Kurdish Mother Goddess Ana: Origins & Traditions

By Himdad Mustafa

In Kurdish religions and mythology a cosmological figure, Ana, is the goddess of water and rain.[1] Associated with fertility, wisdom, and healing, she looks after the well-being of women, promoting fertility and safe childbirth. Flowing down from the mountain springs to lakes, her life-giving waters ensure the survival of the holy creation.

In the Kurdish Reyā Heqī (Alevi) philosophy women are considered to have a divine nature in some degree in spite of the strong, historical pressure from Abrahamic religions. One may note that a predominant position for Kurdish woman saints is anaship, or becoming Ana. Anaship remains an important position for women in Reyā Heqī; in some cases the ana will even take position of a pīr (‘male saint’) if necessary, particularly in his absence.[2]

The roots of this tradition lie in the distant past when Kurdish people were Mithraists and believed in the powers of natural elements personified as gods and goddesses. Ana was the goddess of fertility and procreation whose ancient memory continues to influence Kurdish culture to this day. The Kurdish form corresponds to Anāhitā ‘The Immaculate One’ in Avestan, Anāhid or Nāhid in Persian, and Nanā in Eastern Iranian languages. In Zoroastrianism hymns, she is addressed by the triple epithets Arədvī Sūrā Anāhitā ‘damp, powerful, pure.’[3] Anāhitā may have evolved from the prehistoric river goddess(es) of the ancient proto-Indo-European peoples of the fifth millennium BCE or earlier. During the course of her transformations over time, she acquired additional functions, presumably from pre-existing goddesses of the various regions where she was worshipped, particularly Mesopotamia.[4]

According to Isidore of Charax, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), the greatest metropolis of Media, retained a temple of Anaitis where sacrifices were regularly offered. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE) notes that the Persians and the Medes consider fire and water to be the only statues of the gods.[5] The “Kurd” identity of the “Medes” in this period is clearly confirmed in Kārnāmag i Ardaxšīr i Pābagān (the Acts of Ardashir son of Pabag), a Pahlavi work devoted to the achievements of Aradshīr I, the founder of the Sasanian Empire. When Ardashīr conquered Media in mid-220s CE, it is reported that he fought against the Kurds, also called the Medes.[6] The King of Media, who was deposed by Aradshīr, is called Kurdānshāh the Mede (Pahlavi: kurdānšāh ī mādīg, lit. the Median King of the Kurds).[7] The Persian and Median/Kurdish veneration of fire and water are linked to the worship of Mithra and Anāhitā respectively.

As early as the 3rd century BCE, Greek historians speak of Kurti and Mardi (Κύρτιοι και Μάρδοι) as the inhabitants of Media. In late antiquity those called Kurti and Mardi by the Greeks and Romans are called “Kurds and Marudai” in the Syriac chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor composed around 569 CE.[8] Polybius (d.118 BCE) relates that in 209 BCE when the Seleucid king Antiochus III arrived in Ecbatana he plundered the temple of Aine, stripping it of its gold and silver bricks, its silver roof-tiles, and the gold plating of its columns.[9] Further to the west, textual evidence from Strabo, written during the first century CE, testifies to the presence of the fountain of naphtha and the fires, and the temple of Anea (τὸ τῆς Ἀνέας ἱερὸν) near the city Demetrias in present-day Kirkuk area of Southern Kurdistan.[10] The divine name Aine/Anea, which is not attested elsewhere, is probably the first attestation of the Kurdish form of goddess Ana.

