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Achaemenids and Magi

Hitherto we have been exclusively concerned with the religion of the Avesta, that is, with the religion that developed after Zoroaster's death in the eastern part of what was to become the Persian Empire. In the Avesta plenty of place-names occur, but there is no mention of any place west of Rhages which was approximately on the site of the modern Tehran; it is, then, certain that the Avestan religion not only began but also developed in Eastern Iranian lands. For the development of Iranian religion in the West we have to rely on the inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings and the Greek accounts of the Iranian religion, particularly Herodotus. There are probably no two problems in Zoroastrian studies more vexed than that of the religion of the Achaemenian kings and that of the part played by the Magi in the development of Zoroastrianism. Yet both Darius and Xerxes have left us inscriptions which give us a pretty clear idea of what their religion was, and the problem, therefore, really boils down to this: What do we, in fact, mean by Zoroastrianism?

Primitive and 'Catholic' Zoroastrianism

We have seenthat the Zoroastrians themselves used four terms to define their religion: ahura-tkaesha, 'holding to the doctrine of Ahura or the ahuras'; vidaeva, 'opposed to the daevas'; Zarathushtri, 'follower of Zoroaster'; and mazdayasni, 'worshipper of Mazdah'. The last term became standardized as the official designation of the religion. The Achaemenian kings, from the time of Darius at least, were certainly ahura-tkaesha and mazdayasni, for they were worshippers of Ahura Mazdah, and neither Darius nor Xerxes mentions any other god by name. Xerxes was certainly vidaeva, for he seems to have proscribed the cult of the daevas throughout the Empire. All that is in doubt, then, is whether they were also zarathushtri, confessed disciples of the Prophet Zoroaster. The fact that none of the inscriptions mentions Zoroaster by name proves absolutely nothing, for even the Indian Emperor Ashoka, a devout Buddhist if ever there was one, mentions the Buddha only once.

Moreover, we can now be certain that primitive Zoroastrianism differed very widely from the later 'catholic' variety, and the change is so marked that we cannot help feeling that the Prophet's original teaching was radically altered in order to fall more in line with the popular religion of the Iranian masses owing to considerable pressure from above, and this can only have been exercised by the Achaemenian kings themselves. Of only one fact can we be reasonably certain, and that is that during the reign of Artaxerxes I, round about 441 BC, the calendar of the Persian Empire was reformed and that in this reformed calendar the months were named after the leading deities of 'catholic' Zoroastrianism. Hence it would seem reasonably certain that from Artaxerxes I (465-25 BC) on, the official religion of the Empire was 'catholic' Zoroastrianism of the later Avesta, whereas Xerxes' edict proscribing the worship of the daevas makes it probable that he too followed, in some respects at least, the teachings of Zoroaster.

The God of Darius the Great

The god of the Achaemenian house, at least from the time of Darius, was Ahura Mazdah, spelt in one word in the inscriptions which, in this respect, differ from the Gathas where the two component parts -Ahura and Mazdah- still appear in separation. This Gathic usage has led us to believe that the god Ahura Mazdah, the Wise Lord, was Zoroaster's own invention, and, if that is so, Darius' exclusive devotion to this deity would mean that that monarch followed the teaching of the Prophet to the extent at least that he worshipped the Prophet's god and acknowledged him alone as creator and Lord. For whether he was consciously a Zoroastrian or not, Darius was every bit as much a monotheist as was Zoroaster himself. Bearing in mind that Darius' inscriptions were hewn out of the rock for mainly political reasons, it is surprising how much space he devotes to his personal religion.

Darius does not attribute the fact that he is king to any merit of his own. 'By the will of Ahura Mazdah am I king,' he says. 'On me did Ahura Mazdah bestow the kingdom.' Ahura Mazdah 'created me and made me king'. 'Such was Ahura Mazdah's will; he chose me a man, out of the whole earth and made me king of the whole earth. I worshipped Ahura Mazdah and he brought me aid. What I was commanded to do, that he made easy for me. Whatever I did, I did in accordance with his will.' Just as Zoroaster had recognized the existence of other ahuras or 'lords' besides the Wise Lord who alone is creator, so did Darius recognize the existence of other gods besides his own 'Wise Lord': he calls them 'the other gods who exist', but they are not considered to be of sufficient importance to be invoked or even mentioned by name. Again like Zoroaster, Darius does not feel himself to be a stranger to his God: 'to me,' he says, 'Ahura Mazdah was a friend.' Like Zoroaster's God, too, Darius' God is the creator of heaven and earth. 'A great god is Ahura Mazdah who created this earth, who created younger sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king among many, one ruler among many.'

