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The Zurvanite Myth

The myth is preserved in a number of Christian sources which differ but little among themselves, and the purport of it is roughly as follows:
When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan alone existed, whose name means 'fate' or 'fortune'. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: 'What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?' And no sooner had this thought occured to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived -Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: 'Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.' Ohrmazd was apprised of his father's thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: 'Who art thou?' And he replied: 'I am thy son, Ohrmazd.' And Zurvan said: 'My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.' And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Talking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: 'Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.' But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him :'Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?' And Zurvan said to him: 'O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.' And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautifull and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.

This is the Zurvanite myth in its crudest form, and it is strange that this myth, which was regarded by both Christian and Manichees as being typical of the Zoroastrian religion, is mentioned only once in the whole of the Pahlavi books. This one mention occurs in a passage in the Denkart which purports to be a commentary on Yasna 30.3, the very passage in which the Prophet speaks of the Holy and Destructive Spirits as twins. Even the Sassanian theologians, ignorant though they were of the sacred tongue in which the Avesta was written, must have known that this was the only possible interpretation of the Stanza in question, for it is quite one of the clearest in the Gathas. Their resolution of the dilemma was ingenious, if disingenuous. It so happens that the Avestan word eresh occurs in this stanza; and though they knew that this word meant 'rightly' and usually so translate it, they preferred on this occasion to feign ignorance and translated it with the Pahlavi word arish, which is one of the names of the demon of envy; and so it was possible for the author of the Denkart to represent the offensive doctrine as being the invention of the demons! The whole thing is passed off as being 'a proclamation of the Demon of Envy to mankind that Ohrmazd and Ahriman were to brothers in one womb'. So was the Zurvanite heresy dismissed as being the invention of devilry.

What is rather strange, however, is that though we know of the sruggle waged by Karter against the Zandiks and of Aturpat's vindication of his own orthodoxy as against the fatalists, we have no direct reference in the Pahlavi books or elsewhere to any official condemnation of mythological Zurvanism as such. This would lead us Menok i Khrat and in Zatsparam we do still find references to Zurvan which seem to presuppose at least his co-eternity with Ohrmazd and Ahriman. Thus in the former we read that Ohrmazd fashioned his creation from his own light 'with the blessing of the Infinite Zurvan, for the Infinite Zurvan is unageing and deathless; he knows neither pain nor decay nor corruption; he has no rival, nor can he ever be put aside or deprived of his sovereignty in his proper sphere'. And again it is by the agency of Infinite Time that Ohrmazd and Ahriman enter into a solemn pact by which they limit the time in which they will do battle together for nine thousand years, this nine thousand years of warfare corresponding to the nine thousand years of earthly sovereignty allotted to Ahriman by Zurvan in the fully Zurvanite version of the myth.

Zurvan and the Pact between Ohrmazd and Ahriman

This pact is also mentioned by Zatsparam; and his introduction of the figure of Zurvan into the cosmic drama is even odder. Zatsparam starts with the classical dualist account of the creation -Ohrmazd is above in the light, and Ahriman below in the darkness, and between them is the Void. Yet when Ohrmazd begins to fashion forth his creation, he has to beg Time to aid him, for all things have need of Time; and once he has completed his creation, he is quite unable to set it in motion, for Time alone has the power to do this; and it is Zurvan-Time again who settles the terms of the pact between the two Spirits.

'Pondering on the end, [Zurvan] delivered to Ahriman an implement [fashioned] from the very substance of darkness, mingled with the power of Zurvan, as it were a treaty, resembling coal(?), black and ashen. And as he handed it to him he said: "By means of these weapons, Az (Concupiscence) will devour that which is thine, and she herself shall starve, if at the end of nine thousand years thou hast not accomplished that which thou didst threaten- to demolish the pact, to demolish Time."'

It is true neither text even hints that Zurvan is the father of Ohrmazd and Ahriman, or that the two Spirits are twins (Zatsparam even going so far as to affirm his belief in the two Principles through the lips of Zurvan!), yet it is Zurvan to whom Ohrmazd has to appeal for help, it is he who settles the terms of the combat, and he again who arms Ahriman with the one weapons which is certain to destroy him. No Pahlavi text, indeed, ever speaks of Zurvan's paternity of Ohrmazd and Ahriman, but they all agree that Zurvan-Time is co-eternal with them. Zurvanism, indeed, appears to have started simply as an attempt to make sense of Yasna 30.3 in which the two Spirits appear as twins, and to provide them with a father. Under Shapur I the situation is complicated by the fact that the Zandiks -Zurvanite materialists- jettisoned the whole of the ancient tradition and thought to explain the universe as emerging from an undifferentiated One -Infinite Time, which is at the same time Infinite Space and undifferentiated matter. Both doctrines were finally rejected by the orthodox, but orthodoxy itself remained unaffected by neither, and the efforts that it made to assimilate what was assimilable in these two strands of Zurvanism will be occupying our attention in the following chapters.

