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


  1. A madmen and a destroyer, later killed by his own troops. There's no romance in that.

  2. Your writing continues to amaze me, it is by far one of the best blogs I have seen

  3. An elitist society with only one copy of a book that is controlled by some priests is in danger from men like Alexander!


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