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Norouz, the symbol of Iranian National Identity



Saturday 24 March 2001



Jameh Madani, March 17, 2001

Translated by Roya Monajem



Division of time into centuries, years, seasons, months, days and hours has served to facilitate the human form of daily life and having specific names for months and days, in a sense helps man to control time. In general, from the point of view of primitive man, time was divided into two parts: sacred and profane. The sacred time was reserved for divine religious affairs and the profane time for the affairs of daily life. Sacred time was in turn divided into two main parts: a part that was spent on purely religious acts and rituals and the other reserved for feasts, ceremonies and collective and tribal gatherings. These feasts and ceremonies were closely related to natural, cosmic and atmospheric changes. Iranian Norouz is one of these great feasts. However, it should be noted that ‘the sacredness of times related to cosmic and natural rhythms was not meant to be a kind of appreciation of the physical aspect of cosmic and natural phenomena. Primitive man that considered himself as the reference point for determining the qualities of the world thought of all universal phenomena as having a soul and what compelled him to worship and cherish was this very soul and spirit of the world. In fact he believed in the metaphysical existence of universal phenomena and everything was based on spiritual religious faith of man. The essential fact in the world of plants was the birth of the plant, reproduction of nature and renewal of life and not merely the germination of the seed and the physical growth of the plant. Another fundamental aspect of the plant was its death and not its withering and wilting. Every new moon meant a new life and every dark moon implied death. It was even thought that the sun is born everyday. In this way, Nature had a much more extensive depth, scope and meaning than what the man of our time believes.[1]


The feasts related to the sacred time were sometimes celebrated annually, such as Norouz, Mehregan and Sadeh and sometimes they were held monthly such as those celebrated at the time of the emergence of the new moon. Celebration of some of the feasts gave man the opportunity to put behind the past profane time and his individual and social blunders in order to begin a new life. In addition to their inherent material aspects and due to their deep effects on the spiritual life of man, such specific times of renewal gave rise to a series of magnificent prolific rituals and traditions that are astonishingly common among various human societies. Such similarity in fact represents similar response of human societies to the same effects of our surrounding nature. These common rituals include: 1) cleaning one’s outer and inner environment, deriving the devils and evil spirits out of one’s home and village with the help of incantations, spells and prayers, 2) lighting and extinguishing a fire, 3) marching of groups of people wearing black masks and 4) emergence of knightly races such as wrestling and as such. “In ancient Iran and even today, many of these cults are still performed. Cleaning the house, Khaneh Takani is still quite prevalent. Even today, the public bathrooms (garmabeh) are crowded on the night before Norouz for the purpose of begining the new year with clean body. Lighting candles on Sofreh Haft Sin (see below) or turning on the light is the remainder of the cult of lighting fires. In relation to extinguishing fire, it could be said that most probably such ritual could not be performed in Iran due to the high respect that people had for fire. Reading Koran or other religious books at the time that the new year starts can derive the devils and evil spirits out of the house, village and city and asking for divine mercy for the past sins can imply abandoning the past and beginning a new life.”[2]


History of the Feast of Norouz

Lack of written records makes it extremely hard to determine the exact historical time of emergence of the feast of Norouz. Nevertheless the existing evidences show that it was celebrated by native Iranians that lived in Iranian plateau before the immigration of Aryan tribe to this land. Ancient Iranians had most probably inherited this tradition from Sumerians. There were two great feasts celebrated in ancient Iran: the feast of creation held at the beginning of autumn and the feast of rebirth held at the beginning of spring. The latter was related to ‘martyred god’ of Sumerians. This god was killed at the end of each year and was reborn at the beginning of the new year when his rebirth was celebrated due to its coincidence with the re-birth of plants and seeds.


During the reign of Achaemenides, a magnificent celebration was held at Perspolis at the beginning of the new year. In this royal celebration the king received representatives of all nations and people who would bring him gifts and offerings. The oldest references to Norouz are those that attribute it to Jamshid and are described in detail in Ferdosi’s Shahnameh. The existing documents on Achaemenides also imply that Norouz was celebrated as a great feast in this era. On the other hand, there are sufficient records on celebration of Norouz under the reign of Sassanians. Lighting a fire on the night before the beginning of the new year had been one of the prevalent cults under Sassainians. And in the morning of the first day of the new year, people sprayed water on each other that was later transformed into spraying of rose water.


What is more important than determination of the exact date of the emergence of the feast of Norouz is its tremendous role in the culture and disposition of Iranians, so much so that even the victory and establishment of Islam could not diminish its vital place and importance in the life of people.


The rituals and cults of Norouz have naturally gone through a lot of changes during the long history of this great feast to the extent that today it has rather a symbolic function. The most enduring cults and rituals of Norouz are briefly as follows:


The first day of Farvardin (= the first Iranian month)

The most interesting point about Norouz and the new year is that it coincides with the first day of the first month of spring. In other words, the new day and year coincide with the renewal of spring and rebirth of nature.


Mir Norouzi

This ancient cult refers to the social political shifts of positions of people. The native governor was symbolically dismissed and replace by Mir Norouzi who ruled the region for five days after which he would concede the kingdom back to the real governor again.


Haji Firouz (a man with the following description that appears in the streets about a week before the onset of the new year, heralding the arrival of Norouz by singing and dancing joyfully).

