Zoroastrianism - The Old Iranian Calendars, Part 3

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jayaram V

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Relying on the presupposed principle that the Y.A. year originally (i.e. at the time of its introduction or, rather, its official recognition by the State and "Church" in Persia) began on the vernal equinox, I myself two years ago placed the date of the institution of this calendar in the second decade of the fifth century BC, and have tried to suggest the exact date of this reform.30 The reasons for this conjecture are given in a paper read before the International Congress of Orientalists held in Rome in 1935 (section iv, sitting of 26th September), as well as more fully in my above-mentioned Persian book entitled Essay on the Iranian Calendar.

A New Conjecture

A later study of the question, however, has led me to change somewhat my former opinion. The conclusion reached is this. The abandonment by the Zoroastrian community of their traditional Old-Avestan calendar, and by the Persian court and Government of the Old-Persian or early Achaemenian calendar, in favor of the Egyptian system took place during the Achaemenian period. This reform may not have been [13] effected in both cases (the "Church" and the State) simultaneously, and most probably one preceded the other by a considerable time. Nevertheless the final union of the two, i.e. the religious community and the court, in this matter must have been accomplished in the first decade of the second half of the fifth century BC, probably about 441. It was also then, I think, that the beginning of the year was placed near the vernal equinox, and not far from the Babylonian zagmûg (New Year's festival) and that the intercalation system was instituted. The reasons which have led me to this conclusion are as follows: --

There is no doubt that the Achaemenian kings used, in the early part of the reign of that dynasty, a calendar based most probably on the Babylonian (perhaps indirectly through the Elamite or Assyrian calendar). Their months were running strictly or almost parallel with the Babylonian months and their year must have been a luni-solar one like that of the Babylonians. The only difference between these two calendars was in the names of the months, and perhaps also in the fact that, while the Babylonian year began near the vernal equinox, the beginning of the Persian year was probably near the autumnal equinox. This last theory, if it should be satisfactorily proved, would suggest that this practice was a survival from that of the early ancestors of this branch of Iranian stock, as the name sared in Avesta and thard in Darius's inscription for the year and their similarity with the Indian sarad (autumnal season) also may suggest. We shall call this Achaemenian or south-western Iranian calendar here Old-Persian.31

[14] The people among whom Zoroaster preached his new religion and founded the first Mazdayasnian community (whom we may conveniently call "the Avestan people"), on the other hand, appear to have had a totally different system of time reckoning which, there are strong reasons to believe, was an ancient form of the Iranian calendar of early Aryan (probably north-eastern) origin and of a rural character, beginning with or about the summer solstice, This calendar which we shall call in the following pages Old-Avestan has, in many respects, great similarity with the oldest Indian (Vedic) calendar and in some aspects also with the post-Vedic calendar, and both (the Indian and Avestan) may have had a common origin. The year of the Old-Avestan calendar, which seems to have been called yâr, appears to have been first divided into two main parts, from the summer solstice (maidyoshahem or mid-summer) to the winter solstice (maidyarem or mid-year) and vice versa, exactly like the old Vedic year, which was also originally divided in the same way into two ayanas (uttarâyana and daksinâyana).32 The further division of the year in later [15] times in India into more and shorter seasons (ritu) up to six in number, which took place there gradually, has also great resemblance to the similar division of the year into six seasons (yâirya ratavô) or gahs among the kindred race of the Iranians, though the Iranian seasons, unlike the Indian, were of unequal length.33

