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 Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Establishment of Temple Cults of Fire and Divine Images


By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 7 - 8th December 1998




The 54 years long reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 BC) witnessed many important and long-lasting political and religious developments in Iran. Although the reconquest of Egypt (343 B.C) was left to his son, Artaxerxes III (358-338 BC), yet a more formidable enemy, the Greeks, were finally neutralised (It was, of course, the non-Greek "barbarian", but Hellenised Macedonians, who 55 years later, managed first to conquer most of the Greek cities, and then destroy the Achaemenian Empire). This was achieved by the humiliating terms of the peace treaty of 387 BC, called spitefully by the Greeks: "the King's Peace", which was dictated to them in Sardis, the satrapal capital in the West.  It is worth pointing out, that eversince that date, neither the classical writers, nor the Hellenocentric West has forgiven the Persians for this humiliation (At the great congress of 387 BC in Sardis, an imperial edict was read to the representatives of the warring Greek states that: “Artaxexes the Great King deems it just that the cities of Asia Minor and Cyprus and a few other islands belong to him; that other Greek cities ....... be autonomous ........ Whoever does not accept this peace, I shall make war upon him ....... with ships and with money.


It was, however, at least four significant religious reforms during this reign, which dramatically altered the character of the Iranian national faith. These developments survived for a very long time, two of which became permanent features of the Zoroastrian religion. They are as follows:


Adoption of the Zoroastrian calendar, which is still in use in modern, Muslim Persia.

Zurvanite heresy, which survived as a potent force until the end of the Sasanian Empire.  

The establishment of the temple cult of divine images, which lasted until the end of the Parthian Empire.  

The establishment of the temple cult of fire, which has lasted until the present day.  

This lecture is concerned with the last two of these significant developments. It shall examine the personalities and the events, which are held by some as being responsible for the emergence of the temple cults in Zoroastrian Iran.




1)       The year of the four emperors- The regnal year, Artaxshaça 41, which corresponds with 424/3 BC has been termed by Ctesias, the royal physician, as the "year of the four emperors". In that year, Artaxerxes I (Longemanus, OP. Darγa Bazu, NP. Deraz Dast) died after a long reign of 41 years, and was succeeded by his only legitimate son, Xerxes II. Artaxexes, however, had also fathered a large brood of bloodthirsty illegitimate, half-Iranian children, who immediately set upon his true heir. Xerxes II was murdered by Sogdianos, his half-brother, after a reign of only 45 days. Six and a half months later it was Sogdianos' turn, who was deposed and murdered by Okhos, another half-brother. Okhos, who was married to Parysatis (NP Parizad), his illegitimate half-sister, ascended the throne adopting the regnal name, Darius II (424-405 BC).


2)       The "half-black Mikado" - According to the available evidence, Xerxes II was the last pure "Aryan" emperor. Sogdianos, Okhos and Parysatis, according to Ctesias, were all born of Babylonian concubines. They were, therefore, not only illegitimate, which should have barred them from inheriting property, title, and above all, the imperial crown, but also "anarya", non-Aryan. Something of the imperial prestige must have vanished in the eyes of the Persian nobility and devout Zoroastrian population. The "black-headed people", as the Babylonians were referred to by Cyrus the Great (Babylonians are called as such in a cylinder, discovered in Babylon in 1897, which commemorates the conquest of that empire by Cyrus the Great), did after all debase his presumably golden-headed "Aryan lineage" and force a "half-black Mikado" on the throne. Bloodthirsty, illegitimate and "half-black" do not seem very flattering epithets for the King of the Kings, and direct descendants of an emperor who called himself "an Aryan, having Aryan lineage". Two more adjectives, however, should be added to this list, which are more relevant to the development of the Zoroastrian religion in Western Iran: Babylonian and blasphemous.


3)       The Babylonian lore - Babylonians, coming from a far more ancient and advanced civilisation, could never come to terms with their Iranian overlords. Above all, they could not comprehend the complicated Zoroastrian religion with its dynamic theory, moral codes, fearsome eschatology, doctrine of dualism, and abstract, amorphic gods. Nonetheless, they may have anticipated that the Iranians, like Greeks and Jews, would find the Babylonian lore irresistible, and eventually succumb to its lure (Babylonian influence in Greek mythology is overwhelming; even the monotheistic Jews seem to have overcome by the Babylonian lore, and worshipped in that city other deities alongside their own Yahweh).


