The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrian Funerary Laws (Part III)
By Dr Oric Basirov
Paper 13 - 23 November 1999
The last two lectures dealt with the a variety of funerary prohibitions
decreed by the laws of the Vendidad.
This lecture will examine the last of such prohibitions, namely the exhibition
of grief in mourning. This tradition is remarkable, not only because it defies
the natural feeling of sorrow, but also it contradicts the many classical
reports of the Iranian funerary customs.
MOURNING RITUALS IN ZOROASTRIAN TRADITION
Both the European and the Parsi accounts of the funerary rituals of
modern Zoroastrians would seem to confirm this approach. They state that a
period of mourning is treated as a happy occasion. Boyce, who has witnessed
several Zoroastrian funerals in Persia, maintains that such events are indeed
joyful, and often give rise to celebrations called Shadravani
(gladdening the soul). These funerary feasts (cf. pt.3, ch.1(e.i),
"Funerary banquet"), involve "singing, dancing, jesting,
story-telling, and the drinking of toasts" (Boyce, "Stronghold"
(1989), pp.160-1, and ns.44-6).
Joyful celebrations are also attested in funerals of the Mandaeans of
southern Iraq (Drower 1962; Modi, 1932, pp.17-91, esp. p.76), a religious sect
which shares many beliefs and rituals with the Zoroastrians (Drower, op. cit.,
pp.180-1; Modi, op. cit., p.76).
The restraint shown by modern Zoroastrians in displaying grief at
funerals, which stands in stark contrast to the mourning customs of the people
amongst whom they live, is not easy to fathom. It does not appear to be a recent
custom, acquired, say, from northern Europeans in colonial times. It seems to be
a very ancient tradition, which has nowadays few other adherents, except amongst
those imbued with northern European culture. Not only is this tradition absent
from the three religions we are familiar with in the West, but mourners are
occasionally encouraged to display as much anguish as they can, and that for a
long time. Such directives are clearly given in the Old Testament:
Weep bitterly and make great moan, and use lamentation, as
he is worthy, and that for a day or two, lest thou be evil spoken of: and
then comfort thyself for thy heaviness (Ecclesiasticus, ch.38, v.17, A.V. believed to have been written in
c.180 B.C; see Weber 1969).
By contrast, fighting off grief is logically to be expected from the
Zoroastrians, whose religion regards sorrow as an Ahrimanic phenomenon (Boyce,
"Stronghold" 1989, p.154). Hence, the bereaved are expected to keep
their emotions on the death of a close relative to themselves.
The real purpose of mourning, on the other hand, seems to be inexorably
linked with the concept of upaman (the
"staying" of the pollution caused by death) away from the faithful and
from every clean object. The significance of upaman and the pollution caused by the death to a close relative of
the deceased seems to lie in an unusual phenomenon, which may seem strange to
us. It appears that the members of the family of the deceased are considered
unclean by the mere fact that they are related to him, even if they have not
actually touched the corpse. The Vendidad
XII deals specifically with laws which govern the mourning rites of the close
relatives of the dead. These laws prescribe different periods of purification
for the members of the bereaved family. Close relatives are subjected to longer
periods of purification. It seems, therefore, that certain funerary rituals are
conducted as much for the salvation of the living, as for that of the departed
CLASSICAL REPORTS OF IRANIAN MOURNING RITUALS
Mardonius and the whole army showed the deepest distress at Masistius'
death; .... they shaved their heads, cut the manes of their horses and mules,
and abandoned themselves to such cries of grief that the whole of Boeotia was
loud with the noise of them; the Persians, in this typical fashion, were paying
their respects to the dead Masistius (IX.24-25).
also confirms the display of such emotions, and by no less person than Cyrus the
And even now Abradatas' wife Panthea has taken up his body for burial
...... and his eunuchs and servants are digging a grave upon a certain hill for
his dead body. When Cyrus saw the
lady sitting upon the ground and the corpse lying there, he wept ..... and the
wife wept aloud (Cyropaedia,
Herodotus' "typical loud cries of grief", and
Xenophon's "loud weeps" are mentioned again with varying
degrees of subtlety by many Roman writers, especially by all five biographers of
Alexander II of Macedonia. Curtius gives vivid accounts of this alleged funerary
tradition, when he describes the dowager empress and other noble ladies mourning
on receipt of the (false) news of the death of Darius:
Suddenly the (Macedonian) diners were alarmed by the sound of
lamentation, punctuated by typically non-Greeks shrieking and howling, coming
from the next tent. The reason for the sudden alarm was the lamentation of
Darius' mother and wife and the other noble captives: believing Darius dead,
they were raising a loud weeping and wailing in mourning for him (III.xii.3-4).
