The faravahar is the best-known symbol from ancient Persia of the winged sun disk with a seated male figure in the center. It is thought to represent Ahura Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism, but has also been interpreted to signify other concepts, including:
- Fravashi (Guardian Angel)
- Farr or Khvarenah (Divine Grace)
- The fravashi of the king
- Divinity in general and royal power
- Personal spiritual power
- The tenets of Zoroastrianism
All of these interpretations, it should be noted, are modern. No one actually knows what the faravahar meant to the ancient Persians who created the symbol.
The winged sun disk is one of the most ancient symbols in the world, appearing in art, architecture, and cylinder seals from Egypt, Babylonia, Sumer, Assyria, Judah, and elsewhere. The Persian faravahar is easily the most intricate and detailed representation of the winged sun disk from any ancient civilization except perhaps the Assyrian. It first appears in its present form during the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) and continued in use until the fall of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) to the Muslim Arabs in 651 CE.
Afterwards, the symbol was suppressed, along with other aspects of Persian culture, and its earlier meaning was lost; but the symbol itself was not removed from buildings, artwork, or ancient inscriptions and so survived. In the present day, it is recognized as the national symbol of Iran while also retaining its association with Zoroastrianism and lending itself to use by various New Age spiritual adherents who frequently interpret it as depicting the flight of the soul from the entanglements of the world, enlightenment, or union with God.
Winged Sun Disk Meaning
One of the earliest representations of the winged sun disk comes from Egypt where it appears during the period of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) representing the divine power of the king. It was associated with the god Ptah initially but gradually became connected with the Osiris-Set-Horus myth and by the time of the New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1570 - c. 1069 BCE) was known as Horus Behdety or Horus of Behdet after the syncretization of Behdety (also given as Behedeti), god of the midday sun, with Horus, god of the sky.
The pharaoh was thought to be the living representative of Horus on earth and so the winged sky disk came to also be associated with kingship. During the reign of Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE), the symbol represented Aten, the one true god of Akhenaten's monotheistic faith. After his death, however, it reverted back to its association with Horus and the monarchy.
The Mesopotamian Sumerians and Babylonians used a similar symbol to represent the god of the sun and divine justice, Utu-Shamash (known to the Akkadians as Shamash) from c. 2279 - c. 1750 BCE, roughly. The winged sun disk appears on cylinder seals, with inscriptions, and in artwork associated with divinity and royalty. The Hebrews used the symbol to represent the same concepts (c. 8th century BCE) and the Sumerians also associated the symbol with Enki, god of wisdom, with the rays from the sun disk representing Enki's divine wisdom freely given to humanity like sunshine.
The Assyrians were the first to develop the symbol into an image resembling the later faravahar through their depiction of the sun god Ashur (who was also linked with royalty). This image had a number of different variations but the most popular has Ashur as an archer riding in the center of the sun disk. In some versions, he carries his bow while, in others, he is firing it.
This image would have been known to the Medes and others of the region who had come to hate the oppression of the Assyrian Empire and all it stood for. After the empire fell to the coalition led by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BCE – and after they had destroyed Assyrian cities, temples, and religious iconography - they may have reworked the Ashur winged sun disk symbol to represent Ahura Mazda – or perhaps initially some other god - to further erase the memory of the Assyrians.
Early Iranian Religion & Zoroastrianism
The Medes were originally part of the migratory group of people who settled in the region sometime prior to the 3rd millennium BCE which also included those who would become known as Alans, Bactrians, Parthians, and Persians, among others. They carried with them a polytheistic religion, closely related to the Vedic vision of Northern India, in which a chief god presided over a pantheon of lesser, but still powerful, divinities.
This belief system was developed by the Persians into what is now known as Early Iranian Religion with Ahura Mazda as the king of the gods who led the other entities of light and goodness – such as Mithra, Anahita, Atar, Haoma – against the evil spirit Angra Mainyu (also known as Ahriman) and his legions of darkness. These gods were considered so powerful that they could not be contained in a house of worship nor represented in any man-made form. The gods were everywhere, at all times, ready to defend against the dark forces or attack them.
