Would you, as a commoner, dare to carve your portrait on the exalted rock wall where the first Sassanian king receives the royal diadem from the great god of Persia?
And then -- in another burst of lèse-majesté -- dare do it again, putting yourself right behind Shapur, King of Kings, as he takes the Roman emperor prisoner with his very own hands?
It seems inconceivable, but a Magus-priest did just that.
Off with his head!
Not a bit of it. The priest Kirdir (also written Kerdîr, Kirdêr, Kartîr, Kartir, etc.) lived to serve six Sassanian kings.
Here he is for the first time (above), discreetly tucked behind the scene showing Ardashir I, founder of the dynasty, receiving 'Divine Grace' , the xvarrah, from Hormizd, the highest god. Kirdir salutes both king and god with his right fist and pointed index finger, a sign of respect and obedience. In front of him is a long text, which tells us who he is and something of what he did:
I Kirdir have lived in truthfulness in the realm and I have served the gods well and obtained their favour.Kirdir was Tansar's successor. When he was a mere herbad (teacher) and mobad (priest), he tells us, Ardashir's son, Shapur, first showed him favour, saying to the young man, "Keep doing that which you know is best for the gods and Us!” It was also in the early days of his career, before he had taken the next step up the clerical ladder, that the gods granted him a vision. He tells us about it in a personal style somewhat reminiscent of the early Christian Fathers:
And I prayed to the gods as follows: If you gods once made me, Kirdir, outstanding in this life, then do show me, too, in afterlife, the nature of heaven and hell .... And as I had prayed to the gods, so they did show me heaven and hell and the nature of good and evil of these services. [S]ince the gods did show me in this manner how it is in afterlife, I also served the gods even better and obtained greater favour from them, and I was even more generous and truthful for the sake of my own soul. And I became much more confident about these sacrifices and other services that are performed in the land.The story of his extraordinary vision survives in part. Kirdir was still a young priest, [thus, before Shapur's son named him High Priest (mobadan mobad)]. Whether he took a magic mushroom or a good dollop of the mysterious beverage haoma, he went into a trance, and this is what he saw:
We see a shining, princely horseman seated on an excellent horse, and he holds a banner in the hand. And now a man has appeared, sitting on a throne with golden ornaments, who looks exactly like Kirdir. And now a woman has appeared, coming from the east, and we have seen no woman more beautiful than her. And the road she is walking on is [very] luminous. And that woman and the man who looks exactly like Kirdir hold hands and proceed toward the east on that luminous road where the woman came. And that road is very luminous, indeed.Another shining princely man appears, and then another, each leading Kirdir and the beautiful woman onwards. They come to a bottomless well full of serpents, scorpions, lizards, and other evil animals. This is the entrance to hell. Someone says, "[Do not be afraid, but] there is no other way for you than [across that bridge that lies] over that well!"
Another shining, princely man has appeared, who is more excellent than the ones we saw first. And he is coming from the other side forth to the bridge. And now he has arrived at the bridge. And now [he has crossed] the bridge to this side. And he has taken the hands of that woman and the man who looks exactly like Kirdir. And that princely man goes before the man who looks exactly like Kirdir, and the woman goes behind. And now they have crossed the bridge over to the other side and are proceeding toward the east. [And the ....] is excellent and beautiful. And now a palace has appeared, [and a ladder] has appeared in the sky.They climb the ladder. Far up, they find another palace, and a golden throne. " And they said: 'We have seen nothing more excellent and more luminous than this!'" They enter the palace.
And the man who] looks [exactly like Kirdir has taken meat and wine. [And now] a great [throng] is coming forth, and that man who looks exactly like Kirdir is making portions and giving to them. And that [woman] and that princely man [...], and he keeps pointing toward that man who looks exactly like Kirdir and smiles. [...] paid [homage to ?...].Maddeningly, the text breaks off here. We learn no more of his visit to heaven.
