Zoroastrianism - The Old Iranian Calendars, Part 6

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jayaram V

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The Young-Avestan Calendar after the Second Reform

The Zoroastrian vague or civil year continued to be in general use in Persia among the people, from its introduction down to the Islamic period. It was adopted in very ancient times, and perhaps immediately after its official introduction into the Persian empire, by a good many of the neighboring peoples. In Khwarazm its use goes back probably even to still older times, when the year still began with the month Dai, as the above-mentioned order and length of the Khwarazmian gahambars show. The use of the name Faghakân for the Sogdian month corresponding to the Persian month Mihr is also a proof of the antiquity of the use of this calendar by that people. The same is true of the Armenians, whose tenth month is called Marieri, so named according to Marquart after maidyarem, certainly at a time when this gahambar still fell in that month, that is before 321 BC.

Their last month is called Hrotic < Frordigân the famous Frawardigan feast which was originally at the end of this month before the said date.103 The name of the Persian month Frawardin may have been adopted later when the feast of the souls stood at the end of this month, i.e. between 321 and 201 BC. The name of the fourth month in some of the above-mentioned calendars (e.g. Tir and not Tishtrya), however, may indicate that their model was the Persian copy of the Avestan month, and hence that they were introduced in those countries after 441 BC. Though the use of Y.A. year declined in Islamic times among the Muhammadan Persians, it did not disappear wholly, and it was still used in some districts in the early years of the present century. The Y.A. calendar to which this year belonged was the official means of time reckoning in the Sasanian period and has continued in use as the religious calendar of the Zoroastrians down to the present day. The only changes which this calendar has undergone are: (1) the removal, in Fars and some other provinces by order of the Bûyid kings (possibly Bahâ'ad-dawleh) in AD 1106, of the Andargâh from the end of the month Aban, where it stood since the last intercalation, to the end of the year, and (2) the omission of the intercalation after the beginning of the fifth century (except for one intercalation, but this in the civil year) by a limited community, namely the ancestors of the Indian Parsis, most probably in 1131-2 (or 1126).

The Double Intercalation

But if on the one hand Biruni's report as to the double intercalation during the reign of Yazdegird I or of Fîrûz, which involves the repetition of Mihr and Aban, in one year, was based on an authentic tradition, and if on the other hand the passage of the Pahlavi commentary of the Vendidad (i, 4) relating to the coldest month of winter 104 really means that the vihêjakîk month Vohuman corresponded to the month Shahrewar of the civil year, the reconciliation of these two facts will not be easy.105 For, as Paruck has remarked,106 the correspondence between the vihêjakîk month Vohuman and the civil month Shahrewar implies the correspondence of the vihêjakîk Frawardin with the civil Aban, whereas the double intercalation involves the assumption that before that operation the civil month Mihr and after it, the civil month Adar, corresponded with the vihêjakîk month Frawardin. Therefore the civil Aban could never have concorded with the latter.

The explanation may be sought in the fact that while the purpose of the intercalation was originally to bring back the 15th day of the vihêjakîk month Tir to the summer solstice (maidyoshahem) and the other gahambars to their original astronomical places, the popular belief in the equinoctial origin of the New Year, according to Mazdayasnian cosmogony, had gained ground by the fourth century of the Christian era and become generally accepted. Therefore when the seventh cycle of intercalation came to an end in 399, and a new intercalation (the seventh) was due, those responsible for this operation noticed that this intercalation, which ought to have made the first day of the vihêjakîk year (the first day of religious Frawardin) correspond with the first day of Aban of the civil (Oshmurtîk) year, would not bring it back to the vernal equinox.

They found that this correspondence and consequently the right time for the intercalation (if it was to bring the beginning of the ecclesiastical year to the said equinox) was about AD 384. As this time had already passed, and the next occasion, namely about 508, when the first day of Adar would correspond to the equinox, had not yet come, they decided to effect a double intercalation of two months, one for the omitted one of the past and the other in anticipation of the next. Adding two months, i.e. a second Mihr and a second Aban to the (vihêjakîk) year they moved the epagomenae to the end of the civil Aban, where it has remained. The church, however, apparently still considered for some time the civil Mihr (and not Aban) as corresponding to the vihêjakîk Frawardin, as this was in fact the real position. After some time, say seventy or eighty years, in the reign of Firuz, it may have been decided to consider the epagomenae the end of the vihêjakîk year, and the Mobeds may have resolved to adopt this officially. This decision, or the theoretical adjustment, may be the source of the tradition attributing the last intercalation to the reign of Firuz, reported by Biruni in his later book as mentioned above. From a report in the book Az-zîj-al-Hâkimî or the astronomical tables composed (about the end of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century) by the famous astronomer Ibn Yûnis (Paris, fonds arabe 2495 fol. 65b-66a), it appears that astronomical observations were undertaken by the Persians some 360 years before the famous observations under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mûn about AD 833. This takes the date of the Persian observations back to about 472 and the reign of Firuz. This may also have had some connection with the above-mentioned reform or adjustment in that reign. If, however; both of Biruni's reports as to the last intercalation, according to one of which it took place in the reign of Yazdegird I, and according to the other in the reign of Firuz, should prove to have been based on old and authentic sources, it seems to me this can only be explained by supposing two kinds of fixed year to have been in use. This means that while the stable year, which was most probably a sidereal year, was kept fixed as strictly as possible by some circles (probably by the Mobeds for religious purposes) it was counted by others (perhaps by the State for financial matters) roughly as 365.25 days, like the Julian year of the Romans. Consequently an intercalation of one month each 120 vague years was necessary to keep this last kind of year fixed, whereas to stabilize the first one (held to be about 365 d. 6 h. 13 m.) the intercalation of one month each 116 (or 115) years would have sufficed. Starting from the year 441 BC the seventh 120th yearly intercalation (which was at the same time a double one) ought to have taken place, as stated above, in AD 399, i.e. the beginning of the reign of Yazdegird, but the seventh 116th (or sometimes 115th) yearly intercalation would have been executed about thirty years earlier, and the eighth one would have been effected about AD 485, i.e. towards the end of the reign of Firuz.

The existence of different estimates for the length of the solar year in Persia may be inferred from the different statements of the Bundahishn on this point. This book gives the said length in chapter 5 (Nyberg, Pahlavi Texte ..., p.29) as 365 d. 5 h. and some minutes (or a fraction of the hour).107 In chapter 25, however, the same book contains the statement that the length of the year or "the revolution of the sun from Aries to the end of the months" was 365 d. 6 h. and some minutes. This last estimation is also given in the Denkard (ibid., pp. 19 and 31). According to Biruni (AB., p. 119) the length of the year was considered by the Persians to be 365 d. 6 h. 13 m. and according to Abû Ma'shar of Balkh (ninth century) quoted by Sajzî (Brit. Mus. MS. Or. 1316, fol. 79) the fraction was held by them to be 6 h. 12 m. 57 s. 36 th. The same is given by Kharaqi (twelfth century) in his book Muntahâ al-idrâk (Berlin Ms.).108

It was according to Hamza of Isfahin (tenth century) 6 h. 12 m. 9 s. (AB., p. 52) and according to 'Abd ar-rahmân al-Khâzin (twelfth century) in his Az-zîj al-mu`tabar as-Sanjarî (Vatican Ms. fol. 21) only 6 h. 12 m. This fraction which agrees nearly with the fraction of the sidereal year as calculated by the Babylonians, namely 6 h. 13 m. 43 s. would need the intercalation of one month each 116 years and sometimes 115 years (if the fraction should be taken as 6 h. 13 m.). As a matter of fact, this kind of intercalation (1l6-yearly) was practiced in ancient Iran according to Kitâb al-awâ`il of 'Askarî quoted by Safadî in his al-wâfi bil-wafayât (JA. 10ième série, tome xvii, 1911, p. 278). The same process is reported also by the author of the Ta'rîkh-i Qum (of which the Arabic original was composed about 984), by al-Kharaqî, and by al-Khâzin in their above-mentioned books, and by Biruni (AB., p. 11).

The suggested existence of two fixed years, however improbable it may be, would explain not only the two different dates of the last intercalation, but also the two different periods of 120 and 116 years for the operation given in the above-mentioned sources. The tradition regarding the stabilization of the year by the government by means of intercalation for keeping a fixed time for "opening the tax collection" may also confirm the existence of a fixed year in the affairs of the State.

Note. -- The theory proposed above, of the two reforms of the calendar necessarily involves the assumption that on the occasion of the second reform the epagomenae, though they were put at the end of the month Spandarmad, were not removed in the same year from the end of the month Adar where they had stood up to that time. This means that in that year both months had at their end five supplementary days. It is not incredible to attribute such accuracy, which was also necessary for keeping the strict correspondence existing at that time between the Persian and the Egyptian months and days, to the king's astronomers in Babylon, though the above point was neglected on the occasion of the first intercalation (due in 321 BC).


The history and development of the Iranian calendar may be recapitulated according to the theory laid down in this article as follows: --

An original Aryan or the earliest Iranian calendar, belonging to the period when that race was possibly inhabiting the most northerly steppes between the Oxus and the Jaxartes, a land of severe cold, may be inferred from the Avestan verse (Vendidid, 1.2-3) which makes the year consist of a winter of ten months and a summer of two (still rather cold) months. At a later period, probably under the influence of a milder climate in the regions occupied by the same people in their southward movement, the adoption of a new division of the year, into two equal parts from one solstice to the other, similar to the Vedic ayanas, can be deduced from the two old season festivals, marking the beginning and the middle of the year, and the first of them meaning mid-summer. Still later, owing to the change of climate, experienced as a result of the said movement, the summer was made still longer by adding to it the last fifteen days of the astronomical winter as well as the first fortnight of autumn at the beginning and end respectively. Gradually further divisions of the year were introduced until five seasons were instituted.109 Thus the summer of seven months ran from hamaspathmaidyem to and the winter of five months from the latter to the former gahambar. This calendar we have called Old-Avestan.

Another calendar of the Babylonian type has also been in use from ancient times among the south-western section of the Iranian race, who, coming in contact with, and under the influence of Elamite and Assyro-Babylonian culture, had apparently adopted some of its institutions. Their year was a luni-solar one, almost exactly corresponding to the Babylonian in every respect, except perhaps in the beginning of the year, which was probably around the autumnal equinox instead of the vernal This practice of beginning the year with autumn was either brought by this south-western people from their original home, the cradle of the Iranian race, where it may have been in use among some of the oldest representatives of that race or in a certain period of their history, as Marquart is inclined to suppose, or it was introduced in imitation of the system of time-reckoning of some south-western people (Elamites or some of the Sumero-Babylonian cities) whose year also may have begun with autumn.

The Zoroastrian religion which had appeared among the eastern Iranians, whom we may conveniently call the Avestan people, probably in the earlier part of the sixth century BC,110 gradually spread among other Iranian peoples also, and may have had a considerable number of followers in Parsa as well as in the other provinces of Iran. The Old-Avestan calendar became the religious calendar of the followers of Zoroaster everywhere, including the communities in the south and west. With the opening of direct relations between Iran and Egypt after the conquest of the latter country by Cambyses, and particularly after the establishment by Darius of friendship between the two nations, the Zoroastrian community probably changed their somewhat complicated Old-Avestan calendar for the much simpler Egyptian year, which had only a round number of days without fraction, and was not subject to any intercalation. This change must have taken place in the later part of the sixth century BC. The strict copying of the Egyptian calendar, except in the month names and religious festivals, involved the fixing of the beginning of the year in the month Dai, which was at that time about the winter solstice. The year, now becoming vague began to move backward in the tropical year, and consequently the places of religious season festivals (gahambars) were changing in each year. This instability, which was certainly noticed after some years, say half a century, became striking, and was further very inconvenient for the Mobeds. The priests then found it necessary to prevent this variation in the positions of the holidays by inventing a fixed year for religious purposes and especially for keeping the gahambars in their seasonal places. This sort of year, called vihêjakîk, which was in actual use in religious circles and was by no means a wholly fictitious year, as some seem to believe, was created through the institution of an intercalation of one full month in each cycle of 120 (or 116) years. It is reasonable to assume that this reform, together with the alteration in the date of the beginning of the year from the Egyptian New Year's Day to approximately the Babylonian new year, (i.e. around the vernal equinox), may have taken place simultaneously with the conversion of the Achaemenian kings to the Zoroastrian faith. The traditional places of the gahambar in the year which are, no doubt, the positions these festivals held at the time of their stabilization, point to the date of this reform being about 441 BC.111

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Suggestions for Further Reading


103. However, this name indicates the antiquity of the Armenian calendar only if the Armenian Frawardigan did not remain fixed at the end of the vague year, as did the Sogdian.

104. The passages in question run as follows: "Those (the two months which are the middle of winter, the heart of winter) now are the months Vohuman, and Shahrewar, that is, the heart of winter, that is it is more severe: although it is all severe, yet at that time it is more severe." I am indebted to Professor H. W. Bailey the translation of this passage. This may also indicate the age of the said commentary which should have been composed according to the above-mentioned concordance in the fifth century.

105. Unless one supposes that the occasion was the time for the eighth intercalation, that it was the turn for Aban to be repeated, that then the eighth and the ninth were effected together by repeating two months (Aban and Adar), but that the epagomenae were moved forward only one month, i.e. to the end of the month Aban (where they ought to have been placed if there had only been one intercalation) and not to the end of Adar, as was to be expected. That such a process has taken place is not, however, easy to assume, though it is not impossible that it has. In that case the institution of the intercalation system must be put about 560 BC.

106. Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institution, Bombay, 1937, p. 52.

107. This fraction of day might have been made in practice a round number of hours, i.e. six hours or a quarter of a day.

108. Both Abû Ma`shar and Kharaqî give the number in the terms of an arc of the celestial sphere, which converted into time would make the number mentioned above.

109. maidyozarem, as stated above, was in all probability the last to be introduced.

110. I follow the Zoroastrian tradition which puts the coming of the religion 258 years before Alexander's conquest of Persia, though I am aware of the controversy concerning this question.

111. It is, however, also possible, though not very probable, that this process of two successive reforms was in reverse order, i.e. that first the State and the Achaemenian court adopted the Egyptian system in place of their Old-Persian calendar and that subsequently the Zoroastrian community also adhered to it.

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