This later and gradual division of the year in both countries certainly took place as a consequence of the climatic change encountered by Indo-Aryans and Iranians during their migration southwards, and hence the difference in the way of division. The Old-Avestan year began, as already stated, with maidyoshahem or the summer solstice, and was presumably of 360 days with two parts, each of 180 days, like the Indian ayanas. The second part began accordingly with maidyarem, near the winter solstice. The very name of this gahambar, which certainly means mid-year with its description or its epithet in the Avesta indicating "the cold bringer" (Visperad 1.2, 2.2), testifies to the year's commencing with summer. Also there is in Yasht 8.36, perhaps further support in favor of this theory. It is said there that when (or after) "the year [again] comes to the end for men the counselor princes (? chieftains) and the wild animals, [who] house in the mountains and the shy [animals who] graze (or wander) in the plains, watch [when it (the Tishtrya) is in] rising".34 The Tishtrya, which is generally held to be Sirius, had its first heliacal rising in July in the first half of the first millennium BC (in north-eastern Iran it rose about 26th-27th July, i.e. four weeks after the solstice). Thus the people might have been waiting and longing impatiently for this rain-bringing star in the first days of the summer. The epithets of the other gahambars, as well as the attributes by [16] which they are qualified in the Avesta, also all agree with these supposed positions of maidyoshahem and maidyarem. Again, the verse of the Vendidad (18.9) which refers to Marshavan, "who could through his wrong religion seduce one to commit the sin of not having devoted (neglecting to devote) himself to the study [of the holy text], continuously for a period comprising three springs (thrizaremaêm)," deserves attention. Could it not be interpreted as suggesting that the spring was the last part of the year, and with the third spring, a period of three full years was completed, which would mean that the year began with summer?

There must have been, in the Old-Avestan calendar, no doubt in practice, some sort of intercalation in order to keep these seasons and the agricultural and religious festivals which were at the end of the seasons more or less in their fixed places in the tropical year. But the way, by means of which this stabilization was achieved, is as little known to us as that by which the old Indo-Aryans prevented the old Vedic year from becoming a vague year. If the year (Old-Avestan) was lunar, i.e. a year of 354 days, then the intercalation must have taken place through the addition of an extra month each two or three years. Apparently this was the opinion of Marquart, who refers to this Old-Avestan year as also vermutlich ein gebundenes Mondjahr.35 The analogy with the old Indian Vedic year and Biruni's report of a year of 360 days in the time of Peshdadian dynasty,36 i.e. in the prehistoric Iranian period, however, make the identification of the Old-Avestan year with this sort of year (i.e. a year of 360 days) more acceptable.37 We may also accept Biruni's statement as to the [17] method of stabilizing the Old-Avestan year, namely by the intercalation of one month of thirty days every six years 38 [and perhaps sometimes five years], though a supplementary intercalation of another month each 120 years, which he reports also in the same passage about that calendar, seems to be very unlikely in those ancient times.

This calendar must have been in use when Zoroaster appeared among the people whom we have called the Avestan people, and it must have remained in use with or without some small changes for a considerable time, thus becoming later the calendar of the early Mazdayasnian community. Therefore it must have existed in south-western Iran in the time of the first Achaemenian rulers as the religious calendar of the Zoroastrians of that region side by side with the Old-Persian calendar, which was the official system for the computation of time for the State as well as for the non-Zoroastrian people of that country.

The first reform

The contact between Persian and Egyptian culture which began with the conquest of Egypt by Cambyses in 525 BC must naturally have attracted the attention of the rising nation to that old and famous civilization. Darius, who had accompanied Cambyses to Egypt and had stayed there for some years before his accession to the Persian throne, returned to that country, after he became king, in 517 BC. He took a very great [18] interest in the Egyptian nation and their culture, treated the Egyptians kindly, became very popular with them, and was recognized by them as one of their law-givers. It is possible he took a good many Persian nobles, sages, and religious leaders with him to Egypt, and be brought with him, or summoned, to Susa the high priest of the famous Sais temple, Uzahor by name (according to an inscription now in the Vatican).39 The intercourse between the two nations which developed particularly with the friendly attitude of Persia towards Egypt and the good feeling felt by the latter toward the former, may certainly have had some influence on the institutions of Persia. Therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that it was at or about this period that the high authorities of the Zoroastrian community in Persia adopted the Egyptian system of time reckoning, and thus introduced the Y.A. calendar. The similarity of principle involved by the theoretical beginning of the year in both cases (among the Egyptian and the Zoroastrian community) on or near the heliacal rising of Sirius may have prepared the ground for a rapprochement in this matter. The original New Year of Egypt was based on the time of the first heliacal rising of the dog-star (Sirius), called by them Sopdet, which in ancient times nearly coincided with the beginning of the rise of the Nile.40 This was the greatest festival of the Egyptians, for the rising of the Nile was the principal source of their happiness and prosperity. Similarly the heliacal rising of Tishtrya (generally believed to be the Avestan name for Sirius), which was looked for as the bringer of much needed rain, the most vital necessity for the Persian cultivator during the season of excessive heat, must have been in that country as great a blessing as the rise of the Nile to the Egyptians.41 Consequently this point of time (or the first day of the month during which this star rose) had most probably been fixed, as has already been stated, as the New Year of the original people of the Avesta in the pre-Zoroastrian and early Zoroastrian periods.42 Moreover, the Egyptian system with a year of a fixed number of days (365) without intercalation (for the omitted fraction of day) may have appeared to the minds of the Zoroastrian priests, especially for liturgical purposes much simpler and more convenient than their own. Consequently they adopted that system and introduced the so-called Young-Avestan calendar into the Zoroastrian church and community. This community may have been by this time encouraged, and perhaps even favorably regarded and supported by the court, following the anti-Magi policy of Darius after the slaying of the Magian usurper and general massacre of this caste in 522 BC.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


30. I have proposed the 28th March, 487 BC, for the epoch of this reform.

31. The idea of the Old-Persian year having been borrowed from a neighboring people of the West (possibly Elamites), who in their turn might have adopted in much older times the calendar system of one of the Sumero-Babylonian cities which had the autumnal New Year, could also be considered if this last theory about those cities could be proved. Indeed, Hommel (ERE-calendar) asserts that in the oldest forms of the so-called Chaldean calendars, e.g. those used in Ur, Girso, etc., the beginning of the year was in autumn. S. A. Pallis also (The Babylonian akîtû Festival, p.30) states that "in the time of Sargon of Agade, Gudea, and partly also in the time of Hammurabi, the New Year began in Tishritu, and not until after that time in Nisan". He states further (pp. 30-31) that under Hammurabi perhaps the beginning of the civil year was transferred from Tishritu to Nisan, but that "in astronomical calculation, however, the autumnal equinox was still used as the point of departure". But Father Schaumberger, who is a great authority on questions relating to the Assyro-Babylonian astronomy and calendar, informs me in reply to my inquiry that there is only one passage (K 775 = Thompson, Reports of the Magicians and Astrologers of Nineveh and Babylon, 16, 5s.) where two different dates (Nisan and Tishri), i.e. the spring and the autumn, are mentioned as the beginning of the year similar to the Jewish calendar, but that we have no proof for assuming that the Babylonians used in their real life an autumnal New Year. This venerable scholar contests also the actual use of a year of 360 days in Babylon or Sumer (also advanced by Hommel), and says that we have no proof for it though there are some texts speaking of months of thirty days or of a year of 6 x 60 days, which could be explained by the fact that in Babylonian business documents the months are counted as thirty days.

32. According to Kaye (Hindu Astronomy, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India, No.18, p.27), there is in the Rig-Veda also a division of the year from one equinox to the other called Devayana and Pitryana, but the basis of the Vedic calendar seems to be the two solstitial divisions.

33. The Indian seasons are each of two months and all are equal in length.

34. I have followed more or less strictly F. Wolff's translation, with which most scholars agree, but Lommel in his Die Yäsht's des Awesta, p. 54, gives the translation of the words in italics above as "the annual tilling" (Jahresbestellung). If that part of the Avestan word connected with the word "year" should not prove to mean the "end" then the whole argument loses its basis.

35. Untersuchungen, p. 206.

36. AB., p. 11.

37. The year of 360 days was perhaps the first step in the transition from a lunar to a solar year, being half-way between 354 and 365 days. Some scholars believe that this sort of year existed also in Babylon and Nippur (see note 1, p. 13 supra), and there are others who suppose that the vague year of 365 days was preceded also in Egypt in prehistoric times by the same system, though there is no unanimity on this point.

38. This sort of intercalation may be a very old Aryan or Indo-European practice. Could not the six yearly feast of the calendar of the Hittites, which Goetze translates as Sechsjahresfest (Kulturgeschichte des alten Orient, Kleinasien, p. 154), be also a feast of intercalation? If this form of intercalation was really in use, then there would have been no real divergence between the dates of the Old-Avestan years with the Y.A. In this case the Zoroastrians would not have found it difficult at all to change their system to that of the Egyptians, as no real change in the position of days and months was involved. This may also give a clue to the approximate date of the institution of the Old-Avestan calendar or of the said system of intercalation which will be referred to later.

39. Cf. E. Meyer, article "Darius" in Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th edition.

40. Sirius's heliacal rising for Memphis was according to the latest calculation (Neugebauer's Hilfstafeln) from 3160 to 2640 BC on the 17th July, from 1420 to 1050 on the 18th, and from 230 BC to AD 20 on the 19th July, varying between two consecutive days during the intervals. The Nile's rising in Egypt began, according to Ginzel (Handbuch der Chronologie, i, p. 190), in the twenty-eighth century BC, on 16th July. The Egyptian calendar with its vague year, as we know it, is supposed, according to the latest conjecture, to have been adopted in the same century when Sirius's heliacal rising fell on the 1st Toth. This was the 17th July, 2768 BC, i.e. the day after the beginning of the rise of the Nile.

41. The custom of sprinkling water on each other on the day of the Tiragan feast (13th day of the month of Tir-Tishtryehe), practiced down to much later ages, may have been a survival of its original significance, i.e. the anticipation of the coming rain of which the appearance of Sirius on the horizon at dawn was a good tiding. In the later story of the genesis of the world the creation of the water was put on the division (gah) of the year ending with maidyoshahem, which was on 15 Tir.

42. It is probable that the month of Tir, which we have assumed to have been the first month of the Old-Avestan year, originally began in the last days of (Julian) July, at about the time of the heliacal rising of Sirius in Northern Iran, and gradually receded until it fell, in the last part of the sixth century, three or four weeks earlier (i.e. it originally corresponded roughly to 28th July-26th August and in 510 BC to 2nd-31st July). The verses 13, 16, and 18 of Yasht 8, which tell of three consecutive ten-day periods, during which Tishtrya, after its rising, fights against Apaosha, the demon of drought, may refer to the three decades of the month, as Lommel remarks, (Die Yäsht's des Awesta, p.47) and may confirm the correspondence of the heliacal rising of Tishtrya with the first day of the month of the same name. As a matter of fact, the decrease of the heat and the beginning of the rain is quite natural thirty-three days after the heliacal rising of Sirius in the northern regions of Iran. This would correspond to about 22nd August (Gregorian). The retrocession of the month Tir against the tropic year may have been due either to the deficiency of the unknown system of intercalation used in the Old-Avestan calendar, or may have been caused by the abandonment of the sidereal year in time reckoning. The retrocession may have been slow or fast, according to the extent of the difference of the year with the real solar year (tropical). Having no information as to the rate of this retrocession, we cannot discover the date of the original correspondence between the first day of Tir and the heliacal rising of Sirius, which was probably also not far from the date of the original composition of the oldest part of the non-Zoroastrian nucleus of that older Yasht (Tishtrya Yasht). With a year of 300 days and the intercalation of a month each six years this would take about a century or a little more, and if this kind of calendar really preceded the Y.A., its institution (or, at least, the original composition of that part of the said Yasht) can be reasonably put in the second half of the seventh century BC. As the full visibility of Sirius in the Eastern horizon at dawn by everybody may be sometimes later than the date of its first heliacal rising, according to the astronomical calculation (see Ginzel, iii, p. 368), this would put the date of the first rain still later towards the end of summer and hence more in keeping with actual conditions in Northern Iran.

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