The Persian 'Mar Nameh': 'Book of the Snake' Omens By Payam Nabarz.
The 'Shah Nameh' (book of Kings) is one of the most famous and greatest Persian books of poetry ever. It's stories recognised by many in Iran and across the world. However, there are other 'Nameh' from Iran around the same and later time period which seem to have escaped the attention of some Iranians. These other poems are also capture Persian history and allow an insight into the Persian culture both modern and ancient. The two Namehs which have captured my attention in the last four years are the 'Mar Nameh' (book of the snake) and the 'Burj Nameh' (book of the constellations/months). I have translated these two poems from Persian into English and have carried out an study of them. Both poems, their translations are published. The Mar Nameh is published as:The Persian 'Mar Nameh': The Zoroastrian 'Book of the Snake' Omens and Calendar by Payam Nabarz & The Old Persian Calendar by S H Taqizadeh. (Twin Serpents, 2006), ISBN: 1905524250. //astore.amazon.co.uk/pan05-21/detail/1905524250
The Burj Nameh is published as: Stellar Magic: a Practical Guide to Rites of the Moon, Planets, Stars and Constellations (Avalonia, 2009), ISBN: 1905297254.//www.stellarmagic.co.uk/
The following is an excerpt from: The Persian 'Mar Nameh':
“Theopomus (born c. 380 B.C.) says that, according to the Magians, for three thousand years alternatively the one god will dominate the other and be dominated, and that for another three thousand years they will fight and make war, until one smashes up the domain of the other. In the end Hades (Ahriman) shall perish and men shall be happy; neither shall they need sustenance nor shall they cast a shadow, while the god who will have brought this about shall have quiet and shall rest, not for a long while indeed for a god, but for such time as would be reasonable for a man who falls asleep. Such is the mythology of the Magians.” 1 (Trans. J.Gwyn Griffiths, Plurarch’s De Iside et Osiride, ch 46, pp 193-5).
The snake enters the Biblical epic of the Fall of humanity by offering Eve the apple of knowledge. The result of eating it is described as awareness of our true self “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Gen3:5.The dialogue and the temptation according to Genesis was: “3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? 3:2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: 3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. 3:4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: 3:5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
Before the Fall, mankind is said to have been in paradise in a state of bliss as immortal, where there was no aging or death. Indeed, Adam is told to not eat from tree of knowledge as it would lead to his death. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Gen2:17. The snake defeats Adam and Eve by not attacking or killing them directly, but rather causing them to become mortal and die from old age. The serpent’s act essentially brings humankind and all life from the Biblical paradise into a linear time, where all are born and die. The connection between snake and time is seen in other mythologies too. For example, in Hinduism Lord Shiva is often shown with a snake (Vasuki) curled three times around his neck representing past, present, and future cycles of time. Shiva. Lord Shiva with a snake curled three times around his neck. Painting by unknown artist. Lord Shiva wears time symbolizing that while creation is time dependent, he is beyond time. In Hinduism there is also ‘Anata’ meaning ‘Endless, infinite’; the name of the world snake on which Visnu lies in his form as Anantasayana. The alchemical symbol of the Ouroboros, snake swallowing its own tail is said to represent the wheel of time, constantly renewing itself. Plato in Timaeus, also describes a circular, self contained snake like creature as the first created being: “Now to the animal which was to comprehend all animals, that figure was suitable which comprehends within itself all other figures. Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from thecentre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike. This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no needof eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the Creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the Creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but themovement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle.” 2 1478 drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in alchemical tract titled Synosius. In Mithraism too, we see a snake curling around the body of the Mithraic ‘God of Time’ the Leontocephaline, a figure often described as Immortal Time and Aion. This figure is often linked to Zurvan the Persian God of Immortal time. This Mithraic Aion is also linked to the other gods of time Kronos and Saturn / Father Time. Its statues or paintings have always depicted it with a snake winding around it; it is standing on the cosmic sphere and holding a key in its right hand, and its body is often decorated with the signs of the zodiac and stars.The Leontocephaline: the Mithraic God of Time and Aion with the snake winding around it. (From The Mysteries of Mithra, by Franz