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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Zoroaster's People


By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 2 - 27th October 1998


It was stated in Lecture One that Zoroaster came from the oldest known Iranian stock, the Airyas, and lived in the north eastern steppes of Central Asia, not later than the mid second millennium BC It is reasonable to assume that Zoroastrianism must have spread first amongst the Eastern Iranians of Central Asia, as it was already an established faith in places like Khwarezm, Sogdia and Bactria at the beginning of the historical period. This is by no means surprising, as all these lands border the prophet's homeland, and the languages spoken there were closely related to the Avestan. What is surprising, however, is the fact that by the middle of the first millennium BC the centre of Zoroastrianism was neither in the original homeland of its founder, nor in any of the adjoining eastern Iranian regions. It was firmly established on this side of the great salt desert, amongst the people called the Western Iranians.

Who then were Zoroaster's original people, the Eastern Iranians, and the later converts to his religion, the Western Iranians. Clearly as, their names imply, they must have been two branches of the same people, the Iranians, separated from one another both geographically and chronologically. The conversion of the West, however, ushers in a significant factor in the study of the Iranian peoples and religion: from now onwards, Eastern Iran fades into the background. We now deal almost exclusively with the West, and until very recently, were not even aware of the fact that Eastern Iran had played such a vital part in the genesis of the great faith.

Most scientific facts at our disposal, such as recorded history, Near Eastern archaeological data, especially a large volume of deciphered inscriptions, deals with Western Iranians. Nonetheless, It must be safely assumed that, judging by the linguistic and archaeological evidence, the Eastern Iranians could not have been that different from their cousins in the West. It is, therefore, taken for granted in this lecture that the study of the Western Iranians covers both branched of the same people.


Western Iranians (See, Basirov, "The Genesis of the Iranian Peoples and Their National Identity", SOAS lectures, Dec. 1996, extracts from which are included in the present lecture) are classified into two distinct groups: nomadic and sedentary. Both groups have been dealt with in large volumes of historical records, and have left behind valuable archaeological material. The earliest known sedentary Western Iranians (or Indo-Iranian, to be precise) are the Mitanni who lived in the mid 2nd millennium BC in northern Mesopotamia. They worshipped the old Indo-Iranian gods, the Daevas/Devas, and appear to have followed the Ahuric/Asuric doctrine. This is shown in one of their surviving treaties where, the god Indra is invoked together with the first two Ahuras/Asuras, Mithra-Varuna.

Historical records are naturally more relevant to the settled western Iranians, especially the four great empires of the Medes, Achaemenians, Parthians & Sasanians. Nonetheless, classical sources have written a great deal about the nomadic western Iranians of the northern steppes who remained outside these four empires.


The earliest recorded nomadic western Iranians are the Cimmerians and Scythians. They make their first appearance at the beginning of the 8th century BC in Assyrian, and later in Greek literature. The Assyrians called the Cimmerians "GIMMIRI"; they conquered eastern Thrace, and most of modern Turkey more than a hundred years before the conquest of the West by the Medes and the Persians. They have left behind a wealth of archaeological material, including a vast number of mound-burials in western Asia Minor. They later helped the Medes to conquer the Assyrian Empire (see below).

The Scythians were called by the Assyrians "ISHKUZA, or ASHKUZ" (see below, n.2). According to the Greek records, they lived in southern Russia in the eighth century. However, recent archaeological evidence testifies that they had been there for thousands of years before that date (see below). They probably descend from the main body of the Iranians who lived in an area stretching from the west of the River Danube to the Taklamakan Desert in China. This vast territory now covers parts of Central Europe & the Balkans, the Ukraine, northern Caucasus, southern Russia, Central Asia, northern Afghanistan, southern Siberia, and western China.


Like other Iranians, these nomads probably called themselves by the generic term "Airya". This is testified inter alia by the native name of their descendants in the present day Europe (see below). However, it seems that they, or at least one of their powerful clans, also called themselves "SAKA" in the East, and "SKUDA" in the West. SKUDA is believed to be related to the German word "SACHS", meaning a type of throwing-dagger which the eponymic, Saxons used to carry and shoot with (there is also a wealth of familiar names in many different languages which owe their origins to the word SKUDA. Well known amongst them are USKUDAR in Istanbul, SOGDIA in Central Asia, SAKAVAND and SISTAN in modern Iran, and through Assyrian version ASHKUZ or ISHKUZA, the modern Hebrew word ASHKENAZI; see Zsemerényi, O., "Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names, Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian -Saka", Vienna, 1980). Indeed, it is possible that like the historical Saxons, the Skuda also derived their name from their ability to shoot. [cf. Franks]. The Skuda were known to the Greeks as SKÛTHIA, and to the Romans as SCYTHIAE (pronounced SKITYAI), which has given us the English word SCYTHIAN.


We know a great deal about their physical appearance; they were long-headed giants with blond hair and blue eyes. This well-known fact is attested by their skeletal remains in numerous archaeological excavations, and by various classical sources which give a fairly detailed description of these nomadic ancient Iranians. Recently, a number of their frozen and mummified bodies were discovered in Siberia and western China. The mummies, which are very well-preserved in the arid conditions of the Taklamakan Desert, are now on display at the museum of khotan in southern Sinkiang. They are dressed in Scythian leather trousers & tunic, and were found in the sitting position, exactly as described by Herodotus. What is really extraordinary apart from their northern European features, however, is their gigantic heights, well over two metres as they are now, in spite of the natural shrinkage expected during the past 3000 years.