Already in the pre-Zoroastrian times, at least three western Iranian deities had been reconciled with three Babylonian gods: Mithra with Shamash, Anahiti with Ishtar, and Tiri with Nabu (see Lecture 4). It will be remembered (Lecture 4) that Zoroastrianism in the West found it prudent to absorb Anahiti and Tiri. Mithra presented no problems, as he was revered both in the West and the East, and also in the Zoroastrian religion. The western Anahiti, the goddess of the planet Venus, was matched up with Anahita, the eastern river goddess; and western Tiri, the divinity of the planet Mercury, became Tishtrya, the eastern divinity of the star Sirius, the dog-star (amplify with diagram). These gods assumed the personalities of their Babylonian counterparts on top of their original Iranian ones. Hence, at some stage, probably during the reign of Darius II, Mithra was associated with the sun (Shamash), Anahita with Venus (Ishtar), and incredible it may seem, Tishtrya, the dog-star, with the planet Mercury (Nabu). The Achaemenian emperors, however, up to and including Darius II, reserved their sole devotion for Ahura Mazdah, and never named other deities in their inscriptions except as "the other gods". Artaxerxes II (405-358 BC), the elder son of Darius II and Parysatis, broke this tradition and named Anahita and Mithra after Ahura Mazdah. The real significant inclusion here appears to be An~hit~, and not Mithra, who after all, was one of the three Ahuras of the old Iranian religion. Artaxerxes, however, went further than naming other gods after Ahura Mazdah, he actually set up statues to Anahita. This act, probably seen by the Zoroastrians as a blasphemy, is blamed, by, at least, one scholar, on the Queen Mother's Babylonian sympathies (see below).




Berossos, the third century BC Babylonian priestly scholar states that "After a long period of time, they (Persians) began to worship statues in human form, this practice having been introduced by Artaxerxes son of Darius ..... who was first to set up statues of Aphrodite Anaitis, at Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis, Bactria, Damascus and Sardis, thus suggesting to those communities the duty of worshipping them". Artaxerxes' brother, Cyrus, also appears to have venerated Anâhitâ; it is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the reverence of the goddess  was already a family tradition, and that Darius and Parysatis had established her cult in a few chapels or temples, at least at the palace, and their son went further by imposing her worship with cult-statues and temples throughout the empire.


Some Zoroastrians must have been deeply offended by these blasphemies. The imposition of an alien cult on a community with at least a thousand years of religious orthodoxy behind them must have required an extraordinary zeal and determination which the mild-mannered Artaxerxes evidently lacked. Parysatis, the Queen Mother, who dominated her son's long reign, is generally held responsible for this heterodoxy; her ruthless determination and her Babylonian origin indicate a burning devotion to Ishtar/ Anaiti and a consuming passion to have her worship established amongst the Zoroastrians, everywhere, at whatever cost.




It was stated in Lecture 6 that the genesis of the Iranian fire temples is subject to a wide variety of theories; at the one end of the scale, Soviet archaeologists have dated it to the 4th millennium BC, while Wikander states that they existed in pre-Zoroastrian times, but were absent from Iran from the time of the prophet until around 400 BC Wikender, moreover, associates the (re-) establishment of fire temples with that of the worship of Anaitis. Any connection between the fertility goddess, Anaitis and the fire cult seems, however, very unlikely.


Boyce agrees with Wikender's early 4th century date for the establishment of fire temples, with the following modifications:


They never existed before.  

There is no connection between Anaitis and the cult of fire.

They were brought into existence by the devout followers of the prophet as an "orthodox reaction" or even a "counter move" against the emperor's blasphemy; "the only icon proper for the followers of Zoroaster being that of fire", as she puts it.  

She states further that such momentous step could not have been taken without the royal assent. There is no evidence that the emperor was anything but a Zoroastrian, albeit, perhaps not an orthodox one. His assent therefore, was probably given willingly. As for Parysatis, she was a "skilful diplomat", and "well able to make concessions once her own aims were achieved".



D) Boyce's crucial dichotomy

Up to now a distinction has been made between a hearth fire (sacred, but also useful, e. g., for cooking) and a consecrated fire set aside purely for veneration and ceremony. Boyce however, goes a step further and makes a distinction between the temple fire and any other consecrated fire. She states categorically that the temple fire must above all be EVER-BURNING, and hence:   

The temple housing it must be roofed as well as enclosed.   

It must have sufficient air current.  

The alter supporting the fire must be deep enough to be able to contain a thick layer of constant hot ash.

Permanent attendants are required to maintain the fire.  

The temple must be at a close proximity to human habitation to ensure regular supply of dry wood and attending priests.  

It must be borne in mind that the ever-burning consecrated fire is the linchpin of Boyce's argument, and the only criterion governing her emphatic statement concerning the genesis of the fire temples.

 All other consecrated fires, whether placed on a plinth, or enclosed in a roofless or windowless building could not have been everburning, therefore, the building housing them were not fire temples.





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