Ritual Implements: Baresman — its consecration and ritual

(at right:) 5th-4th century B.C. gold plaque showing a magus holding the baresman

The baresman (Phl. barsom), or sacred bundle of twigs (or "slender wands"), is a ritual implement which has played an important part in Zoroastrian religious practices since prehistoric times. According to Kotwal and Boyd, the baresman is an "ancient Indo-Iranian emblem of seeking the Holy", and it "establishes a connecting link between this getig [material] world and the menog [spiritual] realm. The barsom is, as it were, the conduit through which the archetypal principles and powers manifest their presence and receive the offerings." (A Persian offering, 1991, p. 6, 10; words in square brackets are mine). It is also an instrument through which one acquires the sacred power (op.cit. p. 23). Perhaps then it is also a conduit for channeling the power outwards, and thus is a prototypical 'magic wand'.

The Vohuman Yasht, chapter 2.57 seems to give it importance equal to wearing the kusti. During daily prayers, at each Gah (or prayer period), Zoroastrians pray,

thwãm âtrem ... hadha-zaothrem hadha-aiwyånghanem imat baresma ashaya frastaretem ... (We honor the fire ... with Baresman, with (its?) girdle (kusti), provided with this Zaothra (libation), spread with Asha...)

And in the fire litany we pray,

ýase-thwâ bâdha frâyazâite aêsmô-zastô baresmô-zastô ... âat ýezi-shê aêm baraiti aêsmem vâ ashaya beretem baresma vâ ashaya frastaretem urvarãm vâ hadhânaêpatãm â-hê pascaêta frînaiti xshnûtô atbishtô hakhdhanghum, (May there be hope to that person who truly shall sacrifice to you with fuel in his hand, with the Baresman in his hand.... Then if that one brings to the fire either fuel rightly brought, or Baresma rightly spread, or the plant Hadhanaepata, to him thereupon, in fulfillment of his wish, the Fire of Ahura Mazda, propitiated, unoffended, gives a blessing.)

Ancient art frequently show Zoroastrians praying with baresman in hand. As Boyce has shown, "this was a long-established convention for depicting a devout Zoroastrian." (HZ3, p. 101)

In spite of this, aside from its mention in daily prayers, the baresman's role in contemporary Zoroastrian observances seems limited mostly to High Liturgies (e.g. Yasna).

Some time during the last four hundred years the Parsi priests of India have substituted metal rods for the traditional twigs. Dastur Erachji Meherjirana explains this innovation as being "out of helplessness" because the traditional tamarisk was not available in India (Pursesh-Pasakh, 1941, pp. 63-64, cited by Kotwal-Boyd, op cit, pg 68. n 30). The identification of tamarisk as the original material is supported by the Persian Rivayats (15-16th century, e.g. Dhabhar, p. 418), where the Irani authorities chide the Parsis for having substituted the untraditional metal wires.

The following text by prolific Parsi author J.J. Modi describes its importance and its rites in more detail. (Note that the repeated attempts to find the Zoroastrian baresman in Ezekiel has been conclusively refuted by R. Gordis, 'The Branch to the Nose', J. of Theological Studies XXXVII, 1936, 284-8.)

From J.J.Modi, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees, Bombay, 1922, p. 277 ff.

Photos by J.H. Peterson, 2013, 2017. All rights reserved.


Barsom and Mah-rui (Barsom-stand)


The Mah-rui (lit. moon-faced) are two metallic stands about nine inches in height. They are so called because they have a moon-faced or crescent-shaped top. They are always used in pair, one placed in front of the other. They are also called barsom-dan, because the barsom twigs are placed upon them. They are the ceremonial instruments referred to as Mah-ruyo in the Dadistan-i Denig (Chap. 48.14).1 [1] There, the Aurvis, or the stone slab of the Yazashna-gah is spoken of as the proper place for the mah-rui. They must always be metallic (shatvarin).2

