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 Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Development of Temple Cults


 

 

By Dr. Oric Basirov
Paper 6 - 24 November 1998

 

 

INTRODUCTION The long history of the Zoroastrian temple cult concerns the veneration of both the sacred fire and the divine images. The basic elements of the development of this cult in Iran is often more readily perceived by starting from the wrong end.    

1)       Modern Zoroastrians in Iran and India, have only fire-temples.  

2)       Both communities again worshipped only in fire-temples throughout the Islamic period. However, some of the fire-temples in Iran were dedicated to various Zoroastrian deities, especially Anahita, Mithra, and Verethraghna (Bahram).  

3)       This also seems to have been the case with the Sasanians for the greatest part of their history, and virtually for the entire duration of their imperial period.  

4)       The early Sasanians, however, are known to have been the hereditary guardians of the temple of Anahita in Istakhr. Hence, at some stage during their early period, temples housing sacred fires, and those containing divine images, must have co-existed side-by-side. Nonetheless, the Sasanian iconoclastic movement is known to have began very early in their history. This must have lead to the removal of the divine images from their consecrated buildings, thus leaving the fire-temples as the only places of worship. It is reasonable to assume that some of the desecrated buildings were actually converted to fire-temples, hence, greatly increasing their number.  

5)       Throughout the Parthian period, both the temple cult of fire and the temple cult of divine images were observed side-by-side.  

6)       This was also the case during the Seleucid era, especially in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.  

7)       This was also the case during the late Achaemenian period, especially from c.400 BC onwards.  

 

8)       Many scholars believe that early Achaemenians, Medes, and the Iranian peoples of the pre-imperial period, whether sedentary, nomadic, eastern or western did not have any temples.  

 

 

The assertions made on points 1 to 7 above are generally shared by most scholars, and there seems little doubt about the 4th century dating of the establishment of the temple cult of divine images, at least in Western Iran. However, the commonly (See Wikender, S., Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran, Lund, 1946) held belief that the Iranians did not possess any temples at all, even fire-temples, before 400 BC, is contradicted by a number of highly controversial archaeological discoveries. The dramatic events of the 4th century BC, therefore, make it necessary to treat this date as a significant dividing line between the study of the early fire-cult, and that of the later temple-cults. Starting this time the right-way-round, we shall first deal with the history of the Iranian cult of fire until the beginning of the 4th century BC Secondly, we shall examine the events leading to the establishment of the two distinct types of temple, which separately housed the sacred fires, and the divine images.

  

IRANIAN CULT OF FIRE* Fire is an essential element in the mythology of the Indo-European peoples, and there is irrefutable archaeological and historical evidence of its veneration by the Hittites, Indians (Agni, the fire god of the hearth, possessed the dual aspect of being venerated for itself, and consuming the offerings on behalf of other gods), Iranians, Greeks (Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, was the centre of the daily life. Her ever-burning fire was carried away to rekindle fires in her temples throughout the Greek colonies), Celts and Germans. However, the prominence given to fire by Zoroaster is unprecedented in its scope and originality. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, fire is created by Asha Vahishta (best Asha), with the help of the old Iranian fire-god, Atar. Fire is, therefore, the primary element of Asha, the principle of cosmic order, which controls the material world, and represents righteousness and moral standards by which the mortals are judged. This indirect association of fire with judgment plays a crucial role in Zoroaster's original doctrine of eschatology, which having been borrowed by Semitic religions, has made the word hell synonymous with fire.  

One could logically deduce from the above that the Gathas should have contained references to a consecrated fire, and to a sacred place for its safe-keeping. It is also reasonable to assume that at least a primitive temple cult of fire must have existed in early Zoroastrian times which gradually developed into the modern fire-temples. Unfortunately, one cannot substantiate either of these two assumptions with irrefutable evidence.  

In the surviving verses of the Gathas, there is no reference to a consecrated fire, or to a special building or container to house, support, hold or transport it. The second assumption is challenged on the one hand by a variety of literally evidence, and upheld on the other by a number of archaeological discoveries of what appear to be Zoroastrian temples. Such interpretation, however, is strongly opposed by many scholars, who regard these temples as either post 400 BC, or non-Zoroastrian (see below).  

Nonetheless, there is little doubt about the existence of an Iranian fire cult already in pre-Zoroastrian times. Moreover, in spite of the lack of reference in the Gathas, one must assume that such veneration was strengthened further by the teaching of Zoroaster. The chronology of the Iranian fire cult before the 4th century BC, therefore, can be summarised as follows:

   

1)       Nomadic Period - Scythians revered fire and carried it in clay pots. Nomadic Iranians continued with this practice until modern times. Used primarily for heating and cooking, the fire commands, nonetheless, an enigmatic reverence which must be a mystic legacy from a distant tribal memory. Wherever they pitched their tents, the Scythians, like their modern counterparts, must have started a larger fire on the ground, some of which was "put to sleep" under a thick layer of hot ash ready for the following day.

