22 December 2007

The Magi and Christmas


Who, what, where, and when did the Magi come to Bethlehem?


As Marco Polo entered Persia proper (the province of Fars) in the 1270's, the first city that he came to was Saba,

from whence were the three magi who came to adore Christ in Bethlehem, and the three are buried in that city in a fair sepulchre, and they are all three entire with their beards and hair.

Saba is unknown among Persian towns, ancient or modern. Marco may have confused the name of the city with the religion practiced by its inhabitants -- Sabaism: a sect thought to worship angels living in the stars; and thus they were falsely accused of being star-worshippers. Just down the road, in a town called Kalasata-perinsta ['Castle of the Fire-worshippers'] Marco met the real thing, true 13th C Magians [Zoroastrians], and they told him an extraordinary tale:

This is given as the reason [that the inhabitants worship fire]. Anciently three kings of that country went to adore a certain king who was newly born, and carried with them three offerings, namely, gold, frankincense, and myrrh: gold, that they might know if he were an earthly king; frankincense, that they might know if he were God; and myrrh, that they might know if he were a mortal man.

[I assume that the infant took all three, but the story doesn't actually say that].

When the [three kings] went away the infant gave them a closed box, which they carried with them for several days, and then becoming curious to see what he had given them, they opened the box and found in it a stone. Thinking themselves deluded, they threw the stone into a pit, and instantly fire burst forth in the pit. When they saw this, they repented bitterly of what they had done, and taking some of the fire with them they carried it home. And having placed it in one of their churches, they keep it continually burning, and adore that fire as a god and make all their sacrifices with it.

This is a wonderful example of how religions borrow from one another -- even in Persia, as it was then, under the rule of orthodox Islam. And the story spreads right back to the Christians: on the left, the Church of St Mary in Urmia, Iran, built above the mausoleum of one of the supposed Magi.

In the Gospels, of course, it's never said that the Magi are of Persian origin. They are mentioned only in Matthew 2 1-12, where it says: "After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east."). There is nothing about their coming from Persia, nor being kings, nor even how many men made the trip. Nonetheless, the belief in the early church was that the Magi were Persians. There is even an Apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy which appears to state that they were indeed Persian magi. It was in Europe that the current image of three kings was created (one gift = one king). To further dramatize the coming of the Nations to Christ, one King was made into a black African, another an Oriental or an Arab, and the other a European. Their names were no longer Persian, but Orientalizing: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The two traditions come together in the 6th C mosaic (above, left) from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, with Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar all in Persian garb.

Marco Polo's Persian informants knew about their own Three Kings -- but nothing of the associated Star of Bethlehem that was supposed to have led them to Jerusalem. The story of the star is also mentioned solely in Matthew's Gospel ("Where is the infant King of the Jews?" they asked. "We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage." ). That's it really. Ever since, of course, believers have been trying to identify the star. Every Christmas, in fact, a few favourite names get mentioned as being candidates to be the Star of Bethlehem. Over the years some of these objects have been suggested quite regularly: the planet Venus, Halley's comet, a brilliant supernova, a string of bright meteors....

The Star of Bethlehem Solved?



This post began as a comment in reply to the Star of Bethlehem Solved? on the blog Clioaudio. Since I was writing about real Magi in Sassanian Stuff, I wanted to say something about how they got into the Christmas story but, as is my wont, I wandered off into byways and before I knew it, I was writing about Marco Polo in Persia; far too much stuff for a comment. So, with my thanks to Alun Salt for getting me started, let me give the floor to Clioaudio:

The Star of Bethlehem has always seem to be a non-problem to me. If you believe that a god was born to a virgin, then asking what the star was seems pointless. Why shouldn’t it be just another miracle? Similarly if you think the story is fictional then why does there need to be a star? Why couldn’t that be fiction too? Another reason to be wary of Stars of Bethlehem is that they are, by and large, unimpressive from a historian’s point of view. We don’t have a date of birth for Jesus, so there’s an element of guesswork. Nonetheless whatever date you pick, there’s always something around which you can choose for a star. This is especially true if you ignore the text. The description of the star in Matthew 2 is very brief. It simply describes a star which moves around. This could be a planet or a comet, and planets were mundane. Popular explanations tend to be conjunctions, but these were well known and would not be described as stars, nor necessarily associated with kingship. If you can ignore the text’s description of the star, then why not save time and ignore the star altogether?

As he says, however, "people don't like this answer".

Luckily, there is now a new, quite serious theory, just in time for Christmas 2007. It will take some getting used to: Rod Jenkins on the Star of Bethlehem and the Comet of AD 66.

Yes, you read that right: 66 AD!

The important thing is not the date of the events Matthew describes but the date when he was writing his Gospel. For all sorts of reasons, that must have been some time between 70 and 100 AD, that is, at least two generations after the Nativity, most likely between 85-90 AD. So Matthew was neither a witness to the birth of Jesus nor could he have spoken to anyone who was alive at that time. And that means, as always, that he is not so much a reporter for the New York Times as a spiritual adviser to the Pope. Or rather to the Jews. Himself a Jewish-Christian, he set out to convince other Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, with the events surrounding his birth having amply fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy: this said that there would be a star so there had to be a star. Or, as one scholar put it, ‘no star, no Messiah’.

Halley's Comet

In AD 66, Halley’s Comet shone brightly over Jerusalem. With perfect hindsight, it was said to have announced the destruction of the temple in AD 70. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, "Amongst the warnings, a comet, of the kind called Xiphias, because their tails appear to represent the blade of a sword, was seen above the city."

Jenkins maps the comet's visibility in the Jerusalem area (and similarly for Babylon, but, alas, does not include calculations for Persia):
− When it first appeared it rose in the eastern sky just before dawn (Star in the east, seen at its rising).
− When it was at its brightest, it was visible throughout most of the hours of darkness.
− It moved in a westerly direction – each night it was further west with respect to the background stars (Indicates the direction towards Jerusalem for people in the east).
− Towards the end of its visibility, it was nearly stationary – it stopped moving towards the west (Stopped and stood over). During this period it could be seen high in the southern sky in the evening (Direction of Bethlehem from Jerusalem). However it was now dimming rapidly (Magi had found the child).
So Halley's comet in 66 AD is a good candidate for the messianic 'star' and it was certainly a spectacular sight in the sky that Matthew himself might well have witnessed.

[The painter Giotto may have been looking at the same comet when it passed over Italy in 1301. He was the first artist -- as far as I know -- to show a comet, and not a star, in ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ ( illustrated above). According to Jenkins, the comet should have made an even better spectacle for Matthew than for Giotto.]

And the Magi?

That's the easy part, once you accept 66 AD.

Pliny the Elder was in one of his grumpy moods, but he tells us quite clearly what happened in 66 AD, that is during his own lifetime:

The Magian Tiridates [king of Armenia] was at Nero's court, having repaired thither, in token of our triumph over Armenia, accompanied by a train which cost dear to the provinces through which it passed. For the fact was, that he was unwilling to travel by water, it being a maxim with the adepts in this art that it is improper to spit into the sea or to profane that element by any other of the evacuations that are inseparable from the infirmities of human nature. He brought with him, too, several other Magi, and went so far as to initiate the emperor in the ... craft.
Cassius Dio, writing much later, fills in more details,

Tiridates presented himself in Rome, bringing with him not only his own sons but also those of [other Parthian princes]. Their progress all the way from the Euphrates was like a triumphal procession. Tiridates himself was at the height of his reputation by reason of his age, beauty, family, and intelligence; and his whole retinue of servants together with all his royal paraphernalia accompanied him. Three thousand Parthian horsemen and numerous Romans besides followed in his train.... The prince covered the whole distance to the confines of Italy on horseback, and beside him rode his wife, wearing a golden helmet in place of a veil.

