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  • 3/6/2012

NOWRUZ  IN THE PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD

part 3

eid

By another pious development of the YAv. period a distinctive Zoroastrian calendar was created by devoting each of the 30 days of the month to one of the beneficent divine beings, who was named thereafter at all acts of worship on that day, and was looked to then for special care and protection. What probably began as a mnemonic list of these dedications, as “[the day] of so-and-so”‌, came to form the essential part of Y.16, and shows clearly the divergences between them and the dedications of the Seasonal Feasts and Nowruz.  This is because the first 7 month days are also devoted to the members of the Heptad, but in a different order. So Ahura Mazda receives the first month day (which in the first month of the year is Nowruz) but the sixth Seasonal Feast, and Asha receives the third month day. There is no indication that these overlappings (accommodated in the liturgies) troubled the faithful, and millennia later Rapiowina was being honored on both the first and third days of the first month, a happy duplication which may have a long history.

No month names appear in Y.16, and this accords with indications that those of the known Zoroastrian calendar were not given until the later Achaemenian period. Only one set of Old Iranian month names exists, that in the Perso-Babylonian calendar of the Bisotun inscription (see CALENDAR: i), and its months appear to be named for seasonal activities or phenomena.

  This is a widespread custom in ancient calendars, and it seems probable that when it was evolved the YAv. devotional one simply kept whatever month names of this kind was then in use among the Avestan peoples.  The list of 30 YAv. day dedications indicates a calendar of the most advanced ancient type, attested among peoples gifted in such matters across the world (Nilsson, Chaps. 3 and 9); that is, it was calculated by the sun and had 12 months and 360 days, and was kept in harmony with the longer natural year by intermittent intercalating of a 13th month.  Ideally this would have taken place every 6 years, but probably it was carried out irregularly, whenever the festivals were felt to be falling unacceptably behind due season. This, though a clumsy seeming device, was practical, and would have ensured that Nowruz would always have been kept at or near the spring equinox.

Nowruz in the 365-day calendar of the Achaemenians: The prevailing scholarly opinion is now that the early Achaemenians, at least from the time of Cyrus the Great, were Zoroastrians. Yet in his Bisotun inscription Darius (522-486 BCE) used not the Zoroastrian calendar but a Perso-Babylonian one, with OP month names (see under CALENDARS, p. 659) and days that were simply numbered. Apart from the month names this was the Babylonian lunar calendar familiar to the Achaemenians’ Elamite scribes, whose 12 months were kept in harmony with the natural year by the regular intercalation of 3 extra months every 8 years. But during Darius’ reign Babylonian astronomers replaced this system by a more accurate one of a 19-year cycle, with intercalation of 7 months at a time; and numerous dated cuneiform tablets show that this system was adopted by the Persian King’s Elamite scribes in 503.

These facts have strengthened a fairly general and well-established assumption that when one of Darius’ successors introduced a 365-day Zoroastrian calendar this was an entirely new creation, and that the YAv. list of day names was a backformation.  This assumption leaves unexplained, however, many problems (of which most of its supporters have plainly been unaware), and these problems do not exist if one adopts an alternate hypothesis: that when the Persians embraced Zoroastrianism they accepted the YAv. calendar as a devotional one, guiding their religious lives, but kept the Perso-Babylonian one for secular purposes, reckoning by it such things as the regnal years of their kings, important political events, and tax years.  The use of two different calendars in such ways is a well known phenomenon, occurring again in Iran itself in Islamic times.

One then has, on this hypothesis, to make the further assumption that when in due course the YAv. calendar, modified by the addition of 5 days, became the Achaemenians’ state calendar, since it kept its religious character it was not used by unbelievers among their subjects, even if they were in the Great King’s employ.  This assumption is supported by the fact that this was the usage under the Arsacids (see below).

It has long been recognized that the Persians adopted a 365-day calendar on the model of the Egyptian one, which became known to them after Cambyses’ conquest of Egypt in 525 BCE. The Egyptians had brought their own 360-day solar calendar into as close a correspondence with the natural year in possible while reckoning only in whole days by adding 5 days as an extra “Little Month”‌ at the end year’s end; and some influential Persians, most probably Treasury officials sent to work in the conquered land, must have been attracted by this method of time-reckoning, as better suited to administrative purposes than the Babylonian lunar one.  But years appear to have passed before it occurred to some pioneering spirit that the Persians could follow the Egyptians’ example by modifying in the same way a 360-day solar calendar of their own, namely the Zoroastrian devotional one.  Much diligent persuasion would surely have then been needed to win support for so bold a measure, which was adopted, it is calculated, in the reign of Xerxes, Darius’ son (486-465); but presumably high dignitaries in the powerful order of scribes would have been fairly readily convinced of its advantages, and leading Persian priests must also have been won over, seeing it perhaps as an enhancement of the dignity of the religion.  But explaining what was proposed to intelligent men through direct discussions would have been a very different matter from explaining it generally to the diverse Zoroastrian communities of the vast Persian empire, non-literate as most of Xerxes’ subjects would naturally have been, and with a number of them perhaps not greatly trusting their Persian ruler in matters of religion; and the results show that attempts to gain willing acceptance of the measure failed to a marked degree, with most people not only bewildered to resist any change that would prevent them offering due veneration to the divine beings at the property appointed times.

Source: iranica


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