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The Origin, History & Symbolism of No Ruz (Nowruz)

03/18/12 By Massoume Price, Culture of Iran

No Ruz (Nowruz, Norouz, Norooz), Origins and History

Celebrating the commencement of the New Year is amongst the oldest and the most universally observed festivals, and has a long history in the Middle East and Mesopotamia. The Sumerians, the founders of some of the oldest city-states in ancient Mesopotamia (bain al-nahrayn 3000BC, present day southern Iraq), celebrated their new year by growing barley in the first month of their calendar in March/April and, in fact, their New Year was calledThe Festival of the Sowing of Barley. Their successors, the inhabitants of the Old Kingdom of Babylon(2000BC), celebrated their festival on the first day of the Babylonian New Year in the month of Nisan (modern Jewish calendar still uses the same month name) and called their festival Beginning of the Year.

Such celebrations were closely tied in with various gods and goddesses and creation myths popular amongst ancient nations, and involved rites and ceremonies expressing jubilation over life’s renewal, which is the essence of the New Year festivals.

For example, the Babylonian New Year involved celebrating the arrival of the spring rains and the renewal of nature and community by reading songs and reciting the story of creation. Actors and actresses enacted the drama of creation and its beginning, and how it arose out of the struggle between Marduk (the god of Heaven) and Tiamut (goddess of the powers of chaos). The king would go through a ritual of humiliation, by removing his royal insignia by the high priest. He would spend time praying and asking for forgiveness at the major temple. By repenting his sins (and those of his people whom he represented) he would reappear again and claim his royal insignia. Ceremonies followed to ensure that nature would support the king and therefore the community during the coming year. Then all took part in a procession of the gods. After the procession, the next few days were full of hectic and exciting activities of all sorts with feasts and jolliness.

Gradually a new theme, “temporary subversion of order”, emerged out of the festivities that became a constant feature of many celebrations and spread all over the continent. Babylonians believed that the first creation was order that came out of chaos. To appreciate and celebrate the first creation, all roles were reversed during their New Year festival. Disorder and chaos ruled for a while and eventually order was restored and succeeded at the end of the festival. Masters and servants reversed roles. The king dressed in plain clothing, and changed place with ordinary people. A mock king was crowned and masquerades spilled into the streets. As the old year ended rules of ordinary living were relaxed. Eventually, at the end of the festival, order was restored and all went back to normal. This tradition of temporary subversion of order was borrowed by many including Iranians, who eventually incorporated some of these rites into the Iranian New Year celebrations by appointing their own mock king (Meer No Ruzi).

Ancient Mesopotamian New Year festivals initially influenced the New Year celebration in ancient Iran. However, No Ruz gradually evolved and by the end of the Sasanian period (7th century AD) became uniquely Iranian by incorporating Zoroastrian creation myths and other stories popular during the late Sasanian period.

Iranian New Year, Myth of No Ruz (Nowruz, Norouz, Norooz)

The Iranian New Year; No Ruz, (means New Day), is a celebration of spring Equinox. It is the most cherished of all the Iranian festivals and is celebrated by all. This occasion has been renowned in one form or another by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. What we have today as No Ruz with its uniquely Iranian characteristics has been celebrated for at least 2,500 years and is deeply rooted in the rituals and traditions of the Zoroastrian belief system of the Sasanian period (3rd-7th century AD). This was the religion of Ancient Persia before the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD. The familiar concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, the coming of the Messiah, individual and last judgment were incorporated for the first time 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.

In one ancient text from the Sasanian period, Bundahishn (foundation of creation), it is said that The Lord of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda), 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 evil and became the Hostile Spirit. Everything that produced life, protected and enriched it was regarded as good. This included all forces of nature beneficial to humans. Earth, water, sky, good animals, plants, justice, honesty, peace, health, beauty, joy and happiness, were all regarded as belonging to the good forces. All that threatened life and created disorder belonged to the hostile spirits. The two worlds created did not have a material form and only existed in essence. The two worlds existed side-by-side for three thousand years, but completely separate from each other. At this time, the material world was created at seven different stages. The first creation was the sky, a big chunk of stone encompassing the Earth. The second creation was the first ocean at the bottom. Earth, a big flat dish sitting on the ocean, was the third. The next three creations were the prototypes of all life forms. These included the first plant, the first animal (a bull) and the first human Kiomarth (both male and female). The seventh creation was fire and sun together. This world was thought to be round and flat, like a plate.

To protect his creations the Lord of Wisdom also created six holy immortals, ‘Amesha Spenta’. One was created for each creation. Khashtra (Sharivar), the protector of sky; Asha-Vahishta (Ordibehesht) protected fire; Vahu Manah (Bahman) for all animals; Haurvatat (Khordad) protected all water; Spenta Armaiti (Esphand), a female deity, was the protector of mother earth; and finally Ameratat (Amurdad) supported all plant life. Ahura Mazda himself became the protector of all humans and the holy fire. The six immortals are the names of six of the months in the current calendar. This newly created world did not have a life cycle. The sun did not move. There were no days or nights and no seasons.

Once the material world was created the Hostile Spirit saw and wanted light and attacked the good world. He crashed in through the sky, plunged down into the waters and then burst up through the centre of the Earth. The Earth was shaken and broken causing the appearance of mountains. The ocean was disturbed and rivers flowed. With the hostile spirits invading, help was needed. The struggle between the good and evil had started.

The struggle continues for 12,000 years. There are four periods, one for each 3,000 years. During the last phase, several saviours come and the last one, Saoshyant, will save the world. When he comes there is resurrection, all dead people are resurrected and will walk over the Chinvat Bridge (Sarat Bridge in the Quran) and this is when the last judgment occurs. We recognize this figure as the Time Lord (Imam Zaman) in Iranian version of Shi’ite Islam.

There was one problem with this material world. As mentioned above, it did not have a life cycle and 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 (mashi and mashiyanea). The rest of the humanity was created from their union. The cycle of life started: the sun moved creating day, night and the seasons. This event was called the first No Ruz.

The Lord of Wisdom also created guardian angels (Forouhars) for all living beings. Every human had one as long as they stayed with the good forces. If they did not, they became part of the hostile world, as was the case with the myth of Azydahak, in Avesta, the Zoroastrians’ holy book. We know this figure as Zahak in ‘Shahnameh’. A prince, he chose the Hostile Spirit as his protector. He was made a king, ruled for 999 years and became immortal. However, in the end he was defeated and is chained on top of a mountain.

Many feasts, festivals and rituals were created to pay homage to the seven creations, the holy immortals and Ahura Mazda. Seven feasts were amongst the most important. Six are known as Gahambars, feasts of obligation. The seventh and the most elaborate was No Ruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holy fire at the time of spring equinox.

The oldest archaeological record of No Ruz celebration comes from the Achaemenian (Hakhamaneshi) period over 2,500 years ago. They created the first major empire in the region and built Persepolis complex (Takhte Jamshid) in central Iran. This magnificent palace/temple complex was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 334 BC.

Achaemenians had four major residences, one for each season. Persepolis was their spring residence and the site for celebrating the New Year. Stone carvings show the king seated on his throne receiving his subjects, governors and ambassadors from various nations under his control. They are presenting him with gifts and paying homage to him. We do not know too much about the details of the rituals. We do know that mornings were spent praying and performing other religious rituals. Later on during the day, the guests were entertained with feasts and celebrations.

There is a possibility that the ritual of sacred marriage might have taken place at this palace. An ancient and common ritual in Mesopotamia, the king spent the first night of the New Year with a young virgin. There is no evidence that this was practiced later on and was part of the New Year rituals.

Culture of Iran

Ancient Iran (Culture of Iran Youth Series, 1), by Massoume Price

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