Winged Symbol of Zoroastrianism
The "Faravahar," the winged disc with a man's upper body that is commonly used as a symbol of the Zoroastrian faith, has a long and splendid history in the art and culture of the Middle East. Its symbolism and philosophical meaning is an ancient heritage that extends through three millennia to modern times. In this text I will tell the story of the Faravahar and explain some of its many symbolic aspects.
The history of the Faravahar design begins in ancient Egypt, with a stylized bird pattern which is known as the "spread-eagle." A "spread-eagle" (as it is called in heraldry) features a flying bird shown from below, with its wings, tail, and legs outstretched. Such designs have been used in cultures throughout history, including American, where the seal of the U.S. Government features a "spread-eagle."
An Egyptian "spread-eagle" device is featured in the treasure of Tut-ankh-amoun which has a bird's body with a human head, and in which hieroglyphic symbols are held in the outstretched talons. (Illustration: Tut-ankh-amoun) These features will later re- appear, transformed, in the Faravahar. Closer still to the Faravahar are Egyptian designs which feature a sun-disc with wings. (Illustration: Egyptian winged disc.) This winged sun-disc represents Horus, the hawk-god believed by the ancient Egyptians to be incarnate in Pharaoh, the god-king.
The winged disc was from the beginning a symbol of divine kingship, or the divine favor upon a king. Very early on (second millennium B.C.) this design had migrated from Egypt to the ancient Near East. It appears above the carved figure of a Hittite king, (The Hittites flourished from about 1400-1200 B.C.) symbolizing a god's favor in the "spread-eagle" form. In Syria it is shown on a seal from the Mitanni civilization (c.1450-1360 BC) (Illustration: Mitanni winged disc).
The proto-Faravahar symbol may also have a native Mesopotamian origin, which was combined with the Egyptian symbol in ancient Assyria. Assyrian art also associates the winged disc with divinity and divine protection of the king and people. It appears both with and without a human figure. Without the human figure, it is a symbol of the sun-god Shamash, but with the human figure, it is the symbol of the Assyrian national god Assur. This appears on many carvings and seals. The Assyrian versions of the winged disc sometimes have the kingly figure inside the disc, and others have him arising from within the disc in a design that is very close to the Faravahar as it appears in Persian art. The graphic evolution from the "spread-eagle" is evident in the stylized Assyrian version of the design, where the bird's legs are abstracted into wavy streamers on either side of the disc which end either in "claws" or in scrolls, as they do in the Persian design. (Illustration : 2 versions of Assyrian faravahar)
By the time of the Achaemenid kings (dynasty flourished from about 600 B.C. to 330 B.C.), then, the design that would become the Faravahar had already been in use for at least 1000 years, from Egypt to Syria and then to Assyria. The early Achaemenids conquered Mesopotamian lands in the 6th century B.C., and re-patriated all the peoples subject to Babylonian rule, the Jews among them. These same Achaemenids also adopted Assyrian and Babylonian motifs for their monumental art, including the winged disc.
The Persian Faravahar is carved on the rock-cut tombs of the Achaemenid kings at Bisetoon in Iran, and varies from one carving to the other. In one it is very much like the Assyrian version, with squared-off "wavy" wings. (Illustration : Bisetoon) But it is in the carvings of Persepolis, center of the Achaemenid dynasty, that the Faravahar reaches its most elaborate and finely wrought perfection. The Faravahar of Persepolis is the one that has been adopted by Zoroastrians as their symbol. It appears in more than one form at Persepolis. When it must fit a horizontal, narrow space, the winged disc is depicted without the human figure in the disc (Illustration : Persepolis). But when there is enough space, the Faravahar is shown in all of its glory, with kingly figure, disc, streamers, and many-feathered wings (Illustration : big faravahar at Persepolis.). And, as it had done throughout history, from Egypt to Mitanni to Assyria, it represents the divine favor hovering above the king.
Scholars disagree about just what the symbolism of the Persian faravahar indicates. Is it a symbolic image of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian name for the One God, the "Wise Lord?" If it represented Assur for the Assyrians, is it Ahura Mazda for the Persians? Many scholarly writings on the image still identify it as such. But in the Zoroastrian faith, Ahura Mazda is abstract and transcendent. God has no image and so cannot be represented in any form. (The only exceptions are during the later Persian Empire, in the Sassanian era, when Lord Mazda was represented as a divine, kingly figure handing a diadem to the Persian Emperor - and this was not used in worship.) The human figure above the disc, though he was borrowed from a pagan Assyrian god-image, has no specific identification, nor is there any evidence, as some folk beliefs have it, that he is the Prophet Zarathushtra. More recent scholarship has given the Persian Faravahar a more precise meaning. The winged disc as depicted by the Persians above the image of the King represents the Royal Glory, which is known in ancient Iranian (Avestan) as khvarenah, or "Radiant Glory." I will have much more to say about the khvarenah later on in this essay.
After the Achaemenids the image of the Faravahar disappears from Persian art. There is no evidence for it in the remaining art of the Parthian period, and it is absent in the art of the Sassanian period, the resurgent Persian empire of about 250-650 A.D. However, Sassanian art does echo some of the individual features of the Faravahar. One of the main symbols of the Sassanian monarchy and its divine protection was the crescent in a circle, with ribbons streaming from either side (Illustration : Sassanian). The ring which is held in the Achaemenid Faravahar's hand is still used in Sassanian art to depict the royal diadem, which is handed to the new King by the symbolic representation of Ahura Mazda himself or by the yazata (guardian spirit) of Waters, Anahita. And the spread wings, though in a somewhat different configuration, adorn the crown of a 6th or 7th century AD Sassanian king. (Illustration : Sassanian crown). After the Arab conquest, the winged disc, the winged crown, and the ring of kingship fade into obscurity, though ironically the crescent became the prime symbol for the new religion, Islam.
The Faravahar would remain an ancient relic until the early twentieth century, when both British and Indian antiquarians gave it another life. The general scholarly opinion, at least in the West, was that the winged disc represented Ahura Mazda. In 1925 and 1930 a Parsi scholar, J.M. Unvala, wrote articles which identified the Faravahar as the symbol of the fravashi or "guardian spirit" of Zoroastrian teaching. Through the influence of the Unvala articles, and a renewed awareness among Zoroastrians of their Iranian heritage, the Persepolis winged disc began to be used as a symbol for Zoroastrianism - not only because of its supposed religious significance, but because of its national symbolism as the device of a great Zoroastrian empire. In 1928, the great Parsi Avesta scholar Irach Taraporewala published an article identifying the Winged Disc not as Ahura Mazda or as fravashi, but as the khvarenah or royal glory. It was in these early decades of the 20th century that the Faravahar began to be incorporated into the design of Zoroastrian temples, publications, and ornaments. After centuries of obscurity, the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism had a new visibility, and a symbolic standard to raise.
What does the Faravahar signify?
The Faravahar is of great antiquity, as we have seen. But what does it mean? Is it just a royal insignia, or does it have deeper significance? This part of our essay will explain some of the philosophical and spiritual meaning of this rich and beautiful symbol.
The word "faravahar" actually is Pahlavi, or Middle Persian. It derives from ancient Iranian (Avestan) word fravarane which means "I choose." The choice is that of the Good, or the Good Religion of Zarathushtra. Another related word is fravarti or fravashi, which may derive from an alternative meaning of "protect," implying the divine protection of the guardian spirit, the fravashi. From these words come the later Middle Persian words fravahr, foruhar, or faravahar.
Whatever the origin of the word, the use of the word faravahar to describe the Winged Disc is modern. No one knows what the ancient Persians called their winged disc. But the history of the symbol, both before and during its Persian use, has a continuous meaning, and that is one of divine favor for a king. As the Winged Sun-disc of Horus it hovered over the Pharaoh of Egypt; it hovered over the Hittite King, and in Assyrian art it is depicted over the Assyrian King, often with weapons in its hands, helping the Assyrian monarch wage war. So when it enters Persian art, it is already a symbol of divine guardianship of the king.
