Episode 21: The Faith of the Magi

An Achaemenid relief of two magi bringing sacrifices and torches to what may be a tomb or temple doorway from Dascylium. via Livius

After all that business with Gaumata that Magos, I figured we had time to keep talking about magi. This episode explores the religious developments and beliefs in Persia during the Achaemenid period. I’m focusing on Zoroastrianism, but also discussing how naming a religion like that for the ancient Persians is harder than it might seem.

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4 thoughts on “Episode 21: The Faith of the Magi

  1. LC Nielsen

    OK, so a few (well…) comments here.

    First, as an overall framing, it really cannot be understated: the Gathas are not just “dense” or hard to read, they are _impossible_ to derive meaning from without making heavy interpolations of e.g. who the agent or recipient of some action is. This is especially clear if you read e.g. Helmut Humbach’s translation, which brackets interpolations.

    The second is, I don’t see how the timing of Zoroaster’s teachings diffusing into Persia can make sense either by geography or timeline. The Persian-Median migrations from Central Asia occured, at minimum, hundreds of years after his lifetime, and the detachment from Median tribes by the Persians and southward migration occured relatively late. I think that Albert de Jong’s model of a diverse notion of Zoroastrianism unified by certain common notions and rituals is far, far more tenable. Consider reading this paper on a related issue: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24049232?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    Third, I’m not sure how one can really reconciliate the notion of a more orthodox priesthood next to the pragmatic Great King with the degree to which Old Persian inscriptions rely on identifying the King as the agent of Ahuramazda, and at the same time with the sheer amount of _power_ the King possessed. This especially when we consider the degree to which a royal cult features in legends that take shape around this time and later. Consider for example the frequent appearance of xwarenah (royal glory) in yashts (a word that, notoriously, does not appear in the Old Persian corpus), of legends like King Yima rejecting the offer to become the propagator of the faith (thus passing the offer to Zoroaster) and instead becoming the first king, and so forth. I don’t know if it’s really so implausible that the omission of mention of Zoroaster in the Old Persian inscriptions was a deliberate act to promote the supremacy of the king above the priesthood. Zoroaster was not Muhammad – a ruler’s authority was not dependent on being Zoroaster’s representative or successor.

    Realistically, the king would have promoted and patronized those members of the priesthood who supported his claims and his practices, and dismissed and denounced those who did not. You can see something similar in action if you look at the development of theories of political authority in the post-Mongol Islamic world. To return to the Achaemenids, if you consider things like burial rites, as you note, there really is an abundance of possibler justifications. Especially if we look at later Zoroastrian theology, which explains the need to expose bodies as getting rid of the decaying flesh that is being corrupted by the forces of evil. And well… embalmed bodies, by definition, do not decay. There is also the devastating point that Boyce made once upon a time: the Sasanians engaged in the same embalming burial practices as the Achaemenids.

    I don’t think one should make too much of the Great Kings dedicating things to Marduk or presenting themselves as Horus or whatever. Again, even the Sasanians did not have any problem identifying Ohrmazd with Zeus. The identification of Angra Mainyu with Hades is notoriously puzzling, but I think it is best understood in connection with a Greek misunderstanding of Angra Mainyu as a cthonic deity who ruled the underworld who accepted sacrifices and who could be prayed to to do harm to their enemies attested in Plutarch and alluded to by Herodotos (de Jong suggests that there may have been Persian practices of sorcery to this effect, invoking Angra Mainyu or perhaps Yima in his earlier function as a cthonic deity).

    Some other notes:

    – Dareios does not identify the Elamites (or Scythians for which he uses a similar formula) as followers of Daeva or followers of Druj (though he at one point makes the generic remark that those who revolted did so due to “drauga”). He describes their revolt and his putting down of it, and goes on to say roughly “Those Elamites were hostile, and Ahuramazda they did not worship – I worshipped Ahuramazda and I bent them to my will.” This is really just part of Dareios’ identifying his own royal authority with the order imposed by Ahuramazda on the world. This mirrors his earlier remark that: “Within these lands … whosoever was hostile, him have I utterly destroyed. By the grace of Ahuramazda these lands have conformed to my decrees; as it was commanded unto them by me, so was it done.”

