The great Zoroastrian Winter Festival of Sadæ

Sadæ is the great Zoroastrian-Iranian winter festival that heralds the coming of spring, and the gradual warming of the waters, the earth and plants. Sadæ is celebrated forty days after winter solstice, on or about January 30th. 

The festival of Sadæ is celebrated by making huge bonfires near running water or a sacred spring, and by drinking red wine with noghl or sugar coated almonds. Noghl is made by boiling sugar in rose water, and coating roasted almonds in the mixture. 

The festival of Sadæ has been forgotten among the Parsi Zoroastrians of India, but Iranian Zoroastrians are still celebrating Sadæ as a major part of their religious observances. 

It is believed in folklore that on the night of Sadæ the winter comes out from hell (Biruni, Āṯār, tr. Sachau, p. 226; Qazvini, p. 80) and, according to Biruni, in the City Karaj this night is called šab-e gazina (the biting night).

The etymology of the word sadæ is generally derived from the numeral sat (one hundred). Interestingly, the Indo European languages are divided into “satem” languages, from the Avestan word satəm “hundred,” and “centum” or westerly languages after Latin word for hundred or centum. 

The memory of the 150-days or 5 months of winter divided by sadæ in two unequal parts of  100 days celebrated on sadæ, and 50 days from Sadæ Spring Equinox can still be found in popular sayings, such as “ṣad bae Sadæ, panjāh be Nauvrooz (One hundred days that is Sadæ, from here 50 more days left to Nauvrooz or Spring Equinox.) 

Since Sadæ is considered to be the coldest night of the year, and on Sadæ night the frost and freezing cold suppose to come out from hell, it is possible that sadæ is etymologically related to Avestan çared “cold.” Sadæ night is also called  šab-e gazina (the biting/frost night.) 

The great scholar Mary Boyce mentions a major fire festival still observed by Iranian Zoroastrians which falls hundred days before Nauvrooz or Spring Equinox. This festival is named Sadæ in Kermán and Hīrômbáii in Yazd. Mary Boyce (1968, pp. 201-12; Idem, 1983, pp. 800-1) concludes that  Sadæ festival honors of the Zoroastrian yazata/god being of Rapiṯwin, the lord of Summer and Mid-day, who rules over the warm part of the year (that is, the seven summer months) and then descends under the ground in order to reappear on the first day after Spring Equinox. The ceremonies of Rapiṯwin farewell and welcome are observed by the Zoroastrians. Rapiṯwin is believed to make the plants grow and the fruit ripen, and, while underground, Rapiṯwin heats the roots and the underground waters from beneath, thus protecting the plants from cold. Accordingly, the bonfires festival of Sadæ help Rapiṯwin “the Lord of Mid-Day” to heat the earth and plant roots during the most severe cold bites and freezes. That is why Zoroastrians light their Sadæ bonfires near running water, sacred spring or over an underground canal (qanāt). 

This practice is confirmed by a description of fire reflected in water as part of the literary pattern, as can be seen in the poems by Manṣuri-Samarqandi (Jašn-e Sada, pp. 58-59),. The ancient Sadæ festival poems provide an exquisite description of fire, which  frequently compares the energy of fires to a plant, a flower, a fruit tree, a stack of corn, or a garden blossoming in a winter landscape. This imagery seems to go back to even older mythological concepts connecting the plant life with fire energy, (See the Poetic Gathas Yasna 48.6 and Yasna 49.8 for example.)  

Point is that the folkloric motif of Winter-and-Spring combat, and of the return of an energetic god power is predominant in Sadæ bonfire rituals. Simone Cristoforetti (1995) also stresses the dragon-killing motif of the Sadæ mythology and its broadly understood “ambrosian” aspects as conceived by G.Dumézil in his early works (1926, 1929).


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3 Responses to The great Zoroastrian Winter Festival of Sadæ

  1. Kave Ukko says:

    I wonder if Finnish sata ‘hundred’, sataa ‘to rain’, sade ‘rain’ figure into this? The air turns colder when it rains and one gets cold when wet. The whole of European Russia was ethnically and linguistically Finnic before medieval Viking era, perhaps allowing for direct Finnic-Saka connections.

    We even share some of the legendary ancestors: Kave Ukko (‘fearsome old man’), a lord of North and father to king/blacksmith Ilmarinen whose most notable task is to plough a field full of snakes in SKVR folklore poetry. He rules the land of Karelia and out of his king line come the Karelian peoples, called in folklore also karilainen or arilainen. In Icelandic saga literature the character is known as Kári the king of Finland. There are Nordic families that claimed descent from this character. Likewise the Persians have Kāve the blacksmith, who beats an enemy named possibly after a serpent, and out of whom comes the royal house of Karen. Sounds somewhat similar, eh?

  2. Jake says:

    Good post! Thank you for keeping this website going, it’s a fascinating resource. I’m especially intrigued with your comparisons between Zoroastrianism and other Indo-European faith traditions.

    I am curious how much weight you think should be put on the Khordeh Avesta, as they seem to contradict the primary texts at certain points, for example in Yasht 8, Hymn to Tishtriya:

    “57. Zarathushtra asked: ‘What is then, O Ahura Mazda! the sacrifice and invocation in honour of the bright and glorious Tishtrya, as it ought to be performed in the perfection of holiness?’
    58. Ahura Mazda answered: ‘Let the Aryan nations bring libations unto him; let the Aryan nations tie bundles of baresma for him; let the Aryan nations cook for him a head of cattle, either white, or black, or of any other colour, but all of one and the same colour.”

    This seems to be in direct defiance of Zarathustra’s opposition to animal sacrifice and flesh cooking. However, the overall story of a storm divinity conquering a drought demon is perfectly aligned with the recurring IE theme found elsewhere such as the Irish Cathh Magh Tuireadh with Lugh slaying Balor or the Vedic myth of Indra slaying Vrtra.

    Do you believe this to be a corrupted text with some truth to it, a product of later influences from IE neighbors (e.g. Vedic Indians), or something else?


  3. Margaret Meachair says:

    This reminds me of Old Riorc – the skinning of the old cow. After March Old Riorc borrowed 14 days from April. If a person lived through the cold period of Old Riorc they would live for another year. Also Bridget was the revered priestess throughout the land before she was christianised to St. Bridget. Her feast day is still the same February 1st the beginning of Spring but the ritual celebrations have mostly died out.
    I would like to know more about the Druid similarities to Zoroastrian thinking. Brehon Laws facinate me. it was punishable to cut a branch from a tree, only the fallen branches could be gathered and burned. Equality and fairness was evident.
    Mgt Meachair

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