Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
in Zarathushtra's Teachings
the Parthian & Sasanian Periods
By Rashna Ghadially
Zarathushtra (artist impression - Oil
Painting by Shapour Suren-Pahlav)
My presentation will focus on the changes in our Zarthusti
religion and how its fundamental concepts in the Gathas delivered by Asho
Zarthust in the form of the"Basic Reflective Principles"
digressed further from the original message during the Parthian and Sasanian
To set the stage, I will first briefly recapture the salient changes that
occurred during the reign of the Achaemenian dynasty over Persia.
The oral tradition of Avesta scriptures still continued. The name of the prophet
Zarthust was non-existent in the memoirs of the Achaemenian rulers. However, the
name Ahura Mazda appears. The Fravashi -- the Immortal Divine Spirit of Human
was incorporated in the religion; sacred places of worship were built; at first
there were man made images which were later replaced by a consecrated Fire. Fire
temples,"Atasgah" were installed for devotional purposes for
the use of royalty. The most reverend fire Vehram or later known as Behram
was introduced. Different categories of fires evolved -- the lesser revered ones
were labeled Atash-e- Aderan and Atash Dadgah.
The Gathic religion additionally was diluted by pre-Zarthust Indo-Iranian
thoughts as well as Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Asiatic influences. Among
them, the one which had a lasting impact was Zurvanism, a Zarthustrian
heresy in Iran in the 5th century B.C. Zurvanism altered the interpretation of
the Ethical and Cosmic Dualism as elaborated by Zarthost. The concept of Twin
Mentalities, the Good and Evil Mind were reduced to a struggle between Ahura
Mazda and the evil creating force Anghra Mainyu. Non-Avestan divinities
such as the image cults of Anahita, Tiri, and Mitra were blended in the
faith. A fundamental change occurred when the sole creator Ahura Mazda as
presented in the Gathas was replaced by triad of Ahura Mazda, Anahita and Mitra.
In short, the Gathic religion went through essential mutation in the Achaemenian
The question which I will attempt to answer in the following is: Were the
Parthians and the Sassanians Zarthustis?
I have organized my talk not by the period rather by the various significant
influences over the religion which occurred during the Parthian and Sassanian
rule of Persia.
Zurvanism, is a heresy that contaminated the core of the Gathic faith.
Let me briefly trace Zurvanism in Zarthusti history. Zurvanism
originated in the later part of the Achaemenian dynasty and changed the
interpretation of the Ethical and Cosmic Dualism as presented in the Gathas
by the prophet, Asho Zarthust. Zurvan, was believed to be the God of Time
in Phoenician Tradition in 7 and 6 century B.C. It can be assumed that the Magi
priests in their pursuit to understand the Ethical dualism elaborated in the
Gathas and searching for an innovative expression of divinity to generate Twin
mentalities found it fitting to ascribe the role of the creator to the early God
of time Zurvan. The reflective principle of 'way of thinking' (For those on
Club-Z as I would prefer to call it intelligent thinking or critical thinking)
or as Mainyu and the choice by the humans between the righteous and the
evil mentality was at this point in time, anthromorphised into the Good and Evil
Spirit emerging from the common force "Zurvan."
The principle of Choice as explained in the Gathas between the two ways of
thinking with an unequivocal emphasis on the truth and the righteous and the
evil way of lifestyle and progressive thinking SPENTA MAINYU was entirely
misinterpreted through the Zurvanic thoughts. During the Achaemenian era,
Zurvanites created the concept of Ahura Mazda, the creator, and Anghra
Mainyu (evil spirit) and ascribed the task of all Good Creation to Ahura
Mazda. This in turn created the duality of two Gods: Good and Evil and
escalating the greatness of the uncreated Lord of Wisdom -- Ahura Mazda and
elevating the evil spirit, Anghra Mainyu.
It is hard to tell if Zurvanism was resisted by the Parthian rulers or
this heresy flourished during their reign.
During the Sasanian era, Zurvanism flourished as the term Zurvan was used
for supreme God and was accepted by the clergies of the time including Kirder.
The name of the prophet Zarthust is non-existent in the inscriptions of the Sasanian
Kings or those of Kirder.
