Monday, January 10, 2011

The Wisdom of Fire and Water

Artwork by Roodiparse
In the Zoroastrian religion, fire and water are considered agents of ritual purity. They are among the most basic life-sustaining elements and one complements the other. After all, when fire gets out of hand, what tames it better than water? And the heat of fire evaporates water until nothing is left but steam. Zoroastrians consider fire to be the medium through which spiritual knowledge and wisdom is gained, while water is the source of wisdom. So you really can’t have one without the other.

Once the official religion of the ancient Persians, Zoroastrianism is a minority faith in modern Iran. But its symbols of fire and water persist in almost every aspect of life. Sometimes they are physically present, as in the reflecting pools in front of palaces, mosques and other public buildings, or the ruins of ancient Zoroastrian fire temples that still stand atop hills around the country.

These elements are reflected in rituals as well. During the fire festival on Chahar Shanbeh Souri, which marks the beginning of the Persian New Year (itself a Zoroastrian tradition), people build bonfires in the streets and jump over them in a spiritual cleansing ceremony. And every visit I make to Iran with my husband includes a trip to the cemetery, where we wash the graves of relatives, using water from conveniently placed taps.

You can even spend a pleasant afternoon in Tehran’s Ab o Atesh, a fire-and-water-themed park. (Check it out here:).

To find the purest form of the fire-water duality today, it’s best to go to an imamzadeh, or shrine dedicated to a Shiite saint. The walls are covered with tiny angled mirrors (water) that catch the light (fire) of chandeliers suspended from the high ceilings. I can sit for hours on the carpeted floor of a shrine’s inner sanctum and watch the dazzling dance of these two spiritual elements. If I keep my mind very still, maybe some of the fire’s wisdom will reflect back on me.

The Islamic Republic’s theocratic government prefers to downplay the importance of Zoroastrian symbols and rituals, but for ordinary Iranians, they are just a part of everyday life. The religious significance may have been lost over time, but the practices remain. Many modern Iranians embrace them as a way to connect to their long and rich history, a time when Persia was still a great empire. Dynasties may rise and fall, religions come and go, but these basic elements define who the people are at their core.

Perhaps because I come from a culture that is always looking to the future and all too willing to forget the past, I am fascinated by the way that modern Iranians—religious and secular, traditional and modern—incorporate ancient symbols and rituals so seamlessly into the fabric of their daily lives.

So even I’ll get into the spirit from time to time. When I need a moment of calm, I create my own reflecting pool by placing two lit candles in front of a mirror then watch the flames dance in the reflection. Try it sometime. It’s very relaxing.

Do you have a favorite ritual or symbols that connect you to the past?

1 comment:

  1. It is so interesting how many similarities were between what we now call primitive cultures, although perhaps they weren’t. Chinese astrology takes into account not only the year a person was born, but also the element that year carries. The five elements are fire, water, wood, air and earth. Before Russians accepted Christianity, they worshiped their pagan gods – Water, Sun (akin to Fire), and I think, Earth. I don’t remember others. Another interesting thing is that jumping over a fire is an ancient Russian tradition as well (people don’t do it anymore except when they maybe go camping in the woods) but that was what killed the Snow Maiden in the old fable… She got challenged by her friends to jump over the fire!