference of the Birds, it can be said that attention is drawn to the transition of unity to the multitude by emphasizing that the Simurg is actually composed of many birds; whereas, in Diwan, it can be seen that there is an emphasis on the unity of the god by keeping the transition of the multitude into unity with the disappearance of the moths in the fire, which symbolizes the absolute unity.
Bird / Gryphon
As for the bird “Gryphon” mentioned in Dante, on the contrary to the metaphor of Hafez, seems to emphasis on holiness is more likely because it symbolizes Jesus. Gryphon is a mythological being with eagle wings. Dante sometimes mentions Gryphon as the animal that combines the two structures. Since the meaning of both structures is Jesus, there is a metaphor here, where two structures, human and God, constitute a unity. It is an interesting similarity with Simurg that the main being of this duality is the only one-divinity. However, there are some differences between these two metaphors that have caught the attention of other authors. Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges says that “The structures that make up the Eagle (as far as I am concerned that human and God are meant) do not lose their selves, but when those who create a Simurg are whole, they lose their selves. Simurg is a mysterious puzzle” (91). The deity and humanity compose Jesus in Dante are separate concepts and unite in Jesus. Although Jesus is the place where two different concepts meet, these two concepts are independent of each other outside of Jesus. But in the Simurg story, man is part of the attributes of God and has no real existence other than the existence of god. In general, in all three works, the bird metaphor symbolized human, God, or human and God as a reflection of the understanding of wahdat al-wujud or the Trinity.
Concept of Light
It is noteworthy that the concept of light is used to symbolize God in all three texts. This led me to ask the question of why a metaphor such as light is used for God. Analogies are certainly needed in subjects such as God whose nature is not known. But, why was light used? There may be some reasons such as the fact that the color of light, white, represents purity, that light is not a matter but one of the things we are sure it exists like God. However, the fact that light is shown as a God symbol in the texts studied maybe due to the fact that although light can be divided into many colors, it is actually a single color. The authors of the works we examined also have the belief that many beings in the universe are the manifestation of the attributes of the one God or they accept Christianity as a monotheistic religion despite the trinity, as in Dante, may be the reason for using the light metaphor.
Light / Dante
When the texts are evaluated separately, Dante in his work says “Three circles of different colors, the same size, appeared in front of my eyes in the deep and pure substance of the sublime light” (1387) emphasizing the trinity belief with 3 circles and is associated with light. On the relationship between unity and multitude Dante also says that “The three beings that I believe are pre-eternal, these are both one being and three entities, they are suitable for both singular and plural” (1260). Also, Dante says that “Look your eyes in this garden; because when you see the garden, your eyes that mature more easily reach God’s light” (97). As their expressions show that the light symbolizes God, the understanding of reaching God more easily by looking at the universe may also point to the understanding that the multitude in the world is the reflection of the unity of God.
Light / Hafez
As for Hafez, we see the concept of light as a candle flame. There, too, the metaphor of light has been used as the ultimate single being to be reached, to which creatures dedicate their existence.
Light / Ferîdüddin Attâr
In the example of Attar’s Simurg, the metaphor of light is used in the sentence “to be in the light of truth (haqq- the name of the God)” (44). This description reminds me of the moths disappearing in the flame of God’s love in Hafez’s poem. Also in the Conference of the Birds, the following sentences are mentioned: “The sun rose, it shed light on the birds. Their souls shone with his light (they saw the truth)” (346). In these verses, the symbolization of light as demonstrating the truth indicates God with the metaphor of light. In short, the metaphor of light is used in all three texts in a similar meaning.
To sum up, similar metaphors are used in a similar sense in Divine Comedy, Divan of Hafez, and Conference of the Birds. Since the metaphor of light can be divided into colors even though the light is a single color, it has been used in all three works to symbolize the God with the effect of the trinity in Christianity and the understanding of the wahdat al-wujud in Islam. As for the metaphor of bird, it is used to indicate lover in Divan, Jesus in Divine Comedy, and both God and lover in Conference of the Birds. That is to say, while it is seen that the metaphor of light is used in the same sense in these works that reflect the Islamic and Christian civilizations, it is seen that the bird metaphor is used in similar meanings by representing either God, the person who wants to reach God, or both.
Feyza Betül Tunceroğlu | Psikolog
- Hafez. Shirazi, Muhammed. Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. Penguin Books: 2013.
- Alighieri, Dante. Divine Comedy. Translated by Rekin Teksoy. İstanbul: Oğlak Yayıncılık: 2011.
- Borges, Jorge Louis.Dantevari Denemeler/Shakespear’in Belleği, İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları: 1999.
- Attar, Feridüddin. Mantık Al-Tayr. Translated by Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı. İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları: 2001.