The presence in Kirkuk of self-sustained fires fed by petroleum and by gas jets would have attracted Mithraic and Zoroastrian veneration, and a shrine of goddess Ana, whose cult emphasized natural phenomena, was established there in connection with such sacredness. The site later came to be, and still is, called Bābā Gūrgūr ‘Saint Flame’ by the Kurds. Colonel Wilford reports that in his time (late 18th century) the site of Bābā Gūrgūr was occasionally visited by Hindu pilgrims who called it a jvālāmukhī ‘flame-mouthed’. This term was used in reference to the cult of goddess Nanā, the Eastern Iranian version of Anāhitā, which was venerated by the Baloch and Eastern Iranians before it was converted to the Hindu deity Hiṅgulā.[11] Wilford’s account testifies to the survival of the cult of Ana in Kirkuk in the 18th century. In time, her cult had attracted Hindu pilgrims from lands as far as India and Balochistan. British traveler Robert Kerr in the 1810s observed that ‘the Naphtha Springs in the neighborhood of Kerkook is considered sacred by the Guebres, that is, Fire-worshippers.”[12] Writing in 1873, the German orientalist Speigel noted that a certain ritual associated with “Anahita or Anaitis, the Asiatic goddess of love, is still practiced among the Ali Illahija [Yārsān], the self-styled ‘extinguishers of the light,’ and the Yezidis and Dushik Kurds.”[13]

Until fairly recently the site of Bābā Gūrgūr was still visited by Kurds seeking blessings, invoking her name for the success of healing rituals. Kurdish women would seek fertility from Bābā Gūrgūr. Associating eternal fires of Kirkuk with fertility demonstrates the strong traces of goddess worshipping in the region for millennia that eventually gained the city the title of ‘Jerusalem of Kurdistan’ in the 20th century, further strengthening the city’s holiness to the Kurds.

Archaeological evidence attests to the existence of temples to Ana in many places of Kurdistan dating from the Parthian and Sasanian periods. The Chārsteen ‘four pillars’ cave in Duhok province is believed to be a fire temple dedicated to Ana, as indicated by the discovery of her emblem, a fire-alter at the heart of the temple and an open-air sacrificial area.[14] More recently, archaeologists found a Parthian-era sanctuary complex near a water source at Rabana-Merquly fortress in the Zagros Mountains, suggesting a cultic link to the goddess Anāhitā. A Median rock-cut tomb at the nearby site of Qizqapan also depicts a fire altar on its ornate façade and an emblem of Anāhitā. According to Brown et. el. it was plausibly remained in use as a site for ancestral veneration concurrent with Parthian-era occupation at Rabana-Merquly, together forming a wider sacred landscape in the Charmaga Valley.[15]

Traces of Ana in Modern Kurdish Culture

Mother goddesses were widely worshipped across southwest Asia before the advent of Christianity. Later, after the spread of Islam in the region, these beliefs were transformed into the cults of Mother Aisha, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, and Mother Fātima, Mohammad’s daughter. Their image as protectors of fertility and patronesses of women became extremely popular with Islamic women.

The traces of Mithraism, which could be regarded as the original religion of Kurds, have survived in Kurdish religions of Reyā Heqī, Yārsānism, and Yezidism. The latter two recognize that the world is ruled by seven archangels (Haftpad) called Haft Tan in Yarsanism and Haft Sirr in Yezidism. One of which is a female Deity called Khātūn-i Razbār or Ramzbār in Yarsanism, and Pīra Fātima in Yezidism. The Reyā Heqī Kurds likewise have a deity called Ana Fātima. The existence of a female deity amongst Heptad, which has strong links to the cult of Ana, shows the importance of women’s status from the point of view of Kurdish religions.[16]

In the area of Dersim in Northern Kurdistan, within living memory, it was believed by Kurds that on the morning of Chiley Hāvīn (the fortieth day of Summer), Ana herself bathed in the river at a point where two streams met. In the same region there was a Spring of Ana whose water was called ‘mother’s milk’ by the Reyā Heqī Kurds, where warring parties were brought to drink water as a sign of reconciliation. Even the Muslim Kurds had a shrine to Ana the Pīr ‘Ana the Elder,’ whilst the Mīrag tribesmen, whose name is derived from ‘Mithra’, referred to their pīr as ‘great mother.’[17] The Yaresan and Yazidi holy springs also seem to go back to the cult of water goddess Ana.[18] In Yarsanism, a holy fountain called Hānitā (Anāhitā) flows from the heart of Dalahu Mountains in Eastern Kurdistan.[19]

