EXPLORING IRANIAN CULTURE: UNDERSTANDING SUPERSTITION IN IRAN
Even though the young generation of Iranians tends to be less and less superstitious, any Iranian can tell you about the superstitions their parents or relatives have, leading to unavoidable and sometimes weird rituals. Whether it’s about burning Esfand (incense) or spilling water, most of these beliefs revolve around the idea of bringing good or bad luck. Beliefs that have been around in Iran for centuries, and continue to be part of any Iranian family’s life. If some old and local superstitions have faded away, many are still present in the ordinary life of Iranians, between cultural habits and true belief.
The belief in the evil eye has ancient roots that can be traced back to Ancient Ugarit, a city in modern-day Syria that was destroyed during the late Bronze Age collapse circa 1180 BC and never rebuilt.
1. THE EVIL (OR “SALTY”) EYE
In the Persian culture, as is the case in many Middle Eastern cultures, there is a strong belief in the idea of the “Evil Eye”. The Evil Eye, or Salty Eye as it would be translated from Persian (“cheshm shur”) is when someone jinxes you. People who are for instance jealous of you and would curse you, bringing to you a series of misadventures. That’s why when misfortune upon misfortune happens to someone, Iranians believe someone jinxed that person.
STRATEGIES TO AVOID THE EVIL EYE
To prevent being jinxed, Iranians usually avoid bragging about their own success or praising someone too much. Likewise, if they have any plans they want to achieve, they tend to be secretive about it. That’s the reason why it’s common in some cultures of Iran to praise someone’s beauty by saying how “ugly” they are.
If you’ve spoken too fast and realized you may be jinxed, no worries, you can still correct your mistake! One trick is to bite your index finger or the area between your thumb and forefinger. That’s supposed to prevent you from the evil eye. You can also knock wood, as it’s observed in many other cultures. Note that contrary to Turkey, it’s not so common in Iran to hang a blue eye on the walls as protection.
If you’ve said something that may bring the evil eye on you, someone may tell you: “zabuneto gâz begir” (bite your tongue). You can then repeat two or three times “zabunam lâl” (may my tongue be mute) to protect yourself. Likewise, it’s common to hear “door az joon” (far from the soul) if someone talks about a potentially bad scenario as a way to prevent it from happening.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE THE VICTIM OF THE EVIL EYE
If you have a doubt about the fact of being jinxed, there is a trick that consists in poking an egg while saying different names of persons you’re suspecting to be responsible for the curse. Iranians believe that when the egg cracks after someone’s name, it reveals that this person is the author of the curse.
One common way to stop the curse is to make a sacrifice. That can be a sheep or a chicken. Burning Esfand, a kind of incense which are wild rue seeds, is however the most common (and harmless) practice. Burning Esfand can be done as a prevention or a cure according to Iranian belief.
That tradition would come from the Zoroastrian practice. The seeds are placed in a small canister with coal.
While burning, they make a popping noise; at that moment, Iranians may either say “Betereke cheshme shur” (may the evil eye explode), or send three “salavât”, which are Islamic blessings in Arabic. Both the sayings and the smoke are believed to be protective.
2. NOWRUZ RELATED SUPERSTITIONS
There are many superstitions that are part of the Persian New Year’s (Nowruz) traditions. Mostly actions to perform to avoid bad luck in the year to come. Sometimes, there is nothing that can be done though, for instance if you broke glassware or plates during the first thirteen days of the year. That, unfortunately, is a sign that you will encounter bad events during the year.
CHAHARSHANBE SURI’S FIRE AND SMASHING POT
The first Nowruz celebration takes place on the last Wednesday of the year (so, before new year’s eve), which is called Chaharshambe suri (the red Wednesday). The central ritual of that day comes from an ancient Zoroastrian belief. It consists in jumping over a bonfire, while saying “Sorkhi-ye to az man, zardi-ye man az to” (your redness be mine, my paleness be yours), as a purification ritual.
The origins of this custom are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have both pre-Islamic Zoroastrian and Islamic influences. Some believe that jumping over fire symbolizes purification and the renewal of the spirit, while others associate it with the Zoroastrian belief in the power of fire to ward off evil spirits and diseases.
Another superstition consists in smashing a pot after jumping over the fire. Present in many cultures, the belief behind smashing a pot is that your misfortunes are transferred to the pot, itself destroyed. Nowruz rituals and beliefs may vary according to the regions and cities. In Tehran, for instance, people put coins into a jug, that they drop from their roof.
SIZDAH BEDAR, THE OUTDOOR DAY
Another important belief related to the Persian New Year takes place on the 13th and final day of Nowruz. That day is called Sizdah Bedar and it is believed that you should spend it outside of the house, unless you will encounter bad luck for the rest of the year. That’s why on Sizdah Bedar most Iranians go out for a picnic.
One of the traditions during Sizdah Bedar is to tie the green sprouts of Sabzeh, which are grown for the Haft-Seen table at the start of the New Year, into knots and then release them into flowing water. It is believed that this act will bring good luck and help unmarried individuals find a partner in the coming year.
On that day, they also get rid of the sprouted greens they’ve grown during Nowruz. But that shouldn’t be done haphazardly. Indeed, that sprouts are believed to absorb all the negativity and should only be thrown in moving water.
Yet, before doing so, another superstition exists. Iranians believe that young single people should knot the stems of the sprout before getting rid of it, as a good omen to finding a partner.
3. SUPERSTITIONS FOR A SAFE JOURNEY
As shown by the ritual of getting rid of the sprouted greens, running water is an element that is perceived as pure and positive.
That is the reason why, when travellers embark on a journey, it is common to throw water behind them, the moment they leave.
It’s a way to protect them and ensure they have a safe journey. A similar thing is done (often both practices are combined) with the Quran: before going on its journey, the traveller kisses the Quran, which is then held over his/her head so he/she can pass under it.
4. OTHER IRANIAN BELIEFS
Rituals related to Nowruz and the Evil Eye superstitions are among the strongest belief still nowadays in Iran. Other practices remain, but are taken less seriously. Among these beliefs, we can mention the fact of sneezing. Some believe that it is necessary for someone to stop all actions after sneezing. Iranians say “sabr âmad” (patience came) and consider that if you don’t wait before resuming what you were doing, that will bring bad luck.
Another superstition, this time not related to good or bad luck, has to do with tea. Iranians believe that if any tea leaves float in your tea glass, it means that you will soon have guests. And the number of tea leaves indicates how many!
There are also many superstitions around weddings, which differ largely from one region to another. Yet, one common belief, both among Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iran, is that there should be no divorced person or widow in the room where the marriage is sealed. Otherwise, the marriage will fail.