Mehregan Thanksgiving Festival: The Autumn Festival of Harvest
Mehregan is one of the two most ancient Iranian festivals known, dating back at least as far as the earliest Aryans (Iranians).
The word “Mehr” (in Mehregan) in the Persian language means kindness. Mehr represents knowledge, love, light and friendship.
Mehregan is an Iranian festival celebrated in honor of Mithra, the divinity of covenant, and hence of interpersonal relationships such as friendship, affection and love.
There are many accounts about the origin of Mehregan.
Avestan texts divide the Iranian year into two equal parts or seasons. The first season was summer and the second was winter.
The coming of the two seasons would be celebrated through Norouz and Mehregan.
It was celebrated on the 16th of the seventh month, Mehr, at the time of harvest and beginning of winter. This feast would be celebrated for six days, starting on the 16th (Mehr Rouz) and ending on the 21st (Raam Rouz).
The first day was called Mehregan-e Khord and the last day Mehregan-e Bozorg. On these days, farmers carried out their harvest and prayed to God for it.
The ancient Iranian calendar had 12 months and each month contained 30 days. Each day had its own name and 12 days in each month had the month’s names as Farvadin, Ordibehesht, Khordad, etc. The name of the 16th day of the month was Mehr, so they celebrated it as Mehregan. Since, in the new Iranian calendar, the first six months of the year have 31 days, Mehregan arrives six days earlier, i.e. 10th of Mehr.
The seventh month in the Persian calendar is named Mehr and is dedicated to the Goddess of Light — Mithra or Mehr. Her followers believed that she defeated evil and darkness, a scene that is often depicted with a triumphant lion residing over a bull. (Mithra is also a common noun in the Holy Book Avesta meaning contract).
Mehr day is mentioned as the day when the first male and female, namely Mashi and Mashiane, were created.
Ancient Iranians believed Mashi and Mashiane asked God to change them from plant to human, and their wish was granted on such a day.
They also believe Fereydoun’s victory over Azydahak (Zahhak in Ferdosi’s Shahnameh) happened on this day. Hence, Mehregan is a day of victory when angels helped Fereydoun and Kaveh gain victory over Zahhak. They imprisoned him in the Damavand Mountain where he died from his wounds six days later.
In a non-Zoroastrian context, where Mehr-Mithra is no longer worshipped, Mehregan remains a celebration involving family and friends. However, it is today recognized as a harvest festival.
The festival symbolically ends with bonfires and fireworks, but should not be confused with Sadeh, which likewise celebrates with bonfires but occurs at the end of the calendar year.
In Al-Biruni’s 11th-century book of instructions on the art of astrology, the astronomer observed that some people gave preference to Mehregan over Norouz just as they prefer autumn over spring.
The association of Mehregan with the polarity of sprint/autumn, sowing/harvest and the birth/rebirth cycle did not escape Al-Biruni either, for he noted that “they consider Mehregan as a sign of resurrection and the end of the world, because at Mehregan that which grows reaches perfection.”
Mehregan was celebrated in an extravagant style at Persepolis. Not only was it the time for harvest, but it was also the time when the taxes were collected.
Visitors from different parts of the empire brought gifts for the king, which contributed to a lively festival.
During pre-Islamic and early Islamic Iran, Mehregan was celebrated with the same magnificence and pageantry as Norouz. It was customary for people to give gifts to the king. Rich people usually gave gold and silver coins, heroes and warriors gave horses while others gave gifts according to their ability, even fruits.
Gifts over 10,000 gold coins given to the royal court were registered. At a later time, if the gift-giver needed money, the court would then return twice the gift amount.
Kings gave two audiences a year: at Norouz and Mehregan.
During the Mehregan celebrations, the king wore a fur robe and gave away all his summer clothes.
No matter what the origins, Persians all over celebrate this festival in the fall signifying the season of harvest and thanksgiving. Friendships are renewed and families are visited.
The festival is also a reminder of the cornerstone of the religion of Prophet Zoroaster — good words, good deeds and good thoughts.
The people of the community, as a tradition, gather to celebrate and welcome the coming of spring and winter. Celebrations end with bonfires and fireworks and rejoicing on this merry occasion.
The Iranian Zoroastrians are celebrating this auspicious occasion on Friday, October 2.
At present, participants wear new clothes and set a decorative, colorful table for celebrating Mehregan.
The sides of the tablecloth are decorated with dry wild marjoram. A copy of Khordeh Avesta (Little Avesta), a mirror and a sormeh dan (an antimony container) are placed on the table together with rosewater, sweets, flowers, vegetables and fruits, especially pomegranates and apples, and nuts such as almonds or pistachios.
A few silver coins and lotus seeds are placed in a dish of water scented with marjoram extract.
A burner is also part of the table setting for kondor/loban (frankincense) and espand (Syrian rue seeds) to be thrown on the flames.
At lunch time, everyone in the family stands in front of the mirror to pray. A cool fruit drink is served and then–as a good omen–antimony is rubbed around the eyes. Handfuls of wild marjoram, lotus and sugar plum seeds are thrown over each other’s heads while they embrace one another.
Until at least the mid-1960s, the Zoroastrians of Yazd would still have a ritual slaughtering of a sheep on this day. The animal would be slaughtered between dawn and noon, and then slowly grilled on a spit until evening when the meat would then be eaten in a communal meal.
In the evening, bonfires are lit and prayers are recited for receiving divine blessings. Fireworks are also set off, following which families sit down for a lavish dinner.