The Kurdish scholar Dilşa Deniz has recorded many traditions in Northern Kurdistan associated with water or birth rituals. In the past, once a year, Kurdish woman of Dersim would use a brand-new churn in early spring and take it to seven wells and put water and pebbles from these wells, as well as seven types of wild flowers, in the churn for night. The next day they would perform a ceremony in which the churn is emptied and rewashed. When a newborn baby is forty days old there is a ceremony, in which the baby is washed with water that contains forty seeds of wheat. At one time, a woman was not allowed to go out of the house until the fortieth day post-partum, at which time she would be taken to the village well for a ceremony. Similarly, a new bride made her first public outing to the village well for a ceremony.[20]

Similar traditions were reported among Kurds from Eastern Kurdistan by French orientalist Thomas Bois. He noted that a ceremony was held in the days following Newroz, during which a cake was made from wheat grown in a basket exclusively for this ceremony. The cake would be left in a room for Aisha or Fatima (Queen Anāhitā) to leave the imprint of her hand on it. The cake was afterwards shared out among the friends and neighbors. By forcing the symbolic growth of some grains of cereal the ceremony must have been intended to produce through the intervention of the goddess of Fertility a successful harvest.[21]

In the past during the festival of Chiley Hāvīn/ Hāwīn, a Kurdish mid-summer festival celebrated on the 40th day of summer when fruit harvest begins, many people visited springs, rivers or lakes to offer thanks and prayers to life-giving water. It is believed that Ana, together with Mithra oversee the orderly change of the seasons. During the festival, the daf and tambūr musical instruments are played and fruits are offered to people. Probably the most interesting tradition in this festival is the making of dolls that recalls the goddess Ana. At the end of the festival the doll would be thrown into the river. We also encounter a similar tradition in rain rituals, with the Boka Baran (the Rain Bride) ceremony.

Pomegranate Trees

In Kurdish culture, hanār ‘pomegranate’ is a heavenly tree. As the tree of goddess Ana, she is a symbol of blessing and fertility that gives health and wealth. Pomegranate is a common motif of Kurdish rugs, used as a symbol of abundance and protection.[22] It’s plentiful grains are a symbol of Ana’s fertility. In Yārsānī beliefs, Sūltān Sahāk was the son of Khātūn-i Razbār ‘entrusted with mysteries.’ While she was sleeping under a pomegranate tree, a bird came to eat the fruit. While it was eating, a pomegranate seed fell into Razbār’s mouth. This seed grew into a baby and became the Sultān, the founder of their faith and God’s premier incarnation.[23] In turn, Sultān Sahāk and his companions had ritually eaten a pomegranate, the fruit of a magical tree, from which his successor Bābā Yādgār was born.[24]

Annually on the 40th day of autumn a harvest festival called Āhangī Hanār ‘Pomegranate Festival’ is held in Kurdistan to thank nature for its blessings. The Yarsanis celebrate it for three days, calling it Āyinī Yārī or Khāwenkār.[25] During the festival food and pomegranates are offered to the attendees. Then groups consisting of hundreds of musicians begin to play the tambūr which is a sacred symbol of Yarsanism.

Poems devoted to the celebration of nature constitute a significant part of Kurdish poetry. Pomegranate is a common image in love lyrics and stories, which evokes a romantic mood. The belief that pomegranate possesses protective and curative powers, due to her association with Ana, is illustrated in the following poem by the 19th century Kurdish poet Mewlewi, translated into English by Farangis Ghaderi:[26]

Şineftim dûr ba leyl zûkameşin
Diş warî bałay newnemeşin
Henarekey dił piṙ ce daney êş
Pîşyay kûrey narî ‘eşqî wêş
Be mewday mujgan suraxiş kero
We germî nîşan demaxiş dero

God forbid, I have heard Layl (the beloved) has a cold and is suffering;
I am sending the pomegranate of my heart, with its seeds of pain,
and heated up with the fire of love,
Tell her to pierce it with her eyelashes,
and drink up warm (for cure).

