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.

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


  1. Thanks for the introduction to Zoroastrian thought. I found these 2 quotes interesting:

    In the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of our Savior we read (Zeraduscht is arabic for Zoroaster):

    7. And it came to pass when the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem of Judea in the time of King Herod behold magi came from the east to Jerusalem as Zeraduscht had predicted and there were with them gifts gold and frankincense and myrrh And they adored Him and presented to Him their gifts. Then the Lady Mary took one of the swaddling bands and on account of the smallness of her means gave it to them and they received it from her with the greatest marks of honour And in the same hour there appeared to them an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey and they went away following the guidance of its light until they arrived in their own country.

    In Essays on the sacred language, writings, and religion of the Parsees, Martin Haug relates that the Zoroastrians claimed Abraham as their patriarch and prophet. Abraham was said to have brought his religion books from heaven (Haug discounts this theory thinking that the Zoroastrians claimed this to avoid persecution from Islam):

    In several Mohammedan writings especially in vernacular Persian dictionaries we find ZOROASTER or as he is there called ZARADUSHT identified with ABRAHAM the patriarch. The Magi are said to have called their religion Kesh-i-Ibrahim i.e. creed of Abraham whom they considered as their prophet and the reformer of their religion They traced their religious books to Abraham who was believed to have brought them from heaven.

    Perhaps, the imprint of Zoroaster on subsequent religious thought is greater than we generally acknowledge.

  2. Thanks, Matt, for that perceptive comment.

    I suspect you're right that the Zoroastrians claimed Abraham as an ancestor to avoid Muslim persecution (it didn't seem to help much!).

    On the complex, multi-layered borrowings between religions in Persia, see also my post on The Magi and Christmas.

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