What is a “Barsam” exactly?
To see the image of a historic Barsam, let us go to “Tag e Bostan”, a historic site near the city of KermanShah, Iran. Here, a spring of water comes out of the mountain and fills a huge pool that provides drinking water for the whole city. I believe this complex to be a Mithraeum, a Persian Mithraeum, one that does not resemble the ones we have in the Roman Empire, but a Mithraeum all the same. Here, the cave of Mithra is not a naturally occurring cave but one carved in the mountain side artificially.
This complex is laid out like a Persian Garden and the sounds of water and the singing of birds have to compete with the smells of the best Kabab in Iran coming from the food stalls that serve it to visitors. They call it the Dande Kabab, and it is made with lamb chops marinated in fragrant herbs in recipes that make this dish a Kurdish specialty unsurpassed in delicacy and taste. In the background of the complex and on the mountain side, there are very important carvings dating back at least to the 4th century AD/CE and before. A statue depicting Izad Banoo Anahitha located inside the artificial man-made cave is of special importance because in this carving you can see Nahid clad in garments and wearing a crown and jewelry exactly as She is described wearing them in the sacred Zoroastrian text Aban Yasht. (I am not good at taking images and adding them to my text; but you can see all that I am describing by searching Google for “Carvings at Tagh e Bostan” and then asking for “Images”.)
Within the same complex and carved on the side of the mountain, there is another image that interests us with regards to seeing a real Barsam of the time; the image is of a man that some scholars believe may be a portrait of the prophet Zarathustra while many other scholars describe it as belonging to Lord Mithra, the Sun Yazeta. As there are no texts telling us who this person is, the only evidence the second group of scholars give for it being the lord Mithra is that he is holding a Barsam. This cannot be a proof positive as the Barsam is a sacred object in the Zoroastrian religion also and indeed a carving of those times could have just as well shown a portrait of Prophet Zarathustra holding a Barsam.
Art historians tell us that this portrait depicts for the first time rays of light shining around the head of a person signifying something very special about him. This man or Izad also stands on a lotus flower which again is very symbolic as it is the lotus that represents the four basic elements in nature most sacred to Zoroastrians and Mithraists, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. The lotus has its roots in the Earth, grows in the Water, opens up in the Air, and the flower itself turns to face the Sun all day(Is a “Heliotrope”) and closes at night, thus revering the Sun or the fourth element of Fire.
The Barsam that Prophet Zarathustra or Lord Mithra holds in this image must be around one meter (40 inches) tall and 30 centimeters (12 inches) in diameter. Present day Barsams that the Dastoors (Zoroastrian Priests) use are much smaller and no more than about 30 centimeters (12 inches) in length and 10 centimeter (4 inches) in diameter. A Barsam is placed during ritual prayers on two “Barsam-gir” or “Mah-rooy”; “Mah-rooy” means “Moon-faced,” and the top of a Mah-rooy is indeed shaped like a new crescent moon, a shape well suited to receive one end of a Barsam. All present-day Mah-rooys that I have seen the Dastoors use are of a small size made to hold a small bundle of twigs; however, in my collection of Zoroastrian Artifacts I am fortunate enough to have a Sassanian Mahrooy which stands 30 centimeters tall, large enough to receive a large Barsam of the impressive size depicted in the Tagh Bostan carving. I talked about all this to show that we have a large Barsam and then also smaller ones and that King Yazdgerd most likely wanted the smaller kind placed next to his meal. To know about the large size Barsam is also very important because that is the kind that traveled to Rome with the spread of Mithraism and became known as the Fascia.
In the next installment of my writing about the Barsam, we’ll go back to king Yazdgerd and the reason he doesn’t eat his humble food without there being a Barsam placed at its side. I apologize for my long detour talking about the history of what Barsams look like, but truly, I wish I had the time and patience to write a whole lot more about this topic as it ties into some very interesting issues of our modern civilization. For example, wouldn’t you like to know why there is a connection between calling gay persons “Fag” or “Fagot” and its connection to the words “Religion” and “Fascism”? Hint: all these words have some connection to the “Barsam”.
To be continued,