The closest the ancient human being could come to give shape and body to the deities he worshiped was by looking up to the skies. The heavenly bodies and stars so bright and distant yet so incomprehensible and seemingly whimsical. The sun and the moon, almost sentient astral entities so essential in all of the pagan religions, moving about undisturbed. But how did these godly images move in the skies? The most conventional theory among scholars of the subject proposes that the easiest way for early civilizations to explain this divine process was through reliance on known natural occurrences, in this case the flying of a bird through its wings. Because if a bird could fly through the skies, so could a god. In religious iconography, this was translated in the depiction of anthropomorphic gods with wings or simply a winged disk.
However, another theory on the origin of the winged disk was proposed by British astronomer and founder of the British Astronomical Association Edward W. Maunder (d. 1928). In Knowledge – A monthly record of science v.XX (1897), Maunder made a connection between the the winged disc and the solar corona. The corona is the luminous plasma atmosphere of the Sun, most easily seen during a total solar eclipse. When this occurs, the corona can be witnesses as a circle of light or rayed glow around the concealed sun. Maunder describes how the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians must have considered the total solar eclipse a manifestation of the unseen divine, its mysterious lights a symbol of unapproachable powers. He states that the winged discs are as a matter of fact the earliest images of total eclipses. The diaphanous streamers of the eclipse’s corona bear a remarkable resemblance to the outspread wings of celestial beings as visualized on temples and ancient artifacts. Since the Egyptians and Mesopotamians were actually skilled astronomers, this theory could be a valuable alternative to the search for the winged disc’s origins.
The winged disk symbol was mainly introduced by the Ancient Egyptian tradition of depicting the solar deity as a winged sun. The earliest attestations of this concept, i.e. the portrayal of the sun’s travels across the astral planes, originated as early as the Egyptian Old Kingdom (3rd millennium BC), but tangible archaeological evidence of its use as a divine symbol stem from the Middle Kingdom and later periods, most notably Ptolemaic Egypt. Apart from its association with a specific deity, the winged sun disk represents the heavens, the skies and the sun, in most cases of Egyptian religious art standing highly elevated above everything else. It forms the personification of rebirth, creation and the inception of life, the rising and setting of the sun heralding the repeated coming and going of days, months and years. The winged sun symbol was a popular image on 2nd millennium BC stelae.
Over the course of history, nearing the New Kingdom of Egypt, the winged sun symbol became a fixed characteristic of many newly built temples, in no way exclusive to one deity alone but rather associated with several major gods. One such example is the association of the disk with the god Ptah, the embodiment of the rising sun, father of the universe. A winged sun relief can be found above one of the gates of his temple in Karnak. It also appears on the neck of Apis, the sacred bull who served as intermediary between the human realm and the gods. Due to its importance, the symbol developed into an apotropaic amulet during the Late and Ptolemaic period as a means of protection against evil and an invocation to the gods.
Nearing the end of the Egyptian gods’ hegemony over the region, the feathered sun disk became mostly associated with the assimilated Horus-Behdeti deity, the so-called Horus of Edfu. In his temple, built between 237-56 BC by the Ptolemaic dynasty, the winged sun is visibly present, flanked by two uraeus snakes as a sign of royalty. Horus-Behdeti was increasingly intimately associated with the king. The god protects the king as a hovering sun disk, symbolic of the rebirth of the monarch and the powers of kingship. It is the sun that shines over the whole of Egypt, both Upper and Lower unified by its light. It is the eternal struggle between Horus and Set, whose armies intend to cover the world in darkness.
Through the export of the Egyptian religion to foreign lands in the Near East, most notably the city of Byblos in Phoenicia, the winged disk became incorporated into the symbolism of local pantheons all across Canaan, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. It’s important to note that outside of Egypt, the winged sun disk wasn’t necessarily about the sun, instead representing all kinds of major male and female deities as a de facto visualization of their supremacy. Indeed, the high positioning of this object within a given image in Near-Eastern art implies a high rank. In this read, however, I’m not going to dwell to long on all the local variants and uses of the winged disk symbol. Instead, I’ll refer to The case of the winged disc in Near Eastern imagery of the first Millennium BCE (2005) by Tallay Ornan, (which you can read here), covering all of those areas. For now, it’s important to focus on the place of the winged disk in Assyrian art and symbolism.
The Assyrians used the winged disk to depict their supreme deity and patron god of their capital, Aššur. As top-tier god of the Assyrian pantheon, it would only be fitting to imagine him with the famous winged disk symbol, elevated high above anything else. The first occurrence of the winged disk in monumental Assyrian art is probably on the 11th century BC Broken Obelisk. If one looks carefully at the winged disk, one could discern that it actually has hands and holds a bow with arrows. This is important, and it constitutes a prominent, typically Assyrian modification of the symbol, which would later become only more and more anthropomorphised.
According to Mattias Karlsson in his Relations of Power in Early Neo-Assyrian State Ideology (2016), divine legitimacy was very important to the Assyrian rulers, a trend that peaked during the rule of Ashurnasirpal II of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (r. 883 to 859 BC). As Aššur gained importance, and defeated the southern Babylonian Marduk, he became the winged disk, embodying it in a human-like form holding a ring or bow. The Assyrians broke with the pure figurative tradition of the winged disk, anthropomorphizing its depiction as the bodily representation of Aššur. The above mentioned Ashurnasirpal II made heavily use of this iconography, such imagery only confirming and propagating the consubstantiality of the Assyrian king with god, the divinity that resided in his body and which justified his divine mandate, an increasing trend during the Neo-Assyrian period.
This concept of royal divinity was increasingly present among Neo-Assyrian kings, depicting the bodily representation of Aššur as winged disk in exact the same pose as the depicted king, signifying that everything the king does is equivalent to the action of the god. As Assyrian hegemony over the region waned during the 7th century BC, Aššur’s importance did as well. Like other Near-Eastern peoples, the Neo-Babylonian kings frowned upon the self-deification of the Assyrian rulers. Instead, they represented themselves as the humble servants of the gods. The supreme symbol of Aššur consequently disappeared, but the anthropomorphized version of the winged disk did certainly not. Instead, another great empire picked it up to represent its own religion, through which the symbol survives up till this day.
6th century BC Achaemenid Persians didn’t really have any religious art of their own, so they adopted many external elements into their native Zoroastrianic religion. Due to the major differences between the local pagan religions and the proto-monotheistic nature of the Zoroastrian faith, new meanings had to be attached to the old symbols. One of these incorporated symbols was the anthropomorphic winged disk similar to Aššur, but no longer holding a bow. Instead, the human-like figure holds a ring (a symbol of eternity) or branch in one hand, and extends his other hand in a gesture of blessing. This symbol was known as the faravahar (in New Persian “فَروَهَر”).
There exist two interpretations of what the faravahar actually represents. It is argued that the figure represents Ahura Mazda, the creator and supreme God in Zoroastrian thought. As Lord of Wisdom, his symbol would represent goodness, truth and wisdom. That would explain his depiction within a winged disk, like Aššur before him, and his appearance among royalty on Persian seals. Others, however, have argued that the faravahar actually represents the so-called faravashi (in New Persian “فَروَشی”). The faravashi is the Zoroastrian concept of a personal spirit of each human individual, dead or alive, that fights the battle of good versus evil. Its depiction would in that case serve a protective function. It’s not entirely clear, and the fact that a faravahar appears on a 6th-5th century BC seal of Darius I hunting a lion, could indeed indicate one of either interpretations. Is it the faravashi of Darius I? Or is it Ahura Mazda blessing the king with his divine mandate and support, similar to the Assyrian kings before him?
Whatever it may be, the faravahar turned into one of the most well-known symbols of pre-Islamic Persia and Zoroastrianism, used by both nostalgic nationalists and religious Zoroastrians to express their identity and history today. The Iranian Pahlavi dynasty, for example, were known to include the faravahar in public imagery in Iran as well as in their own coat of arms. Although the famous Lion and Sun symbol was, by decree, removed from public spaces and government organizations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the faravahar was actually tolerated to a certain extent, allowing it to be formed into a national symbol for Iran by Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian users, exceeding its significance beyond religion.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.