Faravahar: History, Meaning and Interpretation

Faravahar

Faravahar at Persepolis

Widely regarded as a symbol that first emerged from ancient Persia, the faravahar has for centuries remained a popular symbol of the Supreme Being Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. However, that is very debatable considering the fact that Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda was formless and hence ought not to be represented by any physical form. What then is the true meaning of the Faravahar? And what is the symbol’s origin story, and how did it come to be associated with Zoroastrianism?

Below is a quick look at the history, meaning and interpretation of the Faravahar symbol.

The Faravahar and the winged sun disk

Winged deities of the sun and sky were very common in many ancient religions. From the various ancient Mesopotamian civilizations to the ancient Egyptian civilization, winged gods and goddesses were considered vital. Notable mentions can be made of the Egyptian winged goddess Ma’at, the goddess of law, justice and order. Similarly, the winged sun disk was associated with the Egyptian deity Osiris, the lord of the underworld, and the Egyptian sky deity Horus, the ruler of the land of Egypt.

What the above implies is that the winged sun disk ranks up there as one of the oldest symbols in world history as it often got associated with many sun and sky deities. In ancient Mesopotamia, Utu-Shamash, the god of the sun and justice, was often associated with the faravahar.

Winged Sun

Winged Sun disk | Wall relief showing the ancient Mesopotamian  God Ashur (Assur) from Nimrud.

Furthermore, the winged sun disk was associated with royalty because it was not unusual for ancient rulers to be seen as the living representatives of the gods or goddesses.  The ancient Assyrian sun god Ashur (Assur) was on so many occasions depicted with symbols similar to the faravahar. From the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Medes adopted they winged sun disk symbol.

Historians opine that the faravahar symbol was first used in the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 BCE – 330 BCE), also known as the first Persian Empire. Prior to Achaemenids, the Babylonians and Medes may have inherited a similar symbol from the Assyrians. In any case, the symbol would remain in use in the region until the 7th century, when the Arabs conquered Persia.

Winged Sun

Winged Sun disk | Image: Stele to Assurnasiripal II – the king of Assyria from 883 to 859 BCE – showing the winged sun (at Nimrud, 9th century BCE)

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Suppression of the Faravahar symbol

Following the Arab conquests of Persia in mid-7th century CE, the faravahar symbol was heavily suppressed. The symbol wasn’t the only that aspect of the Achaemenid culture that was repressed. It has been stated that Zoroastrian temples were raided with some of them converted to mosques. The new Arab rulers were not as tolerant as the Achaemenid rulers who were famed for promoting religious freedom.

In spite of how extensive the entire Zoroastrianism religion, the symbols that were made in artworks and on buildings remained largely intact.

Although present day Persia (i.e. Iran) is a Muslim-majority nation, the faravahar still occupies an important place in the hearts of Iranians, often serving as a very important national symbol.

Symbolism

Aside from it representing the Supreme deity in Zoroastrianism, the faravahar has been noted to represent the core doctrines of Zoroastrianism, the divinity and power of ancient Persian kings, and divine beings in Zoroastrianism. However, there are debates over what the faravahar actually symbolized or meant in ancient Persia.

Whenever some modern scholars and spiritual believers interpret the faravahar, notions like spiritual enlightenment and purity of the soul often come to the fore.

The aged individual in the background has been said to represent wisdom, a core trait of Ahura Mazda. The ring that the human figure holds could be interpreted to mean loyalty.

As for the two wings and the three rows of feathers, some scholars have opined that they run in parallel with the three tenets of Zoroastrianism: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. The opposite – bad thoughts, bad words, and bad deeds – is symbolized in the tail section which has three rows of feathers.

With regard to the two streamers, some scholars have mentioned that they represent the forces of good and evil, that is Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu respectively. In Zoroastrianism, the path to eternal bliss and happiness is said to depend on one’s ability to avoid the temptations of evil forces whose only goal is to cause destruction.

Facts about Faravahar symbol

The symbol can be found on the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great, the third ruler of the Achaemenid Empire. The symbol also appears in a number of ancient artworks in Persepolis, the ancient capital city of the Achaemenid Empire.

It is difficult to understand what the faravahar symbolized in the Achaemenid Empire because of all the damage that was inflicted upon their temples and papyrus scrolls during Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persians in 330 BCE. The Muslim Arabs’ mid-7th century AD conquest further inflicted damage on whatever ancient texts that survived Alexander’s pillage of the region.  Those pillages, including that of the Mongol Invasion, are some of the major reasons why the original meaning of the Faravahar still remains very illusive to modern scholars.

It was the Pahlavi dynasty that adapted the Faravahar as the national symbol of Iran.

On some occasions, the faravahar symbol has been said to symbolize a guardian angel (a Fravashi).

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