This article by Massounej Price was posted in the CAIS (Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies) venue hosted by Shapour Suren-Pahlav.
Nowruz (Noruz, Norooz, Nevruz, Newruz, Navruz), 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 period.
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’ cosmology.
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 fire.
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, the 13th day of the month as a day with unfortunate consequences, therefore Iranians could have adopted this concept 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.