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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Evolution of the Zoroastrian Iconography
By: Oric Basirov
Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies at SOAS,
25 January 2001
AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDS
Many scholars, probably the majority, date Zoroaster to the early second millennium B.C. This would make him the earliest of the great thinkers, and the first of the great profits; he is, therefore, credited with initiating the many basic religious principles now taken for granted. The list is truly formidable; indeed, with him the use of the adjective "first" becomes very repetitive: the first revealed faith; the first moralist; first eschatologist; he taught us such prominent concepts as the Heaven, Hell and the Limbo, the Final and Individual Days of Judgment, the coming of the Messiah, Resurrection, and such routine duties as prayers, ablution, sermons, confession of sins, seeking repentance, and many other sacred rituals . Nonetheless, in spite of all the fundamental doctrines attributed to him, his teachings lack in some elementary and practical concepts shared by other great faiths; for example, in the surviving verses of the Gathas, believed to be his personal contribution to the holy texts of Avesta, there is no reference, to imagery, or to any building, whether devotional or sepulchral .
Hence, to an orthodox Mazda worshipper, adhering strictly to the Gathas, the very concept of "iconography and temple cults" must be an anathema. The great prophet himself, after all, does not seem to have encouraged such religious paraphernalia.
This doctrinal aversion to imagery could perhaps be deduced from one of his extra ordinary innovations, the seven abstract and amorphic deities, the Amesha Spentas (bounteous immortals) . They probably represent the very first purely conceptual pantheon with a built-in deterrent to artistic representation. Moreover, his prescribed venues for daily rituals were natural sites, such as, mountain tops, river banks, i.e., not temples or icons. We are therefore, faced with a faith requiring devotion in its purest and simplest form. [2 maps]
requirement seems to have been rigorously observed, for a long time, not only in
Eastern Iran, abbreviated to "the East", which embodies the birth
place of the prophet somewhere in south western Siberia, but also in Western
Iran, "the West", where the centre of the religion moved early in the
first millennium B.C.
OF EARLY ZOROASTRIAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
late as the last decades of the Median Empire, i.e., the mid 6th century B.C.,
archaeology is of little help in providing any direct and irrefutable evidence
for even the establishment of the faith in the West. The Iranian religion as yet
possessed no temples or any written liturgy .
Its supreme "Wise Lord" and lesser abstract deities did not lend
themselves to any artistic representation. Even the anthropomorphic gods of the
old religion do not appear to have inspired any religious iconography .
None of its many rituals, such as the veneration of fire, had yet been
artistically reproduced. It seems, therefore, that for many centuries after its
arrival in the West, Zoroastrianism possessed hardly any religious symbolism or
imagery. Moreover, by banning burial, the faith has denied the archaeologists an
indispensable tool of their profession, i.e., funerary paraphernalia, such as,
tombs, coffins, sarcophagi, mausoleums, grave goods, and of course, integral
skeletal remains .
EVIDENCE OF THE ABOVE
Such dearth of archaeological evidence is corroborated by the surviving literary records:
Medes and early Achaemenians may indeed have observed their national faith in its purest form; however, the latter, soon after forming the first world empire in history, proved to be more pragmatic. Inspired by the artistic repertoire of their western subjects, such as the Elamites, Babylonians, Greeks and Egyptians, it didn't take the Persians very long to create the many aspects of, by now, familiar Zoroastrian iconography; nor did the they seem to have had any qualms about burying their dead in elaborately decorated mausoleums; nor could they refrain from committing the sacrilege by building temples, not only to house the sacred fire, but also the divine images.
ONE: THREE EXAMPLES OF ZOROASTRIAN ICONOGRAPHY
XVARANAH (the anthropomorphic winged disc) [Blue 1-6)
(Median *farnah, Middle Persian Fravahar, Modern Persian Forouhar),
a pre-Zoroastrian divine fire and water concept, became synonymous with kings'
celestial fortune, and his divine mandate to wield political authority; indeed,
an entire Yasht (Yt.19) is dedicated to this deity, in which it is normally
portrayed as a bird, particularly a falcon (e.g., Yt.19, 34-38).
the early imperial times it had acquired an icon in its well known shape; this
idea was borrowed directly from the Assyrians, who had already added a human
figure to the originally Egyptian winged disc. This image became widespread
throughout the empire, and was regularly depicted on reliefs and on many seals;
it was always given the position of highest prominence, usually hovering above
the monarch's head; this led some early archaeologists to interpret it as the
image of Ahura Mazdah .
At the end of the 19th century, modern Zoroastrians adopted this image as the
official symbol of their faith.
(bundle of sacred rods) [Red 1-5]
recurrent device, also used from the Achaemenian times onwards, was a man
holding a bundle of rods, the Avestan Baresman
(Middle Persian Barsom). The Baresman was apparently by origin a handful
of twigs on which the sacrifice was laid, and its use goes back (as the
Brahmanic parallels show) to proto-Indo-Iranian, or even Indo-European 
times. This practice was evidently adopted by the new faith to accompany
certain prayers. It later formed an important element of the religious
iconography created by the Persians under the artistic influence of their
ALTERS [Green 1,3-6,8-10]
is an essential element in the mythology of the Indo-European peoples; many
irrefutable archaeological and historical evidence testify to its veneration by
and several other members of this group. However, the prominence given to fire
by Zoroaster is unprecedented in its scope and originality. In Zoroastrian
cosmogony, fire is created by Asha Vahishta (best Asha), with the help of the
old Iranian fire-god, Atar. Fire is, therefore, the primary element of Asha, the
cosmic order, which controls the material world, and represents moral standards
and righteousness by which the mortals are judged.
could logically deduce from the above that the Gathas should have contained
references to a consecrated fire, and to a sacred place for its safe-keeping. It
is also reasonable to assume that at least a primitive temple cult of fire must
have existed in early Zoroastrian times which gradually developed into the
modern fire-temples. Unfortunately, one cannot substantiate either of these two
assumptions with irrefutable evidence.
the surviving verses of the Gathas, there is no reference to a consecrated fire,
or to a special building or container to house, support, hold or transport it.
The second assumption would also be challenged by a variety of literally and
archaeological evidence. Many scholars believe that there were no Zoroastrian
fire temples before 400 B.C .
There is, however, little doubt about the existence of an Iranian fire cult in
pre-Zoroastrian times .
Moreover, in spite of the lack of reference in the Gathas, one must assume that
such veneration was strengthened further by teachings of Zoroaster.
reverence of fire by the Achaemenians is attested in many ways, and most
strikingly by the carving above the mausoleum of Darius the Great. This
well-known relief, repeated above each of his successors' tombs, shows the king
standing in an attitude of reverence before a blazing fire, raised in an alter.
Blazing fire in such a holder, often with worshippers beside it, became from
then on a standard element in Zoroastrian iconography. It appears on Achaemenian
carvings and seals, and as a fixed device on the reverse of the Persis and
Sasanian coins. Many carvings from the Achaemenian and Sasanian periods, and
countless seals and coins depict the king standing before a pedestal supporting
a flaming fire. Fragments of some of these fire-holders have actually been found
in Pasargadae, and dated to the 6th century B.C. They are waist-high (112 cm)
with a bowl hollowed out 13 inches, which is deep enough to hold a thick bed of
hot ash, and therefore capable of sustaining an ever-burning fire .
Such fire-holders were evidently representative of the kings own hearth or
personal fire. Later, they became the monarchs' dynastic or regnal fires. These
fires were put out during the kings' funeral ,
and rekindled at the succession of their heirs .
It is assumed that these holders were surmounted by a metal fire-bowl, as the
examples from Pasargadae show no signs of charring .
This would have enabled the fire to be moved. Quintus Curtius Rufus describes
the army of Darius III carrying a fire upon a silver altar at the head of its
Xenophon reports that the army of Cyrus the Great carried fire in a brazier .
Professor Mary Boyce believes that the same emperor moved his father's fire from
Anshan, the provincial Achaemenian capital, to Pasargadae, the newly-built
centre of the Persian Empire .
Later, at the beginning of the Sasanian times, we have the evidence of the
letter of Tansar, the chief minister of Ardashir I; it states that after the
death of Darius III, each local king built his own dynastic fire .
