Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Vernal Equinox, Attis and Nawroz

The festival we now know as Easter was given its name by an ancient Northern European festival at the Vernal Equinox. Eostre was the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the Dawn, a giver of life and fertility. Essentially an agricultural goddess, she caused plants to flourish and animals to multiply. The rabbit or hare was one of her symbols, which is how the Easter Bunny became part of modern Easter celebrations.
As contemporary Easter now falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, it will occur in a few weeks.

The Vernal Equinox, however, remains important to many religions and cultures, from contemporary pagans who consider it one of the 8 Great Sabbats or Festivals in the Wheel of the Year to Iranians who celebrate it as 'Nawroz'.

In all traditions, an equinox is a time of great magic. Day and night are equal at the point of the Vernal Equinox. Like the working of the old Germanic rune of 'Dagaz' which is shaped like a butterfly or the double-ax, it is a time of balance. In many ancient cultures, the Vernal Equinox marked the New Year.
Primitive cultures were well aware of the cyclical nature of life and the changes in season. The Wheel is an ancient symbol of Life with set periods based on the movement of the Sun and Moon and other heavenly bodies. In many civilisations, it was water in the form of rain or the flooding of a river like the Nile that brought life back to the earth but these events occurred seasonally, and this was noted. The influence of the Moon on the tides was noted as well.

For ancient people, the Equinox represented a moment when life itself trembled in the balance, and many rituals that developed did so as an attempt to aid the forces of life and rebirth. In Northern climates, March is a capricious month. There can be temperatures high enough to cause plants to awaken from their winter slumbers, followed by a severe snowstorm. For agrarian cultures, this would be a month fraught with danger and risks. Seeds must be planted, and seedlings must be nurtured, but without artificial heat and light, much would depend on the goodwill of Nature.
To the Greeks, Spring was a time of the 'anoixis' or 'The Opening' and therefore a fitting beginning to the Year. In many ancient civilisations, the year began when the Sun moved into the House of the Ram.

One of the most popular and widely celebrated Festivals in ancient times was the Festival of Attis. The festival of Attis, son of the Great Mother Cybele was celebrated in Spring, and his rebirth was considered to occur at the time of the Equinox. Originally a Phrygian god, his cult spread throughout the Roman empire. In Rome each Spring, an evergreen pine would be cut down and adorned with violets, the flower that sprang from the blood of Attis. The death of Attis would be followed first by mourning and then by rejoicing when the god was resurrected.

Attis was a man or god who castrated himself and this act and its effects were central to his cult. His priests and worshippers often performed the same operation on themselves in an orgiastic culmination of the festival during Spring. Priests were known for their 'effeminate' appearance, with long flowing locks and flowing robes. The clashing of cymbals and wild dances characterised the rites of Attis. Ritual scourging and slashing as well as the rite of emasculation was common. Men both young and old would sacrifice their manhood at the Spring festival.

Although the main centre of the cult was at Pessinus, it was brought to Rome in 204 BC when the black stone of Cybele was instated in the Temple of Victory on Palatine Hill. At the Vernal Equinox, a pine tree symbolising Attis was carried into the temple and decorated with violets, a flower believed to have sprung from the blood of the god. A figure of Attis then was hanged or bound to the tree.

Roman sources describe the festival as follows:

On the 22nd day of March, a pine was chosen in the woods and cut, then borne back to the temple of Cybele by a guild of Tree-bearers. The trunk of the tree was swathed in woolen bands like a corpse and decorated with violets. The effigy of Attis was tied then to the middle of the tree.

On the second day, trumpets were blown. (Noise often characterises New Year celebrations. It either is an attempt to frighten off evil spirits or to 'wake the dead'.)

The third day, the 24th of March, was known as the 'Day of Blood'. The Archgallus or highest of the Galli priests would draw blood from his arms as an offering first. The followers of the god then would gash themselves with knives and potsherds so that a rain of blood fell upon the altar and sacred tree. The most devout would make the sacrifice of their manhood, and the severed parts were thrown onto the altar. Later, these sacrifices would be buried either in the earth or in underground chambers sacred to the goddess.