...Nero took him up to Rome and set the diadem upon his head. The entire city had been decorated with lights and garlands, and great crowds of people were to be seen everywhere, the Forum, however, being especially full. The centre was occupied by civilians, arranged according to rank, clad in white and carrying laurel branches; everywhere else were the soldiers, arrayed in shining armour, their weapons and standards flashing like the lightning.... Then, silence having been proclaimed, Tiridates made himself subservient to the occasion.... These were his words: "Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the [Parthian] kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and thy slave. And I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mithras. The destiny thou spinnest for me shall be mine; for thou art my Fortune and my Fate."

Nero replied to him as follows: "Well hast thou done to come hither in person, that meeting me face to face thou mightest enjoy my grace. For what neither thy father left thee nor thy brothers gave and preserved for thee, this do I grant thee. King of Armenia I now declare thee, that both thou and they may understand that I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them."

His visit to Rome ended, Tiridates "...did not return by the route that he had followed in coming — through Illyricum and north of the Ionian Sea — but instead he sailed from Brundisium to Dyrrachium. He viewed also the cities of Asia, which served to increase his amazement at the strength and beauty of the Roman empire."

It was on his return journey, Jenkins surmises, that "The procession may have passed close to the Greek speaking Jewish/Christian communities of northern and northeastern Syria where it is believed the gospel originated, as Armenia lies to the north east of this area."

Q. E. D. -- or Not?

Clioaudio concludes, "I simply can’t recall a Star of Bethlehem article seriously thinking about the Magi before. I still think the star is fictional, but this explains why it’s a fictional comet rather than a fictional nova or conjunction."

Let me say that I, too, am impressed by Jenkins' arguments and think he's right to have shifted the debate to 66 AD. But I still see three problems: two big ones and a small one. So, in descending order:

1. Matthew clearly speaks of a 'star' (aster), not a comet. The ancients were very well aware of the difference. He could hardly have confused them.

2. Comets bring evil tidings, not good news. They warn of the death of kings (or cities, such as Jerusalem!) not births, nor anything of gladness and joy.

3. Jenkins may have confused Roman 'Asia' with Coele-Syria. Asia was the name for a province that covered most of Anatolia (still called Asia Minor; that is, modern Turkey). The Armenian king's travels back home would have taken him from Dyrrachium on the coast of Albania overland to Byzantium, where he would have crossed the straits, continuing across Anatolia via Ankara (Ancyra) and straight back to Armenia. He would not have passed through any part of Syria, so where would Matthew have seen his procession?

I would be happy to continue the debate in my own or Clioaudio's comment section.

Meanwhile, Happy Holidays to you all. And remember, a copy of Chronicle of Zenobia: the Rebel Queen makes a splendid end-of-year gift for family and friends, and a great reading start to 2008!


Photo of Three Kings worshipping fire: Marco Polo, le livre des merveilles, Paris Bibliothèque National de France, Manuscrit
français 2810, folio 12, Ed. M.T Gousset.

15 December 2007

Zoroastrian Stuff II


The Accursed Alexander

It still gives me a shock every time I hear Alexander the Great cursed and despised even though, as I read more Sassanian Stuff, I'm getting used to it.

The Sassanian Persians felt deep indignation and rage when they remembered the harm he had done to the Zoroastrian religion. In their eyes, his sins were much graver than merely sacking and burning their capital city (Persepolis) to the ground-- the Persians themselves were no strangers to severe cruelty and war and devastation. But Alexander had intentionally (or so they thought) destroyed the Zoroastrian holy places and temples, killed the priests [the magi] and worst -- and most unforgivably of all -- had deliberately burnt their holy scriptures, the Avesta.

A beautiful copy of the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, was said to have been kept in Persepolis during Achaemenid times. It was written in gold ink on parchment (smoothed, cleaned ox-hide or cow-skin).
And ... all the Avesta and Zand [the original scripture and commentary], written upon prepared cow-skins, and with gold ink, was deposited in the archives in [Persepolis], and the hostility of the evil-destined, wicked evil-doer [the devil, Ahrimen] brought onward Alexander and he burned them up.

One imagines the Avesta looking something like the Hebrew Torah (left), heavy, ornamented parchment scrolls filled with column after column of fine calligraphy and fixed on rollers so the text unrolls either left to right or right to left. Just as Torah simply means 'the law' in Hebrew, âbâsta is the Parthian word for 'the law', which suggests that the main parts of the Avesta were put together during the Parthian era.

But most of the sacred texts are very much older than that. Oldest of all are said to be the Gâthâ's, seventeen hymns in praise of Ahura Mazda (Hormizd), which were written by Zarathustra himself. These hymns were supposed to be recited every day by all Zoroastrians. Equally early are the ritual texts of the Yasna (meaning 'reverence') which describe such things as the use of the trance-inducing beverage haoma, and the sacrifices and offerings to water and fire. Much later, the Yašts, hymns to the lesser deities, were written down, probably in the Achaemenid period (521-331 BC) -- the language of the hymns resembles that of Old Persian inscriptions.

What did Alexander destroy?

Many scholars deny that the Gâthâ's, Yasna, and Yašts were even in writing at the time Alexander came to Persepolis. They argue that the Persians (and perhaps the Parthians, too) relied solely on oral tradition to preserve the sacred texts. I find this difficult to accept. Not only do the Yašts resemble Achaemenid inscriptions (a strong argument, in my opinion), but it relies too much on absence of evidence: just because we don't find sacred literature doesn't mean that it didn't exist. We're missing the texts because the Persians changed their writing material from clay to parchment, which decays in the Persian climate. When Achaemenid administrators did go back to clay, we suddenly get tens of thousands of texts (such as the Persepolis Fortification tablets) which Alexander's arson helped preserve. So, I don't think the Sassanians were angry at Alexander for no reason.

Know that Alexander burnt the book of our religion -- 1200 ox-hides -- at [Persepolis]. One third of it was known by heart and survived, but even that was all legends and traditions, and men knew not the laws and ordinances.

Twelve hundred ox-hides! That seems a wild exaggeration; but is it? The Torah contains the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), a total of about 80,000 words. It takes 60 calf-skins to make one Torah. How big was the Avesta? The invaluable Pliny the Elder tells us that the 3rd C BC Alexandrian scholar, Hermippus
wrote most painstakingly about the whole art of magic and interpreted two million verses (bolding mine) by Zarathustra, [and] also added lists of contents....
Pliny hardly blinks at two million verses. What does strike him with surprise him is that the tradition survived for so many ages, although all written commentaries had perished in the meanwhile. Anyway, it all went up in smoke. The loss was irreparable: After the calamity of Alexander, they sought for the books again, they found a portion of each Nask [book], but did not find any Nask in completeness.

Greek writers praise Alexander's policy of toleration and inclusiveness after he conquered Persia. That's not how it looked to the survivors. Sassanian tradition suggests rather that he engaged in a deliberate effort to cripple the Zoroastrian clergy so that Persian 'dead-enders' and 'remnants' could not regroup around them: He seized and slew those who went in the garments of Magians. The terror spread. Acting on Alexander's orders, the victors killed several high priests and judges and priests and the masters of the Magians and upholders of the religion, and the competent and wise of the country of Iran.

A few men and boys, it was said, escaped and fled to Sistan (the extreme southeast of Iran), bearing with them the knowledge of particular 'nasks' or books. A nask would be learnt completely by heart, sometimes by women, sometimes by a child. And in that way indeed the faith was restored in Sistan, re-established and brought afresh into order. Except in Sistan, in other places there was no recollection.

For these evil deeds, Alexander received the surname Guzastag, 'the Accursed', a title that had until then only been used to describe Ahrimen, the Devil.

