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Iranian Religions


IRANIAN RELIGIONS . Because of the scarce and fragmented data in our possession, we do not know the religions of ancient Iran, other than Zoroastrianism, as organic systems endowed with a specific pantheon, a mythology, particular creeds, cosmogonic and cosmological ideas, and precise eschatological notions. We can postulate the existence of other religions only through a careful analysis of those elements contained within Zoroastrianism that can be linked to a pre-Zoroastrian paganism and through an Indo-Iranian comparison. That is to say, we have no sources, other than the Zoroastrian, for any Iranian religion. Some scholars have viewed as testimony of a non-Zoroastrian cult those few religious references found in the royal Achaemenid inscriptions (sixth to fourth century bce), as well as Herodotus's mention of "the Persian religion" (1.131132), although, as is well known, Herodotus never refers to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster). Given these meager materials, we cannot be sure that the cults referred to were not affected in some way or at some time by the Zoroastrian "reform." In fact, it is probably most prudent to consider the religion of the Achaemenidswhose inscriptions also never mention Zarathushtraas belonging to the Zoroastrian tradition and as a stage in its troubled and complex historical development.

Having said this, it is nonetheless possible to reconstruct a few essential elements of ancient Iranian religions through traces of ideas and beliefs that appear to be independent of the Zoroastrian tradition. Some of these are completely original, but most are held in common with ancient, especially Vedic, India. Such elements pertain mainly to rituals, the pantheon, concepts of death and the afterlife, and cos-mology.

Rituals included libations (zaothra), offered both to pas ("water") and to tar ("fire"). The latter was called Agni by the Indians. The libations offered to water were a blend of three ingredients: milk and the juice or leaves of two plants. Those offered to fire were also a blend of three ingredients: dry fuel, incense, and animal fat. In both the libations to water and fire, called āb-zōhr and ātakhsh-zōhr in late Zoroastrian literature, we find the symbolism of the number three, which also occurs in a number of Brahmanic practices, as well as the blending of ingredients from the animal and vegetable worlds.

These offerings to water and fire, typical of a daily and familiar ritual, were also at the heart of the priestly ritual called the Yasna by the Iranians and Yajña by the Indians, from the root yaz ("sacrifice, worship"). Animal sacrifice was certainly practiced in the oldest Yasna and was accompanied by prayers that made it sacred and justified it as a religious act through which the spirits of the household animals being sacrificed became absorbed into a divine entity called Gēush Urvan, the "soul of the bull." Herbs also played an important role in the Yasna, and the priest who carried out the sacrifice held a bundle of herbs in his left hand, called a baresman by the Iranians. In time the bundle of herbs was discarded in favor of a bundle of consecrated twigs.

Undoubtedly, haoma (soma in India) constituted a central element in the cult. The offering made to the waters at the conclusion of the Yasna was prepared by blending milk, the leaves of a plant, and the juice squeezed from the stems of a different plant. The substance's name, haoma, applied to both the sacrificial matter and its yazata, that is, the "being worthy of worship," or deity, whom it represented. Haoma, which was endowed with hallucinogenic and stimulating properties and was seen as a source of strength for warriors, inspiration for poets, and wisdom for priests, was extracted in a stone mortar during a preparatory ritual, after which the consecrated substance was consumed by the priests and by those taking part in the ceremony.

The premises, the instruments, and the ingredients for the ceremony were purified with water in a meticulous and careful way. Purifying and disinfectant properties were also attributed to cattle urine (gōmez), a substance that played an important role in the Zoroastrian ritual of the Great Purification, Bareshnūm, as well as in the initiation of priests and corpse bearers, in accordance with practices and notions that were certainly Indo-Iranian in origin.

Libations offered to water and fire, essential components in the ceremonial aspects of the cult, cannot be understood without an awareness of the complex symbolism linked to those two elements, both in Zoroastrian and pre-Zoroastrian Iran, as well as in ancient India. The Indo-Iranian background is particularly evident in the symbolism of fire: in the three ritual fires and in the five natural fires found in Iranian and Indian thought. We can trace the concept of the three fires, those of priests, warriors, and farmers, as well as the concept of five fires burning before Ahura Mazdā, in the bodies of men, animals, plants, clouds, and the earth, respectively, to the Indo-Iranian background. Two yazatas, Apam Napāt ("grandson [or son] of waters") and Nairyōsanha ("of manly utterance"), are linked to fire and have Indian counterparts in Apā Napāt and Narāśasā, an epithet for Agni, whose name also belongs to a different god in the Vedas.

Concerning the pantheon, an Indo-Iranian comparison provides considerable help in reconstructing the pre-Zoroastrian religious environment in Iran. There are many divine entities that derive from a common cultural heritage, although they do, at times, present significant differences. Particularly important in such comparisons is the section of the Avesta known as the Yashts, or hymns to the various yazata s, which mostly perpetuate the worship of gods from an ancient, pre-Zoroastrian cult through a veil of Zoroastrianization after the fact. Worthy of mention, in addition to the cult gods Āpas, Ātar, Gēush Urvan, and Haoma, are the nature gods, such as Asman ("heaven"), Zam ("earth"), Hvar ("sun"), Māh ("moon"), and the two winds, Vāta and Vāyu. A juxtaposition with the Vedic religion clarifies many aspects of an ancient theology dating back to a period that we can definitely call proto-Indo-Iranian. According to some scholars, a few of these divine beings, as well as others well known to the Zoroastrian tradition, such as Zrvan (Zurwān) and Mithra, were originally high gods of Iranian religions other than the Zoroastrian and were thus in competition with Ahura Mazdā, the creator god of Zoroastrianism. Apart from a few specific details in the theories propounded by various scholars (H. S. Nyberg, Stig Wikander, Geo Widengren), and apart from the complex question of the so-called Zurvanist heresy, it is hard not to recognize a certain degree of verisimilitude in their reconstructions, as we find embedded in the Zoroastrian tradition, and not only in the Yashts, clear traces of a plurality of heterogeneous elements gradually absorbed and modified.

The Iranian pantheon, like the Indian, was subdivided into two main groups of divine beings, ahura s and daiva s, although there exists sufficient evidence to hold that in Iran the latter word at one time indicated the gods in general. This can be inferred from the Avestan expression daēva/mashya, analogous to the Vedic deva/martya, to which correspond the Greek theoi/andres (anthrōpoi) and the Latin dii/hominesque, all of which mean "gods and men." Daiva s, as gods of an ancient polytheism condemned by Zarathushtra, acquired negative connotations only with the Zoroastrian reform. This happened also with some of the Indo-Iranian gods, such as Indra, Saurva (Śarva in India), and Nānhaithya (Nāsatya in India). The term ahura ("lord"; asura in India), on the other hand, maintained its positive connotations and became part of the name of the supreme god of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazdā, as well as being attached to the name of some of the ancient gods from the Indo-Iranian pantheon, such as Mithra (Mitra in India) and Apąm Napāt.

We are not able to establish whether, behind the image of Ahura Mazdā, which was probably created by Zarathushtra himself, there lies the Vedic Indian god Varua or an Indo-Iranian god named Ahura or Asura. This problem, however, is not critical, for even if Zarathushtra's god were a sublimation of the ancient Varua by the Iranian prophet's great religious reform, Varua would certainly have already attained a higher status than that of other gods, such as Mitra or the other sovereign gods of the Indo-Iranian pantheon (Dumézil, 19681973).

If the Iranian Mithra corresponds to the weaker Indian Mitra, then Anāhitā, the other great divine being of the triad mentioned in the Achaemenid inscriptions, corresponds to the Indian Sarasvatī, through the Avestan Aredvī Sūrā Anāhitā. The latter, however, presents some very complex problems. Most likely, this ancient Indo-Iranian goddess was subject at an early date to the influence of religious concepts belonging to the Anarian substratum of the Iranian world. Even Herodotus (1.131), speaks of an "Assyrian" and an "Arabian" origin of the great goddess, who certainly shows traits typical of the Great Goddess of the most ancient settled civilizations of the Near and Middle East. In fact, in attempting to reconstruct Iranian religions other than Zoroastrianism, one must rely heavily on elements obtained through an investigation of the Indo-Iranian background. One must, however, try to ascertain, with the help of archaeological findings, what part was played by the Anarian substratum, from the Elam civilization to the so-called Helmand civilization, which came to light in the 1960s during excavations at Shahr-i Sokhta, in Iranian Seistan. A thorough investigation into more recent times is also necessary in order to see whether there are to be found, among the religions of the Hindu Kush, between Nuristan and Dardistan, any fossilized remains of ancient proto-Indo-Aryan religions (Jettmar, 1975; Tucci, 1977).

An Indo-Iranian comparison also provides many other elements pertaining to the pantheon, as well as mythical figures and epos. The latter has been the object of particularly detailed study in recent decades (Dumézil, 1968-1973; Wikander, 1949-1950; Molé, 1953). In this context, we find cast in a leading role the Iranian god Verethraghna, whose Indian name, Vtrahan ("slayer of the dragon Vtra"), is an epithet of the god Indra. Behind the sacred figure of Verethraghna, who represented victory in the Zoroastrian tradition, was, most likely, the idea of overcoming an obstacle to the activity of the cosmos, which is manifest through the flow of waters.

In the cosmogony of pre-Zoroastrian Iran, we find signs of a myth of separation of heaven and earth, in which the figure of Vāyu, the god of wind and of the atmosphere, the intermediate zone, must have played an important role. It is likely also that the doctrine of seven consecutive creations, of the sky, of water, earth, vegetation, animal life, man, and fire, which we find in late sources, in fact dates from very ancient times.

