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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrian Funerary Laws (Part I)


By Dr. Oric Basirov

Paper 11 - 9 February 1999



Zoroastrian funerary practices are in many ways unique, and possibly the most important rituals alienating the Iranian faith from virtually all other great religions. Moreover, one can state with a degree of certainty, that many Western Iranians also found these Eastern rituals too outlandish, as the laws governing them seem to have been honoured more by their breach than observance.


These two factors highlight the special significance of the study of the funerary traditions in Western Iran. They have also helped to determine the many features of the diverse funerary buildings discovered in this century throughout the Iranian world. The laws governing the Zoroastrian funerary practices are compiled in a copious work of prose, known as the Vendidad, meaning: "the law against the demons".




The Vendidad is the only prime source of reference on the Zoroastrian funerary laws, and the sole authority which relates these edicts (decreed as divine revelations) directly to the prophet. The funerary laws of the Vendidad seem, at the first glance, clear and specific. They only allow exposure, while any other practice is forbidden and constitutes a grave sin. Some of these prohibited practices, however, seem to have played a major part in the evolution of the funerary rituals in Western Iran.


By far the largest volume of these funerary edicts are devoted explicitly to the exposure of the dead. This obligatory practice is normally the only funerary rite required by the law. There are occasions, however, when two other rituals, neither of which is absolutely mandatory, are also observed, one before, and one after the exposure of the dead. The funerary laws, therefore, prescribe three successive rituals, each of which is required to take place in a specifically designated location. The first two can be described as the immediate, and intermediate destinations of the mortal remains, and the third, their final resting place. The first ritual is only allowed during the winter. It involves either the temporary consignment of the body to a specially designed building known as kata, or its temporary burial in a designated grave. These two lawful customs are occasionally confused with the forbidden practice of permanent burial.


These temporary interments are followed by the principal funerary ritual, the compulsory exposure of the corpse to the sunshine; this usually takes place in specifically designated natural sites, or in special buildings called daxmas. Finally, some Mazda-worshippers are required to collect the desiccated bones, and place them permanently in ossuaries. Ossuaries are subject to very few religious laws, and are mentioned in hardly any historical sources. Their existence and their use, however, are corroborated by the largest volume of archaeological material relevant to the Zoroastrian funerary tradition.


A great deal of evidence for daxmas, by contrast, comes from religious and historical literature, but this often cannot be independently verified by archaeological material. This is because exposure, unlike inhumation, does not leave behind conclusive archaeological evidence. This is especially the case when mountain tops and other natural surroundings have been used for this purpose. Nonetheless, some recently discovered funerary monuments in southern Iran and elsewhere appear to be specially-constructed private daxmas. 




Several funerary practices, which are either expressly forbidden, or logically ought to have been banned (See below, "Embalming”), seem to have played a major part in the evolution of funerary rituals in Iran. Burial as it was widely practised, is probably the most important example. Some other rites, however, although evidently not so common, are still prohibited, some in even more emphatic terms. The severity of these edicts, measured against the relative leniency of the laws banning interment, has led some (See below, "Burial") to believe that burial might not have been such a grave sin after all. In order to form an opinion on this controversial theory, it is necessary to examine other funerary restrictions first.




Some of the laws forbidding practices such as cremation, disposal to water, and eating of corpse are described below (References to the Avesta throughout this study come from the following sources: ch. and verse Nos., Geldner, 1896; quotations from the Vendidad (with minor amendments): Darmesteter, 1880 and Anklesaria, 1949; all other sources are separately identified):


Ahriman counter-created the unatonable sin of burning the corpses, to match the creation of Kakhra (An unknown land) by Ahura Mazda (The Vendidad, I.16).


A man who pulls a corpse out of a running stream, a well or a sheet of water will not be pollute dead body. (VI.26-41).


One who has eaten the corpse of a man, his house shall be destroyed, his life shall be torn out, his bright eye shall be put out; the Drug Nasu falls upon him, takes hold of him even to the end of the nails, and he is unclean thenceforth, for ever and ever (VII.23-24).


Those wicked ones who have brought corpses into the water and unto the fire can not be clean again, ... they are unclean, thenceforth, for ever and ever (VII.25-27).


They shall kill the man that burns the corpse; surely they shall kill him (VIII.73-74).


