Ancient Persian symbols, frequently depicted in old lithographic scriptures, are renowned for their mysticism and grandeur. Remarkably, despite the passage of time, they have sustained their relevance and even grown in popularity.
The term “ancient Persia” alludes to a historical region in the Middle East, predominantly present-day Iran, which once constituted a vast empire. Persepolis, its capital, stands as an archaeological testament to the civilization’s advancements in astronomy and geometry.
Persian art frequently featured stylized representations of mythical and real creatures, including lions, griffins, peacocks, and phoenixes. These symbols continue to exert a captivating allure, ingrained in global culture.
Let’s delve into some of the most iconic Persian symbols.
- The Faravahar
The Faravahar, known as the ‘falcon,’ is Persia’s most renowned ancient symbol. It comprises a winged sun disk with a seated male figure at its core. While the origins of this symbol are clear in terms of its creators—ancient Persians—its precise significance remains shrouded in mystery.
Scholars have ventured to interpret the Faravahar as representing a fundamental principle of the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathustra: ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.’ According to Zarathustra, the seated male figure within the Faravahar embodies the wisdom of age.
The three primary feathers on each wing are believed to symbolize good deeds, good words, and good thoughts, emphasizing the importance of virtuous living.
At the heart of the symbol, the ring conveys the eternal nature of the soul or the infinity of the universe. As a circle, it lacks both a beginning and an end.
The Faravahar holds immense spiritual significance for Iranians, Kurds, and Zoroastrians, serving as a powerful symbol. While rooted in religion, it has transcended its religious origins to become a secular cultural and national emblem in contemporary times.
- The Water Goddess of Persia: Anahita
Anahita, the ancient Indo-Iranian Persian goddess, reigns over all the Earth’s waters. Various names, including the Lady of the Beasts, the Fertility Goddess, and the goddess of the Sacred Dance, know her. Frequently depicted, Anahita is often accompanied by two majestic lions flanking her.
In most depictions, Anahita is portrayed as a virgin, adorned in a shining golden cloak and crowned with a diamond tiara.
Her name, ‘the immaculate one,’ underscores her purity. As the guardian of waters, rivers, and the birthing lakes, she assumes the role of the patroness of women.
However, Anahita also bears the mantle of a war goddess, as Persian soldiers sought her blessings before embarking on battles, seeking survival and victory.
Anahita enjoyed immense popularity in ancient Persia and was prominent in numerous Eastern religions. Her sacred companions are the peacock and the dove, and she is closely associated with fertility, wisdom, and healing.
Scholars believe that two archaeological sites in Iran, one in Kermanshah Province and the other in Bishapur, are attributed to Anahita, underscoring her enduring significance in Persian history.
- The Sun and the Lion
The Sun and the Lion, an age-old Persian symbol, consists of two distinct elements: a lion brandishing a sword, or as known in Persian, a “shamshir,” against the backdrop of a radiant sun.
This emblem once stood as a central symbol of Persia and was prominently featured on the national flag until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The sun signifies the celestial ruler, while the lion embodies the lineage of kingship, royalty, and divinity. This iconic motif has left an indelible mark throughout history, dating back to ancient times.
The Sun and the Lion’s popularity in Persia is traced back to the 12th century, steadily gaining prominence as a quintessential Persian symbol. Its significance spans diverse historical contexts, primarily rooted in astrological and astronomical symbolism.
During the reign of the Safavid dynasty, the Sun and the Lion symbolized the twin pillars of society: Islamic religion and the state. Subsequently, in the Qajar era, this emblem assumed the status of a national symbol.
Over the years, its interpretation evolved, reflecting the changing tides of Persian history until the pivotal moment of the 1979 revolution. With the revolution, this emblem was supplanted by Islamic symbols, marking its removal from government institutions and public spaces, concluding its era as the official emblem of Iran.
- Huma, the Bird of Paradise
The Huma, a legendary mythical bird from Iranian folklore and fables, has woven its way into the cultural quilt of Diwan and Sufi poetry, often referred to as a ‘bird of paradise’ in Ottoman verse, symbolizing heights beyond reach.
Countless legends and variations surround the Huma, but a common thread unites them all—the Huma perpetually soars high above the Earth, never descending upon the ground. In some renditions, it lacks legs, rendering it forever aloft.
This enigmatic creature eludes human sight, its gender concealed by its dual nature as both male and female. In specific versions, akin to the Phoenix, the Huma immolates itself in flames after centuries, only to emerge anew from its ashes. If this mythical bird perched upon someone’s head, it foretold their destiny as a future monarch.
The Huma commanded immense reverence, deemed an emblem of good fortune. In Sufi tradition, capturing the bird remained a wholly unattainable dream, but merely glimpsing its shadow or form promised a lifetime of happiness. However, those who harmed the Huma were said to meet their fate within 40 days.
The Huma has graced banners and flags throughout history, leaving an indelible mark. Even today, the Farsi/Persian acronym for the ‘Iran National Airline’ is HOMA, and the national airline’s emblem proudly features a stylized rendition of the Huma bird.
- Bote Jeghe
The Boteh Jeghe, also known as the Paisley pattern, showcases a distinct tear-drop shape with an elegantly curved upper end. “Boteh” originates from Persian, signifying a bush or plant, reflecting the natural motifs often found in Persian design.
This timeless pattern has transcended cultural boundaries and is now cherished worldwide, adorning textiles used in clothing, artwork, and carpets. Interestingly, it earned its English moniker, “Paisley,” from the Scottish town of Paisley, where the Boteh Jeghe was first replicated and embraced.
