Persian Mehregan Celebrations: Autumn Equinox—Festival of Mithra
By Payam Nabarz
“The Sun is said to be the eye of Mithra.” – proverb The Persian festival of Mehregan (Autumn Equinox) celebrations begins 1st of month of Mehr which usually falls on September 21st , though this year is on 22nd of September. As the yellowish, bright barley moon wanes and we approach the autumn equinox. The end of the harvest at the Harvest Moon awaits us at the time of this solar festival. It is another time of balance and equilibrium; day and night, light and darkness are again the same length. The arrows of light that we fired at the spring equinox reached their arc’s height at the summer solstice and now come down to their earthly home to roost. The symbols of this festival are similar among many cultures.
The autumn equinox marks the beginning of the Persian month of Mehr and the start of the festival of Mehregan. Remember that the month of the sun god Mithra (Mehr) is followed by the month of the sea goddess Anahita (Aban). One interpretation could be the month of the sun leads into the month of the sea, sun being set into the ocean. The ocean sunset is a metaphor of the sun uniting with the water. Consider the resultant light reflected upon the water. Mehr comes together with Aban, giving rise to mehraban, “one who is kind,” the child of light.
According to Dr. Taqizadeh:
“The feast of Mithra or baga was, no doubt, one of the most popular if not the greatest of all the festivals in ancient Iran, where it was celebrated with the greatest attention. This was originally a pre-Zoroastrian and old Aryan feast consecrated to the sun god, and its place in the Old-Persian calendar was surely in the month belonging to this deity. This month was called Bagayadi or Bagayadish and almost certainly corresponded to the seventh Babylonian month Tishritu, the patron of which was also Shamash, the Babylonian sun god. This month was, as has already been stated, probably the first month of the Old-Persian year, and its more or less fixed place was in the early part of the autumn. The feast was in all probability Old Persian rather than Old—or Young—Avestan, and it was perhaps the survival of an earlier Iranian New Year festival dating from some prehistoric phase of the Aryan calendar, when the year began at the autumnal equinox. It was connected with the worship of one of the oldest Aryan deities (Baga-Mithra), of whom traces are found as far back as in the fourteenth century B.C.E.”1
In Persia the two most significant festivals were Norouz (Nou Roz) and Mehregan, which divided the year into two equal parts. According to Massumeh Price: “One of the oldest historical records about Mehregan refers back to the Achaemenian times. The historian, Strabon (66‑24 B.C.E.) has mentioned that the Armenian Satrap presented the Achaemenian king with 20,000 horses at the Mehregan celebrations. Ahura Mazda, Anahita and Mithra were the three major deities during this period. By this time the seventh month (Mitrakana) and the sixteenth day of the same month were dedicated to Mithra and named after him (Mehr Mah and Mehr Rouz in moden Persian). Mithra’s temples are discovered from the Parthian period as well. There is a temple in present day Ashkabad in Turkmenistan with the inscription “mehriyan” or “place of Mithra.” Other Greek sources mention that the kings would dress in purple, dance, drink, and this was the only occasion they could get drunk in public. The celebration is also mentioned in the Talmud, the ancient Jewish text. The festival is not specific to Iranians and has been celebrated by many cultures in Asia Minor and throughout ancient Mesopotamia. However, what has been celebrated in Iran with its uniquely Iranian characteristic is based on the ancient Zoroastrian texts. . . . Kings would wear a crown shaped like a sun with actors wearing masks and musicians playing music. Ancient Iranians believed that it was on Mehr day that humans were given urvan (ravan in modern Persian, meaning soul), and the earth was enlarged on this day to provide more land for the growing population. Moon (Mah), which was a cold and dark object, for the first time received light from the sun on this day and began illuminating at night. . . .”2
According to Farshid Eghbal & Sandra Mooney (article on Iranonline.com):
“For this celebration, the participants wear new clothes and set a decorative, colorful table. The sides of the tablecloth are decorated with dry wild marjoram. The holy book Avesta, a mirror and Sormeh Dan (antimony cellar) are placed on the table together with rose water, sweets, flowers, vegetables and fruits, especially pomegranates and apples. A few silver coins and senjed seeds (fruit of the lotus tree) are placed in a dish of pleasant smelling wild marjoram water. Almonds and pistachio are also used.
A burner is also part of the table setting for kondor (frankincense) and espand (rue seeds) to be thrown on the flames.
At lunchtime when the ceremony begins, everyone in the family stands in front of the mirror to pray. Sherbet is drunk and then as a good omen, antimony is rubbed around the eyes. Handfuls of wild marjoram, senjed seeds and noghl (sugar plum) are thrown over each other’s heads while they embrace one another.
In some of the villages in Yazd, Zoroastrians still sacrifice sheep for Mehr. These sacrifices are done on the day of Mehregan and for three days afterwards. The sacrifice should be done during the hours of sunlight. The sheep is placed on three stones in the furnace, representing the good words, good deeds and good thoughts, and barbecued. After this special ritual, the sheep, including the skin and fat, is taken to the fire temple. The fat is thrown on the fire to make the flames burn fiercely and then the participants pray. This celebration continues for the next five days.”3
For more details about festival of Mehergan and other Persian festivals see The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief That Shaped the Christian World’. By Payam Nabarz, (Inner Traditions, 2005) and 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).