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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrian Funerary Laws (Part II)


By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 12 - 16 February 1999




It was stated in Lecture 13 that the Avestan word, nasu spaya, meaning "throwing away the corpse", is attested in the Vendidad three times (I.13, III.41, VI.3), all of which have been translated into Pahlavi as nasa-niganih, meaning "burial of the corpse". Apart from these three cases, all other examples of the Pahlavi word, niganih, in the Vendidad are direct renderings of the related Avestan word, nikainti, which clearly means "burial".


The prevalence of burial throughout the Iranian history cannot be easily explained in view of the clear religious laws against it. These laws may have evolved because of a belief that in Zoroastrian eschatology, the location of hell is beneath the earth (This may have also applied to the pre-Zoroastrian eschatology, where burial in the ground was believed to convey the soul to an Indo-Iranian version of Hades located beneath the earth; see Boyce, HZI, 1989, p.328). This is clearly stated in the Vendidad as:


He who does not give from the fruit of his labour to the righteous man (priest) shall fall down into the darkness of earth, into the place of corruption (the grave), the dismal realm, down into the house of hell (III.35)


Several edicts of the Vendidad dealing with the rite of exposure also emphasise that the exposed body should be positioned facing the sun. Taking these two points together, Boyce suggests that Zoroastrian funerary rites may have been influenced by a belief that the location of hell is beneath the ground, and that of heaven, up in the sky (ibid). The presumed location of heaven and hell may have influenced the conduct of the funerary rituals. Laws prohibiting interment, however, seems to have been based mainly on the need to protect the earth from the pollution of nasu.


The continuous violation of these laws requires a closer look at the relevant passages of the Vendidad. Burial is attested in III.8,12,36-38, and in VII.47-48. In III.8, Spentâ Armâiti (the earth) feels the second most painful grief in the place where most bodies are buried (the most painful grief being felt where hell is located). In III.12, the first person to give her the greatest joy is the one who digs out those buried bodies from her. In VII.47-8, it takes 50 years for buried bodies to turn into dust. These divine condemnations, however, are not supported by corresponding prohibitions. Nor are they enforced by suitably effective punishments. Unlike cremation, disposal in water, nasu-spaya and corpse eating, burial does not appear to have been regarded as a very grave sin. It does not attract such severe penalties as death, the gouging out of eyes, house demolition, or perpetual pollution (See Lecture 13, a). Indeed, there seem to be no penalties for the act itself. They are only imposed if corpses are not exhumed within a prescribed time: 500 lashes if they stay buried for six months (III.36), and 1000, for a year (III.37), after which the sin becomes irredeemable (III.38-9).


Such relative leniency has led some to believe that burial may not have been such a grave sin after all (Benveniste 1963, op. cit., Grenet, 1992, p.559). These views aim, at least by implication, at rationalising burial in the context of the Zoroastrian religion. They do not, however, seem to take account of the clear distinction made by the laws between permanent and temporary burial. There are special circumstances when burial becomes unavoidable. The authors of the Zoroastrian funerary laws realised this, and allow interment on those occasions, but only on a strictly temporary basis. The penalties imposed in III.36-9, clearly refer to temporary burial. Any degree of permanency is probably as unlawful as other funerary prohibitions, because the sin becomes irredeemable after the body remains buried for more than one year.


Two specified places are designated by the law for temporary interment: beneath the private grounds of the house, and within the katas. Hence, there are two separate bodies of legislation concerning this practice, and two different forms of punishment safeguarding its strictly temporary status.



Laws sanctioning this ritual are clear and self explanatory:

O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! if in the house of a worshipper of Mazda a dog or a man happens to die, and it is raining, or snowing, or blowing, or the darkness is coming on, when flocks and men lose their way, what shall the worshippers of Mazda do? (VIII.4.)


Ahura Mazda answered:

The place in that house whereof the ground is the cleanest and the driest, and least passed through by flocks and herds, by Fire, the son of Ahura Mazda, by the consecrated bundles of baresma, and by the faithful'(VIII.5)


'On that place they shall dig a (grave), half a foot deep if the earth is hard, half the height of a man if the earth is soft; They shall cover the surface of it with dust of bricks, of stones, or of dry earth'. (VIII.8)


'And they shall let the lifeless body lie there, for two nights, or three nights, or a month long, until the birds begin to fly, the plants to grow, the floods to flow, and the wind to dry up the waters off the earth' (VIII.9)


.......'then the worshippers of Mazda shall make a breach in the wall of the house, and they shall call two men, strong and skilful, and those, having stripped their cloths off, shall take the body to the building of clay, stones, and mortar, raised on a place where they know there are always corpse-eating dogs and corpse-eating birds' (VIII.10)</B>


The penalties imposed in chapter III.36-9 refer, no doubt, to this practice. In this case, the six months period of interment (which was punishable with 500 lashes in III.36) should perhaps be modified as referring to a period between one (VIII.9) and six months. The law seems clear in VIII.10, that any such temporary burial should not result in excarnation, otherwise there is little point in removing the body to "a place where there are always corpse-eating dogs and birds". One would naturally expect that after a long period of interment only the bones would remain, and these should be treated with a degree of respect as prescribed in VI.50. That is to say, they should be deposited in "a place out of the reach of the dog the fox and the wolf" (see pt.5, ch.2). Digging a temporary grave in a quiet corner of the grounds outside the house clearly suggests a rural environment.



