Leyli-Matine-Daftari, 1977 Mahbubeh Ela’hee
In Iran Norouz marks the beginning of the year and symbolizes nature’s renewal and rebirth after the passing of winter. It is a time when humans escape their doldrums and renew their ways by engaging in social activities and group efforts in work outside the home in the fields. Held at the beginning of the first month of spring, Farvardin, according to the Persian Calendar, Norouz as stated by Abu-Rayhan Biruni is the day of ‘new birth’ and Shams-al-din Mohammad Dameshqi calls it the ‘birth of light.’ Originally, it was a holy celebration honouring Ahura Mazda (also called Hormozd), the Zoroastrian Creator and takes place on Hormozd Day, the first day of the first month of the year, Farvardin, when all life on earth is reborn. According to the late Yahya’ Zoka’: “This Persian Holy Day (holiday) has passed through the meanders of history and survived its darkest of times to reach us in its entire splendor and is an entirely Aryan and national ritual founded upon this country’s natural environment and its people’s beliefs and world-outlook”
The Nomenclature of Norouz
Norouz is the name of the first Iranian annual feast held on the first day of the first month of the solar Iranian year (Jala’li), Farvardin (March 21st) when the sun enters the first degree of Aries which is the first day of spring when the length of day and night is equal. It is also called Norouz Solta’ni (Royal Norouz) and Norouz a’meh (Common Norouz) as there is also another Norouz called Norouz kha’seh (Special Norouz) or Norouz Bozorg (Great Norouz) and Khordadi Day held on the sixth of Farvardin (March 27th).1
It is the day when the Creator made a pact with humans to worship Him, consider Him the sole creator, follow the cults of His prophets and obey, observe and perform their commandments, and this was the first day that sun rose and fertile winds blew and flowers appeared on the earth.2
In the Borhan Ghateh Dictionary, under the entry of Norouz it is said: “…God created the universe on this day when all the seven planets were at the peak of their revolution and the degree of these peaks coincided with the first degree of Aries; it was on this day that Divine will commanded them to revolve and Adam was created on this day; that is why it is called No-rouz (New Day).”3
On the nomenclature of Norouz, Biruni writes: “It is the first day of the month of Farvardin and it is called Norouz because it is the beginning of the new year, celebrated for five days and the sixth day of Farvardin is called Norouz Bozorg (Great Norouz) or Great Feast or Imperial Norouz, for during these five days, kings saw about the rights of their entourage, ordinary people and aged, and on the sixth day, they retired to meet family and friends. Iranians believed that on this day, God rested from the work of creation and made the planet Saturn; the prophet Zoroaster was fortunate enough to present his imploration to God on this day and Keykhosro ascended to Heaven.” 4
In order to reach a better understanding of the meaning and significance of Norouz, it is necessary to study it from three different perspectives of mythology, astrology and history.
The Mythological History
There are many stories and legends on the mythological history of Norouz, some appearing without any real basis; including Jamshid flying in the air, Jamshid enumerating his suffered cruelties, the renewal of religion, construction of a throne and light falling on it, the crystal wheel of Jamshid, Jamshid’s throne before the sun, Jamshid sitting on a calf, resurrection of the god of plants (Siavosh), Solomon losing his ring, and…
One of these myths is related to Siavosh, the god of vegetations and plants with equivalents in mythologies of other nations. In earlier eras, Siavoshian cults were celebrated most probably at the beginning of summer and the new year of summer crops, but later under the Achaemenids and widespread influence of Babylonian New year ceremony it was shifted to the beginning of spring. This ancient cult was prevalent in the past particularly in the Central Asia. Like his Mesopotamian equivalents Demosi or Tammuz, Siavosh is the god that returns annually from the world of the dead at the time of the new year (Norouz).5
In the mythological sense, Siavosh represents destruction and resurrection and is the personification of the spring and autumn of plants in their life and death cycle and it is from this perspective that it is similar to the Babylonian Tammuz, Egyptian Osiris, Phoenician and Greek Adonis. All the three of them are gods of vegetation and fertility and their myth is an allusion to the alternation of life and death. Their death and resurrection was annually accompanied by feasts and mourning.6
Most mythological fables and tales from Iran consider the period of Pishda’dian as the first time Norouz appears in history, and Jamshid, the fourth king of this dynasty, as its founder. Jamshids’ reign in Yashta is regarded a golden age when food was plentiful, none of god’s creatures perished and plants did not withered. Cold, heat, old age and envy did not exist under his rule over the seven kingdoms.
There are many references to Jamshid and emergence of Norouz and the corresponding rituals in Persian-Islamic literature. Ferdowsi tells in the Shahna’meh (Epical epistle of kings) that when Jamshid completed his duties as king, he sat on his imperial throne and all generals and heads of states gathered around his throne and showered him with gold and jewels. Jamshid named that day which was the first day of Farvardin and the beginning of the year, Norouz and celebrated it:
Upon Jamshid gold and jewels showered they
And Norouz they named that day;
Hormoz Fardin became the first day of new year
Body free of suffering, Heart of grudge
The greats joyfully arrayed
Cups and wine, paging musicians
This jolly day since then
A souvenir of those kings
Ibn Balkhi recounts the story of Jamshid’s enthronement at the beginning of Spring, calling it Norouz; “When all heads of states gathered in Estakhar by Jamshid’s command, and the hour when the sun and earth were aligned at the spring equinox, he sat on the throne and placed his crown upon his head…celebrating the day, calling it Norouz and the day was Hormoz Farvardin.”
In his book, Ta’rikh gherar akhba’r muluk-ol-fars va seir, Tha-a’lbi recounts another story about Jamshid and the emergence of Norouz. Quoting certain authors of Islamic era like Abu Rayha’n and Hamzeh Esfaha’ni and Kha’razmi, Christensen writes: “Jam ordered devils (diva’n) to make him a throne and when this was done, they carried it with Jamshid sitting on it from the Mount Damavand to Babylon in a single day. People who saw their king seated upon his throne and shinning like the sun were overcome with awe. They speculated there were two suns shinning simultaneously in the sky. This event took place on Ourmazd day of the month Farvardin. People said this day is new and named it Norouz (literally meaning new day). From that day on they added the word shid meaning shinning to the end of Jam’s name, thus becoming Jam-shid.
