Persian Religion, Ancient
PERSIAN RELIGION, ANCIENT
Persian religion is defined here as the religion that prevailed in Persia from about the 6th century b.c. until the Muslim conquest in the 7th or 8th century a.d. and its subsequent replacement by Islam. It is now the faith of a very small minority in Persia and of the parsees settled in India since the 10th century a.d. It is often called Zoroastrianism, after the Greek form of the name of its traditional prophet or reformer Zoroaster, or Mazdaeism after the epithet of its supreme God ahura mazda (Wise Lord), later Ohrmazd. The inadequacy of written documents and the lack of monuments explain the disagreement among specialists on even the most important points. To present a "generally accepted view" would be misleading. All that can be done is to describe sources and outline the most probable theories.
Sources. The main ancient source is the avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians. It was discovered among the Parsees and deciphered by A. H. Anquetil-Duperron, who published a French translation (2 v. Paris 1771). The ancient form of Iranian, now known as Avestan, was soon seen to be akin to Sanskrit. Its interpretation was solidly established as a result of the progress of Indo-European philology in the 19th century. The Avesta is a series of books used mainly for liturgy. The Yasna is the text of the haoma sacrifice parallel to the Indian Soma. The rubrics are in middle Persian (i.e., Pahlavi) and, with greater detail, in Gujarati, an Indian language of the Bombay area. The oldest stratum, in an archaic dialect, are the gĀthĀs, metrical poems attributed to zoroaster himself. The Visprat is a short addition to the Yasna. The Vidēvdāt (incorrectly Vendidad ) comprises a miscellaneous collection of instructions regarding purifications after death and a penal code. Quite different in character is the collection of Yashts, some of them older than the Yasna, but some, late and awkward imitations; they are hymns to the gods presiding over each day of the month. The Khortak (short) Avesta is a collection of prayers for the various hours of the day.
Other Avestan texts have survived only in Pahlavi commentaries; the Dēnkart, a Pahlavi encyclopedia compiled and partly composed in the 10th century a.d., summarizes the original books (Nasks ) known in Sassanid times, most of which are now lost. The Yasna and Vidēvdāt were translated into and commented upon in Pahlavi. There is one ancient book dealing with eschatology, the Zand i Vohuman Yasht, preserved in a Pahlavi paraphrase, and portions of the Nask on the life of Zoroaster are embedded in a continuous narrative in book 7 of the Dēnkart.
Most of the extant Zoroastrian literature in Pahlavi dates from the 9th or 10th centuries. It is of great value because it is based on older tradition. The Būndahishn (Cosmology) gives an embryonic theology; the Zātspram contains the cosmological and eschatological myths; the Artāg Vīrāf describes a visit to heaven and hell; the Mēnōk-i-Khrat is a miscellaneous collection of ethical teachings; the Shkand Gumānīk Vicār, a philosophical refutation of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Manichaeism, betrays the influence of Greek philosophy and of Islamic theology.
The Gods. In the Gāthās the Yazatān (Worshipful Beings) form a group round Ahura Mazda, the one great God. They are Vohu Mann (the Good Spirit), Arta Vahishta (Best Righteousness, in a vast range of meanings), Khshathra Vairya (Desirable Rule), Āramaiti (Devotion, Obedience), the twins Haurvatāt (Integrity, Health), and Ameretāt (Immortality). G. Dumézil has shown that these are typically Iranian transformations of the earlier Indo-Iranian gods. Ahura Mazda, the supreme God, has taken the place of Varuna, while the other gods have been reduced to the status of his servants, Khshathra Vairya, for instance, taking the place of the warrior-god Indra.
The group was later called the amesha spenta, i.e., the Beneficent Immortals. Their rank is clearly less divine than that of the Adityas, their Indian parallels. The Amesha Spenta are patrons of the different spheres of creation: man, fire, metals, earth, plants, and waters. Some scholars have described them as aspects of the one God, though Mazdaean tradition clearly depicts them as His "creatures." However, they are considered worthy of veneration, and the place they occupy in cult shows that they participate in the divine.
Zoroastrianism could thus be characterized as a qualified monotheism—with Ahura Mazda, as paramount God, alone described as creator—but with a certain vagueness about the status of the Amesha Spenta, probably because they come from beings who had a divine status
before the Gāthās. Another indication of such a change is their vague and shifting character in the Gāthās. This makes it difficult to distinguish them without considering them in the light of their earlier history.