The Scythians are believed to have been the first Indo-Europeans to domesticate the horse for riding (as opposed to eating). This theory has acquired fresh credibility after the recent discovery of horse skeletons belonging to the Sredny Stog culture east of the River Dniepr, a well-known pre-historical Scythian site in western Ukraine. These bones were identified as belonging to bitted, and therefore, ridden horses dating to 4000 BC, taking back the earliest known example by 2500 years.

Many Scythian tribes were lured by the sedentary life of the ancient Near East. They left the northern steppes intermittently and settled permanently in the South. These tribes are the direct forebears of the imperial Western Iranians, the Medes, Persians and lastly, the Parthians. However, a large number of Scythian warriors remained in the steppes; these were never completely subdued by the settled Iranians of the historical period.


A western branch of these nomadic Iranians is called by the Greeks as SARMATAI [Σαρματαε], Sarmatians in English, who lived in the Danube Valley and western Ukraine. It appears, however, that they, or perhaps another branch of the Scythians, called themselves "Alan", which has an identical etymological origin with the word "Iran". They are frequently mentioned by Greek, Roman, and Byzantine historians as late as the middle of the fifth century AD They ruled a vast territory stretching from the Caucasus to the river Danube, but were gradually driven westwards by the invading Huns. Their last king, called by the remarkably Modern Persian name of "Sangban", allied himself with the European coalition against Attila the Hun, and defeated him in southern France.


Fortunately for us, the Huns could not exterminate the Alans. Their descendants, known as Ossets, are the only Iranians who still live in Europe. They call their country "Iron", and are mostly Christians. They speak Ossetic, or as they themselves call it "Ironig", or "Ironski", which is classified as an Eastern Iranian language. Ossetic maintains on the one hand, some remarkable features of the Gathic Avestan, and possesses on the other, a number of words such as THAU (tauen to thaw, as in snow) and GAU (district, region) which are remarkably similar to their modern German equivalents.


The fact that Ossetic is an Eastern, rather than a Western Iranian language, has obviously created a major problem. This fact throws doubt on the Scythian ancestry of the sedentary Western Iranians. However, the question: "when, why, and how the Iranian languages came to be divided into the Eastern and Western branches?" has not yet been satisfactorily answered. It is obvious that the geography alone was not the cause of this division. For example, Ossetic, geographically the westernmost member of the group, belongs to the Eastern branch. While the Tashgurkan Tajik, the easternmost member in China, is a Western Iranian language. The Scythians, occupying such a vast territory, must have spoken both types of the Iranian languages. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that they were an incredibly mobile and migratory people. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the tribes, who ended up as the Alans & Ossets, spoke from the outset an Eastern Iranian dialect. And that, the traditional languages of those Scythians who gave us the Medes, Persians and Parthians belonged to the Western branch. The Medes represent the first group of Western Iranians who broke away from their the main body of the nomadic Scythians and assumed a sedentary life. When and by which route did these first imperial Iranians arrive in the West?


The Medes arrived on the Iranian plateau at the end of the second and beginning of the first millennium BC (Dandamaev, M., "The Cultural and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran", Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp.45-62). There are two possible migratory routes which they could have taken: through the Caucasus, and via the Central Asia. There is a division of opinion as to which route the Medes (and later the Persians) might have taken. The majority of the scholars still believe that, as with other sedentary Iranians such as the Parthians, the Medes came directly from the Central Asia via the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. This widespread hypothesis, however, is now being reconsidered, and it seems that the Caucasian route is gradually gaining grounds (Dandamaev, pp.1-6). It is important to know which route was taken, because as we shall see later, the westerly spread of Zoroastrianism was definitely via the south of the Caspian Sea.

The Medes are first mentioned in the Assyrian annals in 834 BC (Salmaneser III, see Boyce, HZII, p.7). They did not, however, appear to have had any military strength to impose a real threat to the Assyrian Empire during the next 150 years. It was not until the year 672 BC, that the Median king, khshathrita, supported by two nomadic western Iranian peoples, the Cimmerians and Scythians, rebelled against the Assyrian emperor, Esarhaddon (680-669). Fifty years later the Iranians achieved what was then considered an impossible task; they obliterated, once and for all, the hitherto invincible Assyrian Empire. In the year 614 BC the Median emperor, Cyaxares (Hvakhshathara II) captured Assur, the second city of that Empire. Two years later, Cyaxares, with the help of the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Babylonians captured Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and totally destroyed it. In 590 he seized the capital of Urartu, Tushpa (modern Van in Turkey), and annexed that mighty kingdom. Five years later, in 29th of May 585 BC, Cyaxares pushed the western boundaries of his empire to the river Halys (near modern Ankara). This exact date comes from the record of a famous solar eclipse during the battle between the Medes and the Lydians. In the same year, Cyaxares died leaving a powerful empire to his son, Astyages. Thirty five years later in 550 BC, Astyages' son-in-law, Cyrus the Great, founded the Achaemenian Empire (Dandamaev, ibid).

The following table of the Deiocid dynasty of the Median Empire has been reconstructed from the three available sources.


* Killed fighting Esarhaddon (680-669) [Hdt. I.102], but the latter's great victory over the Medes and their allies is known to have taken place in 672 BC




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