2)       Hearth Fire - Household hearth fires not only acted as sources of warmth and places of cooking for early settled Iranians, but as with other Indo-Europeans, they were also a focus of veneration. Chieftains and petty kings, having audience halls, must have had larger fire hearths. In these halls warriors would assemble and hang their weapons on the walls, and a few of them say prayers to the hearth fire ("Cyrus went home to pray to ancestral Hestia", Xenophon, Cyropaedia I.vi.1. This may have led to the modern practice of hanging weapons around the fire-temples). It is also reasonable to assume that people gathering in priests' houses stood round their hearth fires. The hearth fires of the rulers and the clergy, therefore, can be seen as early places of indoor communal veneration, which may have contributed to the eventual establishment of the fire-temples (royal tradition versus ordinary people).  

3)       Consecrated Fire - The growth of the dominions of the kings and the congregation of the priests must have increased the size of their houses and hearth fires. These, can be safely assumed, were no longer used for cooking, but may have been a source of warmth in winter. However, their purpose during the rest of the year must have been ceremonial. They may have given rise to the cult of consecrated fire, i.e., fire placed on a pedestal, or in a container, or carried outside to a hilltop or a raised platform for no other purpose than religious ceremonies. This cult seems to have lead to the establishment of royal fires . 

4)       Regnal and Dynastic Fires, Several rock carvings from the Achaemenian and Sasanian periods, and countless seals and coins depict the king standing before a pedestal supporting a flaming fire. Fragments of some of these fire-holders have actually been found in Pasargadae, and dated to the 6th century BC. They are waist-high (112 cm) with a bowl hollowed out 13 inches, which is deep enough to hold a thick bed of hot ash, and therefore capable of sustaining an ever-burning fire (Boyce, M., A History of Zoroastrianism vol II, (HZII) Brill, 1982, pp.51-53). Such fire-holders were evidently representative of the kings own hearth or personal fire. Later, they became the monarchs' dynastic or regnal fires. These fires were put out for the duration of the kings' funeral (Diodorus of Sicily, XVII.114.4), and rekindled at the succession of their heirs (Boyce, M., Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire, "Journal of the American Oriental Society" (JAOS) 95.3; 1975, p.461). It is assumed that these holders were surmounted by a metal fire-bowl, as the examples from Pasargadae show no signs of charring (Boyce, HZII, pp.52-3). This would have enabled the fire to be moved. Quintus Curtius Rufus describes the army of Darius III carrying a fire upon a silver altar at the head of its march (III.iii.9). Xenophon reports that the army of Cyrus the Great carried fire in a brazier (op. cit., VIII.iii.12). Boyce believes that the same emperor moved his father's fire from Anshan, the provincial Achaemenian capital, to Pasargadae, the newly-built centre of the Persian Empire (op. cit., p.53). Later, at the beginning of the Sasanian times, we have the evidence of the letter of Tansar, the chief minister of Ardashir I; it states that after the death of Darius III, each local king built his own dynastic fire (Boyce, M., The Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism Manchester University, 1984, p.109). Sasanian emperors regarded the dynastic fires as the main symbol of their kingship.  

5)       Open Air Fires - Hearth fires of the priests, and royal dynastic fires were often, placed on hilltops, man-made mounds, stone terraces and plinths for the purpose of communal public worship (A large number of archaeological discoveries associated with the open air fires has been examined by Boyce; see JAOS 95.3, pp.456-7). Strabo describes the 6th century BC Persian sanctuary in Zela (now Zila in northern Turkey) as a heaped up mound of earth over a rock which was walled in, but open to the sky (XI.viii.4). Two stone plinths recorded by Herzfeld in Pasargadae, and excavated by Stronach, were evidently never roofed and their enclosed walls are considered to be a later construction. Stronach regards them as fire-altars (Stronach, D., Excavations at Pasargadae, "IRAN" 3, 1965, p.28). 

