17 January 2008

Sassy Sassanians

The Romans are on hold for a week. By popular demand.

Well, I did get one email from a piqued reader. This is what she said:

"Hi Judith, Zenobia is a blog about a Woman in history. Where are the women of the Sasanian empire? In all that Stuff, you have not written a word about females, mortal or immortal. What gives?"

I am rebuked. I apologize. I repent.

Atonement lies in the hands of Anahita, mighty goddess of the waters and source of the cosmic ocean.

For her brightness and glory, I will offer her a sacrifice....

Strong and bright, tall and beautiful of form, who sends down by day and by night a flow of motherly waters as great in bigness as all the waters that flow forth upon the earth.

As a divinity Anahita is of enormous significance to the Zoroastrian religion: she is 'the waters', in effect the divinity towards whom the sacred liturgy (Yasna) - the primary act of worship - is directed.

May thou be most fully worshipped

She is also a many-sided goddess. The goddess of pure waters is the goddess of healing as well, "wide-flowing and health-giving. "

She is responsible, too, for the fertility of animals and humans. She purifies the seed of men and the wombs of women, and
makes all females bring forth in safety, who puts milk into the breasts of all females in the right measure and the right quality.

From water to wisdom: Anahita knows the laws of holiness. Priests pray to her for knowledge,
with the wisdom of the tongue, with the holy spells, with the libations, and with the rightly-spoken words. If you know the right words, of course, then you also know how to apply them against demons and other evil powers. That gives her a big edge in the endless fight against Darkness, Deceit and Lies.

Two Goddesses for the Price of One

Anahita takes on many characteristics of the Semitic goddess Ishtar. She assumes the ancient Mesopotamian title of 'the Lady', and borrows Ishtar's lions, too. Faced with the Mistress of Animals, the fiercest lions grow quiet -- look at that lion drinking water tamely from a vase beneath the wheel of Anahita's chariot on the Sassanian plate (above); or the pair held firmly by their front paws (right). I'm not sure, but Ishtar might also be the source of Anahita being portrayed in unPersian semi-nudity.

In the Avesta, she was fully clothed. A beautiful young woman
nobly born of a glorious race, wearing a coat with long sleeves, with rich designs, embroidered with gold. On her head she bound a golden crown, with a hundred stars, with eight rays, with earrings like wheels, with beautiful droplets, a golden necklace around her beautiful neck; she girded her waist tightly, so that her breasts may be well-shaped, that they may be tightly pressed.
She is royally dressed in a garment of the skins of thirty beavers ... for the skin of the beaver that lives in water is the finest-coloured of all skins, and it shines to the eye with full sheen of silver and gold.

But she's not just a pretty face

Anahita also takes on the warlike nature of Ishtar. Blood and guts become her business.
Hear, O good, most beneficent Anahita! I beg of thee this favour: that I, fully blessed, may conquer large kingdoms, rich in horses, with high tributes, with snorting horses, sounding chariots, flashing swords... that I may have at my wish the fullness of the good things of life and whatever makes a kingdom thrive.
Before the battle starts, the wise hero will make an offering she cannot refuse. A sacrifice of 100 stallions, 1,000 cows, and 10,000 sheep is the going rate.
Grant me this, O good, most beneficent Anahita! that I may smite the [enemy] people in their fifties and their hundreds, their hundreds and their thousands, their thousands and their tens of thousands, their tens of thousands and their myriads of myriads.
Slaughter duly accomplished and the battle won, it's time to claim the throne. Blood still wet on his sword, the hero Tusa approaches the goddess
on the back of his horse, begging swiftness for his teams, health for his own body, and that he might smite down his foes, and destroy at one stroke his adversaries, his enemies, and those who hated him.
There's a political point to this story. In the Avesta, Anahita is worshipped by both heroes and anti-heroes alike. The good, the bad and the ugly all pray for her help in the struggle for the Divine Glory (xvarrah):
The men of strength will beg of thee swift horses and supremacy of Glory. But her reaction is not at all the same. When the demon Azhi Dahaka -- a monster with three heads, six eyes, and three jaws, whose body is full of lizards and scorpions -- makes the same enormous sacrifice as Prince Tusa, the goddess rejects his beastly holocaust. Needless to say, his fate is sealed.

This mythological confrontation still resonates in Sassanian times. In the previous post, you may remember (and, if you don't, you can scroll down to Zoroastrian Stuff III),
Prince Narseh led a rebellion against Bahram III in 293 AD. He left a long inscription to justify his revolt (for he was a younger son of the great Shapur I, not a Bahram boy at all) on a rock wall at Paikuli, northwest of modern Mosul. Narseh claimed that Bahram III had been crowned illegally while he himself was away on business in Armenia. He condemned what looks like a palace coup d’état in the language of good versus evil:

And as for the [Royal] Glory and the realm and his own throne and honour, which his ancestors received from the gods, may [Narseh] take them back from the evil-doers against the gods and men.
At Paikuli, Narseh met up with the 'princes and grandees and nobles and satraps' who supported him.
He also had the backing of Kirdir the High-Priest (scroll down, too, to the previous post to read about Kirdir). When his army had assembled,
then in the name of Hormizd and all the gods and Anahita, the Lady, we moved from Armenia towards [Persia].
Anahita never backs a loser so, of course, Narseh won! Too late, Bahram III understood that the gods had given Glory and rulership to Narseh; his own 'sorcery' was useless against the wishes of The Lady. Poor Bahram was brought into Narseh's presence, bound, and mounted on the back of a maimed donkey (O the shame!), and put to death, very likely in an extremely unpleasant manner. Narseh did not forget Anahita's help.