Several classical writers have reported these, and even more outlandish funerary practices from various corners of the Iranian world (Cremation: Xanthus of Lydia; Justin, "Epitome", XIX.I.10. Corpse-eating: Lucian, "De Luctu", 21.932.; Strabo, "Geography", XI.11.8). No irrefutable evidence, however, corroborates those reports. Archaeological material from prehistoric times indicates that cremation was intermittently practised in certain parts of both Eastern and Western Iran (Eastern Iran: Azarpay, 1981, pp.17-19, & n.40; Baluchistan: Frankfort, 1932, p.27; Marshall, 1973, vol.I, p.89; Lamberg-Karlovsky, 1972, p.104; Stein, 1929; Media: Burney 1969, p.166, & Fig.8 ”3”; Baghdad: JBBRAS, V, 1854, p.398; the evidence in the last three locations, however, probably represents Indian and Mesopotamian traditions). Any report of a more widespread prevalence of this custom, however, cannot be satisfactorily verified (See the "Andronovo culture", Boyce, HZI, 1989, p.112, & n.21). Nonetheless, several passages of the Vendidad are clearly related to this custom, and indeed, it is said to be meritorious to bring a corpse-burning fire to the daityo gatu (interpreted as the Atash Bahram [Darmesteter, 1880, pp.xc, 113, & n.1]) in order to restore the defiled sacred element to its former dignity (VIII.81).


Cremation and disposal of the dead in water are obviously forbidden in order to avoid contamination of the two most sacred elements by nasu. The reasons for these prohibitions, however, are not explicitly stated. It is merely forbidden to take dead matter to fire and water. What the law forbids may well have been occasional practices, rather than established customs. Hence, the surviving texts of the Vendidad give one the impression that these grave sins may have been insufficiently covered by the law.


The law, moreover, is silent about the widespread, and evidently well-established Scythian and the sedentary Western Iranian practice of embalming. This exclusion will be examined later; there is, however, yet another non-burial practice which is actually prohibited, but owing to an apparent mistake, is translated in Pahlavi as "burial". It is therefore more convenient to study this funerary custom (literally, casting away the corpse), in conjunction with other aspects of interment.




Several passages of the Vendidad openly denigrate burial as a grave, or even irredeemable sin. Nonetheless, a large volume of archaeological evidence suggests that interment was by far the most dominant funerary practice in Western Iran, at least until the Sasanian period. These two mutually exclusive facts, however, contain certain elements which cast some doubt on the rigidness of such a paradox. It will be argued later that not all the so-called tombs are what they seem. Similarly, the funerary laws forbidding burial do not appear, on closer examination, to be as uncompromising in every respect as one might have initially thought. However, one must make a clear distinction here between permanent and temporary burial. Whilst the former seems strictly prohibited, the laws in respect of the latter are more flexible; interment is in fact admissible in some special circumstances.




A linguistic problem throws some doubt upon any claim that burial is actually referred to in all the relevant laws of the Vendidad. The compound, nasa-niganih, meaning  corpse-burial, is the Pahlavi rendering of two distinct Avestan words: nasu-spaya and (nasu)-nikainti. Only the second Avestan word, however, can be reasonably translated in this way. The first, although clearly referring to disposal of the dead, does not seem to specifically convey the act of burial. Nasu-spaya is attested four times in the Avesta: three times in the Vendidad (I.13, III.41, VI.3), and once in Yasna 65. The first two examples are not even in a funerary context. The former passage describes an irredeemable, Ahrimanic sin to match the Ahuric creation of Arachosia. The second occurrence is in a list of sins which can be atoned for by confession. It is only in VI.3 that this word means "bringing dead matters" to the earth, water and plants. All three examples are translated in Pahlavi as "corpse-burial".


Humbach (Humbach (1961), pp.102-3), and Benveniste (Benveniste (1962), pp.39-43), have challenged the Pahlavi translation of this term and suggested "throwing away the corpse" as its correct meaning. This linguistic clarification has helped a great deal to unravel some mysteries of the Vendidad. Their assessment of the funerary implications of this correction, however, requires some further consideration. Both scholars have attributed this unlawful funerary practice specifically to Arachosia, with Humbach describing it as "a typical crime of the district of Haraxvaiti". He quotes from Indian sources describing a funerary tradition in which corpses are thrown away into places designated for such a purpose. He states further that a similar tradition probably existed in Iran where, unlike India, there may not have been a requirement to cast away corpses into a special place; that is to say, they could have been thrown away anywhere.


Humbach supports the existence of this tradition in Arachosia by quoting a passage from Pompeius Trogus, who gave the following account of the fate of Eucratides, the second century B.C. Greek king of Bactria (whose domain included Arachosia):


During the return journey from India, he was murdered by his son, whom he had made partner in his royal power. The son did not conceal his parricide, as though he had killed an enemy rather than his father, drove his chariot through his blood, ordering the corpse to be cast aside unburied “Justin,” (Trans. J.C.Yardley, 1994; See also Bivar, 1950, pp.7-13) 


The reference here surely cannot be to a Zoroastrian funerary tradition. There is no evidence to suggest that the Bactrian Greeks, especially the kings, ever exposed their dead. Trogus is probably expressing the traditional Greek horror of unburied bodies (Iliad, XVIII. 175-85, XXII. 335-50, XXIII. 20-25;  Eusebius, "Ecclesiastical History", IX, 9-13), and remarking on the gravity of the treatment received by Eucratides at the hands of his son. Humbach, moreover, treats nasu-spaya as being the equivalent of "the exposure of the corpse without respecting the rituals", or alternatively, that of "leaving the bodies found lying on the ground". Neither of these suppositions, however, seems reasonable, as both these acts are allowed under certain specific circumstances (VIII.3).


