Iranian New Year's ideological roots
By Massoume Price
Noruz times for this New Year (1380 / 2001):
Los Angeles: 05:30.40 am
Chicago: 07:30.40 am
New York: 08:30.40am
London: 13:30.40 pm
Paris: 14:30.40 pm
Tehran: 17:00.40 pm
Tokyo: 22:30.40 pm
Noruz, or new day, is the celebration of spring equinox. It is the most
cherished of all the Iranian festivals and is celebrated by all. This occasion
has been renowned in one form or another by all the major cultures of ancient
Mesopotamia. What we have today as Noruz with its' uniquely Iranian characteristics
has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years and is deeply rooted in the
rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian belief system in the Sassanid
This was the religion of ancient Persia before the advent of Islam in
7th century A.D. The familiar concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, coming
of the Messiah, individual and last judgment were for the first time incorporated
into this belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic
traditions. In order to understand Noruz we have to understand Zoroastrians'
In their ancient text, Bundahishn (foundation of creation), we
read that Ahura Mazda (Ahura Mazda) residing in eternal light was not God.
He created all that was good and became God. The Hostile Spirit, Angra
Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in eternal darkness created all that was evil
and became the Hostile Spirit (The word anger in English comes from the
same origin). Everything that produced, protected and enriched life was
regarded as good. This included all forces of nature beneficial to humans.
Earth, waters, sky, animals, plants, justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty,
joy and happiness belonged to the good forces. All that threatened life
and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits.
The two worlds did not have a material form but the essence of everything
was present. The two existed side by side for 3,000 years, but were completely
separate from each other. At the end of the third millennium the Hostile
Spirit attacked the good world. This was the beginning of all troubles
we face today, according to Zoroastrian world view.
In order to protect his world, Ahura Mazda created the material world
Gaeity, (geety in modern Persian). This material world was created
in seven different stages. The first creation was the sky, a big chunk
of stone high above. The second was the first ocean at the bottom. Earth
a big flat dish sitting on the ocean was the third. The next three creations
were the prototypes of all life forms. The first plant, the first animal
a bull and the first human Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth, in common name for males
in modern Persian), both male and female. The seventh creation was fire
and sun together.
The struggle between Good and Evil continues for 12,000 years. There
are four periods, each 3,000 years long. At the last phase several saviors
appear, and the last one Saoshyant will save the world. When he comes there
is Resurrection, walking over the Chinvat bridge (Sarat bridge in the Qoran)
and Last Judgement. We recognize this figure as the Lord of Time (Imam
Zaman) in Shi'ite Islam.
In order to protect his creations, Ahura Mazda also created six holy
immortals (Amesha Spenta), one for each of his creations in the material
world. Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of the sky, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht
in modern Persian) protected fire. Vahu Manah (Bahman) for all animals,
Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all waters, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand) a female
deity became protector of mother earth and Ameratat (Amurdad or Mordad)
supported all plant life. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all
humans and the Holy Fire.
There was one problem with this material world: it did not have a life
cycle. The sun did not move. There were no days or nights and no seasons.
The three prototypes of life were sacrificed. From the plant came the seeds
of all plants. The bull produced all animals and from the human came the
first male and female. The rest of humanity was created from their union.
The cycle of life started. The sun moved, there was day, night and the
seasons. This was the first Noruz.
Ahura Mazda also created guardian angels (forouhars or farvahars) for
all living beings. Every human had one as long as they stayed with the
good forces, as we see in the myth of Azydahak in Avesta, the Zoroastrians'
holy book. We know this figure in Ferdosi's Shahnameh as Zahak,
a prince who chooses the Hostile Spirit as his protector, was made a king,
ruled for 999 years and became immortal.
Zoroaster (Zardosht) the architect of this cosmology introduced many
feasts, festivals and rituals to pay homage to the seven creations, the
holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. The seven most important ones are known
as Gahambars, the feasts of obligation. The last and the most elaborate
was Noruz, celebrating Ahura Mazda and the Holy Fire at the spring equinox.
The oldest archaeological record for Noruz celebration comes from the
Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2,500 years ago. Achaemenians had
four major residences one for each season. Persepolis was their spring
residence and the site for celebrating the New Year. Stone carvings show
the king seated on his throne receiving his subjects, governors and ambassadors
from various nations under his control. They are presenting him with gifts
and paying homage to him. We do not know much about the details of the
rituals. We do know that mornings were spent praying and performing other
religious rituals. Later on during the day the guests would be entertained
with feasts and celebrations.