The current consensus on what the Faravahar meant to the ancients who carved it is that it represents not Ahura Mazda, but the Royal Glory of the Persian King. This view is held by scholars such as Boyce and Jafarey. This Royal Glory is an important concept in Zoroastrian teaching; the Avestan word for it is khvarenah.
Khvarenah comes from the Avestan root khvar or "shining;" it is also the word for the sun. The word khvarenah is more abstract; it has the connotations not only of "glory" but of "divine grace." The sun-symbolism of the disc and the Mazdean concept of divine grace are thus combined. Khvarenah, in later Persian, became khurrah or farnah or farn, and still later became farr. If the Faravahar symbol actually represents khvarenah, then it should more accurately be called the "farr" rather than the "faravahar."
Khvarenah, in the Persian Empire, came to mean a specifically royal glory. It was a God-given gift, almost like the Greek word "charisma," which insured and legitimated the King's rule. However, though it was a gift of God, it could be abused, and if the King turned to evil-doing, the khvarenah would leave him.
This myth of the khvarenah is present in the story of the mythical Iranian King, Yima or Jamshid. He was the greatest of the prehistoric kings of Iran, and possessed the glorious khvarenah. But he became too proud and arrogant. Some stories say that he even called himself a god. Because of his pretension and pride, Yima lost the khvarenah. This myth is alluded to in the Gathas of Zarathushtra, in Yasna 32. In the later scriptures of Zoroastrianism, this myth is retold in the Zamyad Yasht, the prayer- song to the spirit of the Earth: "But when he (Yima) began to find delight in words of falsehood and untruth, the Glory was seen to fly away from him in the shape of a bird." (Yasht 19, 34) Thus in both word and image, Glory has wings. In the Shah-nameh, the national epic of Iran, the Glory is also referred to as the "Glory of the Auspicious Bird," which hovers over the heads of royal or princely personages. The Glory was symbolized on the battlefield by an eagle feather in the King's crown, which served as standard and inspiration to the warriors of Iran. In Sassanian art, where the Winged Disc is no longer used, the khvarenah is depicted as a circular halo around the head of the King, a halo very similar to that of Christian saints.
The Sassanian halo and the idea of the khvarenah can be compared to Jewish and Christian light-symbolism. In Jewish tradition, Moses' face shone so brightly after his meeting with God on Mount Sinai that the people could not look directly at him and he had to veil his face. (Exodus, chapter 34). In Christianity, the divine Glory shines around the figure of Christ during the Transfiguration (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 17). The light of the Transfiguration is known among Eastern Christians as the "Uncreated Light," and in its association with saints, heroes, and Christ it is similar to the khvarenah of the Zoroastrians. In this there may indeed be some Zoroastrian influence on Christian thinking, as the two cultures lived side-by-side in the Middle East for centuries.
In the Zoroastrian tradition the khvarenah is not just the Glory of the king, but has a wider range, as can be seen in the Avesta. The Zamyad Yasht praises the glory not only of the ancient Kings of Iran, but of the whole Aryan people, its mountainous land, and its Prophet, Zarathushtra. In the Atash Nyayesh, the Zoroastrian prayer to Fire, the khvarenah is identified with the light of the Sacred Fire. The revelation of Zarathushtra from the beginning has been associated with light. The Gathas are filled with light and sun imagery; light is not only physical, but metaphysical, the prime symbol for Goodness and God. Thus the khvarenah in Zoroastrian teaching, though specified to the glory of the King, also has a much more universal meaning.
According to Zoroastrian scholar Dr. Farhang Mehr, the khvarenah is granted to those human beings who are great benefactors of the world: good kings and rulers, prophets like Zarathushtra, or heroes. In the Gathas, these benefactors are called saoshyant, an Avestan word which means "savior." In later Zoroastrianism the term saoshyant acquires a messianic, mythical meaning, and this Saoshyant also enjoys the blessing of the khvarenah. Thus khvarenah also has the meaning of God's Grace.