Katas are the first of the three consecutive sepulchral buildings the construction of which is enjoined by the law.  Unlike temporary graves, they seem more suitable for urban surroundings, and were probably designed for successive use. The Katas' role in dealing with death during unfavourable weather is governed by a different set of laws:


O Maker of the material world, if the summer is past and the winter has come, (when a man dies) what shall the Mazda-worshippers do?  Ahura Mazda answered: 'in every house, in every borough, they shall raise three small houses, kata (Other occurrences of this word in the Vendidad: II.26, and as kato.masah- as big as a house, in XIX.4), for the dead.'          -how large shall be those houses for the dead?         -Large enough not to strike the skull, or the feet, or the hands of the man, if he should stand erect, and hold out his feet, and stretch out his hand: such shall be, according to the law, the houses for the dead.'  'And they shall let the lifeless body lie there, ... until the birds begin to fly, the plants to grow, the floods to flow, and the wind to dry up the waters from off the earth.'  'The Mazda-worshippers, (as soon as the     weather permits) shall lay down the dead (on the daxma) his eyes towards the sun.' 'If they have not within a year, laid down the dead (on the daxma) his eyes towards the sun, thou (Zoroaster) shalt prescribe for that trespass the same penalty as for the murder of one of the faithful' (V.10-14).</B>


These laws clearly permit what appears to be an inhumation for a maximum period of one year before exposure. The relatively long period of one year (compared with one month in a temporary grave) is not easy to fathom. The shorter period is probably an attempt to minimise the pollution of the earth. Alternatively, katas, in spite of being roofed, may have been treated as temporary daxmas. Consignment of bodies there, therefore, was not probably seen as burial, but temporary exposure, albeit, without the essential ingredient of the sunshine. Further, the different time limits allowed for inhumations in katas and graves could have been governed by the sanctity of the bones, and the need to preserve them intact and dry. Bones would deteriorate much quicker in the dampness of an underground grave than in the relative insulation of a raised and roofed structure.


Katas may owe their origin to the prehistoric graves and other sepulchral buildings which were commonly used in Iran. Several archaeological sites have yielded traces of these non-Zoroastrian inhumations in various parts of the Iranian world. Noteworthy amongst them are intramural inhumations under the floors of the dwellings, those of infants within the walls of the buildings, and many small, box-like extramural inhumations close to the houses (Dandamaev 1989, pp.7-11, esp. p.8; 1). The only corroboratory evidence for the existence of katas during the Zoroastrian period comes from the excavations in Khwarezm. Soviet archaeologists have unearthed on this site many small chambers built close to dwellings which are identified as katas (Tolstov, S., Annales du l'Histoire ancienne, 1941, p.175., apud Ghirshman 1948, p.300, & n.13). In spite of the meagre archaeological evidence, the existence of a divine mandate for the construction of katas, and the extreme climatic variations in many parts of Iran, strongly indicate that they may have been widely used, at least during the winter.


After the Islamic conquest, katas may have given rise to two new Iranian funerary traditions, one Zoroastrian, and the other Muslim (They may be the origin of the strictly Shiite practice of amanat where the body is temporarily interred, often in a wall, in anticipation of removing it at a convenient time to a permanent resting place; see amanat gozashtan, DihKhuda VII 1968 p.150). They seem to be the precursors of the Zoroastrian nasa-khana or zad-marg (Jackson (1906, pp.389-91) calls them zad-o-marg, lit. "birth and death".). The latter, first mentioned by du Perron, is described as a small mud house where the corpses are deposited until they can be removed to the daxma (Anquetil du Perron, Zend-Avesta, vol.II, p.583; apud Darmesteter 1880, p.52, n.2). Modi calls them margzad and places them exclusively amongst the Iranis; he refers to their Parsi equivalent as nasa-khana (Modi (1905), p.7; n.10).




