The treatment of hair cuttings and nail pairings in traditional, ancient Zoroastrianism is a very controversial subject among modern Zoroastrians. The ancient Zoroastrian customs surrounding hair cuttings and nail pairings are especially a thorny theme for great many Iranian Zoroastrians who prefer to deny such rites and ancient customs, and dismiss them as frivolous superstitions.
However, the ancient Zoroastrian practices with regard to special treatment of hairs and nails seem to go back to the very beginning of the Indo-European creation myths.
In Vi-daæv-dát 17 (laws/formulas against demons) 1-6, Zarathustra asks the Wise Lord, what is the act for which a certain demon, aôša (literally “scorching, destruction” is let loose in the world. The Wise Lord replies, when one arranges and cuts his hair and clips his nails, and then lets them fall into holes in the earth or into furrows without proper rites and formulas, demons come forth, and from these improprieties monsters come forth from the earth.
When you arrange and cut your hair and clip your nails, you should bear it ten steps from righteous men, twenty steps from the fire, thirty steps from the water, and fifty steps from the baresman (bundle of sacred twigs.)
Then you should dig a hole. To that hole you should bear the cuttings. Then you should pronounce these victorious words/formula Zarathustra: “Now for me may Mazda make the plants grow by means of ašá”(excellence, truth, radiant right.) You should then plow 3 or 6 or 9 furrows for xšathrá vairya (chosen dominion, kingship, power,) and you should recite the ahüna vairya formula 3 or 6 or 9 times.
There is much that is fascinating in this Vi-daæv-dát passage: the need to carry potentially impure hair cuttings and nail pairings away from sources of pure life (righteous men, fire, water, and sacred twigs), the use of furrows to mark off sacred space, and the instantaneous begetting of serpents and monsters from hair and nails that are improperly disposed of.
In Norse mythology we encounter an identical idea. We read in GYLFAGINNING 55 of the Poetic Eddas:
… Then (at the time of Ragnarök) the Fenris wolf is loosed, and the high sea dashes upon the land, for the Midgard serpent turns about with a giant’s rage and assails the land. Then it happens that the ship called Nagl-far “Nail-Ship” is loosed. It is built from the nails of dead men, and therefore it is worthy of a warning: if a man dies with uncut nails, then he increases the material for the ship Naglfar greatly, which æsir and men would wish to be slow in being built. And in this wave, Naglfar becomes sea going, and the monster who steers Nagl-far “nail-Ship” is called Hrym.
Nagl-far, the “Nail-ship’s,” basic idea is the improper disposal of hair or nails which threatens the well being of the cosmos-does go back to the Indo-European period, as can be seen from the comparison with ancient Zoroastrianism.
The text of In Vi-daæv-dát 17 prescribes the recitation of a victorious formula for the hair cuttings and nail pairings before they are properly buried in earth, namely “Now for me may Mazda make the plants grow by means of ašá” (excellence, truth, radiant right.)
The sacred formula prescribed is the heart of the Vi-daæv-dát passage. In particular it is a quote from the poetic gathas of Zarathustra (Yasna 48.6 3rd rhymed verse line), which has been put to a creative magic use.
The gathic formula becomes a potent magic spell here by which the proper disposal of hair and nails leads to the growth of vegetation. What we have here is the subconscious association of hair and nails with the plant world, and we have the right formula to dispose of hair and nails by burying them properly in the earth.
In the creation myth of the ancient Indo-Europeans, the worlds are established by the primordial, pristine offering, Yemó “Twin,” the worlds are built up. Yemó’s skull became the heavens, his eyes the sun and moon, and his blood the seas; and, his hair became the plants and trees.
We read again in Norse mythology, poetic edda, GRÍMNISMÁL 40:
From Ymir’s flesh
The earth was made,
And from his blood the sea,
The mountains from his bones, The trees from his hair,
And from his skull, the heaven.
A very similar parallel is found in an eschatological Zoroastrian passage from bün.dahišn 30.6. The context is that Öhrmazd (Middle Iranian for Ahûrá Mazdá) is explaining why bodily resurrection is possible:
“Observe that, when that which was not was then produced, why is it not possible to produce again that which was? For at that time, one will demand the bone
from the spirit of earth, the blood from the water, the hair from the plants,
and the life from fire, since they were delivered to them in the original, pristine creation.”
In the eschatological bün.dahišn text above, the cosmogony is explained in reverse. The whole idea is that if proper disposal serves to create the cosmos, then improper disposal can create chaos out of cosmos.
Like almost every idea and ritual in Zoroastrianism, our practices and beliefs go back to the primordial Indo-European days. Though at times, they might appear strange or unfamiliar to us today, nevertheless they have deep meanings for subconscious mind, and teach us the subtleties of subconscious symbolism and myths in myriad ways.