IRANIAN NEW YEAR - NOWRUZ
No Ruz, new day or New Year as the Iranians call it, is
a celebration of spring Equinox. It has been celebrated
by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerians,
3000BC, Babylonians 2000 BC, the ancient kingdom of Elam
in Southern Persia 2000BC, Akaddians all have been celebrating
it in one form or another. What we have today as No Ruz
with its’ uniquely Iranian characteristics has been celebrated
for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the traditions
of Zoroastrian belief system.
This was the religion of Ancient Persia before the advent
of Islam 1400 years ago. It is known as the mother religion
in the area. 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 No Ruz we have to know about Zoroastrians’
These people believed in two primal forces. In their ancient
text, Bundahishn foundation of creation, we read that
The Lord of Wisdom residing in the eternal light was not
God. He created all that was good and became God. The
Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), residing in the
eternal darkness created all that was bad and became the
Hostile Spirit (The word anger in English comes from the
Everything that produced life, protected and enriched
it was regarded as good. This included all forces of nature
beneficial to humans. Earth, waters, sky, animals, plants
were all good. Justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty,
joy and happiness were regarded as belonging to the good
forces. All that threatened life and created disorder
belonged to the hostile spirits.
The two worlds created did not have a material form but
the essence of everything was present. The two existed
side by side for three thousand years, but completely
separate from each other. At the end of the third millennium
the Hostile Spirit saw light, wanted it and attacked the
good world. This was the beginning of all troubles we
The Lord of Wisdom in order to protect his world created
the material world "Gaeity",
Geety in modern Persian. This material world was created
at seven different stages. The first creation was the
sky, a big chunk of stone high above. The second creation
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), both male and female. The seventh creation
was fire and sun together.
The struggle continues for 12000 years. There are four
periods, each 3000 years. At the last phase several saviors
come and the last one Saoshyant will save the world. When
he comes there is resurrection, walking over the Chinvat
Bridge (Sarat Bridge in Quran) and last judgement. We
recognize this figure as Time Lord (Imam Zaman) in Iranian
version of Shiite Islam.
In order to protect his creations the Lord of Wisdom also
created six holy immortals,
Amesha Spenta one for each creation. Khashtra (Sharivar),
the protector of sky, Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht) protected
fire. Vahu Manah (Bahman) for all animals, Haurvatat
(Khordad) protected all waters, Spenta Armaiti (Esphand)
a female deity protector of mother earth and Ameratat
(Amurdad) 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
the humanity was created from their union. The cycle of
life started. Sun moved, there was day, night and the
seasons. This was called the
first No Ruz.
The Lord of Wisdom also created guardian angles (forouhars)
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 as Zahak in modern Persian. A prince,
he chooses the Hostile Spirit as his protector. He 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 and the holy immortals. Seven were amongst
the most important. They are known as Gahambars, feasts
of obligation. The last and the most elaborate was No
Ruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holy fire
at the time of spring equinox.
The oldest archaeological record for No Ruz celebration
comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over
2500 years ago. They created the first major empire in
the region and built Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid)
in central Iran. This magnificent palace/temple complex
was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 334 BC.
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 too 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 woman. 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 later on and was part
of the New Year rituals.
What we have today as No Ruz goes back to the Sassanid
period. They were the last great Persian Empire before
the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. Their celebrations
would start five days prior to the New Year. They believed
the guardian angles (Fourohars) would come down to earth
within these five days to visit their human counter parts.
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 guardian angles that
humans were ready to receive them. This was called Suri
Modern Iranians still carry out the spring-cleaning and
celebrate Wednesday Suri.
Bon fires are made and all people will jump over the fire
on 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 their illnesses and misfortunes. Wednesday
Suri did not exist before Islam and very likely is a combination
of more than one ritual to make it last.
The ancient Zoroastrians would also celebrate the first
five days of No Ruz, but it was the sixth day that was
the most important of all. This day was called the Great
No Ruz (No Ruze bozorg) and is assumed to be the birthday
of Zoroaster himself. Zoroastrians today still celebrate
this day, but it has lost its significance for the rest
of the Iranians. In Sassanid period the New Year would
be celebrated for 21 days and on the 19th day there would
be another major festival.
Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days only. The
first few days are spent visiting older members of the
family other relatives and friends. Gifts are exchanged;
sweets and feasts will be consumed. At the last day, the
13th of the first month, all people will leave their homes
to go to the parks or rural areas to spend a day in nature.
Again this was not celebrated in this manner before and
might be several rituals in one. A major part of the New
Year rituals is setting a special table with seven specific
items present, Haft Sin (Haft chin, seven crops before
Islam). In the ancient times each of the items corresponded
to one of the seven creations and the seven holy immortals
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. Wheat or barley
representing new growth is still present. Fish the most
easily obtainable animal and water are present. Lit candles
are a symbol of fire. Mirrors are used today, origin unknown.
These were expensive items in ancient times and were made
from polished metal. It is unlikely that all households
would have one. Zoroastrians today place the lit candle
in front of the mirror. Wine was always present. Today
it is replaced by vinegar since alcohol is banned in Islam.
Egg a universal symbol of fertility corresponding to the
mother earth is still present. Garlic is used to warn
off bad omen. This is a modern introduction. There is
no evidence that it was used in that context before. However
the ancient Iranians would grow seven different herbs
for the New Year and garlic might have been one of those.
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.
Haoma is 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 the rest of the Iranians. Coins symbolizing
wealth and prosperity, fruits and special meals are present
Why this festival has survived? There have been major
attempts by the Muslim rulers over the centuries to minimize
it, ban it or get rid of it once and for all. The reasons
for their failure should be sought in the spirit of this
festival. Contrary to the Islamic traditions where death
and martyrdom mark all the major rituals, No
Ruz is a celebration of life.
Forces of nature completely beyond them dominated people
in ancient times. They formed a union with these forces
to protect themselves. Through this union they created
a balance and maintained the cosmic order Asha. Without
it there would be chaos, the world of the Hostile Spirit
(Ahriman). The Zoroastrians were and are required to have
the same mind, the same voice and act the same way as
their god the Lord of Wisdom.
They are expected to only think of good things, speak
the good words and act the good deeds. Our celebrated
poet Ferdousi over a thousand years ago virtually single
handedly translated Avestan mythology into modern Persian.
A Zoroastrian who was persecuted all his life because
of his fate; he starts his book in the name of the Lord
of Life and Wisdom (beh nameh khodavand jaan o kherad).
The lord of life and wisdom was Ahura Mazda’s title in
the Avestan texts of the Sassanid period.
Lord or not, life and wisdom are what that makes us humans.
We are the only beings who know we have a life and what
we do with our lives depend on the wisdom. At the end
of the millennium with the mess this planet is in we need
that wisdom more than ever. Creating a balance with nature
and maintaining order are very relevant. These are the
lessons we can learn from such a wonderful and ancient
tradition. So happy New Year, enjoy the festival. Joy
and happiness were regarded as major forces defeating
the hostile spirits. This is why we are still celebrating
this occasion after 3000 years.
Massoume March 1999
Bundahishn, Foundation of Creation, two translations
exist in English. The shorter one, the Indian Bundahishn,
is by W. West 1901, reprinted in 1965. This translation
is out of date. B.T. Anklesaria, Bombay 1956, translated
the longer Iranian into English. The latest translation
from Pahlavi into Modern Persian by Farnabagh Dadege
1992, by Tous Publication is the best translation into
Persian so far.
The Yashts, Yasna and the Gathas are available in English,
However all translations are out of date. There are
very good translations into Modern Persian by Mr. Pourdavood
Mr. Jalil Doustkhah. All are easily obtainable from
Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians, their religious beliefs and
practices. Routledge & Kegan Paul,1979, London,
Mary Boyce, A Persian stronghold of Zoroastrianism,
Oxford University Press, 1977.
John R Hinnells, Persian Mythology, Library of the World’s
Myths and Legends. Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1985.