Quoting certain wise men of his period, Biruni attributes the emergence of Norouz and its celebration to renewal and restoration of religion by Jamshid’s command. However, he believes that Norouz and its rituals and ceremonies are of an older tradition than that of Jamshid’s era and writes: “The reason for naming this day Norouz is that during the time of Tahmures, the Sa’ebeh (a religious order living in Mesopotamia) were discovered and King Jamshid renewed their cult and called it a great day and thus Norouz became a new day and was celebrated, even though prior to this Norouz was still considered a great day…”
The author of Roza-tol-o-lal-ba’b (14th century AD) attributes establishment of Norouz and its first celebration in Takht-e-Jamshid (Persepolis) which he called ‘forty minarets.’ In Borhan-e Qa’the, Norouz and the tradition of its celebration is recognized as commemorating the seating of Jam upon his throne at sunrise in Azerbaijan and the reflection of sun-rays from the king’s crown and throne.7
Astrological Origins and Background of Norouz
In a comprehensive article on astrological emergence of Norouz, Yahya Zoka writes: “In Norouz Nameh (Epistle of Norouz), written in late 10th century AD, there are many important, clear and useful references to the origin and later development of Norouz. Like ancient Persians, the anonymous author of this great book believes that when the universe was created, the sun began its motion at the dawn of the first day of Farvardin, at the first degree of the first Zodiac sign, Aries and claims: “…When the Almighty ordered the sun to start moving, so that everything could benefit from its radiance, the sun left the head of ram, with the sky moving it around; darkness separated from light and day and night came into being, an thus began the history of this world. It reached the very same time and place, one thousand four hundred and sixty one years later… When this fact was discovered, Persian kings wishing to glorify the sun and bearing in mind that not everyone was capable of recognizing this day, marked it as a day of celebration and proclaimed it to the whole world at large to remember the date.”
Elsewhere, he writes: “When Kiumars (Gayomart), the first Persian King sat on the throne, he willed to give names to days and months of the year, so that people would remember dates and history. Noting that the sun had appeared at the first minute of the Aries, he convened mobads (priests) and ordered them to begin history at that date. The mobads did as the king wished.”
In the same book, concerning the causes of the creation of Norouz, he writes: “However, the reason for the creation of Norouz was that when it became known that the sun follows two cycles – one taking it three hundred and sixty five days and one quarter of a day to return to the first minute of the Aries, while it does not reach the same minute in the next year, because this duration decreases every year – and when Jamshid found out about this fact, he called it Norouz and held a feast…” Yet, elsewhere he writes: “One thousand and forty years passed since that date (at which Kiumars set the beginning of history) and the sun turned towards Farvardin, it entered the ninth Zodiac sign (Norouz was lagging by approximately nine months because bissextile years were not taken into account under the reigns of Houshang and Tahmures). Four hundred yeas after Jamshid (1040+421=1461), this cycle (i.e. the first since Jamshid set the origin of history and the second since the creation of universe) was completed and the sun returned to the Aries in the month of Farvardin... So he held a feast on that day and called it Norouz, exhorting his people to celebrate it and consider it a day of renewal…”8
In any case, Biruni’s views and those of the author of Norouz Nameh on the origin of Norouz can be summarized as follows: the Persians believed that the earth, the skies and all they contained remained motionless for several thousand years after the creation of universe and that once they began moving by Ahuramazda’s will, the sun began its motion at the dawn of the first day of Farvardin, also known as the day of Hormozd, from the first degree of the Aries, while in the next year, it could not reach the same degree. As the result, the beginning of the year was inevitably delayed and every year, the degree of zodiac signs changed in a retrograde way, reaching the same degree of the Aries 1460 years later. The first figure to perceive this day (i.e. the true Norouz), was Kiumars who adopted it as the beginning of history, when a second cycle began on the day of Hormozd at the first degree of the Aries, on the first day of spring.
The retrograde movement of the onset of the year was due to the fact that Persians reckoned the year’s length at 365 days and 6 hours and 12 minutes. However, because they skipped bissextile years (of which they were unaware), the vernal equinox regressed by almost a full day every four years, causing the starting point of the new year to move across the zodiac. Thus, under the reigns of Houshang and Tahmures, that is some 1040 years after the reign of Kiumars, the beginning of Farvardi, i.e. Norouz occurred in the ninth constellation. This is a roughly correct estimation, because if we assume the passage of the sun to have yearly dropped behind the vernal equinox by a quarter of a day, i.e. 6 hours, we come to a total of 1040 times 6 = 6240 hours over a period of 1040 years, that when divided by 24, we get 259 days and 10 hours or 8 months and 10 hours. If we include minutes and seconds in our calculations, the beginning of the year falls within the ninth constellation after this period.
It is said that by the 1461st year of the era initiated by Kiumars, 421 years after Jamshid’s enthronement (in 1040), the sun had thrice returned to the vernal equinox point or the place from where it had begun its movement. In other words, it reached the first minute and hour of Hormozd Day, in the month of Farvardin, beginning its third cycle. And Jamshid, just as Kiumars, perceived and celebrated True Norouz.
Despite the fact that such accounts of the creation of universe and commencement of the movement of stars, moon, earth and the sky are mere fables, but they clearly show Persians’ keen interest in astrology, astronomy, cosmology, chronology and calculation of movement of the sun and other planets; and although they had no access to precise astronomical instruments, nevertheless using primitive tools of observation, they discovered important chronological facts and calculated the length of solar year with reasonable accuracy.9
As for Biruni’s calculations, and hence those of the author of Norouz Nameh, bearing in mind the starting point of history established by Kiumars, and considering the lenth of the year which the Persians are said to have reckoned at 365 days and 6 hours and 12 minutes – omitting any correction regarding bissextile years – they appear entirely correct. In other words, if the sun’s position at the beginning of the year regresses by six hours against vernal equinox in each solar year, its delaty in a thousand years will amount to some 6000 hours, or 250 days. If we now wish to know how long it will be before the delay results in 365 days, all we need to do is to solve the following simple equation: 1000 times 365 divided by 250 = 1460; and if we include the minutes, the beginning of the next cycle occurs within the 1461st year, just as one reads in Norouz Nameh: “…It became the beginning of the history of this world, returning to the very same point a thousand four hundred and sixty-one years later. As that moment was reckoned, Persian kings, wishing to glorify the sun and bearing in mind that not everyone could recognize this day, marked it as the day of feast and proclaimed it to the world at large to keep and celebrate.”
