Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
and the Old-Medeo-Persian Religion
Dr Oric Basirov
4 - 10th November 1998,
The following points have
already been established:
1) Prophet Zoroaster seems to have been an eastern Scythian, born
not later than 1500 BC probably somewhere in North-Eastern parts of modern
2) His religious liturgy composed ORALLY in Avestan, was not written
down for at least another two thousand years. Avestan, an Old Eastern Iranian
language long dead before it reached Western Iran, was incomprehensible, and a
sacred language only for the majority of the Western Iranians.
3) Zoroastrianism was first preached only in Eastern Iran; the
centre of the religion, however, was moved to Western Iran after the arrival of
the Medes and the Persians there.
4) These two Western Iranian imperial dynasties did not arrive with
the new faith, they were converted later to Zoroastrianism in Western Iran.
This lecture shall cover
first the arrival of the Persians (that of the Medes has already been mentioned
in Lecture 2), and then shall deal with the old, pre-Zoroastrian faith in the
The Persians are by far
the most important sedentary western Iranians, who formed the first known world
empire in history, the Achaemenian, and later the mighty Sasanian Empire, which
lasted for more than four centuries, and was the only real challenge to the
Roman Empire. Achaemenians inherited the Median Empire, but they may have
arrived at the Iranian Plateau before them. These two Western Iranian peoples
shared a common culture, and their languages, judging by the handful of
surviving Median words, seem to have been mutually comprehensible. They were
neighbours (if not the same people) in the steppes of southern Russia, and their
successive waves of southerly migration, it is now increasingly believed, to
have used the western route, i.e., through the Caucasus. Once in the plateau,
however, they appear to have led their separate ways.
The Medes initially
colonised North-Western Iran and later pushed as far east as Raga, modern
Tehran. They established their capital in Hengmatâna (Greek Ecbatana, modern
Hamadan), and were greatly influenced by the Urartu and Assyrian civilisations.
The Persians, on the
other hand, are attested in three different (and isolated) locations:
Immediately to the south of the Medes in the present day Luristan.
Around Susâ, the capital of western Elam, in modern Khuzistân.
Around Anshân, the eastern Elamite capital, in the northern part of the present
day Pârs (Fârs).
It is with this third
location that we are concerned to day, as it became their first power base, and
the spring board from which they went to conquer the known world, and establish
the first of the few Indo-European world empires (amplify). Here, they
encountered the sophisticated Elamite civilisation, from which they adopted,
inter alia, their organisation of government, their writing system, and even
their well-known style of dress. It
is believed that sometime in the eighth century (799-700 BC) the Hakhamanish
(Achaemenian) dynasty established their rule in Anshân over both the Persians
and the eastern Elamites. Henceforth, their kingdom came to be known also as
Parsumâsh or Pârsâ. They established diplomatic relation with the western
Elamite kingdom centred in Susa, and became their ally against the Assyrians.
However, they couldn't prevent the utter destruction of Susa by the Assyrian
emperor, Assurbanipal in 639 BC The Achaemenian king, Kurush (Cyrus I,
grandfather of Cyrus the Great) was forced to send, in the same year, his eldest
son, Arukku, as a hostage to the Assyrian court at Nineveh.
Soon after this, the
second Median emperor, Khshathrita I (Herodotus' Phraortes, and Assyrian
Kashtariti) conquered Parsa, and subjugated the Achaemenian kingdom. The
Persians, it seems, remained the vassals of the Medes for nearly 100 years until
Cyrus the Great overthrew the Median Empire, and established the Persian Empire
in 550 BC
THE OLD RELIGION OF THE MEDES AND THE PERSIANS
The close similarity
between the beliefs and the practices of the Avestan and Vedic peoples
demonstrates the strength of the religious tradition amongst the
proto-Indo-Iranians in general. In respect of the sedentary Western Iranians,
such as the Medes and the Persians in particular, this is also evidenced by the
many recent archaeological data, which clearly demonstrate the prominence of the
Ahuric Doctrine (see Lecture 3) (explain) also in the West. It is therefore,
reasonable to assume that, like their eastern cousins, the Medes and the
Persians, before their conversion to Zoroastrianism, worshipped Old Iranian
The discovery of a number
of relevant theophoric names clearly supports this assumption. These have been
extracted from the following sources (See 1: Cameron, G.G. "Persepolis
Treasury Tablets", The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publication
(UCOIP) LXV, 1948; 2: Hallock, R.T., "Persepolis Fortification
Tablets" (UCOIP) XCII 1969).