But is this grace only for the Great Ones of the World, or do we lesser folk have - khvarenah, too? As Mehr has written, the khvarenah is enfolded within everyone. With those who are great in virtue, it is more radiant and powerful. Our work on this earth is to grow in goodness and thus show forth our own God-given khvarenah, which is the light of our excellence. This, then, is what the Winged Disc signifies both for the ancients and for us: the shining khvarenah, or "farr."
The Faravahar has another possible meaning, and that is its association with fravashi. Earlier I mentioned that J.M. Unvala identified the Winged Disc as a symbol of fravashi. This interpretation can be connected with the other linguistic meaning of faravahar as "protection." The Winged Disc is often called a fravashi rather than a faravahar, especially by the Indian Parsi Zoroastrians. What exactly is a fravashi? The origin of the word, as has been said here, relates either to divine protection or to one's moral choice of Good or Evil, and one's choice of the Good Religion. But there is much more to it than that.
The concept of the fravashi as guardian spirit does not occur in the Gathas of Zarathushtra. But in later Zoroastrianism, it becomes a most important idea. The Fravashi is the part of the human soul that is divine, unpolluted, and uncorrupt. It is not only our divine guardian but our guide; its perfection is always within us, as an ideal towards which we can reach. Every human being has a fravashi; even the divine spirits have them. Once a human being has finished life on earth, the fravashi, the higher individuality of that person, returns to Heaven. The fravashi may be the inspiration for the Jewish and Christian belief in the "guardian Angel," which always beholds the face of God (Matthew Gospel, 18:10).
In the later books of the Avesta (the Zoroastrian scriptures), the fravashis of the righteous are invoked as fierce and mighty warriors for the Good. In a long prayer called the Farvardin Yasht, there are litanies praising and reverencing the fravashis of the early "saints" and heroes of Zoroastrian tradition. The fravashis of the good departed are supposed to return to earth on special days, and towards the very end of the Persian year, in March, just before the Persian New Year, there are ceremonies to honor the fravashis of the righteous.
The Winged Disc may or may not represent Fravashi in ancient Persian art, but there is a precedent for this meaning in the popular religious art of ancient Egypt. There, the immortal soul of a human being, called a ba, is represented by a stylized bird with a human head. The "Ba-bird" is depicted in many different styles and positions, including the familiar "spread-eagle" configuration we recognize in the Faravahar. In Egyptian lore just as in Persian, the spirits of the dead could leave their tombs and fly about the land of the living, just as the fravashis gather just before the New Year. Amulets depicting the "ba-bird" often adorned mummies, even after the Greek occupation of Egypt in Hellenistic times.
Although the fravashi is unrelated theologically to the khvarenah, they both serve as embodiments of divine guidance and grace. The Winged Disc, for Zoroastrians, has come to signify the divine fravashi hovering above, an image of the perfection of the soul that can lead us forward to good thoughts, words, and deeds. Whether it symbolizes the khvarenah or the fravashi, or both, the Winged Disc is a symbol of the radiance of Divine Grace, and it truly soars on wings of light.
Folk interpretations of the Faravahar
Once the Winged Disc had been adopted as a symbol of Zoroastrianism, it entered into the community not only as a graphic symbol but as a folk motif. The Zoroastrian faravahar was "standardized" to the Persepolis model, though, as we have seen, even in Persepolis there are many variants of the Faravahar. The "standard" Faravahar is now the one you see on this Web page, which appears over the heads of the Persian kings on the walls of Persepolis. It is this emblem which identifies Zoroastrian publications and decorates Zoroastrian temples and gathering places, which has also been made into forms of jewelry for men and women, woven into wall-hangings, carved into marble and semi- precious stones, glazed onto ceramic heirlooms, and even made into paper and plastic stickers. Not only Zoroastrians, but patriotic Iranians of all creeds use the Faravahar, and various simplified versions of the Persepolis standard appear in carpet stores, restaurants, advertisements, and other Iranian concerns all around the world.
