Mehregan: The Festival to Thank Sun for Gold Wheat Harvest
A special vessel to hold and sprinkle rosewater; a woman in traditional attire, another one, dressed alike, holds a mirror, the third one welcomes the guests by traditional confectionaries. At the door gate, they stand, at the entrance of a fire temple, to greet those who come to participate in Mehregan, the ancient Persian harvest festival, and a charity event. Inside the temple, prayers are led by Zoroastrian priests, then, speeches on religious topics are delivered. Fruit and confectionaries gathered to set the especial table are distributed among participants.
It is all how Mehregan festival, which once used to be the most exuberant Persian festival, is held today. Mehregan is an ancient Iranian autumn festival, which despite being commonly related to Zoroastrianism, predates this ancient religion. In his book "A Study in Iranian Mythology", late professor Mehrdad Bahar, writes that Mehregan belongs to the era when the year was divided into two halves or seasons; a 5-month winter (called Zayana)and a 7-month summer(called Hama), the former started at the beginning of autumn, the latter at the beginning of spring. Thus to mark these two important events, the ancient dwellers of Iranian plateau (and more possibly the Indo-Iranian immigrant tribes) used to hold festivals, which have been bequeathed to modern Iranians as a part of their intangible heritage. Some scholars even believe that Mehregan was not merely an occasion to celebrate the solstice, which roughly coincides with the festivities, but it was a celebration to mark the beginning of a new year. This hypothesis, in fact, suggests that the Iranian calendar, like today Christian calendar, used to start at the beginning of cold season and possibly was then nudged to the beginning of springby emergence of Zoroastrianism faith. However, the new religion did not drive Mehregan to
extinction, but incorporated and assimilated it to new religious codes and teachings. Mehr, a pre-Zoroastrian goddess of love and kindness in ancient Persia, to whom Mehregan festival is dedicated, was assimilated to Zoroastrianism as a guardian angel and thus today, Mehregan is more considered as a Zoroastrian practice. Mehr, also known as Mithra, is usually taken synonymous with love, friendship, and the sun. Mehr also represent and is the source of divine knowledge, love, light and friendship. Zoroastrians like her disciples believed that she defeated evil and darkness, a scene that was often symbolically depicted with a triumphant lion pouncing over a bull. In later times Mehr was believed to be in charge of tying love knots, initiating friendships, and protecting of contracts and covenants among Zoroastrians and was represented by ray of light. The sun was (and still is) another symbolofhers. In the Zoroastrian religious calendar, Mehregan is celebrated on the sixteenth day of fall (8th of October) at the time of the harvest festivals. Thus it can be considered as a celebration of thanksgiving among family and friends, and charity to the poor. As it was mentioned earlier, Mehregan along with Noruz (Persian New Year celebration) is the most important Zoroastrian feast today and has a historical background which keeps abreast of that of Noruz, if not being even older.
There are many accounts as to the philosophy behind celebration of Mehregan. Some believe it is a day of victory when angels helped Fereydun and Kaveh became victorious over Zahak. According to Persian old myths, Zahak was a cruel leader on whose shoulders two snakes were grown by the spell of Lucifer (called Ahriman in Zoroastrianism). While others say Mehregan is the day God gave light to the world that had previously been in
dark. The feast of Mehregan is celebrated for 6 days after 8th of October. The oldest historical account of Mehregan dates back to the Achaemenid dynasty (559-330 BC). The historian, Strabo (66-24 BC) has mentioned that the Armenian Satrap presented the Achaemenid kings with 20,000 horses at the Mehregan celebration. It is also believed that the Mehregan feast celebrated the beginning of a new year during the reign ofAchaemenids kings as the name of the Goddess Mehr has been repeated many times in the stone carvings which have remained from the Achaemenid dynastic era; a tribute to Goddess Mehr Greek historians wrote that the feast of Mehregan was the only occasion on which kings could get drunk in public. The celebration is also mentioned in Talmud, the ancient Jewish text. Historical evidence indicates that the festival was not only celebrated across the Persian Empire but also in different parts of Asia Minor and throughout ancient Mesopotamia. However, what has been celebrated in Iran today with its exclusively Iranian characteristic is based on the ancient Zoroastrian texts. Nevertheless, Mithraism, the religion or practice of worship of Mithra, of which Mehregan is supposed to have been stemmed from, was an ancient mystery religion predominant from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD. It was based on worship of the goddess Mithra and other Zoroastrian deities. Since the first century BC, Mithraism was a familiar religion in Rome. It gradually spread throughout Western Europe as far as northern England during the first century AD. Some of Roman emperors converted to Mithraism. The influence of Mithraism can be traced in most religions including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and even Islam. There are still many rituals, traditions, beliefs and prayers of Mithra that have survived the popularity of Christianity. Some of these can be found in the Christian religion, such as the holy day, Sunday. This is a day that was named after the sun it means Mehr.
During pre-Islamic and early Islamic period, Mehregan was celebrated greatly with the same level of festivity as Noruz. It was common for people to present gifts to each other as well as the king. The gift could range from gold and herd of animals to simply just an apple, depending on the economic situation of the person. The event would give the opportunity to those who were prosperous enough to help the poor with gifts. At later times, if the gift-giver himself was in need for money, the court would then return twice the gift amount. Kings used to give two public audiences a year, one at Noruz and other at Mehregan. During the Mehregan celebrations, the king wore a fur robe and gave away all his summer clothes. After the Mongol invasion of Iran, the feast celebration of Mehregan lost its popularity. Yet, Zoroastrians of Yazd and Kerman continued to celebrate the occasion in an extravagant way. Today, for Zoroastrians the occasion is a communal one. In Jashn-e Mehregan(Mehregan celebration), they all join together for observance and prayer. For the celebration, the participants wear new clothes and set a decorative, colourful table just like that of Norouz, on which they place their holy book Avesta, a mirror and Sormeh Daan (antimony cellar), together with rosewater, sweets, flowers, vegetables and fruits, especially pomegranates and apples. At lunch time when the ceremony begins, everyone in the family stands in front of the mirror to pray. Animal sacrifice is the other custom of Mehregan feast. In some villages of the central Iranian province of Yazd, Zoroastrians still sacrifice sheep for Mehr on the day of Mehregan and for three days afterwards. The sacrifice should be done during the hours of sunlight. During 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. Though most Iranians have heard about Mehregan, unfortunately it is not celebrated by all, unlike the Norouz celebration, and is mainly regarded as a Zoroastrian festival. In the recent years, there has been a revival of this joyful and merry occasion and more Iranians are participating in this festival. Mehregan is also very popular among Iranian expatriates, especially in the United States, and each year they hold colourful and exuberant festivals on this occasion in different parts of California State