Essential elements are also provided by an Indo-Iranian comparison in matters pertaining to cosmology. Both Iranians and Indians believed that the world was divided into seven regions, whose Avestan name was karshvar (Pahl., kēshwar; Skt., dvīpa ), and that it was surrounded by a mountain range. The central region was called Khvaniratha in Iran and Jambūdvīpa in India, and at its center was a high mountain, called Mount Harā in Iran and Meru or Sumeru in India. South of the mountain was the Tree of All Seeds, just as, in Indian cosmography, we find the Jambū Tree south of Mount Meru. The Tree of All Seeds was thought to be at the center of the great sea Vourukasha, to the south of the mountain standing at the center of the world, also called, in Avestan, Hukairya ("of good activity") or, in Pahlavi, Hukar and Cagād i Dāidīg ("the lawful summit").

The views of death and of the afterlife in the most ancient Iranian religions, before the Zoroastrian reform, seem to have included the survival of the soul (urvan). After wandering around the earth for three days, the soul was thought to enter a gray existence in a subterranean world of shadows, ruled by Yima, the first king, or king of the Golden Age, and the first man ever to have died. (The figure of Yima seems to correspond, although not without some question, to the Indian Yama.) There also appears to have been a notion of survival of a sort of "double" of the soul, the fravashi, linked to a concept of immortality typical of an aristocratic and warrior society, in which were present the values of the Indo-Iranian Männerbund (Wikander, 1983). There was, as well, the idea of a terrible trial to be overcome by the dead man's spirit: the crossing of Chinvat Bridge, a bridge that could become wider or narrower, to the width of a razor's edge, depending on whether the dead man had been just (ashavan) or evil (dregvant). There was probably a test, analogous to this trial after death, used in initiation rites (Nyberg, 1966).

Traces of a common concept of initiation can be found in both Iran and India. It is related to the basic Indo-Iranian religious idea of asha (in the Avesta) or ta (in the Vedas), which remained central even in Zarathushtra's reform, although modified by partly new and different aspects. If we compare the Indian and the Iranian ideas, we can see clearly that a vision of asha (or of the sun, which, in turn, is the visible manifestation of the Vedic ta ), was considered by both as a step in the spiritual fulfillment of the believer, who thus became ashavan (Av.; OPers., artāvan ), that is, a participant in the supreme state of possessing asha/ta. In fact, the Indo-Iranian concept, which the Zoroastrian tradition transformed into one of the Amesha Spentas, contained various positive meanings, from that of truth (its exact translation) to that of a cosmic, ritual, and moral order. The Iranian ashavan (Pahl., ahlaw/ardā[y] ) and the Indian tāvan stood, although with different shades of meaning, for "the initiate" and, more generally, for those who, alive or dead, would succeed in penetrating a dimension of being or existence different from the norm.

The idea of the need for an initiation in order to achieve the supreme state of asha/ta, held in common by the ancient Indo-Iranian world and by what we may call "Aryan mysticism" (Kuiper, 1964), was also linked to the experience of illumination and of the mystic light. The blessed state of asha manifests itself through light (Yasna 30.1), and asha is to be found in "solar dwellings" (Yasna 53.4, 32.2, 43.16). The initiate is, then, first of all a "seer," one who has access to the mysteries of the otherworld and who can contemplate a luminous epiphany.

The experience of a mystical light and a complex symbolism connecting spirit, light, and seed form part of a common Indo-Iranian heritage and constitute, therefore, specific elements of an ancient Iranian religion that precedes Zarathushtra's reform. It may not be pure coincidence that we find in the Gāthās no mention by Zarathushtra himself of the concept of khvarenah ("splendor"), which was a notable aspect of Iranian religious thinking; yet we see it becoming part of the Zoroastrian tradition, as, for example, in Yashts 19. Khvarenah is a luminous and irradiating force, a sort of igneous and solar fluid (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1962), that is found, mythologically, in water, in haoma, and (according to an anthropological concept found in the Pahlavi tradition) in semen.

Khvarenah is an attribute of Mithra, of royalty, of divine and heroic figures belonging to a national and religious tradition, of Yima, of Zarathushtra, and of the Saoshyant; it does not have an exact Indian counterpart but is found in a context that, both literally and in terms of mythological structure, is strictly analogous to the Indian. In the Indian tradition, we find concepts concerning lightits splendor, its activity, its energy, and its effectssuch as ojas (Av., aojah ), varcas (Av., varecah ), and tejas, meaning, respectively, "strength," "energy," and "splendor," concepts that closely resemble some in Iranian anthropology. The same adjective is used to describe "splendor" in both Iran and India: ughra (Av.) and ugra (Skt.), meaning "strong."

