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ZURVANISM . It is difficult to determine whether veneration of a deity of time and fate, literally a father "time" figure, named Zurvan (Avestan, Zrvan; Pahlavi, Zurwānvariant form, Zamān) developed chronologically or spatially into a distinct religious movement in ancient and medieval Iran that competed with Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism. Nevertheless, Zurvanism is attested in Iranian belief generally, and Zoroastrianism specifically, from at least mid-Achaemenian times (late fifth century bce). By the Sasanian period (224651 ce), Zurvanite theology and mythology seems to have gained substantial followers among the magi or Zoroastrian priests along with Iranian nobles and scholars, possibly exerting influence on doctrines at times when fatalism seemed appropriate. As a monist sect, it possibly was one form of early medieval orthodoxy in southwestern Iran, among other locales. Yet there are no Iranian temples that can be associated specifically with worship of Zurvan. Neither are there images that can be identified clearly as representing Zurvan, not even the leontocephalic, or lion-headed, spirit (later known to be associated with western Mithraism). Nor can any particular rituals be attributed to the ration of Zurvan. The entire performative dimension of religiosity appears to be have been absent in the case of Zurvan.

Sources and Principles

The Persepolis Fortification Tablets (fifth century bce) preserve the theophoric name Izrudukma (*Zru[va]taukhma, "of Zurvan's seed" [2084.4]) as an early reference to the importance of time in ancient Iranian society. Other ancient-to-medieval Iranian and Armenian names like Zrovandukht (daughter of Zurvan), Zarwandād (created or given by Zurvan), and Zrvandasht (preserved by Zurvan) also reflect devotees' association with this deity.

The Zoroastrian scripture, or Abestāg (Avesta; Praise), places only limited emphasis on Zurvan, mentioning him infrequently. One passage in the Young Avesta (composed between 900400 bce, with canonization lasting into the third century bce) notes that after death the souls of the "confused ones and the orderly ones all journey along the road created by Zurvan to the bridge of the compiler created by [Ahura] Mazdā" (Vidēvdād, "Code to Ward Off Evil Spirits," 19.29). Another passage claims that Spenta Mainyu (holy spirit; the hypostasis of Ahura Mazdā), created Manthra Spenta (holy word) in Zurvanthat is, during time (Vidēvdād 19.9). Other Young Avestan references to Zurvan distinguish between Zrvan akarana (infinite or unlimited time) and Zrvan dareghō-khva-dhāta (time of the long dominion) (Vidēvdād 19.13, 19.16; Yasna, "Worship, Sacrifice" 72.10; Sīrōza, "[Invocations for] the Thirty Days of the Month," 1.21, 2.21; Niyāyishn, "Litany," 1.8). In these scriptural passages, Zurvan is associated with a range of divine spirits such as the Amesha Spentas (holy immortals), Daēna (religion, conscience), Rāman (peace), Vayu (wind or air), Thwasha (space), and Tishtrya (Sirius.) However, Zurvan is not presented as a preexisting deity, independent of Ahura Mazdā.

Clearer attestation of Zurvan's independent status comes from the reign of Artaxerxes or Artakhshaçā II (r. 404359/8 bce), through the writing of Theopompos (fl. fourth century bce) as cited by Plutarch (c. 46after 119 ce, where a millenary scheme of timewhen Ohrmazd and Ahreman do battleis the result of actions by a god who having "brought this to pass is quiet and at rest for a time" (Isis and Osiris 47). A few other classical sources, preserved in later redactions, also cite Zurvan. Antiochus I (c. 6934 bce) of Commagene referred to Kronos apeiros (unlimited time) on his Greek inscription at Nimrud Dagh in Anatoliaa document containing allusions to Iranian beliefs syncretized with Hellenistic ones. The broad dates for those documents have led to scholarly suggestions that chronological speculation may have culminated in a time-based cosmogony within the multinational, multireligious empire of the Achaemenians. Doctrinal augmentation could have occurred through confluence of Near Eastern, Greek, Iranian, and Indian notions of cosmic progenitorssuch as Ra, Kronos, Zrvan, and Kāla, respectivelywith the mythological Indo-European primal twins represented in the Old Avestan devotional poems as Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu (Gathas 30.3, 45.2).

Zurvanism and medieval Zoroastrianism

Medieval Zoroastrian theology drew upon the Avesta to describe Zurvan in two forms: as Zurwān ī akanārag (infinite time) and as Zurwān ī dērang khwadāy (time of the long dominion)an epithet shared with Vayu or Wayalternately termed Zurwān ī kanāragōmand or Zurwān ī brīnōmand (finite time). Such was the case in the Greater Bundahishn ([Book of] primal creation) (especially 3.14on which see figure 1, Codex TD1 folio 14 verso, the oldest extant manuscript copy dating to 1531 ce, lines 23and 3.6, 26.31), a text whose redactions spanned the Sassanian Empire and the Umayyad (661750 ce) and Abbasid (7501258 ce) caliphates.

In those forms, Zurvanite ideas are present in the Mēnōg ī Khrad (Spirit of wisdom), a Pahlavi or Middle Persian exegetical text from the sixth century ce, where Ahura Mazdā is said to have created the universe with the "blessing of infinite time," who is "infinite, ageless, undying, painless, unfeeling, incorruptible, and unassailable" (8.8, 8.9). Moreover, Zurvan was equated to Vayu as a weapon of Ahura Mazdā against falsehood (Greater Bundahishn 26.34).

In the ninth century ce, Zurvan was associated by Zoroastrians with the divine spirits Rām (peace), Spihr (sky), Māh (moon), and Gōsh (cow) in assisting the Amesha Spenta named Vohu Manah (Wahman; "good mind"; Greater Bundahishn 3.14). Likewise, the Wizīdagīhā (Selections) of Zādspram, a ninth-century ce hērbed (theologian) living at Sirkan, presented Ahura Mazdā's creative power as linked to Zurvan, who determines the course of the cosmic conflict between order and confusion (1.2728, 2.19, 34.35). So, ultimately, these medieval sources do not clarify the degree of Zurvan's independence, in theology and ritual, from a Zoroastrian pantheon headed by Ahura Mazdā. However, even when not adopting an extreme monism of Zurvan with its ascription of the origin of all other entities to the actions of time, medieval Zoroastrianism in most sectarian forms employed a millenarian system of two, eternal, dualistic spirits in conflict during time (compare the standard account of cosmogony in the Greater Bundahishn 1.11a.14).

Christian and Muslim sources

Perhaps because of tensions within Zoroastrianism of reconciling Ahura Mazdā and Zurvan as progenitor spirits, the major extant textual

sources for Zurvanism are those by Christian and Muslim writers. Armenian Christian authors who mentioned the Zurvanite creation myth include Eznik of Kołb (fl. fifth century ce) and Ełishē Vardapet (d. 480 ce). There are Syriac accounts, such as those by the Arab Christian bishop Theodore Abū Qurra (c. 740820 ce), Theodore bar Kōnai (fl. ninth century ce), and the Nestorian monk Yohannān bar Penkayē (fl. c. seventh to ninth century ce). The Syriac documents mention divinities named Ashōqar, Frashōqar, and Zarōqarwhose names derive from Iranian wordsas existing alongside Zurvan. All of the above-named writers may have utilized a common source, a work by the Cappadocian bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350428/9 ce), in addition to drawing upon each others' writings when possible. Syriac martyrologies of Nestorians, such as that of a woman named Anāhīd (d. c. 446 ce), mention portions of Zurvanite theology as well.