Darius' great inscription at Behistan is an account of the rebellions he put down throughout the Empire, and it is significant that he equates rebellion with the Lie. The rebels lie in that they claim to be kings, when in fact they are no such thing. 'Lying', then, means much the same for Darius as it did for Zoroaster: it is a violent onslaught against the established order as well as an offence against Truth. The order of Ahura Mazdah is based on rectitude, peace, and prosperity, and it is his intention for man that he should prosper and be happy in a peaceful society. So Darius prays to him and 'all the gods' to keep enemy hoards, famine, and the Lie away from the Empire. The source from which these evils proceed is not mentioned but it is certainly not God, for he makes only 'what is excellent on this earth'; he does not originate evil. True, he chastises those who oppose or conceal the truth, but this is no more than the manifestation of his justice. He is the source of all good things, both physical and moral, and Darius sees all his good qualities as deriving from God. It is through God's grace that he is a 'friend of Truth (rasta), not of falsehood', and it is God who bestows on him wisdom and virtue and the ability to control his impulses by his mind; and here Darius uses the word manah in very much the same way as Zoroaster might have spoken of his own vohumanah, the 'good mind'. Both spiritual and material gifts are in the hand of God, and Darius is grateful for both, for it is thanks to him that he excels at horsemanship and is expert at handling both bow and spear.

The 'Zoroastrianism' of Darius

Darius' religion, then, agrees with that of Zoroaster in that it recognizes Ahura Mazdah as the supreme Lord, 'great, the greatest of the gods', but does not deny the existence of other gods. Ahura Mazdah is the creator of heaven and earth and of man; and he is man's friend so long as he holds to the Truth. He protects from evil, for his will is that man should be happy and at peace. He is the author of Righteousness or Truth and of all legally constituted authority, and man, on his side, is required to follow the straight path and to fight untruth wherever it may be found. 'Do not leave the straight (rasta) path,' Darius admonishes his subjects, 'and do not rebel.' Similarly the Zoroastrian liturgy ends with the words: 'One is the path of Truth, the paths of others are no paths.'

In its bare essentials, then, the religion of Darius is very closely akin to that of Zoroaster. The supreme God is the same and has the same name, there is the same insistence on Truth and Righteousness, and the same diagnosis of evil as being the manifestation of the Lie. Of course the emphasis differs in the two cases. For Darius the Lie manifests itself as rebellion against the royal authority, but the royal authority itself is in the gift of the Wise Lord, and rebellion against the King amounts to rebelion against God. For Zoroaster the Lie manifests itself primarily in the rejection of his prophetic mission, in violence and in injustice; but in both cases the Lie is basically the same concept: it is the violation of a divinely appointed order of Truth, incorporated in the one case in the Prophet, in the other in the King. The dualism between Truth and the Lie is as sharply etched in Darius' inscriptions as it is in the Gathas of Zoroaster, except that for Darius the field is narrower: he sees this cosmic conflict only as it is manifested in his own Empire, whereas Zoroaster sees it both in the political and economic sphere and as a universally valid cosmic principle. The pattern of thought that underlies Darius' inscriptions is that of primitive Zoroastrianism. The fact that he neither mentions the Destructive Spirit nor any of the Bounteous Immortals by name and that his terminology is not that of the Gathas and that there is no reference to Zoroaster himself, can scarcely be advanced as a serious argument that he was ignorant of the Zoroastrian reform. His exclusive devotion to Ahura Mazdah, his constant emphasis on the opposition that exists between Truth and the Lie, and his acknowledgement of Ahura Mazdah as the creator of heaven and earth, show that he was familiar with the main tenets of primitive Zoroastrianism. He does not show himself familiar with the more abstruse aspects of Zoroaster's teaching, and this is scarcely surprising since his teaching as it was propounded in the western half of the Persian Empire may well have been in a simplified form; and, as we have seen the Bounteous Immortals, which scholars have too long regarded as being an essential feature of primitive Zoroastrianism, were very soon relegated to a position of exalted irrelevance. In Darius' inscriptions -except for the 'Kingdom' -they are never mentioned by name; but Asha, the Truth, is clearly present in Darius' rasta, 'Right' or 'Truth', and vohumanah, the 'Good Mind', is as clearly the same mind present to the King, by which he fights down his own impulsiveness. For the King the 'Kingdom' is, of course, his own kingdom, the Persian Empire; but this kingdom is only his because the Wise Lord has bestowed it on him; he hold it from him on trust. And since in the last analysis it is God's, he must promulgate God's law of Truth and Righteosness and Right-Mindedness within it -and in practice this means that he must repress all manifestations of the Lie, all haughty attempts to wrest God's earthly kingdom from the hands into which God has entrusted it. Darius would thus appear to have accepted the vital core of Zoroaster's teaching without thereby supporting any form of organized Zoroastrianism, if indeed such organized forms at the time. He does not boast, as the Sassanian kings were later to do, of his pious foundations; he boasts only of his own moral stature which he sees as the gift of God. Darius speaks to us in the spirit of Zoroaster in a way that no so-called Zoroastrian text does except the Gathas themselves. This much must, I think, be conceded. Whether or not we should take the further step and declare that he was a 'Zoroastrian' is a matter of how we wish to define our terms. It is a waste of time.