The author of Norouz Nameh refers to the interval between two successive year changes, which occur at different hours and minutes on the day of Norouz, as the Minor Cycle and that between two successive return of the sun to its original point at the beginning of the Aries, 1460 years later according to his calculation as the Major Cycle. He makes a distinction between a Norouz opening an ordinary year and one occurring at the beginning of a Major Cycle, to which he refers as a ‘True Norouz’ that once was a great and important holy day and which as legends seem to indicate, was recognized by Kiumars, Jamshid and Goshtasb. And it is about the first sunrays of such Norouz that Biruni writes: “…Its most auspicious moment is when the white aurora reaches its closest point at Norouz dawn and the people solicit benediction at its sight.”
It can now be deduced that a Norouz with such characteristics, namely on which sunrise at the longitude of Persepolis occurred at the first degree of the Aries at the vernal equinox at 6:00 AM on the first day of the month Farvardin (Achaemenian Aduknish), can only be that of 487 BC. Modern astronomical calculations and tabulations have shown that year change of 487 BC took place on March 29th at 2:39 AM at the longitude of Greenwhich. As Persepolis is approximately 3 hours and 21 minutes ahead of Greenwich, the New Year did begin at Persepolis at 6 AM, on the first day of the Achaemenian month of Aduknish, or Hormozd Day of Avestan month of Farvardin.
It thus appears that the Norouz of 497 BC was a True Norouz, the like of which Kiumars, Jamshid and Goshtasb had perceived. Darius, relying on his astrologer’s calculations celebrated at Persepolis – erected some thirty years earlier for this purpose – two years before the end of his reign. As a result, for many years and centuries, Norouz was kept at its original point and time, and subsequently adopted a 120 year long bissextile cycle.
Since the 120 –year- long bissextile years observed in the Sassanian period are historically recorded, a retroactive calculation reveals that the inception of this method of bissextile calculation does indeed date back to 487 BC, conclusively proving it to be the Norouz celebrated by Darius.10
The late Mehrdad Bahar believed: “Considering the old and widespread influence of the Mesopotamian culture during the fourth millennium BC in Iranian Plateau and the Central Asia and bearing in mind the affinity and harmony between the Iranian native culture and that of Mesopotamia in ancient eras of the West Asia, particularly under the Sumerian, we can speculate that the celebration of the feast of Norouz (most probably under a different name) was prevalent in Iranian Plateau during the millennia before the first millennium and the fusion of these two feasts in Mesopotamia.11 Aryans celebrated the seven month long summer season and five month long winter season as both representing the New Year…”
Norouz in various cultures of the region and among Semitic tribes is also recognized as being rooted in the oldest and most ancient times and even celebrated in many pre-Islamic Arab societies. Alvasi in his Bolugh al-Arab introduces Norouz and Mehregan as two periods of celebration among the people of Medina prior to the advent of Islam.12
From Bahar’s point of view, the celebration of local feasts goes back to a period before the arrival of Aryans. These feasts belonged to large farming tribes and not the cattle breeding ones and they should have in fact been very ancient feasts held in the prehistoric Iranian plateau surviving from our native and non-Aryan ancestors.13
There is no reference to Norouz or its tradition in the Avesta. Bahar attributes this to the fact that this feast was not a Zoroastrian tradition and therefore it was not celebrated in eastern regions of Iran. In Pahlavi and Manichaean texts, much is written on Norouz as the first celebration of the New Year and as the one held at Takht-e Jamshid (Persepolis). In Dinkart, the Zoroastrian book of religious sciences written in Pahlavi, Norouz is mentioned as a very ancient Iranian celebration.
According to the research conducted on the stone inscriptions and tablets from the Achaemenid period, the people of that age were well acquainted with Norouz. Achaemenid Kings used Takht-e Jamshid at Norouz to perform corresponding rituals of the New Year and to receive the representatives of the various tribes and clans. Every year representatives of nations and tribes would don their traditional costumes and gather at Takht-e Jamshid to celebrate Norouz and the new year at Apadana castle in a ceremony attended by the king and would present him with their gifts. Takht-e Jamshid was recognized and revered as a holy site and every king would come there once a year in Norouz to celebrate the new year and to visit the tombs of their ancestors.
Under the Achaemenids (559-330 BC) three calendars existed and were used among the nobility and two public calendars for the masses. However, due to the spread of Zoroastrianism and the victory of followers of this faith and Ahura Mazda over the Magi, and the followers of Mithras and Anahita, all calendars were subsequently mixed and combined.
In his collected articles called Norouz, Seyyed Hassan Taqizadeh writes: “At first the Zoroastrian New Year was moved from the month of Dey to Farvardin and Mehrega’n was accepted among the great celebrations which took place around the year 1060 AD.
During the Parthian (250 BC-226 AD) and Sassanian (224-652 AD) dynasties, people celebrated Norouz in the beginning of the year and according to their accepted traditions.14
Under the Sassanian reign, the king usually wore silk garment on the morning day of Norouz and entered his court alone and immediately a person whose presence was considered auspicious would go to him. It was a custom for the kings to release a white falcon on this day and consume a little bit of fresh milk and cheese to evoke benediction.15
After the advent of Islam, the Iranian Tradition assumed a religious tone and with the rise of the Abbasid and by the virtue of Abu-Moslem Khora’sa’ni’s presence under the Caliphate of Harun-al-Rashid and Barmakids under Mamun, the celebration of Norouz prospered.16 Hojaj-ibn-Yussef was the first Islamic authority that promoted offering of gifts in the feasts of Norouz and Mehrega’n.17
The succeeding Iranian dynasties from Taherian to Safarian, Buyids, Ghaznavids and Seljuq all maintained and exalted this feast.