And [Alexander] cast hatred and strife, one with the other, amongst the nobles and householders of the country of Iran [
What he actually did is divide the land among 90 different princes, knowing full well that there would be such disunity and rivalry among them that they would have no time to seek vengeance; the ninety became known as the 'kings of the peoples'] and self-destroyed, he fled to hell.

So much for Alexander! But the factionalism that he had provoked remained in Persian hearts (in the Sassanian version of history) until Ardashir I came to power and wiped out, among many others, the 90 descendants of these kings.

Ardashir I and Tansar

Strangely, it was not just the king (on the left) who put an end to strife, but a Magus-priest:
And that evil strife will not be ended for that land ... until they give acceptance to him, Tansar the priest, the spiritual leader, eloquent, truthful, just. And when they give acceptance to Tansar, [those lands] will find healing, instead of divergence from Zoroaster's faith.
As the chief 'teaching priest' (hērbadān hērbad), Tansar worked hard to establish order after depravity and truth after delusion: he searched out all the sacred writings which survived in any part of the empire and then heard all the priests who preserved the traditions orally, [so that each contributed] their share toward restoring the original Avesta.

He then judged the found texts, accepting one as original and true and rejecting another. In this way, he put together a canon of the laws of religion, prayers, and rituals. So one could almost say that Tansar is the founder of the orthodox Sassanian canon and church. "Do not marvel," he says, "at my zeal and ardour for promoting order in the world, that the foundations of the laws of the Faith may be made firm. It is as if I heard the voices [of the spirits of the virtuous dead] uttering praise, and saw the gladness and radiance of their countenances. When we are united we shall speak of what we have done and be glad."


Restoration or Recreation?

What took place first on earth, though, was a religious coup d'état: First, "through the just authority of Tansar", Ardashir gathered the scattered teachings of the faith at his own court. Then, under the guise of returning to more ancient ways, he brutally monopolized the fire cult. Tansar admits as much. In his own words, in the 3rd C Letter of Tansar (recopied, adapted and enlarged in the 6th C), he answers the accusation of a local king who charged that "the King of kings has taken away fires from the fire-temples, extinguished them and blotted them out." Tansar replies that,
the truth is that after Darius each of the 'kings of the peoples' built his own fire-temple. This was pure innovation, introduced by [the Parthian kings] without the authority of kings of old. The King of kings has razed the temples ... and had the fires carried back to their places of origin.

To destroy dynastic shrines and to carry off royal fires to grow cold by the side of his own burning flames was plainly an effective symbol of conquest. The unity of the empire, for which Ardashir was striving, required that there should be only one royal fire. That was probably the fire burning in the temple at the city of Ardašir Khureh ('fame of Ardašir'; modern Firuzabad). He was said to have founded the city and temple even before he defeated his Parthian overlord; its fame was such that the very last Sassanian king, Yasdajird, a young boy when he assumed the royal power, was crowned at 'Ardashir's fire temple' (or perhaps in his throne room, left) in 632 or 633 AD.

The royal fire appears on the nearby rock relief (above) which shows Ardashir's investiture: Hormizd is on the left: between the god and the king stands a fire altar -- unfortunately vandalized by graffiti -- in the form of a large bowl supported by a pillar on a squared stand. Another royal fire appears on the reverse of Ardashir's coins. This shows again the interconnectedness of fire cult and political legitimacy for the king, a link that continues throughout the Sassanian period. The Parthian kings had placed images of the gods on the reverse. There would be no cult images on Sassanian coins. Replacing these 'idols' by a sacred fire is the first step towards the Zoroastrian iconoclastic movement that will virtually eliminate graven images from Sassanian lands.

Ahriman and the idols suffered great blows and great damages, the work of the next Chief Mobed, Kirdir, who will get his chance to strut the stage in Zoroastrian Stuff III. But first, on the subject of Magi, we'll have a short Christmas-y look at a new take on the Three Magi and the Star of Bethlehem

05 December 2007

Zoroastrian Stuff


Thus speaks Shapur I:

And because of the fact that the gods have made Us their 'own property' and We have gone to so many countries and taken possession of them with the help of the gods, therefore We founded a great number of [Victorious] fires in each country and carried out good deeds for many Magi, and We enlarged the establishments [donations?] of the gods.

A clearer statement of do-ut-des : 'I give, so that you give' (that is, the art of mutual back-scratching) is hard to imagine.

The gods give Shapur sovereignty over the kings of Iran and non-Iran. In return for which, Shapur gives prosperity to the Magi (the priests), and founds fire sanctuaries . The gods are gratified and give more good things to Shapur. He
further multiplies the shrines for the worship of the gods.


The Victor, the one who rises with the sun

The Sassanian kings established Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the empire, and used religious doctrines to justify state enforcement of Persian law. Shapur and his father before him entitled themselves bay from the old Persian baga 'lord, god' and boast they are 'descended from the gods'. How do they justify this? Because of their religious perfection: the Beneficent Spirit manifests itself on earth in the good and righteous king, one whose ... nature is pure, whose desires for his subjects are righteous.

A righteous ruler, in league with the Good Religion, inevitably improves the kingdom and brings prosperity and peace to all his subjects. That and the successful defence of his empire in battle were signs that legitimate authority was vested in that ruler. The king's success was due to his divine royal glory (xvarrah), and its loss would bring calamity and strife.

That's Ardashir I on the left (below), receiving the xvarrah ribboned diadem from Hormizd (aka Ahura Mazda)


The will of a righteous king was thus held above the soul, mind, wisdom and religion of lesser mortals.
Let your thought transcend your own will, and pass to the supreme will and lord upon the earth, the king recognized by the religion. And let it pass from him to the highest lord of all the spirits, the creator Ahura Mazda [Hormizd].
I'd like to put the king's role a bit in context.

[I, of course, am not an historian of religion and admit to knowing next to nothing about Zoroasterism. No, this short series on Zoroastrian Stuff will focus instead on some political aspects of Sassanian religious activity.* You can learn something more about the religion from the Wikipedia pages (quite good in this case) or, if you'd like lots of nitty-gritty, download the really excellent Introduction by the Aga Khan Professor of Iranian Studies at Harvard.]

Potted Zoroastrianism

The ancient Persians imagined a world in which Order and Chaos constantly vied for supremacy. The heavenly powers are on the side of Order, with Hormizd, the All-knowing Ruler, at their head. The forces of Chaos, down in the darkest depths (where they belong!), are led by the evil spirit, Ahrimen. As in many other creation myths, the Evil Spirit longs for the good up above and attacks it in order to mix with it and destroy its purity. This battle between Good and Evil is renewed every night and every winter.


Zoroastrian myth seems to explain better than any Jewish or Christian story why God's perfect world seems so awfully imperfect. God is not omnipotent. He must fight against the Evil principle that also existed from time immemorial. The battle is ongoing: the lights of heaven are constantly threatened by the endless darkness of the depths. It has always been that way ... but would not always remain so.

Mankind has a role to play in this cosmic battle. Order and Chaos each have their followers among human beings. Everyone (well, every man anyway) has to make a choice of which side they support: the good declare for Hormizd, imitating and following the example of the prophet Zarathustra (whom the Greeks called Zoroaster, hence the name of the religion). Hormizd confided the sacred ritual texts and the rules of the sacrifice to Zarathustra for him to take down into the world of living beings. With the help of his human followers, especially the priests who perform sacrifices, Zarathustra combats evil in the world.

The duty of humans is to support Order which they do by “thinking good thoughts, speaking good speech, and doing good deeds.” Those who “think bad thoughts, speak bad speech, and do bad deeds” support the Evil Spirit. After death, everything a person has thought, spoken, and done is added up. The dead soul then has to pass over the "Ford of the Accounting," imagined as a passage across a river, or a bridge over a chasm. Here, the soul is weighed on a scales by a heavenly judge, and according as the balance tips, the ford or bridge becomes wide or narrow, and the soul will pass safely on to heaven or fall into hell.

