Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Persian 'Mar Nameh': The Zoroastrian Book of the Snake (review)

The Persian 'Mar Nameh': The Zoroastrian Book of the Snake, Omen and Calendar and the Old Iranian Calendar, essays by Payam Nabarz and S H Taqizadeh. ISBN 1905524-250, 128pp, £12
This is Payam Nabarz's follow-up to very well received Mysteries of Mithras. As one might expect he is extending further some of the cultic material available to initiates involved with that mythos. In this case he presents a short omen text from the Zoroastrian tradition.

Essentially this is a reprint of an 'Old' Iranian omen text in 30 verses with an accompanying short modern commentary plus the author's own rendering of the text. This rendering is rather misleadingly referred to as a 'transliteration', which might indeed have been useful too. The second part is a reprint of Seyyed Taqizadeh's 1937 essay on Persian calendar studies. This essay is obviously very erudite but likely to be mainly of interest to fellow researchers in calendar studies, although doubtless there have been other more modern studies in the sixty odd years since its composition? This is certainly the case with some of the Egyptian comparative material - Egyptian calendrics has experienced a continual renaissance over the last fifty years. Even so it presents quite a lot of highly informative material on the topic although it is at times impossibly heavy going for the non-specialist such as myself. The whole could have done with some sort of glossary or editing to provide the reader with a way through the jungle of unfamiliar terminology which obviously would only make sense to Persian readers.

The subject is complex because Persia, like so many countries in the region, has had many different calendar systems over the thousands of years of its existence. For example, Professor Taqizadeh tells us: 'the theory of the Persian New Years' Day originally falling on the Vernal Equinox is not supported by any convincing proof' (p52). In other words prior to the rise of Zoroastrianism in the sixth century BC, the original Persian New Year, may well have fallen on the summer solstice and not as is nowadays the case, on the spring equinox! Professor Taqizadeh was a prominent Iranian politician, responsible, so we are told, for many modern calendar reforms. He moved modern Iran away from the Arab based lunar calendar to a solar based system based firmly on Zoroastrian principles. Which made me wonder how very different the current situation might have been, if the learned professor had instead reconnected with the far older lunar-solar tradition of his land before the coming of Zoroaster!

Turning then to the 'Mar Nameh: the book of the Snake'. The observation of omens of one kind or another is an ubiquitous feature of the culture of the Ancient Near East. This particular omen text gives a Zoroastrian spin to what is a very ancient tradition. We are told this is a relatively modern exemplar, first translated into English in the nineteenth century and presumable composed a few centuries before that? The core of this edition is a metrical rendering, based on that first translation: For example:

1. If you see a snake on the day of Hormozd
Your honour, property and pay will increase'

The useful commentary tells us that Hormozd, is the lord of wisdom, (Ahura Mazda), the Zoroastrian name for God. It is also the name of various kings of the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties. The Zoroastrian calendar reprised an older tradition that linked particular gods with particular days (originally) of the lunar month, and indeed different quarters of the moon. These days were mapped onto a fixed year and the older lunar mysteries largely submerged and forgotten. On the whole I found Payam's book a useful stimulus to debate. There is also something for those non specialists in need of a short guide with which to interpret interesting dreams or alarming physical phenomena. - [Mogg]