Persian Mythology

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Persian Mythology

Persian Mythology in Context

Persian mythology developed in what is now Iran around 1500 bce. About a thousand years later, a religion known as Zoroastrianism (pronounced zor-oh-AS-tree-uhn-iz-m) emerged in the region. It held on to many of the earlier beliefs but added new themes, gods, and myths. The result was a mythology based on a vision of grand-scale conflict between good and evil.

The roots of Persian mythology lie in the steppes—grass-covered plains—of southern Russia and Central Asia. Between 1500 and 1000 bce, Indo-European peoples migrated south from the steppes into the regions now known as Turkey, Iran, and northern India. Those who settled in Iran became the Persians. Their mythology had much in common with that of the early Hindus and probably developed from a common source. In time, the Persians also absorbed influences from an area called Mesopotamia (pronounced mess-uh-puh-TAY-mee-uh) on their western border.

A religious leader named Zoroaster (pronounced ZOR-oh-as-tur; probably born around 628 bce), founded the faith that was most popular in Persia until the arrival of Islam in the 600s ce. The best information about Persian mythology comes from Zoroastrianism's sacred book, the Zend-Avesta or Avesta. Much of the original Zend-Avesta was lost after Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 334 bce. What survives is a set of writings gathered and arranged between 200 and 600 ce. One section, the Gathas, consists of songs believed to have been composed by Zoroaster. Much mythological material can be found in another section containing Yashts, hymns addressed to angels and heroes.

Core Deities and Characters

The driving forces of Persian mythology were two powerful gods, sometimes presented as twin brothers: Ahura Mazda (pronounced ah-HOO-ruh MAHZ-duh), the creator god of light, truth, and goodness; and his enemy Ahriman (pronounced AH-ri-muhn), the spirit of darkness, lies, and evil who created only destructive things, such as vermin, disease, and demons. The world was their battlefield, and, although they were equally matched during this period of history, Ahura Mazda was fated to win the fight. For this reason, Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, was the most important deity or god of Persian mythology. The Zoroastrians identified him with fire , and tended fires on towers as part of their worship.

The ancient Persian pantheon—collection of recognized gods—also included Mithras (pronounced MITH-rahs), a god associated with war, the sun , and law and order. Anahita (pronounced ah-nuh-HEE-tuh) was a goddess of water and fertility. Bahram, a god of war and victory, appeared on earth in ten forms: as wind, a bull, a horse, a camel, a boar, a youth, a raven, a ram, a buck, and a man. Zoroaster reduced the role of these and other traditional deities and emphasized Ahura Mazda as the supreme god. Religious scholars see this move as an early step toward monotheism, or the belief in a single, powerful god. However, Ahura Mazda was said to have created seven archangels, called the Amesha Spentas, who represented truth, power, immortality (ability to live forever), and other aspects of his being. These archangels may have taken over some features of the pre-Zoroastrian gods.

Perhaps influenced by stargazing Babylonian (pronounced bab-uh-LOH-nee-uhn) astronomers, the ancient Persians associated some of their deities with the stars. The star Sirius (pronounced SEER-ee-uhs) represented the rain god Tishtrya, whose main role was to battle Apausha, an evil star of drought. Tishtrya, in the form of a white stallion, and Apausha, in the form of a hideous black horse, fought for three days. Then with Ahura Mazda's help, Tishtrya defeated Apausha. Tishtrya and other star gods who protected agriculture also took charge of battling meteors, or shooting stars, which the Persians believed to be witches.

Heroes and kings also figured in Persian myth and legend. The hero Thraetaona battled Azhi Dahaka, a three-headed demon controlled by Ahriman. When Thraetaona stabbed the demon in the chest, snakes and lizards poured from the wound. To prevent the demon from poisoning the world, Thraetaona locked him inside a mountain where he will remain until the world comes to an end. At that time Azhi Dahaka will break free, but another hero, Keresaspa, will kill him.

The legendary King Bahram Gur appeared often in poems and tales as the inventor of poetry and as a mighty hunter. The greatest hero was the warrior Rustum, whose adventures appear in the epic Shah Namah (Book of Kings), written by the poet Firdawsi around 1010 ce.

Major Myths

Ahura Mazda made the world. Creation began when he cast a beam of his pure light into the empty void between him and Ahriman, who had attacked him. Ahura Mazda uttered a prayer that silenced Ahriman for three thousand years. Ahura Mazda created the Amesha Spentas, or archangels, and the Yazatas (pronounced yah-ZAH-tuhz), divine beings. His final creation was Gayomart, the first man. Ahriman then awoke and began his evil work, sending a female demon to make Gayomart sicken and die.