 

 

Many scholars consider these open air fires as forerunners of modern fire-temples, others disagree. In order to understand the controversy surrounding the genesis of the Zoroastrian fire-temples, one must bear in mind Professor Mary Boyce's logical assertion on this subject. She stipulates that a fire-temple must be capable of sustaining an ever-burning fire, and that none of the open fires mentioned above possess such ability facility, therefore, they cannot be fire-temples (JAOS 95.3, pp.456, 457, n.18, 459). As far as she is concerned the only ever-burning fires before the 4th century BC were the hearth fires. As was mentioned earlier, the available literary evidence seems to support the 4th century dating of fire-temples. Such a late dating, however, is not supported by many archaeological discoveries. These two bodies of evidence are summarised bellow:  

 

LITERARY EVIDENCE 1)       No reference in the Gathas.

2)       Ancient Brahmanic observance, having so much in common with Zoroastrian rituals, was also without temples.

3)       There is no record of any pillage from any Iranian temple in Assyrian history.

4)       Many Greek writers, such as, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.500 BC), Herodotus (490-45 BC), Strabo (63 BC - 19 A.D.) have clearly stated that early Achaemenians conducted their worship without temples. Moreover, Cicero, who wrote 54-44 BC, states that Xerxes after the fall of Athens thought it "a sacrilege to keep the gods, whose house is the whole universe, shut up within walls", and that "Persians considered representation of sacred statues in human form a wicked custom (De Republica, III.ix.14).

 

ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE Archaeologists, on the other hand, are more positive and some emphatically state that roofed and enclosed fire-temples have existed amongst the Iranians since the prehistorical times.  

 

1)       Kuh-i Khwaja - Aurel stein discovered this roofed fire-temple on the Lake Hamun in Sistan in 1916. It was excavated by Herzfeld and Gullini, and dated to early Achaemenian times. Schippmann, however, has brought this date forward to Seleucid or early Parthian period (Shippmann, K., The Development of the Iranian Fire Temple, "5th International congress in Iranian Art & Archaeology" Tehran, 1968, pp.353-362).  

2)       Tejen Delta - Soviet archaeologists have discovered several fire-temples in this area, giving some the staggering date of the fourth millennium BC These temples possess rectangular and circular alters showing traces of fire (Khlopin, I.N., On Genesis of Fire Temples in Ancient Iran, "5th Congress in Iranian Art & Archaeology", Tehran, 1968, pp.276-281). Some have been compared with the late Achaemenian temple in Susa, and with the Fratadara temple discovered by Herzfeld in Persepolis and later dated to the Seleucid period. Most western scholars, however, doubt the accuracy of the dating of these finds.

3)       Tepe Nush-i Jan - Stronach excavated this eight century BC Median site near Hamadan; he uncovered, in the lowest room of a tower-like windowless structure, a massive plastered mud-brick alter; the waist-high, four-stepped top, shaped like a shallow bowl, showed traces of burning. He admits that the bowl is too shallow for an ever-burning fire; nonetheless he insists that it belongs to an early Median temple housing a permanent fire (Stronach, D., Tepe Nush-i-Jan, "IRAN" XI, 1973, pp.129-138). Boyce regards this building neither Zoroastrian, and nor even Iranian, but probably Urartian.  

4)       Ka’aba-i Zardusht and Zindan-i Suleyman - These two sixth century BC tower-like, windowless buildings are in Naqsh-i Rustam and Pasargadae respectively; they have been compared with Tepe Nush-i Jan (Yamamoto, ibid (n.2) p.34). Many scholars, however, such as, Wikander, Henning, and Boyce do not regard them as fire-temples.  

5)       Dâhaân-i Ghulâmân - Scerrato uncovered in 1962-3 an imposing 6th-5th century BC temple in Sistan on the holy river Helmand (Av. Hâtumant) (Scerrato, U., Excavations at Dâhân-i Ghulâmân (Sistan-Iran), First Preliminary Report (1962-3), "East and West" 1966, pp.9-30). The temple, once evidently roofed, contains 3 large rectangular, 7 feet high altars built out of mud-bricks, showing signs of burning. He called it a Zoroastrian fire-temple. Both Schippmann (ibid) and Boyce (HZII, pp.128-31), however, doubt its Zoroastrian identity, with latter regarding it as Elamite.

 

 

CONCLUSION An attempt has been made to chart the evolutionary course of the Iranian fire-cult from the prehistorical times to the 4th century BC Whether Iranians possessed a consecrated building to house the holy fire before that date, cannot be proved with irrefutable evidence. There is no doubt, however, that the dramatic events of that date ushered in the temple cult of divine images, and may have even lead to the establishment of the temple cult of fire. These significant developments shall be examined in my next lecture.

  

* See Yamamoto, Y., The Zoroastrian Temple cult of Fire in Archaeology and Literature (I), "ORIENT", XV, 1979, pp.19-53

 

 

  

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