1. S.B.E., Vol. XVIII, p.163.

2. Ibid. p.165. Dadistan, Chap. 48.17.

The barsom

The barsom forms an important part of the liturgical apparatus. In the modern ritual, the old vegetable barsom has been replaced by metallic barsom. As it is referred to by a classical writer like Strabo, and in the Old Testament, and as its ceremony has been referred to by Firdausi and others, I will speak of it at some length. The word barsom is the Avesta word Baresman. It comes from the Avesta root barez, Sanskrit barh, to grow. The twigs of a particular tree used in liturgical ceremonies are spoken of as the barsom. Later books say that the twigs may be of the pomegranate tree or of the tree known as the chini. But the Avesta itself does not specialize any particular tree. It speaks generally, that the barsom must be of a tree (Yasna 25.3; urvarâm baresmanim). The Shayest Na-Shayest (14:2),3 though it does not particularize the tree, says that only twigs of the proper tree must be used. But, now-a-days, instead of the twigs of any tree, metallic wires are used. They are generally of brass, but at times of silver. They are about nine inches long and one-eighth of an inch in diameter. Each of such wires is called a tâê (Pers. tâî, i.e., a thin thread). The practice of using metallic wires seems to have come into force within these last 1,000 years, because the Dadistan refers to vegetable twigs.4

3. S.B.E., Vol. V, p. 370.

4. Dadistan-i Denig, 48.17. Vide S.B.E., Vol. XVIII, p. 165, n. 3.

The number of twigs required differ in different services. The Shayest Na-Shayest (14:2)5 enjoins that neither more nor less than the requisite number should be used. The celebration of the Yasna requires 23 twigs of which 21 form a bundle. One twig is placed on the foot of the Mah-rui, i.e., the moon-faced or the crescent-like stand which is otherwise known as the barsom-dan. This twig is called zor-no-tae, i.e., the twig of the saucer containing the zor or zaothra water. The other, i.e. the twenty-third twig is placed on the saucer containing the jivâm, i.e. the mixture of water and milk. The celebration of the Vendidad requires 35 twigs, of which 33 form a bundle and the other two are used as above. The celebration of the Visparad requires 35 twigs, that of the Yazeshne of Rapithwin 15, and that of the Baj 5. In the case of the ceremony of Navar, i.e., the initiation into priesthood, the recital of the Mino-Navar baj requires seven twigs. The Srosh Yasht (Yasna 57.5) speaks of the use of three, five, seven, and nine twigs by Sraosha. The greatest length of each of the twigs is spoken of here as that of the height of a knee, i.e., about two feet. According to the Nirangistan, the minimum number to be used in the ritual is three, the minimum thickness of each twig to be equal to that of a hair, the maximum length to be one aesha and the maximum breadth one yava. The Vendidad (19.19) also gives the length of one aesha and the breadth of one yava. Darmesteter6 takes "aesha" to be the length of a ploughshare and the "yava" to be the breadth of a barley-corn. According to English measures, three barley-corns make one inch.

5. S.B.E., Vol. V, p. 370. For some varying numbers, vide the Nirangestan Bk. III, Ch. VII, Appendix A. (Mr. Bulsara's Translation, pp. 434. et seq).

6. Le Zend Avesta II, p. 265.

In the ritual, the barsom twigs or wires are placed on the above-mentioned two crescent shaped metallic stands made generally of brass or at times of silver, of which the Shayest Na-Shayest (3:32; 10:35)7 speaks as barsom-dan, i.e., the holder of the barsom. We will see later on, that the barsom is the symbol of God's vegetable creation. As said above, the very etymology of the word suggests growth. The moon and its crescent (Lat. crescere, to grow, increase) give an idea of growth. Again, the moon is believed to have some influence on the growth of vegetation.8 So, barsom, the symbol of the vegetable world of God has, for its stand, moon-shaped metallic stands.

7. S.B.E., Vol. V, pp.284, 333.

8. Vide my paper on "The Ancient Iranian Belief and Folklore about the moon, etc". (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay. Vol XI, pp. 14-39. Vide my Anthropological Papers, Part II, p.302. et seq).

The second chapter of the Yasna shows that the barsom was considered to be an essential requisite in the liturgical service of the Yasna. This chapter is called the barsom Yasht. The Vendidad (14.8) speaks of it as one of the requisites of an Athornan, i.e., a Fire-priest performing liturgical services. Being such an essential requisite, the very tree whose twigs serve as barsom is an object of praise (Yasna 25.3). All the religious rites of the inner liturgical service of the Zoroastrians are celebrated with barsom (Vohuman Yasht, II.57, 58).9

9. S.B.E., Vol. V, p. 212.

According to the Nirangistan, the barsom ceremony existed in the time of Zoroaster, whose contemporary, Jamasp, is said to have celebrated it in a particular way (Fragments, 6; Nirangistan, Fargard 3.89).10 In many passages of the Avesta, Niyayeshes and Yashts, it is always associated with the Haoma and Jivam ceremonies (Haomayo gava baresmana). So, as the Haoma ceremony11 is very ancient, it follows that the barsom ceremony also is as ancient as that. The Vohuman Yasht (III, 29, 37)12 speaks of it as celebrated by Peshotan, a contemporary of Zoroaster.13

10. Darmesteter, Le Zend Avesta, III, p. 136. Vide the Nirangistan (B. II, Chap. V, Appendix A) by Mr. S. J. Bulsara. His introduction may be read with advantage to have a brief view of what is said in the Nirangistan about the barsom and about other articles of the alat (Aerpatesatan and Nirangestan by Sohrab Jamshedji Bulsara. Introd. pp. XLIII-VII.)

11. Vide below p. 300.

12. S.B.E., Vol. V, pp. 227, 229.

13. It is this ceremony that Ezekiel refers to when he says, "Then he said unto me, 'Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abomination, which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have returned to provoke me to anger and lo they put the branch to their nose." (Ezekiel, VIII, 16-l7). The Parsi priests even now hold the twigs up to their face. Hence it is that Ezekiel speaks of the branch as being held to the nose.

Strabo also refers to this ceremony. He says "They (the Persians) then lay the flesh in order upon myrtle or laurel branches; the Magi touch it with slender twigs and make incantations, pouring oil mixed with milk and honey, not into the fire, nor into the water, but upon the earth. They continue their incantations for a long time, holding in the hand a bundle of slender myrtle rods." (Strabo, Bk. XV, chap. III, 14. Hamilton and Falconer's Translation (1857), III, pp. 136-137.)

The Flamines or the Fire-priests of the ancient Romans also carried bunches of such twigs in their hands in their ritual. Dino, a contemporary of Philip, is said to have referred to the barsom, though not as a sacrificial instrument but as an instrument of Divination (Darmesteter, Le Zend Avesta, III, p. LXIX). The Denkard (Bk. 8, chap. 19.83, chap. 20.12) seems to refer to this use of the barsom when it speaks of its being used as an ordeal (Baresmok-varih) in judicial matters (S.B.E., Vol. XXXVII, pp. 48, 55).

The barsom used in the recital of grace before meals

The Parsis have three forms of prayers to be recited as grace before meals. One of these, which is the longest and in which certain chapters of the Yasna are recited, is used by priests on certain occasions when they officiate in continued inner liturgical services. In the recital of this form of grace barsom is a necessary requisite. But, it seems that in ancient times barsom was a requisite in even the simple forms of grace recited before meals. The reciter held barsom in his hand during these recitals. It was so in Sassanian times. We learn from Firdausi that Yazdagard, the last Sassanian king, when he concealed himself during his flight in the house of a miller, asked for the barsom to say his grace before the meals. This led to the discovery of the place of his hiding and he was treacherously killed by his general Mahui Suri. Again, we find that in the reign of Khosro Parviz (Chosroes II), this custom of using the barsom in the recital of grace before meals was on the point of leading to a war between Persia and Rome.14

14. Rehatzek thus describes the incident: "On another occasion, the Persian monarch gave a banquet and had tables arranged for that purpose, in a rose garden. He had put on the royal diadem, and Nyatus (the Roman ambassador) with the philosophers sat around the table ..... Bandvy, one of his (Khosru's) favorite magnates with the barsom (or little twigs held by Mobeds when praying) in his hand arrived and stood near his sovereign, who muttered the Baj (i.e., the prayer of grace) .... When Nyatus beheld this scene, he laid aside his bread, and was so annoyed that he left the table, saying that the Baj and the Cross together were an insult to the Messiah." (Journal of the B.B.R.A. Society, Vol. XIII, p. 88 note.) Firdousi refers to this subject at some length (vide Le livre des Rois par M. Moti, Vol. VII, p. 183).

