You are on page 1of 7


4RffGNA, T H E F A L C O N

The bird vdragnat is mentioned in three different places in the Avesta. A description of its habits is given in Yagt, XIV 19-21: It seizes from below and tears to pieces from above. It is the swiftest of all birds, the only one that can overtake an arrow in flight. It flies at dawn with its feathers bristling and seeks its food early in the morning and late at night. It skims over the hills and valleys, rivers and trees, listening to the sound of the birds. Both the other passages deal with the symbolism of the animal. According to Yagt, XIV 35-38, the feather of the varogna, the bird with the broad wingspan, endows whoever wears it or rubs his body with it with transcendent powers, and above all, invulnerability in battle. A bone of the bird does the same thing in like circumstances. The passage in Yagt, XIX 30-39, takes us back to the time of blessedness when king Yima still reigned on earth. The world was a paradise until the moment when Yima told a lie and fell into sin. Then the hvaranah, transcendence or royal glory, left him in the form of the bird vdragna. Identification of this bird is possible on the grounds of the first of the details given above: urvat6, pleat6, "seizing from below, tearing to pieces from above". This means more than merely that the bird seizes its prey with its claws and tears it to pieces with its beak; all birds of prey do that. What we are told here is that the vdrggna attacks its prey in the air from below, takes it to the ground, stands on it and then tears it to pieces. This method of attack is mentioned twice in ancient literature besides in the Avesta. Both references are of Egyptian origin, although written in Greek, and concern the behaviour of the falcon. Aelianus says in his book on the nature of animals: "Observers report that the falcon flies upside down, like a man swimming

i The genitive occurs once as varonjinahe,Yagt, XIV 35, from which Ch. Bartholomae reconstructs a nominative vdrongan. This would mean "vat-killer", but up to now it has not been possible to identify the element v~r.



on his back". ~ In this statement there is a trace o f d o g m a t i s m ; the falcon, which is the incarnation o f the Sun-god, flies on its back so that it can look directly at the sun2 HorapoUo, in his b o o k on the hieroglyphs, explains why the Egyptians use the sign o f the falcon to denote the word " v i c t o r y " : "This animal apparently overcomes all other birds. For, when it is hunted d o w n by a stronger bird at that same m o m e n t it turns over in the air, so that its claws are turned upwards and its wings and tail downwards, and fights. F o r in this w a y the attacking animal that cannot do the same is beaten". 4 The remaining details a b o u t the vdragna are inadequate to identify it but do n o t at least prove its identification as the falcon to be false. The vdragna is dsi~ta, the swiftest o f all the birds. This can also be applied to the swallow but it is not a bird o f prey. While the classical writers are noticeably silent about the considerable speed o f the swallow, they c a n n o t say enough a b o u t the speed o f the falcon. H o m e r calls it &K6q, 5 6K6rczepog, 6 6Kt~'cog ne~sqv~v, 7 ~acpp6~a~o~ xe'CerlV~V, s Hesiod cbKvn~qq. 9 The Egyptians use the term b'h, 1~ the Indians in the l~g-veda the terms dz;u,~ d~upatvan, ~ manojavas, ~3 raghu. ~4 The vdr~gna is also p~gSpar~na, has b r o a d wings. This does not seem to be very applicable to the falcon, with its wing-span o f little m o r e than a metre and unusually n a r r o w wings, but parallel passages show that what is meant here is that the bird spreads its wings wide. Thus Hesiod calls the falcon 9 ~vvcrln~epog, 15 and the Egyptians call it pg', pd_-dn.h.wj, dwn-r Aelian., De Nat. Anita., X, 14. 3 This doctrine is expressed in the Avesta by the epithet hvara.dardsa, "looking at the sun", Sanskrit Cf. my forthcoming study on "'De Geboorte van Horus" (Leiden, 1963), w7. 4 Horapoll., HierogL, I, 6. 5 Horn., //., XVI, 582-583. Of the eagle: Alcaeus, fr. 52 (Diehl); Pindar., Nem., III, 80. 6 Hom., II., XIH, 62. As a type of falcon: Aelian., De Nat. Anita., XH, 4. Horn., IL, XV, 238. Of the eagle: Idern, XXI, 253. s Hom., IL, XXII, 139, Od., XIII, 87. 9 Hesiod., Op., 212. ~0 A. Erman and H. Grapow, W~rterbuch tier Jt'gyptischen Sprache (Leipzig, 19261950), vol. III, p. 232, note 21. So also: Diod. Sic., Bibl. Hist., HI, 4; Plut., De Is. et Osir., 51 ; Porphyr., apud Euseb., Praep. Evang., III, 12, 2. 11 l~gv., I, 118, 4, VIII, 5, 7. 12 l~gv., IV, 26, 4. 13 "Quick as thought", l~gv., IV, 26, 5. 14 I~gv., V, 45, 9. ~ Hesiod., Op., 212, with scholion; cf. Horn., Od., V, 65-66. As a type of falcon: Aelian., De Nat. Anim., XII, 4. Of the eagle: Hesiod., Theogon., 523,525; Orph., Lith., 124; cf. Pindar., Pyth., V, 111-112. Of the thrush: Horn., Od., XXII, 468. Of the swallow: Aristoph., Av., 1411.