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the Boteh Jeghe holds more profound symbolism, often interpreted as a stylized representation of a cypress tree and a floral spray.
In Zoroastrianism, these elements symbolize life and eternity, adding meaning to this enduring pattern. Thus, the Boteh Jeghe is a testament to artistic craftsmanship and echoes ancient faith and cultural heritage.
- The Shirdal
The Shirdal, also known as the ‘Lion-Eagle,’ is a legendary and mythical creature that has captured the imagination of many through fictional novels and movies.
It is more commonly recognized as the griffin, possessing the rear legs and tail of a lion and the head, wings, and occasionally talons of an eagle.
In ancient Persia, the Shirdal held a revered status as a majestic and formidable creature, drawing from the symbolism of the lion as the king of beasts and the eagle as the king of birds. As such, it embodied qualities of leadership, power, courage, and wisdom.
The presence of the Shirdal can be traced back to ancient Persian art as far back as the 2nd millennium B.C., making it a symbol deeply rooted in Persian heritage.
It was a common motif during the Iron Age in Iran’s North and North West regions. It featured prominently in the art of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, signifying the wisdom of the Iranian people.
Beyond its symbolic representation, the Shirdal was traditionally associated with guarding precious treasures, emphasizing its role as a protector of wealth and valuables. In medieval times, it took on an additional symbolism as a representation of monogamous marriage, discouraging infidelity due to the unwavering loyalty of Shirdal pairs.
This mythical creature was believed to safeguard individuals from the influences of witchcraft, slander, and evil forces, further highlighting its significance in Persian culture and folklore.
The Simurg, a legendary creature from Persian mythology, is a fascinating being often spelled in various ways like Simurgh or Simorgh. It’s depicted as having enormous female wings and a scaly body, along with the head and front part of a dog, lion claws, and the wings and tail of a peacock.
Sometimes, it even has a human face. In Persian art, the Simurg is a gigantic bird capable of carrying a whale or an elephant. It’s generally seen as a kind and benevolent creature; most accounts describe it as female.
The Simurg played a significant role as a guardian figure with healing abilities. It was believed to purify lands and waters and bring fertility. This mythical creature is a recurring theme in Persian art and literature and is often compared to other mythological birds like the Phoenix, the Persian Huma, or the Arabic Anqa.
In modern and classical Persian literature, the Simurg is used as a symbol of God in the Sufi religion. It also appears in ancient creation stories, with Persian legends suggesting that it’s an ancient creature that has witnessed the world’s destruction three times.
Interestingly, the Simurg’s presence continues today, as seen on the flag of the Tat people, an Iranian ethnic group. Additionally, it adorns the reverse side of the Iranian 500 rials coin.
- Mount Damavand
Mount Damavand stands as an active stratovolcano, proudly claiming the title of Iran’s highest mountain peak and the loftiest volcano in Asia. Its towering presence is not only a geographical marvel but also deeply intertwined with the mythology and folklore of Persia.
This majestic mountain is believed to possess mystical qualities, owing to the presence of numerous hot water springs known for their reputed ability to heal wounds and chronic skin ailments.
The significance of Mount Damavand extends beyond its natural magnificence. It holds a place of honor on the reverse side of the Iranian 10,000 rials banknote, symbolizing the enduring spirit of Persian resistance against foreign despotism.
As it pierces the sky at an elevation of 5,610 meters, reaching its summit is a profound achievement and a source of pride for any Iranian.
Legends and local tales further enrich Mount Damavand’s lore, attributing various magical powers to this colossal peak.
Even today, Mount Damavand retains its esteemed status as the mother of Persian myths, a testament to its enduring cultural and geographical significance.
- Cypress Tree
The symbolism of the cypress tree has deep historical origins, tracing back to the Sassanian culture during the period of approximately 224-651 CE. The Sassanian civilization was the precursor to modern-day Iran, occupying the same geographical region.
One of the primary meanings associated with the cypress tree in Persian culture is resilience and endurance. Its tall, straight trunk and ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions symbolize strength and tenacity.
This symbolism is reflected in Persian poetry, where the cypress tree is frequently used as a metaphor for enduring love and unwavering commitment.
The cypress tree is central in Persian gardens, making it one of the most beloved and frequently depicted elements. This enduring motif also graces Persian rugs, further underscoring its cultural significance.
Beyond its decorative presence, the cypress tree is meaningful in burial rituals, symbolizing the concept of eternal life that follows after death.
- Ganjifeh Cards
Ganjifeh cards showcase intricate designs and bear diverse symbolic motifs, making them tools for entertainment and windows into Persia’s cultural and artistic depictions.
As they have been meticulously crafted over centuries, Ganjifeh cards reflect the Persian people’s meticulous craftsmanship and artistic prowess. Each card is a canvas for intricate patterns, vivid colors, and depictions of various symbols, offering a captivating fusion of art and gaming.
Beyond their aesthetic appeal, Ganjifeh cards have a more profound significance in Persian culture. They have been employed for divination, with the cards believed to hold hidden meanings that can unveil secrets of the future or provide guidance in challenging times.
The symbols explored here offer a glimpse into the Persian people’s rich culture. Each one carries a profound message and embodies a connection to the centuries-old history of this dynamic civilization.
These symbols serve as gateways to a deeper understanding of the enduring values and traditions that have shaped Persian identity over millennia.
Beyond the symbols we’ve discussed, many other Persian symbols exist, some more obscure but equally beautiful and meaningful.
Together, they collectively enrich the cultural mosaic of Persia, leaving an indelible mark on modern life and fiction while preserving the legacy of a vibrant and storied civilization.