Good Old Days

The Iranians have celebrated Mehregan, the autumnal festival, through ages.  It falls on the day of Mithra/Mehr in the month of Mithra/Mehr in the Iranian calendar.  It is about October 2nd on that festive day.  Let us trace its history.

Thousands of years ago, a pastoral people called themselves Aryan (meaning 'noble').  Now termed by scholars as "IndoIranians", these people were the eastern branch of the "IndoEuropean" peoples.  The Indo-Iranians inhabited the high and low lands of Central Asia, at present politically divided into Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics of Kazakhistan to Turkmenistan, Tadjikistan, and Kirghizistan.  They called this vast land "Airyanam Shayana", Abode of Aryans, a name now shortened into "Iran".  Avestan scriptures of Ancient Iran describe the land as having clear skies, high mountains, wide valleys, rapid streams, navigable rivers, deep lakes, and vast pastures.  It had the four seasons -- spring, summer, autumn, and winter -- well marked with their clear skies, sun shine, moon light, starry night, timely snow, and welcome rain.  The regularity in seasons made them quite calendar conscious.  Theirs was a very hospitable land in those days.  That is why the Avestan scriptures impart a buoyant spirit.  The people lived, more or less, in peace and prosperity.

Gods, Goddesses, and Twins

The Aryans believed in a multitude of gods and goddesses.  They ascribed their peace and prosperity, and war and adversity to these deities.  Ahura *Vouruna* ("Asura Varuna" in the Indian Vedic dialect) was the chief god, King of the Universe, in the pantheon.  Like a kind but strict father, he had his discipline.  His "Law" of socio-religious behavior had to be obeyed.  He rewarded well those who obeyed the Law and punished hard those who did not.

He had a younger associate, almost a twin.  His name was "Mithra' (Vedic Mitra).  His name is derived from the root 'mith', meaning 'to meet, to unite, to form a social union'.  He was, as the name also shows, the god of "contract and covenant." He supervised the bond that bound various Aryan tribes together in their pastoral pattern.  Each tribe knew its grazing limits on the grasslands.  The law of grazing, when and where, was very clear to let the tribes live and let live in the successive migrations between their summer and winter grazing grounds.  Nomadic tribes still follow the pattern in the region.  That is why Mithra was preferably invoked by his pastoral epithet, 'vourugaoyaoiti' (Vedicurugavyuti'), meaning "(lord) of wide pastures".  He was the lord of cowherding Aryans.  He held them in a covenant, a bond of friendship.  He was a friend.  As an abstract noun, 'mithra' simply means contract, covenant, love, friendship.

From Loveland to Warpath

Since pastoral life begins at dawn, later Mithra became associated with light - an association that consequently made him synonymous with the sun.  In Middle Persian and modern Persian, Mehr (for this is the contracted form now) stands for both friendship and the sun.  And since a contract breaker (mithra-druj) was punished by the society in the name of Mithra, he evolved into a judge also.  When a tribe broke a contract, it was a punitive war that could correct the tribe.  This evolved Mithra into a warlord.  Love, light, lordship, judgment, and war combined to raise him as the most popular god, a god much revered and much feared.  He was, the Avesta shows, very kind and generous to those who kept the contract but very harsh and ruthless to those who broke it.  He was all-kindness to friends and no-mercy to enemies, a typical Aryan warlord.  And therefore, the favorite of the ruling and warrior class.


A study of Rig Veda, the Avesta and the Iranian calendar shows that Vouruna and Mithra shared certain things among various tribes.  For some, Vouruna ruled at night and Mithra during day.  For others, Vouruna presided during first half of the year and Mithra the second half Spring belonged to the chief god and the fall to his associate.  The first month and the first day of the month were named after the elder and the seventh month and the 16th day to the younger.  The Zoroastrian calendar reform has allotted the first month to the Departed as Farvardin, but retained the first day of the month in honor of Hormazd (modem Persia for God).  The Supreme Being has, however, more days and a separate month.  "Dathvah" (modem Persian 'Dey'), meaning "the Creator", are the 8th, 15th and 23rd days of a month and the 10th month.  As far as Mithra is concerned, the seventh month and the 16th day remain unchanged, dedicated to Mehr.

Iranians, calendar conscious and environmentalists, celebrated their festivals when the season took a new turn.  The most important were the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.  The New Year (Nava Saredha/Now Sal/Nowruz) retained its old name to herald spring but the beginning of autumn was given a new name under the calendar reform - *Mithrakana*/Mehregan after Mithra/Mehr.
Ousted, Only to Sneak Back
Mithra and other gods and goddesses had all their reverences and invocational songs until Zarathushtra came with his divine, dynamic message of "unique" monotheism.  The Gathas, which contain the very words of Zarathushtra composed in seventeen songs, know only Ahura Mazda, literally the "Super-Intellect Being".  The Gathas have no pantheon in which a supreme deity has his associates and/or aids.  No junior deities, and no angels.  It is "pure" monotheism.  Ahura Mazda is the creator, sustainer and promoter of the universe.  None of the gods of the old pantheon are mentioned in the Sublime Songs - not even in contempt.  Why mention a name that does not exist!

But age-old-engraved-in beliefs and customs do not die.  They outlived the purifying movement by Zarathushtra.  Mithra and other gods and goddesses were re-introduced as 'yazata', meaning 'adorable'.  The Later Avesta has preserved songs in their honor some pre-Zarathushtrian, some post-Zarathushtrian, but all in their 'Zoroastrianized' editions.  They are called 'Yasht' by their late Pahlavi/Persian name.  They are beautiful pieces of literature with a martial air.  Furthermore, with the exception of a few, the names of one or more yazatas have been interposed in all non-Gathic Yasna sections, the Vispered and other liturgical pieces to lend them importance and win them a place in the pantheon.

Customized Survival

However, there is no mention of a colorful festival in honor of Mithra in any part of the Avesta.  Appears odd and yet true.  But this very Avesta has a place to define and determine Gahanbars, the six seasonal festivals of the Zarathushtrian times.  Nevertheless, the Mithraic festival has survived with all its pomp through sheer custom.  It is mostly reported in post-Sassanian writings of Muslim Iranians.

Some of the reasons for its survival are:  It has an age-old pastoral beginning.  It made the tribes leave the paling grasslands and return to their winter headquarters.  Food and fodder were to be restored and cattle were to be mated.  Fallow land was to be prepared and fruit trees were to be pruned.  All for the spring sprouting.  With Mithra as their champion deity, the warrior class, the rulers, had adopted it as one of the two top festivals, the other being Nowruz, the New Year festival of vernal equinox.  The Zarathushtrian festival in autumn, it may be pointed out, is Ayathrima saredha (Persian Ayathrem Gahanbar).  It is celebrated from October 13 to 17, and not Mehregan.

Mehregan Through Ages

The Achaemenians (700-330 B.C.) are reported to have celebrated their "Mithrakana", particularly because Bagayadi, meaning the month of "god-worship," was the month in which Darius the Great rose and killed Gaumata, reportedly the pretender who had usurped the throne.  The Old Persian Bagayadi is the same month of Mithra/Mehr in Avesta/Persian.  The event took place in 522 B.C. , in the same week the festival falls.  It is possible that they were celebrating their victory and some Aryans took it to be Mehregan.  Whatever the case, Achaemenian bas-reliefs do not mention the occasion at all.

The Parthians and the Sassanians celebrated the occasion with all the royal pomp and glory.  The king wore a sun-disc crown and a special dress.  A special herald greeted him with the glad tidings of a bright future.  A priest performed elaborate rites.  People brought him gifts and in return were generously rewarded.  Royal banquet was laid as colorfully as possible with flowers, fruits, food, and flavors.  Festivities were held throughout the empire, by the rich and the poor.

So deep-rooted was the custom that it held itself even after the Arab conquest of Iran.  The Arabic word for 'festival' is "mihrjan", an Arabicized form of Mehregan.  Although Islam had replaced Zoroastrianism as the state religion, Umawid and Abbasid caliphs (661-1258 CE) sat in glory to receive gifts from their Iranian subjects.  Mehregan bloomed forth as soon as Muslim kings of Iranian culture ascended the throne.  There are many poems in Arabic and Persian composed on the occasion by court poets, and they describe the celebrations.

Mithra Goes West

It was the popularity of Mithra as a winning warlord that made him revered in the Mediterranean region.  The Romans, and before them the Greeks and the people of Anatolia, had witnessed the victories "accorded" by Mithra to Iranians in their wars with the west.  People sought his favor.  And it gave birth to Mithraism.

Mithra, completely "Mediterraneanized" with hardly a few Iranian aspects, became a popular god of the Roman Empire between 2nd and 5th centuries CE.  It was mostly a cult confined to soldiers.  Women were not admitted.  It spread along Rhine and Danube and as far as Scotland.  Mithra was now a god more associated to the sun in the Roman Empire.  Mithra was the creator and father of all.  He was also a savior.

There were seven grades of initiation - Raven, Bride, Soldier, Lion, "Persian", Sun-runner, and Father.  Each was protected by a planet.  Progression through the grades was believed to correspond to the ascent of the soul through heaven.  The religious life in Mithraism was disciplined, ascetic, and arduous.

Mithra's temples looked like caves symbolizing the cave-like cosmic universe.  The main figure shown in the temples was a relief of Mithra slaying the bull.  Over 500 representatives of Mithra slaying the bull have been found.  This scene, with other symbolic figures of scorpion, raven, dog, two torchbearers and others had probably an astronomical significance.  Other scenes have the banquet with Mithra and the Sun.  To this date, more than 3,000 Mithraic monuments and inscriptions have been discovered in Europe.  Very few have been found in Egypt, Greece and Anatolia.  None in Iran.

While the Indo-Iranian Mithra has no birth mythology, the Mediterranean Mithra is said to have been born out of a rock on winter solstice - the longest night of the year on December 22.  The Romans did not celebrate Mehregan.  Mithra and the torchbearers are always dressed as Persians - peaked cap, tunic, waist band, trousers, and [socks] and shoes almost the dress worn today by Santa Clause!

Some of the customs of the cult were transferred to Christianity when the Romans converted to it.  Christmas is one and the Last Supper is another.  One may add Santa Clause's dress and chariot. Modern Mehrejan

Mehregan is celebrated today by Iranians - both Zoroastrians and Muslims.  For the Zoroastrians, a special table is laid with the fire vase or an incense burner, a copy of the holy Khordeh Avesta, a mirror for self-reflection, water the source of life, various grains for prosperity, fruits and flowers, sweets, wine, and coins.  And candles.  A priest recites appropriate prayers, especially Mehr Niyaish, a short prayer in the Avestan language in praise of Mithra.  A talk is given to signify the occasion, A poem is read to glorify the festival.  Food is consumed and those present dance to the tune of music until late in the night.
Merry Mehregan to all!

Ali A. Jafarey 

This article was made available to Iran Online
by Iranian Cultural Center of Orange County