According to extant versions of the Zurvanite creation myth, as preserved by these authors, Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazdā, variously rendered as Ohrmizd, Ormizd, Hormizd, and Hormuz in the documents of Zurvanism) was conceived as the result of a rite that Zurvan had performed for a millennium to be granted a son who could create the universe. Ahreman (often written in those same sources as Ahriman, Ahrimen, Ahrman, Arhmn) was conceived unexpectedly, though not surprisingly within the ritual context, because Zurvan had doubted the efficacy of his devotive actions. Realizing that his wife would give birth to twins, Zurvan supposedly decided that the firstborn would rule the universe. Ahreman, upon learning of Zurvan's decision from a rather naïve Ohrmazd, ripped his way out of the womb and demanded his birthright. Zurvan, repulsed by this son's vileness, sought to restrict the evil twin's power by establishing a finite period of nine thousand years during which Ahreman would be in charge. Zurvan deemed that thereafter, his other son, Ohrmazd, would gain absolute power and appropriately determine the trajectory of events. Having set into motion the cosmic cycle and predetermined its outcome, Zurvan's relevance largely ended. No mention was made specifically of the origins of time or its female spouse, nor of the recipient of ritual, perhaps because it was assumed both that time in all its facets was eternal and that ritual could occur either for its own sake without a recipient or be directed at the performer.

Interestingly, a ninth-century ce Zoroastrian denunciation of this story is found in the Dēnkard (Acts of the religion; 9.30.45), where it is attributed to "the ranting of the demon Arashka" (Arashk or Areshk, "envy"). More important, Mardānfarrokh, the son of Ohrmazddād (fl. ninth century ce), author of the Shkand Gumānīg Wizār (Doubt dispelling exposition), condemned persons who subscribed to doctrines of time, referring to them as Daharī (6.23). This classification probably reflects a confluence of Islamic and Zoroastrian thought, because the Dahriyya (from the Arabic dahr, "time") were regarded as a heterodox sect by Sunni Muslims as well. The text of the critique itself preserves a variant of Zurvanite cosmogony. Even later, Iranian heresiographer Abū ʾl-Fat Muammad al-Shahrastānī (d. 1153 ce) would categorize the Zurwāniyya as a specific sect.

Function of the Zurvanite myth

Mardānfarrokh's and Shahrastānī's comments reveal the central function of Zurvan for certain ancient and medieval Zoroastrians. It appears Zurvanism's teachings sought to reconcile the origins and functions of the dualism between Zoroastrianism's chief divinity Ahura Mazdā and chief demon Angra Mainyu through an entity whose actions created both. Zurvanism thus seems to have served as a theological and philosophical means of speculating about the origins, functions, and effects of the passage of time, the role of fate, the nature of duality, and the dilemmas of human existence within religiously constructed chronological frameworks. In other words, the Zurvanite myth provided those persons who accepted it with an explanation of how and why cosmogony occurred, stressing the roles of time as both medium and framework for creation. It proffered a theological explanation for the origins, purposes, interrelatedness, and interdependence of good and evil (Ohrmazd and Ahreman) and of their functions within human and cosmic frameworks of time. It also focused attention on the importance of performing rituals properly, for the case of Zurvan implied that if any aspect of a ritethought, word, or deeddeviated, pandemonium could occur. Ultimately, the creation story would have been an attempt to overcomethrough common origins, interrelated functions, and shared destinies that were linked and mediated by timedilemmas posed by the creativeness and destructiveness ascribed in Zoroastrianism to spiritual forces and by the effects of those on human lives.