The laws are unlikely to have forbidden a practice which did not exist, and they seem to have covered all known methods of the disposal of the dead by the sedentary Eastern Iranians. In the western parts of the Iranian world, however, possibly before the arrival of the new faith, and certainly for a very long time afterwards, a well known funerary custom was being practised which is not mentioned in the Vendidad. It involved covering the body with a coat of wax, or even properly mummifying it, before either burying it in the ground, or placing it in a burial cist or in a sealed sarcophagus within a mausoleum (Herodotus, I, 104). This funerary custom was traditionally practised by the imperial family, the nobility, high-ranking army officers, and probably the well-to-do members of the community.


The sedentary Eastern Iranians however, as far as it is known, did not practise mummification (There is certainly no archaeological evidence for it; however, nomadic Eastern Iranians, e.g. Scythians, did practise embalming). This is surprising, because nomadic Scythians, according to a great deal of historical and archaeological evidence, traditionally did so (Herodotus, IV.71; Minns, 1913, pp.149-240).  It seems strange, therefore, that the sedentary branch of the same people were apparently unaware of this custom. This problem cannot be easily resolved, especially in view of the extreme antiquity of some of the archaeological material supporting the existence of this tradition in Ukraine, and southern Russia (ibid). Embalming was also practised in Egypt and elsewhere in the Near East. Persians and possibly also Medes may have either inherited it from their Scythian kinsmen or adopted it from the Mesopotamians (According to Herodotus, the Babylonians may have embalmed their dead; I, 198, before placing them in tombs I, 187). This funerary custom was practised in Persia until the end of the Sasanian era. As with burial, there is a conspicuous discrepancy between the literary records and the archaeological evidence on the one hand, and the laws laid down by the Vendidad on the other. In spite of the absence of any specific textual reference to embalming, one can still assume that this act, which makes an attempt to preserve the corrupt flesh, must have been regarded by the Zoroastrian clergy as a sin. The ordinary non-clerical Western Iranians, on the other hand, may not have felt it to be an impiety. Nonetheless it is difficult to explain the continued practice of this funerary custom even under Sasanians when the clergy is believed to have exercised considerable control over the conduct of the laity.


It is indeed most striking that there is an absence of any reference to embalming in the Vendidad. An obvious explanation appears to be that, unlike the sedentary Western Iranians, their eastern cousins, who after all composed the text, had already abandoned this custom. While the western clergy who may have wished to prohibit this impiety did not seems to have the linguistic ability to compose new edicts in Avestan and include them in the accepted religious tradition.


It could be argued that such a prohibition may be found in the passages of the Vendidad dealing with the word daxma. These sepulchral buildings are often described, incongruously enough, as places of corruption. Many scholars have sought to identify the mausoleums containing waxed corpses with the daxmas of the Vendidad. The ambiguity with which the daxmas are described are a perplexing problem, which will be discussed in detail later.


The identification of daxmas as mausoleums may tempt some to present a case for the existence (or even a later inclusion) of a prohibition on waxing the corpse. This, however, is unlikely to have been the case; in the first place the daxmas of the Vendidad were probably places of exposure and not tombs, as will be argued later. Secondly, if there had been a prohibition on embalming, there would surely have been some specific reference to the actual practice of waxing the corpse, and not merely a condemnation of the sepulchral building which housed the mummified body. Thirdly, not all of the waxed bodies were kept in mausoleums, they were often buried beneath the ground.



CONCLUSION The funerary prohibitions of the Vendidad, especially the laws banning burial, must have clashed directly with the established practices of the western Iranians when their land became the centre of Zoroastrianism. The incompatibility between what the Persians actually did with their dead, and what they should have done according to their religious tradition, has to be considered as the legacy of such a cultural clash.


Cremation and disposal in water were probably not practised on any significant scale in the West. The relevant prohibitions of the new religion, therefore, do not seem to have made a great impact on the traditional ways of the disposal of the dead in the West. The Persians, nonetheless, never showed any willingness to adopt cremation from any conquered nation, in spite of the fact that the Iranian funerary practices in the West have always had a markedly eclectic nature.


The forbidden practice of nasu-spaya, probably little known in the West in any event, may have been confused with the lawful custom of abandoning the body at the place of death. Such confusion, or perhaps the unfamiliarity of the western clergy with this word, may have led them to translate it erroneously as burial in order to convey the fact that it was forbidden.


The prevalence of burial in western Iran, and the assumed leniency of the laws forbidding it, have led some scholars to regard it as a less grave sin. Further attempts have been made to rationalise the existence of tombs in a Zoroastrian context. It must be borne in mind, however, that only temporary burial is occasionally allowed, and that permanent interment is probably as grave a sin as any.


Embalming, another widespread practice in the West, is not mentioned in the Avesta. It has been suggested in the present study that this custom had been abandoned by the sedentary Eastern Iranians by the time they composed the Avesta, and that the western clergy did not have the linguistic ability to amend the sacred texts to include it as a new prohibition.


  For Part III, please Click Here




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