Episode 12: Iranian Religion

Artists depiction of Zoroaster, founder and prophet of Zoroastrianism, in Yazd, Iran. Image credit: Msanta20 via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

It’s time to introduce religion into the mix, starting with the origins and background of ancient Iranian traditions in general, and then narrowing in on the most famous and significant: Zoroastrianism. This episode explores the traditions and gods of the Indo-European steppe peoples as they migrated and became the Iranians, Persians and Medes included. I’ll also discuss the reforms and doctrines of the ancient prophet Zoroaster who established a religion centered around a single supreme god, Ahura Mazda.

Anchor Streaming


4 thoughts on “Episode 12: Iranian Religion

  1. LC Nielsen

    I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but I’m afraid to say this episode shows some pretty severe shortcomings in your understanding of the source material for Indo-Iranian religion, and I wonder what literature you are using (consider listing all your sources!).

    Around 8:00: “The Rgveda is a collection of Hindu hymns first written down in Sanskrit around 1000 BC.”

    No, absolutely not. One: The Rgveda is a collection of _Vedic_ hymns, its composition long predates anything we could call “Hinduism”, something that occurred roughly concurrently with the development of Buddhism.

    Two: The first Indic scripts, e.g. Brahmi, were first developed for Prakrits (vernacular), derived from Achaemenid Imperial Aramaic probably in the 4th century. The oldest surviving inscription using such scripts are the Edicts of Ashoka, from about 240 BC. The oldest surviving inscriptions in Sanskrit date to, I believe, some century or two later.

    Three: The composition of the older Rgvedic hymns probably occured around 1500 BC, with the younger Rgveda (which frames the older part) being a few centuries after that; presumably there’s some kind of early canonization occurring around 1000 BC.

    Four: This means that these were transmitted as _oral traditions_. They were likely not written down until some time in the 1st milennium AD. The same goes for the Gathas – Zoroaster did not “write” anything, and it is highly unlikely that any written corpus of holy texts existed even in the Achaemenean period.

    You go on to mention “700 intervening years where Mazda-worshippers did not rule the region” – are you saying that the Arsacid rulers were not Zoroastrians? If so, that’s a pretty significant thesis you need to make explicit.

    There are other significant omissions that should really be front and center in any “origins” study – the martial aspect of Daeva, the dynamic between Indra and Varuna and the possibility of Varuna as Mazda (see Rv 4.42), etc.

    I stumbled upon your podcast as I was myself considering the lack of a good historical podcast on Pre-Islamic Iran and whether I needed to fill that gap to some extent. I’m not a huge fan of relaying (or listening to) linear narrative histories, and I tend to be more focused on big-picture historiography, ideology, and cultural influences, which is why I’ve been hand-wringing about it for a while. I’m happy enough with how you’re covering the narratives of the classical sources, but this episode is disappointing.


    1. Not a jerk. You’ll notice a bibliography up top, that lists every monograph or edited volume source. I don’t list all the articles I reference on the website because it would be A) extremely cumbersome and B) not relevant to the average listener as I tend to pull small amounts from articles only tangentially or partially related to the topic at hand. Just as many entry-level books provide a recommended reading list, that’s what I determined to be the best course of action for this website. Really, I suppose I should thank you for not leaving this as a poor review for me to find later. I’ll structure my response along the same points as your comment.

      1. This is, in my opinion, an exhausting exercise in semantics that ultimately yields nothing but confusion. Hinduism as a word is so poorly defined that it can refer to almost any Indian religion. It’s my understanding that given the early understanding of the divine in religions like Buddhism and Jainism that even they can be lumped into “Hindu” early on from a certain lens. Vedic religion, for most (or all depending on your definition) of its history was a phenomenon in northern India. The Vedas are texts used today predominately by Hindus. Without getting into an irrelevant debate about the precise definition of the word “Hindu,” Vedic religion constitutes an ancient Hindu religion and Hindu is certainly a more useful touch point when addressing a general audience.

      2. This is an absolutely valid criticism brought on by my own misunderstanding of the Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Michael Witzel’s chapter on “Vedas and Upanishads” describes “the first collection of available [Rigveda] hymns as the product of the Kuru kingdom, c. 1000 BCE. Obviously, on further inspection this is the result of my little research on the Vedas and a misleading heading (Collecting and Ordering the Early Vedic Texts).

      3. I don’t address this directly, maybe I should have, but I do mention the early Rigveda in 1500 BCE. Given that I’m trying to focus on Iranian religion in this episode, I once again didn’t feel that the specific divisions of the Rigveda were wholly relevant. Associating the vedas with the c.1500 split between Indian and Iranian traditions seems like enough to understand the Iranian chronology.

      4. I’m not sure what the context of this point is that wasn’t addressed in the previous too. I’m fully aware of the oral traditions surrounding the Gathas and Zoroaster. That’s why I never say that Zoroaster wrote them.

      5. That is what I’m saying, as it’s certainly the sense that I have from every attempt I’ve made to read about their religion, or rather that there’s even less to read about their explicit religious statements than there is for the Achaemenids. Everything I’ve ever read seems to show that Arsacid religion was either not a prominent feature or is almost unknown to us. There are some superficial cultural details like the use of the Zoroastrian calendar and patronage of local temples, but that does not constitute religious devotion. If it did, Cyrus the Great would clearly have been a follower of the Babylonian pantheon. I was not aware that suggesting the Arsacids were not Zoroastrian was radical in any way, as a question mark at best seems to be the general consensus.

      6. I’m afraid I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “the martial aspect of Daeva.” Certainly that’s a role the held, but the demonization of “Daeva” in Zoroastrianism left plenty of marshal traits on the Ahuras and yazatas. The dynamic between Indra and Varuna is somewhat baffling just basing it on the Rigveda and a single shared epithet between AhuraMazda and Varuna did not seem to add to the conversation. Clearly different gods were absorbed differently after the vedic and Avestan traditions diverged, I say as much. In retrospect, ignoring the connection to a major vedic deity was an oversight, though I’m still not sure how much it would have added.

      I’m sorry that this episode was disappointment, truly. I respect your opinion and have saved several of your AskHistorians pieces for reference. Ultimately, the goal of this episode was to trace the development and structure of Iranian cosmology, and your criticisms seem to largely be about the Indian side of things. While obviously important for informing our understanding of the overall development, I don’t feel like that was a major focus of the episode. I’ll make note of some of the major corrections here at the beginning of the next episode, though as I said, most of what I said or ignored I had a reason for. Please point me toward any sources you think would help as I’m far from done discussing religion on this show.


      1. LC Nielsen

        Thanks for your response! I had a look at your bibliography, it looks quite good. A few recommendations:

        The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period by Kuhrt. IMO the single most indispensible reference volume on the Achaemenid Empire. (Maybe you’re using it and not listing it independently from primary sources?)

        King & Court in Ancient Persia by Llewelyn-Jones – Probably a pretty big overlap with your existing bibliography, but I find it has good coverage of some important topics.

        Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism by Stausberg. This will have a big overlap with Rose’s volume (which is also great) but provide some useful contrasting/complementary perspectives. In general (and as I’m sure you’re aware) be super careful with Boyce’s volumes. Brilliant a scholar as she was, some of her views (e.g. on the “Magi” or the Zurvanists) would today be considered pretty idiosyncratic. But she does make a good first top for a reference.

        Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism – You’ve got other Blackwell companions, so I guess you can figure out what this is all about!

        Do you have Humbach’s translations of the _Gathas_?

        1. There are several problems here. First, while the Vedas are considered sacred in most Hindu schools, they are not the primary Hindu texts. In fact, the most worshipped gods in Hinduism – Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma – are barely found there, if at all. The most important texts to Hinduism in practice are not the Vedas but the Mahabharata, particularly the Bhagavad-Gita. This is where you will find the teachings people associate with Hinduism. These are the texts Hindus read for spiritual guidance.

        Second, Hinduism contains considerable influence from indigenous Indic religions (e.g. Dravidic).

        Third, there is no reason to give “Hinduism” primacy over Buddhism or even Jainism – these are three religions from a common source, not a main religion with two offshoots. Related to this, you may also want to take into account current politics in India with the Hindutva movement in the seats of power.

