Susan E. Bertolino 5
Path to the
Dionysian Ecstasy within Apollonian Life in The
Conference of the Birds
Susan E. Bertolino
April 4, 2008
Susan E. Bertolino 5
Moses said: “Return to your lord.” I said: “I am embarrassed to return again.” Then Jibril bore
me off and took me to the lote tree of the furthest boundary. It was shrouded in colors that I
could not recognize. Then I was brought into the garden. It had domes of pearls and earth of
musk. From The Mi’Raj—an early text of Muhammad’s ascent through the seven heavens to
the divine throne.
For is it not more true to affirm that God is life and goodness than that he is air or stone; and
must we not deny to him more emphatically the attributes of inebriation and wrath than the
applications of human speech and thought? Dionysus, the mysterious Christian monk who first
used the term, mystical theology.
If…a yearning comes upon you to inherit the divine goods, abandon not only your land…but
escape also your own self and stand aside from yourself, like persons possessed and …seized
by Bacchic frenzy….for it is the mind that is filled with the Deity and no longer in itself, but…
maddened by a heavenly passion…preceded by truth, which removes all obstacles in its path
so that it might advance…such a mind has the inheritance. Philo of Alexandria
Susan E. Bertolino 5
Frederick Nietzsche first depicted the opposition between the Apollonian and the Dionysian as
a paradigm to study classical Greek thought. Yet like so many of Nietzsche’s writings, it has
taken on a will of its own; both scholars and students consider Nietzsche’s study in The Birth of
Tragedy as a method to analyze a variety of texts, music, films and theatrical works. Yet is it
possible for us to apply this dichotomy to theology within an allegorical text? If Nietzsche
believed that these opposites formed a duality for the Greeks, can we also find a similar tension
within works that set out a path toward quintessential truth as incarnated in union with God?
Sufi mysticism explores this totality of philosophical vision through the epic poem, The
Conference of the Birds. The order and rationalism of individual experience seeks new
expression in chaotic group dynamics that threaten the harmony of the Apollonian appeal.
Nevertheless, the path to God is fused with ecstasy and inebriation, as the common goal within
the poem is to annihilate Self—as the soul craves to return to his maker, harmony can only find
satisfaction through the fusion of these two oppositions; Farid Ud-Din Attar tells his readers
that transcendence into the nothingness of God takes us on the two Nietzschian paths without
us learning to distinguish between the two.
It is no accident that Attar chose the hoopoe as the leader for the birds. The hoopoe is the only
bird mentioned by name in the Qur’an: he comes to Solomon’s (Suliaman’s) attention, a king
highly favored by Allah and granted multiple divine gifts. Among these gifts were to command
the winds and to converse with animals. It was the hoopoe who brought the queen of Sheba,
also known as Bakes of Saba, to Solomon’s attention.1
The Bible says little about her, but both
the Quran and Rabbinic Judaism speaks of both their possible love relationship (Rabbinic
Judaism even credits Solomon with giving the hoopoe a crest on top of his head)2
convinces the Queen that the sun her people worship is only a creation of Allah. This change
was a result of the Hoopoe (HudHud); he sought out those who did not perceive Allah as God,
just as he was able to find food and insects under the earth; Attar used him as an allegory that
represents one who will lead all into the truth of Allah. The hoopoe brings order to chaos—be it
from disbelief, attachment to worldly objects, egotism; his Apollonian role is to conduct the
other birds (allegorical for human believers) to the source of the divine, even if this road takes
on many tangents into Dionysian fervor.
Just as many human beings cannot pursue spiritual matters, the birds find excuses to remain
behind and ignore the pilgrimage. The nightingale insists that “the secrets of all love are known
to me”. The hoopoe replies: “This superficial love…is only for the outward show of things.
Renounce delusion and prepare…for our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose and beauty
such as hers…quickly goes. True love (the love of Allah) will see such transience for what it is---a
From Witness-Pioneer: A Virtual Islamic Organization—article is called “Prophet Suleiman”, author unnamed;
www.witness-pioneer.org/vil/Articles/Prophet/sulaiman.htm - 2004.
Ellen Frankel, “The White Eagle and the Crested Hoopoe”, from The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of
Jewish Lore. 1989, 1993: (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson) pages 239-24.
Susan E. Bertolino 5
fleeting turbulence that fills your sleepless nights…”3
So this flesh-inspired love cannot bring any
of us to God; thus it serves no divine purpose—or does it? Nietzsche writes:
The effects of the Dionysian spirit struck the Apollonian Greeks as…”barbaric”; yet they
could not disguise from themselves…that….their whole existence, with its temperate
beauty, rested on a base of suffering and knowledge which had been hidden from them
until the reinstatement of Dionysus uncovered it once more. And lo and behold! Apollo
found it impossible to live without Dionysus!4
One could speculate on this lacerating love of the nightingale: yes, it is of the flesh and cannot
bring the bird closer to God as itself, but the passing of such intensity can bring a realized
comparison as experience: the words of the hoopoe are true, but they are wasted on those
who cannot hear them while in the passion of love. Yet it is in the aftermath where the
nightingale can learn to approach God; he has learned empirically of love’s disaster, and can
now move into the realm that the hoopoe indicates by the peregrination to the Simorgh (the
name for the Divine in the poem.)
Another bird asks about the length of the journey. He expresses his inadequacy: “Hoopoe, you
can find the way from here, but we are almost blind—the path seems full of terrors and
This admission tells the reader that the fearful often follow their leaders because
they fail to trust themselves, and it is easier to be led into truth instead of honest, individual
inquiry. In the Bacchae, Dionysus inspires fervor among his supplicants that results in the
gruesome death of a puritanical king who resists the new religion ushered by Dionysus. By
condemning Agave, the mother of the king, he judges her act of erroneously creating the
bloodbath, not her faith. The mother did not act in truth, despite her great belief in Dionysus.
In turn, the hoopoe tells the birds of the seven valleys they must travel: The Valley of the Quest,
The Valley of Love, The Valley of Insight into Mystery, The Valley of Detachment, The Valley of
Unity, The Valley of Bewilderment, and The Valley of Poverty and Nothingness. Each requires a
spiritual battle, similar to Dante’s transcending the seven deadly sins in Purgatorio. The Sufis,
along with the Bahais, believed that all must travel through these valleys in order to gaze on the
Beloved, a Sufi term often used for Allah. The women in the Bacchae made no such journey,
yet they were privileged with a vision of the Divine, who also became their Beloved. For the
Sufis, traveling such a journey means ultimate unity in which we as humans realize our
nothingness, for we cannot exist outside of God. When Apollo and Dionysus embrace their
mutual need, does this suggest that the I subjectivity of each human (Dionysus paradigm),
3 Farid Ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds. London: Penguin Books, 1984, pps, 35-36.
4 Frederich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, from The Nietzsche Channel, Section 1 to 8, www.geocities.com/the
5 Attar, The Conference of the Birds, pp. 166.
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becomes submerged into a “deliverance from the “I” and the silencing of every personal will
as Nietzsche writes? He was considering aesthetics; in his view, every art form
sustained objectivity, perhaps even a separation of the creator from the created. Can we
consider the Sufi pursuit of Ultimate Truth as the same?
The Biblical personage, Joseph, is also an important prophet in the Qur’an. Attar mentions him
more frequently than anyone else from sacred literature; his role in the Qur’an is much
different than in the Bible. One commenter on the Qur’an writes: “The narrative provides the
best example of a faithful one to his True Lord (Allah) getting rid of the most powerful and even
an irresistible attraction to a satanic desire, preferring …the misery of imprisonment than to
break the moral law by failing in self-control and thus incurring the displeasure of God”.7
is wrongly sold into slavery by jealous brothers; the story in the Qur’an has mystical elements: a
ram from Abraham’s time tells Jacob that Joseph’s coat was dipped in sheep’s blood; pigeons
raised by Joseph wail at his disappearance and strike their heads against the wall. The very
house cries out in pain, and the wolves of the forest tell Jacob that they did not kill Joseph—
answering the lie the brothers used to disguise his death. (All these factors are not in the
Biblical representation.) Joseph is innocent of any crime, and according to the Qur’an, he
remains in a state of purity—he is one who is ready to achieve oneness with Allah. Attar uses
the latter part of the story when the 30 birds have arrived into the seventh valley; they are
about to meet the Simorgh. As the birds see “the unveiled, the inmost Light of Light”8
hoopoe hands them a document, the same one that Joseph’s brothers read when they later go
to Egypt to beg for food. Joseph holds up the parchment and tells the men that no one
understands the writing; the language is unfamiliar to them. Would they happen to know? It is
the bill of sale, denoting the crime of the brothers; it is written in Hebrew as Joseph well knows.
How do the brothers reply as their sin stands before their eyes? They are shamed into silence—
Joseph asks them if they recall a bad dream, but it is their failure to resist evil as their brother
did not that closes their mouths. Why does the hoopoe find this significant as he ushers the
birds into their ultimate destination?
The birds realize that they too sold Joseph into slavery; they were as guilty as his brothers. The
sins of one become the sins of all, and it is only as they shrink with shame that their souls are
refined. In overcoming their sin, they shed themselves from the past and like all Sufis, they gain
the freedom to live completely in the present—they are the Simorgh’s radiant face, because
now they exists in God’s time in which they leave the mortal world into the nothingness that
shows the annihilation of Self and the ecstatic union with the Beloved, the ultimate essence
that only can be God. Attar illustrates this point in his last story of the king who believes he
Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/bt3.htm
The Holy Qur’an: Text Translation and Commentary by Ayatullah Agha H.M.M. Pooya Yazdi and S.V. Mir Ahmed
Ali: New York, Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2004, pps.776-777.
Attar, The Conference of the Birds, pp 217.
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killed his slave that he loved. The king can only return to love’s ecstasy when he admits that by
murdering his innocent slave, he has also killed all that is good within himself. As he shows
remorse for his sin, his beloved appears; their reunion goes beyond language—they enter a
state of love that transcends the one that the nightingale knew—as the slave tells the king in a
dream: “Is this how lovers act? No infidel would make his lover go through such hell.”i9
now understands the highest nature of love as he joins as one with his slave who becomes his
What would Nietzsche make of this? The awakening of the Dionysian spirit in our modern world
equates Beauty; the Apollonian adheres to individualism, which the Sufi path seemingly denies.
But it is the Apollonian illusion that aims to break us from Dionysian excess. The illusion in Sufi
thought would be our life within our bodies on this earth; there lies the blissful falsehood that
keeps us away from Eternal Truth (Allah). The flood of chaos is disequilibrium: we think we
control our individual destiny, and the sins we commit against each other create in us a self-
idolization of our importance to this world. That is at best, a shadow, a veiling of the real
Dionysian ecstasy—our place with God. In short, the paths traverse at one point to reveal both
the blindness of Self and the need to see God as Truth. If the Sufi cannot embrace the
Apollonian/Dionysian paradigm, he may never get to experience the Divine Essence in his walk
toward union with God.
Attar, The Conference of the Birds,pp.227.