Site Contents  •  Contact

Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee

Contents

spacer

Fire

Fire, Light & Zoroastrianism

Fire as a Symbol of Everything Sacred

Fire & Early Science

Fire & Energy

Five Fires or Energies

Fire of Creation

Spiritual Fire - Mainyu Athra

Fire Illuminating the Path of Asha

Eternal Flame

Fire in Worship

Three Grades of Fires Used in Worship

1. Atash Bahram

2. Atash Adaran

3. Atash Dadgah

Three Great Fires

Farnbag Fire. Adur Farnbag. Azarfarnbag

Gushasp Fire. Adar Gushasp. Azargoshab

Burzen-Mehr Fire. Adur Burzen-Mihr. Azarbuzinmehr

Legendary Discovery of Fire

Jashne Sadeh / Hiromba

Wood Fires

Related reading:
» Fire & the Environment (Overview page)
» Zoroastrian Worship (& the role of fire in worship)
» Zoroastrian Places of Worship (& Fire Temples)
» Zoroastrian Priesthood (& their role as keepers of the temporal fires)
» The Olympic Flame


Fire, Light & Zoroastrianism

Fire as a Symbol of Everything Sacred

Fire - a Zoroastrian symbol
Fire in Zoroastrian worship

In ancient times, when Zoroastrians built no temples, possessed no religious imagery and had no books on the teachings of the faith, light served as the focus of their religious practices. Fire (athra / atarsh / atash) was a means of producing light.

When using a flame, a source of light, as the focus while contemplating the spiritual aspects of one's life, the symbolisms carried by the fire & the light it produced, conveyed some of the essential principles of the faith. For instance, carrying a fire into a dark place dispels the darkness giving us the metaphor of the light of wisdom banishing the darkness of ignorance. From wisdom are derived the principles of justice and order. The temporal fire was also the symbol of the cosmic fire of creation, a fire that continues to pervade every element of creation. In this sense, fire takes on a much broader meaning than a flame, a meaning we discuss below. Light and fire were also essential elements for sustaining life.

This page is intended to be read in conjunction with other pages that discuss the role of fire in Zoroastrianism (see related reading above).


Fire & Early Science

The ability to make, build and ignite fire was undoubtedly the single most important discovery that enabled the civilization of human beings. By learning to use fire, people gained a decisive advantage over all other species, and indeed over other human communities that had not taken part in this learning. Fire made it possible for people to populate land in the colder regions of the earth. Fire produced light and provided protection. Fire enabled food to be cooked and for human beings to benefit from a wide range of nutrients. Fire made it possible for the science metallurgy to develop. The understanding of the transformative nature of fire as well as how fire could transform nature marked the beginnings of a systematic exploration of the workings of nature. The cosmic laws of the universe, asha, were symbolized by fire.


Fire & Energy

The word 'fire' invariably invokes the image of a flame. In Zoroastrian literature a flame is associated with only a few of the many types of fires (athra / atarsh / atash), some being contained in materials cold to the touch. There is even a spiritual fire, the mainyu athra. In Zoroastrian scriptures and literature, the word 'athra' (later adar and azar) is sometimes used to mean a flame and at other times to mean the energy within an entity. It is also the agency that produces energy.


Five Fires or Energies

The five fires or energies mentioned in the Avesta's Yasna 17.11 and described further in Zoroastrian texts such as the Chapter 17 of the Lesser Bundahishn and Chapter 18 of the Greater Bundahishn, are:

  • Barezi-Savangh (ultimate purpose): Such as that found in the material creation other than life such as the materials of the earth (today called inorganic materials). This energy or 'fire' is the energy of the original creation. It is self-sustaining.
  • Vohu-Frayan (good propagator): Such as that found within the bodies of humans and animals. This energy or 'fire' requires both food and water in order to be sustained.
  • Urvazisht (most useful): Such as that found in plants. This energy or 'fire' requires water but no food in order to be sustained.
  • Vazisht (most supporting): Such as that found in clouds (manifest as lightning). This energy or 'fire' requires neither water nor food in order to be sustained.
  • Spenisht (most brilliant and beneficent): Such as that found in a flame - the temporal fires. This energy or 'fire' requires 'food' (fuel) but no water in order to be sustained.

These fires or the different energies were remnants of the original cosmic fire of creation that continued to pervade every other element of creation. Thousands of years ago, these were remarkable observations.