Gayomart's body became the silver and gold in the earth, and in death he fertilized the ground so that a plant grew and became a man and a woman. These two people, Masha and Mashyoi, were the parents of the human race. Ahriman deceived them into thinking that he was their creator, and when they repeated this lie, evil and suffering entered the world. Zoroastrians believed that after three thousand years, Zoroaster came into the world to break Ahriman's hold, leaving the two powers to fight into the future.

The legend of Rustum shows the part human heroes play in the great drama of good and evil. Rustum was so strong and brave that the king made him head of the army. Then the White Demon seized the king, and Rustum set out to rescue him. In the course of his travels, Rustum encountered a lion, a desert, a dragon, a demoness, and a demon army. He overcame all these obstacles with the help of his faithful horse Ruksh and a warrior named Aulad, whom he defeated in combat and who then became an ally. Rustum's adventure ended in a cave, the lair of the White Demon, where Rustum tore out the demon's heart.

Death in Persian mythology involved a journey into the afterlife. The soul of the dead person had to cross a bridge called Chinvat. Good souls found the bridge to be a wide and comfortable beam leading to heaven. For the wicked, it was a razor-sharp blade from which they fell headlong into hell.

Zoroastrianism was one of the first belief systems to include a vision of the end of the world. It would be signaled by the appearance of three saviors, sons of Zoroaster. Upon the arrival of Hushedar, the first savior, the sun would stand still for ten days, and people would stop eating meat. When Hushedar-mar, the second savior, appeared, the sun would halt for twenty days, and people would stop drinking milk. Just as the world neared a state of purity, however, the evil demon Azhi Dahaka would break free from his mountain prison. Only after he had been killed would Soshyant, the third savior, arrive. People would stop eating plants and live only on water, and each soldier of good would fight and defeat a particular evil enemy. Then the world would be enveloped in fire and molten metal for three days. Everyone who has ever lived would return to life to cross the fire, but only the wicked would suffer from the heat. This final judgment would purge sin and evil from the world, leaving an innocent human race in a cleansed world to worship Ahura Mazda.

Key Themes and Symbols

The main theme of Persian mythology was the battle between good and evil. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were not the only ones involved. Hosts of Yazatas and good spirits {ashavans) fought on Ahura Mazda's side. Ahriman headed an army of evil spirits known as dregvants, and demons called devas (pronounced DAY-vuhz). Humans took part in the conflict as well. Each person had to choose whether to follow the truth or the lie. Plants, animals, and other things could be good or evil, depending on whether Ahura Mazda or Ahriman created and controlled them. This theme is also shown in the story of the hero Rustum, and in the final battle between Azhi Dahaka and the sons of Zoroaster.

Another theme found in Persian mythology is judgment in the afterlife. This is shown in the idea of the Chinvat bridge, where people are judged according to their deeds while living, and are either rewarded or punished based on those deeds. This theme also plays a critical role in the final judgment that takes place after Azhi Dahaka is defeated: only those with pure spirits would be reborn into the world, while impure souls would burn in fire.

Persian Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Persian religion and mythology had a far-reaching influence. Historians of mythology think that certain beliefs in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths probably grew out of Persian traditions. The tendency of Zoroastrianism toward monotheism—the belief in one god—may also have helped shape those faiths.

Unlike some ancient belief systems, Persian mythology remains alive outside the covers of old books. It has survived continuously for thousands of years, and isolated groups of Iranians still worship Ahura Mazda. Other Zoroastrian communities exist in India, where the descendants of immigrants from Iran are known as Parsis or Parsees, a reference to their Persian origin.

As the most important god in Persian mythology, Ahura Mazda was well-represented in ancient art, and many stone reliefs and statues of the god have been found at ancient Persian sites. But as the religion became less popular over the centuries, depictions of Ahura Mazda also became less abundant. Recently, however, Ahura Mazda has seen new life as a character in comic books. Notable appearances include the long-running DC Comics series Wonder Woman, and the miniseries Dawn: Lucifer's Halo by Joseph Michael Linsner (1999). Similarly, Ahriman has appeared several times in the Final Fantasy video game series as an enemy to be fought by the player. In the series, he takes the names Ahriman and Angra Mainyu, and is usually depicted as a winged monster with a single eye. Ahriman has also appeared as a demon in the DC Comics series Wonder Woman.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Much of Persian mythology is based on the idea of a good or positive force battling an evil force for control of humankind. This theme is one of the most enduring in all of modern storytelling. List three different examples of this theme that you have encountered in books you have read or movies you have seen. They can be based on true stories or they can be fictional. Are there similarities between the way the various “good sides” are depicted? How about the “evil sides” and their depictions? Are there any important differences?

SEE ALSO Ahriman; Ahura Mazda; Angels