    – Dareios never actually makes use of the term “Arta” (he uses a related term, haithiya, cognate with Sanskrit satya but more clearly meaning “truth”), although Xerxes does in the XPh inscription. Besides that, it’s obviously used frequently in the dynastic name Arta-Xshaca ~ “Righteous Rulership”. See this article by POS et al: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/asa-means-truth-in-avestan

    – In general, and especially in light of later Iranian legend which focuses a great deal on ancient mythical kings with which the Achaemenids were identified, it’s probably better to understand the Achaemenid era as the time in which what we can later describe as a sort of Zoroastrian orthodoxy _began to be formed_, rather than this orthodoxy being something pre-existing that the Achaemenids could interact with.


    1. As always, thank you for the feedback.

      1. Yes, I can see how I’ve understated things up to this point. I think a dedicated “Gathas Episode” is probably in order down the line.

      2&3. Thanks for the article. I derrived both of these points largely from Muhammad Dandamaev’s books with reference to Rose, Boyce, and Strausberg among a few others’ chapters. The point about spreading is predicated on an assumption of a slower spread of Zoroastrian (as opposed to more generally Iranian) ideas than de Jong seems to suggest, at a glance.

      As for the degree of agreement between the kings and their priests, I’m not sure there’s any reason to think a more “orthodox” (ie in line with the Gathas and practices that can later be clearly understood as Zoroastrian) priesthood is so far out of the question so long as they supported that one idea of the king as Ahuramazda’s agent. If the priests were carrying out certain rituals or espousing Zoroastrian beliefs about other divinities, but supporting the Great Kings’ divine right to rule, that would hardly be different from their relationship with the priesthoods in Babylon and Egypt (and maybe Judea at certain points). The Great Kings certainly seem to have followed different rituals than their priests in some situations and were happy to endorse and support certain temples, but it’s also suggested from Xerxes’ Daeva Inscription that they did not condone worship of just any god by all of their subjects.

      I think the idea that a difference in belief between the magi priests and the king would only compromise the king’s power if we assume that religious _practice_ was tied to divine rule in some way, which there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for one way or the other. In fact, the overall religious tolerance of the Achaemenids (like most polytheistic ancient cultures) seems to suggest that there wasn’t much of a state religion, but just a religion practiced by the ruling culture.

      I think I addressed most of these other points in the episode one way or the other. I did discuss burial rites, though I’m not sure how far we can logically take embalming. It’s not like embalmed bodies don’t eventually start decaying and over decades a culture would surely notice that, and it’s not Marduk or Horus that really needs the attention here (I just bring them up following other authors). I think the significance comes in when the Great Kings patronized Iranian and Elamite deities, while still having a stricter standard for those cultures.

      Your point about the Elamites is not entirely correct. That’s the formula used to describe the third Elamite revolt at Behistun, but in the line up of defeated kings, Martiya (the second Elamite rebel) is described as “lying” with the the same way as all the others, with the word ” adurujiya.”


      1. L. C. Nielsen

        Thanks for your response, it’s interesting to hear how you think about these things!

        I realize that I’m not exactly your main intended audience and that my reactions to phrasings like “orthodox” (which implies the recognition of a concept of a “right teaching”…) is probably different to that of most – so I don’t mean to be too harsh. After all, I’m way too bogged down in biomedical optics and small-angle scattering tomography of polymers these days to keep close track of everything, but I’m impressed with your work so far!

        On Wed, 30 Oct 2019, 18:56 The History of Persia, wrote:

        > Trevor Culley commented: “As always, thank you for the feedback. 1. Yes, I > can see how I’ve understated things up to this point. I think a dedicated > “Gathas Episode” is probably in order down the line. 2&3. Thanks for the > article. I derrived both of these points largely f” >


  2. Pingback: Review, parts 7 and 8. Litwa on Birth and Childhood Stories of Jesus – Widespread Cultural Tropes Recycled as “History” |

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