31 January 2008

Philip the Arab Sets His Sights on Septimius

The promised story of the emperor Philip 'the Arab' (244-249 AD) is once again postponed. My apologies but I'm travelling until Monday and have run out of time.

To keep thoughts riveted, meanwhile, on this almost entirely forgotten emperor, on the right is a fragment of the Septizodium once on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The drawing (made by Martin van Heemskerk between 1532 and 1536) shows all that was then left of this massive structure and its endlessly bubbling fountains. It was built by Septimius Severus in honour of himself around the year 203 AD. Septimius, you may recall, was the husband of our First Uppity Woman, Julia Domna.

The Septi-zodium supposedly got the 'Seven' in its name from its dedication to the seven planetary deities: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the Moon, and the Sun. A statue of Septimius Severus may have stood at the very centre of the monument, with the emperor portrayed as the deified Sun (and Julia Domna as Venus?). No statues survive to prove or disprove the planetary theory. But, anyway, there's another intriguing idea that I like better.

Before the emperor's accession in 193 AD, as Cassius Dio tells us, the gods had sent him seven omens predicting his rise to imperial power. These signs appeared to the emperor in dreams. In his third dream, he saw water gushing from his hand, as from a spring, while he slept. One can easily picture a colossal statue of Septimius with the emperor holding a bowl or jug from which water flows into a basin on the level below. This would have instantly reminded those gathered around the statue's feet of the divine omens foretelling -- and justifying -- his rule. It would be fun to imagine images appropriate to the other six divine signs. If anyone would like to try their hand at this, the reference is Dio 74.3.

What has the Septizodium to do with Philip the Arab?

Although Septimius was Libyan-born, his wife was a Syrian and she spawned a more or less Syrian dynasty. Philip was born in the heart of the Syrian badlands, that infinitely depressing area of black basalt, the Trachon and Hauron regions which today straddle the Syrian-Jordanian border. True, his village was then in the province of Arabia (hence, he's known to history, as 'the Arab'; how he thought of his own ethnic background is a complete unknown), but the Four Julia's from Emesa in Syria would have been his nearest royal neighbours.

Philip had dynastic pretensions, too, and it seems natural in hindsight for him to have turned to Septimius as his role model. That may be why he imitated the Septizodium, building a group of unusual temples ( the so-called Kalybe temples) across the 'Basalt Land', intended especially for the worship of the emperor. The first, reconstructed above, was in the city he founded and named after himself – Philippopolis (today called Shahba). Within a relatively short time, seven Kalybe temples were erected, all within less than 50 km (30 miles) of Philippopolis, all in ‘the badlands', and all of horrible black basalt.

It wasn't enough.

He was perhaps a little bit like Septimius but he didn't have Septimius' luck to die in bed.

Buon viaggio to me. The story of Philip's five years as a god will appear next week.

28 January 2008

Another Uppity Woman

As a loyal reader of the IntLawGrrls blog, I was delighted to be invited as their Guest Blogger to make the case for Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. And President of the USA.

You see, I like Uppity Women.

The post is now up, so go over to IntLawGrrls, see what I said, and by all means comment.

Update 17 Feb.: Big Tent Democrat has this letter from a group of feminist intellectuals who support Hillary Clinton. This one's for all the Grrrls. Good reading.

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.

08 January 2008

Zoroastrian Stuff III

I Dare You!

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.

Sassanian Chutzpah*

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.

Mere oblivion.

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!

03 January 2008

Happy Blogger Birthday, Dear Queen

Zenobia's blog is one-year-old today.

That's about the same length of time that she still had to live between the issue of this empress coin in the spring or summer of 271 AD and her final defeat by Aurelian in August 272.

Zenobia Augusta. Dreams, so short-lived.

Her blog was born with a burst of poetry on 3 January 2007. The very next post set out the blog's challenge, Why Did She Do It?

Have I helped answer this question with my 58 posts during 2007? Sometimes I think I've only tied myself up in more and more difficult knots. But I've learnt a lot. And wandered off into many unexpected Zenobian byways.

Archaeologists love tradition. Even if invented a year ago. So I kick off 2008, too, with a snippet from Rosita Copioli's The Blazing Lights of the Sun , which is to me the pure light of archaeology:
While we speak, silence turns in the night
and the setting sun doubles the growing shadows:
and yet it still burns and calls back
an unborn season, the season that neither
turns nor returns, the measureless step
of the yearless year ....

Many happy returns, dear Queen.

Blog Archive