Along with the widespread use of the faravahar as a heraldic and decorative motif have come many interpretations of the symbol and its components which have little or nothing to do with the actual historical meaning of the symbol. None of these interpretations of the Faravahar design are found in any extant Zoroastrian scripture. But Zoroastrian priests and elders now use the Faravahar as a visual tool to illustrate the basic elements of the religion, especially when they are teaching children.
A sample of such an interpretation can be found in the book "Message of Zarathushtra" by the Iranian mobed (priest) Bahram Shahzadi, who presides at the California Zoroastrian Center in Los Angeles. This book is meant for middle-school children, but is read by people of all ages. In a short chapter called "What is Fravahar?" Shahzadi enumerates the symbolism of the various parts of the design. The bearded old man springing out of the central disc symbolizes the human soul. His upper hand is extended in a blessing, pointing upward to keep us in mind of higher things and the path to heaven. The other hand holds a ring, which is the ring of promise: it reminds a Zoroastrian always to keep one's promises. There are three layers of feathers in the wings, and these three layers stand for the Threefold Path of Zoroastrianism: good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. The central disc, which as a circle has no end, symbolizes eternity. The two streamers extending out from the central disc symbolize the two choices, or paths, that face human beings: the choice of good or the choice of evil. The streamers thus illustrate the ethical dualism taught by Zarathushtra.
Another folk interpretation of the Faravahar comes from an educated Zoroastrian layman. Some of his descriptions are the same as those in the Shahzadi book, but he adds more details. The open wings, as in Shahzadi's book, represent the Threefold Path. But the closed skirt of the human figure within the disc represents evil choices, divided into three layers: bad thoughts, words, and deeds. The circle at the waist of the figure represents not the Sun nor Eternity, but the law of consequences which is comprised in the divine ASHA, the Zoroastrian concept of the divinely created order of the universe. Good or evil deeds have their consequences, which "come around" to the person who acts morally or immorally. Thus the circle denotes moral returns according to ASHA.
Yet another interpretation of the Achaemenid design comes from an esoteric point of view. There are some Zoroastrians who are influenced by Theosophy, an eclectic esoteric movement of the nineteenth century. These have added Hindu and Buddhist esoteric ideas to Zoroastrianism, such as reincarnation, karma, and astral planes. For these believers, the Faravahar is a symbol of the soul's progression through many lives. The head of the man reminds one of God-given free will. The ring held in the man's hand symbolizes the cycles of rebirths on this earth and in other planes of reality. The central circle represents the soul; the two wings are the energies that help the soul to evolve and progress. In this interpretation, there are five layers of feathers in the wings (a particularly elaborate version of the Persepolis emblem) and these five layers signify the five Gatha hymns of the Prophet, the five divisions of the Zoroastrian day, the five senses, and also five esoteric stages that the soul must pass through on its way to God. As in the other explanations, the two streamers represent the two choices before human beings, the Good Mentality and the Evil Mentality. The tail (which is not mentioned in the other interpretations) is the "rudder" of the soul, for balance between the forces of Good and Evil. There are three layers of feathers in the tail, which stand for the Threefold Path of Good Thoughts, Words, and Deeds.
The Faravahar has flown a long way since it first saw the light in ancient Egypt. The winged sun-disc has shone its grace down upon divinely gifted kings, and it has spread its wings as protector of the glory of Iran. After millennia of obscurity, the symbol of the holy and radiant khvarenah again shines clearly. As world communications become ever more elaborate and widespread, the Faravahar has entered into a wider world. It has flown free from the walls of Persepolis and now shines among new peoples on new continents. It is now found on computer screens instead of ancient carved stones. Let us hope that the Faravahar, with its universal meaning of light, wisdom, righteousness, and God's grace can take its place among the great symbols of spirit, to inspire people all over the earth.