Benveniste's assessment of the funerary implications of this practice is more radical. He states that a corpse placed on the surface of the earth would contaminate not only the earth, but also the water and plants. It is, therefore, a greater sin than burial which pollutes only the earth. He points out the archaeological discoveries of many graves in Iran, and implies that interment may not have been considered such a grave sin after all (See below, "Burial, (nasu)-nikainti). Benveniste's reasons for regarding nasu-spaya as a greater sin than burial sound logical only in isolation. They do not seem to take account of the fact that most of the prohibitory laws are directed against (nasu)-nikainti "corpse-burial", and not nasu-spaya. It can be argued, moreover, that exposure (with the help of rain water) and nasu-spaya equally pollute the earth, water and plants, and yet the former, far from being considered a sin, is in fact a mandatory rite.


It is feasible that a funerary tradition involving corpses being "thrown away" did actually exist in some eastern parts of the Iran before the advent of the new faith. The Zoroastrian opposition to this practice however, cannot be easily understood. There seems hardly any difference between this ritual and those of exposing or abandoning a corpse, both of which are allowed.


The linguistic evidence is inconclusive. The Avestan verbal root, spa- (present, spaya-) means "to throw" or "to cast" (Bartholomae (1904), col.1615, 1spa). However, it is only with preverbs meaning "away" (fra, apa) that it seem to signify the act of throwing away or dumping. Without preverb, spa- appears to mean "to put (on the ground)" or "to drop" (Benveniste, op. cit., p.41; cf. Sogd. 'sp't- z'nwk "with knees put on the ground, kneeling"). The word nasu-spaya, therefore, does not necessarily mean "throwing away the corpse"; it could also mean "placing the body (on the ground)", a practice, which appears to be allowed by the laws of the Vendidad.


It may well be, therefore, that the new faith did not so much object to the act itself, but only to the choice of the places into which the bodies were traditionally dumped. Nasu-spaya may have been an Indo-Iranian funerary tradition, evidently preserved in India, where it actually involved throwing away the bodies (The Atharva-veda (XVIII.2.34), lists the following four modes of the disposal of the dead, evidently considered lawful: burial, throwing away, cremation, and exposure; Geiger, 1885, p.89, n.1), possibly into the lakes and rivers (Casting partly cremated bodies into the river Ganges is still the standard funerary practice in India). In Iran, it may have been especially prevalent in Arachosia, a frontier district next to India. Such an act, if it ever involved rivers and lakes, would have been considered as unlawful by early Zoroastrians.


The Pahlavi commentators on the Vendidad, as stated above, ignored the correct meaning of nasu-spaya, and treated it as synonymous with nasu-nikainti, meaning "corpse-burial". This could perhaps be explained by the following assumptions: that they did not know the meaning of the Avestan verbal root, spa-, and its derivatives; or that the Pahlavi equivalents of these words did not exist; or that such Pahlavi equivalents did exist, but had evolved to assume different meanings (In the Dadistan-i Dinik [Anklesaria, 1976) pt.I, Q.40.6] the word, spayeiti is written in Avestan and left untranslated). The translators, in any of these cases, might reasonably have used "burial" as the most suitable alternative.


Alternatively, the inaccurate rendering of this word may have been a deliberate theological compromise deemed necessary in view of the contradictory nature of the relevant passages of the Vendidad (A similar hypothesis has been used to explain the far more significant mystery of daxma/daxmag). It can be reasonably assumed that nasu-spaya, if it ever existed at all in the West, was not widely practised there. The Western Iranian translators of the Vendidad were, therefore, probably unfamiliar with the practical side of that forbidden tradition. In such a case, they could not have made an accurate connection between the Avestan term nasu-spaya (assuming they knew its correct meaning) and any known funerary practice.


The law, however, allows a distinct mode of the disposal of the dead, which may have been confused with the forbidden practice of nasu-spaya. Such a confusion is feasible in view of the strong similarity between the act of "throwing away the corpse" and that of "abandoning the body at the place of death" without taking it to a daxma, or performing the proper funerary rituals. The second funerary practice must have been observed throughout Iranian history by such sections of the population as the army during a campaign, and nomadic people. According to some, it may also have been observed by many urban communities. The confusion of this lawful funerary ritual with the forbidden act of nasu-spaya would naturally have created a dilemma for the commentators on the Vendidad. It may have seemed to them that the law both allows and prohibits the "same" funerary rite. Their translation of nasu-spaya as "burial", however, would have resolved this dilemma.



For Part II, please Click Here




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