NOWRUZ IN THE PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD
Nowruz, “New Day”, is a traditional ancient festival which celebrates the starts of the Persian New Year. It is the holiest and most joyful festival of the Zoroastrian year and is also its focal point, to which all other high holy days relate. Its celebration has two strands, the religious and the secular, both of which have plainly evolved considerably over many centuries, the one with extension of observances, the other with accumulation of charming and poetic customs, most of them special to it.
i. IN THE PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD
Nowruz, “New Day”, is the holiest and most joyful festival of the Zoroastrian year. It is also its focal point, to which all other high holy days relate. Its celebration has two strands, the religious and the secular, both of which have plainly evolved considerably over many centuries, the one with extension of observances, the other with accumulation of charming and poetic customs, most of them special to it.
Nowruz is not, however, referred to in the small corpus of Old Avestan texts attributed to Zoroaster, nor does its name occur in the Young Avesta. Its earliest appearance is in Pahlavi texts, as nإچg rإچz (nwk rwc, <Av. *navaka- raocah-).
As far back as records go, Nowruz has been, either in fact or by intention, a celebration of early spring, when the sun begins to regain strength and overcome winter’s cold and darkness and when there is a renewal of growth and vigour in nature. Zoroastar’s people were demonstrably animatists (M. Boyce, 1992, pp. 53-5), that is, they apprehended a cognitive spirit, mainyu (M. Schwartz, p. 641), in all things, tangible or intangible. So for them this return of spring would have represented an annual victory for the Spirit of the sun; and Zoroaster saw in it also, it appears, the symbol of a still more glorious victory to come. This was the especial hope which he offered his followers (see FRASHEGIRD), that the present struggle between good and evil on all planes, physical, moral and spiritual, will end in total victory for the good. Our “limited time” will then be succeeded by the “Time of Long Dominion” (virtually eternity), with the world and all that is in it restored to the perfect state in which it was created by Ahura Mazda (q.v.). A traditional spring festival, ushering in the loveliest season of the year with joyous festivities, could thus, be renamed the “(festival of the) New Day” and celebrated with religious rites, be a recurrent reminder of the unique “New Day” which will eventually bring everlasting bliss; and so this observance could aid faith and deepen understanding of doctrine. This is likely to have been a way of teaching to which Zoroaster naturally resorted, preaching as he did to an ancient, non-literate, pastoral people (see AVESTAN SOCIETY), who used no images to sustain belief, but venerated divinity in and through what they saw and experienced in the world around them.
Nowruz and Rapiowin. There is another clear example of an animastic perception of a natural phenomenon being used to illumine doctrine, which is closely associated with Nowruz and almost certainly also belongs to the teachings of the prophet.
According to tradition he live long, and so had time to develop the devotional life of his young community; and one powerful disciplinary tool which he is likely himself to have forged was duty to pray five times in the twenty-four hours, using each time the same short utterance, put together from his own compositions (Boyce, 1992, pp. 84-85). The Zoroastrian 24-hour day begins at sunrise, with three prayers being said during the daylight hours, and two during those of darkness, at midnight and at approaching dawn. It is likely that the two latter were added by Zoroaster as a rigorous new spiritual exercise, the other three, at sunrise, noon and sunset, having been offered by generations of Iranians before him. The word for “noon” is by origin mundane, though its literal meaning had doubtless long been forgotten by Zoroaster’s time. It appears in YAv. as rapiowa-, “noon”, <OAv. arempiخ¸wa- by etymology “(the time) for meat, i.e., food”; and this yields the YAv. Adjective rapiخ¸wina-, “of noon” (Air. Wb., cols. 189, 1509). Noon had an especial importance for Zoroastrians, since in their creation myth, when Ahura Mazda had completed the acts of creation the sun stood still at noon, as it will do again at Frashgirdجپ. Meantime, during the present struggle between good and evil, the Spirit of noon, Rapiخ¸wina, retreats each year at the onslaught of the Spirit of winter, departing beneath the earth to keep the roots of trees and springs of water warm, so that his victory is never complete; and in acknowledgment of this retreat, Rapiخ¸wina is not invoked by Zoroastrians at the noon prayers during winter. But at noon on Nowruz he returns, and is welcomed back in a service of blessing and thanksgiving, in recorded usage a yasna (the main Zoroastrian liturgy) dedicated to him and an Afrؤ«nagan ؤ« Rapiخ¸win (for its text see Geldner, Avesta, ii, pp. 275-277).
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