As with Herodotus, Curtius seems to distance classical culture from the
"typically Non-Greeks (practice of) shrieking and howling". Such an
exaggerated exhibition of grief, however, does not seem to have been alien to
the ancient Greeks and Romans (Iliad, XXIII, 1-30; the Greek "Ûλαω"
and Latin "ululatio" appear to be part of the early vocabulary of
those languages; they have been used to describe the conduct of both native and
foreign peoples; see Ovid, Metamorphoses,
VIII, 445-50; Virgil, Aeneid, IV,
Diodorus' account of the incident, although less graphic, still confirms
Curtius' "loud lamentations":
A great outcry and lamentation arose among the women; and the rest of
the captives, joining in their sorrow at the news, sent up a loud wail, so that
the king (Alexander) heard it in his tent
Other historians tend to give a more dignified description:
to some accounts .... Alexander heard .... the confused sound of women's voices
raised in lamentation (Arrian, II.12).
mother and wife and two unmarried daughters ...... were all in mourning and
sorrow, imagining him dead (Plutarch, "Alexander", XXI).
The original source of this story seems to be Ptolemy, either directly
(Quintus Curtius Rufus “Penguin 1988”, p.273, n.78), or quoted from the
works of Aristobulus (Arrian " Alexandri Anabasis" Penguin 1971,
The same dowager empress is reported by Curtius to have behaved in an
even more drastic manner ten years later upon hearing the news of the death of
She ripped off the clothes she wore, and assumed the dress of mourning;
she tore her hair and flung herself to the ground. Finally, she surrendered to
her sorrow. She covered her head, ... and withdrew simultaneously from
nourishment and the daylight. Five days after deciding on death, she expired (op. cit., X.v.19-24).
According to Plutarch and Curtius, not only women, but even men observed
this tradition. The emperor himself, upon hearing the news of his wife's death,
is alleged to have "beaten his head, burst into tears and
lamentations" (Plutarch, "Alexander", XXX), and "not only
groans but wailing could be heard throughout the camp" (Curtius, IV.x.29).
A similar exhibition of grief is reported by Justin about the Parthian
emperor, Orodes II, mourning his son, Pacorus (Justin, XLII.5). There are no
such classical (or Byzantine) reports from the Sasanian period, but Ferdowsi
describes the show of grief at public mournings during the funeral of the
emperors, Yazdgird I, and Peroz, and also that of the Sasanian prince, Nushzad (Ferdowsi, "The Shahnama", M.
Dabirsiaqi, Tehran 1956, IV. 1823; A.G.
& E. Warner, London 1905-25, VI. 393).
Schmidt identified reliefs of mourners depicted on virtually all known
Achaemenian royal tombs (Persepolis III
(1971): Darius I, pp.84, 87; "Xerxes", p.93; "Artaxerxes
I", p.95; "Darius II", p.98, and Pls. 60, and 61 & 61(B);
"Artaxerxes II", p.100; "Artaxerxes III", p.106, and Pl.72
(B); "the unfinished tomb of Darius III", p.107; only the tomb of
Darius I, however, is identified by its inscription). The attitude of mourning
in these reliefs is shown by the right hand hanging loose in front, and "by
the position of the fabric which is raised with the left hand to a point close
to the mouth" (op. cit., p.87, and n.61). This solemn gesture is still made
by Zoroastrian priests when reciting the confession for the dead (Boyce, HZII
(1982), p.93, n.20). Modern Zoroastrians also patently avoid the "typically
Non-Greeks shrieking and howling" that Curtius so vividly describes
(Ironically, however, it is a common practice amongst many modern Greeks and
Italians, who often supplement their own efforts by hiring professional funerary
shriekers and howlers; see Danforth, L.M., The
death Ritual of Rural Greece, Princeton University Press 1982, p.71), and
exhibit a great deal of self-control during the period of mourning.
Some archaeological evidence from western satrapies, on the other hand,
tend to depict less restrained mourning scenes in Achaemenian funerals in
conquered territories outside the Iranian homeland. The small Egyptian limestone
relief belonging to Mitrahine (von Gall, H., Zum Bildgehalt der graeco-persischen Grabstelen,
"Anatolia" 22 1989, p.150, & n.46), or to Mit-Rahina (Briant,
P., Darius les Perses et l'Empire,
"Découvertes Gallimard" 159, Evreux (1992), pp.90,91, & 170),
shows a dead Persian being mourned by wailing women. Similar scenes also
decorate the far more elaborate and famous "sarcophagus of the mourning
women" (Hamdy, O., & Reinach, T., "Une Nécropole Royale à Sidon",
Paris 1892). The women in these
reliefs, however, may not have been Persian.
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