The Iranian religions other than Zoroastrianism, can, as we have seen, be partially reconstructed, not as organic systems, but rather in some of their particular and characteristic elements: cult and pantheon, cosmogony and cosmology, individual eschatology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as a concept of the experience of initiation substantially common to the entire ancient Indo-Iranian world. Such a common heritage was handed down in ancient Iran by schools of sacred poetry, which left their mark both on Zarathushtra's Gāthās and on the Yashts of the Younger Avesta.

See Also

Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu; Ahuras; Anahita; Chinvat Bridge; Cosmology, articles on Hindu Cosmology, Jain Cosmology; Daivas; Fravashis; Haoma; Indo-European Religions; Khvarenah; Magi; Mani; Manichaeism; Mazdakism; Mithraism; Saoshyant; Yazatas.


Preeminent among general reference works on Iranian religions is H. S. Nyberg's important Irans forntida religioner (Stockholm, 1937), translated by Hans H. Schaeder as Die Religionen des alten Iran (1938); 2d ed., Osnabrück, 1966. Among other invaluable references are Geo Widengren's Stand und Aufgaben der iranischen Religionsgeschichte (Leiden, 1955); Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin's La religion de l'Iran ancien (Paris, 1962), translated as Religion of Ancient Iran (Bombay, 1973); Geo Widengren's Die Religionen Irans (Stuttgart, 1965), translated as Les religions de l'Iran (Paris, 1968); and Mary Boyce's A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1 (Leiden, 1975).

On particular aspects of Iranian religions, the following works are recommended. On ceremonials, see Mary Boyce's "Ātaš-Zōhr and Āb-Zōhr," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1966): 100118. For a discussion of the Iranian pantheon and an Indo-Iranian comparison, see Émile Benveniste and Louis Renou's Vtra et Vthragna (Paris, 1934) and Stig Wikander's Vayu (Uppsala, 1941). On epos, see Stig Wikander's "Sur le fonds commun indo-iranien des épopées de la Perse et de l'Inde," La nouvelle Clio 12 (19491950): 310329; Marijan Molé's "L'épopée iranienne après Firdōsī," La nouvelle Clio (1953): 377393; Georges Dumézil's Mythe et épopée, 3 vols. (Paris, 19681973); and Prods Oktor Skjærvø, "Eastern Iranian Epic Traditions II: Rostam and Bhīsma," Acta Orientatia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 51 (1988): 159170. On the religions of the Hindu Kush, see Karl Jettmar's Die Religionen des Hindukush (Stuttgart, 1975) and Giuseppe Tucci's "On Swāt: The Dards and Connected Problems," East and West, n. s. 27 (1977): 9103.

For discussion of the common Indo-European background of some concepts of the most ancient cosmography, see G. M. Bongard-Levin and E. A. Grantovskij's De la Scythie à l'Inde: Énigmes de l'histoire des anciens Aryens, translated by Philippe Gignoux (Paris, 1981). On the concept of the Iranian Männerbund, see Stig Wikander's Der arische Männerbund (Lund, 1983) and my "Antico-persiano anušya- e gli immortali di Erodoto," in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne, vol. 1, "Acta Iranica," no. 21 (Leiden, 1981), pp. 266280. For discussion of the concept of asha and Aryan mysticism, see F. B. J. Kuiper's "The Bliss of Aša," Indo-Iranian Journal 8 (1964): 96129.

On initiation, see Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin's "L'initiation mazdéenne," in Initiation: Contributions to the Theme edited by C. Jouco Bleeker (Leiden, 1965), pp. 112118, and on the common Indo-Iranian background of initiation through possessing asha and the experience of light, see, in particular, my "Ašavan: Contributo allo studio del libro di Ardā Wirāz," in Iranica, edited by me and Adriano V. Rossi (Naples, 1979), pp. 387452. See also Andrea Piras, "Visio Avestica, I: Prolegomena à l'étude des processus visuels dans l'Iran ancien," Studia Iranica 27 (1988): 163185.

For comparison of the Indo-Iranian notions of ojas/aojah, varcas/varecah, and so on, see Jan Gonda's Ancient-Indian 'ojas', Latin '*augos', and the Indo-Iranian Nouns in -es/-os (Utrecht, 1952), pp. 5767, and my "Licht-Symbolik in Alt-Iran," Antaios 8 (1967): 528549. On the ancient Iranian tradition of sacred poetry, which was Indo-Iranian (and, more generally, Indo-European) in origin, see the various contributions by J. Wackernagel, Hans H. Schaeder, and Paul Thieme to In-dogermanische Dichtersprache, "Wege der Forschung," vol. 165, edited by R. Schmitt (Darmstadt, 1968).

Gherardo Gnoli (1987)

Translated from Italian by Ughetta Fitzgerald Lubin

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