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.

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

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