Other primeval entities in the Gāthās are the Beneficent and the Evil Spirits whose conflict is described chiefly in Yasna 30. It is not clear what their relation is to the Amesha Spenta or whether the Evil Spirit was created by Ahura Mazda. The description of their personalities and conflict may reflect not a fully worked out system of thought but a myth expressing ethical and ritual dualism, good and bad ways of worship as well as of action. The ethical aspect became dominant and colored the subsequent cosmology. Yasna 30 may have been the theological interpretation of the myth of the god Zurvan (Time). He gives birth to the twins Ormazd and Ahriman, who triumph for alternating periods in the world they have created until the Good is finally victorious and Evil destroyed. Evidence of this myth is hardly earlier than the Sassanid period, and it was always repudiated by orthodox Mazdaeans. Yet it was certainly more than a bookish phantasy (see manichaeism), since later Muslim historians speak of it at length.
The Gāthās denounce those who do wrong to the Cow. Zoroaster is promised as its protector on earth, just as he is the helper on earth of the poor against violence and depredation. There is an obscure allusion to the slaying of the Bull, which is probably not so much a condemnation of animal sacrifice as of violence and orgiastic cults. The allusion may reflect, too, a remnant of Indo-Iranian reverence for the cow as providing milk and the necessities of life. Other helpers are Saoshyant (the Savior) and a chief Vishtāspa, who is the special protector of Zoroaster. Thanks to Vishtāspa, the cult will be maintained.
The eschatology of the Gāthās is fairly well worked out. Souls are tried at the Bridge, the world will be submitted to a fire of molten metal, the righteous will be saved and the wicked purified. The Yasna Haptanhati (Yasna of the Seven Chapters), which, judging by linguistic evidence, is slightly later than the Gāthās, stresses the importance of the fire cult, always paramount in Persian religion, and especially in the Yasna sacrifice. Many small fire shrines have been located by Muslim geographers and modern archeologists. Later parts of the Yasna name many other gods. There are hymns to Mithra, the god of contract (Yasht 10); to Ardvi Sura Anāhīta, the only important goddess, patroness of rivers and fecundity (Yasht 5); to Verethragna (later Vāhrām), the multiform god of strength, who gives his name to one of the most important fires (Yasht 14); to the fravashis, doubles of all men alive or to be born (Yasht 13, containing a long list of ancient heroes, a sketch of the mythical history of Iran). There is a similar passage in Yasna 9–11 in honor of the Haoma, the personified sacrificial plant offered with water and milk in the ceremony of the Yasna.
Zarathustra. Zarathustra (in Greek, Zoroaster) is given an important part in all these texts. Since the Gāthās do not mention the main gods of the Yasna and the Yashts, Zarathustra has been taken by most modern scholars to have been a reformer who repudiated the traditional Indo-Iranian gods and condemned the Haoma cult. According to the scholars mentioned, these two phases of worship were later reintroduced into the religion, which was still considered, however, to be that of Zarathustra. They have therefore sought to reconstruct the pre-Zoroastrian state of Persian religion from the data in the non-Gathic texts that are incompatible with the content of the Gāthās. Zarathustra thus appears as the prophet of a new reformed religion, approximating the role given to him in the Dēnkart. The problem is to explain how notions that are incompatible with the prophet's teaching were later reconciled with it. More recent research (e.g., that of M. Molé and R. C. Zaehner) suggests that the antagonism between the Gāthās and the later Avesta can be exaggerated and that in this case the argument a silentio is especially dangerous.
Zarathustra may have belonged to a priestly circle using an esoteric terminology. The date traditionally given to him is 258 years "before Alexander," i.e., probably 258 years before the sack of Persepolis in 330 b.c. Were the Gāthās written by him, or were they a liturgical text attributed to him as the priest par excellence (Molé)? His legend must have developed rapidly, since the Pahlavi resume of it is interspersed with literal translations from an Avestan text now lost. It presents the prophet's birth and childhood in a framework of miracles. Then come his Revelation as a dialogue with the Amesha Spenta, the wars waged by Vishtāspa on behalf of the new religion, and lastly the epochs of world history ending with Sōshyans.
In the Pahlavi works, Bundahishn and Zātspram, the cosmic dualism is fully worked out. Ahriman attempts to invade his rival's domain. Ohrmazd drives him out and, after an unsuccessful attempt at peace, creates the world as a bulwark against him. It is first created in spirit (mēnōk ) and so remains 3,000 years. It then passes into actuality (gētī ) and is mingled with the creatures of the Evil Principle. The fight lasts for 6,000 years with alternating triumphs and defeats, but the Good finally wins. Mēnōk and gētī are not opposed as spiritual and material. There is no trace of Platonic dualism, since all things have a mēnōk phase. This type of dualism is combined with another, that of the microcosm corresponding to the macrocosm, much as in the Corpus Hippocraticum. That the Iranian idea had priority over the Greek (A. Goetze) is no longer undisputed (J. Duchesne-Guillemin).
The Spread of Zoroastrianism and Its Problems.
The geographical environment of the oldest parts of the Avesta is Eastern Iran. When did Zoroastrianism come to Western Asia? The oldest texts, the inscriptions of the Achaemenids, contain the name of the supreme God, written Auramazda (the Behistun inscription of Darius I, 486 b.c.), and he is mentioned with "other gods," e.g. with Anāhīta and Mithra by Artaxerxes II (404–358 b.c.). Zarathustra is never mentioned, but that is not decisive in itself, and it should be noted that the ethical attitude is not unlike that of the Gāthās. It is possible that the Persian kings reflect a royal rather than a priestly form of Zoroastrianism. An inscription of Xerxes (486–65 b.c.) proclaiming the destruction of "the lairs of the daĒvas" shows only that various cults were in opposition to one another. Daēva came to mean demon in Persian, but in India it is the name for a class of gods. The Persians may have worshiped exclusively the other class, the Ahuras, of whom Varuna, renamed Ahura Mazda, became predominant and tended towards a monotheistic status. In India, there was no such antagonism between the classes of gods as in Persia, nor was there a tendency towards monotheism.
The earliest Greek author to speak of the Persian religion, Herodotus, describes the cult rendered to the elements and insists on the presence of the Magi, described as a Median tribe expert in ritual. These may have been responsible for much of the later development of Zoroastrianism as exemplified in the Vidēvdāt, which furnishes rules for the disposal of the dead (by exposure to carnivorous birds on the so-called "Towers of Silence," still in use among the Parsees), against coming into contact with dead matter, and on the great ceremony of purification called Bareshnūm; it presents also a code of law covering injury and assault, and the sacredness of the dog and sins against it.
Dualistic Features and Their Influence. In the Pahlavi books dualism is hardened into a thoroughgoing opposition on the cosmic as well as moral plane. Personal eschatology describes how three days after the soul has left the body it has a vision of a maiden, beautiful or repulsive; this is the soul's dāenā (religion) and leads it to the Bridge, which expands or narrows, and to judgment by Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. These judge it according to its merits, and weigh it. The soul is then awarded heaven or hell. Hell is ultimately purified by a river of molten metal. Creation is not absorbed into it, and creatures find the perfection they have lacked. The gētī world returns to the mēnōk state. Time is not cyclical, despite Plutarch's account, and there is no transmigration of souls as in Indian religion.
The later literature of Zoroastrianism contains philosophical vindications of the dualist position. Most Muslim treatises on apologetics refute Zoroastrianism and describe its heresies. Manichaeism used Zoroastrian patterns, though Manichaean theology is decidedly opposed to Zoroastrianism. To appraise the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism one would need a detailed knowledge of Zoroastrianism as it was when the two religions were in contact during the Exile. Its apparent polytheism would have repelled the Jews, but the overwhelming personality of Ahura Mazda may have reminded them of Yahweh. Zoroastrian eschatology seems to have stimulated the development of their own, but it is very unlikely that Khshatra gave rise to the idea of the Kingdom of God. Even if Iranian dualism is the source of the myth of the two spirits in the Manual of Discipline (see dead sea scrolls) and in late Jewish pseudepigraphical writings, it has there been transformed so as to preserve the paramount sovereignty of God and to assign a subordinate role to the Devil.
See Also: zoroaster (zarathushtra); parsees; mithras and mithraism.
Bibliography: j. darmesteter, Le Zend-Avesta (2d ed. Paris 1960). e. w. west, Pahlavi Texts I–V (Sacred Books of the East 5, 18, 24, 37, 47; Oxford 1880–97). Zand-Akāsĭh, Iranian or Greater Budahishn, ed. with Eng. tr. b. t. anklesaria (Bombay 1956). Shkand Gumānīk Vicār: La Solution décisive des doutes, ed. with a Fr. tr. j. p. menasce (Collectanea Friburgensia 30; Fribourg 1945). e. beneveniste, The Persian Religion according to the Chief Greek Texts (Paris 1929). j. bidez and f. cumont, Les Mages hellénisés (Paris 1938). j. duchesne-guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster (Oxford 1958); La Religion de l'Iran ancien (Paris 1962). e. pax, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 8:111–15. r. c. zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (London 1961). m. molÉ, Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien (Paris 1963). f. kÖnig, Zarathustras Jenseitsvorstellung und das Alte Testament (Vienna 1964).
[j. p. de menasce]