One of the more significant and consequential acts carried out during the Islamic era and especially under the Seljuqs, was the moving of the Norouz celebration from its annual shifting to the beginning of the first day of spring and the first month of the year, Farvardin. In 1080 AD, the Seljuq Malek Shah set a mission for eight astronomers including Omar Khayyam to accurately calculate and adjust the Persian calendar.18
Under the rule of Khwrezm-Shahs too Norouz was treated so majestically that even the Mongols and Timurids could not ignore it and it is said that under their rule the feast was celebrated even more grandly.19
Under the rule of the Safavid (1502-1736), the celebrations of Norouz was mixed with certain other Islamic cults and rituals and assumed a religious halo as well.20
During the reign of the Qajar, the celebration of Norouz was treated seriously and it was usually held with special solemnity. In our days the Shiite Iranians regard Norouz, as an auspicious and sacred day on the basis of their religious tradition. They have combined the rite of Norouz with Iranian-Islamic culture and in this way have granted a special splendor to it.
The Rites and Ceremonies of Norouz
Haji Firouz by Ardeshir Mohases
Messengers of Norouz: Mehrdad Bahar believes: “The rite of the beginning of the new year is usually accompanied with imitation of the primordial chaos and disorder and its subsequent organization into the world. The emergence of the ceremony of the return of the dead that is expressed in the appearance of people with black masks in the streets symbolizing dissolution of order, law and boundaries between existence and non-existence, life and death. The only thing that has remained from this tradition of appearance of groups of people wearing black masks in the streets is the custom of Haji Firouz, when individuals deliberately paint their faces black and appear in the streets from a few days before Norouz. The connection between Norouz and the dead can still be observed today, by the practice of visiting the graveyards and lightening of a lantern on the graves and the Zoroastrian practice of putting food on roofs for Fravashi*
of the dead.21
Mahmud Ruh-ol-Amini regards the make up of Haji Firouz-s seen in the streets around Norouz as the remainder of an ancient ritual held during the same days. He believes that today the people whom we see in the streets wearing red clothes with their faces painted black, singing, dancing and playing a tambourine, amusing others and asking for money, is a remainder of amusements and jokes in selection of a five-day-ruler called Mir Norouzi from the common people. This rite was held only in the feast of Norouz and not in any other major feast.22
During the final days of the passing year and the first few days of the new year, messengers of Norouz performing songs, dances, tricks and plays would give glad tidings of passing of winter, the birth of spring and the coming of Norouz. These marching processions and spring parades have a long and ancient history in the traditions surrounding Norouz in Iran. Among most ancient of these processions were different bands of rakub kusej or kuseh bar neshin, a’tash afruz and mir norouzi or king of Norouz.
In the old days, in order to show the metaphoric death of winter and the birth of spring and the coming of warmth, they performed a special show around the town known as kuseh bar neshin (a seated thin-bearded man) or kuseh khar neshin (a thin-bearded man on a donkey). They would make an ugly man with one eye and sparse beard to sit on a donkey, holding a crow in one hand and a fan in the other, and took them around the town and to the marketplace. He would fan himself and make faces and complain, screaming that it is too hot! To which the people would respond by bombarding him with snowballs and ice. In his Al-tafhim Biruni has pointed to this tradition, apparently quite popular in his life time in Shiraz and has written an account about it in his Asa;r-ol-ba’qieh. This metaphorical show is still performed in various renditions among certain Iranian tribes and is called kuseh gardi (taking a thin-bearded man around) and kuseh gelin (s muddy thin-bearded man).
In the a’tash afruz (fire kindling) procession, a troupe of street actors would go around the town singing and announcing the coming of Norouz from a few days prior to the event until 13th of Farvardin. Each troupe consisted of a few actors and musicians. Each actor appeared in a different outfit and make-up. One would blacken his face and neck, put on red or reddish outfit and long pointed hat (known as bouqi or sheypouri [horn or trumpet-shaped hat] with a bell at its tip. Another would don a black sheep skin, walk on stilts, performing funny acts that made people laugh. He was known as ghulak (ghoul) or desert giant. Meanwhile, the musicians would play tambourines and drums. This group was gradually replaced by Hajji Firouz (see above) still seen in streets about the same time.23
Hashem Razi, believes the rite of a’tash afruz-s is a continuation of a rite observed under the Sassanians by Negroes. Black servants wearing colorful outfits and striking make-up would walk around the town at the time of the New Year, playing tambourine and daff (large tambourine) entertaining people. Apparently, another rite called aroos guleh (ghoul bride) or pir-ba’nu (old lady) performed in villages of Gila’n and Ma’za’ndara’n Provinces is another form of the same rite. In these bands, the person who is supposed to play the role of a ghoul would blacken his face with charcoal and uses a fake long black beard, with a broom made of stalks of rice and bells, attached to and hanging from him.
At present, out of all those ancient processions and rituals, the rite of mir norouzi is the only rite still performed throughout Iran. Villagers choose a man from lowest social layers and let him rule for 5 (and sometimes for 13) days and he can issue any commands that have to be carried out. On this subject, Hafez writes:
I speak secretly, like a flower, emerge out of blossom
As the rule of Mir Norouzi does not last more than five days
Ata’ Malek Joveyni gives an account of this rite in his tarikh-e jaha’ngosha’ (History of world conquests), written in 12th century AD. A similar account about Mir Norouzi is found in Dolat-Shah Samarqandi’s tazkareh haft eqlim (History of seven kingdom) written in 14th century AD. Other texts refer to performance of the same rite during 7th century AD in Egypt. A similar rite called Khan sizdah rouz (13 days lasting Khan) used to be held in other parts of Iran.
Another group of messengers of Norouz, was known as Norouz khan (Norouz singers), would walk around the town singing corresponding songs, promising the coming of spring.24
House Cleaning: From a few days before the New Year, there is a real commotion in houses and shops. They should be thoroughly washed and cleaned. All the furniture and house utensils should be dusted and cleaned; similarly the soot and dirt should be wiped from the walls and ceilings and all the carpets are washed.25 House cleaning called kha’neh taka’ni in Persian is a prevalent practice during these days.
Lightening of a candle or a lantern on the sofreh (a piece of cloth (table cloth) spread on the floor) of haft sin (see below), is the remainder of the ancient cult of kindling a new fire. It should be noted that fire, due to the great respect it enjoyed among ancient Iranians was never extinguished, instead a new fire was kindled. Reading the Koran or other religious books during the time when the New Year is just going to start was and still is carried out with the intention to keep demons and devils away from one’s house, village and town and to ask for God’s forgiveness of sins and letting go of the past and starting a new life.26
A’b Pashi (splashing water) on each other: The use of water is to ensure cleanness and having enough rain during the coming new year. On this subject Biruni writes: “Jam ordered people to wash their bodies with water in order to be cleaned of their sins… And some people associate this rite with the digging of water brooks by Jam’s command.” He adds: “On the other hand, some say that the real reason for washing one’s body on this day lies in the fact that this day is named after the archangel of water, Khorda’d; that is why on this day people washed themselves at dawn and dived and swam in streams and ponds. Sometimes they collected water from some running water and poured it on themselves with the aim of driving away every kind of evil and pathogen from themselves, and to be more receptive to good luck and benediction.
In this relation, Dameshqi write: “The people celebrate this feast by kindling a fire at night and splashing water on the earth in the morning. They believe that this will destroy the steams remaining from wintertime in the air; announces the onset of the New Year and the beginning of the corresponding feasts and celebrations.”27
Growing sabzeh (seeds of cereals, particularly wheat): During the ancient feast of Norouz, people would evoke gods and deities to ensure fertility, sufficient rainfall and good harvest on Earth. Phoenicians held certain feast at the end of winter and the beginning of spring in the name of the goddess Adonis. They sprayed and grew seeds in vase-like containers and once the seeds sprouted they called them the Adonis’ Gardens. Later, around two weeks after the beginning of Norouz, they threw these sabzeh-s into running waters. The same ceremony with a similar background story was held in Iran. Iranians attributed this rite to Siavosh and grew seeds and threw the sprouts into running waters in the memory of Siavosh’s death. The same rite is still held in the provinces of Fars and Koh-kiluyeh under the name of Suvushun (siavoshun). All these rites were related to the resurrection of the earth after its winter hibernation, fertility, evocation of sufficient raindrop, etc, and were celebrated at the beginning of spring.28
The newly grown vegetation is regarded as a symbol of one of the seven Zoroastrian archangels** Amshaspands, called Mordaad and its green color is regarded as the color of Iranian homeland. Sometimes they put seven dishes of these newly grown seeds on the sofreh (representing the seven Amshaspandss) and sometimes twelve (representing the twelve months of the year) as they believed that the fravahar-s (roughly meaning spirits) of our ancestors help the seeds to grow in spring, so they put a symbol of this viral process on the New Year’s sorfreh.29
Sabzeh is the most important symbol of nature set on the ceremonial sofreh and by keeping our eyes on it when we sit around the sofreh waiting for the New Year to start, it will help us to cheer up our minds. The idea of looking at green vegetables and mirror when one sees a new moon crescent originates from the same belief.30
In Ancient Iran, twelve columns of raw bricks were set up in the main city square around twenty five days before Norouz and on the top surface of each, they planted seeds of wheat, barley, rice, broad bean, ka’jileh (or ka’hireh, a kind of citrus fruit with its stem reaching 50cm), millet, corn, bean, pea, sesame, lentil, grass pea respectively,; and on the sixth day of Farvardin they dug out these plants while chanting and singing and threw them around to bring about auspiciousness (quoted from Maha’sen-ol-Azda’d).
In his book Aasa’r-ol-Ba’qieh, Biruni writes: “The rite of growing seven different kinds of seeds on seven columns outside their houses still survives among Iranians. The purpose is to foretell how the crop would be in that year on the basis of how the seeds germinate and grow.” Today, the same cult is held in the following way; about ten day or two weeks before Norouz, people grow seeds of wheat, lentil, grass pea and…on small and large dishes, bowels or on the back of jars and then place them on the Haft Sin Sofreh.31
"Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri" Mural in Chehelsotun palace
Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri (the feast of last Wednesday of the year): Ancient Iranians regarded fire sacred and equal to Ahura Mazda’s child. That is why they went to fire temples and lighted fire just before Norouz. They believed that on the three hundred and sixtieth day of the year (i.e. 26th of the last Iranian month of the year, Esfand, the fravahar-s of their ancestors returned to the earth and the fire lighted in this way would guide and lead them in their earthly trip. The number of these fires should be either seven, to represent the seven Amshaspands or three to symbolize virtuous deeds, words and thoughts. This feast that was later and is still held on the night before the last Wednesday of the Iranian year came to be known as Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri. Chaha’r shanbeh means Wednesday and Suri means red alluding to the red color of fire set up on this day.32
Chahar shanbe souri celeberation
The Ancient Iranians venerated the fravahar of their ancestors in the last ten days of the year and by setting up a fire (the symbol of Ahuramazda’s light) greeted their spirits. The basis of the ceremony of setting up fires and welcoming Norouz during the feast of Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri signifies paying respect to fravahar-s and greeting the onset of the New Year.33
Abrahim Pourdaavoud believes: “Although all ancient feasts and ceremonies were accompanied with lightening of a fire that symbolizes the Divine Light, but there is no doubt that selection of the last Wednesday of the year for setting up fires, is a cult belonging to the post-Islamic era, for ancient Iranians did not have Saturday and Friday and regarded Wednesday as an ominous day.”34 From this we can deduce that the newly converted Iranians of the first Islamic century, set fire on the night before the last Wednesday of the year to expel ill-omens, and following the cult of their pre-Islamic ancestors chanted and feasted on this night. The other rituals carried out on this night such as setting up fires with dried bushes, splashing water, fortune-telling by hiding in a corner and listening secretly to conversations (fa’lghush neshini), ghashogh zani (hitting a spoon on a pan behind the doors of others to receive nuts and other edible things from house-owners), kuzeh shekani (jar breaking), fortune telling by means of kuzeh (jar), eating oblatory a’sh (vegetable porridge) for fulfilling certain wishes and needs, giving special nuts to others and… were gradually added and became prevalent, but each with a corresponding metaphoric reason and background.
Sofreh Haft seen
Sofreh Haft Sin (setting up a table with seven things whose names start with the alphabet letter ‘s’): It is one the most important traditions of Norouz practiced throughout Iran. Each one of the dishes put on this sofreh symbolizes life and points to the insight that Iranians have in regard to their environment. What is put on this sofreh is a variable collection of what humans need in life.35
The reason for the selection of seven ‘s’ is not really very well known. Seven, however, has most probably some relation to the seven archangels or Amshaspands. It is also probable that the Sofreh Haft Sin is a modified form of a more ancient sofreh that was laid in the room of the dead or on the roofs during the days of Farvardegan (derived from the word Farvardin, the first month of Iranian year) to welcome the fravahar-s of the dead.
S (pronounced sin in Persian), is the fifteenth letter of Persian alphabet. The things usually put on the haft sin sofreh are examples of things whose name begins with this letter, such as: sabzeh (newly grown seeds of cereals), sib (apple), serkeh (vinegar), senjed (oleaster or wild olive), somagh (sumac), samanu (cooked wheat sprouts), sir (garlic) and so on. Some believe that originally the things put on the sofreh had names starting with the Persian letter ‘shin’ (the sound of ‘sh’ in English), such as shara’b (wine), shekar (sugar), shahd (sweet nectar), shir (milk), sham (candle), shemshad (box tree) and sha’yeh (fruit). Still others believe that it is the modification or misreading of seven chin-s (crops), that is, seven different things picked (chidan in Persian) from trees. However, this revered ancient tradition is sometimes modified to the extent that even seven ‘mim-s’ (m-s) [miveh (fruit), maahi (fish), morgh (chicken), ma’st (yogurt), moraba’ (jam), masghati (cooked sweetened starch) and meygu (shrimp) are also laid on the sofreh.
Bahram Frahvashi believed that, ‘s’ is the abbreviation of sini (tray) that was originally used instead of sofreh. In Norouz people set up seven kha’n-s (literally meaning sofreh, table in English) for the seven Amshaspands. There are two evidences supporting Frahavashi’s proposal. One is what Dameshqi says in Nokhba-tol-dahr fi al-aja’yebo-ol-bar-o-bahr (Selected wonders of land and see of this world):“A man entered the royal court carrying a sliver tray carrying clusters of wheat, barley, sesame and rice (seven clusters and seeds of each), and also sugar and different coins which they put before the king.” The other evidence is derived from the present Zoroastrian tradition of spreading a new white sofreh on the ground in a special room, on which they put a mirror, a small jar of rose water, a bowel of water with a few leaves of pomegranate or apple tree floating on its surfaces, a few silver coins, a brazier, a copy of Zoroastrian Holy Book and finally a tray holding a vase of seven different fruit. Some Zoroastrians put one tray with seven different fruit, and another tray with yet seven different other fruit and a third tray with different kinds of cookies or dried fruit, that is a remainder of the original haft sin-s on the Norouz Sofreh.
Bahram Frahvashi also regards ‘sin’ as a modified form of ‘sini’ (tray) which he considers in turn as a modified form of ‘chini’ and chini was a picture frame that during the Sassanian era was brought to Iran from China. These precious and beautifully illustrated frames were made of kaolin and were among the valuable commercial commodities exchanged between Iran and China that later came to be known as chini (china or porcelain) and sini (tray) in another dialect throughout Iran.36
Wearing New Clothes, giving and receiving presents (aydi): Wearing new clothes during the ceremony of Norouz is a popular custom. Perhaps for most members of the lower and middle classes, this is the only time that they wear new clothes.
After the start of the New Year, the elders give presents (aydi) to the rest. It is believed it is auspicious to receive present from the elderly and other respectable individuals (from the point of view of age, position, family, knowledge, etc).
Sizdeh beh dar: This feast that is celebrated on the thirteenth day of the month of Farvardin announces the end of the New Year Celebration that starts with Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri or the feast of Sadeh, according to another account. Number thirteen has been regarded ominous in many old cultures. According to Bahram Farahvashi it seems that certain great cosmic events, such as the end of the world that according to Iranian accounts will happen in the thirteenth millennium, one of the horrifying incidences recorded in the Old Testament that led to the death of many people and occurred on the thirteenth day of the Egyptian month of Toun, and the collision of an asteroid with the earth in the atmosphere that led to dreadful earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the thirteenth day of a new year, have provoked a deep general fear of the number thirteen in human beings, thus regarded as an inauspicious and ominous figure.
Sizdeh beh dar in Esfahan - photo by Mohammad Sadeqi Fasa'i
According to the Iranian mythology, the world will last for 12000 years and it will end with the emergence of a sooshya’nt (savior) and the victory of Ahura Mazda (God) over Ahriman (Satan). It is possible that the first twelve days of the feast of Norouz symbolizes the emergence of Man and the thirteenth day is the metaphor of the thirteenth millennium and the beginning of liberation from the physical world. The rite of carnivals that used to be practiced on this day may represent the reincarnation of spirits.37
Bahram Farahvashi regards thirteen as a symbol of the thirteenth millennium of the world and believes that this feast may have its roots in certain Indo-European belief. He also suggests that the rite of sizdeh beh dar, may be the remainder of the ancient rite of evocation of rain for the newly cultivated lands.38
Many of the rites and ceremonies still practiced in the contemporary Iran carry a mythological and symbolic meaning and significance. Playful recreational activities performed on this day represent the collapse of gloomy evil thoughts, while kissing and greeting symbolize reconciliation and purification. Eating food with hand is a symbol of ransom of roasted sheep mentioned in Avesta. Throwing the germinated seeds (sabzeh) into running waters is a symbol of presenting ransom to the goddess of water or Nahid (or Anahita). The rite of holding contests, particularly riding is the reminder of the struggle between the god of rain and the devil of drought.39
Going on a picnic, joking, playing, running, swinging and in one word involvement in non-serious activities are among the most prevalent re-creational activities of the feast of sizedeh beh dar. Knotting sabzeh on this day is to evoke luck for marriageable girls and symbolizes marriage of man and woman for the propagation of species. It is also performed with the intention of the future disentanglement of the knots of life problems, fulfillment of wishes and expelling away evilness. On the other hand, and as mentioned before, single girls knot sabzeh in order to find a good husband.40 Following this ancient rite, people go outdoors on this day in order to have fun and overcome the inauspiciousness of this day.
The Signs and Symbols of Norouz
Each one of the rites and ceremonies of Norouz has a rich history in Iranian Art and Culture with each symbolizing some significant vital phenomena in human life.
Seven: On the basis of the existing evidences found in the Zoroastrian Holy Book, Avesta, the number seven is a central number among Indians and Iranians since ancient times. In the old Iranian literature we usually come across the seven divisions of the earth. Gathas (the oldest part of Avesta) speaks of seven lands (boum-s) that gradually changed to seven realms or kingdoms (eghlim-s). The idea of seven Amshaspand-s (archangels) in Mazdian (Zoroastrian) religion shows that this number was regarded sacred among ancient Aryan and Semitic Tribes.41
It is possible that certain natural elements, such as the number of known planets and also the main colors of light have led to the superiority and extraordinary aspect of this number. In fact it is a number highly regarded in the human history, religions, mysticism and traditions. In Mithraism, Islamic mysticism and Ismailian religious sect, the path to god or truth has seven stages, the man who attains the seventh stage is called ‘pir’ (guru, master) or ‘father’ in Mithraism. These seven stages find evidence in ja’m jaha’n bin (future telling crystal) and Persian Magian literature with the pir haft khat (loftiest or most subtle master) and pir mogha’n (Magian master) occupying the highest rank. It seems that many cultures, religions and nations regard seven as the most complete number that becomes particularly important in relation to the story of Creation when God the Creator completed the creation of the world in six days and rested on the seventh day.
In the book Almaha’sen-ol-Azdaad, Jahiz writes that in Norouz they lay seven branches of the so-called sacred trees, such as olive, willow, pomegranate, etc on a khoncheh (tray) and put a brand new clean coin in seven small bowels. Haft sin-s (see above) on the Norouz sofreh is a remainder of this old practice.42 The ancient Iranian belief in number seven that was regarded the symbol of immortality, eternity and perfection plays an effective role in the practice of laying the aforementioned sofreh haft sin.43
In what follows the objects put on the Norouz sofreh and their symbolic meaning is listed:
Sofreh is the symbol of the vastness of the world and its white color symbolize purity and good luck.
Mirror is the symbol of the eternal world and divine empyrean.
Candle symbolizes eternal light and radiance. The number of candles lighted on the Norouz sofreh equals the number of family members to ensure good luck and happiness in their life.
Bowel of water with a few drops of rose water in it symbolizes freshness, fertility and feminine presence in the family. A few leaves of pomegranate or naarenj (sour orange) trees floating on the water symbolizes longing for prosperity. Another bowel of water with a naarenj in it is the symbol of the earth floating in the universe. A new jar of water symbolizes the deep desire for sufficient raindrop and thus having enough water throughout the year. Another bowel of water with a few goldfish in it symbolizes decently earned livelihood.
Egg alludes to the human race and colored eggs symbolize different colors of the human race with the emphasis the fact that ‘humans are the members of the same body’ as the great Iranian poet Sadii says.
Bread that in many cultures is the basic food of people symbolizes human longing for blessing, benediction and affluence.
Wheat also symbolizes more or less the same thing.
Apple is the symbol of blessing, grace and affluence.
Green vegetables, sabzeh and hyacinth (sonbol) symbolize happiness, prosperity and joy.
Samanu (cooked wheat sprouts) is the symbol of affluence of food and vitalizing tonic nutrition.
Garlic (sir) is used for its septic effects on the environment and also for nullifying the evil eye.
Vinegar (serkeh) is to purify the environment.
Sumac is a symbol of having sufficient food in the kitchen for cooking.
Oleaster (wild olive- senjed) is the symbol of love and compassion.
Harmal (sepand or esfand) symbolizes prevention of the evil eye.
Milk symbolizes cosmic rebirth. It is put on the Norouz sofreh because according to a very ancient myth, creation of man took place on the first day of the year, i.e. Norouz.
Fresh Cheese is the symbol of fertility and affluence.
Pomegranate symbolizes fire because of the red color of its blossoms, flowers and fruit. As a seedy fruit it symbolizes Anahita, the goddess of affluence and fertility.44
Sugar symbolizes the sweet desire of happiness for all the members of the family. Yogurt, butter, all kinds of sweets and dried food and also flowers beside hyacinth, coins are among other things that can be found on the Norouz sofreh.
The holy book of Koran is put on the sofreh as the symbol of faith. After the onset of the New Year, people read a few verses to receive blessing and benediction.45
1.Nafisi, Aliakbar (Nazem-olatebaa), Nafisi Dictionary, Vol V, Sherkat Sahami Cha’p Rangin, Tehran, 1334/1955, p.378.
2. Broumand, Saiid, Norouz, the Feast of Jamshid, Tous Press, Tehran, 1377/1998, p.4.
3. Borhaan Ghateh.
4. Ya’haqi, Mohammad Jafar, The Dictionary of the Myths and Legends in Persian Literature, The Research Center of Human Sciences and Cultural Studies and Soroush, Tehran, 1375/1996, p.426.
5. Bahar Mehrdad, Norouz, The Sacred Time, Chista Magazine, No.7 & 8, 1361/1982, p.777.
6. Ya’haqi, Mohammad Jafar, Ibid.
7. Blockba’shi, Ali, Norouz, the Feast of Rebirth of Creation, The office of Cultural Research, 1380/2001, pp.13-16.
8. Zoka’, Yahya’, Norouz and its Astrological Foundation in relation to Persepolis, The Art Treasury and Cultural Heritage of the Country, Tehran, 1377, p.35.
9. Ibid, pp.45-50.
10. Zoka’, Yahya’, Ibid.
11. Bahar, Mehrdad, Research on Iranian Mythology, p.498.
12. Blockba’shi, Ali, Ibid. p.17
13. Bahar, Mehrdad, Research on Iranian Mythology, p.50 & 495.
14. Blockba’shi, Ali, Ibid. pp.18-20 & 25.
15. Dehkhoda’, Aliakbar, Dehkhoda’ Dictionary, Vol.48.
16.? “Norouz, the Always Victorious Struggler,” Talaash Magazine, No.68, 1356/1977, p.5.
17. Mosahab, Persian Encyclopedia, Vol.2. Second Part, Sherkat Sahami Ketabhayeh Jibi, Tehran, 1374/1995. p.3078.
18. Blockba’shi, Ali, Ibid. p.32.
19. ? “Norouz, the Always Victorious Struggler,” Ibid, p.33.
20. Blockba’shi, Ali, Ibid, pp.35-38.
21. Bahar, “Norouz, the holy time,” Chista’ Magazine, No.7, 8, 1361/1982, p.775.
22. Ruholamini, Mahmud, The Ancient Rites and Cults in the Contemporary Iran, Agah Press, Tehran, 1376/1997, pp. 12 & 48.
