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Merry Yalda
The Iranian Christmas

December 21, 2001
The Iranian

Lecture at the Colorado Persian Society on December 20, 2001.

First of all let me apologize for my harsh voice that is punctuating my words and sentences with a mixture of dry coughs and hard breaths. It is the same old Winter again, difficult and miserable, and I have been invaded by its invisible army of cold weather that comes, conquers your body and puts you under house arrest for a few days. In these last two days I have been talking, or perhaps I should say "praying", to the Iranian Sun God, Mithra, who is supposed to defeat this invisible enemy and bring back the warmth and health of better times. I, of course, have used cold medicine as well, just to be on the safe side. You never know which one will be more effective, prayer or medicine. So, it's always better to use a mixture of them!

The interesting point is that we, Iranians, did not use to think of a God called Mithra. Many of us had not even heard of his name. But, for more than 20 years Iranians all over the world have been getting together at a night such as tonight and celebrating his mythical birth. Celebration aside, I would like to say a few words about this strange and highly significant socio-cultural phenomenon in the contemporary history of my country.

During the last 23 years, millions of Iranians have been driven out of their motherland due to political, social and economic hardships. And it has been during this long period of exile that we have begun a new search for our roots -- not because we are now living as aliens in new habitats but because we have become emphatically stricken by an alien version of Islam in our own land. The coming to power of a certain stratum of Shi'ite clergy in Iran and its forceful imposition of what it sees as "Islamic rules" has created a certain psychological upheaval in all of us, forcing us to remember a far-away past when Iran was an independent empire with its own home-brewed religion(s). We have been reminded that our great country was invaded, conquered and in many ways, raped by the new Muslim converts from the Arabian Peninsula some 1400 years ago. The Islamic Revolution seems like a re-run of that catastrophe!

All through these centuries, we have not accepted that we became Muslims because of the defeat in the hands of Arabs. First and foremost, we have resisted in adopting Arabic as our language -- unlike other South Eastern Muslim nations (from Syria and Iraq to all of North Africa) who accepted Arabic as a fact of life, losing their language and, thus, their ancient identities. We still read the Qoran, the Muslim holy book, in its native language, Arabic, and do not understand it. We say our prayers to Allah in Arabic and hardly know what we are saying to the Almighty! We have transformed Arabic Islam and invented many Persian versions of it that suit our own native needs and concerns, none of which are accepted by the rest of the Muslim world.

In fact, the history of Iran and Iranians during the last 1400 years could be read as the history of Iranian resistance towards the prevalence of Arabic culture and traditions. This history has had its periods of inactivity, as well as many periods of high active endeavors. There are many historical names we still give to our children that signify such historical struggles. For example, the two Persian names of Baabak and Afshin remind us of the bloody resistance movements led by those great men against Arab domination of Iran. Our great poet, Ferdowsi, was able to preserve our Persian language single-handedly through his masterpiece, Shaahnaame, merely by emphasizing the non-Arabic traits of our history and culture. Poets, thinkers and mystics like Haafez, Mowlaanaa and Sa'di, were instrumental in giving new and humane interpretations to many brutal and uncivilized traditions that were imposed on a country with 3,000 years of pre-Islamic history.

And their endeavors were based on their reference to a heritage that was given to them by their fathers and mothers under the watchful eye of a hostile political force that burnt libraries, changed historical facts and fabricated whatever necessary to convert a nation to a completely alien culture. And 23 years ago we faced one of these moments of high history. The brand of Islam advocated and implemented by the ruling clergy in what came to be known as the Islamic Revolution was not one of the home-brewed Iranian versions of Islam, but a brutal and bloody version that claimed to be the true Islam of Prophet Mohammad himself. One, of course, could embark on negating this claim by studying Islamic history and showing the discrepancies that might be hidden in the former. And many scholars have been doing so. But, on a national and popular scale, the result of our experience with the Islamic Revolution was the onset of a fresh search for finding something mysterious, something that could be called "Iranianism".

Our younger generation, though not directly involved in that Revolution, had to face this problematic too. They had to accept their Iranian identity in the eyes of non-Iranian environments that encircled them and looked at them as foreigners. But, at the same time, Iranians had to prove to the world that what was being presented as Iranian culture by the zealot Islamic government is not what really Iranian. So, two generations, with two different agendas, were forced to search their common roots, hidden under the surface of a thick historical mishmash.

The onset of research for the understanding of our roots opens our eyes to ancient ways of seeing the world, including our true original "religion". But what am I saying? A religion yet again? Aren't we presently escaping the atrocities of a religious oligarchy? So why should we find refuge in the arms of another religion, one that is even older than the present one? To me, the fact of the matter is that there are always two kinds of religions in all societies. We can call them "natural religions" and "supernatural (or abstract) religions". Human societies all began with the natural one.

Natural religions are systems of interpreting the world around us and making its ever-repeating movements acceptable to our inquisitive brains, upon the limited knowledge and understanding we have in each historical period. In this process, elements of nature are first "personified". They come to be seen and begin to behave like human beings. And then, being much more powerful than the fragile man, they become regarded as super-persons who have their own independent agenda and affect human life in so many ways. We have to learn how to deal with these super powers that are ever present in our daily lives.

We have to attract their love, affection and emotions.To do so, we have to have affectionate and emotional relationships with them. We have to live with them in peace. We should not be afraid of them. In fact, they are all providing us with all we need for our existence. In a way, we are mixed with them, we are part of their world and it is our coexistence with them that can preserve life in peace and prosperity.

On the other hand, abstract religions are the result of a much later stage in the development of human societies. They reflect the advent of civil life in cities with central governments and complicated legal requirements. At the center of this new religious universe comes the shape of a single omnipresent and omnipotent God who has created us and wants us to live according to his rules and laws. This God is an abstract one who is not tangible through our senses and daily experiences. He talks to us in installments and through prophets, saints and, ultimately, the Church or the Mosque as the supposed embodiment of the sacred heritage of the religion.

Living under the rules of an abstract God is hard and difficult. These rules are against human desire for freedom of action and expression. And, then, once a religious institution becomes able to attain political power, a harsh drive towards uniformity and non-individuality begins. This is against human nature too. It is based on coercion and fear, threat and torture. And it ultimately forces its subject to find a way to curb its imposing might. This is always a high turning point of a history. This is that important historical moment when a nation begins to find a way out of deadlock by searching for its very old identity.

In recent times, we experienced such a situation nearly 100 years ago during the Constitutional Revolution. A 100 years before that, Iranians were pushed by their religious leaders into a war with their neighboring power, Russia. They were shamefully defeated and crushed by the might of a modernized Russian army. They lost vast areas of their country and found out that their God did not help them in their "holy war" (Jihaad) against Russian foes. This experience was the beginning of a search for a new national identity. Our intellectuals looked for something helpful amongst the scattered reminiscences of our pre-Islamic history and came up with a total package that could modernize Iran and give some kind of needed glory to it. Remember Malkam Khan? Mirza Agha Khan e Kermani? Taghizadeh? Sadegh Hedayat? Ahmad Kasravi? Nima Yushij? Pour-Davood? Go and read them and see what they are presenting in their writings. The important thing is that here again, what had come to our aid was our pre-Islamic heritage. And what I want to show you tonight is the fact that we again are resorting to the same heritage to find our new answers for our new problems.

All through our history, we have oscillated between the heritage of a natural religion developed by our forefathers and the rule of some abstract religion that has sprung out of the necessities of our civil life. It has delimited our freedom and tainted our lives with unnatural conditions. The important thing to note is that if the abstract religion has changed, say from Zoroastrianism to Islam, the natural religion has been intact, each time appearing in a new disguise to suit our new needs. In every historical period the abstract religion has done its best to annihilate this natural religion and delete it from the communal memory of us Iranians and, at each high historical moment, that natural religion has reappeared out of many ordinary traditions, rituals, and festivities that punctuate our daily lives to revive our hope for a better future.

Think for a moment about the power that is hidden in an ordinary but highly popular festivity called "Chaar-shanbe Suri". This last Spring, it made the religious rulers of Iran so furious that they had to put hundreds of young participants in jail. It is a powerful celebration because it is a ritual and a common social action that is not related to any abstract and institutionalized religion with its rigid rules. There is no sacred act or thing in it. It is not an act of worshipping fire. You make make a fire from bundles of thistle and thorns, then jump over them with joy and enthusiasm. You become mixed with an element of nature, dance with its flames and absorb its kind warmth. You do not think of an abstract God who is sitting on a thrown somewhere in Heaven and expects you to suppress your joy and behave in his ever lasting and expanding presence.

So, it is this unifying power of our ancient natural religion that has helped us preserve our identity and humanity all through this long history of wars, victories and defeats. Therefore, let us think about this unique source of cultural survival in some more details.

Historical facts show Iranians were a part of Aryan tribes that lived in the meadows of Central Asia. Some 8,000 years ago, due to natural causes still exposed to scientific debate, they began to move out of their habitats and scatter in all directions. Some of went to lands now known as the Far East. Some went to Indian sub-continent, some to present Europe and some, mostly Medes, Parthians and Parsies (together known as "Iranians), came to the Iranian plateau from both sides of the Caspian Sea, settling in present day Khorasan in eastern Iran and Fars/Pars in the south and Azarbaijan in the west. This process of immigration took more than 5,000 years until permanent settlement. Studies in ancient languages show that even after thousands of years, languages used by these variegated immigrant tribes have preserved a lot of common features. That is why we hear linguists and archeologists talk about Indo-European languages, with the "Iranian" languages branch being a major offshoot.

These Arian tribes brought along their natural religion with them too. That is why, for example, we can see the same natural gods in both Iranian and Indian mythologies. For Arian tribes, there existed a pantheon of natural gods, consisting of a god for every natural phenomenon. Amongst these natural gods, Mithra was considered the central figure. It represented the Sun, the source of life and growth. In contrast to Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula who were exposed to the deadly heat of an ever-shining sun that inspired them to conceive their gods. Aryan tribes were in love with the sun. It is not an accidental fact that the word "Mehr" (a later pronunciation for Mithra), has a double meaning in the Persian language. It means "sun" as well as "love". Mithra is the protector of life, loving emotions, relationships and contracts and the structure of the whole universe. And, on the earth, he is represented by the element of fire. In fact, Aryans were not worshipers of fire but esteemed it as a part of the sun whose real embodiment was the gracious Mithra.

In this relation, it is interesting to look at the story of Mithra's birth: The universe was cold, dark and condensed into a hard stone. And Mithra was born out of that germinal stone in the longest and darkest night of the year -- the winter solstice. The similarity of this myth with the story of discovery of fire narrated by Ferdowsi is also interesting. He says an Iranian mythological king made the first fire by pounding a piece of stone on a boulder. Here, too, fire is born out of the bulky and hard body of the stone.

The selection of winter solstice as the birth night of Mithra is also significant. The sun is born in the longest night of the year. With the coming of dawn, night is on retreat and days grow longer. Iranians called the first day of winter "Khorram Ruz" that meant "Happy Day". Thus, they believed that in the depth of darkness, there was light and in the depth of stone there was fire. You can follow this symbolism of natural elements all through Iranian culture and literature: Hope is born when you are totally desperate; Justice comes at the height of despotic atrocities.

The festivities of Mithra's birth are all based on the requirements of an agricultural community with natural means of survival. Summer is gone, the weather is cold and harsh, there is no work left to be done. It is time to gather around the warmth of fire during the long nights and talk about better days ahead. We can dance around the fire, sing songs, and feast on nuts, raisins and fruits. Then we go to sleep with the confidence that the sun, the great Mithra, is on his way to prevail the next day.

As a natural religion, Mithraism was not institutionalized. Rather itwas scattered and individualized. It was based on the unity of man and universe and the ability of the former to rediscover this unity through his love for Mithra. Mithra is the mother of all Eastern mystical faiths. Buddhism, Manicheism, as well as true Persian Erfan, are some of its many interpretations. But what makes it so relevant to our lives here in the West is the fact that Christianity, as we know it, is also a mixture of a primitive form of Christian faith and a highly developed version of Mithraism in the fourth century of the Christian calendar. This amalgamation took place in the Roman Empire.

Mithraism had never become the state religion of the Persian Empire. For more than a thousand years, Iranian kings refused to accept and adopt a state religion. Religion was seen as a personal and community-related matter. It as nothing to do with government. This, of course, does not mean that the king and his administrators did not have their own religious beliefs. But we see ancient kings praying to different gods worshiped by their peoples. Freedom of religion was the key to success in their empire building. Even the advent of the abstract religion of Zoroaster (Zartosht) in the Iranian plateau did not put an end to the prevalence of Mithraism amongst Iranians. It was only after the adaptation of Christianity by the Roman Empire that the Sassanid kings of Iran decided to unify their people under the banner of a state religion. Many brutal policies followed, which ultimately caused its demise in the hands of the Muslim-Arab invaders.

Meanwhile Iranian and the Roman empires were engaged in war more than 300 years, a war that inevitably brought them together and worked also as a cultural liaison between the two fighting nations. Mithraism crept into the Roman Empire in many ways but mostly through Iranian soldiers captured in battlefields. Soon it caught the attention of army leaders and worshiping Mithra and being a Roman soldier became one. Here, Mithraism was institutionalized and gained fixed rituals and ceremonies. What we read about Roman Mithraism is not the faith that existed in Iran.

At the same time, and outside the roman army barracks, a new religion was spreading amongst the mobs as well. It was the worship of the son of the Jewish God who came to be known as Jesus Christ. The idea was rejected by the Jewish authorities but was welcomed by the oppressed people. Within three centuries Christianity became so prevalent that Roman emperors were forced to accept Christianity as their state religion. This was to be different from what people had accepted in their hearts. It was to be a mixture of militant Mithraism and popular Christian faith with some other added ingredients from Greek mythology and even Egyptian history. There ensued an interesting process of unification by which Mithra and Christ became one. Mithra's birth night became the birthday of Christ and many of the Mithraic rituals were adapted as Christian ones.

I do not intend to go into details of this unification. The important thing I want to emphasize is the fact that we have embarked on a search for our true identity and have come up with a lot of information that's going to take our origins out of the Arabic/Muslim culture and put it as the source of that culture and civilization that was developed by Christian Europeans and Americans. We have discovered that our roots are the same, our languages belong to the same family and, now, our religious rituals, as far as they adhere to their natural frameworks and perspectives, come from the same source.

It is both surprising and delightful to look at Christmas trees and their decorations and remind ourselves that this is the same evergreen or Cypress tree (Sarv) our ancestors used to decorate in their cottages for the birth night of Mithra. This universality of our New Year festivities opens the door to a more humanistic and naturalistic perspectives. Every Sunday -- that is, the day of the Sun God! -- we should remember that it is really Mithra, the Arian-Iranian God of the Sun and love, who is also being worshipped in every Christian church.

Every Christmas, we should remind ourselves that it is Yalda again. During every Yalda we celebrate both the rebirth of the sun and the birth of a man who is supposed to have come for the salvation of human kind. This is the magic of cultural genetics at work. We are all from the same origin and same sequence of genes. We are a configuration of natural elements. A mixture of wind, earth, water and fire. And between two brackets of "ashes", it is the fire that symbolizes our life and well-being. Fire makes us and swallows us, we make fire and coexist with it. We are the created the and creator. As Mithra is.

Let me finish my words with a line of poetry by our great poet, Hafez, who, I believe, was a Mithraic thinker and artist. By the magic of his pne,, he reverses the cause-effect relationship between the Sun and the life of the human kind and writes:

Out of the hidden fire in my chest

The sun is just a flame

Keeping the sky ablaze.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Esmail Nooriala


Esmail Nooriala's features index


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