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Ancient Persian symbols are known to be both mystic and majestic, seen dominantly in ancient lithographic scriptures. These have carried their legacy into the modern times as well, gaining popularity over the years.
Ancient Persia was located in the Middle East, covering large swaths of land that have since fragmented into several countries. When we say Persia today, we refer to Iran, which was the heart of the Persian empire.
The Persian capital was called Persepolis, where the fragmented remains show how advanced the Persian civilization was. The ancient Persians used complex astronomy and geometrical mathematics and their art focused on stylized representations of imaginary and real creatures such as lions, griffins, peacocks and phoenixes. Even today, these symbols inspire the imagination and are part of the fabric of global culture.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most popular Persian symbols. These symbols came to be regarded as significant pillars of the history of ancient Persia and some of them are still used in Iran and around the world.
The Faravahar (also called the ‘falcon’) is the best-known ancient symbol of Persia, comprising of a winged sun disk with a seated male figure at its center. Although the ancient Persians created this symbol, what it actually meant to them is still unknown to this day.
It is believed that the Faravahar represents Zarathustra’s principles of ‘Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds’. Zarathustra was a great teacher as well as a philosopher and a messenger of good life, peace and eternal love, who is believed to be the founder of Zoroastrianism.
According to Zarathustra, the seated male figure in the Faravahar is that of an old man, who is said to represent wisdom of age and three main feathers on each of the wings represent three symbols of good deeds, good words and good thoughts. The ring in the center symbolizes the eternal nature of the soul or the eternity of the universe. As a circle, it has no beginning or end.
The Faravahar is the most powerful spiritual symbol of Iran, often worn as a pendant among Iranians as well as Kurds and Zoroastrians and has become a secular cultural and national symbol.
The Water Goddess of Persia: Anahita
Anahita is the ancient Indo-Iranian Persian goddess of all the waters upon the Earth. She is also known by many other names such as the Lady of the Beasts, the Fertility Goddess and the Goddess of the Sacred Dance. She ruled the stars and is depicted with wings, accompanied by two might lions.
Anahita is most often pictured as a virgin, wearing a golden cloak and a diamond tiara. Her name means ‘the immaculate one’. Associated with waters, rivers and lakes of birth, she is a war goddess and the patroness of women. She came to be connected with ancient Persian warfare since the soldiers would pray to her before battles for their survival.
In ancient Persia, Anahita was highly popular, appearing in many eastern religions. Her sacred animals are the peacock and the dove and she is closely associated with fertility, wisdom and healing. There are two archaeological sites in Iran that are thought to have been attributed to Anahita, one in Kermanshah Province and the other in Bishapur.
The Sun and the Lion
The Sun and the Lion is an ancient Persian symbol comprised of two images: a lion wielding a sword (or as it is known in Persian: a shamshir) with a sun in the background. This is one of the main emblems of Persia and was formerly an important element of the national flag up until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The sun symbolizes the ruler of heaven, while the lion symbolizes the lineage of kings as well as royalty and divinity. It is a famous motif that has been used throughout history since the ancient times.
This symbol first became popular in Persia in the 12th century and since then it gained fame and popularity. It has several historical meanings and is based largely on astrological and astronomical configurations. During the era of the Safavid dynasty, it became a popular symbol with the lion and the sun representing the two pillars of society which were the Islamic religion and the state.
During the Qajar era, the Sun and the Lion symbol became a national emblem. The symbol’s meaning changed several times between this era and the 1979 revolution but it remained the official emblem of Iran until the revolution, when it was removed from government organizations and public spaces and replaced by the present-day emblem.
Huma: The Bird of Paradise
Griffin-like statue from Persepolis, thought to be representations of the Huma bird.
Huma is a legendary mythical bird from the Iranian legends and fables which became a common motif in Diwan and Sufi poetry.
There are many legends of the bird, but what is common to all is that the Huma never rests on the ground but circles high above the Earth its entire life. It is completely invisible and impossible to spot by human eyes. The bird looks for opportunities to bestow valuable gifts to those on Earth and in some legends, it’s said to have no legs which is why it never alights on the ground. The body of the Huma has the physical features of both female and male.
Huma is often referred to as a ‘bird of paradise’ in Ottoman poetry and symbolizes unreachable height. In the Persian language, ‘huma’ stands for ‘the fabulous bird’ and in Arabic, ‘hu’ means spirit and ‘mah’ means water. In ancient times, it was believed that if this legendary bird sat on someone’s head, it was a sign that the person would become a king.
Sometimes, the Huma is depicted like the Phoenix bird and is said to consume itself in fire after hundreds of years, rising from its own ashes. According to the Sufi tradition, catching the bird is completely impossible and beyond one’s wildest dreams but catching a glimpse or shadow of the Huma is said to bring you happiness for the rest of your life. While it is believed that Huma can’t be caught alive, anyone who actually kills the bird is doomed to die within 40 days.
The Huma bird has been featured on banners and flags over the ages. Even today, the Farsi/Persian acronym for the ‘Iran National Airline’ is HOMA and the emblem of the national airline depicts a stylized version of the Huma bird.
The boteh jeghe is a tear-drop shaped design with a curved upper end. Boteh is a Persian word meaning bush or plant.
This pattern is extremely popular and is used around the world as a textile pattern for clothing, artwork and carpets. It’s commonly known as the paisley pattern, named after a town called Paisley in Scotland which was the first place where the boteh jeghe was copied.
The boteh jeghe is believed to be a stylized representation of a cypress tree and a floral spray, which are symbols of life and eternity in the Zoroastrian faith.
The Shirdal (the ‘Lion-Eagle’) is a legendary, mythical creature, highly popular in many fictional novels and movies. Better known as the griffin, this creature has the back legs and tail of a lion, and the head, wings and sometimes talons of an eagle.
The Shirdal was thought to be an especially majestic and powerful creature, since the lion was considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds. Symbolic of leadership, power, courage and wisdom, the Shirdal has appeared in ancient art of Persia since the 2nd millennium B.C. It was also a common motif in the North and North West region of Iran during the Iron Age and appeared in the art of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, symbolizing Iranian wisdom.
The Shirdal is traditionally known for guarding gold and treasure and later on in the medieval era, it became a symbol of monogamous marriage which discouraged infidelity. Shirdal were strictly loyal to their partner and if one of them died, the other Shirdal would never mate again. Shirdal are said to protect from witchcraft, slander and evil.
In some historical periods of Persia, the Shirdal has been introduced as a Homa bird, a symbol of prosperity and happiness. It has also been depicted alongside the tree of life, as a guard that protects against devilish forces.
The Simurg (also spelled as Simurgh, Simour, Senvurv, Simorgh and Simoorgh) is a mythical flying creature in Persian mythology with gigantic female wings and a body covered with scales.
This bird is considered to be immortal and is usually depicted with the head and foreparts of a dog, the claws of a lion and the wings and tail of a peacock. It’s sometimes portrayed with a human face. In Iranian art, the simurg is depicted as a gigantic bird that’s large enough to carry a whale or an elephant. It’s an inherently benevolent creature and is believed to be female.
The Simurg was considered to be a guardian figure with healing powers and the ability to purify the waters and land and bestowing fertility. It’s found in all periods of Persian art and literature and is sometimes equated with other similar mythological birds such as the phoenix, the Persian Huma or the Arabic Anqa.
Mentioned frequently in modern and classical Persian literature, the Simurg is used in Sufi religion as a metaphor for God. It appears in many ancient tales of creation and according to Persian legends, it was an extremely old creature that had witnessed the destruction of the world three times.
The Simurg is still used on the flag of an Iranian ethnic group called the Tat people and can be seen on the reverse side of the Iranian 500 rials coin.
Mount Damavand is an active stratovolcano, the highest mountain peak in Iran and the highest volcano in all of Asia. Damavand is significant in the mythology and folklore of Persia and is said to hold magical powers due to its many hot water springs which are believed to treat wounds and chronic skin ailments.
Mount Damavand is still depicted on the back of the Iranian 10,000 rials banknote and is symbolic of the Persian resistance against despotism from foreign rule. At 5,610 meters, it’s considered an honor for any Iranian who climbs it to reach the summit of this legendary mountain.
There are numerous legends and local stories that attribute several magical powers to Mount Damavand. It is the most sacred mountain of Iran and has been the source of inspiration for many Persian poets and writers throughout history. Even today, this mountain is known as the mother of Persian myths.
There are many other Persian symbols, some more obscure than others, all beautiful and meaningful. The above list features some of the best-known and most influential symbols, such as the paisley pattern or the mythical shirdal, that have come into modern life and fiction. To learn more about Persian symbols, check out our articles on the Farvahar, simurg and the paisley pattern.