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R E L I G I O N
Zoroastrian Festivals in Iran
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Encyclopedia Iranica
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In the Achaemenid period the Zoroastrian calendar was further reformed, in the interests of more accurate time-measurement, by the addition of the epagomenae, that is, five extra days set at the year’s end (see Marshak, de Blois). Their introduction evidently caused deep bewilderment, with many people, priests as well as lay, suspicious of the validity of the celebration of holy days on the “new” dates. Accordingly they henceforth kept the festivals on both the “new” dates (doubtless at first under strong official compulsion) and the “old” ones, five days later, so that, for example, Nowrūz was now observed on the first and sixth of Frawardīn. The latter, as the supposed “old” date, was called the “Great” Nowrūz. The same duplication affected the other six obligatory feasts, and a number of the major festivals also, while great confusion, whose effects are still felt today, developed with regard to the festival of the fravašis (q.v.). This, instead of being the observance of the one night between sunset of 30 Spendarmad and sunrise of 1 Frawardīn, was extended perforce through the five days of the epagomenae which now lay between, and for the majority—because of bewilderment still existing in the second year of reform—through the last five days of Spendarmad also. The extent of the confusion which was caused could hardly have been foreseen by the reformers. A Middle Persian name for the epagomenae was andargāh, the “between-time,” and no doubt it was intended that they should simply stand between the old year and the new, with minimal dislocation of customary usages; but other names given to them, the “robbed” or “stolen” days, (rōz ī truftag/duzīdag; Bundahišn, tr. Anklesaria, p. 28, 1.21) shows the hostility their introduction evoked. The controversy attending it is still clearly attested in the Pahlavi books, which contain texts both for and against the reform; and this led to a wrong conclusion, namely that the reform itself took place in the Sasanian period (Boyce, 1970); but it appears that these Middle Persian texts must in this respect preserve texts and ideas which had been handed down orally through the intervening centuries. The reason why they continued in transmission was doubtless that the controversy itself continued to be a living one, with championing of the relative importance of the “greater” and “lesser” feast-days.

According to Bīrūnī, this lingering problem was partly resolved early in the Sasanian period (i.e., during the high priesthood of Kirdēr), when Hormoz I (r. 272-73 C.E.), joined the “greater” and “lesser” days of Nowrūz and Mehragān into single-day festivals. This set a pattern for other major festivals, and six-day observances became standard, though at some later time they were reduced to five days, probably under the influence of the epagomenae, with the fifth day then being regarded as the “greater” one. Hostility to the epagomenae, the source of all the trouble, must have vanished much earlier, and they had come, indeed, to be regarded by Persian Zoroastrians as especially holy days, for their priestly authorities had dedicated each of the five days to one of Zoroaster’s five Gāθās, and recitation of the appropriate Gāθā on each day was declared to be a highly meritorious observance. This usage was not universally adopted throughout the Zoroastrian community. Thus there is evidence that in Sogdia and Chorasmia the five days were simply called by the same names as the first five days of the month (Bīrūnī, Āār, 47-48, tr. pp. 57-58; Henning, p. 251, n. 58). Yet the epagomenae, even though still being termed the “stolen days” in some Sasanian texts, were necessarily treated everywhere as holy, because they largely coincided with the sixth gāhānbār (observed presumably on 30 Spendarmad before the Achaemenid reform, but eventually from 30 Spendarmad to the 5th Gāθā day), and were embedded in the cluster of festivals (sixth gāhānbār, Frawardīgān, Nowrūz) which merged to form the greatest festival season of the Zoroastrian year, with seventeen days of unbroken observances, from 25 Spendarmad to 6 Frawardīn. Naturally, only the rich, the leisured, and priests could set aside so much time all at once for religious festivals, but there was a special atmosphere during the whole period, and all took part some of the time, with the whole community joining in the holiest celebrations, namely the sixth gāhānbār (coinciding with the five Gāθā days and the last five days of Frawardīgān), the “farewell to the fravašis” on the last night of the epagomenae, and the Lesser and Greater Nowrūz.

Other calendar reforms eventually followed the Achaemenid one, because this created a 365-day calendar which slipped back slowly against the natural year, losing a month every 120 years. In the early 6th century C.E. it seems that a bold measure was taken to bring the seven obligatory feasts back into proper relation with the seasons. In 507-511 C.E. the spring equinox coincided with 1 Ādur (Āḏar); and apparently in one of these years it was decreed within the Sasanian empire that Nowrūz should be celebrated on 1 Āḏar instead of 1 Frawardīn, with the six gāhānbārs also moving to keep their fixed positions in relation to it, together with Frawardīgān, the epagomenae now being set at the end of the preceding month, Ābān. The other great non-obligatory festivals were not shifted, since they were tied to month- and day-names. Nowrūz was accordingly celebrated for the next half a millennium at the beginning of Āḏar month, even though this in its turn slipped backwards through the natural year. Piety and traditionalism ensured, however, that some celebrations continued also on 1 Frawardīn, which was still reckoned for civil purposes to be the beginning of the year. In due course, in 1006 C.E., 1 Frawardīn came to coincide with the spring equinox, and was once more celebrated as the religious Nowrūz (for details see de Blois), with the epagomenae being moved to stand again before it, at the end of Spendarmad month, and the gāhānbārs and Frawardīgān also returning to their former places in the calendar year. But because Nowrūz had by then kept on 1 Āḏar for five hundred years piety forbade that day’s abandonment, and religious services, and no doubt for a long time festivities also, continued for generations to be held on it as well.

The last reform of the 365-day calendar was made by Parsis, probably in or around 1125 C.E., when in order to bring 1 Frawardīn back to the spring equinox they repeated the preceding month, as Second Spendarmad, putting the epagomenae after it, so that, in festal terms, Frawardīgān and the sixth gāhānbār were celebrated then. This is the only certain instance of the theory being put into practice of the 365-day calendar being kept in harmony with the seasons by the intercalation of a thirteenth month every 120 years. It inevitably caused confusion, with puzzled people doggedly celebrating Nowrūz that year on the sixth day of Second Spendarmad, which, without this reform, would have been the first day of Frawardīn. Thereafter, right down into the second half of the 20th century—some 700 years later—6 Spendarmad has been kept as a festival day among Parsis, being known (among other names) as the “abandoned No Rōz,” Sōḍī Nahrōj (Khareghat).

This is the last instance of a recurring phenomenon, that every reform of the 365-day calendar led to some duplication of festivals, which was then piously maintained for generations, when not in perpetuity. The reason for this is clear: calendar changes are notoriously confusing in practice, and most people evidently did not understand the theory; and they were deeply concerned not to neglect days which had once been kept holy, in order not to fail in their duty to the yazatas. Evidence for perplexity arising at each attested calendar reform, and the keeping of the religious Nowrūz at 1 Āḏar for some sixteen generations, make it in the highest degree doubtful that there ever were regular intercalations of a month every 120 years in the 365-day calendar (for skepticism about this on other grounds, see Bickerman). The Parsis’ quite possibly unique intercalation of a month meant that thereafter their calendar, which came to be known as the Šenšāī (popular variant Šāhānšāhī) was a month behind that of the Persian Zoroastrians, which came to be called the Qadīmī (Parsi Kadmī). In the early 20th century a group of Parsis, inspired by Kharshedji Rustamji Cama (q.v.), adopted the Gregorian calendar, known as the Faṣlī, with a fixed Nowrūz on 21 March, and a day intercalated every fourth year after the epagomenae. There are accordingly now three Zoroastrian calendars in use, by which the same festal days are celebrated, but on different dates. However, with urbanization of the community, and Zoroastrians generally entering into the mainstream of life in the various lands in which they now live, many festivals have been abandoned and others shortened and simplified, with the loss of old observances. Traditionalists still, however, maintain the chief festal days, and even the skeptical keep Nowrūz, though tending to celebrate this (as Shiʿite Muslims do) as a secular feast.

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