We also know that the ritual of sacred marriage took place at this palace.
An ancient and common ritual in Mesopotamia, the king would spend the first
night of the New Year with a young virgin. Any offspring produced from
this union would be sent back to the temples and they would normally end
up as high-ranking religious officials. There is no evidence that this
was practiced in later periods.
What we have today as Noruz goes back to the Sassanid period. They formed
the last great Persian empire before the advent of Islam. Their celebrations
would start ten days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian
angels (forouhars or farvahars) and spirits of the dead would come down
to earth within these ten days to visit humans. A major spring-cleaning
was carried out to welcome them with feasts and celebrations. Bon fires
would be set on rooftops at night to indicate to the spirits and the angels
that humans were ready to receive them. This festival was called Suri.
Modern Iranians still carry out the spring-cleaning and celebrate Chahar-Shanbeh
Suri (Wednesday Suri). Bon fires are made and all people will jump
over the fire in the evening of the last Tuesday of the year. This is a
purification rite and Iranians believe by going over the fire they will
get rid of all illnesses and misfortunes. This festival did not exist before
Islam in this form and very likely is a combination of more than one ritual.
The ancient Zoroastrians would also celebrate the first five days of
Noruz, but it was the sixth day that was the most important of all. This
day was called the Great Noruz (Noruz-e bozorg) and is assumed to be the
birthday of Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians today still celebrate this
day, but it has lost its significance for other Iranians. In the Sassanid
period, the New Year would be celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day
there would be another major festival. At all times there were feasts,
prayers, dance, plays and jokers. Haji Firouz might be what is left of
the ancient festivities. Men color their face black, dress in colorful
outfits and appear in public dancing and singing joyful and merry songs.
Modern Iranians celebrate the New Year for 13 days. It is customary
for all to take a bath and cleanse themselves thoroughly before Noruz.
This is a purification rite but has lost its meaning in modern times. New
garments are worn to emphasize freshness. This is very important since
Noruz is a feast of hope and renewal. Families stay home and wait for the
start of the New Year which starts at the exact time of the spring equinox--
called Sal Tahvil -- between the 19th and 21st of March. The first few
minutes are spent around an elaborately prepared spread known as the Haft
Seen (originally called Haft Cheen) with several items and objects that
beging with the letter "S". More religious people will read or
recite verses from the Qoran, before the start of the New Year.
Once the New Year is announced (on the radio or TV) younger members
of the family will pay respect to elders by wishing them a merry New Year
and sometimes they kiss their hands (a sign of ultimate respect). Relatives
kiss and hug and presents (traditionally cash or coins) are exchanged.
Sweets are offered to all to symbolically sweeten their lives for the rest
of the year. A small mirror is passed around, rose water is sprinkled into
the air and Espand a popular incense is burnt, to keep the evil eye away.
In more traditional families, the father and the first born son will walk
around the house with a lit candle and a small mirror to ritually bless
the physical space. Lit candles on the spread are left to burn.
The first few days are spent visiting older members of the family, relatives
and friends. Children receive presents and sweets and special meals are
consumed. Traditionally on the night before the New Year, most Iranians
will have Sabzi Polo Mahi, a special dish of rice cooked with fresh herbs
and served with smoked and freshly fried fish. Koukou Sabzi, a mixture
of fresh herbs with eggs fried or baked, is also served. The next day rice
and noodles (Reshteh Polo) is served. Regional variations exist and very
colorful feasts are prepared.
A major part of New Year rituals is setting the Haft Seen with seven
specific items. In ancient times each of the items corresponded to one
of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. Today
they are changed and modified but some have kept their symbolism. All the
seven items start with the letter "S'; this was not the order in ancient
times. Zoroastrians today do not have the seven "S"s but they
have the ritual of growing seven seeds as a reminder that this is the seventh
feast of creation, while their sprouting into new growth symbolized resurrection
and eternal life to come.
