Achaemenids and Zoroastrian Faith


Achaemenids and Zoroastrian Faith 1The Association of Achaemenid Persia with the Zoroastrian Faith
By: Dr. Pallan Ichaporia
A number of scholars (Boyce, 1982; Shahbazi, 2002; Herrenschmidt, 2003) have attempted to link the practice of Zoroastrianism with Achaemenid Iran under Darius and the Persian empire in general, beginning with Cyrus and ending with Darius III, while others discount this idea (Benveniste, 1929, 1967; Nyberg, 1938).
It is understandable that there are such opposing views on the matter. Some of the material evidence and certain expressions in the texts appear on cursory inspection to be Zoroastrian in nature.The use of fire in worship, and the focus on Ahuramazda are both integral to Zoroastrian practice; but there is controversy surrounding the closeness of the link between Achaemenid practice and the tenets of Zoroastrian belief. As noted by Schwartz (1985) the use of fire in ritual is attested in early Indo-Iranian religions through the Avesta, and need not be exclusively the domain of Zarathushtra and his followers. The deity Ahuramazda is the focus of Zareathushtra’s teachings, but nowhere in the Achaemenid written record, which relies heavily on rhetoric surrounding Ahuramazda, is Zarathushtra mentioned. While this does not disprove a link to Zoroastrianism, Schwartz (1985) and Kellens (2002) have posited that this is due to the nature of the Achaemenid inscriptions themselves— they are political in nature and have little reason to mention a prophet such as Zarathushtra However, the extent of the association remains debatable.

Another argument for an Achaemenid link to Zoroastrianism has been the “traditional” dating of Zoroaster to the 6 th century BCE (Herzfeld, 1933; Henning, 1951; Gnoli, 1997). This could conceivably identify Zoroaster’s benefactor, Kavi Vistaspa, as Vistaspa (Hystaspes) the father of Darius. 22 But even this argument has been convincingly disputed (Shahbazi, 2002: 8-10). While it is true that Darius mentions his father, Vistaspa, by
name in his inscriptions, the name may have been not uncommon. One must also consider that there are arguments for dating Zarathushtra to earlier centuries (c.f. Skjaervo, 2005: 52-84). For example, the earlier Platonic school gives Zoroaster a date of “5,000 Zarathushtrar can be described as the founder of the “Mazda-worshipping Zoroastrian anti- daevic Ahura-teaching religion”(Schwartz, 1985: 665).

Shahbazi (2002: 8) notes that Agathias (of Myrina, in Asia Minor) used Sasanian records for his information when he wrote in his History II. 24. 6 . that “the Persians say he lived in the reign of Hystaspes without making clear if they mean the father of Darius or some other monarch of the same name”

All told, we cannot advance a connection between Darius’ father Hystaspes and Zoroaster if we cannot agree on precise dates for Zoroaster’s own lifetime.

Achaemenid religion has been compared to a magico-religious system based on the fear of evil spirits and other incalculable elements in the social environment”(Schwartz, 1985:680, adapting Hooke’s 1962 definition of Babylonian religion). This particular interpretation was taken from a reading of the Yashts, part of the hymns comprising the younger Avesta which demonstrate pre-Zarathustrian concepts. Due to what has been termed “possible echoes of Gathic [Zoroastrian] theology in Darius’ inscriptions” (Schwartz, 1985: 685), parts of the Avesta have been taken as representative of possible beliefs in the Achaemenid concept of religion. 23 Therefore, if there is a link between younger Avestan belief and Achaemenid religious concepts, there may indeed be elements of what can be described as “magic” or shamanism, but these only comprise one facet of the belief system.

These comparisons, however, do not clarify the supposed association with Zoroastrian practice, yet do express a link to proto-Zoroastrian or ancient Indo-Iranian traditions, which were probably prevalent in Iran between 550-486 BCE, and may have simply been absorbed into Zoroastrian practice at some point. Cameron has noted the discrepancy between the use of haoma 24 in cult worship— evidenced by material remains at Persepolis— and the prohibition placed on this practice in Zoroaster’s teachings (c.f. Cameron, 1948: 5-9). As Cameron posits (1948: 9), “Thus the court religion of the Achaemenid kings would seem to have been a fourth Iranian religion
existing at the side of magism, Mithraism, and Zoroastrianism, independent of all yet sharer in all”. He further speculates that the religion practiced by the rulers of the empire was a political religion derived from the older Iranian religion— a war religion— created for the kings (Cameron, 1948: 9).

We simply do not know the actual religious practice of Darius, and cannot state for a fact that the Achaemenids were practicing the Zoroastrian faith. What can be stated, with due attention to the available evidence, is that Darius definitely practiced some form of Mazda worship— one which may be associated with proto-Zoroastrianism, if anything— and there may well be a continuity of practice between Cyrus and Darius, as attested by the evidence of fire in worship. However, this is as far as one can go in the interpretations without additional textual or archaeological evidence. It is perhaps best to abandon the question of what actual religious doctrine or dogma the early Persian kings followed, until more textual or archaeological evidence is discovered.

Haoma, Indie Soma, was used as an intoxicant in ancient Iranian religious practice, and is attested in the younger Avesta (Cameron, 1948: 5; cf. also Briant, 1996: 294). It was believed to have been prepared by grinding the stalk of the plant in a mortar and mixing it with various other ingredients to be fermented and imbibed (Cameron, ibid). See also Schmidt, 1970: 6 If. regarding the Aramaic inscribed mortar possibly used for this purpose.


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