Assyrian cuneiform texts of the 9th-7th centuries BC
Elamite Cuneiform tablets at Persepolis.
Babylonian cuneiform records.
The last three sources
date generally from the sixth and the 5th centuries BC, but the tendency to
maintain family tradition in nomenclature makes it possible to throw light on
the beliefs of previous generations.
Of the three Ahurâs,
Mazda and Mithrâ are regularly attested in Median and Persian Theophoric names.
*Vourunâ (Apâm Napât) on the other hand appears to have been consistently
referred to in the West as BAGA, the dispenser god. The Avestan Ashâ (Sanskrit
Ata), the cosmic order upheld by these Ahuras, appears as "Arta" in
several Medo-Persian names. So is the Avestan Xvarenah, the divine
fortune, which in its Median form "Farnah" is attested in many Western
Iranian names. Many other deities from the pre-Zoroastrian pantheon were also
commonly used as personal names. These include: Atâr (fire) and his associate
Nairyosangha (MP, Narseh, NP, Narsi), Haoma (NP, Homa), Huvara (sun), Mâh
(moon) and Vata (NP, Baad, wind). Surprisingly, however, the great
pre-Zoroastrian Daevas are not attested in any Western Iranian theophoric names.
In addition to the gods, the Avestan Yima, the King of the dead, has also been
attested in many names in Western Iran, as Yimâ [NP, Jam, and with Khshaeta
(radiant), Jamsheed], Yamaka, and Yamakshedda (King Yama).
The Sanskrit and Avestan
literature have a common word for priest, Athrâvan/Athravan, but the only term
recorded among the Medes and the Persians is "MAGU", a word which has
continued in use eversince under the Sasanian pronunciation of "MOGH".
In Greek tradition, one of the six tribes of the Medes, called the "Magoi",
were the hereditary priests (Herodotus I.101 & 132). The Avestan "MOGHU"
means "member of the tribe", and it is assumed that amongst the Medes
this word acquired the meaning of "member of the priestly tribe",
i.e., the hereditary priests of the old religion. It is, however, extraordinary
that the entire body of this priestly caste appears to have converted to
Zoroastrianism and remained ever-since the hereditary clergymen of the new
NON-IRANIAN ELEMENTS, NEAR EASTERN DOMINANT
Naturally, the Medes and Persians could not
have remained totally impervious to all religious influences from the ancient
civilisations they encountered, and later conquered. Each of the major pantheons
they came to know was presided over by a dominant male divinity: ASSUR in
Assyria, HUMBAN in Elam, KHALDI in Urartu and MARDUK in Babylon. The Western
Iranians appear to have followed this rule and chosen a dominant male deity
within their own pantheon. It is not clear who this supreme god was, but
probably one of their three Ahurâs. In the Elamite tradition, Ahurâ Mazdâ is
referred to as "the god of the Iranians". This has prompted an
argument that they too might have chosen this particular Ahurâ as their supreme
god, i.e., independently of the great Zoroastrian reform. This suggestion,
however, appears to be almost miraculously coincidental. It is more likely that
their familiarity with all those non-Iranian dominant male deities had already
prepared them to accept as such the Zoroastrian supreme god after their
conversion to the new faith.
