Zoroastrianism - The Old Iranian Calendars, Part 1

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jayaram V

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[In 1917 I made a study of the history of the Iranian system of time-reckoning, with a view to writing an article on the subject in a Persian review. This took me at that time beyond the scope of the intended article, and the idea was ultimately dropped. I had, however, made a number of notes on that subject. Two years ago I came across these notes which again roused my interest in this question. I decided to carry out the original intention and, instead of throwing away these notes on which a considerable time had been spent, to incorporate them in a monograph on this somewhat complicated question. The work is already in the printer's hands, and will, I hope, be soon at the disposal of Persian scholars. I thought, however, it might be useful to give in English, as concisely as possible, the conclusion reached in the Persian work which amounts to some 350 pages, with some of the principal arguments supporting the opinion expressed therein.]

The Iranian calendar2, like the calendars of many other nations, had many variations, each belonging to a different historical period or to a different geographical region. The influence of neighboring cultures, the customs of kindred races, or the change of the climate due to the southward and westward movement of the Iranians in their migration from their original home, are among the factors capable of affecting changes in the whole system or in some details of it. We have records of at least six more or less different calendars in Iran, during the Islamic period, besides the well-known Muhammadan and widely used Yazdegerdian systems of time reckoning.3 The latter, which was, at least down to the eleventh century of the Christian era, the calendar most commonly used in Iran after the Arabian calendar, and which has survived less widely used till the present century, was the same as the official calendar of the Persian empire in the Sasanian period (of course, with the exception of the era). This is hardly questionable, though we have no contemporary report of that period except as to the names of the months. All our information regarding the pre-Islamic calendar is derived from works composed later than the 8th century AD.

Nevertheless, we have no reason to doubt the statements of the learned Persians of post-Sasanian times as to the calendar of their not very remote ancestors. There is also an older reference to the Persian year in a short notice by Quintus Curtius Rufus, a historian of the first century AD and biographer of Alexander the Great, from which it may be inferred that the Persian year in his time did not differ from the Zoroastrian year of later centuries. This author declares that "The Magians used to sing a native song. There followed the Magians 365 young men clothed in purple (crimson) mantles equal in number to the days of the year. For with the Persians too the year is divided into the same number of days."4 The Persian year as we know it in the Islamic period was, in fact, a vague year of 365 days, with twelve months each of thirty days, with the exception of the eighth month, which had thirty-five days or, rather, thirty days plus another five supplementary days, or epagomenae, added to it. The only difference between this year and the year in use in early Sasanian times was in the place of the epagomenae, as we shall see.

Moreover, we know that the Armenians and Cappadocians to the west of Persia, as well as the Sogdians, the Khwarazmians and the Sistanians in the east, were all using calendars which, though the names of the months were in each case different, were, save for the place of the epagomenae in most of them, exactly the same as the Persian. 5 Most probably all these six calendars had a common origin. Now we have fortunately Armenian documents showing the dates of some Armenian months and days in the fourth, sixth, and seventh centuries (mostly collected by E. Dulaurier 6). These dates correspond exactly with the positions which the corresponding Persian days of the vague year would have occupied in the Julian year at that time, according to backward calculation, the only difference being that during a part of the year there would have been a difference of five days owing to the different places of the epagomenae.7 A similar inference may be drawn from the Cappadocian dates, with their Julian correspondents, preserved in the writings of St. Epiphanus, the bishop of Constantia or Salamis (Cyprus), and relating to his own time. Here again we find that the Cappadocian dates occupy in the Julian year exactly the same places as the corresponding Persian dates would have occupied if the Persian vague year had been in use in that period (of course, again with five days difference due to the different places of epagomenae in the year). These dates belong to the years AD 367 and 368, in the first of which Epiphanus became the bishop of the above-mentioned metropolis.8 There are still other indirect evidences of the use of the same Persian year in Sasanian times, some of which were discussed in my article in BSOS., vol. ix, 1.9 Thus I think the existence in Sasanian and even earlier periods, of the same vague year as we find in later centuries in Persia, and which is up to the present day the calendar year of the followers of the Mazdayasnian religion, can be reasonably taken as an established fact. This calendar is the best known among all Iranian systems of time reckoning in ancient or middle ages, and is generally referred to as the Persian, Parsi, Mazdayasnian, Zoroastrian, or Young-Avestan calendar. We shall use this last term in the following pages to designate this particular system as distinct from other Iranian calendars of ancient times, such as Old-Avestan and Old-Persian, both of which will also be discussed here. It is the calendar of historical times and, as stated above, was in general use long before the Arabian conquest of Persia and for several centuries afterward.10 The later history of this calendar is more or less clear, but its earlier development and the date of its first use in Iran is controversial.

The Y.A. month name found in the Pahlavi parchment of Awraman (No.3), according to the reading of Cowley, Unvala, and Nyberg, shows that the use of these names, and most probably also of the calendar to which these months belong, goes back as far as the first century BC.11 On the other hand, the existence of two other old Iranian calendars is attested by the Behistun inscription, and proved by deduction from the Avestan texts. Also the use of the Syro-Macedonian calendar in Iran in the Macedonian and Parthian periods is indisputable. The latter might have been in use in official circles and State documents 12 side by side with the Young-Avestan, which may have been the people's calendar, but the two former (Old-Avestan and Old-Persian) must have preceded the Young-Avestan. Therefore the question is often asked and discussed as to when the latter was instituted. The answer is not easy to give, as the available data are very limited. For more than two centuries many scholars have tried to solve the problem, and have reached different conclusions. Freret,13 Gibert,14 Bailly,15 Drouin,16 West,17 and many others have discussed the question, and have suggested dates for its introduction, but their suggestions do not seem to be wholly satisfactory.