Calssical Zurvanism

Zurvan, the One and the Many

'I do not think that any sensible person will give credence to this idiotic doctrine, or look [favourably] on this feeble and idle religion. Yet perhaps it is a mustery of what is figured in the mind. But whoso knows the Lord Most High in his glory and majesty will not assent to such nonsense, nor lend his ears to these absurdities.'

So does the Muhammadan heresiographer, Shahristani, dismiss the Zurvanite myth, a version of which he has just retailed. Certainly as an explanation of the origin of the universe it is childish, and it is for this reason, presumably, that it is always this myth that the Christian apologists seize upon when they are attacking the Zoroastrians. 'Yet,' as Shahristani says, 'perhaps it is a mystery of what is figured in the mind.' A mystery it certainly is -the perennial mystery with which all religions are at some stage confronted- the relationship between the infinite and the finite, the unchanging, impassive One, and the ever-changing, striving, and active many. For the religion of the Hindus this is the only worthwhile religious quest -how to arrive at the One behind the manifold; and it is quite probable that Zurvanite speculation owes a great deal to India here. Zoroaster was a prophet and, as such, concerned with life as lived in this world; his God was a living god who spoke to him face to face, an active god and the creator of all things. His heaven, too, was no condition of timeless bliss, but an endless prolongation of life as lived on this earth, though purified of all taint of sin and all trace of sorrow. He was vitally concerned with the fact of evil, but did not seek to explain its origin. His followers, however, drifted into a fully dualist position which inevitably limited their God and made him less than infinite and less than omnipotent. Zurvanism, even in its crudest form, is an attempt to arrive at a principle which is an all-inclusive One, changeless in essence, yet the source of all change. The Muhammadan poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi, has some beautiful lines on the mystery of creation:
David said: 'O King, since thou hadst no need of us,
Say, then, what wisdom was there in creating the two worlds?'
God said to him: 'O temporal man, I was a hidden treasure,
And desired that that treasure of loving-kindness and bounty should be revealed.'

This two was the dilemma of the infinite Zurvan. Zurvan-Time alone stands in need of nothing, yet all else needs him. The very 'being of all things has need of Time. Without Time one can do nothing that is or was or shall be. Time has need of none of these for anything.' So even Ohrmazd, God, the Creator, must ask Time's aid when he contemplates the act of creation, for he too needs Time, since without time action of any kind is impossible: were there no time, there would be no creation.

Zurvan's Doubt

In purely mythological passages the archaic word Zurvanis usually used to represent the god, rather than the ordinary Persian word for 'time', zaman. The term Zurvan, however, is also used to mean the 'Infinite' or 'unqualifiable Absolute' as such. The mythological god, then, must be seen as the centre of the 'mystery' through which the unqualifiable One originates multiplicity. In the Zurvanite myth, Zurvan, like Rumi's God, desires 'that that treasure of loving-kindness and bounty should be revealed'. The latent and potential wishes to become manifest and actual: he wishes to have 'a son whose name should be Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth and all that in them is'. Zurvan, however, does not create out of any super-fluity of being, for at the core of his being there is a latent defect of which he knows nothing. In the myth this is symbolized by his doubt: he sacrifices for a thousand years, and then doubts whether his sacrifice will have any effect. The sacrifice, as in Indian mythology, is also creative and results in the birth of Ohrmazd who is also the 'Bounteous Spirit' or, more literally, the 'Spirit who brings increase', while the doubt, the Absolute's failure of nerve at the very moment when the creator is about to issue forth from him, produces the principle of evil. The 'Fall' in Zurvanism does not originate with man, it results from an imperfection, an unsureness of self, in the very heart of God. The 'One' has given birth to the 'Two', and 'in duality is evil'. The whole purpose of the cosmic drama which is about to unfold is to restore the shattered unity, but this cannot be done by trying to re-integrate the Devil into the Absolute: it can only be done by eliminating him imperfection, his failure of nerve; and if God is ever to become perfect, he must become fully identified with Ohrmazd who personifies his essential wisdom, goodness, and light. God qua the Infinite is the source of good and evil; but God qua creator of heaven and earth proceeds from the Infinite and is absolutely good. The Godhead is divided and can only be restored by the total destruction of evil, when, with the abolition of finite Time, the Infinite and the Good will for the first time be wholly one.

Ohrmazd and Ahriman in Mythological Zurvanism

All this is to be found in the Denkart. It represent an assimilation by orthodoxy of certain Zurvanite ideas. There are, however, features in Zurvanism which are wholly incompatible with the orthodoxy of Sassanian times. The Ohrmazd of the Pahlavi books is omnipotent in the sense that he can do anything that is possible. 'His power,' indeed, 'in so far as it is confined to the possible, is limited, but in the sphere of the infinite (abrin) it is limitless. This means that in so far as he is identical with the Infinite, every potentiality is latent within him, but in so far as he acts in time, he can only do what is possible. He cannot, for instance, change the evil nature of Ahriman into good, for Ahriman, according to the orthodox, is an evil substance, and a substance is, by definition, something that can never change. In the Zurvanism presented to us by the non-Zoroastrian sources, however, Ohrmazd is neither omnipotent nor omniscient: he is not even capable of looking after his own interests. Thus he gratuitously reveals to Ahriman the secret that whichever of the twins will first present himself to their father, Zurvan, will receive the kingdom. Again, after creating heaven and earth, he can think of no way of illuminating them and has to be instructed on how to do this by a demon who is a renegade from Ahriman's camp. Similarly, Ahriman who is an evil substance for the orthodox, is, for the Zurvanites, evil by choice. He chooses the sinister weapon offered to him by Zurvan, 'like unto fire, blazing, harassing all creatures, that hath the very substance of concupiscence (Az)', and himself boasts that' "it is not that I cannot create anything good, but that I will not." And that he might give effect to his words, he created the peacock.' This is a genuine, and a fundamental, difference between Zurvanism and orthodoxy, and a Christian convert from Zoroastrianism can thus taunt his inquisitors with these words: 'Should we, then, try to please Ahriman who, according to what you yourselves say, appears wise, knowing, and mighty from his works, just as Ohrmazd appears weak and stupid, for he could create nothing till he had learnt from the disciples of Ahriman.'

In asserting that the twin Spirits were good and evil by choice the Zurvanites were nearer Zoroaster's own views than were the latter-day orthodox, but in attributing less than omnipotence and omniscience to Ohrmazd they stray very far indeed from the path that he had traced. Moreover, in the Zurvanite mythology Ahriman is granted far more power to do harm in this world than the orthodox would concede. Zurvan had promised to make the first of the twins which came before him king, and, because his essential nature is rectitude, he cannot go back on his word. Ahriman, then, becomes Prince of this World for nine thousand years, whereas Ohrmazd reigns only in heaven above him. The orthodox are more optimistic, for during the nine thousand years in which good and evil are mingled together and strive with each other in this world 'three thousand years will pass entirely according to the will of both Ohrmazd and Ahriman and [Ohrmazd] himself will save creation from aggression.'

Main Differences between Zurvanism and Orthodoxy

Thus, apart from the all-important question of origins, orthodoxy and Zurvanism differ in three main respects. In Zurvanism, first, the twin Spirits are good and evil by choice rather than in substance. Secondly, Ohrmazd is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, whereas for orthodoxy he is both, limited though he is by the opposite principle. Thirdly, in Zurvanism Ahriman not only displays the signs of a lively intelligence, but also enjoys the undisputed sovereignty of this world for nine thousand years, whereas for orthodoxy it is his slowness is knowledge and wrong-mindedness, his sheer stupidity, that, despite his aggressive power and lust for destruction, finally brings about his ruin.

The question of origins divides the two parties less sharply, for while the orthodox flatly deny that 'Ohrmazd and Ahriman were two brothers in one womb', they would perhaps not have objected to some such formula as this: Ohrmazd and Ahriman co-exist from all eternity in Infinite Time, but their respective good and evil natures become manifested and actualized only when Infinite Time which knows neither past, present, nor future, passes into finite time; at the end, finite time will be reabsorbed into the Infinite, and with the cessation of finite time Ahriman will be finally and totally incapacitated, whereas Ohrmazd and all his creation will pass again into a state of pure timeless which is eternal rest and eternal bliss.

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

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