23. Blockba’shi, Ali, Ibid, p.35-38.
24. Ibid, pp.39-43 & 46.
25. Shafiee Mahmud, “The Feast of Norouz in Chaha’r Mahaal Bakhtiari,” Collection of the first sessions of lectures and discussions on the Feast of Norouz, Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri and Sizdeh beh dar, The Press Office of the Ministry of Culture & Art, Tehran, 1356/1997, p.68.
26. Bahar Mehrdad, Norouz, The Holy Time, Chista Magazine, No.7 & 8, 1361/1982, p.775.
27. Christensen, Arthur, The First Man and the First King in the Legendry History of Iran, Vol.2, transl. Ahmad Tafazoli & Zhaleh Amuzgaar, Nashr No, Tehran, 1368/1983, pp.485-486.
28. Khosroyani, Parirokh, “Sabzeh,” Frvahar Magazine, No.11 & 12, 1373/1994, p.9.
29. Ela’hee, Mastaaneh and Marjaaneh, “The Feast of Norouz,” Frvahar Magazine, No.11 & 12, 1373/1994, p.9.
30. Honari, Morteza, Norouzgaan, p.117.
31. Ruholamini, Mahmud, Ibid, p.55.
32. Ya’haghi, Mohammad Jafar, Ibid, p.171.
33. Ushirdari, Jahangir, Da’neshnameh Mazdisna (Mazdian Encyclopedia), Nashr Markaz, Tehran, 1371/1992, p.243.
34. Pourdaavoud, Ebrahimpour, Anahita, ed. Ganji Morteza, Afrashiab press, Tehran, 1380/2001, pp.100, 102.
35. Honari, Morteza, Norouzgaan, p.132.
36. Broumand, Saiid, Norouz, the Feast of Jamshid, Tous Press, Tehran, 1377/1998, pp.324-328.
37. Yahaghi, Mohammad Jafar, Ibid, p.265.
38. Blockba’shi, Ali, Ibid, pp.92, 93.
39. Ya’haghi, Mohammad Jafar, Ibid, p.265.
40. Ruholamini, Mahmud, Ibid, pp. 72, 73.
41. Ushirdari, Jahangir, Ibid, p.485.
42. Ya’haghi, Mohammad Jafar, Ibid, pp. 447, 448.
43 Honari, Morteza, Ibid, p.31.
44. Ela’hi, M & M, Ibid, p.10.
45. Honari, Morteza, Ibid, p. 137.
Ushirdari, Jahangir, Daaneshnameh Mazdisna (Mazdian Encyclopedia), Nashr Markaz, Tehran, 1371/1992.
Broumand, Saiid, Norouz, the Feast of Jamshid, Tous Press, Tehran, 1377/1998.
Blockbaashi, Ali, Norouz, the Feast of Rebirth of Creation, The office of Cultural Research, 1380/2001.
Bahar, Mehrdad, Research on Iranian Mythology, ed. Mazdaapour, Katayoun, Agah Press, Tehran, 1381/2002.
Pourdaavoud, Ebrahimpour, Anahita, ed. Gorgi, Morteza, Afrasiab Press, Tehran, 1380/2001.
Tabrizi, known as Boraan, Mohammad Hussein ibn Khalaf, Borhaan Ghateh, Ibn Sina Press, Tehran, 1342/1965.
Dehkhoda, Dehkhoda Dictionary, Vol.48.
Zoka, Yahya, Norouz and its Astrological Basis in relation to Persepolis, The Art Treasury and Cultural Heritage of the Country, Tehran, 1377.
Ruholamini, Mahmud, The Ancient Rites and Cults in the Contemporary Iran, Agah Press, Tehran, 1376/1997.
Christensen, Arthur, The First Man and the First King in the Legendry History of Iran, Vol.2, transl. Ahmad Tafazoli & Zhaleh Amuzgaar, Nashr No, Tehran, 1368/1983.
Mosahab, Persian Encyclopedia, Vol.2. Second Part, Sherkat Sahami Ketabhayeh Jibi, Tehran, 1374/1995.
Honari, Morteza, Norouzgaan, Nashr Sarva and The Cultural Heritage of the country, Tehran, 1377/1998.
Yahaghi, Mohammad Jafar, The Dictionary of the Myths and Legends in Persian Literature, The Research Center of Human Sciences and Cultural Studies and Soroush, Tehran, 1375/1996.
Elahi, Mastaaneh and Marjaaneh, “The Feast of Norouz,” Frvahar Magazine, No.11 & 12, 1373/1994.
Bahar Mehrdad, Norouz, The Sacred Time, Chista Magazin, No.7 & 8, 1361/1982.
Khosroyani, Parirokh, “Sabzeh,” Frvahar Magazine, No.11 & 12, 1373/1994.
Shafii Mahmud, “The Feast of Norouz in Chaha’r Mahaal Bakhtiari,” Collection of the first sessions of lectures and discussions on the Feast of Norouz, Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri and Sizdeh beh dar, The Press Office of the Ministry of Culture & Art, Tehran, 1356/1997.
Golshani, Abdolkarim, “The Reveration of Norouz Cult according to Shitte Accounts and Ahaadis,” Collection of the first sessions of lectures and discussions on the Feast of Norouz, Chaha’r Shanbeh Suri and Sizdeh beh dar, The Press Office of the Ministry of Culture & Art, Tehran, 1356/1997.
?? “Norouz, the Always Victorious Struggler,” Talaash Magazine, No.68, 1356/1977
* Fravashi or Fravahar is one of the five faculties of forces that according to the Avestian and Pahlavi Mythology, Ancient Iranians believed in. Fravahr is one of the essential faculties or the spiritual form of creatures before coming to birth that come to earth to protect their physical form and leave the earth when they die.
** Amshapspand: meaning divine and sacred is the name of Mazdian archangels. The word also means eternal affluence. There are six Amshaspands with Ahura Mazda as the seventh occupying the top position. They are Bahman, Ordibehesht, Shahrivar, Spandarmaz (Esfand), Khorda’d and Morda’d, each residing on a month of the year and a day of the month
*** Saoshyant: or Saoshyans means Savior or Benevolent. In Mazdian religion there are three Saoshyants each emerging every 1000 year and all the three are descendants of Zoroaster himself. With the emergence of the last one, Ahriman is finally defeated and joy and happiness rules the world.