The effigy of the god was laid in the tomb then and the worshippers mourned his death.

In the same way in which worshippers abstained from any food prepared from grains ground in a mill during the mourning period for Tammuz, the devoted abstained from bread during these rites.

When night fell on the 24th, however, the mourning was transformed into great joy. A light was kindled in the darkness and the tomb was opened. The god Attis had risen from the dead. The priest whispered the message of salvation and eternal life into the ears of the worshippers, touching their lips with sacred balm.

The 25th of March, deemed the Vernal Equinox according to the old Roman calendar, was a festival of Joy, celebrating the resurrection of the god. During the Festival of Hilaria, universal licence prevailed. People were expected to dress in masquerade and the lowest of the low could present himself as an emperor or god on this day. This is similar to the later medieval festival honouring the 'Lord of Misrule'.

The 26th was a day of rest and on the last day of the Festival, the 27th of March, the statue of the Great Goddess was taken to the river in a waggon drawn by oxen. The high priest, robed in purple, washed the image of the Goddess, the waggon and all other sacred objects in the flowing waters, then decorated all with fresh flowers of Spring.

As the god himself died and was restored to life, it was believed that initiates who made the ultimate sacrifice of their manhood achieved immortality through their action.

When Christianity swept through the Empire, the festival of Attis was supplanted by Easter.

For years, I puzzled over this cult and marveled at its incredible and widespread popularity. It is not uncommon to find the idea of the 'androgynous being' as particularly sacred in ancient religions. In Native American tribes, there was an accepted role for a man who dressed as a woman and indeed lived as a woman in order to gain spiritual power. Many ancient gods were depicted as being both man and woman, with the power to create life from their own beings.

On one hand, the 'unmanned' Attis could represent the same sort of life in perfect balance as the Equinox itself. Neither male nor female, the god Attis is a symbol of a being stripped of gender in a sense. As the pine tree was denuded of its branches and in fact, as the May Poles in Europe later often were stripped of their branches before being set in the centre of the village, it is through this act that immorality is achieved. The Asherah poles of ancient Canaan were trees that had been ritually stripped of their branches.

I now believe that the truth is far simpler. The cult of Attis has its foundation in the ancient 'hierogamos' or sacred marriage. In ancient Sumer, the king would participate in a sacred marriage with the High Priestess in the role of the Goddess on her sacred throne/bed. In doing so, he would bring fertility and good fortune to the earth. He was the subordinate in this relationship for he was no more than the shepherd of the flock in the role of Dumuzi. He guarded the land and its creatures for the Goddess.

Dumuzi was a shepherd who played the pipes. Attis was portrayed as a shepherd who played the pipes. In early times, it is possible that the High Priest would assume the role of Attis in the same way as the High Priestess once assumed the role of the Great Goddess. He would be hanged and torn apart on a pine or fir tree like Marsyas.
In the ritual of Attis wherein men castrated themselves, they were in effect performing the sacred marriage once and for all, burying their manhood in the Earth to be united with the Goddess eternally. This is why the ritual would be perceived as the promise of eternal life and eternal bliss. Rather than being a cruel sacrifice, it would be elevate the status of the individual, making him the partner of the Goddess who ruled all.

However much we might like to believe that magic and power can be 'tamed' by 'civilising' influences, the fact of the matter is that true power is rather frightening and sometimes brutal. Neither Death nor Life are always gentle.

If we can grasp the spiritual significance of the sacrifice of Attis, we can go beyond the ostensible horror of the act. In fact, throughout history, there have been cults of emasculation. A famous cult existed in the Soviet Union in the 19th century. Emasculation was not a matter of 'gender-consciousness' or
wish-fulfillment but rather of ultimate dedication to the Goddess. Unlike contemporary examples of men who opt for the knife in order to 'become women' for sexual reasons, the ancient mystery religions were more concerned with other realms than with sexual gratification in this world.

Beyond that, of course, blood is a powerful substance and blood coupled with pain endured in a noble cause always have presented an irresistible attraction for the masses.

