The Bird as Symbol

~Henry Corbin

Our intention here is not to seek out the "historical sources" of the Avicennan Recital of the Bird. Its first source and its final "explanation" are Avicenna himself and his own inner experience. Rather, this experience can become perspicuous to us by suggesting that we group around it a constellation of symbols of the same type. Like the symbol of the celestial ascent, the symbol of the Bird recurs so often in the succession of mystical experiences that we must here confine ourselves to a few essential cases. Plato, of course, offers us one of the most fully developed exemplifications of it. By showing us the soul occupied in governing its two redoubtable companions and balancing them one against the other, the Recital of Hayy ibn Yaqzan has already reminded us of the myth in the Phaedrus: the chariot of the soul drawn by its yoked but unlike horses. However, the myth in the Phaedrus imagines the soul in the likeness of an Energy whose nature is that of a pair of winged steeds driven from a chariot by a charioteer who is also winged (Phaedrus, 246a).

The Avicennan symbolism of the Bird concentrates on the charioteer. It is impossible to improve upon Plato's own formulation of the reasons for this ever-recurrent vision in which the soul perceives itself as a winged being, because the wing is the most divine among corporeal things: "The wing is intended to soar aloft and carry that which gravitates downward into the upper region, which is the dwelling of the gods; and this is that element of the body which is most akin to the divine." 

Every reader of Plato recollects the magnificent image of the celestial procession of souls and of the fall of some among them. It is the divine—that is, what is beautiful, wise, and good—that strengthens and develops the soul's wings. "When perfect and fully winged, [the soul] soars upward, and is the ruler of the universe." This is the case with the souls of the gods, or of those privileged beings who resemble them, those whom their aspiration carries to the threshold of another world, outside of the physical cosmos. Other souls are unable to sustain the effort of contemplation. Attempting to rise, they collide with one another, tread on one another; their wings fail and break. "When the soul has lost its wings, it is borne downward until it has laid hold on something solid." Its fall does not end until it is stopped by the solidly assembled mass that is a body in which the element earth predominates (cf. Phaedrus, 246c).

It is not, of course, the mere presence of the soul in a body that, according to the Platonic myth, implies its fall. For the divine souls, which are exempt from falling, have a body too; but theirs is a body of fire, not a body in which the element earth predominates. To the soul, the loss of its wings signifies its capture and imprisonment in an earthly body. Elsewhere the Platonic myth associates the celestial procession of souls (in the course of which they contemplate the supracelestial place, the Plain of Truth), or their fall, with the idea of the circular revolution that will eventually bring the firmament back to the same point. Here the myth would have to be modified by other representations of the descent or fall of the soul, to obtain a precise correspondence with the discreet allusion in the Recital of the Bird. The latter refers rather to a seduction or, more properly, to a ruse, a deceit, which tears the soul away from the eternal past of its pre-existence. This pre-existence, as we said, is assumed by the Suhrawardian and Avicennan recitals. It is in no sense an "allegory"; but how should the soul become conscious of its own pre-existence to its terrestrial condition, except in symbols? And how should it speak of it without the discretion of symbols? As soon as this presentiment arises in it, the same constellation of symbols forms again and makes the soul's present condition transparent and decipherable to it: there are the Bird with broken wings, the beings of light, of beauty and gentleness, its true family, its preterrestrial family, toward which it is summoned by a devouring nostalgia; there are the messengers or the Guide, sent to rescue it, to awaken it, console it, help it to triumph over its enemies.

The affective tonality of the Recital of the Bird will sound its full gamut if, not confining ourselves to simple allusions here, we associate with the recital a few texts drawn from religious universes apparently separated by time and space. So, for example, we find that the symbols whose coherence has just been indicated insistently impose themselves in the Manichaean Psalter. We may take, for example, the long psalm after each verse of which comes the refrain of the choir who have sung it:

"O soul, O soul, be mindful of thy Aeons. . . . O soul, whence art thou? Thou art from on high. Thou art a stranger to the world, a sojourner on the earth for men. . . . Thou hast thy houses on high, thy tents of joy. Thou hast thy true Father, thy true Mother. Thou hast thy true brethren. . . . O soul, do not forget thyself, for they are all hunting for thee, even the hunters of death. They catch the birds . . . they break their wings that they may not fly to their dovecotes. O soul, lift up thy head and go to thy native land. . . . O soul, O soul, be mindful of thy Aeons."

From: 'Avicenna and the Visionary Recital'