Gutschmid,18 though he has made a profound study of the general subject of the Iranian calendar, was, however, misled on this point (like Gibert before him) by his own misunderstanding of a passage in the book of the Persian astronomer Kushyar (tenth century) as to the coincidence of the sun's entry into Aries with the Persian month Adar in the time of the Sasanian king, Khosraw I (Anosharvan). Thinking that the passage in question meant that the equinox was on the first day of Adar, Gutschmid made this wrong interpretation the basis of his calculation, and came to the conclusion that the Y.A. calendar was introduced in 411 BC. This view found acceptance among later students of the question for some time.19

Marquart, however, in the last part of his Untersuchungen zur Geschichte von Eran, p. 210, went a step further in the solution of this problem. He made, indeed, a remarkable contribution towards the solving of different questions relating to the Iranian calendar in the said book, as well as in his paper "Das Nauroz", published in the Modi Memorial Volume in 1930. Nevertheless, his conjecture on the date of the introduction of the Y.A. calendar in Persia does not solve the difficulties involved by the contradictory indications. Adopting West's method of starting from the contemporary Kadimi Parsi New Year's Day, which, take into account the four-yearly retrogressions of one day, accords with the well-known fact that the Persian year began on 16th June in the year 632, during which Yazdegird III, the last Sasanian king, was enthroned, and making it the basis of the backward calculation, he reached almost the same conclusion as West, with only about twenty years' difference. This difference was due to the fact that West had relied on the Persian dates, whereas Marquart like Gutschmid, has rightly preferred the Armenian dates 20 because, as a result of an error committed on the occasion of the first intercalation, namely the omission of the five supplementary days in that year, the Persian dates in a great part of the year were five days in advance compared with the Armenian.21 Both scholars, however, have taken it for granted that the Persian year at the time of its adoption must have begun on the vernal equinox, in other words that the first day of the month of Frawardin was at that time the first day of spring. Therefore West has arrived at the years 510-505 and Marquart at 493-486 BC as being the date of the introduction of the Y.A. calendar in Iran. Both authors attribute this important reform to Darius I, who according to them officially established the said calendar in the Persian empire. But it must be stated that the theory of the Persian New Year's Day originally falling on the vernal equinox is not supported by any convincing proof. The idea may have arisen from the impression made on the minds of those acquainted with the Persian calendar by Malikshah's reform in the eleventh century and the resulting celebration of the Nawruz on the vernal equinox, which prevails in Iran down to the present day. The legend of Zoroastrian cosmogony, according to which the "seven planets" including the Sun in Aries,22 were in their hypsoma or exaltation points at the beginning of the seventh millennium of world cycles, and Zoroaster's intercalation of the year to bring it back again to the same position (i.e. the sun in Aries on New Year's Day), found partly in Pahlavi works and partly in Old-Arabic books, can hardly be advanced as evidence in this connection.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


1. This paper was composed in November, 1937.

2. The abbreviations used in this article are: B.= Biruni, AB. = al-Âthâr al-bâqiya (Sachau's edition), M.= Maquart, Y.A.= Young-Avestan, ga.= gahambar, gas.= gahambars.

3. I propose to deal with these calendars later.

4. Curtius, iii, 3, 10.

5. The Sistanian year even in this respect, i.e. the place of the supplementary days, had no difference from the Persian year, but in the other four calendars these days were invariably at the end of the year. The Persian epagomenae were, as is known, moved a month forward every 120 years.

6. Recherches sur la chronologie armenienne, technique et historique, Paris, l859.

7. It would take us too far afield to dwell upon the details of these Armenian dates here. It will suffice to say that Agathangelos, the Armenian historian of the fourth century, gives according to M. (Das Nauroz) the beginning of the Armenian year in 304 as corresponding to 11th September. The Persian New Year on that date was no doubt on the 6th September.

8. Though the Cappadocian year has been officially stabilized by the introduction of the Julian system of intercalation, apparently about 63 BC, following the establishment of the Roman rule in that country in the same year, the old vague year has, nevertheless, survived a long time after that date and has continued to be the popular means of time reckoning of the common people.

9. "Some chronological data relating to the Sasanian period."

10. Some small changes, however, have taken place from time to time during the Islamic period, and these must be described in an article dealing with the calendars of that period.

11. The document in question was written twelve years before the Christian era.

12. It was certainly used on Parthian coins with Greek letters. According to Drouin (Revue Archéologique, Juillet-Decembre, 1889) even the Macedonian months appear on the tetradrachms from the time of Phraates IV (37-4 BC) down to AD 190.

13. "De 1'ancienne année des Perses," 1742, published in l'Histoire de l'Académie Royale des inscriptions et belles lettres, tome 16, Paris, 1751, partie, 2, les memoires.

14. "Nouvelles observations sur l'annee des anciens Perses," in l'Histoire de l'Académie Royale des inscriptions, etc., tome 31, Paris, 1788, Mémoires pp. 51-80.

15. Traité de l'Astronomie indienne et orientale, Paris, 1787.

16. Revue Archéologique, 1888-9.

17. SBE, 47, introd., pp. 42-7.

18. Über des iranishe Jahr in Berichte über die Verhandlungen der königlichen sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 1862.

19. For instance, Spiegel has accepted it in his Eranische Alterthumskunde, iii, 670, and even M. in the first part of his Untersuchungen, p. 64, has followed that famous scholar.

20. West also has made his backward calculation by taking back the new year's day 0.2422 day for each year from its present place, which is not strictly accurate for ancient times. M. apparently took the Julian days as his basis.

21. The first day of the Armenian year during which the accession of Yazdegird took place corresponded to 21st June, 632.

22. According to one version the sun was on the first point of Aries at midday of the day Ohrmazd of the month of Frawardin.

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