Festival of Mehregan

M. Price

The prophet, Zoroaster created many feasts and celebrations to pay homage to many deities and yazata (Eyzads) who symbolized all forces beneficial to humans. In addition to the ‘Gahambars’ dedicated to Ahura Mazda and the six holy immortals, there are other important festivals devoted to the major Eyzads such as Mehr, at Mehregan 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 crop’. 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 Mehregan. The later is the festival dedicated to Mehr Izad. It is celebrated on the 16th of the seventh month (Mehr) 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”.

Mehr 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 ‘Mehr Ruz’ and ending on the 21st known as ‘Raam Ruz’. The first day was called ‘Mehregan e Khord’ and the last day ‘Mehregan e Bouzorg’ (lesser and major Mehregan). The oldest historical record about Mehregan goes back to the Achaemenian times. The Historian, Strabon (66 – 24 BC) has mentioned that the Armenian Satrap (governor) presented the Achaemenian king with 20,000 horses at the Mehregan 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. Alcohol a luxury and expensive item was consumed communally. The celebration is also mentioned in Talmud, the ancient Jewish texts.

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, Mehr 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. Azydahak is a mythological king in Avesta who wants to destroy all humans and is defeated by the legendary prince, Feraydon who later becomes the king.

According to the legend on this day several Eyzads 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 Sasanian 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 Mehr 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. Mehr is also the protector of the light of the early morning. This light is called havangah in Avestan texts and is referred to the first ray of light appearing just before dawn. Zoroastrians would get up at this time and pray to Mithra to keep protecting this light against forces of darkness. In mystical Persian literature we know these prayers as ‘Da ye verde sobhgahe'(prayers of early morning).

In the ‘Yasht’ section of Avesta (chapters dedicated to prayers) the 10th Yasht is devoted to Mehr and the whole chapter deals with the two most important characteristics attributed to Mithra, truth and courage. Mehr Yasht makes it quite clear that Mehr and sun are two different entities. Mehr 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 were set with feasts, songs, music, dancing and prayers. For Zoroastrians today the occasion is a communal one. In Jasn-e Mehr Izad, they all join together for observance and prayer. Till recently each family gave a contribution of grains, 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 (ash-e khirat) is prepared. Once cooked, the meal is distributed freely to all local people including the non-Zoroastrians. Different kinds of food and delicacies are prepared. These are shared by all including dogs, which are venerated amongst Zoroastrians.

The festival prayers are performed by the Mobads (priests) and gifts such as pure oil for the sanctuary lamps, candles and incense are presented to the local shrines. Esphand a local popular incense is burnt and sweet smelling flowers and herbs are dedicated to the 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. Iranian Muslims still follow the same procedure once approaching a mosque.

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. At home, a special table is laid with the fire vase or an incense burner, a copy of the ‘Khordeh Avesta’ (Zoroastrian Holy Book), a mirror for self-reflection, water (the source of life), coins (prosperity), fruits, flowers, sweets, wine and various grains. Elders or priests recite appropriate prayers, especially ‘Mehr Niyaish’ (prayers to Mehr) 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.

Music was always a part of all ancient celebrations and Sasanian court was famous for its musicians and composers. Musical pieces were written for all occasions. Mehregan Khord and Bouzorg are 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.

For the ancient Iranians Mehr symbolized truthfulness, bravery and courage. These attributes were re-enforced and venerated through prayers, rituals, feasts, celebrations and acts of charity. Though most modern Iranians have heard about Mehregan, 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 both in Iran and outside and more Iranians are participating in this festival. Also since, school year starts on 1st of the Persian month Mehr, on about 23 September, in Iran, Mehregan is celebrated as a time to rejoice learning and knowledge to make the festival more acceptable with the Islamic authorities.