Under the Sasanians, in Zurvanism the supreme God, Zurvan instead of Ahura Mazda
had been accepted by the Zarthusti clergies of the time of Kirder. This heresy
went through further changes and thus Zurvan was believed to be the father of
the twins, Ohrmazd (formerly Ahura Mazda -- the Lord of Wisdom) and Ahriman
(formerly the evil spirit); the sun, moon and stars (humata, hukta,
havarashta) as the children of Ormuzd and Ahriman was the
Satan. In other words, the good and evil minds were transformed first to the
good and evil spirits and finally to two beings -- the "God," Lord of
Greatness and "Ahriman," the Devil, the evil one.
Manicheanism was another heresy which arose during the Sasanian era
in Zarthustism. Mani was a self-acclaimed prophet of Parthian
descent from Babylon. Mani preached leading of a life of asceticism and
celibacy which was heavily influenced by the Gnostic tradition from Judeo-Christianity
theology. The religion of Mani did include Zarthustrian concepts of full and
progressive life of achieving perfection in this temporal world. Mani's thinking
was received by Shahpur I, however, adoption of Zurvan as the supreme God
by Mani and changing the names of the yazatas that had by now been deeply
entrenched in the Gathic Zarthustrian religion earned for the Manicheans a role
of zandiks. The high priest, Herbad Kirder who rose to the power
succeeded in passing a death sentence for the prophet Mani around 275 AC
this ending this heresy.
The Zarthusti clergy and the church during the Sassanian time is believed to
have been affluent and it was around 487 CE that the Mazdakite, a communist
movement gained momentum. Mazdak another self-claimed prophet following the
footsteps of Mani preached and propagated the doctrine of ascetic and moral
life. However, woman were seen as inferior and were held as belongings of their
nearest male relative which was gross deviation from the equality of man and
woman preached in the Gathas. The Zazdakite, "communists" went a step
further and proclaimed the doctrine of community of property including women and
at the time gained popular support from the poorer sector of the community.
Although this movement was at first looked favourably by the Sassanians, the
opposition from Zarthusti clerics and nobles ensured the end of the Mazdakite
heresy through proclamation of death sentence for the prophet.
The early Sassanians forbade the a) use of images, b) statues were removed
and c) sacred fires installed. The cult of images and statues introduced
during Achaemanian dynasty and the Hellenic domination were responded
with aggressive iconoclasm. The images were banned from religious places of
worship although iconography of the anthromorphised divinities of the Parthian
era in the Sasanian carvings remained unchanged.
During the Parthian era the Egyptian and Mesopotamian symbols were
replaced by Hellenic anthropomorphic depictions. Yazatas appeared
in the guise of Greek God Zeus, Apollo and Nike representing Ahura
Mazda, Mitra and Ashi figure of Herakles Kallinkos was depicted as
the yazata of victory, Verethraghana.
The Greek writers Strabo and Pausanius have described the presence of
Fire Temples in the Parthian times. Vassal kings were allowed to establish their
own dynastic fires
The three sacred fires -- Adur Frang, Adur Gushnasp and Adur Burzin-Mehr
were installed around this time. It is important to note that the Gathic concept
of fire, its relation to the purity and righteousness and the concept of Asha
by this time are all but overshadowed by pomp and power of the observances of
the Royal Fires.
In the Sasanian era all the dynastic fires of the vasssal king were
extinguished and their temples burnt. Only one central fire burnt in Iran. King
Ardashir is credited for the establishment of the Atash-Vehram (Atash-Behram)
the Verethraghna fires of victory in Pars. The inscriptions of Kirder a
head priest who lived through four Sasanian monarchs speak of another fire Atash-i-Aduran
a common local fire (the equivalent of an agiari fire today) "the little
fire in an appointed place."
Priesthood The title for the Zarthusti clergy by now had gone through
marked changes. The Aethrapid - a teacher of the Gathas and Athravan
the fire priests of the early Avestan age was almost forgotten. In Parthian
times the ecclesiastic authority resided with the Erbad or Herbad (Ervad
today). The term Magput or Magbad derived from Magpuati was
also prevalent for the chief priest of Fire Temples. The Zarthusti religion had
undergone profound transfiguration and turned into a multicultural Faith heavily
influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian and Medain beliefs.
When Ardashir Papak established a new empire and thus founded the
Sassanian dynasty he made Zarthustism a state religion. This move rejoiced the
priesthood. The head priest Tansar was determined to centralize the
authority of the church abolishing tolerance of the different temples and
priests which had evolved under the Parthain era.