But there is light at the end of the cosmic tunnel. After 9000 years, Hormizd's victory in the last battle will bring the cosmos back to the way it was when he first ordered it -- a world with no evil elements: no darkness, disease, death, or deception, but instead full of light, life, and fertility.

The Fire burning in Paradise

The fire which burns in this world is the same as the fire in the sky, the sun, which is Hormizd's most beautiful form. Even the sun, however, is a pale reflection of the great Fire burning in Paradise in the presence of Hormizd-- the source, I would imagine, of all the endless lights.

At its simplest, fire burns and gives out light. It glitters and gives energy to all creation.
The fire is not worshipped in itself (any more than the saints are worshipped in the Catholic faith) but venerated because it purifies spiritual uncleanliness and is never itself polluted: it is thus the symbol of divine truth.

Fire
represents the enduring energy of the creator, and is the focus (but not the object) of prayer. Sometimes, as with saints, the line is fuzzy:

May the fire, Hormizd's greatest creation [as the sun], who gives us good things, come back to us to receive his share of the sacrifice in return. When we make you happy, O fire, who make us happy, when we bend in homage to you, who bend the most of all, may you in return come to assist us....

When he ascends the throne, each Sassanian king lights his personal 'king's fire' and this is the reference point for dating his reign -- as in, "the year 24 of the Shapur fire, the king of fires." This very fire is pictured on the reverse of Shapur's coins (above, left), which is inscribed: 'The fire of Shapur'. The attendants on either side of the fire altar probably represent the king and his 'divine radiance' (the xvarrah in this case to be imagined as something like the Greek Tyche or Roman Fortuna). The regnal fire is always extinguished at the end of that king's reign.

The altar and flames symbolized the main icon of the Zoroastrian fire cult. The presence of the ruler's bust on one side of the coin and the fire altar on the other is a clear representation of the ideological link between king and religion, state and church. Church and state were born of one womb, joined together never to be sundered. Coins minted by Shapur II (right) about 50 years later, picture the bust of Hormizd/Ahura Mazda in the sacred flames. This shows that the flames represent the energy and fire of the creator god.

Salvation is his fruit

Since the king was expected to serve as the protector and propagator of Zoroastrianism, he was required to have received training as a magus (OP: magu-, MP: mowbed,) during his youth. By upholding the law and doctrines , the king combats evil in the world, and furthers the vanquishing of the Evil Spirit and the eventual renewal of the universe. The ideal earthly ruler thus possesses both absolute secular and religious authority, and uses this authority and power to vanquish evil:

The thing against which the Evil Spirit struggles most vigorously is the uniting, in full force, of the glories of kingship and the Good Religion in a single person, because such a combination would vanquish him .... Whenever, in this world, religion is united with sovereignty in a good [Zoroastrian] ruler, then vice becomes weak and virtue increases, hostility diminishes and cooperation increases, righteousness increases and unrighteousness decreases among mankind, the good prosper and prevail and the evil are restrained and deprived of kingship, the world is prosperous, all creation is joyful, and the people flourish ....

In keeping with the belief that the monarch wielded sacral kingship over the entire world, the Zoroastrian religion was deliberately spread into newly conquered territories: There were fires and priests in the non-Iranian lands which were reached by the armies of the King of Kings. A non-Zoroastrian ruler was anyway, by definition, an evil monarch who lacked the royal glory, the xvarrah. Fires and priests (backed up no doubt by real soldiers) were regarded as warriors fighting for the creation, not only on the physical plane, against darkness and cold, but also on the spiritual one, against the forces of evil and ignorance.

Obviously, ancient societies always policed to some extent the religious devotion and morals of their inhabitants. Infractions of often unspoken rules -- too much Dionysiac frenzy, for example, or spilling the beans on the Eleusinian Mysteries, or the Christians refusing to sacrifice to the gods -- called down official punishment on the malefactor's head. But Greek and Roman authorities normally intervened only when the matter was getting out of hand or becoming a public scandal. Even then, prosecutions were not usually initiated by the priests!

The Sassanian experience is different because men's 'thinking good thoughts' became a major obsession of the kings and priesthood. Since the king ruled by virtue of his divinely granted xvarrah, if he failed in duties prescribed by the religion, he lost both the sacral kingship and his personal sanctity. He would then be regarded as unfit for the royal office by the priests. This was not an idle threat: it was considered a religious duty to depose such monarchs and replace them with one chosen in accordance with Zoroastrian doctrine.
Whoever may know there is someone who may be more righteous than King Shapur and more officious in the service of the gods, or better, and who hereafter may be able to keep this Iran better guarded and to govern it better than King Shapur, let him say so!
An offer that a wise man might well refuse. But the priests nevertheless had the doctrinal and ideological justification for deposing Sassanian monarchs whenever these rulers threatened their power. After all, the fate of the universe depended on it.

So Sassanian rulers did not just fulminate against immorality, they took an active part in squashing it. It's not too much to speak of an orthodox Zoroastrian church, with its tenets backed up and enforced by the king and his priests.

How can I bring the Lie [Ahrimen] as a vanquished enemy
before Order, the king, so that he may pronounce its sentence:
“destruction!” and so get them what they deserve?

In this, Persia looks a little like a precursor of the soon-to-be-established Christian Byzantine Empire. Christians still had a lot to learn from the Sassanians about intolerance, the persecution of heresy, and the power of priests.


It was a good idea to keep them sweet.

At the order of Shapur, king of kings, and with the help of the gods and the king of kings, the number of services for the gods was increased, many Victorious fires were established, many priests were rendered prosperous, many fires and priests received official letters of recognition, and, altogether, there was great profit for Hormizd and the other gods....

This was written by Kirdir, Chief Mobad for most of the late 3rd C AD, whose astonishing 'autobiography' was inscribed in stone. Kirdir will be the subject of Zoroastrian Stuff III . But first things first: his predecessor, the chief priest Tansar, hand in glove with Ardashir I, coming up next on Zoroastrian Stuff II).



*Much more information here on Sacral kingship in Sasanian Iran

26 November 2007

Zenobia's Haka


Scary faces, lots of thigh-slapping and loud chanting.

Slap the hands against the thighs

Puff out the chest
Bend the knees
Let the hip follow
Stamp the feet as hard as you can
It is death! It is death!
It is life! It is life!

No, not Zenobia in ecstasy (as she might have been at one of Astarte's feasts) , but rugby!

The Damascus Rugby Seven gets pride of place on my blog today. They are named the Zenobians. After the queen of Palmyra -- and wouldn't she have enjoyed the scrum: "There's a lot of passion," said the team captain. "It’s a battle, just without any weapons,” he added with glee.

Sevens is a particularly fast version of rugby, where teams of seven players compete on a full-size field and play seven-minute halves (rather than 15 players and 80 minutes in the regular game). Rugby is renowned for its exhausting play and rough, often bloody contact. Lightning-fast backs, 300-pound forwards, huge hits, and bone-crunching tackles -- with no sissy-like pads or helmets-- the game taps into a deep well of Syrian pride. Hence, the anomaly of an all-male club named after a female. In a sport not known for gentlemanly attitudes to women ("the position of women in this game is prone", comes to mind), the rebel queen still has a lot of clout.

The Syrian players (left, © 2007 The NY Times) are preparing for the sport's big contest: the Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, a tournament scheduled from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 that will draw teams from around the world.

Dubai Sevens 2007

Over 160 teams and 1,750 players will strap on their boots for this rugby extravaganza. Featuring 16 of the best Sevens nations in the world, the Dubai Rugby Sevens has grown into a magical sporting week that attracts fans from every rugby-loving country.