Come, O Anahita, come from those stars down to the earth, that the great lords may worship thee, the masters of the countries, and their sons.
In an astonishing scene, Narseh receives the ribboned royal diadem from the hand of Anahita on the rock walls at Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis. The goddess is wearing a mural crown with her hair arranged in a topknot. A young prince (probably the king's son and successor, Hormizd II) stands between them. It is extraordinary and, as far as I know, the only coronation scene in which the supreme god Hormizd is nowhere to be seen.

But this is not the only time that Anahita directly intervenes at a crucial moment in royal Sassanian affairs.

Centuries later, she participates in the coronation of Khusrau II the Victorious (590-628), the last great king of Persia before the arrival of Islam. On the right, the highest god Hormizd hands over the diadam to Khusrau, who stands facing the audience. Anahita (and notice the little water jar in her left hand) presents the king with a second diadem. The composition is inspired by sixth-century Byzantine paintings (with Christ between two saints). Khusrau defeated the Byzantines on several occasions. He invaded Syria and captured Jerusalem in 614, taking away with him a relic of the True Cross. His armies went on to invade Egypt and in 626, their advance guards paused only a mile from Constantinople . It seemed as if the ancient empire was about to be restored in all its glory.

It was not to be. But it wasn't Anahita's fault.

The Muslims Are Coming!

Her fire temple at Estakhr (near Persepolis) boasted one of the most venerated of all Zoroastrian fires. The line of its high priests was said to have begun with Sasan, the supposed ancestor of the Sassanian dynasty, and runs into historical times with the kings of Pars and the first two Sassanian rulers, Papak and Ardashir I, as her priests. Among the great honours conferred on the High-Priest Kirdir were the offices of Master of Ceremonies and Warden of 'the fire of Anahita the Lady'. Despite his many other privileges and powers, these appointments were among his proudest achievements.

The royal treasury was kept in the temple. It was a repository, too, for sacred books, almost certainly including one of the rare copies of the Great Avesta. It seems to have appealed to the collecting instinct: Ardashir I sent to 'the house of Anahita's fire' the heads of enemies slain in his early wars, and in 340 AD Shapur II had the heads of Christians suspended there.

That may be why, as a later Muslim visitor reported, there was howling about the ruins, and "the winds made a noise like thunder, night and day." Mas´ûdî , who visited in the 10th century, saw still standing, "pillars, made from blocks of astonishing size, surmounted by curious figures in stone representing horses and other animals, of gigantic shapes and proportions."

After the Muslim conquest, the temple was converted into the chief mosque of Estakhr, standing now in the town's bazaar. Before that happened, the sacred fire was taken away and carried to safety in Yazd, where it burns to this day. One of the mountain shrines of the surviving Zoroastrians at Yazd , which lies beside a spring and a confluence of water courses, is devoted to Banu-Pars ('the Lady of Persia'). This shrine continues to be a pilgrimage site (by women only) even in Islamic times.

If any readers have visited Yazd, I would love to learn more.

My thanks to Prof. Agnes Korn and Dr Judith Lerner for their help in gathering information about the goddess.


  1. Thanks for this! I am writing a women's Anahita ritual and it has been hard to find good information on her story. Historical information was there, but not her mythology and I found more here on your blog than anywhere else. Many thanks!

  2. This is a wonderful description of her, and that plate is amazing. In fact it's so perfect for the thesis I am working on right now that I'd like to know what source it came from so I could use it in my paper?

    Many thanks if you get back to me. Thank you.

  3. Tarran,

    Please send me an email and I'll get back to you: judith@judithweingarten.com

  4. Hi thanks for your writings on Sassanids. Very inspiring!

    For further reading I've choosen Early Zoroastrianism by James Hope Moulton

    Great blog though!

  5. Very inspiring on Sassanids, great quotes, just great. Nice blog too.

    Well for further reading I've choosen Early Zoroastriantism by James Hope Moutlon 1913.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Checkmate 187. Moutlon's book is out-of-date (there's been lots of new material discovered in the last century). I suggest this more current book on Zoroastrianism: THE ZOROASTRIAN TRADITION by Farhang Mehr, published by Element Books, 1991.

  7. JW: A comment, slightly censored, I'm afraid, from Sweden.

    "BunBun4life has left a new comment on your post "Sassy Sassanians":


    They're still in the process of destroying the ruins of the Anahita temple in Iran, which is covered with graffiti, vandalization & has had stones removed by people who use them to make repairs on their own houses."


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