etc. 16 The vdrogna hunts small birds. There is a fine description of this hunting in Homer's Ilias: "The falcon, swift of flight, speedeth forth to fly, and poising himself aloft above a high, sheer rock, darteth over the plain to chase some other bird". 17 For the Egyptians the birdchasing falcon is a symbol of the pharaoh chasing his enemies2 s It may be supposed from this symbolism that even the Egyptian kings went in for falconry, but so far there is no p r o o f of this3 9 The falcon hunts all day long, the vdragna early in the morning and late at night. There is little in ornithological manuals about greater activity on the part of the falcon at the beginning of the day, but hunting in the evening twilight is characteristic of some types, particularly of the small falcon that takes its name from this habit, the falco vespertinus.


~ O H



Fig. 1. Sasanide Crowns The symbolism connected with the v~ragna can best be illustrated by data from Egyptian archaeology. In Egypt the falcon was the incarnation of the Sun-god. The priests called hierogrammates all wore a falcon's feather ontheir headsY ~ The king was also an incarnation of the Sun-god, however. The Sasanidic princes wore an image of the vdra~,na, or at least of its feathers, worked into their crowns. 21 Compare with this the i~ Erman-Grapow, Wgrterbuch, vol. I, p. 562, 4, 568, 2, vol. V, p. 431, 10, 432, 15, 16, 452, 5, 6, 578, 4. 17 Horn., IL, XIII, 62-64. 18 Erman-Grapow, Wiirterbuch, vol. I, p. 444, 16, vol. IV, p. 455, 3, 460, 3, vol. V, p. 578, 9, 597, 11. Cf. Aelian., De Nat. Anita., II, 43, VII, 9; Horapoll., Hierogl., I, 7. 19 Cf. Oudheidkundige Mededelingen, new series, vol. XXXVIII (Leiden, 1957), p. 12-13. 20 Diod. Sic., Bibl. Hist., I, 87. ~1 Cf. K. Erdmann, Ars Islamica, vols. XV-XVI (Ann Arbor, 1951), p. 87-123. Our fig. 1 is taken from fig. 18. The article was pointed out to me by Prof. J. DuchesneGuillemin, Li6ge. The eagle as a divine symbol with the Iranians: Phil. Bybl., apud Euseb., Praep. Evang., I 10, 52, quoting from a work ~Iapg ZuvaTo~yflby Zoroaster: "God has the head of a falcon". As a royal symbol: Xenoph., Cyropaed., VII, 1, 4; Olympiod., Comment. in Platon. Alcib. I, 153-154.


31 3

image of the falcon worn by the Egyptian pharaoh as a crown3 ~ Some interesting examples of this symbolism collected from Egyptian monuments are shown in Plate I. One sees: (a) the pharaoh standing under the protection of the crowned, divine falcon; ~8 (b) the name of the pharaoh, written in a single hieroglyph, placed in the same way under the protection of the falcon; 2~ (c) the falcon behind the pharaoh's head, with both wings protectively around it; 25 (d) the nm~ or head-covering worn by the pharaoh. 2G This ends on his chest in two tails, the rounded shape of which suggests that in the distant past they represented two wings. As the vdrogna was the symbol of the king's OVaronah or transcendence, so the falcon was the symbol of his power, 66valxlg, and authority, &pZ~, 27 also of victory, v[~cll.2s This was taken seriously; anyone who killed a falcon was himself killed. ~9 The feather of the vdra~na ensured the wearer's invulnerability. A feather was likewise worn by the Egyptian soldier, as is apparent from the hieroglyph bj~, and by the Libyan chiefs, 3~ but these discarded the feathers when they took flight. 3~ It cannot be proved that all these were falcon's :feathers, but it is probable. When the falcon alights on the bank of the Nile to drink it bristles its feathers, but when it has drunk it flattens them again as a sign that it has safely escaped the crocodile. I f it were to be seized by the crocodile the feathers would remain bristling? ~ This statement only makes sense if the feathers make the falcon invulnerable. The bone of the vdragna has the same power as the feather; according to the Egyptians the bone of the falcon possesses the equally pleasant

23 Fig. 2 after: R. Lepsins, Denkmiiler aus .;t"gypten und Jt'thiopien (Berlin, 1849-1859), vol. III, pl. 33, i. The eagle as a royal symbol with the Egyptians: Diod. Sic., BibL Hi~t., I, 87; Horapoll., Hierogl., II, 56; Lexie. Sud., sub voce AdTog. The archaeological data are to be found in P. Kri~ger, Revue d'Egyptologie, vol. XII (Paris, 1960), p. 37-58; H. Brunner, Zeitsehrift fiir .~'gyptische Spraehe und Altertumskunde, vol. LXXXVII (Berlin, 1962), p. 76-77. 23 Statue of pharaoh Nectanebo in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. 2~ Stela in the Louvre, Paris. The reading of the name is uncertain. 2~ Statue of pharaoh Khephren in the Museum of Antiquities, Cairo. 28 Statue of pharaoh Amenemhat III in the Museum of Antiquities, Cairo. 27 Plut., De Is. et Osir., 50. 28 Horapoll., HierogL, I, 6. 23 Herod., Hist., II, 65. 30 Piankhistela, 107. 31 Israelstela, 6. 3z Plut., De Is. et Osir., 51. Of the eagle's feather: Prin., Nat. Hist., X, 4, 15; Pint., Quaest. Conviv., V, 7, I; Aerian., De Nat. Anim., IX, 2. Of the ibis' feather: Aelian., De Nat. Anim., I, 38 ; Horapoll., Hierogl., II, 81. For the gxepSv I~ac~.etov, cf. also Porphyr., apud Euseb., Praep. Evang., III 11, 45.



power of attracting gold. 33 "Falcon's bone" was also a name for the lodestone that attracts iron. 34 Iron had a diabolic character and was used to make weapons; there is no doubt that the attraction of the magnet was understood as victory.

