The Faravahar is arguably the best-known symbol of the Persian Zoroastrian faith. This symbol consists of a winged disc with a man emerging from it. The man is shown holding a ring. Whilst the symbol is well known, the meaning behind it is more complicated. The Faravahar was adopted as a secular symbol to represent the modern nation of Iran.
‘Faravahar’ is a Pahlavi (known also as Middle Persian) word and is said to be derived from the Avestan word (the language of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scripture) “fravarane,” which translates to mean “I choose.” Alternatively, it has been suggested that the name of this symbol is connected to the Old Persian word “fravarti” or “fravashi,” meaning “to protect.” The former implies the choice one makes to follow the teachings of Zoroastrianism, whereas the latter implies the divine protection of a guardian spirit. Incidentally, the name “Faravahar” was given to the symbol in more recent times, and it is unclear as to how the ancient Persians referred to this symbol.
Stone carved Faravahar in Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, located in modern-day Iran. (Napishtim / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Ancient Historical Origins Of The Faravahar Symbol
Although we may not how the ancient Persians referred to the symbol, we do know that it was an important one for them. This is evident in the fact that the Faravahar appears in a variety of different places. For instance, the symbol is depicted on the famous Behistun Inscription . In this rock relief, the Faravahar is shown hovering above the prisoners of Darius the Great and giving the king its blessing. The Faravahar is also seen in Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenids.
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The Behistun Inscription is a relief with accompanying text carved 330 feet (100 meters) up a cliff in Kermanshah Province, Western Iran. It shows the Faravahar at the top and Darius the Great and his prisoners below. (Hara1603 / Public domain )
In its form as a winged disc, the Faravahar was used long before the Achaemenids came to power. It is likely that the Persians adopted this symbol from the Assyrians, who also used it widely in their monumental art. Unlike the Zoroastrian Faravahar, the Assyrian symbol has a human figure depicted within the disc. The symbol, and the figure in the disc, is meant to represent Assur, the national god of the Assyrians. Like its Zoroastrian counterpart, the Assyrian winged disc is depicted as a kind of divine protection of the king.
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Apart from the Achaemenids and Assyrians, the winged disc was also used by other ancient Near Eastern powers, perhaps most notably the ancient Egyptians, from whom the Assyrians may have adopted the symbol. Unlike the Faravahar, the Egyptian winged disc has no human figure associated with it. The symbol is meant to be a solar disc, and a representation of Horus, the falcon-headed god. Therefore, the Faravahar, though in a slightly different form, was already in use long before its adoption by the Zoroastrians and Achaemenids.
Wadfradad I, a local king of Persis (modern day Fars, in southwestern Iran) shown standing in front of a sanctuary. Above the sanctuary is the Faravahar giving the king its blessing. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Following the demise of the Achaemenids in the 4 th century BC, the Faravahar seems to have fallen out of use, as it did not appear in the art of their successors. One exception to this was Wadfradad I, a local king of Persis (modern day Fars, in southwestern Iran) who lived during the 3 rd century BC. Although the area was under Seleucid rule at that time, the local kings, for a brief period, were able to issue their own coins. On the reverse of a silver coin issued by Wadfradad I, the king is shown standing in front of a sanctuary. Above the sanctuary is the Faravahar, giving the king its blessing.
Apart from that, some elements of the Faravahar were preserved by the successors of the Achaemenids. For instance, the ring that his held by the figure on the Faravahar can be seen in Sassanian art. In this context, the ring is meant to symbolize the royal diadem, which is given to the king during his investiture. For example, in the investiture relief of Shapur II at Taq-e Bostan, the Sassanian king is shown receiving the royal diadem from Ahura Mazda , the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism.
These exceptions aside, the Faravahar was not used much until the 20 th century AD, when it was revived as a nationalistic icon. This is, in part, due to the adoption of this ancient symbol by the Pahlavi dynasty, established by Reza Shah Pahlavi when he came to power in Iran in 1925 AD. Even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Faravahar, despite being a Zoroastrian symbol, was tolerated by the new government and preserved as Iran’s national symbol.
The Faravahar: Meanings And Interpretations
Various interpretations regarding the Faravahar’s exact meaning have been made in the recent past, and there is still no real consensus as to what the symbol is supposed to mean. According to one popular interpretation, the Faravahar is supposed to represent a fravashi, a guardian spirit in Zoroastrianism. The fravashis, however, are regarded as female beings , and thus contradicts the image depicted in the Faravahar, i.e., a man emerging from the ring.
Another interpretation is that the Faravahar is meant to symbolize Ahura Mazda. This interpretation has also been discredited, since this deity, in Zoroastrianism, is abstract and transcendent, and therefore cannot be represented in any form. Incidentally, the exception to this rule is seen in the investiture reliefs of the Sassanian period. It has also been suggested that the Faravahar does not really have any religious meaning, and that it is supposed to represent the khvarenah, or royal glory, of the king.
The Faravahar can be interpreted through its 6 distinct aspects. ( FineSilhouettes / Adobe Stock)
Yet another interpretation of the Faravahar divides the image into six parts, each of which is meant to remind a Zoroastrian of his / her purpose in life. The first part of the Faravahar is the elderly man, which is supposed to represent the human soul. Since it is depicted as an elderly man, it is also meant to symbolize the wisdom of age. The man’s hands represent the second part of the symbol. One of the hands points upwards, which is taken to mean that the only way to choose in life is forward. In the other hand is a ring, which may represent faithfulness and loyalty to the teachings of Zoroaster, as the object is a ring of covenant, representing loyalty and faithfulness, the basis of Zoroaster’s philosophy.
The third part of the Faravahar is the ring from which the man emerges. This ring represents either the eternal nature of the universe, or the immortality of the soul since a circle has neither a beginning nor an end. Alternatively, it has been suggested that this circle is a reminder that all our actions have repercussions. The two wings on either side of the ring form the fourth part of the Faravahar and are thought to symbolize flight and advancement. The feathers of the wings are said to represent good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Conversely, the feathers of the tail, the fifth part of the Faravahar, represent bad thoughts, bad words, and bad deeds, which the Zoroastrians strive to rise above. Lastly, the two streamers coming out of the ring represent positive and negative forces. The man in the ring faces one of them, and turns his back to the other, indicating that one should choose good, and shun evil.
Lastly, it may be said that even though no one knows for certain the real meaning behind the Faravahar it is nevertheless a potent symbol indeed. Whether it is meant to represent the Iranian nation, or the way of life that Zoroastrians try to achieve, the Faravahar is a powerful symbol that still means a lot to many people today.
Top image: The Faravahar, the primary symbol of Persian Zoroastrianism on the top of a temple but also a symbol of the nation of Iran and more . . . Source: Nicola Forenza / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren