Fire and Jashn-e Sadeh
Ali A. Jafarey, February 15, 2005
Take away fire and man (stands for both the genders) will revert to wilderness like any other animal! The greatest discovery made by man alone on this good earth is the art of making and maintaining fire. He, like any other animal, had seen fire striking from clouds, devouring bushes and trees, and devastating large tracts of green land. He had also seen fire being spewed by a volcano and the molten lava snaking and snarling its way down the slopes. He also knew it gave heat and scared ferocious animals. Though still not proven, but most probably he had learned how to keep it burning. It provided him and his associates with light, warmth, and a device to keep ferocious animals away. He must have also learned to control fire which, in the long run, helped him to smelt metal ores.
But man did not know how to kindle it. The day he discovered this art, he separated for good from the animal kingdom that roamed the earth. He had discovered the source of light, heat, and energy — the very basis of civilization. Fire helped man to reduce nomadism and develop social and political institutions connected with a fixed abode.
Legends of how man learned to make fire are as numerous as there are ancient nations. A god brought or stole it down the sky is but an illusion to lightening striking and starting a fire. It was thrown up by the earth reminds us of a volcanic eruption. It was brought down a tree by a wise man indicates that it was obtained from a burning tree. It is a product of two rubbing branches or a child of ten mothers points to the much later discovery of creating friction by placing a stick in a wooden groove and rubbing, rather rotating the stick with two palms, the ten fingers, the ten mothers.
The most striking is the Iranian legend, preserved, among other writings, in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. Here is a gist of the Shahnameh’s story:
Hushang succeeded his grandfather Kayumars, the first of the Pishdadian Kings. He girdled himself with wisdom and justice.
The Discovery of Igniting Fire
Our ancestors worshipped God, had their beliefs, and followed certain ceremonies. In those days, the blazing fire was the altar just as the Arabs have stone as their prayer niche. But the discovery of igniting fire was quite incidental. This happened before iron was discovered.
One cold day, Hushang and his party were returning from a hunting expedition. They saw a snake coiled in their path. Hushang aimed his flint axe at it. He missed and the snake slithered away. But the axe hit another stone, also a flint and produced a bright spark The curious king took hold of the two flints and struck more sparks. And he learned to produce enough sparks to ignite a fire. He discovered how to make fire! “This spark,” he proclaimed, “is God’s gift. Hold it high in regard.” He thanked God for the gift and made fire his altar. He held a great feast. Every person sang, danced, drank, and feasted around the bonfire. For the first time, Hushang and his people could light their dark caves and feel cozy and warm in their beds. They passed a wonderful winter. Hushang never forgot his revolutionary discovery. He held a great feast every year on that eventful day. It is called “Sadeh.”
He was the first to separate iron from ore and established the profession of smithery. He fashioned axes, saws, and adzes. Next, he diverted water from rivers into plains for cultivation. Prior to this human beings subsisted on fruits and covered themselves with leaves. Furthermore, Hushang separated the beasts which were hunted from those that could easily be domesticated. He introduced soft and comfortable furs as clothing.
Hushang’s reign introduced peace, prosperity, plenty, and happiness. He died after ruling for forty years.”
To put it in short: Ignition was accidentally discovered when a flint-axe, thrown by King Hushang to kill a snake, missed and struck a rock and threw a spark. That sparked the idea to kindle fire by striking two pieces of flint together. This theory is confirmed by archeologists to be the most probable means of its discovery in the early stone stage.
Hushang, the Iranian legend says, celebrated the discovery by throwing a feast, a feast that has been kept alive through ages. It is held every year on 10 Bahman (30 January), almost mid-winter. It is called “Sadeh,” meaning “century” because according to one popular tradition, it falls on the hundredth day from 21 October, the beginning of winter among ancient Iranians. Or, as I see it, it is the contracted form of the Avestan “saredha,” Persian “sard,” meaning “cold, winter.”
On that afternoon, people gather outside their town, make a hill of dry shrubs, bushes, weeds, and branches. Priests lead the prayers, exalting fire as the divine light, warmth, and energy, ask God for an ever-progressing life to eternal happiness, and as the sun sets in the blazing west, set the hill ablaze. It is a sight to watch huge leaping flames. Those at home light little bonfires on top of their flat mud-plastered “fire-safe” roofs — a tribute to the civilized blessings given by the discovery of kindling fire.
At a time when man was hunted and haunted, he discovered fire and that changed his whole pattern of life. No wonder the blazing fire soon became the object of veneration, especially when his imagination formed for him many forms of deities. Fire became a deity too, a deity too close and touching. The sky god was sky high, the earth goddess was earth wide, the wind god was blowing across, the sun god/goddess was traveling light, the moon god was waxing to wane, and the water goddess was streaming by.
Fire was the only deity that sat very cozy and close. It held a special position. It was kindled with care and was kept alive with more care. It gave light. It gave heat. It gave power. It turned night into day and winter into spring. It baked clay into pots, and smelted metal into instruments. It frightened away dangerous animals, and above all, it made the daily food tender and tasty. It had revolutionized human living. It required constant attention, and attention means attraction and affection. It became “special.” It had a special seat, the hearth. It became the center of his activities — cooking, eating, conversing, sleeping, and of course, receiving his homage. Moreover, it went up the sky in a smoke column. The fire god had contact with the gods and goddesses above and men and women below. He was the intermediary, and the hearth became the altar, the earliest altar. All the gifts presented to deity and deities — animal fat and flesh, grains, food, sweet smelling herbs and wood — were put to burn and rise in smoke to reach the deity/deities. It was a smoky, smelly offer!
Kindling fire by striking flints or rubbing sticks was no easy job. It was much easier to keep it burning. Man learned that fire can snugly sleep beneath ashes and arise glowing when blown in flames. The habit of keeping fire “alive” through sleeping and leaping became a habit. Habit forms tradition. The hearth fire and later the temple fire became an ever-burning fire. Tradition becomes sacred. Sacredness demands ritual. Ritual becomes elaborate. Once sanctified and ritualized, even when well out-dated and fossilized, a tradition cannot be easily abandoned by conservatives.
Match sticks and gas and electric lighters have put out the hearth fire, and yet I know in Iran there are still old ladies, Zoroastrians and Muslims, whose hearth fire is never extinguished. My mother and mother-in-law, one from Kerman and the other from Shiraz, 300 miles apart, had the hearth fire going as long as they lived. If this could be with homes, what should one expect from places of worship?
Fire has served as the altar, the illuminating light, for many religions. Fire, in form of candid candle, lighted lamp, burning incense, and blazing wood, still adorns prayer niches, rooms and halls all over the world.
Fire Altars and Temples:
Hearth fire is venerated in the Âtash Nyâyesh in the Later Avesta. This is the earliest form of it and it formed the altar for all domestic rituals.The Haptanghaiti in the Gathic dialect mentions “fire-enclosure” as a communal altar. Median and Achaemenian bas-reliefs show persons standing, with uplifted arms” in the Gathic fashion, in front of fire altars. Plinths at Pasargadae confirm the “fire-enclosure,” the Gathic communal fire altars. Open fire altars survive at Naqsh-e Rostam from Sassanian days too. Avestan texts speaks of no fire-temple or fire-house. It did not exist in those days.
Temple is an Elamite and Babylon gift to Median and Persian Zoroastrians. Parthians and Sassanians followed with increasing elaborations. Ruins of Zoroastrian fire-temples of pre-Islamic era are spread from Iraq to the Pamirs and beyond. I have visited, lit a candle and prayed at many, including the one on the Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and those in Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rostam, Pasargadae, Isfahan, Khuzistan, Azerbaijan in Iran, and Taxila in Pakistan. Various grades of fire-temple are also the evolution of elaborating the system. Atash Bahram, the Victory Fire, at present the highest consecrated temple is a Sassanian invovation. When Ardeshir Babakan, the founder of the dynasty, rose against the Parthian rule and won a victory against Vologeses V in 224 CE, he had to fight many a battle to conquer the vast empire. Wherever and whenever, scored a victory over his enemies, he would erect one “Victory Fire” temple in memory.
History books written by Muslim travelers speak of fire-temples “miraculously” lit without being fed by any firewood. They were in the oil-rich regions, from present day Khuzistan in Iran to Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. They were fed by natural gas harnessed by the experts in those days. The one in Baku has been reconstructed by the authorities there and has the gas fire on. The gas-fed Azar Goshnasb temple in Azerbaijan, Iran, was where the Sassanian emperors were crowned. Recent excavations have revealed the baked clay pipeline to the fire-altar. This makes the present gas-fed fire altars in North America as no innovation but following the past in modern times. It is less air polluting and does not devour firewood and therefore plays no part in deforestation.
Once installed in a temple, it became a tradition. That tradition continues. I would add that it should continue with modern modifications. Already a number of “prayer rooms” and “Dar-e Mehrs” in North America and Europe — and it includes the Zarathushtrian Assembly prayer hall — are lit by natural gas.
The Sassanians had two other major fire-temples. Azar Farnbagh, for the Priestly class, was in Nishabur, Khorassan, northeast Iran, and Azar Borzin, for the Agricultural and Industrious class, was in Darab, Pars, south Iran.
Incidentally, the domed Muslim mosque is the continuation of the Sassanian architecture of fire-temple. The dome stood above the fire-altar. All that the Arabs or Iranian converts to Islam had to do is to remove the altar and prepare the hall for their prayers. Some of the old former fire-temples, turned into congregational mosques still have the fire-altars placed in their yars and filled with water. The domed building is not an Arabian architecture at all.
Fire in the Gathas:
Fire has been used eight times in the Gathas. It is mental (Songs 4.3 and 12.6), the radiant light (4.19 and 16.9), the warmth (8.4), and full-of-energy (7:4), which helps good and evil people to find happiness. It helps to meditate in quest of righteousness (8.9) and to enlighten one’s mind to find means to ward off danger (11.7).
The Gathic Fire symbolizes the Divine Progressive Mind in human beings. It is the altar that enlightens a meditating mind of a Zarathushtrian. Facing it, a Zarathushtrian wishes to forge an ideal society. Here are two brief prayers, one in the Haptanghaiti and the other from Atash Nyâyesh (Fire Prayer) in the Avesta. They explain fire’s symbolism and depict the society a Zarathushtrian wants the world to enjoy:
“In this fire-enclosure, first of all, we approach You and You alone, Wise God, through the most progressive mentality, symbolized by Fire — bright, warm and energetic. Reverence to it, because You have appointed for reverence.
Fire, you belong to God Wise. You symbolize the most progressive mentality. This is the best of your designations. O Fire of Ahura Mazda, it is because of this that we approach you. (Haptanghaiti, Song 3.1-3)
Grant me, O Fire of Ahura Mazda, prompt welfare, prompt maintenance, prompt living; full welfare, full maintenance, full living; zeal, progress, eloquence, discerning intellect; next, comprehensive, great and lasting knowledge; next, all encompassing courage, steadiness; vigilance, wakeful even at rest; and self-supporting children, able to govern the country, outstanding in assembly, harmonious in growth, and gentle in character, who shall advance our homes, settlements, districts, countries and the world fellowship. (Âtash Nyâyesh)
May the Fire of Mazda enlighten our minds!