Friday, March 12, 2004

Persian New Year (Norouz)

No Ruz, new day or New Year as the Iranians call it, is celebrated in harmony with the rebirth of nature and always begins on the first day of spring. It has been celebrated by all the major cultures of ancient Masopotamia. 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.
The origins of Norouz has been associated with a number of historical concepts, the Zoroastrian Religious, a mean for an agrarian celebration, and kings Jamshid.
Zoroastrian Religion 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’ cosmology. 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 same origin).
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. 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 oldest archaeological record for No Ruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2500 years ago.
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 Festival.
It may be safely assumed, however, that the Now Ruz festival, essentially an agrarian celebration. owes its origin, at least in part, to the fertility cult, so common among the ancient Near and Middle Eastern nations. Some of the customs observed at Now Ruz are reminiscent of Babylonian Zagmuk. The growing of sabzeh (fresh green roots), which are later thrown into water, particularly brings to mind the Syrian cult of Adonis. But it is the Ancient and Zoroastrian Persia which provides the background for most of the customs and ceremonies of Now Ruz.
Also, the origin of Now Ruz has been traditionally attributed to Jamshid, the mightiest and the most glorious of the legendary kings of Persia. The legend is recorded by the celebrated historians Tabari and Biruni, as well as by Ferdowsi. One version says that after Jamshid had taught his people the art of building, weaving, mining and making arms, and devided them into four appropriate classes, he then set out to conquer the demon hosts. Then he defeated and reduced to hard labour for the benefit of men. Next he ordered the demons to build him a special crystal carriage. When it was ready, he entered the carriage and, to the joy and amazement of all the people, the demons lifted it into the air and Jamshid rode thus from Demavand to Babylon. The day was called Now Ruz (the New Day) and was made an annual celebration.
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.

Haft Seen:
A few days prior to the New Year, a special cover is spread on to the Persian carpet or on a table in every Persian household. This ceremonial table is called cloth of seven dishes, (each one beginning with the Persian letter Sinn). The number seven has been sacred in Iran since the ancient times, and the seven dishes stand for the seven angelic heralds of life-rebirth, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, patience, and beauty.

The symbolic dishes consist of (haftseen, 7S's) :

1. Sabzeh or sprouts, usually wheat or lentil representing rebirth.
2. Samanu is a pudding in which common wheat sprouts are transformed and given new life as a sweet, creamy pudding and represents the ultimate sophistication of Persian cooking.
3. Seeb means apple and represents health and beauty.
4. Senjed the sweet, dry fruit of the Lotus tree, represents love. It has been said that when lotus tree is in full bloom, its fragrance and its fruit make people fall in love and become oblivious to all else.
5. Seer which is garlic in Persian, represents medicine.
6. Somaq sumac berries, represent the color of sunrise; with the appearance of the sun Good conquers Evil.
7. Serkeh or vinegar, represents age and patience.

To reconfirm all hopes and wishes expressed by the traditional foods, other elements and symbols are also on the sofreh:
1. a few coins placed on the sofreh represent prosperity and wealth;
2. a basket of painted eggs represents fertility.
3. a Seville orange floating in a bowl of water represents the earth floating in space.
4. a goldfish in a bowl represents life and the end of astral year-picas.
5. a flask of rose water known for its magical cleansing power, is also included on the tablecloth. Nearby is a brazier for burning wild rue ,a sacred herb whose smoldering fumes ward off evil spirits.
6. A pot of flowering hyacinth or narcissus is also set on the sofreh.
7. A mirror which represents the images and reflections of Creation as we celebrate anew the ancient Persian traditions and beliefs that creation took place on the first day of spring.
8. On either side of the mirror are two candlesticks holding a flickering candle for each child in the family. The candles represent enlightenment and happiness.
Also see Sizdah Bedar.