Sasanian emperors regarded the dynastic fires as the main symbol of their
TWO: DEVELOPMENT OF THE TEMPLE CULTS
The long history of Zoroastrian temple cults concerns the veneration of both sacred fire and divine images. The basic elements of the development of this cult in Iran is often more readily perceived by starting from the wrong end.
assertions are generally shared by most scholars, and there seems little doubt
about the 4th century B.C. dating of the establishment of the cult of divine
images. The dramatic events of the 4th century B.C., therefore, make it
necessary to treat this date as a significant dividing line between the study of
the early fire-cult, and that of the later temple-cults. Starting this time the
right-way-round, we shall examine the events leading to the establishment of the
two distinct types of temple, which separately housed the sacred fires, and the
The 54 years long reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 B.C.) witnessed many important and long-lasting political  as well as religious developments in Iran; in the latter field, at least four significant reforms dramatically altered the character of the Iranian national faith. These developments survived for a very long time, two of which became permanent features of the Zoroastrian religion. They are as follows:
we are only concerned with the last two reforms; it is believed that the
institution of the temple cult of divine images may have actually led to the
establishment of fire temples.
SYNCHRONISATIONS (see the diagrams below)
Already in the pre-Zoroastrian West, at least three western Iranian deities had been reconciled with three Babylonian gods: Mithra with Shamash, An_hiti with Ishtar, and Tiri with Nabu. It seems that Zoroastrianism, after arriving in Western Iran, found it prudent to absorb two of these Babylonianised Iranian deities: Anahiti and Tiri. Mithra presented no problems, as he was also revered in the Zoroastrian religion. The Western An_hiti, the goddess of the planet Venus, was matched up with Anahita, the Eastern river goddess; and Western Tiri, the divinity of the planet Mercury, became Tishtrya, the Eastern divinity of the star Sirius, the dog-star. These gods assumed the personalities of their Babylonian counterparts on top of their original Iranian ones. Hence, at some stage, probably during the reign of Darius II , Mithra was associated with the sun (Shamash), Anahit_ with Venus (Ishtar), and incredible it may seem, Tishtrya, the dog-star, with the planet Mercury (Nabu).
SYNCHRONISATIONS IN THE WEST BEFORE THE ARRIVAL OF ZOROASTRIANISM
SYNCHRONISATIONS IN THE WEST AFTER THE ARRIVAL OF ZOROASTRIANISM
spite of such synchronisations, the Achaemenian kings, up to and including
Darius II (424-405 B.C.), reserved their sole devotion for Ahura Mazdah, and
never named other deities in their inscriptions except as "the other
gods". Artaxerxes II (405-358 B.C.), the elder son of Darius II and
Parysatis, broke this tradition and named An_hit_ and Mithra after Ahura Mazdah.
The real significant inclusion here appears to be An_hit_, and not Mithra, who
was after all one of the three Ahuras (supreme Lords) of the old Iranian
OF THE TEMPLE CULT OF DIVINE IMAGES AND FIRE
however, went further than naming other gods after Ahura Mazdah, he actually set
up statues to An_hit_. This act, probably seen by the Zoroastrians as a
blasphemy, is blamed on the Queen Mother's Babylonian sympathies .
the third century B.C. Babylonian priestly scholar states that "After a
long period of time, they (Persians) began to worship statues in human form,
this practice having been introduced by Artaxerxes son of Darius ..... who was
first to set up statues of Aphrodite Anaitis, at Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana,
Persepolis, Bactria, Damascus and Sardis, thus suggesting to those communities
the duty of worshipping them" .
Artaxerxes' brother, Cyrus, also appears to have venerated An_hit_; it is,
therefore, reasonable to assume that the reverence of the goddess
was already a family tradition, and that Darius and Parysatis had
established her cult in a few chapels or temples, at least at the palace, and
their son went further by imposing her worship with cult-statues and temples
throughout the empire .
Zoroastrians must have been deeply offended by these blasphemies. The imposition
of an alien cult on a community with at least a thousand years of religious
orthodoxy behind them must have required an extraordinary zeal and determination
which the mild-mannered Artaxerxes 
evidently lacked. Parysatis, the Queen Mother, who dominated her son's long
reign, is generally held responsible for this heterodoxy; her ruthless
determination and her Babylonian origin indicate a burning devotion to Ishtar/
Anaiti and a consuming passion to have her worship established amongst the
Zoroastrians, everywhere, at whatever cost .
It is believed that, as an orthodox reaction to this act of royal sacrilege, the devout followers of the prophet made a counter move and established temples to house the sacred fire as the only icon proper for their devotion. Such a momentous step could not have been taken without the royal assent. There is no evidence that the emperor was anything but a Zoroastrian, albeit, perhaps not an orthodox one.
assent therefore, was probably given willingly. Fire temples, from then on,
became permanent features of Zoroastrian devotional rituals, with some even
being named after the pre-Zoroastrian deities, such as, Bahram, Anahita and
Mithra. It seems, that it was not until very recently when they were decorated
with any iconography.
OF TEMPLE CULT OF DIVINE IMAGES 400 B.C. TO 224 A.D.
Empire barely survived the death of Artaxerxes II in 358 B.C. In less than
thirty years, it was dealt a death blow by Alexander of Macedon, known in
Zoroastrian sources as "Alexander the Damned". It didn't, however,
take the Iranians very long to establish their third and penultimate Zoroastrian
empire which lasted for 500 years. Parthians, who succeeded the Achaemenians in
250 B.C., were devout, but heterodox Zoroastrians. Under their long rule, not
only many more temples for divine images were built throughout the empire, but
further synchronisations were actively encouraged, this time with the Greek
deities. Their tolerant and liberal rule stretched over a large number of
federated vassal kingdoms, all the way from the Euphrates to the Indus. One of
the most colourful member of this federation was the kingdom of Kushan,
corresponding to the present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Kushan vassal kings
although some undoubtedly Zoroastrian, did nonetheless, decorate their coins
with images composed of Iranian, Greek, Mesopotamian and Indian deities. They
even produced images of the Amesha Spentas, whom Zoroaster seems to have taken
so much pain to depict as abstract and conceptual deities only. It is still
difficult to imagine how can any one paint a picture of concepts, such as,
bounteous devotion, or best righteousness, or good thoughts.
[Red 7-9, Blue-7-13]
A.D.224-637 [Blue 14-20] [Green 11-20] [Red 10-14]
last of the four Zoroastrian empires of ancient Iran was undoubtedly the most
devout and orthodox one; modern Zoroastrians are the surviving remnant of that
formidable semi theocrasy. Forbearers of Ardashir, their founder, were the
vassal kings of Pars under the Parthians; they were also the hereditary
guardians of, not the famous fire temple of Adur Farnabag (explain), as one
might logically imagine, but that of the equally famous temple of Anahita in
Istakhr. They are, therefore, the last people one would expect to initiate the
very first iconoclastic movement in history. Nonetheless, that is exactly what
they did as soon as they defeated the Parthians and formed their own empire. All
temples of divine images, including their own Anahita, were stripped of their
icons and converted into fire temples. The tolerant vassal kingdom of Kushan,
with its many converts to Buddhism may have received an especial treatment,
which probably constitutes the very first act of religious intolerance in
Zoroastrian history. Not only the Zoroastrian image temples, but also the
Buddhist ones, together with their cult statues and other works of art appear to
have been destroyed; from then on the word Buddha was demoted in Persian
language to mean idol; all modern Iranian languages, as well as many others,
still use the Sasanian terms, butparast, meaning Buddha-worshipper, to
describe an idolater, and butshekan, "Buddha-smasher", as an
iconoclast. This act of licensed vandalism was gratuitously copied, first by the
Christians and later by Islam, with devastating consequences for the artistic
heritage of virtually every culture conquered by those two religions.
view of the above, one would logically expect that the Sasnians must have
returned to the purity and the simplicity of the pre-400 B.C. Gathic
Zoroastrianism. Such simplicity and purity, however, seems to have been only
applied to their fire temples; outside these temples they evolved the most
elaborate religious iconography in Zoroastrian history, apparently with no holds
barred. Not only their coins, seals and rock carvings are liberally illustrated
with images of various pre-Zoroastrian gods and their ornaments, but they even
went as far as depicting Ahura Mazdah himself in human form.