Yet though Darius adhered to the essential Zoroastrian beliefs, he did nothing to destroy any national cult. We are told that he restored the places of worship that the usurper Gaumata, the Magian, had destroyed, and in his he shows himself to be totally lacking in the prophetic intolerance of Zoroaster; but this is simply because God had made him king, and the King's first duty is to repress hostile armies. His interpretation of the scope of the Lie is a king's, not a priest's or a prophet's. For Zoroaster kingship and prophecy were interconnected, but Darius, as King, regarded the pacification and reconstruction of his Empire as his first duty. In an empire that was, in any case, only partly Iranian, he was not prepared to interfere with traditional religion. This is not merely his private interpretation of the duties of the king of kings: it is God's will. 'When Ahura Mazdah saw that this earth was in turmoil, he bestowed it on me. He made me king. I am King. By the will of Ahura Mazdah I restored it to its [proper] state.' God's will for this earth is not turmoil, but peace, prosperity, and government. 'Much that was ill done,' the Great King declares, 'I made good. The provinces were in turmoil and one man slew another. By the will of Ahura Mazdah I brought it about that one man should not slay another. Each man [was to be] in his own place. My law do they fear, so that the stronger does not smite the weak.' In this respect, too, Darius conforms to a trend that runs through the whole history of Zoroastrianism -by rebuilding, by constructive and productive work he pleases God because by so doing he imitates God's own creative activity. Truth is productive, the Lie destroys.

The Daiva-Inscription of Xerxes

So much, then, can we deduce about Darius' religious policy from his inscriptions. His son, Xerxes, left no comparable evidence of the quality of his personal religion, but one inscription which only came to light in the nineteen-thirties, shows that he had a religious policy of his own. Like his father he was a worshipper of Ahura Mazdah, but not to the exclusion of other gods, and, again like his father, he acknowledged him to be creator of heaven and earth, of man and of man's happiness. In addition, however, he tells us that whereas previously the daevas had been worshipped within the Empire, this must stop. This is what he says:
'Within these provinces there were places where previously the daivas had been worshipped. Then by the will of Ahura Mazdah I uprooted that cult of the daivas, and I made a proclamation [saying]: "The daivas shall not be worshipped." Where the daivas had previously been worshipped, there did I worship Ahura Mazdah in accordance with Truth and using the proper rite. Much else that was ill done did I make good. All that I did, I did by the will of Ahura Mazdah. Ahura Mazdah brought me aid until I finished my work. O thou who shalt come after me, if thou wouldst be happy when alive and blessed when dead, have respect for the law which Ahura Mazdah has established, and worship Ahura Mazda in accordance with Truth and using the proper rite. The man who has respect for the law which Ahura Mazdah has established and who worships Ahura Mazdah in accordance with Truth and using the proper rite, may he be both happy when alive and blessed when dead.'

The daivas mentioned in the inscription can scarcely be other than the daevas whom Zoroaster so vigorously attacks in the Gathas, a class of Indo-Iranian deity which had come to be associated with violence. This does not necessarily mean that Xerxes was a professed Zoroastrian, for it is perfectly possible that there were communities before Zoroaster which did not worship the daevas, nor does the 'law which Ahura Mazdah has established' necessarily mean his revelation to Zoroaster, for in the Avesta there are two laws -the law against the daevas and the law of Zoroaster- and it is quite possible, as we have clearly seen, that Zoroaster was born into a community in which the daevas were no longer worshipped. On the other hand, the command to worship Ahura Mazdah 'in accordance with Truth and using the proper rite' must refer to come kind of already existing orthodoxy which made Truth (arta =Avestan asha) central in the worship of Ahura Mazdah; and such a form of worship can scarcely have been any other than that of the Zoroastrians. The use of the word artavan (= Avestan ashavan) to refer to the state of the blessed dead confirms this, for it is commonly so used in the later Zoroastrian texts and on the Sassanian inscriptions. It is not used by Darius when he speaks of the happiness the righteous dead were supposed to enjoy; he merely says: 'Whoso shall worship Ahura Mazdah so long as he has strength, may he enjoy happiness both when alive and when he is dead.' The terminology is not yet Zoroastrian; with Xerxes it is. It can then be assumed that during the reign of Xerxes Zoroastrianism became almost a state cult.

Xerxes' 'Un-Zoroastrian' Acts

But what sort of Zoroastrianism? Xerxes, like his father, did not deny the existence of gods other than Ahura Mazdah, but, again like his father, he does not bother to mention them by name. Yet Herodotus reports religious acts performed by Xerxes which do not seem compatible with the practice of the Zoroastrian religion as commonly understood. He is said to have lashed the Hellespont in a fit of pique, and scholars have thought that this was scarcely compatible with the reverence of the waters that is so typical of the Zoroastrians. Again he is said to have sacrificed a thousand oxen to 'Ilian Athene', while the Magi, who seem to have been fully in control of religious affairs during his reign, sacrificed white horses on the river Strymon and also offered sacrifice to the Winds, 'Thetis', and the 'Nereids'. Herodotus even accuses the Persian -though not the Magi or the King himself- of human sacrifice. Yet none of this is very surprising if our own account of the development of Zoroastrianism is at all correct. Zoroaster may have condemned animal sacrifice out of hand; on the other hand he may have condemned only a specific form of it. We do not know. But we do know that the Zoroastrian liturgy as preserved in the Yasna included the sacrifice of a bull or cow and the ritual consumption of the Haoma juice, possibly replaced by wine in Western Iran. The performance of animal sacrifice, then, both by Xerxes and by the Magi, so far from being surprising, is precisely what one would expect. Similarly his chastisement of the Hellespont (of which he is in any case said to have repented) does not necessarily conflict with the Zoroastrian reverence for water, for Xerxes upbraids it as bitter water, and we learn from one of the later Zoroastrian texts that when the Destructive Spirit defiled the waters, he made them brackish. There is, then, no reason at all why Xerxes should not chastise a form of water that had been contaminated by the Devil. Again, there is nothing surprising in his or the Magi's sacrificing to the Winds, 'Athene', 'Thetis', or the 'Nereids', for Xerxes himself mentions 'gods' other than Ahura Mazdah; and if the form of Zoroastrianism he professed was rather 'catholic' than 'primitive', as we would expect it to be, he would almost certainly honour the 'Winds', that is, Vayu, who, as patron of the warrior caste, would be a most potent ally in battle. 'Athene' and 'Thetis' would be hellenizations of the Iranian goddess Anahita, and the 'Nereids' may well represent the ahuranis, the 'wives of Ahura Mazdah', whom we met in the Gatha of the Seven Chapters and who are the waters. There is, then, nothing in Xerxes' behaviour as reported by Herodotus that conflicts with the 'catholic' Zoroastrianism we have studied in the later Avestan texts. In spirit Xerxes is further removed from Zoroaster than was his father, but he seems to have consciously adhered to the later and admittedly distorted form of the Prophet's religion as interpreted to him by the Magi.

Artaxerxes II and III

Xerxes is the last of the Achaemenian kings to have left us any considerably legacy of inscriptions. After him only Artaxerxes II and III need to be mentioned, and they for no other reason than that they mention Mithra and Anahita by name in addition to Ahura Mazdah, and that Artaxerxes II on one occasion invokes the protection of Mithra alone. By this time 'catholic' Zoroastrianism had probably captured not only the royal house but also the bulk of western Iran.

Abstracted from : The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, 1961

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