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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




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 [1]. 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 [2].


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) [3]. 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]


This 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.





As 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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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 [6].




Such dearth of archaeological evidence is corroborated by the surviving literary records:

  1. There is no reference in the Gathas to any religious and funerary buildings or symbols.

  2. Ancient Indian observance, having so much in common with Zoroastrian rituals, was also without temples.

  3. There is no record of any pillage from any Iranian temple or grave in Assyrian history.

  4. Many classical writers like Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.500 BC), Herodotus (c.490-445 BC), Cicero (who wrote 54-44 BC), and Strabo (63 BC-19 AD) report that even the early Achaemenians conducted their worship without images and temples. Heraclitus ridiculed men who prayed to statues, with a vigour equal to that of the Jews and Muslims [7]. Herodotus (I.132) praised the Persians for not worshipping statues or having any temples. Cicero states that Xerxes after the fall of Athens thought it "a sacrilege to keep the gods, who dwell in the whole universe, shut up within walls" and that "Persians considered representation of sacred statues in human form a wicked custom [8].




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.




1) XVARANAH (the anthropomorphic winged disc) [Blue 1-6)


Avestan Xvaranah (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).

By 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 [9]. At the end of the 19th century, modern Zoroastrians adopted this image as the official symbol of their faith.



BARESMAN (bundle of sacred rods) [Red 1-5]

Another 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 [10] 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 western subjects.



FIRE ALTERS [Green 1,3-6,8-10]

Fire is an essential element in the mythology of the Indo-European peoples; many irrefutable archaeological and historical evidence testify to its veneration by Indians [11], Greeks [12], 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.



One 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.



In 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 [13]. There is, however, little doubt about the existence of an Iranian fire cult in pre-Zoroastrian times [14]. Moreover, in spite of the lack of reference in the Gathas, one must assume that such veneration was strengthened further by teachings of Zoroaster.



The 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 [15]. 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 [16], and rekindled at the succession of their heirs [17]. It is assumed that these holders were surmounted by a metal fire-bowl, as the examples from Pasargadae show no signs of charring [18]. 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 march [19]. Xenophon reports that the army of Cyrus the Great carried fire in a brazier [20]. 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 [21]. 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 [22]. Sasanian emperors regarded the dynastic fires as the main symbol of their kingship.




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.


  1. Modern Zoroastrians in Iran and India, have only fire-temples.

  2. Throughout the Islamic period, both communities worshipped only in fire-temples. However, some of these in Iran were dedicated to various Zoroastrian deities, especially An_hit_, Mithra, and Vrthraδna (Bahrâm).  

  3. This also seems to have been the case with the Sasanians for the greatest part of their history, and virtually for the entire duration of their imperial period.

  4. The early Sasanians, however, are known to have been the hereditary guardians of the temple of An_hit_ in Istakhr. Hence, at some stage during their early period, temples housing sacred fires, and those containing divine images, must have co-existed side-by-side. Nonetheless, the Sasanian iconoclastic movement, involving only the temples, is known to have began very early in their history. This must have led to the removal of the divine images from their consecrated buildings, thus leaving the fire-temples as the only places of worship. It is reasonable to assume that some of the desecrated buildings were actually converted into fire-temples.

  5. Throughout the Parthian period, both the temple cult of fire and the temple cult of divine images were observed side-by-side.

  6. This was also the case during the Seleucid era, especially in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.

  7. This was also the case during the late Achaemenian period, especially from c.400 B.C. onwards.

  8. Many scholars believe that early Achaemenians, Medes, and the Iranian peoples of the pre-imperial period, whether sedentary, nomadic, Eastern or Western did not have any temples.


These 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 divine images.



The 54 years long reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 B.C.) witnessed many important and long-lasting political [23] 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:

  1. Adoption of the Zoroastrian calendar, which is still in use in modern, Muslim Persia.

  2. Zurvanite heresy, which survived as a potent force until the end of the Sasanian Empire.

  3. The establishment of the temple cult of divine images, which lasted until the end of the Parthian Empire.

  4. The establishment of the temple cult of fire, which has lasted until the present day.


Here 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.


DIVINE 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 [24], 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).








synchronised with


ISHTAR  (Venus)

synchronised with


 NABU    (Mercury)

synchronised with









synchronised with

MITHRA (god of contract)


synchronised with

ANAHITA (river goddess)

NABU/TIRI      (Mercury)

synchronised with

TISHTRYA (the Dog-Star)


In 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 religion.




Artaxerxes, 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 [25].  


Berossos, 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" [26]. 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 [27].



Some 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 [28] 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 [29].


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.


His 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.




The 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]



SASANIANS A.D.224-637 [Blue 14-20] [Green 11-20] [Red 10-14]

The 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.


In 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.




Fall 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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Spenta Mainyu (bounteous spirit), i.e., Ahura Mazdah himself,

Vahu Manah (good thoughts), Asha Vahishta (best righteousness), Xshathra Vairya (desirable dominion), Spenta Armaiti (bounteous devotion), Haurvatat (wholeness), and Amertat (immortality). 

[4] The Holy Texts were transmitted orally, and written down much later, probably not until the late Sasanian times.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] West, M.L., "Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient", Oxford, (1971), pp.165-202, esp. p.192.

[8] De Republica, III.ix.14.

[9] 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.

[10] cf. Latin fascis "bundle of rods", Italian fascio, fascista, bundle, sheaf, assemblage.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] See Wikender, S., Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran, Lund, 1946; Boyce, M., ZHII; the significance of this date will be discussed later.

[14] See Yamamoto, Y., The Zoroastrian Temple cult of Fire in Archaeology and Literature (I), "ORIENT", XV, 1979, pp.19-53.

[15] Boyce, M., op. cit., pp.51-53.

[16] Diodorus of Sicily, XVII.114.4.

[17] Boyce, M., Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire, "Journal of the American Oriental Society" (JAOS) 95.3 (1975), p.461.

[18] Boyce, HZII, pp.52-3.

[19] III.iii.9.

[20] Cyropaedia, VIII.iii.12.

[21] op. cit., p.53.

[22] Boyce, M., The Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism Manchester University, 1984, p.109

[23] 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".

[24] Boyce, M., op. cit., pp.201-6.

[25] ibid.

[26] Schnabel, P., Berossos und die babylonisch-hellenistische Literatur, Leipzig-Berlin, 1923, Book III, Fragment 65.

[27] Boyce, op. cit., pp.217-8.

[28] Plutarch, The Lives, "Artaxerxes".

[29] ibid.  




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