A Zoroastrian rite surviving in Muslim nations
Written by: Catherine Yronwode
Republished (in part) from: http://www.luckymojo.com/aspand.html
Editor’s note: Children are commonly seen on Kabul streets peddling the smoke from Espand. The children who do this are called Spandis. The 8-year-old boy in the accompanying image, Rahmat, is a former Spandi who is now a participant in the ROYA Mentorship Program and is sponsored by Hadi Zaher, the first graduate of Quetta’s branch of Star Educational Society and a weekly contributor to the Interstellar Bulletin. You can read an interview with Rahmat’s older brother, Izathullah, also a former Spandi, here.
Throughout the area once covered by the Persian empire, a type of herb seed called Aspand, Espand, or Esphand is burned on charcoal to rid children of the Evil Eye. A short verse is recited as the smoke is circled around the child’s head. Espand is also used to bring blessings after one has performed a sorrowful rite, such as attending a funeral.
Variants in Espand herbal practice
The Afghans I met used Espand seed straight. However, the Iranians added Frankincense and the leaves of an unknown wild Iranian herb to the Espand seed. Except for the additional elements burned by the Iranians, the rite is essentially identical in all cases.
Description of the Espand rite by participants
The rite consists of an invocatory prayer to a deceased but historical king of Persia known as Naqshband, while burning Espand seeds. The word Espand refers to a class of Zoroastrian Archangels. Naqshband was not a Muslim but a Zoroastrian and despite the Muslim conquest of Persia and outlying areas, the spirit of Naqshband is still called upon to destroy the Evil Eye (Bla Band). Here is the spell-prayer:
This is Espand, it banishes the Evil Eye
The blessing of King Naqshband
Eye of nothing, Eye of relatives
Eye of friends, Eye of enemies
Whoever is bad should burn in this glowing fire.
How do participants believe that this rite works?
Afghan man: “We ask for a blessing from King Naqshband, because he was the one who taught the use of Espand. He obtained this knowledge from the Angels of Heaven. He was a holy man. The use of fire is Zoroastrian, not Muslim. It is a very old rite. It is used to remove the Evil Eye from the children, and it is good for anyone.”
Iranian woman: “This prayer is the blessing of Shah Naqshband, an ancient King who was a follower of Zarathustra. Shah Naqshband got this blessing from the Archangels and taught it to our people. It is very effective when you must deal with bad people or sorrowful things. It removes the Evil Eye and it is a blessing to the spirit. It lightens your burdens.”
The archangels of Zoroastrian belief are generally said by scholars to be Zoroaster’s incorporation into his religion of regional Iranian gods and goddesses of the pre-historic period. Thus, Spenta Armaiti or Spandermat (also spelled Spandermad or Spendarmaz) was an earth-mother goddess, whose sacred herb was Espand or Esfand.
In the ancient Zoroastrian calendar, the month of Esfand (beginning around February 19) marked the feast of Spendarmat, which was dedicated to the female archangel of earthly and motherly protection, Spenta Armaiti, whose name signifies “Holy Devotion” or “Holy Love.” Among modern Iranians, this festival, known as the Esfandgan Feast, is still held on Spandarmaz Day in the month Esfand, the last month of the Iranian calendar. It is a celebration of womankind, and particularly commemorates the care, kindness, and self-sacrifices of motherhood.
The connections between the protective pre-Zoroastrian goddess Spandermat, the Zoroastrian female archangel Spenta Armaiti, the month of Esfand, the contemporary festival of Esfandgan, and the protective herb Espand which is used by mothers to safeguard and purify their children, are clear, even to Muslims living in formerly Zoroastrian territories.
What is Espand and why is it sacred (and spiritually effective)?
Espand is the common Persian / Dari / Farsi name for Peganum harmala, a perennial shrubby herb in the Zygophyllaceae or Caltrop family. The name is also transliterated as Espand, Esfand, and Esphand, and the plant itself is also given the regional common name Harmal or Harmala in Pakistan and India. In the USA its most common name is “Syrian Rue,” a highly unfortunate monicker since although the leaves of the two plants are similar, Espand is not related to Rue (Ruta graveolens) and it is not notable for growing in Syria, but rather in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and India.
Espand seed is the richest natural source of two alkaloids, harmine and harmaline (their names come from the Indian name for the plant, Harmal). These alkaloids are members of a class of drugs called Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAO Inhibitors or MAO-Is) that have been used in the treatment of clinical depression and, in larger doses, to produce psychotropic effects. In moderate doses, they produce a feeling of well-being and contentment. There are unpleasant side-effects to the ingestion of high doses of concentrated harmaline extracts, such as nausea and lassitude, but these effects do not occur when one breaths the smoke from burning Espand. Among the most commonly reported psychotropic effects of harmaline and harmine are visual and auditory hallucinations, and it is commonly reported — even by experimenters with no cultural connection to the breathing of Espand smoke — that these voices take the form of authoritative instructors. Perhaps the Espand smoke stimulates some portion of the brain that evokes images of Archangels and Holy Kings and that — combined with its anti-depressive activity — is why it is considered a sacred plant that removes the Evil Eye.
Please note before experimenting with Espand yourself that, although MAO Inhibitors have been prescribed for depression, there are severe risks associated with their use because when they are ingested in combination with certain other substances, such as alcohol or aged cheese, some people experience toxic or even fatal reactions to them. For this reason, MAO Inhibitors are no longer popular prescription drugs despite their efficacy at relieving depression. Also, for this reason, all companies that sell Espand seed will tell you that it is NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION, and if you are wise, you will heed that warning.
What at first looked to an American outsider (me) like a simple apotropaic rite — burning some seeds on charcoal to protect children from the Evil Eye — turns out to be an ancient Zoroastrian prayer to the Five Archangels, as taught by the ancient King Naqshband, and to utilize a psychotropic drug as its central agent of efficacy.