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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Persian and the Old-Medeo-Persian Religion



By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 4 - 10th November 1998,



INTRODUCTION 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 Kazakhstan. 

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 West.  



THE PERSIANS 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:


1)       Immediately to the south of the Medes in the present day Luristan.

2)       Around Susâ, the capital of western Elam, in modern Khuzistân.

3)       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 gods.


THEOPHORIC NAMES 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).


1)       Assyrian cuneiform texts of the 9th-7th centuries BC

2)       Elamite Cuneiform tablets at Persepolis.

3)       Babylonian cuneiform records.

4)       Aramaic documents.


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 MAGI 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 faith.




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.


FUNERARY PRACTICES 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.


CONCLUSION 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.   



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