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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ali A. Jafarey