Fig. 2. Pharaonic head-dress We have so far only spoken about the falcon. There are, however, many birds of prey closely related to the falcon, with the same ability to turn over in the air. Judging from the information we received 85 we assume that all members of the falconidae and accipitridae families do this. It is difficult to choose from among them. Egyptian material gives us no definite answer. In the reliefs the sacred bird of the Egyptians has a stereotyped shape which, particularly in the drawing of the eye, most resembles the peregrine. 8~ But in the texts at least seven terms are used for this one figure, 37 while an examination of the mummies of about three hundred and fifty birds of prey showed all the falconidae and all the accipitridae to be represented. ~8 So the Egyptians were not very selective; this was even remarked on in ancient times, a9 With the Greeks and particularly with the Romans the symbolism of the Egyptian bird 33 Aelian., De Nat. Anim., X, 14. 3~ Plut., De Is. et Osir., 62: 6cr~ov ~f~pou. 3~ From J. van den Assem, Leiden, Dr. W. K. Kraak, Bussum, E. Nieboer, Amsterdam, Dr. A. C. Perdeck, Arnhem, and Prof. F. Vir6, Digne. Were mentioned by name: the peregrine falcon, the hobby, the merlin, the golden eagle, the hen-harrier, the sparrow-hawk and the goshawk. 3e Cf. V. Loret, Bulletin de l'Institut d'Archdologie Orientale au Caire, vol. HI (Cairo, 1903), p. 1-24. 87 Erman-Grapow, W6rterbueh, Belegstellen, voh VI, p. 48. a~ Cf. L. Lortet and C. Galliard, La Faune Momifi~e de l'Ancienne Egypte (Lyon, 1903-1909). ,9 Strab., Geogr., XVII, 1, 49.

Plate I.


3 17

is gradually monopolised by the most majestic of the accipitridae, the eagle. 4~ It is with the Greeks that we believe we have found the argument we seek concerning the vardgna. They distinguish between the figx6g, eagle, and the [~pa~, the latter term being used in the two passages quoted above from the works of Aelianus and Horapollo and thus obviously denoting the falconidae and smaller accipitridae. The etymology of the word [~pet~ is not known. The Greeks themselves derive it from ~ertat, "to hurry", 41 but are also aware that the adjective [gp6g, "holy" has some part in the formation of the word. ~2 H o m e r gives ~pTI~, noticeably without spiritus asper, and Hesychius in his dictionary [Sgip~Keg as a variant in the plural. ~z This brings us to where we want to be, for this variant shows sufficient similarity to the Iranian vdrogna for the two words to be regarded as identical. Phonetically they are not entirely the same; in the Greek the quality of the vowel in the first syllable and the quantity of that in the second remain unexplained. The Latin term is falco with f instead of the v one would expect here. This is said to be derived from the word falx, "sickle", by means of metonymy and it is pointed out in defence of this claim that the Greek word 6[pnq also denotes the sickle and at the same time a bird of prey. The term vdra~,na has died out in Iranian. It has been preserved in Sogdian as w'r~,n, and in Khwarezmian as wdra~nfk, both meaning "falcon", 44 and last occurs in the form 'Opz6vqg, Urhan, as the name of the second king of the Osman dynasty and at the same time the name of a bird; 45 if Szemer~nyi's attractive conjecture is correct. 46 A m o n g the m a n y terms Modern-Persian has for the falconiformes bdz is most general in meaning. It occurs first in the Talmud in the compound ~akarbdzay, "falconry", a word clearly of Iranian origin. 47 The etymology of bdz is unknown. I f no better derivation can be found the possibility that it is derived from the Egyptian word for the falcon, b'k, Coptic b~g, m a y be considered.

40 Cf. D'Arcy W. Thompson, A Glossary of Greek Birds (London, 1936), p. 2-16. 41 Etym. Magn., p. 467-468; Eustath., Comment. in Horn. 1l., p. 87, 5-8. 42 Etym. Magn., p. 534. ~3 Hesych., Lexic., sub voce 13e~pct~ce~. ~ According to W. B. Henning, Zoroaster (Oxford and London, 1951), p. 45. 45 Laon. Khalcocond., De Reb. Turc., p. 231d (Fabrot). ~ In F. Altheim, Geschichte der Lateinisehen Sprache, Frankfurt am Main, 1951, p. 71, note 1. 4~ Talm. Babl., Sanh., 95a.