Its similarity to a Hindu ceremony

The barsom is "identified with the Barhis or sacred grass (Kusha grass) of the Brahmans, which they spread at their sacrifices as a seat for the gods who are expected to come."15 Dr. Haug differs from this identification, and says that it resembles "a peculiar rite at the great Soma sacrifices. . . . . . At the time of the Soma libation (called Savana) which is to be performed three times on the same day, from 8 to 12a.m.(morning libation), 1 to 5 p.m. (midday libation) and 6 to 11 p.m. (evening libation), the three Samaveda priests, the Udgata ,the Prastota, and the Pratiharta, require a certain number of wooden sticks to be placed in a certain order when chanting the sacred samans (verses of the Samaveda.) They use for this purpose the wood of the Udumbara tree, and call them Kusha, which name is generally given to the sacred grass. In the Agnishtoma, 15 such sticks are required at the morning libation, 17 at noon, and 21 in the evening; in other sacrifices, such as the Aptoryama, even a much larger number of such sticks is required."16 The very fact that the barsom is not spread on the ground but is enjoined to be held up in the hand — left hand according to the Vendidad (19.19) — as referred to in Ezekiel and by Strabo and as practiced at present, seems to show that its identification with the barhis of the Hindus is not correct and that Haug's identification seems to be more probable. Again, as we have seen above, as a symbol of vegetable creation, it is connected with the moon which helps the growth of vegetation. So, its identification with a rite of the Saoma sacrifice seems to be correct, because Saoma has some connection with the moon.

15. Haug's Essays, 2nd edition, p. 283. Vide Journal B.B.R.A. Society, Vol. XIV, pp. 5-15.

16. Haug, ibid, p. 283.

The object of the barsom ceremony

It appears from the Vendidad (19.18, 19), that the object of performing the barsom ceremony seems to be the payment of homage to the vegetable creation of God. There, in reply to the question of Zoroaster, as to with what kind of praise or ritual (Yasna) he should worship or laud the creation of God, Ahura Mazda replies that he should go before a flourishing growing tree, utter the words, "Praise be to thee, the good pure tree created by Ahura Mazda (nemô urvairê vanghuhi, etc.,)"! and then cut the barsom out of the tree. This passage not only shows that the barsom represents the vegetable creation of God, but also that the barsom ritual is intended as a means of celebrating the praise of God for the creation of the world, especially the vegetable world. The Vishtasp Yasht (21-23) also gives a similar interpretation.

In the ritual, the holy water (the zaothra or jor water) is poured over the barsom. Now, this zaothra or purified water represents, or is the symbol of, rain through which the world receives the gift of water from God. Thus, the ritual of pouring this sacred water, which is the symbol of the drops of rain, upon barsom, which is the symbol of vegetable creation, signifies the celebration, or the worshipful commemoration, of the process of the whole vegetable world being fertilized by rain. Prof. Darmesteter expresses this point very pithily and briefly in the following words, "Le symbolisme de ces opérations eat transparent: Le Baresman représente la nature végétale, le zôhr (i.e. the sacred water) représente lea eaux: on met le zohr en contact idéal avec le Baresman pour pénétrer toute la flore des vertus de l'eau et féconder la terre."17

17. Le Zend Avesta, I. p. 397.

The celebrant is enjoined to look continuously to the barsom during the ceremony and to concentrate his mind upon it (Vend. 19:19), because, by looking upon what represents, or is the symbol of, the vegetable creation, he conceives in his mind the whole of the creation. The object aimed at by the ritual is not gained if the celebrant or worshipper is immoral and vicious (Mihr Yasht, Yt. 10.138). In the case of a righteous person (ashavan) even one single sincere performance of the barsom ceremony is sufficient to exalt him and to put down the evil influences of the wicked (Fragments Tehmuras, 24.40-41).18 According to the Menog-i Khrad (57:28),19 the celebration of this ceremony which symbolized the act of praising God for his creation, broke the power of the demons or of the evil influences. The Denkard (Bk. 8, Chap. 26.24)20 says that the celebration of the praise of God with this ceremonial on a day of battle, helps the soldiers a good deal; it is something like throwing a well-aimed arrow. Firdausi refers to its use in the ritual in the Fire-temples in the time of Behramgour (Behram V).21

18. Darmesteter, Le Zend Avesta, III, p. 61.

19. S.B.E. Vol. XXIV, p. 103.

20. S.B.E., Vol. XXXVII, p. 89.

21. Mohl, la Livre des Rois, Vol. VI, p. 65.

Preparation of the barsom (a) gathering it and (b) tying it.