The prophet Zoroaster (c. 1500-1000 BCE) completely reformed this religion, making it monotheistic, with Ahura Mazda as the only god, uncreated and the source of all else, and the others emanations of his divine power. The understanding of life and the universe as an eternal struggle between good and evil was kept as central to Zoroastrian doctrine, however.
Zoroaster based his new faith on five principles:
- The supreme god is Ahura Mazda
- Ahura Mazda is all-good
- His eternal opponent, Angra Mainyu, is all-evil
- Goodness is apparent through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds
- Each individual has free will to choose between good and evil
Adherents practiced the religion by telling the truth, engaging in charity, and showing love for others, and observing moderation in all things. These virtues would later be said to have been exemplified by the reign of Cyrus II (the Great, r. c. 550-530 BCE) the founder of the Achaemenid Empire which replaced the sovereignty of the Medes in the region.
Achaemenid Empire & Faravahar
Even so, while acknowledging Cyrus the Great's exemplary reign, he is only claimed to be a Zoroastrian because the religion was so well established by his time and Greek writers like Herodotus or, later, Xenophon – who wrote about the Persian monarchs – would not have known the difference between Early Iranian religious practices and those of Zoroastrianism. Cyrus II's inscriptions referencing Ahura Mazda could apply as easily to the earlier belief system as to Zoroastrianism, and the same can be said for his immediate successors.
Darius I (the Great, r. 522-486 BCE) had the faravahar included in his famous Behistun Inscription and at his capitals of Persepolis and Susa but this does not necessarily mean he was a Zoroastrian as he references “all the other gods” at Behistun and his allusions to Ahura Mazda do not necessarily point to a single monotheistic deity.
It has long been believed that the faravahar was created by the Achaemenids since it makes its first appearance during this empire's early period and also that the symbol represents Ahura Mazda; but whether this was Ahura Mazda, king of the gods, or Ahura Mazda, sole uncreated deity is unclear. As noted, both the Early Iranian Religion and Zoroastrianism resisted depictions of the Divine in artistic representations. Even the Zoroastrian fire temple (house of worship) was unadorned. Still, the faravahar clearly continues a symbolic paradigm already long-established which represented divinity linked to royalty and so most likely did signify Ahura Mazda. Scholar George Rawlinson comments:
Neither Ahura Mazda nor the [other gods] were represented by the early Iranians under any material forms. The Zoroastrian system was markedly anti-idolatrous and the utmost that was allowed the worshipper was an emblematic representation of the Supreme Being by means of a winged circle with which was occasionally combined an incomplete human figure, robed and wearing a tiara. (103)
This is the standard interpretation of the meaning of the faravahar: Ahura Mazda as the source of all good, elevating believers through his encouragement to follow him, encouraging them in good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. There are, however, other possibilities that have been suggested.
Interpretations of Faravahar
The Persians kept no written records, besides administrative texts, which have survived save those from the Sassanian Empire. Although some writers in the present day encourage the belief that the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire wrote extensively, there is absolutely no evidence for this and, even if they did, whatever was written on papyrus scrolls or other flammable material went up in smoke when Alexander the Great burned Persepolis in 330 BCE.
Scholars generally agree that ancient Persian religion and history transmitted orally until they were written down by the Sassanians but after that empire fell to the Muslim Arabs in 651 CE, many of these texts were destroyed and among them, probably, were some which might have shed light on the original meaning of the symbol. Texts that survived the Muslim Arab purge, which were not rescued by the Parsees and others, would have had to then survive the later Mongol Invasion which destroyed more fire temples and more texts.
The interpretations of the symbol, therefore, have all come forward in the modern era, although most are based on ancient concepts.
