The Grand Old Iranian Feast

With the great Iranian harvest festival approaching, I’ve got food on my mind.

Okay. I often have food on my mind.

But I’m not alone. Zoroastrians are religious about food, and who can blame them? There are, by name at least, seventeen feast days on the Zoroastrian calendar. Eight of these feasts are observed religiously. Imagine having eight Thanksgivings throughout the year!

A Tajik 'No Rooz' feast

A Tajik No Rooz feast

And no, they don’t fast.

After the harvest feast of September comes Mehregan, a particularly significant feast. It is also a harvest feast, by virtue of its placement on the second day of October. It is the Feast of Mehr, or Mithra. Mehr represents two things in the Iranian mind: ethically, faithfulness to contracts, and symbolically, the sun. Thinking of the crucial role the sun plays in the harvest, and thinking of agriculture as a crucial contract with the earth, one can easily see that Mehr is as good a celestial power as any to be recognized at the onset of Autumn.

Not to suggest that there aren’t other good times to throw a feast. The ancient Iranians also had a Spring feast, a feast for the rains, a Summer feast, a round-up feast (yes, like the cowboys have), a Winter fire feast, and an “All Souls Feast” at the year’s end.

Each Zoroastrian congregation celebrated these festivals by attending religious services early in the day, devoted always to Ahura Mazda, and then by gathering in joyful assemblies, with feasts at which food was eaten communally which had been blessed at the services. Rich and poor met together on these occasions, which were times of general goodwill, when quarrels were made up and friendships renewed and strengthened.

Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians

As I have mentioned more than once before, I was raised in an Iranian religion that has little regard for its pre-Islamic Iranian heritage. I never heard of these feasts as a Bahá’í. If my family had a feast day, that was Thanksgiving. I really liked Thanksgiving. Turkey Day was right up there with Halloween and Independence Day. Thanksgiving was one of those Western holidays that we were free to observe because of its lack of any strong ties to Christianity. It would have been a slippery slope. It seems harmless enough to have a Christmas dinner, but next thing you know you’re fasting for Ramadan. You have to nip these things in the bud!

I attended my first Zoroastrian New Year’s (No Rooz) celebration last Spring, and I’ve been meaning to write something down about what a pleasant experience it was. I went to the fire temple first, with no real intention of joining the festivities in the community hall. I enjoy the fire temple, and I’d go much more often if it were in a more convenient location. It’s a quiet, casual experience. One is expected to remove one’s shoes and wear a cap, but that’s not much to ask. I wouldn’t be comfortable tracking dirt in there anyway, and though the cap is a bit formal for my general liking, it gives me a comfortable sense of—how should I put it—spiritual discipline.

As for the festivities, well, I’m hesitant to jump into the fray with a lot of Iranian strangers (and thus they’ve remained strangers over the years), but once invited, I generally enjoy myself. And what’s not to like? Good food, song, dance, and conversation.

Someone’s bound to point out that Bahá’ís do have observances which they call “feasts”. The Bahá’í Calendar features nineteen meetings which they call “Nineteen Day Feasts.” These Bahá’í “feasts” may have been originally inspired by Iranian culture, but they have little in common with Zoroastrian feasts, or any other traditional feast, for that matter: Bahá’í “feasts” are not really feasts at all.

The 19-day Feast is administrative in function …

Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian

The Bahá’í feast is primarily an administrative event. It does generally include food in its “social portion” as any good committee meeting would, but the meeting is generally a rather exclusive affair, being limited to Bahá’ís who have not lost their administrative rights, hence these Bahá’í feasts tend to exclude non-Bahá’ís and Bahá’ís without said administrative rights.

The Zoroastrian feasts are quite literally feasts; traditionally an opportunity for the fortunate to share the bounty of their good fortune with the less fortunate. The Bahá’í feast, though it generally involves food, is more often described as a feast of spiritual sustenance — in a distinctively administrative sense so characteristic of Bahá’í practice.

Further Reading

John Walbridge, The Nineteen Day Feast

The Heritage Institute: Gahambar

17 comments on “The Grand Old Iranian Feast

  1. Susan says:


    It is simply not true that Baha’is have “little regard for its pre-Islamic Iranian heritage.” Most of them don’t know much about that religion but neither do Zoroastrians themselves. When I was in India I had more than one Parsi ask me to explain their religion to them. (I’ve written a book on Zoroastrianism which the Parsis published.) As for seeing the Baha’i Feast as an exclusive event, it is no more exclusive than traditional Zoroastrian Feasts. Non-believers do not generally attend those either. As for whether it is really a *Feast*, well that varies from place to place. We are not tea and cookie Baha’is where I live.

    warmest, Susan

  2. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi Susan.

    I applaud you for your interest in Zoroastrianism and your contribution to scholarship on the subject, but that’s not evidence of general Baha’i interest in Zoroastrianism, or of significant interest on the part of the Baha’i founding fathers, for that matter. It’s merely a refreshing anecdote.

    Is the Gahambar an exclusive event? It didn’t seem so to me. The temple here and all festivities appear to be open to all comers, and the Zoroastrians are very welcoming to non-believers. They certainly never carded me, and they generally have had no idea who I am, and welcome me as an outsider.

    The fact that non-Zoroastrians do not generally attend Zoroastrian events does not make said events exclusive.

    Your “bahai-islam” blog looks interesting. I happen to believe that the Baha’i Faith is a very Islamic religion, and I look forward to seeing you nurture the intimate relationship between the two.


  3. Hey Dan,

    You just copied this this stuff directly off “The Iranian” website, right? 🙂

    ka kite

  4. Dan Jensen says:

    Actually, I *am* “The Iranian”, Steve!

    But seriously, Captain Internet, are you pulling my leg again, or am I not the exclusive source of this ground-breaking news?


  5. Susan says:

    I’m guessing that the Zoroastrian temple you are attending is part of the Zoroastrian Association which is not considered orthodox by most Zoroastrians. It was started by a Muslim convert, which is itself controversial within the Zoroastrian community. Traditionally non-Zoroastrians have not been allowed inside Zoroastrian temples, at least not when the fire is burning.

  6. Dan Jensen says:

    Susan, I’m familiar with the Zoroastrian Association and Ali Jafari, and frankly, I’m not a big fan of his rather creative approach to Zoroastrianism, but I have enjoyed some of his less Gathas-heavy essays.

    And yes, I’m familiar with the Parsi tradition, and the controversies associated with such traditions in the Modern Parsi community. In Northern California, however, a Persian group operates the temple, and, in line with the more inclusive Persian Zoroastrian culture, non-Zoroastrians are welcome to visit the temple at any time within reason. The community is neither orthodox nor heterodox; it’s simply a community of Iranian immigrants. Iranian Zoroastrians do have their traditions, but my understanding is that those traditions do not restrict temple entry.

    And yes, Parsis are welcome too.

  7. Susan says:

    That explains it somewhat. Traditionally Iranian Zoroastrians did not allow non-believers into their temples either but towards the turn of the century (19-20th century, that is) they mostly joined the most liberal sect of Zoroastrians, the Fasli sect. This was a minor sect among the Parsis founded by K.R. Cama. At some point the Persian Amelioration Society adopted it and from there it spread to the Irani Zoroastrian community. In this it was helped by the support given it by Zoroastrian Baha’is who at the time made up the majority of the Zoroastrian Anjuman in Yazd. You can read about all this in my master’s thesis “Zoroastrian Conversion to the Baha’i Faith in Iran 1880-1920.” The irony of all this then, is that the ‘liberality’ you observed among Irani Zoroastrians was at least in part due to Baha’i influence.

  8. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi again, Susan. I remember that thesis of yours, and have been meaning to read it.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to discover Babi and Baha’i influences on Iranian Zoroastrianism. I’ll bet the interplay of cultural influences in 19th Century Iran was quite complex. Iran’s more ancient religious heritage may still be casting fresh influences on Shi’a religious movements to this day.

    It appears, though, that Iranian Zoroastrianism has always been a bit more inclusive than Indian Zoroastrianism, from what I have read of historical communications between Indian and Iranian communities with regard to conversion. I don’t know whether Zoroastrians prohibited Muslims entry into Zoroastrian temples before the 19th Century. I imagine that Muslim prejudices would just as likely have been the limiting factor.


  9. Susan says:

    Hi Dan,

    Iranian Zoroastrians were always a bit more inclusive than Parsis in that, in principle, they believed that outsiders could convert whereas Parsis did not. As far as allowing Muslims to enter their fire temples, they would have only have done this insofar as they couldn’t prevent it. The danger of polluting the fire would be just too great.

    warmest, Susan

  10. Dan Jensen says:

    Agreed. It’s hard to see how Zoroastrians of the past would have assented to any exposure of the temple fire to non-Zoroastrians, for the same reason that we see the innermost chamber of the temple restricted to the priesthood.

    There are worse crimes than excluding unbelievers from the Holy of Holies, and ritual purity can be quite harmless (e.g. ablutions). That said, I think it’s pretty clear that traditional Zoroastrianism took ritual purity too far, as has the general body of Islamic practice. The Bahá’í Faith certainly shines in this respect, insofar as it minimalizes its own purity rituals.

  11. Susan says:

    Zoroastrianism took ritual purity much further than Islam or even Judaism did. Menstruating women not only cannot enter the fire temple she must be kept segregated from her own family members. She has to eat using special utensils less she pollute her own food. Of course we are talking about traditional Zoroastrianism here, not necessarily what the majority do today.

  12. Dan Jensen says:

    No argument there! I have no idea how orthodox Zoroastrians make it through the week!

  13. Susan says:

    Well nice talking to you Dan, but I still think you are wrong about Baha’is having little regard for Zoroastrianism. Take a large group of Americans and ask how many know anything at all about it, and I think you’ll find that most of those who do are Baha’is.

  14. Dan Jensen says:

    A pleasure!

    Most people, American or otherwise, have no immediate cause to investigate Zoroastrianism, but the Baha’is consider Zoroaster a Manifestation of God. I think that’s a good reason for them to get to know him better.

    I’ll give the Baha’i Faith one thing for sure: it made me curious about Zoroaster, … but that was all it did. However, I think the situation is improving, thanks in part to individuals like you. Baha’is now have published scriptures addressed to Zoroastrians and Zoroastrian Baha’is, and a smattering of scholarly works relating the Baha’i Faith to Zoroastrianism.

    But the Baha’is–even the Iranians among them–are still ignorant of Zoroastrianism. If Baha’is are going to say they believe that Zoroaster was a Manifestation of God and claim to believe that the Baha’i Faith and Zoroastrianism are fundamentally one, they ought to get to know Zoroastrianism a little better.

  15. Susan says:

    One more thing, totally off subject. I got my info about David Koreish from a BUPC bulletin board just after Jensen died. Feel free not to post this comment, it is just for your information.

  16. Dan Jensen says:

    That’s a very interesting bit of source information, Susan. I hope you don’t mind me keeping it posted. Those Jensenites are quite an eccentric lot. To link them with Koresh would make for quite a story.

  17. Susan says:

    What the posting on the bulletin board indicated was that Koresh had belonged to the Jensenite organization for about a year before he went off to do his own thing.

Comments are closed.