Category Archives: Zoroastrian
Alternate Spelling: Uncle Nowruz
Also called: Persian – عمو نوروز
Etymology: Uncle Nowruz or Uncle New Year.
The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring.
In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year.
Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
Naneh Sarma And Amu Nowruz
One thing I found of interest is learning about Amu Nowruz’s wife, Naneh Sarma. There’s a love story wherein they only meet each other once a year.
According to the one story found, every year, on the Spring Equinox, Mother Simorq flies down from Mount Qâf with Amu Nowruz, the Young Man Spring. Once Simorq has dropped off Amu Nowruz, he heads for a chestnut-colored horse waiting for him. Amu Nowruz will then ride the horse out over the plains towards the city gates where he will meet Naneh Sarma, Grandmother Frost in her orchard just outside the city walls.
Amu Nowruz and Naneh Sarma were madly in love with each other and the first day of Spring, Naneh Sarma cleans her house and prepares for Amu Nowruz’ arrival. Naneh Sarma waits a long time for Amu Nowruz’s arrival. Long enough that she falls asleep.
By the time Amu Nowruz arrives, he finds Naneh Sarma fast asleep. Instead of waking her, Amu Nowruz leaves a flower he picked for Naneh Sarma on her lap. He then proceeds make himself a glass of tea and stoke the fire so it doesn’t die down. After all this, Amu Nowruz then heads on into the city, bringing Spring time with him.
Shortly after, Naneh Sarma wakes up and finds the flower that Amu Nowruz left and the other signs of his having been there. She weeps finding that her lover has come and gone again. Mother Simorq comes to Naneh Sarma to comfort and remind her that she will have to wait another year for Amu Nowruz’s arrival without falling asleep.
Mother Simorq then carries Naneh Sarma back up to Mount Qâf as she begins to melt. On the top of the Mountain, Mother Simorq lays Naneh Sarma down as she completely melts, knowing that if Naneh Sarma and Amu Nowruz should ever meet, the world would end.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Amu Nowruz’s role in the New Year’s celebration is one very similar to that of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas with the celebration of Christmas in that of one whom is bringing gifts. Depending on the country and the calendar used, Nowruz is celebrated close to the Spring or Vernal Equinox, often close to somewhere between March 19 to March 22.
Nowruz is Persian for “New Day,” marking the first day of the month Farvardin and the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar. The celebration of Nowruz has its roots in ancient Persian traditions of Zoroastrian religion. Some scholars suggest that the celebration may even be older and have roots in Mithraism. It has survived some 3,000 years and varies a bit in celebration from one country to another, especially among the Middle Eastern cultures, mainly Iranian.
Heralding the start of Nowruz, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him. Accompanying him is Amu Nowruz bringing and bearing gifts where Hajji Firuz is the one to demand and expect them.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave the household, taking with them the family’s blessings, abundance and luck for the coming year.
Shahnameh – The Book Of Kings
The Shahnameh is an epic poem written by the Persian poet, Ferdowsi sometime between 977 and 1010 C.E.
What’s significant is that this poem dates the celebration of Nowruz to the reign of Jamshid, who in Zorastrian texts saves all of mankind from a killer winter that would have killed every living creature. This mythical Persian King likely represents or symbolizes the transition of people going from animal hunting to animal husbandry and the eventual more settled, civilized eras of human history.
Jamshid is credited with the founding of celebrating Nowruz. According to the text of the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, Jamshid created a throne embedded with gemstones. Sitting on the throne, he had demons raise him up above the earth into the heavens where he sat, like the sun, shining brightly. The creatures of the world would gather around Jamshid and scatter gems around him. This started the day known as the New Day or Nowruz and marking the first day of the month of Farvardin.
Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni, about 10th century C.E. notes in his Kitab al-Tafhim li Awa’il Sina’at al-Tanjim, the Persian belief that Nowruz marks the first day that the universe begins.
UN Recognition Of Nowruz
While it goes slightly off topic of focusing on Amu Nowruz, I feel it’s important to mention that in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21st as the International Day of Nowruz. It is recognized as an ancient Persian festival for Spring that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
Where for Christians, the celebration of Christmas is often used to promote peace and goodwill, so too does the celebration of Nowruz during Spring. That having more of the world, the global community be better familiar with the significance of Nowruz and its meaning, it will help promote more cultural understandings, friendships, peace and hopefully long-lasting respect.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and make an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Alternate Spelling: Haji Piruz
Also called: Khawja Piruz
Etymology: The word Hajji (or Haji) is a title or honorific, much like in the English language when using “Sir” or “Mister” to address someone. It is unrelated to the Islamic word “Haajhi” or “Hajj”. The name or word Firuz/Piruz means victory. Khawja means “Master”.
The character of Hajji Firuz is a familiar and traditional figure who heralds Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He is often depicted as being covered in soot and wearing bright red clothing and felt hat. Hajji Firuz is also shown playing the tambourine as he sings: “Haji Firuz-e, sal-i-ye ruz-e.” Which translates as: “It is Hajji Firuz time, It happens one day in a year.” People of all ages gather around Hajji Firuz and his troupe of musicians to listen to them as they play the drum, saz or kamancheh and dance through the streets announcing the New Year. It is an air of festivity not unlike that of Christian celebrations of Christmas.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Hajji Firuz’s role in the celebrations of the New Year a very likely connected to the ancient role of the Zoroastrian fire-keeper Mir-Norowzi. It would explain Hajji Firuz’s depictions and portrayals of being soot-covered and wearing all red.
In the remnants of the Zoroastrian traditions, Mir-Norowzi was seen as a clownish or comical figure who would rule the municipality for the last five days of the year. As a temporary five-day king, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for, without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave the household, taking with them the family’s blessing and abundance.
Fire In Zoroastrianism
In Zoroastrianism, red-dressed fire-keepers would be sent out by the white-dressed moghsor priests on the last Tuesday of the year with the duty to spread the word and news for the arrival of Nowruz and Spring. The fire-keeper’s other duty was to have people burn all of their old items in a purification ritual in the holy fires in order to renew their life, vitality and energies for the coming year. The fire-keeper’s face would become darkened, due to being so near the heat caused by the holy fires.
Comparing Hajji Firuz And Black Pete
For those familiar with the Christian Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas) and his helper Black Pete, they will know of the controversies surrounding the character of Black Pete being seen as racist with his black skin and being a slave to Santa and not always as a servant, friend or companion.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attack by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Just as Black Pete is paired up with Santa, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with an Amu Nowruz.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Santa and Black Pete with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting.
Just as Santa is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring with done dying and being replaced by the other or being reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
With Hajji Firuz, he seems to be connected to the role and tradition of the “Lord of Misrule,” a mock king who would be sacrificed at the year in the Sacaea (the Persian New Year celebrations). As previously mentioned, in Zoroastrian, this figure is Mir-Norowzi who functions as a proxy for an agricultural deity and parallels the story of Murdock who is slain by Tiamat and is later resurrected.
Such stories of a sacrificial king or god at Spring dying and then being reborn are fairly common in many countries and cultures. Many of the stories include the mythological figures of Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Balder, and even Jesus.
Islamic scholar, Mehrdad Baliar has put forward the idea that the character of Hajji Firuz comes from surviving ceremonies and legends in the epic of Prince Siavash. These legends and ceremonies are also very likely to come from ancient Mesopotamian deities of agriculture and flocks such as Tammuz and the Sumerian Dumuzi.
Baliar has also put forward the idea that Hajji Firuz’s blackened face symbolizes his returning from the lands of the dead. That Firuz’s red clothing represents Siavash’s red blood and his return to life as a sacrificed deity. The spirit and air of joy and celebration is seen as typical of those who bring renewal, rejuvenation and blessings with them. Baliar continues that the name Siyawaxš may mean “black man” or “dark-faced man” and related to previously mentioned Mesopotamian ceremonies or the black masks worn for the Nowruz celebrations.