Even if this is the first time that you learn about Faravahar or Farohar, you might be more familiar with it than you think. The history and symbolism of Faravahar are intertwined with cultures of numerous civilizations all over the world. Some of them you might see every day having no idea about their secret ancient roots.
The ancient roots of modern symbolism.
But let`s go back to the roots. To be more precise – ancient Egypt. Egyptian civilization was widely using the image of birds in their hieroglyphic script. Accessories and jewelry shaped as wingspread birds were also found in the Tut-ankh-amoun treasury. Another “ornithological” divine symbol that we often see on the samples of Egyptian art and culture is Horus. This esteemed hawk-man god was often depicted as a sun disk with wings. Those symbols and images will, later on, be modified and appear in Faravahar.
Egyptians believed that Horus is incarnated in a person, who`s origin is divine. Therefore the winged-sun was a symbol of divine grace upon the king. Approximately on the second millennium B.C., this symbol was adopted by the civilization of the Near East. Here it has first been noticed carved over the head of the Hittite king, who`s reign took place between 1400-1200 BC.
Faravahar starts to take its shape
The known today Faravahar symbolism starts to shape in the Mesopotamian civilization. Here ancient Egyptian patterns were integrated with the Assyrian ones. Ancient Assyrian art is also known for the wide use of avian symbolism. Moreover, here we may often see the familiar sun disc with wings, which symbolizes the divine grace. But in the Assyrian culture, we might notice this image bound to a human figure – Assyrian national god Assur, or stand-alone, when it depicts the Sun god Shamash. Also, in the Assyrian culture, a king figure is usually either placed inside the sun disc or is emerging out of it, which is already very close to the Faravahar of Persian art.
Therefore by the reign of the Achaemenid dynasty (between 600 and 330 BC), the Faravahar design has already been existing for about 1000 years. In the VI century BC, the Achaemenid dynasty has conquered Mesopotamia, re-patriating all lands and peoples of these civilizations to the Babylonian rule. From this moment Achaemenids adopted and started to widely apply Syrian and Assyrian symbols in their art and architecture. For example, the Persian Faravahar is carved on the Achaemenids tombs and in Bisetoon, Iran. Here we see the mostly Assyrian version with squared-off wings. But in Persepolis – the center of Achaemenid`s dynasty, the Faravahar image already reaches its finest shape.
The shape and size of the sun disk mostly depend on the canvas, background and it`s placement. For example on long and narrow plates, it might be simplified and depicted without too much detail and with no human figure in or above it. But when there is enough space, and the material allows, Faravahar is depicted in detail – with the king figure, streamers, and wings with detailed feathers. The only thing that has been preserved and remains the same is its divine symbolism.
What does Faravahar mean?
Still, researchers did not reach an agreement on the actual symbolism of Persian Faravahar. It might be the image of Ahura Mazda – the One God. This theory is based on the idea that as long as it has depicted Assur – the Supreme deity for Assyrians, it might mean the same for Persians. But at the same time, ancient scripts note out that Ahura Mazda deity is abstract and transcended – means that it has no physical form and therefore cannot be depicted. Though this concept was modified in the Later Persian Empire, where Ahura Mazda was described and even imaged as a majestic figure holding the diadem of the Persian Empire. But in this case, the image was more a fine art example than an object of worship.
Just like the perception of religious images has modified, the meaning of Faravahar has also changed throughout history. Ancient Persians commonly put the winged sun disc over the image of the King noting the divine origin of his power. However, this image has almost entirely disappeared from Persian art after the Achaeminidis influence. Since then, and down to the resurgent of the Persian Empire in about 50-650 AD, the Faravahar is hardly ever seen in any kind of monumental or fine art. However, you might notice some echoes of the sun disc in the regal-related images. Including the diadem, held by the later version of Ahura Mazda, which is a ring with numerous ribbons attached to it.
After the Arab conquer, all kinds of round-shaped or ring images with wings or ribbons slip into oblivion for the Persian culture, while the Crescent becomes the supreme symbol. Faravahar became an ancient relict and would have been forgotten. But everything has changed at the beginning of the XX century. the emerging interest of British scientists and antiquarians to the Near East culture and art gave Faravahar a new life and meaning. Numerous archeologic expeditions, researches, papers happened in the 1920s along with barbaric grave robbing and flourishing of the black market of ancient artifacts. But both of those trends have eventually lead to am ultimate outburst of interest to the pre-Islamic history and culture of the Middle East.
Faravahar has drawn the attention of numerous academic disciplines – from History and Heraldry to Linguistics and philosophy. The Sun origin of Faravahar has granted an explanation to many religious and cultural customs regarding the treating of royal and divine. The god-like perception of regal inheritance, which has been described in a Bible (Romans 13:1-7) and adopted by European monarchies, exists until the present day and roots in the concept of ancient Faravahar.
Except for the divine-granted regal power, in Faravahar has additional wide meaning among worshipers that has adopted it as the fundamental symbol. Indian Parsi Zoroastrians have often called the Sun Winged Disk Fravashi rather then Faravahar, which has literate linguistics meaning “Protection”. And here we see 2 controversial concepts and explanations of the symbol. Some scholars claim that the protective meaning of the Sun Disc is the same as the traditional meaning of Faravahar – which is divine mercy towards the King, approval of his action, and protection from any king of countering from mortals. Another version is much more “democratic”. It claims that Faravahar symbolizes divine protection for the King and all his loyal suspects, as long as their devotion symbolizes the right choice of moral code and religion. The second concept might seem quite familiar and find its reflection in our modern life also. Remember it the next time you see a passport or any other official documentation of a country that uses a majestic bird in its heraldry.
By the way, there is one more interpretation of the Fravashi term – guidance. So eventually, the Indian Parsi scholars grant Faravahar the mission of divine protection and guidance towards moral perfections. Cultures that have adopted the idea of the afterlife often use Faravahar-looking symbolism to describe the transition to the afterlife. From this point, Faravahar righteously looks like an inspiration for Christian culture that has a concept of “Guardian Angel”. Not being the supreme deity, the guardian angel represents the protection and guidance of divine power granted to the person who chose and accepted the given religion – the Guardian Angel is granted right after the christening ritual.
What is Faravahar today?
The real concept of Faravahar is still unknown and will most probably remain the same forever. It has been adopted and re-shaped by numerous civilizations, and each has modified it`s meaning according to the relevant tendencies. The belief that Zoroastrians depict their chief-deity Ahura Mazda that way is quite common, though the whole concept of this god foresees that there might not be any physical embodiment for him. At the same time, Ahura Mazda is often depicted as a “guide and protector”, which corresponds to another possible meaning of Faravahar itself. Anyway you might look at it, it is impossible to ignore its influence on the fine art, heraldry, and even political concepts that are relevant nowadays. Being canceled and even banned after the Arabic conquer and the Islamic revolution, in the Middle East, it has already spread all over the world due to interactions between Eastern and Western cultures, that are still not fully researched.
So most people who have never even heard the word “Faravahar” itself, actually interact with its heraldic symbolism in their countries and its moral and philosophical concepts in their cultures and religions. The concept of Faravahar in modern life is another reminder that no matter how diverse modern people are in their political, cultural, and religious beliefs, the all root from the same ancient source.