Wheat or lentil representing new growth is grown in a flat dish a few
days before the New Year and is called Sabzeh (green shoots). Decorated
with colorful ribbons, it is kept until Sizdah beh dar, the 13th
day of the New Year, and then disposed outdoors. A few live gold fish (the
most easily obtainable animal) are placed in a fish bowl. In the old days
they would be returned to the riverbanks, but today most people will keep
them. Mirrors are placed on the spread with lit candles as a symbol of
Zoroastrians today place the lit candle in front of the mirror to increase
the reflection of light. Mirrors were significant items in Zoroastrian
art and architecture, and still are an integral part of most Iranian celebrations
including weddings. They are extensively referred to in Iranian mystical
literature as well and represent self-reflection. All Iranian burial shrines
are still extensively decorated with mirrors, a popular decorative style
of ancient times. Light is regarded as sacred by the Zoroastrians and the
use of mirrors multiplies the reflection of light.
Wine was always present on the Haft Seen spread. Since the Muslim conquest,
it has been replaced by vinegar because alcohol is banned in Islam. Egg,
a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to Sepanta Armaiti, or mother
earth, is still present. The eggs are hard-boiled and are traditionally
colored in red, green or yellow, colors favored by Zoroastrians. Recently
following the Easter Egg tradition, any color is used and they are elaborately
decorated. The eggs are offered to children as treats.
Fresh garlic is used to warn off bad omen. This is a modern introduction.
There is no evidence that it was used in this context before. However the
ancient Iranians would grow seven different herbs for the New Year and
garlic might have been one of them. Samano a thick brownish paste is present
today. It is a nutritious meal and could have been part of the feasts.
It is also possible that it has replaced Haoma, a scared herbal mix known
for its healing properties. It was a major cult on its own with many rituals
and ceremonies. The cult is still performed by the Zoroastrians today,
but is abandoned by other Iranians. Coins symbolizing wealth and prosperity,
fruits and special sweets and baked goods are also in the Haft Seen.
For the ancient Iranians, Noruz was a celebration of life. They felt
forces of nature, that were completely beyond their control, had a dominant
effect on their lives. They formed a union with these forces to protect
themselves. Through this union they created a balance and maintained cosmic
order, or Asha. Without it there would be chaos, dominated by the Hostile
Spirit (Ahriman). Zoroastrians were and are required to have the same mind,
the same voice and act the same way as their god Ahura Mazda. They are
expected to only think of good things, speak the good words and act the
good deeds. This way they managed to keep their balance. Noruz was an occasion
when life with all its glory was celebrated and cherished.
For modern Iranians, Noruz is a feast of renewal and freshness; a time
to visit relatives, friends and pay respect to the older members of the
family. A thorough house cleaning purifies the physical space, merrymaking
creates comfort, and happiness becomes a celebration in itself. This is
reminiscent of ancient traditions when all forces of Joy were regarded
as holy. New Year festivities will go on uintil the 13th day, known as
Sizdah beh dar, which literally means getting rid of the omen of
the 13th day.
The 13th day is spent mostly outdoors. People will leave their homes
to go to the parks or local plains for a festive picnic. It is a must to
spend Sizdah beh dar in nature. This was not celebrated in this
manner before Islam and might be several rituals in one. It is possible
that this day was devoted to the deity Tishtrya (Tir) protector of rain.
In Zoroastrian calendar each day is named after a deity and this particular
day in the month of Farvardin is named after Tishtrya. In the past there
were outdoor festivities to pray to this deity and ask for adequate rain
that was essential for agriculture.
Iranians today regard 13th day as a bad omen and believe that by going
into the fields and parks they avoid misfortunes. This notion is contrary
to Zoroastrian doctrine where all days were regarded as sacred and were
named after venerated deities. However, according to popular belief, Imam
Jaffar Sadegh, the 7th Shi'ite Imam labeled the 13th day of the month as
a day with unfortunate consequences, therefore Iranians could have adopted
this concerpt in Sizdah beh dar. By going outdoors into the fields,
ancient festivities are observed while Islamic traditions are also incorporated
into the occasion.
All kinds of food and delicacies are prepared with tea, drinks, fruits,
bread, cheese and fresh herbs. Wealthy Iranians will spend the day in country
homes. The occasion is a communal one and all close relatives and friends
will participate. Wheat or barley shoots (Sabzeh) grown especially for
the New Year are discarded in nature on this day. The picnic ends with
the setting of the sun. The occasion has no religious significance and
is celebrated by all. With the more modern Iranians there is music and
dancing while most people will play games and sports. It is also believed
that unwed girls can wish for a husband by going into the fields and tying
a knot between green shoots, symbolizing a marital bond.