THE SUN GODS: AKKADIAN SHAMASH AND ELAMITE NAHHUNTE
These solar deities
appear to have greatly influenced the Western Iranian religious beliefs. Such
was their importance in the ancient Near East that it may have become necessary
to find their counterpart within the Iranian pantheon. The Iranian sun god, HVAR
KHSHAETA (NP, Khorsheed), however, was not clearly prominent enough for such a
position. The magi, therefore, appear to have matched these sun gods with one of
the Iranian Ahurâs, Mithrâ, who was primarily the god of contract, friendship
and love, with only a minor association with the sun. Mithrâ's new role was
absorbed into Zoroastrianism in the West. Henceforth, he remained principally a
sun god; his name however, in Modern Persian (Mehr) also means "love".
THE AKKADIAN PLANETARY GODDESSES, ISHTAR AND NANA
The Western Iranian
goddess, *ANAHITI is known to us by her Greek rendering ANAITIS. This word is
related to the Avestan "ANAHITA", spotless, which may have been the
epithet of the great Eastern Iranian river goddess, AREDVI SURA. The magi appear
to have matched her with the great Near Eastern planetary goddesses representing
Venus. This tradition was also maintained after the arrival of Zoroastrianism.
To date, the word Anâhid, or Nâhid in Modern Persian means the planet Venus.
THE BABYLONIAN AND ELAMITE PLANETARY GOD, NABU
The Western Iranian god,
TIRI, probably derives from the Eastern Iranian deity Tishtrya, the great Yazata
of the star, Sirius, the Dog Star. The magi appear to have matched TIRI with
NABU, which represented the planet Mercury in the Near East. Later, the
Zoroastrian tradition in the West preserved this identification, where TIRI
seems to have acquired a separate personality from that of Tishtrya. In Modern
Persian, Tīr still represents the planet Mercury. This god, as with Nebu,
appears to have been revered as the deity of writing by the Sasanians.
THE EGYPTIAN SKY AND SUN GOD HORUS
The symbol of this god,
winged disc is attested elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Assyrians added a
human figure to the disc, which henceforth became the symbol of authority in
their empire. The Medes seem to have adopted this figure from the Urartians, and
identified it with FARNAH (NP, Farah, Farrokh), the representation of the royal
fortune. It appears that the Zoroastrianism in the West maintained this sign as
a semi-religious symbol of divine fortune. For the past 100 years it has been
the official emblem of modern Zoroastrians.
The evidence of Iranian
burials throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, and even after the arrival of the
new faith, is both numerous and widespread (both geographically &
chronologically). In fact without prior knowledge of the laws of the Vendidad,
the archaeological evidence alone might have led one to assume that burial was
the normal method of the disposal of the dead during the primacy of the
Zoroastrian religion in Iran. It is therefore, reasonable to assume that the
practice of burial was a legacy of the pre-Zoroastrian past, which the new faith
was either not yet strong enough, or perhaps still too tolerant to suppress
until Sasanian era. It seems that the Medes and Persians never fully accepted
the Zoroastrian practice of exposing the dead.
The religion of the Medes
and the Persians, before the conversion to Zoroastrianism, was essentially the
same as that of the ancient pagan Eastern Iranians. The Ahuric Doctrine appears
to have dominated their pantheon. The Western Iranians seem to have resisted the
general influence of the non-Iranian religions of their highly civilised
neighbours. The impact of some stellar deities does not seem to have disturbed
their basic outlook on life. The Akkadians, like the pre-Zoroastrian Iranians
believed in the world ruled over by the gods, which was static and enduring (see
Lecture 3). Prophet Zoroaster's revolutionary teaching which embodied his
dynamic theory, ushered in the phenomena of "Last day",
"Universal Judgement", "The Kingdom of God",
"Resurrection", "Day of Judgement", "Heaven and
Hell", and "The Coming of the Saviour". These were probably as
disturbing to the Medes and Persians when they first heard them, as they might
have been to the Eastern Iranians centuries earlier. Nonetheless, the fact
remains that both these imperial dynasties were converted to the new faith,
which became the national religion of Iran. Their conversion shall be dealt with
in the next lecture.
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies