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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 In the Vendidad I. 8 (Anklesaria), "tears and lament" are treated as Ahrimanic counter-creations. In the Arda Wiraz Namag (ch.57), some of the worst punishments in hell are allocated to women who weep (when mourning the dead [Interpreted as such by Modi1932, p.76]). Such an exhibition of grief is also strictly forbidden in the Rivayats of Hormazyar Faramarz, (Text 146-7).


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 soul.   


CLASSICAL REPORTS OF IRANIAN MOURNING RITUALS Several classical writers' accounts of Iranian funerals, on the other hand, report public exhibition of grief.  A description of Persians in mourning and their public exhibition of grief was first given by Herodotus:

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).


Xenophon also confirms the display of such emotions, and by no less person than Cyrus the Great:

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, VII.iii.4-9).


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, 665-70).


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 (XVII.xxxvii.3).


Other historians tend to give a more dignified description:

According to some accounts .... Alexander heard .... the confused sound of women's voices raised in lamentation (Arrian, II.12).


Darius' 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, p.123).


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 Alexander:

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).



ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE As with literary records, the archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. Such evidence from the Iranian homeland during the Achaemenian period suggests that the ancient Persian mourning was a very dignified and restrained affair.


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.   


CONCLUSION The solemnity of a modern Zoroastrian funeral, and the succeeding joyfulness during the period of mourning may have their origins in the Vendidad. Not only is grief considered an Ahrimanic phenomenon, but the period of mourning is dedicated by law to the performance of specific purification rituals. On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile such solemnity with the frequency of the historical references in a contrary sense on the subject of ancient Iranian funerals. The "typically non-Greeks shrieking and howling" that  Curtius so vividly describes is held in contempt by Zoroastrians. It is, however, a common practice amongst the Muslim Persians (The practices of tearing hair, clawing cheeks, pouring dust over the head, and rending clothes are common in Muslim funerals. Moreover, female relatives of the deceased often pretend to cast themselves after the coffin into the grave, and afterwards wallow in the fresh mud which has been piled up over the grave). The dignity shown during a period of mourning by Zoroastrians, however, may not have been the same in times of extreme calamity, such as, a catastrophic defeat, or death of a king.




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