Last year, South Africa took the trophy honours by beating the All Blacks 31-12 in a thrilling final (but thank you, All Blacks, for your scary Haka war chant: Zenobia would have loved it). As well as the international action, more than 1,500 players take part in club invitation competitions. The Zenobians will compete in the Gulf Mens RoundRobin, and, in a series dominated largely by expatriate rugby teams, the Zenobians are special because they are mostly Syrian players.

There is also, to my amazement, a women's rugby event at Dubai, with two dozen teams competing for an International Ladies Plate. But no ladies' team from Syria. Now that would be a club to be named after Zenobia! [Zenobia versus the Roman Baba's, Round II].

But, this week, good luck Zenobian guys!

And after you have beaten the likes of Kuwaiti Nomads and Dubai Hurricanes, and begin the rugby songs -- Oh the Ball, the Ball! -- with beer in hand (Dubai is not dry), I propose as a Zenobian anthem the after-the-match classic, The Camel. I'm sorry, it's a bit too rude for this blog: you'll only have yourself to blame if you click on it. But it's the bawdy songs that bring out the true rugby spirit.


Update (3/12/07): "It is life! It is life!"

New Zealand Take Out 2007 Emirates International Trophy

New Zealand secured the 2007 trophy with a blistering 31-21 win over Fiji. The All Black captain said afterwards (with a sporting allowance of mixed metaphors), “We had to open up and fire on all engines and we did that right from the very beginning. You can never write the Fijians off and we had to stick to our guns right to the very end. They are a very physical team and they had a lot of flair but we really dug deep.”

And the women? The International Ladies Plate went to the Pink Ba-bas who clobbered the Moody Cows 36-10.

Alas, Zenobians, Alas!


20 November 2007

Sassanian Stuff III

Were the Sassanians post-Achaemenids?

One of the most interesting questions about the early Sassanians (if only to a classical archaeologist) -- and perhaps the most unanswerable -- is whether they were related in any real sense to the kings of the earlier Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids. Ardashir (according to a very late source) claimed that they were direct descendants, which justified his rebellion against the Parthians. He was only doing his duty:

He rose to avenge the blood of his cousin Dara (Darius III) ... whom Alexander had fought and whom his two chamberlains had murdered. As he declared, he wanted to bring back the reign to the legitimate family, to restore it the way it had always been at the time his forefathers who had lived before the petty [Parthian] kings and to reunite the empire under one head and one king.

Modern scholars generally pooh-pooh this claim, and when they do have to mention it, usually put "forefathers" within dubiety quotes. Obviously, since almost 500 years of Parthian sovereignty separated the Old from the Middle Persian dynasties, there was more than enough time for memories to fade, or be fabricated. Oral traditions are anyway always shifting and changing according to circumstances -- and who will ever know the motives of the teller of tales or his patron? Yet, I think it's fair to say, that Ardashir really had the idea, however distorted, that the kings of Pars [Persis] were true heirs of the Achaemenids.

Plenty of Casus belli.

That's also what contemporary Romans thought. Herodian said as much, writing at about the time that Ardashir seized power:
Ardashir overran Mesopotamia and threatened Syria. Believing these regions to be his by inheritance, he declared that all the countries in that area, including Ionia and Caria [in Anatolia], had been ruled by Persian governors, from the time of Cyrus .... He asserted that it was therefore proper for him to recover for the Persians the kingdom which they formally possessed.
And Cassius Dio agreed: Ardashir boasted that he would win back everything that the ancient Persians had once held as far as the Grecian Sea. It was, he said, his rightful inheritance from his forefathers.

Of course, they might simply have interpreted current Persian intentions in the light of their traditional Graeco-Roman history, imagining that the first Persian wars were about to be replayed. But it's also possible that they were reporting rightly -- that the Sassanians did consider themselves heirs of the earlier kings.

Even if they did, of course, that doesn't make it true.

Suppose for a moment, though, that they had kept alive such a story all through the Parthian period. What kind of evidence should we be looking for? Here's a question we might ask as a start:

Did they know that the Achaemenids built Persepolis?

Just down the road from their own capital, Istakhr, were the ruins of Persepolis. If they didn't know who built it, then they really were making it up. But if they knew, the city burnt by Alexander must have been an ever-present reminder to them of the lost power and magnificence of their ancestors.

Among the most intriguing finds of the post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few figural graffiti engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and the palace of Darius the Great.* At first, only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, but a more accurate survey now shows that the parts of one of the Harem graffiti (at least) can be combined into a more complex scene, which is very similar to some images on later Sassanian rock-reliefs.

Since their discovery, the images have been compared with those on coins issued by the vassal kings of Pars. Three princes were tentatively identified: 1. a local dynast of Pars immediately preceding the Sassanians; 2. Pâpak (the father of Ardashir I); and 3. Ardashir's older brother Shapur, "who reigned for three months and was killed by a falling stone when visiting Persepolis" .**

None of these identifications are secure. The only sure information is that their headdresses are very similar to those of the rulers of Pars: a high tiara (as worn by the mounted figures illustrated on this page), bordered with pearls and with a "coat-of-arms" at the middle, a crescent or a crescent with disc. The same type of tiara, in fact, appears on their coins from the first half of the 1C BC to the first quarter of the 3rd C AD. The peculiar headdress worn by the standing man (above left) -- a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently made by tying a large cloth onto the head -- is similar to a fan-shaped object which also appears on coins on the head of the penultimate kinglet of Pars.

Four princes are mounted on horseback -- and note the elaborate trappings of the horses, as lovingly detailed as the richly intricate costumes of the riders. One can imagine the terrific effect of those embossed metal discs (almost certainly of gold) when shaken by the rapid motion of the horse.


Two of the horsemen hold in their extended right arm the ribboned diadem that is the symbol of the royal divine radiance, the xvarrah, given by the god Hormizd to each Sassanian king (scroll down to the previous post, Sassanian Stuff II to see the god put the diadem in Ardashir's right hand). This is the visual sign of the king's divine election: whoever possesses the xvarrah is the rightful ruler, and any rebellion against him is doomed to fail. It seems impossible for any two princes to have split up the divine grace -- a good argument, I would think, for the graffiti to have been drawn at different times.


I really wish we had another word than 'graffiti' to describe these drawings. They are far from hasty or unskilled scrawls. Rather, they are the work of several well-trained craftsmen (at least two or three different artists drew the larger figures). These are not casual doodles but works of art, commissioned by the personages who are represented.

Whoever these characters are, and whatever their poses and postures mean, they must be fathers, forefathers, sons, or crown princes of the vassal dynasty of the Kings of Pars.

Recently, the scholar Pierfrancesco Callieri noted that the engraved lines on the stones are so thin that the motifs are only visible in a certain glancing light. I have seen the same phenomenon on walls in Egypt: if the sun isn't exactly at the right height, you cannot see a thing of the decoration. That didn't matter to the ancient Egyptians because the images were originally painted in many colours -- so the pictures stood out whatever the angle of sunlight. Was this true at Persepolis as well?

Callieri thinks so. He proposes that the images were filled in with colour, long vanished, and that the incisions were only the preliminary phase of the painting. Now, in your mind's eye, picture the walls blazing with the vivid colours of the princes' cloaks and tunics - reds and blues, browns and purples and gold - such as we know from contemporary Palmyran costume. And imagine, too, that the isolated partial figures stuck by themselves on the walls (often just heads, with headdress and streaming ribbons) were not unfinished bits, but engraved patches of a larger scene that was originally finished by painting.

When Callieri applied this idea to the figures stretched out along one wall at the Harem of Xerxes, he came up with a procession, in which mounted princely figures line up with their horses, each guided by two standing figures. Something like this:


Now, mentally complete the picture, filling in the blanks with parading nobles and squires, ending up perhaps with something like this:

What, then, was the purpose of these paintings on the walls of important buildings of the Achaemenid era at Persepolis?

Homage to the Ancestors?

In the 4th C AD, Prince Shapur Sakanshah, brother of Shapur II, left two inscriptions at Persepolis near the main hall of Darius' palace. One reads: He [Shapur Sakanshah] came to Persepolis [såd-stŭn, the place of '100 columns'], and organized a great feast, and he had divine rituals performed, and he prayed for his father and his ancestors, and he prayed for Shapur, the king of kings, and he prayed for his own soul, and he also prayed for the one who had this building constructed.

It is not by chance that the prince chose the palace of Darius the Great at Persepolis to have a banquet, order rites for the gods, and give blessing to his father and grandfather -- and to those who built the city (though he didn't call it by its ancient name, Parsa, 'city of Pars'). This was homage due to his ancestors. Similarly, the images that the pre-Sassanian kings of Pars ordered to be painted on its walls may have been intended to demonstrate continuity with the great kings of the mythical past.

A mark of ownership, if you will.

The rulers of Pars thought that they derived their claims and titles from their forefathers (with or without quotation marks). They knew of Persia's special place within the empire, of the disastrous reign of Alexander, and all about the divine radiance of kings whose origin is from the gods. How did they remember this and pass it on to the Sassanians?

Surely, that was thanks to the Zoroastrian clergy, the subject of Zoroastrian Stuff I, coming soon.


* This post is deeply indebted to P. Callieri's discussion of the graffiti , At the roots of the Sasanian royal imagery.

** Cui bono? The younger son Ardashir certainly gained the most out of this 'accidental death', but he's innocent until proven guilty. More to our point today, what was the newly enthroned king doing at Persepolis? What was so important that he visited the ruins in the midst of an ongoing war against the Parthian king?


12 November 2007

Sassanian Stuff II


How It All Began

IN the province of Pars in Southwest Persia, the religion of Zoroaster was always observed. Here the priests attended to the sacred fires and the injunctions of the prophet were rigorously observed --no corpses were to pollute the earth, no flames were to be blown out, and the divine radiance must be worshipped. In Pars, too, where the tombs of the Achaemenid Kings and ruins of Persepolis remained to remind believers of the splendour of their past, men dreamt of a time when a Persian dynasty would again be on the throne.

Such a man was Pâpak. He was the high priest (mobad) of the important fire temple of the goddess Anahita -- goddess of water, fertility, wisdom and war -- in the Persian capital of Istakhr, very near ancient Persepolis. As a vassal of the Parthians, he was also Commander of the Army in Pars. Around the year 200 AD, Pâpak married Princess Ram Behest, daughter of the Parthian Satrap of Pars. In 211, he succeeded his father-in-law and became Satrap. He now combined in his person the religious, military, and political power of Pars [ known as Persis to the Greeks (its modern name is Fars)].

If I had been his Parthian overlord, I would have been very worried.

And even more worried, I would think, when Pâpak began to trace his ancestry back to the founders of the Achaemenid dynasty. In a late genealogy, his father is named as Sasan (the eponymous hero of the Sassanians), who may himself have descended from an 'Elder Sasan', a 1st century vassal kinglet, and through him to the Achaemenids. That may or may not be history but suffices to establish connections with the previous dynasty; where such connections did not exist, they were fabricated. ... as in the "Pâpak Romance", if I may call it that, the stuff of legend, and much more fun: it tells quite another story about Sasan, and Pâpak's three dreams.

It goes like this.

Sasan worked for Pâpak as a lowly shepherd, always with the sheep and goats, but secretly he was descended from the line of Darius III, the last king of the Achaemenid empire, who was defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Alexander, by the way, was not so 'Great' to those he had conquered, and all his Persianizing habits didn't make him liked. On the contrary, even in Pâpak's time, 500 years later, the Persians remembered the evil he had done them and so Sasan's story begins with these words, During the evil reign of Alexander, the descendants of Darius privately lived in distant lands, wandering with Kurdish shepherds...

Because the Zoroastrian god Hormizd (aka Ahura Mazda), was on Sasan's side, the Satrap Pâpak had his dreams:
One night Pâpak saw in a dream as though the sun was shining from the head of Sasan and giving light to the whole world. Another night he dreamt that Sasan was seated on a richly adorned white elephant, and that all those that stood around him in the kingdom made obeisance to him, praised, and blessed him. The next third night he saw as if the [three] sacred fires were burning in the house of Sasan ....
Needless to say, Pâpak called in the interpreter of dreams, who told him what this meant:
The person that was seen in that dream, he or somebody from among the sons of that man will succeed to the sovereignty of this world, because the sun and the richly adorned white elephant that you observed represented vigor and the triumph of opulence; the [first] sacred fire, the religious intelligence of the great men among the priests ; and the [second] sacred fire, warriors and military chieftains; and the [third] sacred fire, the farmers and agriculturists of the world: and thus this sovereignty will fall to that man or the descendants of that man.
That's all Pâpak needed to hear. Whereas a lesser man would have topped Sasan and put a bloody end to any threat from that quarter, Pâpak (undoubtedly guided by his god) instead gave him his daughter in marriage: in a short time, Ardashir was born. When Pâpak saw that Ardashir was beautiful and clever, he said to himself, "The dream which I beheld was true." He regarded Ardashir as his own son, and brought him up as a dear child.

Meanwhile, the king of the Parthians , Artabanus V, finally woke up to what was going on in Pars. No dreams for him, but the night sky was ominous. He called in his astrologers who duly warned him that regicide was definitely on the cards:
The [Capricorn] is sunk below; the star Jupiter has returned to its culminating point and stands away from Mars and Venus, while [Ursa Major]and the constellation of Leo descend to the verge and give help to Jupiter; whereupon it seems clear that a new lord or king will appear, who will kill many potentates, and bring the world again under the sway of one sovereign.
To make a very long story short, war broke out between Pâpak and Artabanus, which went on for four or five years. Pâpak died before the savage contest was decided, and, in 216, his (adopted?) son Ardashir became king of the Persians and continued the campaign.



He came to battle twice and won twice, He killed the entire army of the [Parthians], seized their wealth, property, horses, and portable lodges. In the second battle, he sent Artabanus fleeing from the field.

For the third battle, Ardashir collected soldiers in large numbers from Kerman, Mokristan, Spahan, and different districts of Pars, and came to fight with Artabanus himself. So Artabanus sent for soldiers and provisions from different frontiers, such as Rai [near Tehran], Demavand [the mountain range near Tehran], Delman [modern Gilan], and Patash-khvargar [an offshoot of the Aparsen Range].

The last engagement took place in April 224 on the plain of Hormuz, the Battle of Hormizdgan, where Ardashir won a decisive victory over Artabanus who was killed. The story goes that his death was the result of hand-to-hand single combat while their troops looked on, the outcome to decide who would rule. A dubious story, but a chivalrous one, which was much applauded in medieval Persia.

Chivalry is not dead: a view from the 14th century




Ardashir now gave himself the title of "King of Kings," and not far from Persepolis, on a great bluff of yellow rock, at a place now called Naqsh-i-Rustam, he ordered a memorial of his triumph to be carved in the rock, so that his name and his victory should never be forgotten.

The bluff stands at the entrance of a majestic valley, the sanctity of which was stressed by the fire temple of Anahita (left*), where the Sassanian kings were crowned (and where Pâpak may have been mobad) and the tombs of the first Achaemenid kings. The site had surely been chosen by Ardashir to unite the divine beneficial radiance of the Achaemenids with his own person and with his family. The carving remains, fresh and glowing in the sunlight, three times larger than life.

The rock relief at the top of this post shows his Coronation scene. Ardashir receives the ribboned diadem (cydaris), the symbol of kingship, from the great god Hormizd. Ardashir takes the diadem with his right hand, and salutes the god with his left fist and pointed index finger as a token of respect and obedience (a gesture repeated on many Sassanian rock reliefs). Both king and god are on horseback and are of equal size. Under the horse of the King lies the last of the Parthian Kings, Artabanus. Under the horse of Hormizd lies "the one who lies," the devil Ahriman. The relief of Ardashir is, therefore, the legitimization of the new Sassanian dynasty.

When Pâpak and his son revolted against Parthian rule, they more or less admitted that they had been rebels and had betrayed their master Artabanus V, but they had done so because the supreme god Hormizd had wanted them to do so. [Now, where have I recently heard that justification for war? God talks to me] The inscription in Persian, Parthian, and Greek, reads:
This is the image of the Hormizd-worshipping Majesty Ardashir, whose origin is of the gods
Ardashir's distinctive crown illustrates a remarkable idiosyncracy of the Sassanian kings: each emperor will wear a different personal crown, and these become successively more elaborate. The constant element is the rather unusual globe, called the korymbos, the bulbous central element of which was made of silk and designed to contain the hair. Additionally a diadem was worn, with pointed, sometimes wing-like elements and pleated ribbons falling on either side.

Ardashir's rule was absolute and god-given. And his to give on. Before his death in 241, he abdicated his throne to his favourite son Shapur.


This rock relief at Taq-i-Bostram (above) may represent Ardashir handing over the diadem of power to Shapur.** The god Hormizd (on the left, marked by his customary bundle of sacred twigs and with a crown of sun rays around his head), looks on approvingly. The 10th C. Arab writer, Macoudi, declares that, sated with glory and with power, Ardashir withdrew altogether from the government, and, making over the administration of affairs to his son, devoted himself to religious contemplation.

It was a smart move. By the end of his reign, the Sassanian Empire stretched from Sogdiana in the north to the Mazun in the Arabian south, from the Indus River Valley in the east to the borders of Roman Syria in the west. The stage was set for a monumental clash with imperial Rome. In the East, the one chief of chiefs who is the king of kings, the ruler of the world. In the West, the ruler of all mankind. And Palmyra caught in the middle.

More on that in Sassanian Stuff III.


* photograph from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, with thanks.

** But the relief could also picture the coronation of Shapur II (ca. 364 AD). And the god could be Mithra, not Hormizd, which perhaps better explains the lotus under the god's feet, and that would certainly support the later date ; see Mithra: dieu iranien.

31 October 2007

Zenobia, Martyr Saint of Cilicia and her brother

Today the Orthodox church calendar (give or take a day or two*) commemorates the martyrdom of Zenobia and her brother Zenobius. A Russian Orthodox hymn, a kontakion ( © by Alex Ledkovsky), celebrates the martyred siblings.

Let us honor with inspired hymns the two martyrs for truth:
the preachers of true devotion, Zenóbius and Zenobía;
as brother and sister they lived and suffered together and through martyrdom received their incorruptible crowns.

Everything about Zenobius (naturally, he gets top billing) and Zenobia is obscure. And that is an understatement.

The story, most of which we know from a 10th C Byzantine monk, Symeon Metaphrastes [for good reason, dubbed 'the re-writer'] goes like this -- slightly abbreviated, but I've left in the bits of gore.

The Blessed Martyr Zenobius, Bishop of Aegea, and his sister Zenobia suffered a martyr's death in the year 285 in Cilicia. From childhood they were raised in the holy Christian Faith by their parents, and they led pious and chaste lives. In their mature years, they distributed away their inherited wealth giving it to the poor. For his beneficence and holy life the Lord rewarded Zenobius with the gift of healing various maladies. [He] was able to heal the sick of every sort of infirmity simply by the touch of his hand.

As bishop, Saint Zenobius zealously spread the Christian Faith among the pagans. When the emperor Diocletian (284-305) began a persecution against Christians, Bishop Zenobius was the first one arrested and brought to trial to the governor Licius. "I shall only speak briefly with you," said Licius to the saint, "for I propose to grant you life if you worship our gods, or death, if you do not." The saint answered, "This present life without Christ is death. It is better that I prepare to endure the present torment for my Creator ... then be tormented eternally in Hades." By order of Licius, they nailed him to a cross and began the torture. The bishop's sister, seeing him suffering, wanted to stop it. She bravely confessed her own faith in Christ before the governor, therefore, she also was tortured. By the power of the Lord they remained alive after being placed on a red-hot iron bed, and then in a kettle of boiling pitch. The saints were then beheaded.

That did it. At least they didn't walk about afterwards, with their heads tucked underneath their arms, but were buried in a grave together. This all happened in about 285 AD (or perhaps in 304). Or perhaps not?

In 310 AD, we are told by Bishop Eusebius, writing not long after the events :
that St. Tyrannio, Bishop of Tyre, when, being conducted from Tyre to Antioch, with St. Zenobius, a holy priest and physician of Sidon, after many torments [Tyrannio] was thrown into the sea. Zenobius expired on the rack, whilst his sides and body were furrowed and laid open with iron hooks and nails.
So this Zenobius, too, was a doctor ( "that best of physicians", says Eusebius) as well as a priest. And his martyrdom took place, as Eusebius clearly says, on 29 October, whereas the saint of Cilicia is celebrated by the Orthodox on 30 October. Thus, it seems quite possible that the two Zenobii have been confused -- after all, Aegae (modern Ayash) is but a hop across the Gulf of Alexandretta from Antioch.

If so, what happened to Zenobia?

I just wonder if she is not the saintly lady described (but not named) in Eusebius, "admirable for strength of soul yet in body a woman and famed as well by all that were at Antioch for wealth, birth and sound judgment" -- who, with her two daughters, threw herself into the Orontes River rather than suffer a fate worse than death (the threat of fornication!) having fallen into the hands of soldiers. Her name is given by St John Chrysostom, half a century or so later, as Domnina -- but we already have a martyred Domnina who was said to have suffered death at Aegaea in 285 (or 305) in Lycia. And there is no Aegaea, or Aegae, or even Aegea, in Lycia. So this must refer to Aegae in Cilicia, where (and when) Zenobia met her end. And we're not finished yet. There's yet another Domnina or Domnica waiting in the wings:
The Holy Martyress Domnica suffered for confessing Christianity in the year 286. Domnica lived in the region of Cilicia. By order of the governor Licius they beat her for a long time, and burnt her with fire. All tormented, Saint Domnica was thrown into prison, where she died.
Licius, of course, was the evil "praeses provinciae Lyciae" who tortured Zenobia and Zenobius to death ... in Cilicia.

What are we to make of all this?

Oh, I don't know.

But Zenobia is always worth a hymn or two.

Alex Ledkovsky wrote a Zenobian Troparion as well as the Kontakion reproduced above.

[If readers despair of my ever getting back to the main subject of this blog (the life and times of Queen Zenobia), be of good heart: Sassanian Stuff II is coming up next.]


* a poor excuse for being a day late (31 Oct.) with this post. It was due on the saints' day, 30 Oct.

14 October 2007

How the Tiger and the Tigris Got their Names

I came down with an awful case of tigrology last week.

I was going mad, trying to discover the origin of the words for tiger, the animal, and Tigris, the river.

Believe me, there's nothing worse than an attack of etymological questions: it can turn a sober scholar into a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic in a trice. My apologies ... but I'd like to take you with me around the bend.

It's all the fault of Isidore of Seville, who wrote a big big book, the Etymologies (in Latin), an encyclopedic account of just about everything known in the western world in the years around 600 AD, when Isidore was alive. After the Bible, Etymologies was perhaps the most influential book in the Latin West for nearly a thousand years. If you wanted to know anything about what the ancients thought about art, music, nature, God or grammar, you'd check with Isidore first thing.

The only problem is, as Emily Wilson tells us (in an enjoyable review in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 Aug. 2007) that Isidore is like a bad search engine, with little or no control over his sources. Not for nothing is Isidore the patron saint of the Internet! Much of the information he provides is blatantly false and most of his supposed etymologies are complete twaddle. They go like this:
"Health (salus) takes its name from salt (sal), for nothing is better for us than salt (sal) and sun (sol)"

"Cats are called cats because they catch mice (catuma captura vocant)

"Days (dies) are so called from 'the gods' (deus, ablative plural diis).
Or, as Isidore himself might have put it -- 'days are called after dayities.' Groan.

So I was surprised when Prof. Wilson seemed to take him seriously on a point of Persian etymology. This is what tripped me up:
Isidore knows that Latin draws on other languages: [he writes] "the tiger (tigris) is so called because of its rapid flight, for this is what the Persians and Medes call an arrow."
And Isidore added helpfully, "The Tigris River is named after the tiger because it is the fastest of all rivers."

This conflation of tiger (the beast) and Tigris (the river) continues to this day and so does their supposed derivation from the Persian for 'arrow' (check your dictionary: most, but not all, still give it; and it's all over the internet as well). The idea first appeared in Greek in Strabo's Geography (early 1st C. AD), when he says of the river Tigris (Gr. Tigris) :
because of its swiftness ... whence the name Tigris, since the Median word for "arrow" is "tigris."
And it is picked up in Latin in Pliny's Natural History (mid-1st C.), who describes the river:
as soon as it begins to flow, though with a slow current, has the name of Diglito. When its course becomes more rapid, it assumes the name of Tigris given to it on account of its swiftness, that word signifying an arrow in the Median language.

But why, I asked myself, should anyone believe that the name of a river which runs back in its history to the Sumerians should have a Persian name, and one so far-fetched as ''arrow''; and why would an Indian animal, albeit one that ranged into Persian territory, share the same etymology of 'arrow'?

I fretted. This way lies madness ... but I had to go on. Here is what I've come up with in my quest.

I don't question, of course, that the Greeks may have actually learnt both words in Persia or that, if they did, in that sense they do come from Persian. But that is all I accept.

Let's start with the river. It's the easier of the two. What we know:

The Sumerian name for the river was Idigna, which seems simply to have meant 'running water' or possibly 'river with high banks'. When the Semitic-speaking Akkadians arrived in the region they borrowed the name, turning it into (I)Diq/gla(t) -- and note how close that is to the word Pliny recorded for the higher stream. The Semitic trail continues via the biblical Hebrew Hiddekel (one of the rivers running through Eden, Genesis 2:14) and the later Aramaic Deglath or Diglat, eventually to become Arabic Diğlä -- which is today pronounced in Iraq, I'm told, as Dijla.

At first sight, the Old Persian Tigrā seems to stick out like a sore thumb, looking completely different. But I'd bet a couple of Sassanian drachmas that Tigrā comes from a form rather like DIG-LA: where D shifts to a T sound and L to R. In short, the Persians, too, seem to have adapted a name going back to Sumerian -- via the intermediary of local Semitic languages.

So the Greeks were wrong to derive the river's name from Persian tigra- "sharp, pointed", Avestan " tigri- "arrow", and to imagine that the river ran at the speed of an arrow. Perhaps this is what they were told once they arrived in Persia, for folk etymology is always beguiling and words of unknown origin inevitably yield to a play of known words.

But what about the animal, the tiger? Could Isidore of Seville have possibly got this part right?

I doubt it. But it is a tough one.

The beast is Babr (or Bebr) in Middle Persian. Surprisingly, this does not descend from any of the early Indian words for tiger (vyAghra, pRdAku, zArdUla). Note that the Sanskrit vyAghra means 'who tears apart', rather a better name for a ferocious animal than an anodyne 'sharp, pointed' or 'arrow' ("How, Daddy, did the tiger get its name?" "It's faster than a speeding arrow, son." Just so.)

So I went back and looked at the Greek history of the tiger. I suspect that we've been looking in slightly the wrong direction: I can see no reason that the Greeks would have first met up with the tiger in Persia.

The animal only enters Greek writings after the Indian campaigns of Alexander the Great (who died in 323 BC). Alexander's general, Nearchus, we are told, saw a tiger skin during the Indian campaign, but no tiger. King Seleucus 'the Victor', first Seleucid ruler of Mesopotamia, sent a live tiger to Athens around 300 BC. This might have been an animal captured during his own Indian wars around 305 BC or, more likely, a royal gift sent to him by an Indian prince some time before his death in 297. Since, even in antiquity, the western range of the tiger seems limited to eastern Turkey, north Iran, and the wild lands between the Caspian and Black Seas, Seleucus' tiger need not have been of Persian origin; so where would Seleucus have learnt what the beast was called?

We have two clues: tiger is vagr in Armenian (Armenia then, remember, was roughly today's Kurdish territory), and vigr in Georgian. Somewhere up that way, perhaps, on the roads to Bactria and Afghanistan, the Greeks first came across live tigers. The all-knowing Pliny assures us that most tigers lived on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (in Hyrcania) and in India.

But Pliny didn't know much about tigers.* On the contrary, he passed on this tall tale:

The tiger ... can run with terrific speed. To take the tiger's cubs, the hunter prepares a fast horse and steals the tiger's entire litter, and rides away, changing to fresh horses as necessary. The tiger, seeing that her cubs are gone, tracks them by scent and chases the hunter. When the hunter sees the tiger catching up, he drops one cub. The tiger stops to pick up the cub before resuming the chase. The hunter repeats this ruse until he reaches his ship; in this way he escapes with at least one of the cubs, leaving the tiger to rage impotently on the shore.

You will not be surprised to know that Isidore of Seville swallowed this story almost whole ... and then went one better: instead of dropping cub after cub, the hunter throws down a mirror or a glass sphere, whereupon the tiger, seeing its own reflection in the sphere and thinking it is her stolen cub, stops to nurse the supposed cub. This gives the robber time to escape.

Just so. As befits a Christian bishop, the mirror symbolizes the cost of vanity and pride. Beware ladies, the tigress loses her cubs for just such a sin. In any case, this became a favoured medieval theme, especially popular in the 12th-13th C illustrated beastiaries (a few of which are reproduced on this page).

I don't suppose it was for his Etymologies that Isidore was canonized in 1598, and certainly not for his tigrology.

Perhaps it was because, as Archbishop of Seville (600 - 636), he converted the Spanish Visigothic kings from Arianism to Roman Catholicism. Or was it because he presided over the Council of Toledo in 633, when they tried (as Emily Wilson remarks, not for the first and certainly not for the last time) to eradicate Jews and heretics from Spain? Either act was surely worthy of sainthood, even if that prize was put on hold for nearly 1000 years. Perhaps it was more banal, just politics as usual.** But I like to think that what tipped the scale was his enduring description of Britons: "Britannus comes from brutus (dumb brute)."

With one-liners like that, he is the perfect patron saint for the Internet .



* It's only in the time of Augustus at the beginning of our era that the first tigris is seen in Rome, though I haven't been able to find out when the Latin name was borrowed from Greek.

** In 1598, Pope Clement VIII had brought about a peace treaty between Spain and France. A new Spanish saint might have been part of the price.

My thanks to Esfandiar, Agnes Korn, Luis Mendieta, and Varun Singh and all those on the Parthia-List for their help.

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