The splendor of fire has been throughout history the central symbol of Zoroastrianism. In this article I will talk about some of the history and the symbolism of the Sacred Fire of the Zoroastrians.
Fire was a sacred symbol long before Zarathushtra's revelations. The sacredness of the hearth-fire was an Indo-Aryan custom before the division of that civilization into the Indian and the Iranian peoples. Fire is celebrated in the Vedas and a sacred fire is part of Hindu ceremony even to this day.
It is natural to revere fire, for it is one of the primal elements of nature (in modern terms, it is "plasma", one of the four states of matter) and it is one of the things which makes civilization possible. It drives away the cold and the wild beasts, cooks food, burns away trash and uncleanness, sheds light in the darkness, serves as a signal to travellers, and brings people together around the hearth. It is LIGHT, WARMTH, and ENERGY.
Most religions use fire in some way; the ancient Jews had an ever-burning fire on their own altar, and Christians always have candles on their altars at their services, as well as candles burning before their icons. Zoroastrianism has made fire its central symbol, the ultimate icon of a God who is also Light, Warmth, and Energy.
Zarathushtra, in his prophetic revelation, gave Fire a new meaning. It is not just the fire of the hearth, or of a specific god, but a universal fire, and a metaphysical fire. The Zarathushtrian fire now has an ethical and theological meaning. It is the fire of justice, the symbol of the Divine Attribute of ASHA. Its purifying properties are now extended to the ethical world, and fire becomes the means by which the wrongdoers will be purified in the afterlife. It is also a fire of intellectual illumination. As Zarathushtra says in the Gathas, Yasna 31.3, "The happiness You grant has been promised... through Your mental fire and righteousness." (Ali Jafarey translation) The words for "mental fire and righteousness" in Avestan are mainyu athra-cha asha-cha which literally mean "through mind, through fire, and through ASHA (righteousness)." Thus when Zarathushtra talks about fire, one of his meanings is inner illumination, the fire of enlightenment through which God gives knowledge and courage to human beings. One prayer which devout Zoroastrians say every day (excerpted from the Gathas) says: "Who will, O wise One, give me protection, when the deceitful threatens to harm me, other than your Fire and Mind?" (Jafarey trans.) Fire is therefore a primal unifying force between God and humanity.
In keeping with the abstract nature of Zoroastrian theology, Fire is an abstract, not a personal symbol, and some Zoroastrian scholars, such as the Parsi Farrokh Vajifdar, have said that Zarathushtra was not talking about a real fire at all. But most Zoroastrians honor Fire as a real flame, burning in homes and temples from Bombay to Tehran to Los Angeles.
In the days before the first Persian Empire, the sacred fire was not always enshrined in temples. Remains of fire altars exist in wide open places; Greek sources say that Zoroastrians worshipped on mountains and under the open sky. With the Achaemenids, the first Persian imperial rulers, Zoroastrianism adopted temples for its worship; the idea of temples may have been borrowed from Mesopotamian religion. The Zoroastrians have had fire temples ever since. Some of the temples were built around existing fires: there is a famous temple which was built around a natural gas fire(in the oil-rich land of Iran, this could easily happen) which was called "the fire which burns without fuel." But the sacred fires invariably burned wood and incense, as they do to this day.
By the time of the Sassanian Empire (250 AD-650 AD) fire temples had been established from Asia Minor in the West to China in the East. Zoroastrian fires burned in Armenia and Central Asia, and all over Iran. But the Islamic invasion quenched many of them, and over the years many more went out. Many times a fire temple was simply converted into a mosque, and the Zoroastrian fire vessel was buried beneath the Islamic prayer niche; some of these are now being retrieved in archaeological finds. When refugee Zoroastrians fled to India in the tenth century AD, they took their sacred fire with them, smoldering in a portable firepot; they consecrated a fire- temple in their new home in Gujarat, India.
Not all the ancient sacred fires went dark. Even in the worst of times they were kept burning, secretly, in private houses; these eternal flames were the living heritage of the ancient faith, preserved despite Muslim oppression. Some of these still burn today, in places like Yazd and Kerman, Zoroastrian strongholds in the center of Iran. According to Z. scholar Mary Boyce, there may be sacred fires that have not gone out for two thousand years.
There are three "grades" of sacred fires: each one, in ancient times, corresponded with a sector of society, and each grade has a different level of holiness and ritual purity. How can a fire be"pure?" Zoroastrians have a holy duty to keep all the "elements" pure, whether earth, air, water, or fire. A pure fire is one that has never touched any dead human being or dog, nor is it used for secular work like cooking. A barbecue is a fire, but not a sacred fire. A pure fire, a temple fire, exists only for its iconic value and its religious symbolism. Thus it becomes pure, and different rituals are used to create the three grades of fire.
The first, and most humble grade of fire is the Atash Dadgah, from the Avestan daitya gatu or "appointed place." This is the household fire, the fire of the householder class. It can burn in any clean place, such as a well-kept home or a Zoroastrian meeting- house. This is the fire that burns at jashans or celebrations such as weddings and initiations. It burns only for the duration of the ceremony, and is allowed to go out afterwards. Like all sacred fires, it is treated with ritual and respect: priests who recite in front of it must wear a special face mask in order to prevent breath or spit to touch the fire: these are regarded as unclean in Zoroastrian traditions. And no one must ever blow on the fire or blow it out. For this reason, Zoroastrians despise smoking, since it is bringing a fire to one's mouth, impure with unclean exhalations and saliva; no good Zoroastrian should ever smoke.