But I am strongly reminded of the dreams (or trance) of the late first-century AD Christian visionary, Hermas, and his conversations with a female dream-angel as we hear them in his book, The Shepherd. And just as The Shepherd ends with this Christian exhortation
Whoever, therefore, shall walk in these commandments, shall have life, and will be happy in his life; but whosoever shall neglect them shall not have life, and will be unhappy in this life. Enjoin all, who are able to act rightly, not to cease well-doing...
Kirdir, on the rock wall above, admonishes "Whoever sees and reads this inscription", to believe in the gods and the reality of heaven and hell, for "he who is good and behaves well, fame and prosperity will befall his material body, and blessedness will befall his material soul, like it did me, Kirdir."
The Inner Circle
Now Kirdir dares to move inside the picture frame. That's him again on the right, inside my red circle. Of course he was added long after Shapur's lifetime, but it still takes chutzpah to insert yourself into a monument to imperial military glory. Despite his youthful fling with drugs, his story is of a steady rise in rank and power. He tells it (just below his image), king by king -- from his early days under Shapur (242-272 AD) all the way through the reign of Bahram II (276--293). And he still wouldn't die! He appears to have squeaked into the early years of the rebel king Narseh (who ousted young Bahram III after just four months of rule, in 293). It's a quite astonishing autobiography for the time and place.
A career made in heaven.
Step by step, his responsibilities and duties increased:
From the beginning I, Kerdir, have laboured hard for the sake of the gods, rulers, and my own soul.As High-Priest of Hormizd, he was especially involved with establishing new Victorious fires throughout the country. These fires were the backbone of the fire cult for they were centres of teaching as well as ritual centres for each of the provinces. When he had the opportunity, he acted outside of Persia too --
also in the neighboring lands, wherever the horses and men of the King of Kings went to pillage, burn, and lay waste the land, by the order of the King of Kings, I organized the fires and priests who were there in that land.Shapur, Hormizd, Bahram I and Bahram II, he tells us, all held him in esteem and honour, but Bahram II (276-293 AD) was most gracious of all ... and the feeling was mutual.
[He] was generous, truthful, friendly, beneficent, and a well-doer in the land, then, out of love for the god Hormizd and all the gods and his own soul, he elevated my position and honour in the land. And he gave me the dignity and honour of a nobleman. And he gave me still greater control and authority over the services to the gods, both at the court, and throughout the entire realm than I had at first. And he made me High Priest and Judge of the empire and made me Master of Ceremonies and put me in charge of the [royal fire at the imperial shrine of the goddess] Anahita.With these great honours and now a Grandee, Kardir reaches the very heights of authority. He is called the saviour of Bahram's soul. I don't think it's stretching the parallel with later Christian kings to see Kardir playing the role of father confessor to this king.
But such bliss is rarely enough for a militant priest, certainly not one with an army behind him. Kardir was determined to enforce orthodoxy everywhere in the empire. Magi-priests who had lapsed during easier times and heretics who followed rites similar to Zoroastrianism were converted -- or else. He also had no truck with believers in false gods. The sizzors-like emblem of office on his headdress (marked in blue, left) was fitting: he cut down non-Zoroastrians wherever he found them.
And [the devil] Ahriman and the idols was driven out of the land and deprived of credence. And Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Nazoreans [Jewish Christians?] and other Christians, and Manichaeans were struck down, idol temples were destroyed, and the dens of the foreign gods were ruined and turned into thrones and seats for the gods.Who says that only monotheists are intolerant?
The Magi were whipped into shape, heresy was forbidden, and many foreign gods (and their followers) were dispossessed and proscribed.
The Manichaeans were the chief heretics. The prophet Mani (ca. 216-276 AD) started out in the Syriac-speaking area of southern Mesopotamia. As he travelled through Persia and India, he conceived of a world religion that would replace the local religions of Buddha, Jesus, and Zoroaster. He preached a kind of universalism or syncretism in religion, not unlike present day Bahaism in Iran. Mani arranged for his own missionaries, 'holy men on the move', to spread the good word.
