Nevruz traditions among the Kurds
NIKI GAMMAll sorts of flowers open in spring
The bed of silk cloth has been spread out
Paradise’s place has been spied, its sides warm
Cold won’t come now.
- Dîvanü Lügati’t-Türk (11th century)
Celebrating the start of Nevruz, the New Year, March 21, when night and day are approximately the same length of time, is a custom among the Turks that goes back centuries. And not just among the Turks - this was a festival that can be found back as far as historical records in the Middle East go. Scholars believe it originated as part of the Zoroastrian religion that developed in the Iranian area 3,500 years ago, and has persisted ever since.
But is this a festival that originated in Iran and spread elsewhere, or did it appear in several places at once? One of the oldest legends of Nevruz is to be found among the Kurds and is the story of Kawa, a blacksmith, and Dehak, an evil king. The latter’s kingdom had been cursed - and Dehak with it. Due to the fact that the sun did not shine, crops could not grow, and the people were starving. Dehak had two snakes coming out of his shoulders and they had to be fed often, so the villagers were ordered to sacrifice two children every day and provide their brains as food for the snakes.
Kawa sacrificed 16 of his 17 children and only his last daughter remained before he decided that he could play a trick on Dehak. He took the brain of a sheep and fed it to the snakes, who ate it without any problem. From then on, the villagers sent their children into the mountains with Kawa to a remote valley called Ergenekon that was difficult to find. When the children were old enough, Kawa turned them into an army to attack the king. After they did this, the blacksmith then set alight a bonfire to let everyone know that Dehak was dead. With that, the sun came out and the crops started growing, i.e. spring had started.
A variation of this legend exists in which Kawa and the children were trapped in their remote valley but there was an old iron mine. So they lit a fire, melted the iron and escaped through the hole in the mountain made by the melted iron. This may be the origin of jumping over a lit bonfire that seems to be an integral part of today’s Nevruz celebrations among the Kurds.
Kurdish Nevruz traditions
The traditions observed by the Kurds are far from new and vary from village to village. In his article, “Performative Conceptions of Social Change: The Case of Nevruz Celebrations in Pre-Ottoman and Ottoman Anatolia,” Yücel Demirer points out that there are four main types of ritual in what traditionally happened during Nevruz: “The first group includes beliefs and practices surrounding the health-related power of Nevruz. The rituals of this category deal with staying healthy or curing sickness … The second group of Nevruz rituals centers upon securing the abundance and richness of the coming year ... The third category of Nevruz rituals deals with finding a husband or wife, a theme that has clear connections to the commemoration’s central concerns of fertility and abundance … The fourth category deals with reading the future.”
Over the centuries the practice of leaping over bonfires is the one tradition that has been there from the earliest times. Jumping over it was an act of bravery and agility and of new beginnings and purification and health. It was a way to get rid of illnesses or bad luck. Another tradition had people going to a nearby lake or stream to clean themselves by bathing there although this was gradually abandoned. Clean clothes and cleaning houses are probably all that remain from that custom. A further custom is to visit older family members and friends.
Demirer cites an example in which in Eastern Anatolia, “the head of the household collects little rocks for every member of the household and sets them up around the chimney. On the morning of Nevruz, the bottoms of the rocks are examined. If a red insect is found under one of the rocks, it is believed that that person brings good luck to the family.”
In an interview, Prof. Dr. Metin Karaörs noted that sometimes preparations were made earlier. In one instance cited two weeks before the day seven kinds of seeds (wheat, barley, lentils, corn, millet and sesame) would be put in a large plate and water poured over them. Depending on which one germinated one would learn how that crop would be that year.
In the home the women prepare sweets, gifts and colored eggs. These eggs are important; they represent new birth and fertility. Eggs formed an important part of the rituals with eggs being dyed yellow, green and red - the three colors associated with today’s Kurds. Basically the egg symbolized fertility and new life and probably has been associated with Nevruz from the earliest times.
Often games were played such as “jereet,” wrestling and horse races. It was also a favorite time for performances by minstrels who would sing familiar folksongs and enter into competitions with each other. Poems that were called Nevruziye would be made up for the holiday.
Traditions among the Yezidi Kurds
A branch of the Kurds who live in Syria and are known as the Yezidis follows customs that are somewhat different from those of other Kurds. While the Yezidis celebrate the beginning of the New Year during the first week of April, their celebration begins two nights earlier with the decoration of the sanctuary of Sheikh Adi with red poppies. Eggs are colored to offer pilgrims and decorate the sanctuary. Sheep and lambs are sacrificed. They spend the night at the sanctuary and in the morning the women start decorating all of the holy places in the area with poppies and eggs. For them the egg has a different significance.
Birgül Açıkyıldız, in her recently published book “The Yezidis,” relates the importance of eggs to the Yezidi popular belief that God created the world as an egg-shaped stone covered in ice. He then sent the Peacock Angel to break the ice and bring spring to the land. This is why eggs form such an important part of their
Unlike the other Kurds, Açıkyıldız says the Yezidis celebrate at home eating the sacrificed animals. Their “houses are decorated with spring flowers, eggs are colored, special bread of sawuk is cooked, and at night fires are lit in front of the houses and in the niches of the sacred places.” As such, there is none of the exuberance of their northern Kurdish neighbors that we will see this weekend.