Cumont. New York: Dover, 1956. [Originally published in 1903 by Open Court Publishing, London.] The connection between snakes and time is seen in the myth of Chronos, the Greek god of time. In the Orphic poems he is described as a creative serpent emerging from water chaos. In the Orphic ‘Rhapsodic Theogony’, the cosmic egg is broken by the ‘Serpent Time’ coiling around the egg. The egg is all of creation which becomes manifest once it is broken open. Interestingly, the snake and egg are also the symbols of Damballah the Voodoo god of fertility. We also see a central role for snakes in the Norse myths too, the world tree ‘Yggdrasil’ had at its base a great cosmic serpent that gnawed at its roots while guarding it. In Islamic Hadith some snakes are described as Jinns (evil spirits); if someone sees a snake in their house, they should give it a warning three times over three days. If the snake returns after the warnings, they should kill it, for it is evil. Giving three warnings gives ‘time’ to the snake to escape. In the Mayan Calendar one of the twenty day names is that of the snake, while in Chinese Zodiac the snake is name of the one the 12 astrological years. Those born in year of the snake are seen as subtle, elusive, secretive, enigmatic and reliable.
The connection between the snake and time is seen in many mythologies, none more so than the Persian Zoroastrian ‘Mar Nameh’: The Book of the Snake. Here we see the battle between forces of Light (Ahura Mazda) and Darkness (Ahriman) is fought in ‘Time’. The twin sons of Zurvan (the Immortal Time) battle for dominion over the worlds.
When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan (Infinite Time) alone existed, whose name means ‘fate’ or ‘fortune’. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda or Hormozd) and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: “What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?” And no sooner had this thought occurred to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived - Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: “Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.” Ohrmazd was apprised of his father’s thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: “Who art thou?” And he replied: “I am thy son, Ohrmazd.” And Zurvan said: “My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.” And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Taking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: “Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.” But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him: “Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?” And Zurvan said to him: “O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.” And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautiful and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.3 – From Persian Pahlavi text circa 300 AD. R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, 207-208.
The Persian poem ‘Mar Nameh’ describes in verse what seeing a snake on every one of the 30 days of a month will mean and what omen it will portend. The thirty-two couplets in Persian lyrical rhyme and are part of the ‘Parsee Revayats’ prose and poem collection (15th - 18th Century). The first English translation of the centuries old Mar Nameh was by Jivanji Jamshedji Modi in 1893, published by the Anthropological Society of Bombay, India. However, this text has been out of print for over a century and hardly any of Modi’s translation remains. It was something of a quest to obtain access to one of the original prints of Modi’s 1893 paper, however, I was fortunate to eventually get access in the Bodleian Library, in Oxford University. Modi refers to the Mar Nameh as “the book for taking omens from snakes”. However, I have chosen to expand the title to include the word ‘calendar’, as it soon becomes apparent that the poem has implications for the entire Zoroastrian Calendar and view of Time. Furthermore, because of rarity of this text, both academics and mystics are by and large unaware of its existence and its implications. This calendar and omen system is based on the observation of a snake on each day of the month. Each month begins on Hormozd’s (Ohrmazd / Ahura Mazda) day (day 1) and ends in Aniran’s day (day 30). The numbering at the beginning of each couplet refers to the day number. It should be noted that the Persian calendar is a solar calendar that begins at the Spring Equinox, which is on or near the 21st of March. Therefore, there is a approximate 21 day difference in the numbering between the Persian and the Gregorian (Western) calendar, for example the 22nd of March in the Gregorian calendar is day 2 in the Persian, 23rd is day 3 etc. The year 2005 in the Zoroastrian Religious Era (ZRE) is 3743, this calendar began at the Spring Equinox of 1737 BCE, the time when Zoroaster proclaimed his Divine mission to humankind and heralds the dawn of age of Aries. The ZRE calendar is an attempt to combine all of the Zoroastrian Calendars into one, these calendars are Shehenshahi, Kadmi, and Fasli which are still in use, for the purpose of the Mar Nameh, the Zoroastrian Religious Era (ZRE) calendar is used here. However, if preferred, other forms of the Zoroastrian calendar can also be adapted.
The name of each day here is the name of the spirit, angel, or deity associated with it: Day 1 Hormozd (Ahura Madza the Wise Lord); day 10 Aban (Anahita Sea goddess); day 11 Khorsheed (Sun); day 12 is Mah (Moon); day 13 is Tir (Star Sirius); day 16 Mehr (Mithra) etc. A full description of the meaning for each day is included in the book. The thirty days and the divine beings associated with them are each prayed to in Yasna 16.3-16.6 (see below). The ‘Yasna’, which means ‘act of worship’, are part of the Zoroastrian holy texts.
For examples from the 10th day to the 16th day the poem Mar Nameh translates as: “10. If you see a snake on the day of Abanyou will receive your desire in an instant.11. If you see a snake on the day of Khorsheedhappiness will come to you soon.12. If you see a snake on the day of Mahseeing him will destroy your work.13. If you see a snake on the day of Tiryou shalt receive a property large or small.14. If you see a snake on the day of Gosha journey awaits you very soon.15. If you see a snake on the day of Depmehryour wishes will be fulfilled by the revolving heavens.16. If you see a snake on the day of Mehryou will be on a journey sooner rather than later.”The meaning of seeing a snake on each day could be indicative of the nature of the relationship of the snake with the spirit of the day. The snake is one the symbols of Ahirman (Lord of Darkness), therefore the significance of divination can be seen as the nature of the interaction or relation between the force of Ahirman and the force of spirit presiding over the day. This is the battle in ‘time’ in the manifested world between Zurvan’s (Infinite Time) twin sons Ahriman and Ahura Mada (Lord of Light). In some cases these will have a positive outcome and in some a negative one. Nevertheless, the Zoroastrian texts recommend that its followers should carry with them a ‘snake killer’ the maro-gno, and priests always should. This stick is used to kill snakes; hence followers taking part in the battle against Ahriman carry it. The stick ‘snake killer’ was also sometimes used in the punishment of a criminal. This animosity between humans and snakes is also described in the Bible in Genesis: “3:14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: 3:15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Rumi also describes snake as a destroyer of humans, as a symbol of the ego (nafs), in his story of the snake catcher and frozen snake. The snake is woken in the warmth of the sun and attacks all around it in the city.
On the Zurvan’s twin sons, they are also referred to in Yasna 30.3-4
“Truly there are two primal Spirits, twins renowned to be in conflict. In thought and word, in act they are two: the better and the bad. And those who act well have chosen rightly between these two, not so the evil doers. And when these two spirits first came together they created life and not-life, and how at the end Worst Existence shall be for the wicked, but (the House of) Best purpose for the just man.” 4 Mary Boyce ‘textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism’, p35.
In the Zoroastrian religion, Ahura Mazda has seven immortal aspects - the Amshaspends or Ameshas Spenta, each of which rules over a particular realm. These are: Vohu Mano (good thought, the realm of animals), Asha Vahishta (righteousness, the realm of fire), Spenta Armaiti (devotion, the realm of earth), Khshathra Vairya (dominion, the realm of sun and heavens), Haurvatat (wholeness, the realm of water), Ameretat (immortality, the realm of plants), and Spenta Mainyu, who is identified with Ahura Mazda (the realm of humanity). There are also seven Yazatas, the protective spirits: Anahita (water / fertility), Atar (fire), Homa (healing plant), Sraosha (obedience / hearer of prayers), Rashnu (judgment), Mithra (truth), Tishtrya (the Dog Star / source of rain).
Zoroastrianism is monotheistic, with a strong dualism, whereby Ahura Mazda’s Ameshas Spenta and Yazatas, the forces of light, are faced with the forces of darkness of the Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman. Ahriman - whose symbol is the snake, is called the Great Lie (Farsi durug). He and his demons are said to create drought, harsh weather, sickness, disease, poverty, and all forms of suffering. In pre-Zoroastrian Persia, snakes were perceived in a more positive light, indeed Elimite kings, rulers of Elamite civilization in the south-western Iran, wore a snake-shaped crown and painted snakes on their pottery, as seen on a clay pot from 4000 BC. The transition from a positive view to a negative view of snakes could be due to the poisonous nature of some of the more than fifty species of snake in Iran. The transition relates back to early human history, which also might relate to the Persian story in Shahnameh regarding the discovery of fire. Legend of Hushang Shah is that he encountered a black snake one day while horse riding. To defend himself Hushang threw a flint stone at the snake and missed. Instead, the rock hit another large rock and started a spark starting a fire. The fire spread and engulfed the snake saving Hushang’s life. This discovery of fire is celebrated still today as festival of Jashn-e Sadeh by some Zoroastrians on 30th of January, when great bonfires are lit at sunset.
In this system, the first seven days celebrate Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spentas (the Beneficent Immortals), also referred to as the Archangels. They are said to be the highest spiritual beings created by Ahura Mazda. The second week celebrates light and nature. The third week celebrates moral ethical qualities. The fourth week celebrates spiritual and religious ideas.
The following is the invocation of thirty days’ calendar divinities, Yasna 16.
“3. And we worship the former religions of the world devoted to Righteousness which were instituted at the creation, the holy religions of the Creator Ahura Mazda, the resplendent and glorious. And we worship Vohu Manah (the Good Mind), and Asha Vahishta (who is Righteousness the Best), and Khshathra-vairya, the Kingdom to be desired, and the good and bountiful Armaiti (true piety in the believers), and Haurvatat and Ameretat (our Weal and Immortality). 4. Yea, we worship the Creator Ahura Mazda and the Fire, Ahura Mazda's son, and the good waters which are Mazda-made and holy, and the resplendent sun of the swift horses, and the moon with the seed of cattle (in his beams); and we worship the star Tishtrya, the lustrous and glorious; and we worship the soul of the Kine of blessed endowment, (5) and its Creator Ahura Mazda; and we worship Mithra of the wide pastures, and Sraosha (Obedience) the blessed, and Rashnu the most just, and the good, heroic, bountiful Fravashis of the saints, and the Blow-of-victory Ahura-given (as it is). And we worship Raman Hvastra, and the bounteous Wind of blessed gift,
(6) and (its) Creator Ahura Mazda, and the good Mazdayasnian Religion, and the good Blessedness and Arshtat.
And we worship the heaven and the earth of blessed gift, and the bounteous Mathra, and the stars without beginning (to their course), self-disposing as they are.” 5 -Translated by L. H. Mills (From Sacred Books of the East).
In addition to each day being sacred to a divine being, each of the twelve months are also sacred to a divine being. These twelve months coincide with twelve days in the month. The conjunction of a month with it’s day name was celebrated as a name day feast, hence a feast every month. The modern Persian twelve months (staring on the 21st of March) and their Zodiac names are: Farvardeen (Aries), Ardibehesht (Taurus), Khordad (Gemini), Tir (Cancer), Amordad (Leo), Shahrivar (Virgo), Mehr (Libra), Aban (Scorpio), Azar (Sagittarius), Dai (Capricorn), Bahman (Aquarius), Esfand (Pisces). Therefore, the entire year could be seen as a dance between different Spirits throughout the passing of time.
The months lead into years and during the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. the Zoroastrians began creating the Great Year or World Year aspect of their calendar. The great year is the time during which all heavenly bodies complete a full cycle of their movement in the heavens. The Zoroastrian world year is 12000 years, and the sequence of legends of ‘saviour’ and ‘anti -saviour’ figures has many parallels with the Book of Revelation.
The Zoroastrian 12000 years ‘world year’ consists of four 3000 year sections. The 12000 also reflect 1000 years for each lunar month. During this time there are said to have been three world saviours, each of which to be born from virgin mother from Zarathushtra’s seeds, that have been deposited in a lake in Persia. The Persian calendar spans several millennia and it both influenced and was influenced by other religious calendars in the Middle East.
The snake has many symbolic meanings beyond the Time aspects discussed here, from Hermes Caduceus of Healers to the Minoan snake priestesses and Christian ‘snake-handling’ sects. These numerous symbolic meanings of snakes have been discussed by many others, however the article here is one of the few works that purely focuses on the relationship of snakes and Time (snake as a time lord!). It is fitting to conclude this work with a relatively modern philosophical example from Nietzsche. Here, the snake acts as Zoroaster’s morning alarm clock and wakes him up in time for his great journey. We began with the snake and the apple tree of knowledge and we finish with the fig tree we were clothed in when we became aware of ourselves. The symbolic snake continues to play its role at painfully awaking us to knowledge of good and evil, so in time we may come closer to the state of a complete person.
“One day Zarathustra had fallen asleep under a fig tree, due to the heat, with hisarms over his face. And there came an adder that bit him on the neck, so thatZarathustra screamed with pain. When he had taken his arm from his face helooked at the serpent; and then did it recognize the eyes of Zarathustra, wriggledawkwardly, and tried to get away. “Not at all,” said Zarathustra, “as yet youhave not received my thanks! You have awakened me in time; my journey is yetlong.” “Thy journey is short,” said the adder sadly; “my poison is fatal.”Zarathustra smiled. “When did ever a dragon die of a serpent’s poison?”– saidhe. “But take your poison back! You are not rich enough to present it to me.”Then the adder fell again on his neck, and licked his wound” – FriedrichNietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra 6.
Payam Nabarz is author of ‘The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World’ (Inner Traditions, 2005), ‘The Persian Mar Nameh: The Zoroastrian Book of the Snake Omens & Calendar’ (Twin Serpents, 2006), and Divine Comedy of Neophyte Corax and Goddess Morrigan (Web of Wyrd, 2008). He is also editor of Mithras Reader An academic and religious journal of Greek, Roman, and Persian Studies. Volume 1(2006), Volume 2 (2008). For further info visit: www.stellarmagic.co.ukAnd //www.myspace.com/nabarz
Tony Allan, Charles Phillips, and Michael Kerrigan, Wise Lord of the Sky: Persian Myth. (London: Time Life books, 1999).Mary Boyce ‘textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism’, (The University of Chicago press, 1990).Mary Boyce ‘Zoroastrians their religious beliefs and practices’, (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 2001).Peter Clark, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith, (Sussex: Academic Press, 1998).Paul Kriwaczek, In Search of Zarathustra, (London, Phoenix, 2003).Mahnaz Moazami, Evil Animals in the Zoroastrian Religion. History of Religions, volume 44 (2005), pp. 300–317.Payam Nabarz ‘The Persian 'Mar Nameh': The Zoroastrian 'Book of the Snake' Omens and Calendar’ & S H Taqizadeh ‘The Old Persian Calendar’, (Twin Serpents 2006). Spiritual oriented poems on snakes is a world wide phenomenon, for example: Francisco X.Alarcon ‘Snake poems an Aztec Invocation’, (chronicle books, San Francisco, 1992).
1. (Trans. J.Gwyn Griffiths, Plurarch’s De Iside et Osiride, ch 46, pp193-5). As quoted by Mary Boyce textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. The University of Chicago press, 1990, p96-97.
2. Plato’s Timaeus online: //www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/timaeus.htm
3. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, (1961), 2003 edition p207-208. Also online at: //www.farvardyn.com/zurvan2.php
4. Mary Boyce textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. The University of Chicago press, 1990, p35.
5. Translated by L. H. Mills (From Sacred Books of the East, American Edition, 1898.) //www.avesta.org/yasna/y13to27s.htm
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