        2. It’s an easy enough mistake to make!

        3. Yeah, it’s not the most important distinction in the world.

        4. You do actually talk about the Gathas and Yashts etc being “written at different times” around 21:00; there may be other references. It’s an easy mistake to make, I know – but it’s a really important point to emphasize for that exact reason.

        5. Cyrus’ religion is a good enough comparison, considering we don’t know what it was (I tend to lean toward Perso-Elamite syncretism of some sort, but for entirely circumstantial reasons). The problem with argument from abscence is the dearth of knowledge about the Arsacids in general and it probably evolved over time. Either way: if you’re casting a wide enough net to encompass both Sasanian religion and Achaemenid religion then the Arsacids should at minimum not be glossed over. Even if for example Mithra had a more prominent role in their worship (which there’s a fair amount of indication of) that doesn’t mean Zoroastrian influences on them wasn’t considerable.

        6. The importance is not merely in Varuna’s and Mazda’s shared epithet (which I agree is a pretty weak connection in itself), but in Varuna’s role as the maintainer of Rta (Vedic equivalent of Asha/Arta, as I’m sure you know) and Indra’s “opposition” to it (e.g. their contrast in Rv 4.42, Varuna’s fetters for transgressors vs the transgressor Indra who can escape any fetters), compared with Indra as the archdaeva in opposition to Asha in the Vendidad. This actually also connects to another thing which deserves more emphasis: Asha is not merely righteousness or justice, it is the _natural order of things_ (cf Varuna: “I make the dripping waters rise, by Rta, I uphold the sky; by Rta I rule according to Rta”) which also gives some context to the Zoroastrian conception of justice and kingship (after all, Arta-Xshaca or “righteous dominion” is the most popular Achaemenid royal name!)

        The martial aspects are pretty important if you want to contextualize Zoroaster, because a running theme in the Gathas are the destructiveness of the Daeva and their followers. The Zoroastrian creed (however much later it may be) refers to it as “the Mazda-worshipping religion that puts down the weapon and calls off the attack”, including a pledge to never raid a Mazda-worshipping settlement, etc. Important here is that the Daeva are not really portrayed as clearly _evil_ in the Gathas, but rather as _amoral_, unable to distinguish between good and evil (presumably owing to their lack of Mazda).

        It is true that martial aspects show up over time in Zoroastrianism, but they do not play the prime role they do in Vedic tradition. Mithra may use of the _Vazra_, club, compared to Indra’s _Vajra_ (sometimes understood as a thunderbolt), but Mithra is the “protector of wide pastures”; Indra is a cattle-thief. The most important role Mithra takes on from Indra is really that of meting out punishment to contract-breakers. And in any case, with respect to Mithra’s club-wielding, one must consider the influence of the Babylonian legal deity Shamash, who is connected to the sun and indeed, wields a scepter symbolizing his legal authority.

        It’s up to you how much you want to contextualize the genesis of Zoroastrianism and delve into the texts of course. But personally I think contrasting the complementary dynamism between Indra-Varuna as a positive in Vedic religion, with the oppositional nature of Indra (or what he represents) and the inherent good of natural order in Zoroastrianism really nails down a key aspect of Zoroastrian moralism, that helps pin down why we can study it as a distinct tradition. You can’t gloss over Indic tradition if you want to understand what makes Iranian tradition distinct.

        I’m glad you’ve found my AH writings helpful and are willing to consider feedback. Let me know if you ever want me to look over a script draft for your recordings or anything.


      2. LC Nielsen

        In any case, I’m happy someone is covering the main narratives of classical sources and so on, since that means I don’t have to do it 😉 I’m much more interested in big-picture historiographical issues, source analysis, ideological developments, socio-cultural dynamics, etc. I don’t know if I will end up recording anything of my own (I will be starting a PhD in physics in a few weeks and I don’t know how much time I will have for anything else…), but if so I will probably mostly concern myself with this sort of deep delve and meta-discussion, like comparisons between Indic and Iranian religion, kingship, greek perspectives on Iranians, and whatnot.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s