But [my message] will go toward the West, and she will go also towards the East. And they shall hear the voice of her message in all languages and shall proclaim her in all cities. My church is superior in this first point to previous churches, for those previous churches, were chosen in particular countries and particular cities.In Persia, he started out strongly, having converted the brother of Shapur. The king made him a member of his court and allowed him to preach his doctrine within the state, much to the annoyance of the Zoroastrian clergy. It was Mani's back luck that he had to confront the rising star of Kirdir, an implacable opponent who finally managed to set Bahram I against the prophet. A telling encounter between Mani and this king is preserved. Mani arrives at the royal palace to be told that he is unwelcome. "What wrong have I done?" he asks the king.
The King said: "I have sworn not to let you come to this country". And in his anger he spoke thus to the Lord [ Mani]. "What are you good for since you go neither fighting nor hunting? But perhaps you are needed for this doctoring and this physicking? and you don't even do that!" The Lord replied thus: "I have not done you any wrong. Always I have done good to you and your family. Many were your servants whom I have freed of demons and witches. Many were those from whom I have averted numerous kinds of [illness]. Many were those who were at the point of death, and I have revived them."A pretty good score, I would have thought, as exorcist and healer and all but able to resurrect the dead. Not good enough, however, when you are up against the likes of Kirdir. Some time between 247 and 276, Mani was imprisoned, crucified (or, more likely, impaled), and his corpse flayed. It was said that Kirdir had his skin stuffed with straw and hung outside the city walls. After his death, the Manichaeans faced their bloodiest period of persecution. They suffered the same fate later in the Christian Roman empire: in both empires, the arch-heretics were always Manichaeans and they were accordingly persecuted viciously.
Despite Mani's condemnation and gruesome death, Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity in both East and West and maintained itself for at least a thousand years. Every time that the Christians thought that it had been rooted out, it cropped up again: in the Middles Ages in sects such as the Cathars, Paulicians, Albigensians, Bogomils, and many others. Through the teachings of St Augustine -- himself a Manichaean before he converted to Christianity -- Manichaeian dualism (the Living Spirit, an emanation of the realm of light, created this world out of the mixture of light and darkness) entered into Christian teachings as the doctrine of original sin. In the East, Mani's faith flourished -- especially along the Silk Road -- from Mesopotamia to Northern India, Western China and Tibet -- where, ca. A.D. 1000, the bulk of the population professed its tenets and where it only died out in ca. 1600 AD.
None of that mattered to Kirdir. As long as he lived, militant Zoroastrian orthodoxy was triumphant in the Persian empire. There he is (left; photo courtesy of OI), standing right behind the king's sons at the court of Bahram II. We last hear of him in 293 when Narseh I revolted against Bahran III. Narseh was proclaimed King of Kings and a bilingual inscription commemorates this event: in line 16 the name 'Kartir, the mobad of Hormizd' appears. He was surely quite elderly and must have died shortly afterwards.
What history remembers (and forgets) is always amazing. No king of the Sassanian period has left such a wealth of inscribed text as Kirdir, certainly no other commoner. Yet, among the sacred books of Zoroasterism, Book VII of the Denkard, which contains a chapter about great men and events between the death of Zoroaster and the end of the Persian kingship, does not even mention him. Tansar, Kirdir's predecessor, is remembered and praised, but Kartir, who laid the basis for the power of the clergy, was entirely forgotten. If he hadn't left his own testimony on usurped rock walls, we would scarcely have known that he had existed. We would only have heard of him from hostile sources, for his name occurs, blackly, in Manichaean books. But, of the achievements that he himself celebrated, not a word comes down to us.
With the next post, Zenobia: Empress of the East leaves Sassanian Stuff behind and returns to Rome. In the last Roman post, Philip the Arab had just murdered his way to the throne [that's Philip, by the way, pictured in Shapur's monument, above, bowing before the King of Kings, as he purportedly becomes tributary to Persia]. Now, an 'Arab' emperor will celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Rome. Watch this space.
* An English word of Yiddish origin that you may not be able to find in your dictionary. It's almost untranslatable anyway -- even into English. Chutzpah combines impudence, audacity, with a hell of a nerve. Imagine a person who murders his mother and father and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. That's chutzpah!