The next grade is the Adur Aduran, which means "fire of fires." This grade, which is connected with the warrior class, burns in fire temples. It is kept constantly burning, or at least smoldering, by a team of priests who add new wood to it five times a day. It is called the "fire of fires" because it is consecrated by bringing embers from many different fires of different classes of people, so that it has the symbol of a united society.
The third, and highest grade of fire, is called the Atash Bahram, or "fire of victory." This is the fire of kings and royalty. It may have gotten its "victory" designation because of the metaphor of fire as warrior against evil and darkness. Historically, it was also a symbol of the Persian king's might, and embers from the Atash Bahram were brought onto the battlefield as the standard, or "palladium" of the Persian forces. The creation of an Atash Bahram is a major undertaking. The rituals for its creation may take a year to work, and it must be composed of embers from a thousand and one fires, each from a different occupation of society: brickmakers, potters, reapers, hunters, blacksmiths, bakers, herdsmen, etc. An Atash Bahram must also include fire started by lightning. The Atash Bahram is said to be "enthroned" in a major fire temple at which priests serve who have gone through elaborate purification rituals.
There are only ten current Atash Bahrams, eight in India and two in Iran. They are strictly off limits to anyone but Zoroastrians. Parsis gather in them whenever possible to say their prayers; though these fires are known as "cathedral" fires, there is no huge liturgical space such as there might be in a Catholic Christian cathedral. The interior of an Atash Bahram temple is very simple and unadorned; nothing takes away from the symbolism of the great fire itself, which is set in its own room away from the public but visible to the worshippers.
What does a Sacred Fire look like? I have viewed only an Atash Dadgah, and that will be all I will ever see, because the other grades are closed to me as a non-Zoroastrian. But here in America, that is all that exists, since the money and resources to house and maintain a higher grade of fire do not yet exist in the Zoroastrian diaspora. Nor are there any priests in North America who are authorized to performthe consecration rituals for an Atash Bahram.
The Atash Dadgah is built on a round dish that sits on top of a metal urn about two feet high. The firekeeping priest lays twigs of sandalwood, imported from India, on this dish, along with shredded sandalwood for tinder, and lights it with a simple match. Along with the Atash Dadgah is a smaller flame which burns in a little cup known as a "diva-na-glass," a mixed term which describes a wax or oil candle in a glass. This is the "pilot light" for the Atash Dadgah. As the ceremony goes on, the main fire flares up and then dies down, consuming its sandalwood fuel. When it has gone out, the priest pours powdered incense (known as loban) on the embers, and a cloud of sweet fragrance rises up and fills the hall. Then the priest, after adding more sandalwood, takes a twig, ignites it from the little pilot light, and re-lights the big fire. This cycle of fire, smoke, and fragrance goes on until the ceremony is over.
After the ceremony the attendees are invited to come up to the fire urn and place pieces of sandalwood or bits of incense on the fire, whether it is burning or not. Since the people are not priests reciting vocal prayers, they do not have to cover their mouths with a mask. Some people kneel in reverence to the fire and pray a silent prayer; others may take a pinch of the ashes and touch it to their forehead. This reminds me of the Catholic Ash Wednesday custom, but it has a very different meaning. Zoroastrians do not touch the ashes out of penance, but out of reverence for God's element.
When praying at home, Zoroastrians also use fire as a focus, though it is not actually an Atash Dadgah. Home prayer may take place before asimple lit candle, or a small flame burning sandalwood in a miniature version of the fire urn. This is called a "diva" light, from the Indo-Iranian root dev, which literally means "shining" and is ultimately the root word of "divine," (as well as "devil!").
Throughout their history Zoroastrians have been inaccurately called "fire-worshippers." If one knew nothing about any religion, one might think that that is what they are doing when they gather reverently around the fire. But this is far from the truth. Every Zoroastrian knows that the sacred fire is just a symbol - a primal, grand, and beautiful symbol and worthy of reverence as such - but not divine in itself.
I close this essay with one of the most beautiful of Zoroastrian prayers, an excerpt from the Atash Nyayesh, or "Reverence to Fire." Though this prayer is not from the Gathas of Zarathushtra, it is still used by all the various groups of Zoroastrians, from reformers to traditionalists.(Darmesteter translation)
"...I bless this sacrifice and invocation, and the good offering, the beneficent offering, the offering of assistance offered unto thee, O fire, son of Ahura Mazda... may you have the right wood - may you have the right incense - may you have the right food - may you have the right fuel! May you burn in this house, may you ever burn in this house, may you blaze in this house, may you increase in this house, even for a long time, till the powerful restoration of the world, till the time of the good powerful restoration of this world.
Give me, O fire, son of Ahura Mazda, lively welfare, lively maintenance, lively living, fulness of welfare, fulness of maintenance, fulness of life; Knowledge, sagacity, quickness of tongue, holiness of soul, a good memory, and the understanding that goes on growing and the understanding that is not acquired through learning...
Give me, O fire, son of Ahura Mazda, however unworthy I am, now and forever, a seat in the bright, all-happy, blissful abode of the holy Ones. May I obtain the good reward, a good renown,and long cheerfulness for my soul."
Nemase-te Atarsh Mazdao Ahurahe hudhao mazishta yazata!
(Hail unto you, O fire of Ahura Mazda, O beneficent and most great guardian spirit.)