Manichaeism and Mandaeism

Other Iranian faiths also experienced the effect of time as a doctrinal force. Manichaeism drew upon Iranian beliefs in Zurvan, postulating a high god variously named Zurwān, Pidar Rōshn (Father of Light), and Pidar ī Wuzurgīh (Father of Greatness), who was "righteous" and dwelled "among the lights" (M 10R 11). Manichaeans believed that Zurvan was forced into conflict by an attacking Ahrimen and had created Ohrmizd to battle against the evil spirit but that the counteroffensive failed to stop evil at the beginning of time. As a result, life and death occur, Manichaeans had to strive toward purification of their spirits, and purity would set the stage for the final days of humanity. Manichaeism taught that eventually, and having enjoyed the assistance of devotees over the centuries, Zurvan would defeat Ahriman and purify all aspects of spirit or light from matter or darkness at the end of time (M 473, M 475, M 477, M 482, M 472, M 470). Likewise, Mandaean belief regarding the origins of both the good spirit and the evil spirit from a singular source, Pirā Rabbā, may bear an echo of Zurvanism. Both Manichaeism and Mandaeism may have assimilated aspects of Zurvanism through intercommunal contacts within southern and western Iran and in Iraq during the early Middle Ages.


Zurvanism's waning in Zoroastrianism is evidenced by very gradual omission of Zurvanite ideas in the writings of magi after the thirteenth century, perhaps because social turmoil created by the Mongol conquests facilitated the slow spread among the Zoroastrian minority of starker dualist ideas. The Muslim population of Iran, by then an absolute demographic majority, had little theological need for a figure such as Zurvan, because all aspects of life could be reconciled with the attributes of its monotheistic deity Allah. So entrenched was the notion of time as a creator spirit that doctrinal change appears to have been slow. Even texts contained in the Revāyats (Treatises)compiled by Iranian magi for their counterparts in India from 1478 to 1773while referring to time in the more generic sense of zamān, which had preceded corporeal creation and in which the material universe exists (ʿUlamā ʾ-e Islām, 2, pp. 7280), also preserves the idea that "Zamān is the creator. It created fire and water; once these combined, Ohrmazd came into existence" and goes on to echo the Zurvanite creation story (ʿUlamā ʾ-e Islām, 2, pp. 8081). When the Gujarati Rehbar-e Din-e Jarthushti (Guide to the Zoroastrian religion) was composed by dastur Erachji Sohrabji Meherjirana in 1869 at Bombay (later Mumbai) in India, time had faded in importance. As veneration of time lapsed, Ahura Mazdā begun to emerge in Zoroastrian beliefespecially under colonial, Christian, influences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuriesas a monotheistic god par excellence, the creator of all other spiritual entities, whether evil ones like Angra Mainyu or aloof ones like Zurvan.

See Also



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Boyce, Mary. "Some Reflections on Zurvanism." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 19 (1957): 304316.

Boyce, Mary. "Some Further Reflections on Zurvanism." In Iranica Varia: Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 2029. Leiden, 1990.

Boyce, Mary, et al. A History of Zoroastrianism. 3 vols. to date. Leiden, 19751991.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Doctrinal Variation within Zoroastrianism: The Notion of Dualism." In K. R. Cama Oriental Institute: Second International Congress Proceedings, pp. 96110. Bombay, 1996.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Zurvan." In Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, edited by G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar, p. 757. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.

Christensen, Arthur. L'Iran sous les Sassanides. 2d ed. Copenhagen, 1944.

Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. "Notes on Zervanism in the Light of Zaehner's Zurvan, with Additional References." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 15 (1956): 106112.

Frye, Richard N. "Zurvanism Again." Harvard Theological Review 52 (1959): 6373.

Gnoli, Gherardo. "L'évolution du dualisme iranien et le problème zurvanite." Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 201 (1984): 115138.

Gray, Louis H. The Foundations of the Iranian Religions. Bombay, 1929.

Menasce, Jean de. "Reflexions sur Zurvān." In A Locust's Leg: Studies in Honour of S. H. Taqizadeh, edited by W. B. Henning and Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 182188. London, 1962.

Molé, Marijan. "Le problème zurvanite." Journal asiatique 247 (1959): 431469.

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Shaked, Shaul. Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran. London, 1994.

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Zaehner, Robert C. Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma. Oxford, 1955; reprint, New York, 1972.

Jamsheed K. Choksy (2005)