Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Counsels of the Bird

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

This Arabic fable became popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, thanks to a Latin translation by Petrus Alphonsi, a famous Arabic writer and physician, who served at the court of King Alfonso VI of Spain. In 1106 Petrus converted to Christianity and he later wrote the Disciplina clericalis, a collection of "tales for preachers" in Latin, based on popular Arabic folktales. This story of the wise bird was one of the stories that Petrus translated into Latin, and from his book it spread throughout all of western Europe.

The Counsels of the Bird (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

A man captured a bird by wiles and snares;
The bird said to him, "O noble sir,
In your time you have eaten many oxen and sheep,
And likewise sacrificed many camels;
You have never been satisfied with their meat,
So you will not be satisfied with my flesh.
Let me go, that I may give you three counsels,
Whence you will see whether I am wise or foolish.
The first of my counsels shall be given on your wrist,
The second on your well-plastered roof,
And the third I will give you from the top of a tree.
On hearing all three you will deem yourself happy.

As regards the counsel on your wrist, 'tis this, -
'Believe not foolish assertions of any one!' "
When he had spoken this counsel on his wrist, he flew
Up to the top of the roof, entirely free.

Then he said, "Do not grieve for what is past;
When a thing is done, vex not yourself about it."

He continued, "Hidden inside this body of mine
Is a precious pearl, ten drachms in weight.
That jewel of right belonged to you,
Wealth for yourself and prosperity for your children.
You have lost it, as it was not fated you should get it,
That pearl whose like can nowhere be found."

Thereupon the man, like a woman in her travail,
Gave vent to lamentations and weeping.

The bird said to him, "Did I not counsel you, saying,
'Beware of grieving over what is past and gone?'
When 'tis past and gone, why sorrow for it?
Either you understood not my counsel or are deaf.
The second counsel I gave you was this, namely,
'Be not misguided enough to believe foolish assertions.'
O fool, altogether I do not weigh three drachms,
How can a pearl of ten drachms be within me?"

The man recovered himself and said, "Well then,
Tell me now your third good counsel!"

The bird replied, "You have made a fine use of the others,
That I should waste my third counsel upon you!
To give counsel to a sleepy ignoramus
Is to sow seeds upon salt land.
Torn garments of folly and ignorance cannot be patched.
O counsellors, waste not the seed of counsel on them!"

(trans. Coleman Barks)

A certain man caught a bird in a trap.
The bird says, "Sir, you have eaten many cows and sheep
in your life, and you're still hungry. The little bit
of meat on my bones won't satisfy you either.
If you let me go, I'll give you three pieces of wisdom.
One I'll say standing on your hand. One on your roof.
And one I'll speak from the limb of that tree."
The man was interested. He freed the bird and let it stand
on his hand.
"Number One: Do not believe an absurdity,
no matter who says it."
The bird flew and lit on the man's roof. "Number Two:
Do not grieve over what is past. It's over.
Never regret what has happened."
"By the way," the bird continued, "in my body there's a huge
pearl weighing as much as ten copper coins. It was meant
to be the inheritance of you and your children,
but now you've lost it. You could have owned
the largest pearl in existence, but evidently
it was not meant to be."
The man started wailing like a woman in childbirth.
The bird said: "Didn't I just say, Don't grieve
for what's in the past? And also: Don't believe
an absurdity? My entire body doesn't weight
as much as ten copper coins. How could I have
a pearl that heavy inside me?"
The man came to his senses. "All right.
Tell me Number Three."
"Yes. You've made such good use of the first two!"
Don't give advice to someone who's groggy
and falling asleep. Don't throw seeds on the sand.
Some torn places cannot be patched.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why does the man let the bird go?
  • what kind of advice does the bird give to the man?
  • how does the bird show that the man is incapable of putting good advice to use?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, 1995.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM