What Does Persian Polytheism Look Like?

Written by Dyami Millarson

Persian polytheism or Persian paganism is the eldest indigenous religion of the Persians (modern-day Iranians). The later Zoroastrian religion is inspired upon this original Persian religion, and thus adopts many elements from the earliest Persian religion. The Encyclopedia Iranica says in its first article on the history of Zoroastrianism: “[T]he new religious movement was inspired and informed against an historical-cultural background peculiar to the founder [of Zoroastrianism, i.e. Zarathustra]. Thus, the history of Zoroastrianism cannot begin with Zarathustra, but rather with […] ancient Iranian religion. […] Ancient forms of religion coexisted and intermingled with the new. An eventual synthesis occurred, quite different from […] ruptures with the past.”

The Persian polytheists traditionally practise blood sacrifice, which is called 𐎹𐎠𐏀𐎴 y-a-z-na (yazna) in Old Persian.

Drōn originally refers to a sacred portion of food offered to the Gods (see here).

𐏎 (baga) is the Old Persian term for Divinity.

𐏊 (aura mazdā) is the name of the rēx deōrum (King of the Gods) in Persian traditional religion, He is the Othin figure of Persian paganism and 𐏊 (aura mazdā) thus takes the role of 𐏀 𐎠𐎺𐎢 𐏁𐎱𐎡𐎫𐎠 z-a-va-u-š p-i-t-a (zavuš pitā), which is not attested but may be reconstructed. 𐎠𐎼𐎫 a-ra-ta (arta), which means ‘order,’ is a very important concept in Persian religion: 𐏊 (aura mazdā) is the source of 𐎠𐎼𐎫 a-ra-ta (arta) in the Persian universe. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that 𐏊 (aura mazdā) is the source of the Deity in Zoroastrianism which goes by the same name.

𐎷𐎰𐎼 mi-θ-ra (miθra) is the second most popular Divinity of Persian paganism, making Him the Thor figure of the eldest Persian religion. The Ancient Romans adopted this Persian God as Mithras and his worship, nowadays called Mithraeism, became quite popular in the Roman Empire. The original sacred space of traditional Mithras worship is the cave (see here).

Tištrya is an Astral God linked with rains and waters (see here and here).

Warkaš as it is called in Middle Persian or Frāxkard is the primordial ocean (see here).

The most sacred animal in Persian paganism is the rooster.

This is how Encyclopedia Iranica factually summarises Persian polytheism:

Central to both Iranians and Indo-Aryans was the sacrificial worship (Av. yasna-, OInd. yajñá-) of the gods (Av. daēva-, OPers. daiva, OInd. devá; see DAIVA, DĒV), in which an essential element was the preparation of the sacred drink (Av. haoma-, OPers. hauma-, OInd. sóma-; see HAOMA). They worshiped deities, some of whom bore the same or nearly identical names, for example, Miθra/Mitra, Vayu/Vāyu, Θwōrəštar/Tvaṣṭar, and some represented common concepts of divine functions, for example, Vərəθraγna/Indra (warrior), Spəntā Ārmaiti/Pṛthivī (Earth), Ātar/Agni (Fire). At the head of the Iranian pantheon stood Ahura Mazdā. He was a creator (dātar) in the sense that he exercised dominion over creation in establishing order and putting (vb. dā-) everything in its proper place. The actual crafting of the creation was the work of the demiurge, θwōrəštar- “craftsman.” Ahura Mazdā’s consort was the Earth, known by the name Spəntā Ārmaiti, though he seems to have had other wives, the Ahurānīs “wives of Ahura.” Ahura Mazdā had a particular connection to the cosmic principle of order and truth called aṧa- in Avestan (OInd. ṛtá-, OPers arta-), and like the supreme Vedic god Varuṇa, was a source of insight into Truth for poets, the divinely inspired creators of sacred hymns. Two male deities were closely associated with Ahura Mazdā. One was Rašnu “Judge,” who had a limited judicial function, analogous to that exercised by Varuṇa, in serving as the divine judge presiding over the oaths sworn by men. The other was Miθra. While Miθra was a complex deity, the essence of his being was that he was foremost the god “Covenant.” That is, he presided over all treaties between nations and covenants between people. The image of him as a mighty warrior riding in his chariot full of weapons reflects his ability to enforce the sanctity of covenants. As a warrior he shares much in common with another powerful deity Vərəθraγna (Mid. Pers. Wahrām, NPers. Bahrām) “Victory,” whose name etymologically means “the smashing of resistance” (AirWb., col. 1412; see BAHRĀM). As such he embodied the ideal of the Iranian warrior who was capable of smashing the defenses of all enemies (Boyce, 1975-82, I, pp. 62-65; Schwartz, pp. 671-73). Warriors invoked both Miθra and Vərəθraγna as they went into battle, yet, when it came to the exercise of legitimate temporal power and the success of the ruler in wielding that power, two other forces came into play. The Iranians developed a unique concept of an impersonal force called xᵛarənah- “glory,” conceived as a fiery presence that attached itself to legitimate rulers but remained unobtainable by illegitimate usurpers (see FARR[AH]; Bailey, pp. 1-51). Without this royal glory one could not hope to hold power. Whereas xᵛarənah- was an impersonal power, victory to the legitimate ruler and righteous warrior was granted by the goddess Anāhiti/Anāhitā (see ANĀHĪD), who maintained this role even into Islamic times, disguised as Šahrbānu. Like Athena and Ištar, she dispensed success in arms. (Schwartz, pp. 667-84).

The cosmos was basically three-tiered, consisting of earth, atmosphere, and heaven. The earth was divided into six concentric continents (karšvar) surrounding the central continent, Xᵛainiraθa (Mid. Pers. Xwanirah), where aryana vaējah (Mid. Pers. Ērān-Wēz) “the Iranian expanse” was located (Gnoli, 1980, pp. 88-90; idem, 1989, pp. 38-47; Benveniste, 1933-35; for various suggestions concerning its location, see Dandamaev, pp. 36-37). At the center of the earth was the cosmic mountain, Harā Bərəzaitī, the Alborz, which acted as the axis mundi. At its southern flank was the sacred Vouru-kaša sea (see FRĀXKARD), in the middle of which grew the Tree of Life (Av. Gaokərəna, Mid. Pers. Gōgirn). Over the earth and expanse of sky arched the stone vault of heaven (asman-) beyond which was the realm of the Infinite Lights (anaγra raočå), and the heavenly abode called the Best Existence (vahišta- ahu-), and the House of Song (garō.nmāna-,Mid. Pers. garōdmān). Below the earth was the realm of Infinite Darkness, (anaγra təmå). The entire earth rested upon and was surrounded by the waters of chaos. Fresh water flowed down Harā in the river goddess Arədvī Sūrā, the Strong Moist, into the Vouru-kaša, and from it the various rivers of the world flowed, accumulating pollutants in their courses, to the salt sea called Pūitika, the Filterer, from which the hydrological cycle repeated itself (Boyce, 1975-82, I, pp. 135-36).

As far as one can reconstruct on the basis of Pahlavi sources, thought concerning the temporal dimension of the cosmos was in terms of a system of three or four world ages, analogous to the yuga system of ancient India and the four metallic ages of Greece, with each lasting three-thousand years. One can guess that there was an idea of the degradation of the cosmos over the course of the ages and that a complete cycle would have ended with a cataclysm and subsequent creation that renewed the cycle, though in its present form the cycle has been thoroughly transformed into a myth of creation, battle of good and evil, final triumph of the good and establishment of the eternal kingdom of God, Ohrmazd (see COSMOGONY AND COSMOLOGY i.). The yearly cycle was punctuated by various sacred festivals, which probably varied from region to region. The most important was the spring festival celebrating the new year (Phl. nōg rōz, New Pers. nowruz), preceded by a liminal time marking the return of the spirits of the dead, the frawašis (see FRAVAŠI; Gignoux, 2001, pp. 16-20).

The ancient Iranian cultic practices seem to have been very similar to those referred to in the Vedic literature. Men with special training were required and, as at later periods, the priestly functions may have been hereditary. The presiding priest was the zaotar- (OInd hótar-) ‘the one who offers libations,” who was attended by various functionaries. Another functional title, aθaurvan- (cf. OInd. átharvan-) became the name for the sacerdotal caste, though originally it may have designated those priests charged with the care of the sacred fire, ātar- (see ĀTAŠ), both the element and a deity. Worship of the deities was ritually performed through the yasna. Originally this was a complex ritual that involved the offering of a sacrifice (food) and the sacred haoma (drink). Modeled on rites of hospitality, the yasna was an elaborate festive meal to which a deity or deities were invited as honored guests. The deity was offered food and drink, and was entertained through the recitation of poetry created for the occasion to magnify the divine guest. The poet was called a mąθrān (cf. OInd. mantrín-), that is, one who creates sacred poetry (mąθra-). The yašts of the Avesta are collections of such poetry (see Thieme, 1957).

Beliefs about the soul, death, and an afterlife were complex. A person possessed a number of what one might loosely call souls. In addition to animating forces, the urvan (Pahl. ruwān) was the individual’s soul, which survived death and went to the other world; the frawaši was a guardian spirit; the daēnā was a sort of spiritual double (Gignoux, 2001, pp. 12-16, 20-30; Widengren, 1983). At death, when the breath of life (vyānā-; Mid. Pers. gyān, NPers. jān) departed, the soul hovered near the corpse (immediately possessed by Nasu, the demon of putrefaction) for three days before journeying to a bridge crossing to the other world. This is the Činwad bridge (see ČINWAD PUHL) mentioned already by Zarathustra. It is not known what ethical concepts were originally applied to this perilous crossing, but with Zarathustra and the rest of the Zoroastrian tradition the crossing meant the time of reckoning for one’s good and evil deeds, with the righteous proceeding to heaven, the wicked to the abyss.

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