In Zarthusti history the message of the Gathas was orally passed down from
generation to generation hopefully not just father to son but mothers to
daughters too..for centuries till the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties.
According to Dhalla, "the early Sasanian writers seem seldom to have
been free from the theological predispositions." The Avesta was
considered the word of Ormazd and it was necessary to keep the divine word
living among the people that the original language now unintelligible to the
poor should be rendered into the existing vernacular. The work of translating
the Avestan texts, already begun by the Zarthuti priests during the latter part
of the Parthian period, continued with increased zeal, and celebrate
commentaries were added to explain the difficulties of the original texts. The
author of Dinkard informs us that when King Artakshir the founder
of the last Zarthusti Empire had the collection and compilation of the
scattered religious texts completed under the supervision of his illustrious Dastur
Tansar. When Avesta became extinct as the language of common intercourse,
the sacred works written in it, were, as we have seen rendered into Pahalvi.
This explanatory Pahalvi version of the original Avestan text is called Zand.
Not enough is known whether any of the Zand itself was written in the Parthin
period. Boyce proposes a theory that the influence of Christians and Manichaean
made Zoroastrian priests put serious efforts to write their holy scriptures.
The Vendidad a text was written almost 2000 years after the
prophet Zarthust's death. A Parthian monarch Valakhsh decreed to preserve
all the surviving Avesta and its Zand commentaries of Zarthustrian religion. It
was sometime in this era, a period of aggressive domination by Median magis
that the often disputed text of Vendidad - the Book of "Law against
Demons" is believed to have been composed. It is therefore clear that
many of the concepts such as those of Duality and Eschatology are highly
anthromorphised and rigorous codes of purification using Nirang and Gaomez
have been mandated in contrast to the rest of the Avesta. This is also the only
text which speaks of the "Temples of Fires" in stark contrast
to the Gathas, and its legend of Yima demonstrates a strong slant of Macedonian
and Mesopotamian influence. The author of the Vendidad was unknown (may be
an ancestor of P. Havewala :) just a joke for those on the Z-alias and Club-Z)
reasonable composition that it was compiled by a Median Magi who adopted the
faith rather than an athravan who inherited the religion.
Religious observances were incorporated in the practice of the religion by all
such as 'taking the vaj.' This practice involved saying Avesta mantras
before engaging in a variety of daily activities, such as eating, sleeping and
bathing, as well as before various religious rites.
The purity laws were observed by both the royalty as well as commoners. Evidence
of such practices is present during the later Sasanian period. According to
Boyce, the Sasanians had many foreign women among their queens and concubines
including Jews, Christians, Indians and pagan Turks and there seem to have been
no evidence of objection to these women practicing their own faith. However,
they probably had to observe the Zarthusti purity laws to avoid the kings own
History suggests that Staota Yasna - a portion of the present day 72
chapters of Yasna - may have been expanded during this epoch to include some
of the younger avestan liturgy such as the Haoma Yasht.
In conclusion the Zarthusti church "organized religion" was
strengthened tremendously during the Sassanian dynasty. However, the Gathic
faith conveyed by Asho Zarthust weakened. The core of the religion underwent
radical change that the Twin Mentalities of the Good Mind and Evil the Evil Mind
were replaced by Ormuzd the "Good Son" and Ahriman "Satan or
Evil." The equality between women an men as mentioned in the Gathas was
challenged by the heresies of the Parthain and Sassanian era, thus, lowering the
social status of women in the religion.
We return to the question which was asked in the beginning: Were the
Sassanians and Parthians Zarthustis? We can ask ourselves if our belief and
concept of Ormuzd and Ahreman are different from those of the Sassanians? If
they are not different and we call ourselves Zarthustis then the Sassanians and
Parthians should also be called Zarthustis. If we believe that the Gathas are
the true message of the prophet and any divergence from that message is non-
Zarthusti then we cannot call the Sassanians and Parthians Zarthustis. I leave
the decision up to you.
Dhalla, Maneck. N. Zoroastrian Theology. New York 1914.
Dhalla, Maneck. N. Zoroastrian Civilization. New York 1922.
Gnoli, Gherardo. Zoroaster's Time and Homeland. A Study on the Origins of
Mazdeism and the Related Problems, Instituto Universitario Orientale Seminario
Distudi Asiatici Series Minor VII. Naples 1980.
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies