May 01 2013

Farid ud-Din Attar – The moths and the flame

Published by at 9:02 am under Poetry

The moths and the flame
by Farid ud-Din Attar

English version by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis

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

/ Photo by ruslik /

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.”

Farid ud-Din Attar, Farid ud-Din Attar poetry, Muslim / Sufi poetry Farid ud-Din Attar

Iran/Persia (1120? – 1220?) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Farid ud-Din Attar was born in Nishapur, in north-east Iran. There is disagreement over the exact dates of his birth and death but several sources confirm that he lived about 100 years. He is traditionally said to have been killed by Mongol invaders. His tomb can be seen today in Nishapur.

As a younger man, Attar went on pilgrimage to Mecca and traveled extensively, seeking wisdom in Egypt, Damascus, India, and other areas, before finally returning to his home city of Nishapur.

The name Attar means herbalist or druggist, which was his profession. It is said that he saw as many as 500 patients a day in his shop, prescribing herbal remedies which he prepared himself, and he wrote his poetry while attending to his patients.

About thirty works by Attar survive, but his masterpiece is the Mantic at-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds). In this collection, he describes a group of birds (individual human souls) under the leadership of a hoopoe (spiritual master) who determine to search for the legendary Simurgh bird (God). The birds must confront their own individual limitations and fears while journeying through seven valleys before they ultimately find the Simurgh and complete their quest. The 30 birds who ultimately complete the quest discover that they themselves are the Simurgh they sought, playing on a pun in Persian (si and murgh can translate as 30 birds) while giving us an esoteric teaching on the presence of the Divine within us.

Attar’s poetry inspired Rumi and many other Sufi poets. It is said that Rumi actually met Attar when Attar was an old man and Rumi was a boy, though some scholars dispute this possibility.

Farid ud-Din Attar was apparently tried at one point for heresy and exiled from Nishapur, but he eventually returned to his home city and that is where he died.

A traditional story is told about Attar’s death. He was taken prisoner by a Mongol during the invasion of Nishapur. Someone soon came and tried to ransom Attar with a thousand pieces of silver. Attar advised the Mongol not to sell him for that price. The Mongol, thinking to gain an even greater sum of money, refused the silver. Later, another person came, this time offering only a sack of straw to free Attar. Attar then told the Mongol to sell him for that was all he was worth. Outraged at being made a fool, the Mongol cut off Attar’s head.

Whether or not this is literally true isn’t the point. This story is used to teach the mystical insight that the personal self isn’t of much real worth. What is valuable is the Beloved’s presence within us — and that presence isn’t threatened by the death of the body.

More poetry by Farid ud-Din Attar

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Farid ud-Din Attar – The moths and the flame”

  1. maryann moonon 01 May 2013 at 10:36 am

    Dear inspired poet, Ivan,

    i read HeavenLetters daily, and am inspired as much by them as much as I am by your daily
    Poetry Chaikhana. This lovely poem reminds us that It is the Holiness of the Presence of God in our hearts that makes life worth living. To me, because God goes with us all during
    this sojourn here, that’s the Mystery beautiful, that says to me that we are not born to die.
    The body drops away, but not the Soul, the Spirit. Anyway, somehow I am and you are
    an eternal Being who walks on Earth. We are always trying to find out more about this
    blessed Self that we are, and I know that We already know what our essential Self is all about, but it has slipped our mind. Just the same, I am and you are Eternal still. We
    shall take care of this body while we have it. Yet after all, we just somehow know we are most significant Beings.

    My favorite HeavenLetter says this near the end of it : “Meanwhile, I smoothe your brow.
    Can you feel it? Meanwhile, I take your head in My two hands and I look deeply into your
    eyes. I see My Self in the form of you asking what I already know.”

  2. Prabhjot Kauron 01 May 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks Ivan for such a beautiful poem.Isn’t this our ultimate realization awakening to our divine self and death of our separate self- cause of all suffering and separation. I love the ending lines…..
    Until you first outsoar both flesh and sour;
    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.
    I love your thought of the Day is very complimentary and in sync with the poem.

  3. Nanci Warneron 01 May 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Why fear death when only that brings us completely to our true selves: the Soul freed from the Body prison. We can let go of the Self only in part while in this Body/Mind.

    I like Maryann’s comment “we are not born to die.The body drops away, but not the Soul, the Spirit.” Then in fact there is no death, for the Spirit is eternal. That should offer Hope, still I see so many fearing death and desperately clinging to life on Earth.

    My religion teaches that the body is resurrected, but I have no claim to it, or desire for it, after death. I die to unite with the One, and that is all my desire..Why live then? To encourage kindness, and love, and leave the world headed in a direction of more compassion and peace. That’s all that makes sense to me, regardless of what I am told.

    Reincarnation makes some sense to me too. Did the moth return? The poet does not say.

  4. Samir Singhon 01 May 2013 at 10:19 pm

    This is an absolute gem. If you don’t know the poet’s name you might believe he was a ‘Advaitist’ describing ‘Nirvana’.o

  5. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 02 May 2013 at 6:59 am

    So often when I pick up the poem you send, Ivan, it just hits the mark. This morning I was reflecting on my increasing awareness of being confronted by the needs of my “naf” as I am engaged in conversations- my need of affirmations etc. etc. To read of my concerns in that delightful story-poem was confirming.
    How marvelous to “outsoar both flesh and soul” to become one with the Divine–A life-long journey. And I loved the story of Attar’s death. Consumed by letting go of his small self.
    Thank you.

  6. Rupaon 02 May 2013 at 8:55 pm

    Beautiful. “You are that”. Muchas Gracias.

  7. Mark David Vinzenson 14 Dec 2019 at 7:06 pm

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

    Beautiful 🙂 The Sufis not only wrote poetry: they lived it, moved by the breath of the divine. The nature of reality is very poetic when the Divine Vision awakens within us and only truth, goodness and beauty remains. Everything is the sacred play of the One, the Beloved.

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