• Thursday, February 5, 2015



Ali A. Jafarey


Greatest Discovery:


Take away fire and man (stands for both the genders) will revertto wilderness like any other animal! The greatest discovery made by man aloneon this good earth is the art of making and maintaining fire. He, like anyother animal, had seen fire striking from clouds, devouring bushes and trees,and devastating large tracts of green land. He had also seen fire being spewedby a volcano and the molten lava snaking and snarling its way down the slopes.He also knew it gave heat and scared ferocious animals. Though still notproven, but most probably he had learned how to keep it burning. It providedhim and his associates with light, warmth, and a device to keep ferociousanimals away. He must have also learned to control fire which, in the long run,helped him to smelt metal ores.


But man did not know how to kindle it. The day he discovered thisart, he separated for good from the animal kingdom that roamed the earth. Hehad discovered the source of light, heat, and energy -- the very basis ofcivilization. Fire helped man to reduce nomadism and develop social andpolitical institutions connected with a fixed abode.


Legends of how man learned to make fire are as numerous as thereare ancient nations. A god brought or stole it down the sky is but an illusionto lightening striking and starting a fire. It was thrown up by the earthreminds us of a volcanic eruption. It was brought down a tree by a wise manindicates that it was obtained from a burning tree. It is a product of tworubbing branches or a child of ten mothers, points to the much later discoveryof creating friction by placing a stick in a wooden groove and rubbing, ratherrotating the stick with two palms, the ten fingers, the ten mothers.


The most striking is the Iranian legend, preserved, among otherwritings, in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. Here is a gist of the Shahnameh's story:




Hushang succeeded his grandfather Kayumars,the first of the Pishdadian Kings. He girdled himself with wisdom and justice.


The Discovery of Fire


Our ancestors worshipped God, had theirbeliefs, and followed certain ceremonies. In those days, the blazing fire wasthe altar just as the Arabs have stone as their prayer niche. But the discoveryof fire was quite incidental. This happened before iron was discovered.


One cold day, Hushang and his party werereturning from a hunting expedition. They saw a snake coiled in their path.Hushang aimed his flint axe at it. He missed and the snake slithered away. Butthe axe hit another stone, also a flint and produced a bright spark. Thecurious king took hold of the two flints and struck—more sparks. And he learnedto produce enough sparks to ignite a fire. He discovered how to make fire!"This spark," he proclaimed, "is God's gift. Hold it high inregard." He thanked God for the gift and made fire his altar. He held agreat feast. Every person sang, danced, drank, and feasted around the bonfire.For the first time, Hushang and his people could light their dark caves andfeel cozy and warm in their beds. They passed a wonderful winter. Hushang neverforgot his revolutionary discovery. He held a great feast every year on thateventful day. It is called "Sadeh."


He was the first to separate iron from oreand established the profession of smithery. He fashioned axes, saws, and adzes.Next, he diverted water from rivers into plains for cultivation. Prior to this,human beings subsisted on fruits and covered themselves with leaves.Furthermore, Hushang separated the beasts which were hunted from those thatcould easily be domesticated. He introduced soft and comfortable furs asclothing.


Hushang's reign introduced peace,prosperity, plenty, and happiness. He died after ruling for forty years. It maybe pointed out here that the “forty” years symbolize a period of Paleolithicperiod of man’s discovery of the use of fire, some 500,000 to 10,000 yearsago—from wandering with stick and stone implements to cave-dwelling anddomestication of animals.



To put it in short: Fire was accidentally discovered when aflint-axe, thrown by King Hushang to kill a snake, missed and struck a rock andthrew a spark. That sparked the idea to kindle fire by striking two pieces offlint together. This theory is confirmed by archeologists to be the mostprobable means of its discovery in the early stone stage.


Hushang, the Iranian legend says, celebrated the discovery bythrowing a feast, a feast that has been kept alive through ages. It is heldevery year on 10 Bahman (30 January), almost mid-winter. It is called “Sadeh,”meaning "century" because according to one popular tradition, itfalls on the hundredth day from 21 October, the beginning of winter amongancient Iranians. Or, as I see it, it is the contracted form of the Avestan“saredha,” Persian “sard,” meaning "cold, winter."


On that afternoon, people gather outside their town, make a hillof dry shrubs, bushes, weeds, and branches. Priests lead the prayers, exaltingfire as the divine light, warmth, and energy, ask God for an ever-progressinglife to eternal happiness, and as the sun sets in the blazing west, set thehill ablaze. It is a sight to watch huge leaping flames. Those at home lightlittle bonfires on top of their flat mud-plastered "fire-safe" roofs-- a tribute to the civilized blessings given by the discovery of kindlingfire.


Venerating Fire:


At a time when man was hunted and haunted, he discovered fire andthat changed his whole pattern of life. No wonder the blazing fire soon becamethe object of veneration, especially when his imagination formed for him manyforms of deities.  Fire became a deity too, a deity too close and touching. The sky god was sky high, the earth goddess was earth wide, the wind god wasblowing across, the sun god/goddess was traveling light, the moon god waswaxing to wane, and the water goddess was streaming by.


Fire was the only deity that sat very cozy and close.  Itheld a special position.  It was kindled with care and was kept alive withmore care.  It gave light.  It gave heat.  It gave power. It turned night into day and winter into spring.  It baked clay into pots,and smelted metal into instruments.  It frightened away dangerous animals,and above all, it made the daily food tender and tasty.  It hadrevolutionized human living.  It required constant attention, andattention means attraction and affection.  It became “special.”  Ithad a special seat, the hearth. It became the center of his activities --cooking, eating, conversing, sleeping, and of course, receiving hishomage.  Moreover, it went up the sky in a smoke column.  The firegod had contact with the gods and goddesses above and men and womenbelow.  He was the intermediary, and the hearth became the altar, theearliest altar. All the gifts presented to deity and deities -- animal fat andflesh, grains, food, sweet smelling herbs and wood -- were put to burn and risein smoke to reach the deity/deities.  It was a smoky, smelly offer!




Kindling fire by striking flints or rubbing sticks was no easyjob.  It was much easier to keep it burning.  Man learned that firecan snugly sleep beneath ashes and arise glowing when blown into flames. The habit of keeping fire “alive” through sleeping and leaping became ahabit.  Habit forms tradition.  The hearth fire and later the templefire became an ever-burning fire. Tradition becomes sacred.  Sacrednessdemands ritual.  Ritual becomes elaborate. Once sanctified and ritualized,even when well out-dated and fossilized, a tradition cannot be easily abandonedby conservatives.


Matchsticks and gas and electric lighters have put out the hearthfire, and yet I know in Iran there are still old ladies, Zoroastrians andMuslims, whose hearth fire is never extinguished.  My mother andmother-in-law, one from Kerman and the other from Shiraz, 300 miles apart, hadthe hearth fire going as long as they lived.  If this could be with homes,what should one expect from places of worship?


Fire has served as the altar, the illuminating light, for manyreligions. Fire, in form of candid candle, lighted lamp, burning incense, andblazing wood, still adorns prayer niches, rooms and halls all over the world.


Fire Altars and Temples:


Hearth fire is venerated in the Atash Nyayesh in the LaterAvesta.  This is the earliest form of it and it formed the altar for alldomestic rituals. The Haptanghaiti in the Gathic dialect mentions“fire-enclosure” as a communal altar.  Median and Achaemenian bas-reliefsshow persons standing, with uplifted arms” in the Gathic fashion, in front offire altars.  Plinths at Pasargadae confirm the “fire-enclosure,” theGathic communal fire altars.  Open fire altars survive at Naqsh-e Rostamfrom Sassanian days too. Avestan texts speak of no fire-temple or fire-house.It did not exist in those days.


