Nestled deep in the snowcapped Alburz Mountains of Northern Iran, amongst a heavily forested region, the Council of Shir Zanan met under the cover of a pitch black, moonless night. Seven women were seated around an altar, facing each other and holding the eternal fire of Ahura Mazda in the palms of their hands. The sacred fire illuminated their faces and drew eerie shadows on the wall. Their murmur could be heard in the silence of the frosty night as they chanted under their breath:
“Fear not our wrath; Fear not our revenge; Fear only our reverence.”
The cold wind carried their voices into the forest where their message turned into a hauler lashing against the trees and penetrating the world beyond.
I stood in total darkness in the far left corner of the room. I stood there at my own rite of passage, without a shadow, without an existence. The chanting grew more rapid but still only a whisper in the night. As someone, a familiar voice perhaps, beckoned me, I stepped forward out of the darkness into the sacred light. A shadow formed on the wall. Only a few steps to my tomb at the center of the temple: A coffin was awaiting my arrival. “Will I have the courage to do it?”
A whisper calling the Asiatic lioness to join the Council reverberated in the chamber. I was to be judged by the lioness, the symbol of once mighty but now fallen Persian Empire. I entered the tomb with my eyes wide open, determined not to miss the last moments of my childhood or perhaps my life. I felt the pain of two deep cuts on the palms of my hands, and then a blood soaked white rose was laid on my chest.
For the second time, the High Priestess summoned the lioness to our temple. Her soft voice, echoed by the others, amplified my anticipation and growing anxiety. “Will she come? Does she exist only in myths and dreams?” After years of research, experts have concluded that the Asiatic lion no longer dwells in Iran. Nonetheless, locals claim seeing the majestic beast. I tried to focus on the task at hand, concentrating on the sacred bond into which I was about to enter. Time was running out. Only one more invitation would be extended; the third was the final call. At last, the Council in unison decisively conjured the lioness again.
With every breath, the rose on my chest ascended into the light and, upon descent, disappeared into the darkness of my tomb. I heard a roar and trembled not only from fear but also from excitement. The chanting had stopped although my beating heart knew no silence. The lioness circled the altar and peeked into my tomb. She could smell the blood oozing out of the freshly cut wounds of my hands.
I felt the surge of adrenaline as our eyes locked. A human and a beast were looking into a mirror, each reflecting the darkness of the other’s soul. I wondered what she saw when she stared into my eyes and whether the image of her naked soul bearing witness to the sins of her kind terrified her. I gazed into a hollow emptiness and saw a savage desire to kill, to rip apart flesh, to prey on the weak, to afflict pain upon the helpless, to survive at any cost, and to kill your own kind. I saw a human soul without remorse, without mercy, without a future.
Tears welled up in my eyes; I blinked. The lioness was gone; the rose had vanished. She had offered me a glimpse into the nature and history of mankind and an opportunity, or perhaps even a duty, to mend the wrong. I, the granddaughter to the Northern tulips, entered into womanhood – lionhearted.
With a single nod of their heads, seven women cast one unanimous vote. The decision was made: The young were permitted to carry on the torch, to connect the history of an ancient fallen empire to that of a rising power. The next generation was to be groomed to embark on a long dangerous journey to advance the cause of an ancient sacred bond forged in blood and dated to the establishment of the Persian Empire in 550 B.C.E.
Persian women once held holy and wise were priestesses of temples and guardians of Mother Nature. They brought peace and harmony to earth and guarded the gates of heaven. They were the gatekeepers through whom salvation, redemption, and absolution were granted. Persian kings paid homage to them and sought their counsel. All that changed when the ancient empire fell to Arabs.
Islam relegated Persian goddesses to mere servants of men. They were veiled not only to cover their bodies but to conceal their identity and to curb their influence. They were stripped of all rights and confined to their homes. There, with the guidance of their wise elders, Persian women regrouped, organized and rose up again. They became brave, daring, rebellious women (Zanan) with the heart of a lion (Shir).
In the year 652 C.E., when Arabs began to rule Persia, the bond of Shir Zanan flourished into a secret covenant amongst Persian women who defied Islam. Since then, Shir Zanan have fought Islam for centuries and have passed on their knowledge and rites to the younger generations. Today, with the establishment of the first theocracy in modern times, Persian women must face an old enemy once again and with heavy hearts, fear the fulfillment of an old prophecy attributed to the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattāb:
Once the Wall of Fire keeping the Arabs and Persians apart crumples, neither can coexist with the other…
DEDICATION This article contains the dramatization of a mythical rite believed to have been practiced in the remotest villages of Northern Iran. The account of this ritual has been passed down by the word of mouth from mother to daughter for generations until it has reached me. Through these words, I wish to pay homage to our maternal ancestors who observed this rite many moons ago. Although their names have been erased from the pages of history and their faces have faded in the dust of time, their murmur still lingers in the heart of Shir Zanan throughout the Persian land to this day.