Fire of Creation

The fire of the original creation is the only element of creation that is called the 'child' of God (Athro Ahurahe Mazda puthra* cf. Atash Niayesh**, Litany to Fire, verse 5).

In Ferdowsi's Shahnameh Zarathushtra held up a censer containing a flame and said to King Vishtasp "Look upon the heavens and the earth. God made them not with dust and water. Look upon the fire and behold therein how they were created."

In the Avesta, fire as the cosmic fire of creation is intimately connected with asha, the cosmic laws through which order in the universe is maintained. The temporal fire is seen as a symbol of asha.

Zarathushtra mention fire eight times in his hymns, the gathas: Yasna 31.3, 31.19, 34.4, 43.4, 43.9, 46.7, 47.6 and 51.9. While Zarathushtra does not refer to fire as God's child, Zarathushtra does refer to the fire of creation as God's fire or "Thwa athra sukhra" meaning 'Your radiant / brilliant (all pervading?) fire' (of creation).

One possible interpretation of these quotes is that the fire or energy of creation (referred to as Barezi-Savangh in the Bundahishn), is a direct creation of God, Ahura Mazda, and that the material universe (gaetha / getig) coalesced from the 'fire' or energy of creation. Further, the energy of this original creation continues to pervade the material and living creation through the other four forms of energy listed above. Fire is also the transition between the spiritual and material creations.

* Among different translators, Ervad K. E. Kanga and T. R. Sethna base 'puthra' or 'putra' on the Sanskrit root word 'pu' meaning to purify or cleanse.

** Also spelt Niyaesh, Niyayesh, Nyaesh, Nyaiesh. The Atash Niayesh is based on Yasna 62.1-10, 33.12-14 (Gatha), and 34.4 (Gatha).

» Reference: North American Mobed Council's article: Atash Niyayesh.


Spiritual Fire - Mainyu Athra

Fire Illuminating the Path of Asha

In Yasna / Gatha 31.3, Zarathushtra makes reference to the mainyu athra - the spiritual fire - as one that illuminates the path of asha. The universal laws of asha govern and bring order to the spiritual and material existences. Asha is available, through individual choice, to bring order to human thoughts, words and deeds. As an ethical choice, asha principled, honest, beneficent, ordered, lawful living.


Eternal Flame

The passing of Zoroastrian ideas and values from one person to the next is symbolized by a new flame being lit from an existing one. When these ideas and values are passed from one generation to another without interruption, we have the notion of an 'eternal' flame, one that will endure the passage of time.

The ancient system of maintaining an ever-burning fire in a community-centre and from which household fires with lit also contributed to the notion of an eternal flame.


Fire in Worship

[Also see:
» Worship page & the section on Act of Worship.
» Priests as Keepers of the Fire - Atharvan. ]

Zoroastrians turn towards a flame (athra / atarsh / atash) or a source of light when they worship. The light can come from a natural source such as the sun, an oil lamp, a natural fire such as the natural gas fires of Azarbaijan or a wood fire. For the main part, Zoroastrians worship privately at home and in the open. Some will visit a place of worship. At the heart of a Zoroastrian place of worship burns a fire - traditionally a wood fire - and where possible the fire burns continuously symbolizing an eternal flame with all the attendant meaning we have discussed above.

The temporal fire represents the spiritual flame (mainyu athra) within us and the ethical values of Asha: order, beneficence, honesty, fairness and justice.

In as much as the spiritual fire - the mainyu athra - is to be fed the fuel of good thoughts and a life led according to the principles of Asha (scriptural reference: Gatha 31.3), the temporal fire is fed pure fuels so that it too may burn with vigour and brightness. Further, as the spiritual fire will be diminished with bad or negative thoughts, the temporal fire is kept free from anything that will sully the flame.

Fire represents many ideas and ideals of the faith. Fire is a source of light and light represents wisdom while darkness represents ignorance. Ignorance and darkness are the absence of wisdom and light.

Standing before an eternal flame reciting a manthra is one way to contemplate the nature of God's creation and how to work in concert with God's creation - an act of piety and worship.


Three Grades of Fires Used in Worship

[Note: The grades of fire listed below are not found in the older Avesta texts. Rather, they are found in Middle Persian texts and the Avesta's Middle Persian Zand additions.]

During the Middle Persian Sassanian era (226 - 650 CE), amongst the many grades of fires used for worship and in places of worship, mention is made of three principle grades of fires. These are:
- Atash-i Vahram meaning victorious fire,
- Atash-i Adaran meaning fire of fires, and
- Atash-i Dadgah, meaning a court fire.
Today, these fires are called Atash Bahram / Behram, Atash Adaran, and Atash Dadgah respectively, and the fires used in temples and religious ceremonies fall into one of these three categories.

The manner in which the three grades are lit, consecrated and maintained is different.

The three grades of fires have given rise to three principle (and somewhat arbitrary) grades of temples:
• Atash Bahram (or Atash Behram),
• Agiary (in India) or Atashkadeh (in Iran), and
• Darbe Meher/Dar-e-Mehr.

» Further reading: Modern Fire Temples - Atash Bahram / Behram.
» Further reading: Modern Fire Temples - Agiary and Darbe Mehr.


1. Atash Bahram

In Sassanian times, the Bahram fires were called Varharan fire a name later contracted to Vahram. Varharan is in turn said to have been derived from verethrakhnahe or verethraghna meaning victorious, a word further derived from verethra meaning victory or that which repels a foe. The Greater Bundahishn (18.10) says that the Atash Bahram is a Spenisht fire. (see Five Fires above). Mary Boyce calls the Atash Behram (previously Atash-i Vahram) a cathedral fire.

According to Greater Bundahishn. Chap 18: Section "18. There are many Varharan (Bahram) fires and a king has established each one of them. Their numbers are lengthy. 19. For instance, King Faridoon established the fire Vartastar, which is in Bakhlan, in the Pisha district. 20. Uzob, son of Tuhmasp, established fire Katakan in the country. 21. Frasiyav established the fire Karkoy in Sigistan when he wielded the sovereignty of Iranshahr."

Consecration of an Atash Bahram / Behram:
The establishment and consecration of an Atash Bahram is the most elaborate of the three grades of fires. Fires are gathered from sixteen different sources, including lightening, fire from trades where a furnace is operated, and the hearth fires of the asronih (priests), the (r)atheshtarih (soldiers and civil servants), the vastaryoshih (farmers and herdsmen) and the hutokshih (artisans and labourers). The fires go through a consecration ritual before they join the others in the united fire. The consecration ceremony requires thirty two priests and can take up to a year for completion. (For a detailed description of the consecration ceremony, see The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees by J. J. Modi at avesta.org.)


2. Atash Adaran

Atash Adaran means fire of fires. It is generally housed in an Agiari (also spelt Agiary, Agyari, Agiyari - India, Gujerati) or Atashkadeh (Iran, Farsi), both meaning a house of fire. This grade of fires do not require a Dastur for its maintenance and can be attended by a Mobed.

Consecration of an Atash Adaran:
The fire is built from the hearth fires of representatives from four professions: the asronih (priests), the (r)atheshtarih (soldiers and civil servants), the vastaryoshih (farmers and herdsmen) and the hutokshih (artisans and labourers). The consecration of the Adaran fire requires eight priests and can take between two and three weeks.


3. Atash Dadgah

Today, the Atash Dadgah refers to any fire used in worship that is not consecrated. It is the grade of fire found in a Darbe Mehr or Dar-e Meher, or for that matter in a person's home or in a Jashan ceremony. This grade of fire does not require a priest in attendance and can be attended to by the laity. Dadgah means a law court and a possible reason why the fire got this name is discussed in our page on Priesthood.

Consecration of an Atash Dadgah:
This grade of fire does not require a priest in attendance and can be attended to by the laity. For the pragmatic, consecrating the Atash Dadgah is optional. For the orthodox, every fire used in worship is consecrated. If preferred, the fire can be consecrated within the course of a few hours by two priests who take turns reciting the 72 verses of the Yasna (a book of the the Zoroastrian scriptures - the Avesta). Consecration may also include the readings from the Vendidad.


Three Great Fires

Another concept we find in the Middle Persian Bundahishn and in the Avesta's Zand, is the legend of the Three Great Fires. These were the Adur Farnbag, the Adur Gushasp and the Adur Burzen-Mihr later to be called Azarfarnbag, Azargoshasb and Azarbuzinmehr, the professional fires of priests, warriors, and farmers respectively. [The Zand portion of the Atash Niayesh mentions Adar-i Gushasp, Adar-i Hvardat (Khordad), and Adar-i Burzhin Mihir. Here we see mention of Adar-i Hvardat (Khordad) in place of Adar-i Farnbag.]