Temple is an Elamite and Babylon gift to Median and PersianZoroastrians. Parthians and Sassanians followed with increasing elaborations.Ruins of Zoroastrian fire-temples of pre-Islamic era are spread from Iraq tothe Pamirs and beyond.  I have visited, lit a candle and prayed at many,including the one on the Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and those inPersepolis, Naqsh-e Rostam, Pasargadae, Isfahan, Khuzistan, Azerbaijan in Iran,and Taxila in Pakistan. Various grades of fire-temple are also the evolution ofelaborating the system. Atash Bahram, the Victory Fire, at present the highestconsecrated temple is a Sassanian innovation. When Ardeshir Babakan, thefounder of the dynasty, rose against the Parthian rule and won a victoryagainst Vologeses V in 224 CE, he had to fight many a battle to conquer thevast empire. Wherever and whenever, he scored a victory over his enemies, hewould erect one "Victory Fire" temple in memory. His successorscontinued with erecting Atash Bahrams and other fire-temples.


History books written by Muslim travelers speak of fire-temples“miraculously” lit without being fed by any firewood.  They were in theoil-rich regions, from present day Khuzistan in Iran to Azerbaijan in theformer Soviet Union. They were fed by natural gas, harnessed by the experts inthose days.  The one in Baku has been reconstructed by the authoritiesthere and has the gas fire on. The gas-fed Azar Goshnasb temple in Azerbaijan,Iran, was where the Sassanian emperors were crowned. Recent excavations haverevealed the baked clay pipeline to the fire-altar. This makes the presentgas-fed fire altars in North America and Iran as no innovation but followingthe past in modern times. It is far less air polluting and does not devourfirewood and therefore plays no part in deforestation.


Once installed in a temple, it became a tradition.  Thattradition continues.  I would add that it should continue with modernmodifications.  Already a number of “prayer rooms” and “Dar-e Mehrs” inNorth America and Europe -- and it includes the Zarathushtrian Assembly prayerhall -- are lit by natural gas.


The Sassanians had two other major fire-temples.  AzarFarnbagh, for the Priestly class, was in Nishabur, Khorassan, northeast Iran,and Azar Borzin, for the Agricultural and Industrious class, was in Darab,Pars, southern Iran.


Incidentally, the domed Muslim mosque is the continuation of theSassanian architecture of fire-temple.  The dome stood above thefire-altar. All that the Arabs or Iranian converts to Islam had to do is toremove the altar and prepare the hall for their prayers. Some of the old formerfire-temples, turned into congregational mosques still have the fire-altarsplaced in their yards and filled with water.  The domed building is not anArabian architecture at all. It is Iranian.


Fire in the Gathas:


Fire has been used eight times in the Gathas.  It is mental(Songs 4.3 and 12.6), the radiant light (4.19 and 16.9), the warmth (8.4), andfull-of-energy (7:4), which helps good and evil people to find happiness. Ithelps to meditate in quest of righteousness (8.9) and to enlighten one's mindto find means to ward off danger (11.7). 


The Gathic Fire symbolizes the Divine Progressive Mind in humanbeings. It is the altar that enlightens a meditating mind of a Zarathushtrian.Facing it, a Zarathushtrian wishes to forge an ideal society. Here are twobrief prayers, one in the Haptanghaiti and the other from Atash Nyâyesh (FirePrayer) in the Avesta. They explain fire's symbolism and depict the society aZarathushtrian wants the world to enjoy:


“In this fire-enclosure, first of all, we approach You and Youalone, Wise God, through the most progressive mentality, symbolized by Fire --bright, warm and energetic. Reverence to it, because You have appointed it forreverence.


Fire, you belong to God Wise. You symbolize the most progressivementality. This is the best of your designations. O Fire of Ahura Mazda, it isbecause of this that we approach you. (Haptanghaiti, Song 3.1-3)


Grant me, O Fire of Ahura Mazda, prompt welfare, promptmaintenance, prompt living; full welfare, full maintenance, full living; zeal,progress, eloquence, discerning intellect; next, comprehensive, great andlasting knowledge; next, all encompassing courage, steadiness; vigilance,wakeful even at rest; and self-supporting children, able to govern the country,outstanding in assembly, harmonious in growth, and gentle in character, whoshall advance our homes, settlements, districts, countries and the worldfellowship. (Atash Nyâyesh).

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