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ASPAND - ESPAND - ESPHAND - ESFAND
AGAINST THE EVIL EYE:

A ZOROASTRIAN RITE SURVIVING IN MUSLIM NATIONS

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. Aspand is also used to bring blessings after one has performed a sorrowful rite, such as attending a funeral.

DISTRIBUTION OF THE ASPAND CUSTOM

I live in Sonoma County, an area of Northern California where there are few people of Persian descent. However, i have spoken directly to four people who practice this rite and a fifth person supplied Aspand to her husband to carry to me. A sixth sighting took place on the web. Practitioners i have met so far are all Farsi or Dari speaking and are apparently practicing Muslims. They happen to all have been college educated or the siblings or children of college educated men. Two are from Afghanistan, three from Iran. One additional Aspand user whom i encountered on the web is from Tajikistan and is fluent in English. Aspand is sold in Iranian stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, especially the East Bay town of Fremont, which has a large Farsi / Dari speaking population.

DESCRIPTION OF THE ASPAND RITE FROM AN OUTSIDER'S PERSPECTIVE
(MY PERSPECTIVE, BEFORE I ASKED QUESTIONS)

Aspand seeds are dropped on red-hot charcoal, where they make a popping noise and give off a great deal of fragrant smoke. A five-line rhyming spell is chanted and the smoke is swirled around the heads of children in a circular pattern to protect them from evil. "To Aspand" seems to be the usual verb describing the rite.

VARIANTS IN ASPAND HERBAL PRACTICE

The Afghanis i met used Aspand seed straight. The Tajik web site does not mention adding other ingredients either. However, the Iranians added Frankincense and the leaves of an unknown wild Iranian herb to the Aspand seed (the herb is imported from Iran). The Iranian woman was proud of her excellent recipe for blended Aspand. She also showed me how to chew Frankincense as a breath freshener and spiritual cleanser. Except for the additional elements burned by the Iranians, the rite is essentially identical in all cases.

DESCRIPTION OF THE ASPAND RITE BY PARTICIPANTS

The rite consists of an invocatory prayer to a deceased but historical king of Persia known as Naqshband, while burning Aspand seeds. The word Aspand refers to a class of Zoroastrian Archangels. Both sets of my informants, from two nations, explained to me that Naqshband was not a Muslim but a Zoroastrian and that 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, as written out for me in phonetic Dari by the man from Afghanistan:

Aspand bla band
Barakati Shah Naqshband
Jashmi heach jashmi khaish
Jashmi dost wa dooshmani bad andish
Be sosa der hamin atashi taze.
Here is his English translation:
This is Aspand, 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.
See also the Tajikistan page http://members.tripod.com/~khorasan/Miscellaneous/aspand.html where a transliteration of the same invocation from the Tajik language is spelled this way:
Aspand balla band
Ba haq shah-e-naqshband
Chashm-e-aaish chashm-e-khaysh
Chashm-e-adam-e bad andaysh
Besuzad dar atash-e-taiz

HOW DO PARTICIPANTS BELIEVE THAT THIS RITE WORKS?

Afghani man: "We ask for a blessing. The blessing we ask is that of King Naqshband, because he was the one who taught the use of Aspand. 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. You can Aspand yourself or have someone Aspand for you. My wife does it for me and for the children. I do it for her."

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. It is very good to Aspand."

Tajik man: At http://members.tripod.com/~khorasan/Miscellaneous/aspand.html the author, "Khorasan," relates the word Aspand to the Tajik / Dari / Farsi / Persian word for Archangel, Amesha Spenta or Amahraspand. The Archangels or Amahraspandan themselves are listed as

Vohu Mano (Vohuman, Good Mind)
       Presides over cattle.

Asha Vahishta (Ardwahisht, Highest Asha)
       the Amahraspand presiding over Asha and fire.

Khshathra Vairya (Shahrewar, 'Desirable Dominion')
       the Amahraspand presiding over metals.

Spenta Armaiti (Spandarmad, 'Holy Devotion')
       the Amahraspand presiding over the earth.

Haurvatat (Hordad, 'Perfection or Health')
       Presides over water.

There are further notes at the above site describing the Guardian Angels (Fravashis or Frohars) who "manifest the energy of God," and a lengthy list of Angels (Yazads, called Yezidi by some), including the well known Mithra and Ahriman, with their attributes.

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. All the Afghani, Iranian, and Tajik people who use Aspand whom i have interviewed or found via the web assert the sacred character and ancient nature of the rite.

WHAT IS ASPAND AND WHY IS IT SACRED
(AND SPIRITUALLY EFFECTIVE)?

Aspand 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, Aspand 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.

Aspand grows from one to two feet high and prefers a desert environment. It has finely divided leaves and bears small white five-petaled flowers, followed by seed capsules containing many small, brown triangular-conical seeds. In addition to its use in the Aspand ritual, the seeds of the pant are used to make a red dye and are used medicinally to alleviate certain skin diseases.

Aspand 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 Aspand. 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 Aspand smoke -- that these voices take the form of authoritative instructors. Perhaps the Aspand 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 Aspand 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 Aspand seed will tell you that it is NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION, and if you are wise, you will heed that warning.

THE QUESTION OF "SYRIAN" RUE

After some study, i have come to the conclusion that the reason that the European plant called Rue is said to ward off the Evil Eye is that its lobed compound leaves superficially resemble Aspand. The fact that Europeans call Aspand "Syrian Rue" signifies that they see a relationship between the two plants -- but there is no genetic basis for the linkage, as they are in different taxonomic families.

Aspand is a psychoactive and anciently sacred plant from the desert areas of the Middle East and Central Asia, where Evil Eye belief originated; it is my theory that Rue is a European plant without psychoactive properties that looks enough like Aspand that Italians and other Mediterranean people adopted it as a magical substitute, despite the fact that the plants are not related.

CONCLUSION

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. This rite may have led to the Italian custom of utilizing an entirely unrelated plant as an apotropaic charm to ward off the Evil Eye .


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