Farnbag Fire. Adur Farnbag. Azarfarnbag

The Greater Bundahishn (18.10) states that during his reign, "Jam (King Jamshid) did all his works very well with the help of all those three fires. He had established the fire Farnbag (glory-given) in its proper place on the Khvarehmand mountain in Khvarizem (Khwarezm). When they slew Jam, the fire Farnbag saved the glory of Jam from the hands of Dahak {Zahak}. 11. In the reign of king Vishtasp, by revelation from the Scripture, they established it out of Khvarizem, on Mount Roshan in the country of Kavulistan (Kabulistan), as it remains there even now."


Gushasp Fire. Adar Gushasp. Azargoshab

"The fire Gushnasp used to protect the world, in that manner, until the reign of Kay Khosrow. When Kay Khosrow was razing the idol temples of Lake Chichast, it settled upon the mane of his horse, dispelled the darkness and gloom, and produced light, till he razed the idol temples. He forthwith established fire altars, in the same locality, on the Asnavand mountain. For that reason they name it 'Gushnasp,' because it had settled on 'the mane of the horse'." Greater Bundahishn (18.12)

The Atash Niayesh twice mentions the names cited above in the following manner: Kavi Husravah (Kay Khosrow) to the Lake of Husravah, to Mount Asnavant, to Lake Chaechista.

The temple that housed this fire is thought to be located at a site now called Takht-e Suleiman.


Burzen-Mehr Fire. Adur Burzen-Mihr. Azarbuzinmehr

"The fire Burzin Mihr was moving in the world and was protecting it until the reign of king Vishtasp. 14. When Zartosht of immortal soul brought the revelation, [it demonstrated many things visibly,] in order to propagate the revelation, and make men without doubt, [so that] Vishtasp and his children might stand by the revelation of God. Vishtasp established it in its proper place on Mount Revand, which one calls the 'Support of Vishtasp'." Greater Bundahishn (18.13)

The Atash Niayesh briefly mentions Mount Raevant (Revand) in relation to a fire, but does not name the fire as does the Bundahishn.

There is a fire temple in Khorasan called the Rivand Fire Temple and we describe it further in our page on Khorasan.


Legendary Discovery of Fire

Jashne Sadeh / Hiromba

[Also see our calendar grid page and the description of Sadeh.]

Ferdowsi's Shahnameh provides us with the legend of the manner in which humankind discovered how to kindle a fire by King Hushang, an event celebrated by the Jashne Sadeh (also Sadé or Sada), the festival of the hundredth day. Yazdi Zoroastrians celebrate Sadeh 100 days before the New Year's day (Nowruz) i.e. December 11, while Kermani Zoroastrians celebrate the festival 100 days after the Ayathrem gahambar i.e. January 24. Nowadays, Iranians in general, celebrate Sadeh on the 10th day of Bahman month, i.e. January 30, 50 days (i.e. hundred days and nights) before Nowruz (March 21).

According to Ferdowsi' Shahnameh:

One day Hushang reached a mountain with his men
And saw afar a long swift dusky form
With eyes like pools of blood and
The smoke from whose jaws bedimmed the world.
Hushang the wary seized a stone,
Advanced towards the beast and hurled it royally.
The world-consuming snake escaped,
But the stone struck on a larger,
And as both shivered,
Sparks issued and a dried bush was set ablaze.
Fire came from its stony hiding-place
And again when iron knocked.
For such a radiant gift,
The lord of the world thanked God.
"This lustre is divine," said he to his people
"And you if wise will hold it sacred."
Making fire a cynosure for all to behold,
Hushang stood around it with his people
And held a feast, calling it Sadeh,
A bright festival that remains to this day as his memorial.
May the earth see more royal benefactors like him.

According to Iranian tradition, the ancients Aryans living in mountains, would prepare for the festival of Sadeh - and a remembrance of King Hushang's deed and service to the community - by collecting wood that had dried and fallen during the winter. This task was assigned to teenagers, who guided by some adults, ventured into local mountains in a rite of passage. For most, this was the first time away from their families performing a task in aid of the community - a task that would prepare them for the upcoming responsibilities of adulthood.

Everyone able bodied teen, and if needed adults, were expected to partake in this act of community service. To stress the importance of the entire community participating in the gathering of wood, a short verse was recited:


Shakh-e shakh-e (h)armanl
Har kas shakh-e bedehad
Khoda moradesh bedehad!
Har kas shakh-e nadehad
Khoda moradesh nadehad!
A branch, a branch of harmal
Whoever gives a branch,
May God grant that person's wish!
Whoever does not give a branch,
May God not grant that person's wish!