One interpretation of the symbol is that it represents a fravashi – usually translated as “guardian angel” – which is the soul's “higher self”. At birth, the soul (known as the urvan) enters the body at the direction of the fravashi so that it can experience the physical world and take part in the struggle between good and evil. Throughout one's life, the fravashi would encourage the soul on the right path of following the light and resisting the lies of darkness and evil. After death, the urvan lingered by the body for three days and then traveled to the Chinvat Bridge – the span between the land of the living and the realms of the dead – where it was reunited with its fravashi who would assist it at the moment of judgment by the gods. The faravahar, in this interpretation, depicts this higher self who is there at one's birth, protects one through life, and greets one at death as a helper and guide.
Farr or Khvarenah
Persian kings were thought to rule by the power of divine grace (farr) and divine glory (khvarenah). Mithra – whether understood as a god or as an avatar of Ahura Mazda – bestowed this grace on an individual who was worthy, one who would care for his people, honor the gods, and conduct himself in accordance with principles of goodness and right. Another interpretation of the faravahar is thought to be this concept. The disk and the wings would symbolize the divine grace and the figure in robes and tiara would be the king. When the king died – or proved himself unworthy – the grace was withdrawn and given to another. It would, in a sense, fly from one monarch to his successor.
The Fravashi of the King
The symbol has also been said to represent the guardian angel of the king who watches over him as long as he possesses the farr and remains in the good graces of Ahura Mazda. Included in this interpretation is that the figure in the symbol is Darius I and the wings, circle, etc., his fravashi. The iconography here is interpreted along the lines of the farr-interpretation except that, usually (when not inserting Darius I), the figure in the center is the fravashi – the guardian angel of the king – and those who support this interpretation claim that this is why the faravahar appears on buildings – such as those at Persepolis and Susa – associated with royalty and in king's inscriptions.
Divinity in General and Royal Power
In keeping with the history of the winged sun disk from earlier cultures, the faravahar is also seen as simply representing royal power backed by divinity, just like the Ashur symbol of Assyria or the Horus disk from Egypt.
Personal Spiritual Power
In modern times, the symbol is sometimes divorced from its roots and interpreted by so-called New Age philosophical and religious adherents as a symbol of enlightenment. In this view, the symbol signifies the concept of leaving behind the confusion, traps, tricks, and weights of daily life to become a better version of one's self. In this interpretation, the symbol is open to people of any religion – or none – who respond to the challenge of self-improvement on a spiritual level.
The Tenets of Zoroastrianism
Another modern interpretation is that the symbol represents the tenets of Zoroastrianism. The figure in the center is the adherent; the three rows of wings represent good thoughts, good words, and good deeds; the two descending 'legs' with the loops represent Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu; the circle the figure emerges from symbolizes the immortality of the soul; one hand of the figure gestures upwards – indicating the direction one should strive for in following goodness (taking the high road) – while the other holds a ring which represents one's commitment to Ahura Mazda, a covenant which one will not break in pursuing goodness and forsaking the ways of evil. Where this interpretation originated is unknown and, like the others, it is not universally agreed upon.
This last interpretation comes closest to the modern-day understanding of the symbol as people mostly associate it with Zoroastrianism on a spiritual level or with Iran, the birthplace of the religion, on the secular plane. The Parsees of India brought the symbol with them when they fled from Iran in the 7th and 8th centuries CE and used the iconography in the establishment of Zoroastrianism in Gujarat and then, later, in Mumbai and elsewhere.
As noted, the symbol was suppressed after the Muslim Arab conquest of 651 CE but survived and, after the Arab persecution of Persian culture had relaxed, it re-emerged as a powerful reminder of the grandeur of Persia's past. It was adopted by the Pahlavi Dynasty as the national symbol of Iran in the 1920s CE and was again suppressed after the Islamic Revolution in the country of 1979 CE.
Once again, however, the symbol survived and has since been embraced as honoring Iranian culture and heritage and as the best-known symbol of Iran, even though not officially sanctioned by the present regime. The power of the image continues to resonate with people in the present day as they give it their own meaning in connecting them to the past, to their personal present, and to the future, individually or collectively, because – whatever it originally meant – the symbol encourages elevation in thought, in word, and in deed to those who respond to it.