The Denkard (Bk. 8, Chap. 29.16),22 referring to the Husparum Nask, says that one of the sections of the Nirangistan refers to the "gathering and tying the sacred twigs (barsom)." In modern practice, the ceremony of the preparation of the barsom for liturgical purposes consists of only one part. But at one time it consisted of two parts: (a) The first part, viz., the gathering or the collection of the twigs now-a-days is different from the old method, because instead of vegetable twigs, metallic twigs are used now (b) The second part, viz., that of tying the twigs or wires is performed even now. I will describe both the old ritual of gathering the twigs and the modern ritual of tying them.

22. S.B.E., Vol. XXXVII, p. 96. Vide also chapters XIII-XVI, pp. 469-77 of the Nirangistan translated by Mr. S. J. Bulsara.

(a) According to the old practice, a priest who had performed the Khub ceremony — either the small or the large Khub — performed the ceremony of preparing the barsom. He fetched pure water from a well and with it made a water-pot pâv, i.e., pure. With this pure water, collected in a ceremoniously purified utensil, he went before the tree whose twigs were to be used in the ritual as the symbol of the vegetable creation, and washed, with his right hand, the twig which he wanted to cut. Then, holding a knife (kaplo) in the right hand and the utensil of pâv water in the left, he took the Baj with the Khshnuman for urvara or trees, recited a formula of prayer, wherein the bountiful vegetable creation of God was praised:

(frasastayaecha urvarao vanghuyao mazdadhatayao ashaonyao)
and cut off the twig he required for the ritual. He cut off the twig with the recital of an Ashem Vohu. With the word "Ashem," he cut off and rejected the partly-dried tip or the end. With the word "Vohu", he touched the stem and with the word Vahishtem, he cut it off. At the end of the recital, he thus paid his homage to the good vegetable creation of God, as enjoined in the Vendidad (Chapter 19.18):
"Homage to thee, O good holy tree, created by God!" (Nemo urvaire vanguhi Mazdadhate ashaone).

With the cutting of each twig the above ritual is repeated. He then retires to the Yasashna-gah. In the modern practice, a priest with the Khub makes the metallic wires pâv, i.e., pure, together with all the metallic utensils required for the Yazashne [Yasna] ceremony. The Shayest Na-Shayest (14:2)23 enjoins that they all must be made pâv. He then holds the requisite number of wires, all but one, in his left hand. Then, holding the remaining one in his right hand, with the usual recital of three Ashem Vohus and Fravarane, takes the Baj with the Khshnuman of Khshathra-vairya or Shehrewar Ameshaspand who presides over metal. In the old practice, the Khshnuman was that for trees because the twigs used were those of a tree. Then, during the recital of the Ashem Vohu of the Baj, touching both the ends of the bundle of wires in his left hand with the zaothra or zor wire (so called because it is to be placed on the zaothra water cup) in his right hand, he finishes the Baj. While finishing the Baj during the recital of the Yasnemcha formula, with the mention of the name of Khshathra-vairya who presides over metals, he touches again both the ends of the bundle of the barsom wires in his left hand with the zor wire in his right hand.

23. S.B.E, Vol. V., p. 370.

(b) Having prepared the barsom the next process is that of tying the wires into a bundle. A strip of the leaf of a date-palm known as aiwiyaonghana24 is used for the purpose. The priest takes the Baj with the Khshnumam of Ahurahe Mazdao. During the recital of this Baj, while uttering the words Ahurahe Mazdao (i.e. God), raevato (i.e., the Brilliant) and Kharenanghato (i.e., the Glorious), the priest, holding the barsom on the aiwyaonghana which lies over the crescent of the Mah-rui, ties the barsom with the strip of the leaf of the date-palm. He then dips four times the bundle of wires and the strip of the leaf in the water of the Kundi or the vessel on his right hand side. While doing this, he recites four Ashem Vohus. He then recites two Ahunwars. During the recital of the first, he puts on two knots over the bundle of the wire. During the recital of the second, he cuts off and polishes with a knife the ends of the strip of the leaf of the date-palm. The knife used in the recital for the purpose (the ashtra of Vendidad 14.8), known at present as the Kaplo, is spoken of at times as the barsom-chin. The tying process being completed, the priest finishes the Baj.

24. Vide below, the ceremony of preparing the strip of leaf for the Aiwyaonhana, p. 291.