Camel-Thorn Bush (Alhagi maurorum)
Camel-Thorn Bush (Alhagi maurorum)

On the slopes, the fledgling youth gathered dried vegetation that would serve as fuel through the coming year for the ever-burning community fires, dried shrubs and wood from camel thorn and select trees (see below) depending on the locale. Green wood was never cut for the fires and the act of collecting dried vegetation in the heart of winter helped maintain the environment and reduce the risk of forest fires. On their return, the youth would place the gathered fuel in the atash-gahs, the fire houses, where the community's ever-burning fire was maintained (and from which households lit their home fires as needed throughout the year). If a new fire was lit, it would be ritually consecrated or blessed. The return of the youth and their service to the community and its ever-burning fire would be celebrated by three days of communal feasting which included food distribution as at a gahanbar.

On the morning after the lighting of the communal fire as the first act of the day, women would go to the fire and from it light their household fire censer. Taking back the fire to their homes represented the taking back of the blessing of the sadeh fire, thereby spreading the blessings and protection against evil to every household in the community.

Nowadays, on the day of Sadeh, community groups begin to congregate an hour before sunset, preferably at spot near a stream to begin the festivities. After sunset, outdoor fires are lit in an act of defiance against the cold and darkness of winter as well as the forces of evil led by ahriman. The fire ceremony is similar to the Jashne Azar / Adar preceded by the recitation of the Afringan-e Do Dahman prayers for the blessing for the community, as well as an Atash Niyayesh (the litany to fire). After the rituals, there is great feasting that in Sassanian times included the serving of wine.

In Yazd, traditional Zoroastrians who follow the Qadimi (ancient) calendar celebrate, currently in April, the festival of the lighting of bonfires called Hiromba.

[Also see Sadeh at Kerman at fravahr.org, and our calendar grid page with the dates for the Sadeh festival.]


Wood Fires

While a fire used in worship can come from any source, wood fires were ones of the most commonly used in ancient times as they are today. There were and are various stipulations regarding the use of wood for fires. The wood must come from selected trees and bushes that produce the least amount of smoke. Before the wood is used for a fire, it must be bone dry. [There are indications that older dried branches collected in winter (see Jashne Sadeh above) were used for regular fires rather that the trunk of a living tree.]

The cutting and burning of green wood was seen as sinful. In his book the Arda Viraf Nameh, the Middle Persian authors recounts his journey to heaven where he was admonished for using green wood for his fires. Despite his defence that the wood he had used was seven years old and could surely not be called green wood, the guardian of fires showed him a tank full of water that had nevertheless exuded from the seven-year old wood Adar Viraf had burned.

[The exception to the cutting of green wood was the ritualized collection of twigs from the barsom. This was done from those bushes and trees that could regenerate themselves and in a manner that would not kill the plant. Done properly, trimming twigs can help the plant.]

In ancient times, in those areas where wood was used as fuel for fires, it helped that neighbourhoods maintained central continuously burning fires in a fire-house, the atash-gah. The practice may have given rise to the concept of ever-burning or 'eternal' fires (see below). The containers in which the wood fires were maintained, were deep urns where the hot coals and ashes accumulated. The system allowed the base of the fire to remain very hot resulting in a fire that produced the least amount of smoke and pollution. While not perfect, it was a system, in those ancient times, that best adhered to the principles of the faith. Householders would come to this central place to light their home fires when needed. Maintaining fires continuously in homes would have denuded a fragile environment of trees and the smoke would have greatly polluted the air.

There are indications that woods from Juniper and Plane (Chenar) trees were traditionally used for the atash-gah fires in the Iranian-Central Asian region, as well as branches from camel thorns in the more arid regions (see Sadeh above).

Until recently, sandalwood (called sukhar by the Indian Zoroastrian community) was the favoured wood for worship fires in India. The wood released a fragrance that became characteristic of Zoroastrian homes in India. However, sandalwood trees in India (mainly from the state of Mysore) have been cut indiscriminately and in an unsustainable manner. As a result, substitute woods are now being used in India.


Further reading:
» Fire & the Environment (Overview page)
» Zoroastrian Worship (& the role of fire in worship)
» Zoroastrian Places of Worship (& Fire Temples)
» Zoroastrian Priesthood (& their role as keepers of the temporal fires)
» The Olympic Flame


» Site Contents


Search Our Site: