May 23, 2023, Roj Khorshed Mah Dae, was observed by Parsis as ‘Zarthosht no Diso‘. Diso comes from Old Gujarati ‘disi’, meaning ‘day’ and is commonly used to signify the Roj of death of a person. Thus, Zarthosht no Diso marks the day that Asho Zarathushtra passed away from earth.
But how did Zarathushtra die? Many of us have heard the story: Zarathushtra was 77 years old and praying in a Fire Temple, when he was stabbed by an evil sorcerer named Turbaratur. As the Prophet fell, He hurled the Tasbih (rosary, prayer beads) which was in His hands on the murderer. As the Tasbih fell on Turbaratur, he too perished.
However, this quaint little story is not to be taken literally. It has a deeper significance and symbolism.
On this day in 1971, Leonard Bernstein presented “Thus Spake Richard Strauss”, a Young People’s Concert.
Bernstein explained to a national television audience Strauss’ Zarathustra “is a picture of man’s greatest problem — his mortality, the grim fact that he must die. This painful problem is shown in terms of a conflict…in musical terms: the struggle between one key and another, between one theme and another, between major and minor, between music that lifts us up and music that presses us down.
That’s going up, for sure; and clearly it’s in the key of C. Good old C – no sharps or flats, all white keys, no problems – bright and clear. And that’s why Strauss builds his introduction on this rising motive, because it’s supposed to depict a glorious sunrise…but with the sun arises the first conflict: that’s the conflict of major and minor.”
Zoroastrian Studies Seminar Series Winter-Spring 2023
University of Toronto
The Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Institute of Iranian Studies in collaboration with the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation
& the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America present
Zoroastrian Studies Seminar Series
“Conception and representation of the Zoroastrian Rituals” Professor Alberto Cantera
Freie Universität BerlinFriday, February 17, 1:00 PM Eastern Time
“On the Transmission of the Zoroastrian Texts” Professor Almut Hintze
University of LondonFriday, April 14, 1:00 PM Eastern Time
“Zoroastrian Norms in Sasanian Law” Professor Maria Macuch
Freie Universität BerlinFriday, May 12, 1:00 PM Eastern Time
“Happiness in the Zoroastrian Traditions of Iran and India” Professor Jamsheed K. Choksy
Zoroastrians seem to have adopted the Fravahar or Farohar (often pre-fixed with the term Asho which means pure) as a symbol of the Zoroastrian religion. However, is it really a Zoroastrian religious symbol? What does it represent? What is the origin of this symbol? These and several other questions require deeper introspection.
Is it a Zoroastrian symbol? In the history of ancient Iran, the winged human-head figure appears to have been used only during the Achaemenian dynasty. Neither the Parthians nor the Sasanians who later ruled over Iran used this symbol. During the Sasanian dynasty, Zoroastrianism was the State Religion of Iran. However, this symbol was not used by the Sasanians.
Darius the Great appears to have used it for the first time on his rock relief at Mount Behistun. The head is seen facing left and the wings are rectangular, not curved. A later enlarged depiction at Persepolis is more stylish with curved wings and the head facing right. This motif can also be seen on the outer façade of the Astodan of all the Achaemenian Kings who were laid to rest at Naqsh-e-Rustom and at Kuh-e-Rehmat (mountain of mercy), above Persepolis.
Even Parsis in India did not use it as a symbol till the ruins of Persepolis were discovered and excavated in the early twentieth century, and the community took a liking for this symbol. Thus, the winged human-head motif gained or re-gained popularity in India and Iran only around a century ago.
Pre-Iranian Roots: The symbol of the winged disk (i.e. without the human head) represents the sun, and long before the Achaemenians, it was associated with divinity, royalty and power in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. It appears to have originated in ancient Egypt and due to its associations with the sun; the Winged Sun was linked to the sun god Ra in ancient Egypt. However, it’s most common association was with Horus, the falcon god.
The Achaemenian kings ruled Egypt and they could have borrowed this Egyptian symbol of power and royalty, albeit with their own styling adaptation. However, it’s more likely that the Achaemenians borrowed it from Assyria. The Assyrian winged sun emblem, originally found at the North-West Palace of Nimrud in Nineveh (upper Mesopotamia), has a human head inside the disk. Archeologists speculate that this iconography later gave rise to symbol used by Darius the Great, around 520 BC.
What Does The Iranian Winged Figure Symbolize? Unfortunately, none of the etchings or bas reliefs explain what the winged human head motif represents. Thus, scholars and archeologists continue to debate whether it represents Divinity (i.e. Ahura Mazda) or Fravahar (Guardian Spirit) or the King’s khvarenah (Khoreh), also called farr (i.e. Divine Kingly Glory).
The theory that this figure represents Ahura Mazda does not seem plausible, as in the Avesta, Ahura Mazda is known as An-aiyafah or Incomprehensible (i.e. understanding the true nature of Ahura Mazda is beyond human comprehension), An-ainah (i.e., Without form) and Mino-tum (i.e., invisible spirit). Even Herodotus wrote: “They (the Achaemenian Persians) have no images of the Gods and consider their use a sign of folly.”
Hence, the figure possibly represents Fravahar or the Guardian Spirit of every creation. The Fravahar or Asho Farohar or Fravashi is a spiritual component of all creation, including humans. It’s not to be confused with Urvan or the soul. Fravashi is the pure companion of the soul. While Urvan is a personal spiritual component, the Fravashi is a universal component.
Theologically, while the Urvan (soul) may get corrupted by the choices made, the Fravashi remains pure and incorruptible. Urvan has the choice of seeking the Fravashi’s assistance through quiet reflection or introspection. The term Fravashi comes from Fra (forward) and Vaksh (to grow). In other words Fravashi aids the soul and all creation to move forward and grow.
However, most likely this figure represents khvarenah (in Avesta) or Farr (in Pahlavi or middle Persian). We commonly know it today as Khoreh or (Divine) Glory. Like the Fravashi, Khoreh is also a spiritual companion of the soul. All three components work in concert in the person who thinks, speaks and acts with Ashoi (Truth, purity and righteousness). The scriptures assert that khvarenah is Mazda-datem or Lawfully Given by God to righteous leaders from the time of Shah Hushang of the pre-historic Peshdad (Pesh = first and Dad = Law i.e., first law givers) dynasty. However khvarenah flies away when a righteous leader turns corrupt.
According to Zamyad Yasht (19.34-35): “When he (King Jamsheed) began to find delight in words of falsehood and untruth, the (Kava or Kayani) khvarenah was seen to flee away from him in the shape of a Vareghna bird towards the sun and the great monarch (spiritual and temporal leader) lost his Divine Right to Rule as a Leader.
Zamyad Yasht indicates that kingship and the mantle of leadership of the Aryan people must first be deserved. khvarenah is Mazda-datem or God-given to righteous leaders only. It flies away (wings depict flight) when an Ashwan (Pure, Truthful and Righteous person) get’s corrupted by pride, dishonesty or other vices.
In Conclusion… The winged human-head motif is not originally Persian and nor is it a religious symbol. However, in modern times it has come to acquire religious significance. This motif appears to have been used only by the Achaemenian kings and not kings of other dynasties after them. It appears to have been adapted from similar motifs used earlier by the Egyptians and Assyrians.
No one can state with certainty whether this motif represents Ahura Mazda (Supreme Divinity) or Fravashi (Guardian Spirit) or Khoreh (Divine Glory). However, it most likely represents khvarenah or Khoreh (Divine Glory) which is bestowed by Mazda on truthful, just and righteous kings or leaders.
Ancient Aryans believed in the concept of ‘Divine Right to Rule’ and what is depicted at Mount Behistun and at Persepolis is probably the Divine Right to Rule, given by Mazda (Mazda-datem) to Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes and other Great Kings of Achaemenian Iran.
Hence, if you happen to be wearing the ancient Iranian winged human-head pendant or use it as an artifact at home or at your office, remember that it symbolizes Khoreh and Mazda (Divine Wisdom) may bestow you with real khoreh if you choose to be a truthful, pure (in thought, word and deed), just and righteous leader!
Beginning this academic year, Carlo Giovanni Cereti is joining the UCI School of Humanities as the Ferdowsi Presidential Chair in Zoroastrian Studies – the first of its kind in the United States. The Ferdowsi Chair allows Cereti to teach on Zoroastrianism and ancient Iranian languages and cultures, as well as train scholars in the field of Zoroastrian studies.
The endowed chair is supported by the Massiah Foundation, which was founded by Fariborz Maseeh, Ph.D., an Iranian American businessman and pioneer in the field of microelectromechanical systems. In 2005, the Massiah Foundation funded the creation of UCI’s Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture, the first independent, interdisciplinary center focused on the Iranian world within the UC system.
The new chair is named in honor of Ferdowsi, the 10th-century Persian poet who is often credited with reviving the Persian language and history by composing the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the national epic of Greater Iran.
“Carlo Cereti’s deep expertise in Zoroastrianism and Iranian culture extends from antiquity to the present day. He has the unique ability to connect multiple graduate, undergraduate and research initiatives underway in UCI’s School of the Humanities across all periods,” said Matthew P. Canepa, professor and Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Presidential Chair in Art History and Archaeology of Ancient Iran. “We are overjoyed to welcome him as a colleague.”
Cereti’s research has mainly centered on the Zoroastrian religion; his first book was on a Zoroastrian Middle Persian apocalyptic text composed in late antiquity. He is also working on an archaeological project in Iraqi Kurdistan where he has collected the missing stone blocks of an important Sasanian rock relief at Paikuli, which belonged to King Narseh of the third and early-fourth century CE. Before coming to UCI, he was a professor of Iranian studies at La Sapienze, Rome.
“Professor Carlo Cereti is one of the best-known scholars of Zoroastrianism and ancient Iranian studies,” said Touraj Daryaee, director of UCI’s Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies & Culture and the holder of the Maseeh Endowed Chair in Persian Studies & Culture. “He brings several decades of experience in teaching and research. It is a great honor to be his colleague and work with him.”