The moths and the flame

by Farid ud-Din Attar

English version by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis
Original Language Persian/Farsi

Moths gathered in a fluttering throng one night
To learn the truth about the candle light,
And they decided one of them should go
To gather news of the elusive glow.
One flew till in the distance he discerned
A palace window where a candle burned --
And went no nearer: back again he flew
To tell the others what he thought he knew.
The mentor of the moths dismissed his claim,
Remarking: "He knows nothing of the flame."
A moth more eager than the one before
Set out and passed beyond the palace door.
He hovered in the aura of the fire,
A trembling blur of timorous desire,
Then headed back to say how far he'd been,
And how much he had undergone and seen.
The mentor said: "You do not bear the signs
Of one who's fathomed how the candle shines."
Another moth flew out -- his dizzy flight
Turned to an ardent wooing of the light;
He dipped and soared, and in his frenzied trance
Both self and fire were mingled by his dance --
The flame engulfed his wing-tips, body, head,
His being glowed a fierce translucent red;
And when the mentor saw that sudden blaze,
The moth's form lost within the glowing rays,
He said: "He knows, he knows the truth we seek,
That hidden truth of which we cannot speak."
To go beyond all knowledge is to find
That comprehension which eludes the mind,
And you can never gain the longed-for goal
Until you first outsoar both flesh and soul;
But should one part remain, a single hair
Will drag you back and plunge you in despair --
No creature's self can be admitted here,
Where all identity must disappear.

-- from The Conference of the Birds, Translated by Afkham Darbandi / Translated by Dick Davis

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I don't feature selections from it often enough, but Attar's Mantic at-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds) is a long-time favorite of mine. The English language version by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis is good, but I still hope to read a truly great English translation someday.

This version maintains the two-line rhyme scheme. So read it out loud and feel the play of the rhyming couplets. Some are, admittedly, forced in English translation, but they bring a playfulness to the piece.

Moths gathered in a fluttering throng one night
To learn the truth about the candle light...


This is really a story in poetic form, an expansion on the ancient spiritual metaphor of the moth and the flame. We have a small community of moths gathered together at night. One moth flies off, sees a palace with a candle burning in the window. The moth returns and tells the other moths of the wondrous sight he has just witnessed. The "mentor of the moths" (the sheikh, their spiritual leader) states flatly, "He knows nothing of the flame."

Another moth flies out to see the candle, flies close enough to feel the heat and the strange fluttering desire it awakens in him, and returns. Again, the mentor moth says that he clearly hasn't understood the nature of the flame.

Finally, a moth truly overcome with love for the flame flies right into it, merges with it, and is utterly consumed. The leader of the moths approvingly says that one knows the truth.

So many things we can understand from this image. The flame, of course, is God, the Eternal One. And the moths are individual souls, spiritual seekers, lovers of God. We are the moths.

Attar is reminding us of one of the core truths only mystics seem to remember: It is not enough to think about God, or theorize about God, or pray to God, or read about God, or subscribe to the right faith in God, or even catch glimpses of God. Regardless of one's religion or rectitude, the Divine is only ever known through direct encounter. Even the word "encounter" implies two who meet. No, the moth knows the real truth, one knows the brilliant light through merging, and in merging, letting go of any sense of self that is separate.

The only way to know is to be so enamored with that fiery, entrancing Beauty that we recklessly abandon the nafs, the little self, in order to merge with that dancing light.

That fluttering, moth-like self we all think we are -- it has no substance anyway. The flame teaches us this.

Words fail, concepts fail, but we come to know in a greater, deeper way when we allow ourselves to be consumed.

"He knows, he knows the truth we seek,
That hidden truth of which we cannot speak."



Recommended Books: Farid ud-Din Attar

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems The Conference of the Birds
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The moths and the