Rain Bride

One of the many manifestation of Ana in Kurdish culture are the rituals of water. During drought, a rain ritual called Būka Bārānē “Rain Bride” is performed by young girls and boys, or children. Young girls or children carry an effigy of Ana, a wooden doll dressed in a Kurdish woman’s costume, and sing songs asking her to make rain. They usually take the wooden doll door to door, and people would respond by splashing water on the effigy, and giving the children treats and gifts. There are different versions of the song; the most common one includes the following in Central Kurdish:[27]

Bûke baranê, awî bin dexlanê,
Bûke barane awî dewê,
Awî naw dexlanî dewê,
Heyaran û meyaran,
Xwaye bîkayte baran,
Bo feqir û hejaran

O the rain-bride!
O, the water that runs underneath the crops!
The Rain-bride needs water
she wants the water for the crops
O beloved ones, our beloved ones.
O God make rain.
for the poor and the needy.

This song may vary from region to region and from dialect to dialect. Another slightly different version of the songs is as follows:

pomegranate and jam,
God let the rain fall,
for the sick and the poor,
God allow the rainfall,
bald head of the spring,
O Bride of the Rain,
spray water on the crops,
give us meals of past days.

Kurdish Jews also performed the custom, but instead of an effigy, a woman would play the role of Būka Bārānē; sometimes, a boy would replace the girl. Those who accompanied Būka Bārānē would clap and sing: “our bride is beautiful, beautiful! Our bride seeks rain, O, God, she wants food. And where is the remedy for the bridegroom?.” As they went from house to house, each house owner poured water on the rain bride and offered food as a gift to their company.[28]

The French orientalist Thomas Bois, noted that the tradition of women soaking themselves in water to bring rain existed in Kurdistan in various forms in the event of a drought. He noted that the women would bathe in “the wells, or clothed in their finest dresses, they assemble in the shade of an old venerable tree where they pour water over one another’s clothes and go back to their homes completely soaked.” Bois added, “the women in the streets of Kirkuk collect rain-water in a spout, and after serving a meal to the poor, they poor are drenched with water from the spout.”[29]

The association of women with water can be seen in another rain-ritual which has been held in Kurdistan and some areas of Iran. This ritual is characterized by marrying girls to lakes that were drying up. According to Ashraf Darvishian, in the ritual the girl sleeps at the lake for forty days; and each day the girl wakes up before sunrise, undresses and washes her body in the lake seven times.[30]

To conclude, there is a long history of the worship of the mother goddess in Kurdish culture, which continues to manifest in modern rituals and beliefs. Kurdish culture has retained its matriarchal elements and despite much pressure from colonial and foreign influences including Islamization and Westernization, still retains its historical roots. The reverence for fire and water, the rituals and ceremonies associated with them – though not widely understood in contemporary times by modern Kurds – continues to exert influence on Kurdish culture and identity. At a time when Kurdish culture, identity and language is under intense pressure by the likes of the Turkish and the Iranian regimes, it is more important than ever that the Kurds reconnect with their ancient roots, by re-learning and educating themselves of their pre-Islamic identity and culture. Much has been lost, eradicated, or appropriated by the colonial and authoritarian forces who have controlled the history and identity of the Kurds – but much can also be reclaimed again by them should they wish to do so. There is no greater and nobler place to start than the ancient history and mythologies that defined the Kurds as a separate people and nation throughout Mesopotamia.


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  • Himdad Mustafa

    Himdad Mustafa is an independent researcher based in Southern Kurdistan. His main interests include Kurdish and Iranian studies with a special focus on Kurdish history in Late Antiquity. He has published a number of cultural and political studies articles in KurdSat and Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

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