Nowruz - The Persian New Year and The Spring Equinox
Nowruz, known as the Persian new year, is one of the most ancient celebrations in history and has been celebrated for around 4000 years in what is now Iran and in the extended cultural area known as Greater Iran. It is an ancient celebration with the spring equinox as the main event occurring on 20 or 21 March every year. During ancient times, Persian kings greatly emphasized the importance of this event and invited people from around the empire who were of different ethnicities and followers of different religions, to the royal court for celebrations and receiving gifts. After thousands of years, Nowruz remains to be the most important celebration for Iranians as well as for around 300 million people in the neighboring countries of Iran, who together celebrate the arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature.
Mythical and Historical Origins of Nowruz
Nowruz is the Persian name of the Persian new year consisting of two words; Now or no meaning new and ruz or rooz meaning day, which when put together means new day . This celebration and its associated events has been celebrated for thousands of years by the people of Iran and the people of Central Asian countries, former parts of ancient Persian empires. Nowruz emerged as people of these areas of the world left the nomadic life and established settlements which started a new phase in human civilization. Today, it is the world's only event which is celebrated at the exact same moment throughout the world. The celebration is not connected to religion and is based on astronomical celestial events even though Nowruz is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion.
In 1725 BC, the world's first philosopher and prophet of the Zoroastrian religion named Zarathushtra, improved the ancient Indo-Iranian calendar. The Zoroastrian year starts with this date. Zarathushtra established an observatory in the modern day province of Sistan in southeastern Iran and with his knowledge in astronomy he was able to establish a solar calendar consisting of 365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes.
During the 6th century BC, the magush who were the priests of the Zoroastrian fire temples, acted both as fire keepers and astronomers. These priests calculated the spring equinox of the northern hemisphere to occur on March 20 or 21 and this date marked the first day of the Persian solar calendar. The priests were closely associated with the events at the city of Parsa, also known as Persepolis. This city, founded by the Persian king Darius the Great in 515 BC, was the ceremonial capital city of the Achaemenid Persian empire and the spring residence of the kings. The kings invited noblemen from all of the provinces of the empire to Persepolis, regardless of ethnicity and religious beliefs, to celebrate Nowruz. During the morning hours, priests prayed and performed rituals which were followed by feasts and entertainments in the evenings and nights. Even to this day, one can see the ruins of the royal palaces with reliefs depicting governors and ambassadors bringing precious gifts to the King of Kings and paying homage to him.
During the reign of the Sassanid kings between 224 – 651 AD, preparations began 25 days before Nowruz. Craftsmen and builders of the royal court constructed twelve mud-brick columns and various seeds were sown on top of each column. Each column was symbolic and represented a month. By the time it was Nowruz, the seeds had grown into majestic decorative plants. The king held a public speech in front of a noble audience followed by greetings from the highest priest of the empire. Government officials also greeted the king. Every invited person gave a gift to the king until the sixth day of Nowruz, when members of the royal family visited the royal court. During Nowruz, an official amnesty was put in order for convicts of minor crimes. People throughout the empire celebrated this event for thirteen days.
Even though Nowruz is a celebration of a celestial event, it is deeply rooted in the mythology of the Persians. Nowruz focuses on the philosophical aspects of light conquering darkness, good conquering evil, the warmth of spring conquering the cold winter. According to ancient mythical stories written in the Persian epic Shahnameh, Nowruz was introduced during the reign of the mythical king named Jamshid. Jamshid defeated the evil demons and made them his servants as he captured their treasures and jewels. He then became the ruler of everything on earth except the heavens, while the world was devastated after the war between him and the demons. The trees were dead and had lost all their leaves. Earth had turned into a dark and lifeless place. For reaching the heavens, Jamshid ordered the demons to build him a throne made out of the jewels he had captured. When the throne was finished, he sat on it and commanded the demons to lift him high up into the sky. As he was sitting on his throne, sun rays hit the jewels of his throne and the sky was illuminated with all the world's colors. The rays beaming from Jamshid revived all trees and plants and turned them green and full of leaves. Life on earth began to thrive as Jamshid rose like the sun. People were amazed by the sight of Jamshid and overwhelmed him with even more treasures and jewels. This day of celebration was named Nowruz and it marked the first day of the year. Jamshid later rescued his people from a harsh winter that would have killed all creatures on earth. Mythological survival stories with Jamshid as the main character is considered to be mythical symbols regarding the historical events of when Indo-Iranian Aryans abandoned their neolithic lifestyles as hunters-gatherers and became settlers on the Iranian mainland. Settlements were profoundly dependent on their crops and in turn dependent on the outcome of the seasons. The spring equinox therefore marked an important event in the lives of ancient Iranians.
Illustration of Zarathushtra ( mythological.fr)
Traditional Practices Associated with Nowruz
On the night of the last Tuesday and the following morning of the last Wednesday of the year, a fire festival called Chaharshanbe Suri is arranged which translates as the red Wednesday. On this night, seven bonfires are lit and people gather around to jump over each bonfire as they say “my yellowness for you and your redness for me”, metaphorically meaning that one gives their sickness to the fire and receives health and warmth . People also sing and dance while lighting fireworks and eating food. A character called Haji Firuz , dressed in red clothes with a dark-painted face, sings, plays instruments and entertains people. During ancient times, this pre-celebration was arranged in order to announce people that Nowruz was near.
Prior to Nowruz, Iranian families start the yearly spring cleaning of their homes. This occasion is called khaneh-tekani in Persian, translated as house-shaking. After the household work is finished, the ceremonial Nowruz spread is prepared. This spread is called Haftsin, meaning seven S's . Symbolic items whose names begin with the letter “S” are put on the spread together with other complementary items. The number seven has a sacred meaning in Persian philosophy and permeates many elements of the culture. A description of the symbolic meaning of the seven items follows:
Sabzeh – Sown wheat symbolizes the rebirth of nature.
Samanu – Sweet pudding made of wheat sprouts symbolizes the sweet moments of life.
Sib – Red apple symbolizes beauty.
Senjed – Sweet silver berry symbolizes love.
Sir – Garlic symbolizes health.
Sumaq – The color of this Persian spice symbolizes the color of dawn prior to sunrise and the victory of light over darkness.
Serkeh – Vinegar symbolizes old age and patience.
Ceremonial Haftsin spread in the White House ( photo source )
Among the additional complementary items is either the epic book of Shahnameh, poetry of Hafez or the holy book of Zoroastrianism named Avesta all three symbolizing wisdom, a mirror symbolizing the sky and mindful self-reflection, candles symbolizing the good light and divinity, coins symbolizing wealth, goldfish symbolizing life and the last month of the Persian calendar, hyacinth flowers symbolizing a heavenly scent with the arrival of spring and painted eggs symbolizing fertility and creation.
On 20 or 21 March, all members of the family gather around the Nowruz spread and wait for the moment of the spring equinox which happens at the exact moment the sun crosses the equator of the earth. On this moment, hugs and kisses are shared and gifts are exchanged. Traditional food is prepared and eaten. Instruments are played and the home is full of joy.
The Nowruz celebrations ends on the thirteenth day with an event called Sizdeh Bedar meaning the thirteenth outdoors . On this day, families arrange picnics and spend time in parks and in the nature while enjoying the arrival of spring. It is also tradition to bring the sown wheat of the Haftsin and throw it into a river or a lake while making a wish.
Nowruz highlights the fundamental contrasts of good and bad and the appreciation of good thoughts, good words and good deeds which are the holy words of Zoroastrianism. It is an ancient philosophical belief which has shaped the ethics and morals of mankind since the dawn of human civilization. Contrasts makes the world beautiful by allowing man to appreciate life when life itself is given. Nowruz Piruz!
Ruins of the Apadana palace in Persepolis, Iran ( photo source )
Featured image: Darius the Great receiving greetings and gifts from governors and ambassadors. Relief from Persepolis, Iran ( livius.org)
Nowruz Festival – Available from: http://nowruzfestival.org/about-nowruz-festival/
Nowruz in the Pre-Islamic Period – Encyclopedia Iranica. Available from: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/nowruz-i/
New Year at Persepolis – Culture of Iran. Available from: http://cultureofiran.com/newyear_at_persepolis.html/
Nowruz (New Day): The New Year of the Iranian Peoples – The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. Available from: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Celebrations/noruz.htm
This is an informative article.
I even learned more from reading the comments.
Thank you for sharing this.
So true. Especially on this site. No religious nuts jumping in either, with irrelevant comments trying to steer topics to their agenda..i hope I didn't say that too soon.
The debate and article discussed between MAHBOD KHANBOLOUKI and SALVERDA was very interesting and informative. It's nice to see an actual written debate on the internet that sticks to the subject and doesn't resort to name calling and personal attacks/insults. MAHBOD KHANBOLOUKI and SALVERDA both use sources to help support their argument and do not spout off unsupported hearsay. Thank you both for an interesting debate between adults. I wish we could see more things debated on the internet in the same fashion as this particular debate. Thank you.
The different time points regarding the birth of Zarathushtra are based on different historical sources, and most scholars in fact do not agree that he lived in the 6th century BC as you state. That theory is outdated. The tradition of Nowruz is far older than that. You just deliberately narrow down your point of view in trying to confirm your own theories. I can write many more sources for you to read that Zarathushtra was born in around the 18th century BC. One big and profound mistake you do is to rely on Herodotus instead of modern archeology and historical research. Herodotus is famously regarded as the first recorded liar. He mainly wrote his accounts without witnessing them and had a biased agenda towards Persians of that time. Here are some more sources for you to become wiser regarding this subject:
Historical evidence: “The Gāthās seem to indicate a society of nomadic pastoralists, which contrasts sharply with the view of Zoroaster living in the court of an Achaemenid satrap such as Vishtaspa (believed to be Zoroaster's first patron). The absence in the Gāthās of any mention of Achaemenids or any West Iranian tribes such as Medes, Persians, or even Parthians, makes it unlikely that the historical Zoroaster ever lived in the court of a sixth century satrap.”
Archeological evidence: “Archaeological evidence is usually inconclusive regarding questions of religion. However, a Russian archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, links Zoroaster to circa 2000 B.C.E. based upon excavations of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age culture of Central Asia, dated to circa 2200–1700 B.C.E.”
“Indo-Iranian religion is generally accepted to have begun in the late 3rd millennium B.C.E. (e.g., the Soma cult), but Zoroaster himself already looked back on a long religious tradition. The Yaz culture, an early Iron Age culture in the Afghan-Turkmen-Iranian border area (c. 1500-1100 B.C.E.), is considered a likely staging ground for the development of East Iranian and early Zoroastrian practices.” Ref: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/zoroaster
“The teachings of Zarathustra (Zoroaster) appeared in Persia at some point during the period 1700-1800 BCE. His wisdom became the basis of the religion Zoroastrianism, and generally influenced the development of the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian philosophy.”...”According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (page 409), the chronology of the subject and science of philosophy starts with the Indo-Iranians, dating this event to 1500 BC”...”The Oxford dictionary also states, "Zarathushtra's philosophy entered to influence Western tradition through Judaism, and therefore on Middle Platonism." … “The works of Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism had a significant influence on Greek and Roman philosophy.” Ref.
“A more modest date was suggested during the Hellenistic period; this was "258 years before Alexander", i.e., 258 years before 312 BC, the beginning of the first absolute dating system established by the Seleucid dynasty in Persia. This date of 570 BC appears to have been based on a late 4th century BC statement by Heraclides of Pontus that Pythagoras had studied with Zoroaster in Babylon (Kingsley, P., "The Greek Origin of the sixth-Century dating of Zoroaster", "Bulletin of SOAS" LIII, 1990, pp.245-65). This historically incorrect date was unfortunately adopted by the Sasanians, and there are still many scholars in the West who accept it, partly because it conveniently places Judaism before Zoroaster.” ...” The Gathic texts, moreover, describe a pastoral society which seems to correspond with the evidence produced by Soviet archaeologists from the northeastern parts of Central Asia. Some personal names, such as Hvogva, Vishtaspa, and Zarathushtra denote settled agrarian people owning domesticated cows, horses and camels. We know these animals were long domesticated in Central Asia. The Avesta also talks about chariots and chariot races. The earliest known such vehicle is attested in the steppes around 1600 BC It is also known that chariots encouraged nomadism in that part of the world leading to a reduction in the number of cows and to a corresponding increase in the number of horses.” Ref.
“1737 B.C.E. - Zarathushtra; The First Monotheist Prophet, he was one of the first prophets to introduce the concepts of: monotheism, equalism, duality of good and evil, mankind’s free choice between the two alternatives, messianic redemption, resurrection, final judgement, heaven (the word “Paradise” comes from Old Persian), hell and the notion of an almighty, kind, loving and forgiving God.” … “Zoroaster’s birthday falls on March 26th 1767 B.C.E. (6th of Farvardin in Persian Calendar) This date is more significant and special for the Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian Year Calendar is based on his 40th Birthday, right now, the year is 3752 Zoroastrian Holy Year.
* These dates are based on linguistic evidence and archeology and not the usual Greek anachronism which often corrupts historical fact. (Many wrongly confuse King Vishtasp who reigned during Zarathustra’s life with the father of Darius the Great, with the same name). That mistake alone is the main reason why many ancient Greek historians wrongly believed that Zarathustra lived around (600 B.C.E) 258 years before the reign of the Macedonian king Alexander, when in fact Zarathustra lived over 14 centuries before him.” Ref: http://www.persepolis.nu/timeline.htm
I believe this is settled now, I’m glad that you learned about the antiquity of the Persians and Zarathushtra. Still you should continue to read from more reliable sources.
Well, OK Sir, Of course I would not knowingly "write incorrect information" and I don't believe that you did either. There is disagreement among scholars as to exactly when and where Zarathustra lived, but most agree that he lived in eastern Iran around the sixth century BC.
Parsis follow the religion of Zoroaster, a prophet of the seventh century BC.
The traditional date in the Pahlavi books places his era between the earlier half of the seventh and the sixth century BC., or, more specially, 660-583 BC.
You think that my sources are incorrect, so I looked into yours. Your "source" for asserting that "Zarathushtra lived in the 18th century BC and he established the traditional Zoroastrian calendar in 1725 BC." seems to be a Persian satirist named Dabih Behruz who wrote popular parodies and burlesques who lived from 1889 to 1971. So I checked the website that you cited and I did learn something because it told me; "While Behruz’s xenophobia and antiorientalism worked to his advantage in his satire, they seemed to have failed him in his scholarship, which was subject to gross distortions. He believed, for example, that Alexander the Great never set foot in Iran and that the Alexander cited in the sources was really a scion of the Persian kings … and that dating the invention of the Avestan script toward the end of the Sasanian period was again a figment of European imagination, promulgated in order to conceal the fact that the alphabet was fashioned first in Iran by Zoroaster himself thirty-seven centuries ago…. He also believed that Zoroaster was an accomplished astronomer, the first to create an astronomical table (zij), and he calculated the birth and the death of Zoroaster to the precise day (Tuesday, 1st of January 1691 b.c. at the age of 77…).
I was following Herodotus when I said that the Persians were split off from the Medes (he makes Cyrus the Great to be the son of a King of the Medes) he wrote about 450 BC. and I trust the ancient sources more than modern commentators. But we also have evidence from modern scholarship that seems to confirm what I said; Parsuash, (860-600 BC) located near Lake Urmia (about 200 miles Northwest of Ekbatana the Median capital) was distinct from Persis, another region to the southeast, now known as Fars province in Iran. Some accounts suggest that Teispes, the ancestor of the Achaemenid dynasty, led a migration from Parsuash to Persis, formerly the Elamite state of Anshan (about 650 BC).
Even one of your own sources says; We first hear about Parsua in the inscriptions of Assyrian King Shalmaneser III (859-824 BCE) who, in the fashion of other Assyrian kings, maintained a record of his campaigns. In 844 BCE, Shalmaneser overran northern Zamua, the Mannaean kingdom around Lake Urmia, Allabria (often associated with Mannea), Parsua, Madai (Media), Araziash (later associated with Media), and Harhar. [Harhar (around present-day Kermanshah) which stood at the western entrance to Media lands eventually became Assyria's administrative centre for Media.]
Now, I do realize that, "Just because they were first mentioned as Parsuash in Assyrian records in the 8th century BC obviously doesn’t mean they didn’t excist [sic] before this time." Certainly they had ancestors (whoever they may have been). Why not the Medes? Well, anyway, thank you for your time (and your challenge) I have "learnt" [sic] a lot on this subject because of you.