By: Massoume Price
Zoroastrianism was the religion of Iran before the conquest of Islam in the seventh century AD. The architect of this religion, Zoroaster created many feasts and celebrations to pay homage to many deities and yazata (Izads) who symbolized all forces beneficial to humans. Amongst all these festivals seven were regarded as feasts of obligation. They are known as ‘gahambars’ and are dedicated to Ahura Mazda, the lord of wisdom and the six holy immortals, i.e. Amesha Spentas, protectors of the seven creations (sky, waters, earth, fire, plants, animals and humans). The other important festivals are devoted to the major Izads such as Mihr, at Mihregan and Tiri at Tiragan.
The tradition ascribes the foundation of the seven feasts and other celebrations to the prophet himself; but in origin they appear to have been much older. They are pastoral and farming festivals restructured and dedicated to the major deities by the prophet. With the gahambars, the first feast was celebrated in mid-spring, the second in mid-summer, the third was ‘the feast of bringing in the corn’. The ‘home-coming feast’ (coming of the herds from pasture), was followed by the mid-winter feast and Hamaspathmaedaya, the feast of the feasts celebrated on the last night of the year, before the spring equinox. This feast was eventually evolved into No Ruz, celebrating the New Year.
Avestan texts (the Zoroastrians’ holy book) divide the Iranian year into two equal parts or seasons. The first season was summer or ‘Hama’ and the second was winter or ‘Zayana’. The coming of the two seasons would be celebrated through No Ruz and Mihregan. The later is the festival dedicated to Mihr Izad. It is celebrated on the 16th of the seventh month (Mihr) at the time of the harvest festivals and beginning of the winter. It has been the second most elaborate celebration after No Ruz. The festival is called ‘Mithrakana’ in Avesta and means ‘belonging to Mithra’.
Mihr has been Mithra in Avesta and Mitrah in Phahlavi. It is the yazata of the covenant and of loyalty. It has come from the word mei, meaning exchange. In Avesta he is the protector of ‘Payman e Dousti’ (contract of friendship). In modern Persian it means love and kindness. He is the lord of ordeal by fire (walking through fire to prove innocence, story of Siavash in Shahnameh) and presides over judgment of the soul at death. Ancient Greeks identified him with Apollo.
This feast would be celebrated for 6 days, starting on the 16th ‘ the ‘Mihr Ruz’ and ending on the 21st known as ‘Raam Ruz’. The first day was called ‘Mihregan e Khord’ and the last day ‘Mihregan e Bouzorg’. The oldest historical record about Mihregan goes back to the Achaemenian times. The Historian, Strabon (66 - 24 BC) has mentioned that the Armenian Satrap presented the Achaemenian king with 20,000 horses at the Mihregan celebrations.
Other Greek sources mention that the kings would dress in purple, dance, drink and this was the only occasion they could get drunk in public. The celebration is also mentioned in Talmud, the ancient Jewish text. The festival is not specific to Iranians and has been celebrated by many cultures in Asia Minor and throughout ancient Mesopotamia. However what has been celebrated in Iran with it’s uniquely Iranian characteristic is based on the ancient Zoroastrian texts.
In Bundahishn (Foundation of Creation), an ancient Zoroastrian text, Mihr day is mentioned as the day when the first male and female, Mashi and Mashiane were created from Gayo-maretan (Kiomarth, the first prototype of all humans). It is also believed that sun’s first appearance, and Feraydon’s victory over Azydahak (Zahak in Shahnameh) happened on this day.
According to the legend on this day several Izads descend to earth and helped Feraydon over the next six days to defeat and eventually imprison Azydahak on the 21st of the month on top of the Damavand Mountain. After this victory, Feraydon ordered all believers to wear ‘Kosti’ (special ceremonial belt Zoroastrians wear) and the prayers ‘Ouj’ were recited for the first time.
In Sassanid times there were plays and re-enactment of this legend accompanied with prayers and songs at the Royal courts. Ancient Iranians believed that it was in Mihr day that humans were given urvan (ravan in modern Persian, meaning soul) and the earth was enlarged on this day to provide more land for the growing population. Moon (Mah) which was a cold and dark object for the first time received light from sun on this day and began illuminating at night.
In the ‘Yasht’ section of Avesta (chapters dedicated to prayers) the 10th Yasht is devoted to Mihr and the whole chapter deals with the two most important characteristics attributed to Mithra, truth and courage. Mihr Yasht makes it quite clear that Mihr and sun are two different entities. Mihr is portrayed as a truthful and brave king with one thousand ears and ten thousand eyes. He is also the protector of warriors, and it has been this aspect of its’ personality that made this deity popular with the Roman Military and Mithra was eventually evolved into a major Roman cult and Mithraism spread all over Europe.
The celebrations described by the Muslim historians and observers attest to the glory and significance of the occasion. Huge bon fires would be set with feasts, songs, music, dancing and prayers. For Zoroastrians today the occasion is a communal one. In Jasn-e Mihr Izad, they all join together for observance and prayer. Each family gives a contribution of corn, lentils and the like to the fire-temple.
Animal sacrifices are made by some and the remains are mixed with lentils, herbs and a substantial meal (as-e khirat) are prepared. Once cooked, the meal is distributed freely to all local people including the non-Zoroastrians. Other kinds of food and delicacies are also prepared to be shared by all (including dogs, which are venerated amongst Zoroastrians).
During the festival prayers are performed by the Mobads and gifts such as pure oil for the sanctuary lamps, candles and incense are presented to the local shrines. Esphand a popular incense is burnt and sweet smelling flowers and herbs are dedicated to the local temples. Contrary to the ancient times, there is no rigidly prescribed pattern of behavior for approaching the shrines, but many still touch the doorsill before entering in a graceful gesture of obeisance, while uttering prayers and invocations.
Because of the sanctity of this feast, its ancient communal rites are elaborately celebrated at the ‘Atash Varahram’; the holiest fire in Iran. The greatest observance is the lighting outside this temple of a huge fire just after the sunset. The rest of the days will be spent feasting, praying, singing and partying.
Though most Iranians have heard about Mihregan, but unlike No Ruz it is not celebrated by all and is mainly regarded as a Zoroastrian festival. In the recent years there has been a revival of this joyful and merry occasion and more Iranians are participating in this festival. Mihregan Khord and Bouzorg are also the names of two ‘maghams’ in Persian music. They are mentioned by Nezami, Farabi and other writers in the Middle ages, but did not survive and are not in the present day ‘radif’ in Persian music.
In summary, for the ancient Iranians Mihr symbolized truthfulness, bravery and courage. These attributes were re-enforced and venerated through prayers, rituals, feasts, celebrations and acts of charity. These are positive lessons we can learn from our ancient heritage, so happy Mihregan to all.
By: Massoume Price
Massoume Price is a Social Anthropologist and Human Ecologist from London University, Kings and University Colleges. She specializes in ancient Mesopotamian Studies. She currently lives in Canada. Works with a number of Women's organizations and is a free lance writer.