TO PART TWO
of Ctesephon, the imperial capital, to the Arabs in 637 A.D., and the murder of
the last emperor, Yazdgird III, 24 years later, destroyed the last, and the most
religious of the four Zoroastrian empires. This time the humiliation was
destined to be permanent; it reduced the Iranian religion to the state of
suspended animation, which has lasted until the present day. Under these
circumstances, the survival of the faith became the prime object; this sapped
all the energy that the declining community could muster; it lost its inherent
Iranian creativity, and consequently, its rich artistic repertoire. It was not
until the last decades of the 19th century that the re-emergence of the
Zoroastrian vigour ushered in a small volume of the old religious iconography.
 In view of the above, it seems so irrational
and unjust, indeed it defies common sense, that a man who has made such an
indelible impression on our lives is now all but forgotten by his material
world. The Italic here, incidentally, denotes yet another first: he was
the first prophet to separate the material world from the spiritual one.
 Outside the Gathas, in the so called
"Young" Avesta, a number of pre-Zoroastrian gods, and Iranian
heroes have been physically
portrayed in the Yashts; moreover, the
Vendidad describes three consecutive sepulchral buildings (Katas, Daxmas,
and ossuaries); there is, however, no mention of a constructed place of
worship anywhere in the Avesta.
 Spenta Mainyu (bounteous spirit), i.e., Ahura
Vahu Manah (good
thoughts), Asha Vahishta (best righteousness), Xshathra Vairya (desirable
dominion), Spenta Armaiti (bounteous devotion), Haurvatat (wholeness), and
 The Holy Texts were transmitted orally, and
written down much later, probably not until the late Sasanian times.
 Pre-Zoroastrian Iranians possessed, both in
the East and the West, a sophisticated pantheon, with remarkable similarity
to that of the Indians; many old deities were incorporated into the new,
reformed, Zoroastrian faith.
 Excarnated bones, after the exposure of the
corpse, once bleached in the sun and totally desiccated, could in certain
circumstances be collected and kept in small elaborate ossuaries.
 West, M.L., "Early Greek Philosophy and
the Orient", Oxford, (1971), pp.165-202, esp. p.192.
 De Republica, III.ix.14.
 Ghirshman, R., Iran from the earliest times
to the Islamic conquest, Penguin, (1954), p.161, Fig.59; Herzfeld, E.E.,
Iran in the Ancient East, N.Y. (1988), Pl.44.
 cf. Latin fascis "bundle of
rods", Italian fascio, fascista, bundle, sheaf, assemblage.
 Agni, the fire god of the hearth, possessed
the dual aspect of being venerated for itself, and consuming the offerings
on behalf of other gods.
 Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, was the
centre of the daily life. Her ever-burning fire was carried away to rekindle
fires in her temples throughout the Greek colonies.
 See Wikender, S., Feuerpriester in
Kleinasien und Iran, Lund, 1946; Boyce, M., ZHII; the significance of
this date will be discussed later.
 See Yamamoto, Y., The Zoroastrian Temple
cult of Fire in Archaeology and Literature (I), "ORIENT", XV,
 Boyce, M., op. cit., pp.51-53.
 Diodorus of Sicily, XVII.114.4.
 Boyce, M., Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire,
"Journal of the American Oriental Society" (JAOS) 95.3 (1975),
 Boyce, HZII, pp.52-3.
 Cyropaedia, VIII.iii.12.
 op. cit., p.53.
 Boyce, M., The Textual Sources for the Study
of Zoroastrianism Manchester University, 1984, p.109
 e.g., the imperial edict read to the
representatives of the warring Greek states at the great congress of Sardis
in 387 B.C., which resulted in the so called "the King's Peace".
 Boyce, M., op. cit., pp.201-6.
 Schnabel, P., Berossos und die
babylonisch-hellenistische Literatur, Leipzig-Berlin, 1923, Book III,
 Boyce, op. cit., pp.217-8.
 Plutarch, The Lives, "Artaxerxes".
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