Mel Gibson in depicting Christ's torments graphically in 'The Passion' was condemned by many, but interestingly enough, the film inspired millions of Christians, prompting them to revitalise their faith. Flesh and blood is fragile, and life is transient at best. In a film about Vercingetorix entitled 'Druids', a character declares that: 'The greater the magic, the greater the sacrifice.' This axiom is an elementary one both in religion and magic.

The secret rites of Attis were very similar to those of the god Mithras. In fact, they originally may have been the same god, as Mithras often is portrayed wearing a Phrygian cap. Mithras almost surpassed Christ at one point in his popularity.

In rites shared by Attis and Mithras, ritual fasting was followed by a baptism in blood. After the fast, the novice would be given 'communion' by eating from a drum and drinking from a cymbal. The devotee, crowned in gold, would descend into a pit, the entrance to which was covered with a grate fashioned of wood. A bull wearing wreaths and garlands of flowers, with forehead decorated with gold leaf would be driven onto the grating, then stabbed with a consecrated spear. The blood would pour onto the novice. When he emerged from this bath of blood, those who awaited him would receive him as one reborn to eternal life. After this, he would restrict himself to milk like a newborn child for a period. This ceremony took place at the Vernal Equinox during the great Festival of Attis.

Originally, most agrarian communities made blood sacrifices at times of sowing and planting. In many civilisations, it was a human sacrifice. Like the Aztecs, who created a temporary god each year, worshipped and adored him for a few days, then killed him, cut him into pieces and consumed his flesh, this sort of ritual always was part of the history of humanity.

In Christianity, the 'body and blood of Christ' is consumed in the ritual of 'Holy Communion.' Whether or not one believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation, wherein the bread and wine actually becomes flesh and blood, the ritual commemorates a fundamental human rite of sacrifice and a means by which human partakes of and therefore becomes one with a God.

As late as the 19th century, people in some parts of the world continued to practice ritual human sacrifice and to sow human flesh with the seed into the earth in order to make it fruitful.

For some reason, contemporary society, while reveling in 'virtual' depictions of violence and death, is disgusted and appalled by the concept of human sacrifice. There is a question that comes to mind, however. Considering the fact that each one of us is doomed to die at some point, would it not be better to die as a god?

Those who accepted the role of sacrifice actually became one with the God or Goddess. In some cases, this sacrifice was made by the King himself. The ancient connection between Ruler and land was strong. A good king was believed to bring prosperity and fertility to his land and people. A king who was evil or cursed would cause sterility and ill-fortune.

'The Golden Bough' is filled with examples of rulers who were allowed a specific period of kingship, after which they were sacrificed and another king chosen or appointed. It has been suggested that the Archigallus of the cult of Attis originally became Attis and was hanged from the Tree in the Temple. Only later was a figure substituted for a real human being, and the outpourings of blood from the worshippers splattered onto the statue would allow the statue to acquire the essence of a human sacrifice.

Contemporary pagans for the most part celebrate the Eostre Sabbat simply as a celebration of the renewal of life. The old connection with sacrifice has disappeared. Although the act of leaping through or over a fire was part of early Spring rituals throughout Europe, it is Beltane that now is considered the real fire festival and huge bonfires are lit on the first of May.

Holi, a Hindu Spring Festival has many similaries with Nawroz. The bonfire is lit on the eve of the Festival. The Festival itself is a festival of colour, but it is preceded by an ancient Fire ritual. The 'sacrifice' in Holi is an interesting one. The tale involves a conflict between good and evil, with the ultimate triumph of the 'good' boy who emerges from the fire unscathed and the defeat of the 'evil' woman who, although she supposedly had the power to protect herself from being burned, failed to do so and was consumed. This, however, is a 'gloss' on a far more ancient ritual.

The ancients believed that Fire was sacred. Fire, like water, is an element that purifies. It creates smoke, a creature of air that rises to heaven itself. The ashes it creates could be considered the transformed essence of the object consumed by flame. Furthermore, the most ancient form of light to dispel darkness is fire. Before electricity, humanity used fire in order to prolong the period of light after the setting of the sun. Fire was a source of warmth as well as a means by which food could be cooked.

Another 'magical' property of fire is its ability to shape metal. When human beings discovered how to work with metal, they were able to create tools and weapons far more powerful than anything previously available. The Bronze Age was born from fire. We tend to forget the vital importance that fire played in the lives of our ancestors.

In many ancient myths throughout the world, there is a common tale of the Goddess who takes a young boy destined to become ruler into her care. Usually she disguises herself as a nursemaid and convinces the mother to allow her to care for the child. Each night, she places the child inside a fire. One night, the mother witnesses this and snatches the boy from the fire, believing that she has saved her child from an awful fate.

The Goddess then reveals herself and declares that she was making the boy immortal but that, having been interrupted, he will be vulnerable in one specific spot. (This is the source of what now is known as Achilles' heel.) It is the fate ultimately of the ruler in each of these old myths to be killed when an enemy discovers his weakness.

Fire therefore was considered to possess the power to make a being immortal. There are many tales of individuals who walked into a fire only to emerge triumphant from it. Human beings can walk upon hot coals and flames without being burned and there are those who know the trick of swallowing flames. Even now, fire has its allure.

The old Iranian religion of Zoroaster was a Fire religion and Nawroz is based upon this. There actually is an old tale to explain the Festival, although it probably was created after the fact as is often the case with respect to ancient rituals.
Over 2500 years ago, there was a king named Dhahak or Zuhad. He ruled with an iron fist and each day two young boys were sacrificed and their brains fed to the twin serpents that grew from each of his shoulders. (The Serpent God is an ancient character found throughout the world.)

As one might expect, a hero emerged to liberate the people from this monster. He was a blacksmith named Kawa. With the hammer and sickle forged in his smithy, he overthrew the tyrant. Bonfires were lit on every hilltop and rooftop to celebrate this event. This was the beginning of 'Nawroz', the festival of a 'new day'.

The eve of the last Wednesday of the year, known by Iranians as 'Red Wednesday' is the night on which bonfires are made and lit. Every one is supposed to leap over the fire, exclaiming, 'Give me your redness and take away my yellow.' This expression probably refers to the pallour of winter and the healthy ruddy complexion of summer.
The ashes of the bonfire are gathered carefully after the fire is allowed to die down naturally. They then are taken out to the fields and buried in the fields. This practice can be found in old rituals of Spring throughout the world. The ashes are a symbol of the death of winter, but they will bring fertility to the fields.
When the individual who buried the ashes returns to the house and knocks upon the door.

'Who is it?' he is challenged.
'It is I.'
'From whence do you come?'
'From a wedding.'
'What do you bring?'
'Happiness and mirth.'

The door then is opened, and the messenger of the New Year, who has warded off the evil eye and all ill-fortune is allowed to enter.

The Fire Festival is known as 'Charshanbe souri'.

There is another element of the Charshanbe Souri that is reminiscent of the old Roman Festival of Hilaria. Children and even adults often dress in disguise and visit the homes of neighbours, carrying empty metal bowls and spoons. The clashing of the spoons against the bowls alerts the owner of the house who opens the door and places a treat in each bowl. Usually those who are in disguise do not speak, remaining anonymous throughout the ritual.

In the old Festival of Attis, there were similar practices, wherein individuals dressed in costume and went from house to house. Noisemaking in processions is part of most New Year celebrations. The noise drives away evil spirits.

An interesting and rather beautiful custom of Nawroz is the Sofreh, a display that is placed on a large cloth in the centre of the main room of the house. This usually is created a few days before Nawroz and consists of items with great significance.
The items that are included in the Sofreh are as follows:

Candles are placed on the cloth, one for each child in the household. Often an egg accompanies each candle.

A holy book is placed there. For Muslims, it would be the Holy Qur'an. For others, it might be the Avesta, the Bible or a book of poems by Hafez.

The Haftsin: This consists of seven items whose names begin with the letter Sin. The items usually are set on a tray together and can be:
Sib (apple), Sumac, Sir (Garlic), Samanu (wheat pudding), Senjed (jujube fruit), Sohan (a sweet made with honey and nuts), Siyahdane (sesame seeds), Serke (vinegar), Sangak (bread baked on a bed of rocks).
Sometimes, inedible items are substituted, including:
Sekke (coins), Spand (wild rue), Sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts).
Originally the seven 'Sin' represented Ahura Mazda and the six Amesha Spentas who help regulate order or 'deen' in this world.

Other items on the sofreh are:
An upright mirror with a hard-boiled egg in the centre.
A bowl of water with an orange and a leaf from a rose bush floating in it.
Live goldfish in a bowl.
Barley, wheat or lentil sprouts growing since early March decorated with a red ribbon and with an orange in the centre.

The sprouting plants probably are the most interesting aspect of this festival as they can be traced back to the plants of Adonis that women grew in small dishes in honour of the god. In parts of Eastern Europe, women still grow wild rue in similar fashion in Spring. The culminating ritual of Nawroz is the same as that of Adonis, as a matter of fact, and can be seen in similar rituals throughout old Europe.

The 'sa'at i tahvil' is the moment when the old year ends and the new year begins. At this point, the entire household must gather round the Sofreh, wearing their new clothes, holding a coin in their hand. Their attention is fixed on the egg in the centre of the mirror. At the moment when the new year begins, the egg will roll on the mirror and the orange will turn over in the bowl of water. Cannons are fired to salute the New Year (wherever there are cannon).

Nawroz celebrations last for thirteen days. On the thirteenth day, the sabzeh is taken to a body of running water and thrown into it, precisely as the plants of Adonis were thrown in the water in the distant past.

Fortunetelling is a huge part of Nawroz and there are many rituals and old traditions relating to fortune. Girls will conceal themselves on street corners to overhear conversations of strangers. The first utterance of the stranger will be taken as an omen. This is known as 'falgush'. Another ritual is 'gereh gushai' whereby a person will tie a knot in his/her clothing and ask the first person crossing his/her path to untie it. This is supposed to bring resolution to any problem the person may have.

Many people refer to the book on the Sofreh as a means of fortune-telling by opening it randomly at any page and pointing to a line without reading it first. The line thus designated will contain a prediction for the coming year.

Nawroz is an occasion for gift-giving. People often give 'eydi' or Eid gifts, and even promotions in a job may be delayed until the New Year as being more auspicious if given then. Rather like an Easter egg hunt, there is a traditional game that is played with coins. The coins are hidden beneath the edges of carpets in a house and members of the family then search for them. Special coins or crisp new banknotes often form eydi, given ordinarily by the head of any household to family and visitors.

Nawroz is the last contemporary celebration of a New Year in our Calendar. In some ancient cultures, the New Year was celebrated on 1 November after the last harvest and the last slaughter of animals before the Winter. I do not think there is any culture now that celebrates the New Year at the end of Autumn, although in the Islamic lunar calendar, the first day of Muharram will fall on a different day each year and a different month every few years. New Year for Muslims therefore can be celebrated in Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter. This was an attempt by Prophet Muhammad to distance people from the old seasonal rhythm of life and to set a pure relationship with God in its place. Although Islamic daily prayer or salah follows the rhythm of the sun and in fact, in many ways Islam is very much attuned to Nature and natural forces and elements, the Calendar is not.

Although contemporary society professes to be 'beyond' any need to propitiate the fates and our natural rhythms are obscured by artificial light and heat, people continue to look for 'closure' in their lives and to celebrate new beginnings. New Year celebrations are as popular now as ever, even if their original purposes sometimes have been forgotten.

1 comment:

Fleming said...

There's no possible way that a "comment" can do justice to your elegant essay. Nawroz is new to me, I've been curious about it, and so I'm thankful to you for describing the beautiful customs in detail.

I was particularly impressed by your thoughts on the symbolism of "non gender" in ancient rites, and I think that your statement, "Considering the fact that each one of us is doomed to die at some point, would it not be better to die as a god?" expresses an idea that can be applied more generally. Implicit in contemporary American thinking is the fantasy that with proper eating (whatever that is this year) and enough medical care one can live forever. Because death is inevitable, and lives are relatively short at best, the worship of longevity is far more foolish than the giving of one's life as a sacrifice.

Thank you for this wonderful article.