He is the symbol of return of Siavash. His black face is the symbol of his return from the world of the dead and his red robe is the symbol of the blood of Siavash; and his joy is the symbol of the joy of his resurrection and rebirth. ‘An ancient ritual with little remaining traces, but quite widespread in Mid Asia was the cult of Siavash that originally it was most probably held at the beginning of summer and the new year of summer crops that under the influence of Babylonian Norouz, the date of its celebration was shifted to the beginning of spring during the rule of Achaemenides. The main evidence of the fact that the cult of Siavash used to be held at the beginning of summer is found in the works of Abureyhan Bironi and also in Sogdian and Kharazmi calendars. These calendars begin with the sixth day of Farvardin, the day of Siavash’s return, that is called the great Norouz in our calendar and according to Zoroastrian mythology it is the day of retribution of Sivash’s blood.’[3]


Chahar Shanbeh Souri

The last Wednesday of the year is when the feast of Chahar Shanbeh Souri is celebrated. Souri means red and that is why people lighted fire and in this way they celebrated the disappearance of the cold weather of winter. They believed that the weather will not get cold after lighting this fire and Nature will warm up. Or it could have been the symbol of the disappearance of darkness and appearance of light and warmth. (Let us not forget that Fire is regarded as a religious sacred symbol among Zoroastrians. Even today, we hear people say, ‘kill the fire’ as though it is a live creature or for describing a childless family it is said that ‘its oven is cold.’)


In regard to Chahar Shanbeh (literally meaning the fourth Saturday i.e. Wednesday), some believe that Chahar (four) is the symbol of the four seasons and some think that as Arabs regarded this day as an unlucky day, they believed that they had to have a feast for this day. Before Islam, this feast was called ‘Jashn (feast of) Souri’ and the term ‘Chahar Shanbeh Souri’ is the termed used after Islam as the days of the week had other names in Iran before the advent of Islam.


Thirteen days of Norouz

The twelve days of the feast of the new year symbolize the twelve month of the year. Each day of these twelve days symbolize one of the months of the year. Therefore, the twelve days are equivalent to twelve month each having 30 days. However, twelve months amount to 360 days, but there are 365 days in a year. The thirteenth day of Farvardin is the symbol of these five extra days that is the end of the year symbolizing the final chaos of the world.


Sizdeh beh dar

A very ancient cult celebrated on the thirteenth day of Farvardin when people go to the countryside, mountains or deserts or at least to a place other than where they live. Iranians regard the number thirteen unlucky and ominous. But why was this number regarded unlucky and why Iranians consider it ominous to work and engage in serious activities on this day? According to Mehrdad Bahar, the great contemporary Iranian mythologist: ‘Iranian astrological mythology was greatly under the influence of Mesopotamian astrology according to which each of the twelve stars ruling each house of Zodiac would rule the world for thousand years. It implied that the world lasts for twelve thousands years and at the end of this period, the earth and sky fuse. According to ancient beliefs what ever that takes place in the macrocosm (existence) occurs in the microcosm (human world) too (as above, so below). That is how the presence of twelve months in a year was justified... The feasts of the first twelve days of the year represent twelve months of the year and the life of the world that lasts for twelve thousands years. Ancient man believed that what happened during these twelve days would represent his fate during the corresponding year. They grew different kinds of seeds before Norouz and whatever seed that grew more and better during these twelve days was chosen as the crop to be cultivated that year and they thought that if these twelve days proved to be depressing, the whole year would be depressing. If at the end of the twelve thousands years of the life of the world, the earth and sky fused and the primitive chaos returned and if at the end of the world, order and law were violated accordingly, then at the end of the twelfth day, there should be a day representing this final chaos and that of the end of the year. On this day, carrying out the daily tasks and observance of the general order should accordingly be interrupted. The unluckiness of the thirteenth day of the feast represented the final collapse of the universe and its order.’[4]


Thus in order to deliver ourselves from such chaos and disorder, it is better to spend the day outside our native dwelling so that if for example the houses were ruined we would remain unharmed.


Cleaning of the house (Khaneh Takani)

Cleaning up one’s house and clothing, washing up one’s dwelling and one’s body and wearing new clothes were among the rituals still quite prevalent. In the same way that Nature and the natural world clean up and throw out their old clothing and wear a new one, men too should clean and wash up themselves. Spiritual cleaning up is even more important than the material one. Asking for forgiveness for one’s past sins, reconciliation, showing compassion, going to cemetery, visiting the hospitals, giving charity and new year gifts, visiting the elderly and other relatives, are among the widespread traditions of these days.


Haft sin

Setting up Sofreh Haft sin that consists of the following seven items beginning with the letter ‘s’ garlic, sumac, samanou (wheat sprouts cooked in a quite laborious way), hyacinth, vinegar, apple, oleaster (or wild olive) is one of the most popular traditions of the cult of new year. On the symbolism of Haft sin Mehrdad Bahar writes: ‘I believe Haft sin represent the seven planets that rule human destiny and are also responsible for the sacredness of the number seven and it was thought that if anybody would have access to all the seven – that implies that one attracts the blessing of all these seven planets – one would attain happiness.

[1] Mehrdad Bahar, ‘Exploration of Iranian Culture, Fekr Rouz publishing house, 1373, pp. 209-210.

[2] ibid. p.212.

[3] Ibid. p.214.

[4] Ibid. pp.214-215



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