Achaemenids and Zoroastrianism

  January 07, 2024   Read time 5 min
Achaemenids and Zoroastrianism
The dominant political system of pre‐Islamic Iran was that of the monarchy. Iranian history before the Arab conquests in the 7th century ce is a history of four empires, of different geographical extent and of different duration: the Achaemenid (550–330 bce), the Seleucid (323–129 bce), the Parthian (247 bce–224 ce), and the Sasanian (224–651 ce).
Three of these were “Iranian” empires, in the sense that their kings were drawn from Iranian families; the Seleucids were the only exception to this rule, for they were of Macedonian stock (although the mother of Antiochus I, the second Seleucid, was a Bactrian). In addition to being “Iranian,” there is ample evidence to show that these three empires were also “Zoroastrian” empires, but this interpretation is far from generally accepted. The main difficulty is the fact that, in discussing it, scholars have often been guided by the conviction that Zoroastrianism as we know it, i.e., the late Sasanian system (which survives to the present), can reasonably be taken as a normative system, more or less as a version of Zoroastrianism as it was intended. This system, in other words, is used as a yardstick to measure the behavior of Iranian kings in terms of meeting or failing the norms. While this is problematic in itself, its most dramatic consequence is the fact that it has blinded most scholars to the possibility of royal agency in religious affairs. The present contribution will attempt to show how misguided that approach is by focusing as much as possible on the active role kings played (or, in one case, did not play) in the development of Zoroastrianism.
It is perhaps best to begin with some examples. In the Avesta and the Pahlavi books – the two main blocks of textual sources – strict rules are given for human behavior in a large number of different contexts. These rules frequently confirm each other – the Pahlavi books tell us the same as the Avesta. This is usually explained by invoking notions of conservatism, loyalty to Zarathustra’s message, or to the Zoroastrian tradition (an entity that is treated as pre‐given; Boyce 1992). This is a labor‐saving strategy, for the “tradition” thus recovered gives us both an instrument to distinguish “real” Zoroastrianism from deviations that failed to maintain themselves and an explanation for this failure. This strategy, however, comes at a huge cost: It excises human agency from the history of Zoroastrianism, or at least limits it to two options. The first option would be acceptance: adapting one’s behavior to the requirements of the tradition.
The other option would be a failure to meet these requirements and this is usually rationalized by the invention of a number of non‐Zoroastrian Iranian religions, designed by scholars specifically to preserve the notion of a trans‐historical Zoroastrian tradition. Examples of such invented religions (according to the present writer) are “the (non‐ Zoroastrian) religion of the Achaemenids” (sometimes known, confusingly, as Mazdaism; Lincoln 2012b); “Zurvanism” (Zaehner 1955), and “Iranian Mithraism” (Pourshariati 2008). None of these “religions” is documented anywhere in the sources: They owe their existence wholly to the fact that the scanty primary sources available for the entire pre‐Islamic history of Iran occasionally yield data that cannot be harmonized with the (combined) evidence from the Avesta and the Pahlavi books. The most prominent examples are the names of deities that are worshipped (and the fact that these beings are sometimes “non‐Iranian”), alternative cosmogonies, unknown rituals, and unknown types of sanctuaries. The fact that these all seem to disappear in late Sasanian times is often left unexplained or, at best, seen as a natural development of the religion.
One of the most fiercely debated subjects in this respect is the topic of Zoroastrian funerary traditions. The prescriptions for the treatment of corpses are strikingly similar in the Avesta and the Pahlavi books: Corpses are to be brought to a barren place, to be consumed by vultures and/or dogs. Against this unanimity in the sources (supported, moreover, to a certain extent by non‐Zoroastrian sources of the pre‐Islamic period) is the much more varied dossier of archaeology, which shows that many Iranians buried their dead, either directly in the ground (in various ways, but most prominently in coffins made of clay, a porous substance that would not, in the logic of the religious texts, prevent the earth from being contaminated), or in above‐ground mausoleums. Most strikingly, it seems, members of all pre‐Islamic dynasties used these types of funerary arrangements rather than “following” the prescriptions of the religious sources. In the case of the Achaemenids, whose tombs are known, either as freestanding mausoleums or cut in the living rock, this fact has been used more than once as decisive evidence that the Achaemenid kings were not Zoroastrians (e.g., Widengren 1965: 154–155).
Scholars who claim that the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians have chiefly come up with the notion of “royal exception” (the idea that ordinary rules do not apply to extraordinary persons). In many other cases, the evidence for primary burial has been ignored, buried in footnotes, or assigned (without any evidence) to non‐Zoroastrian communities in Iranian lands (Jews, Greeks, etc.). Very few scholars have entertained the possibility that a range of options in funerary traditions (and, by extension, a range of options in many other aspects of the religion) may have been the normal state of affairs in the Iranian world, without any religious implications being felt by communities or individuals in various parts of the Iranian world or in different periods in Zoroastrian history. By resisting this perspective, several key subjects for the history of Zoroastrianism have often been glossed over, especially regional and social variation, historical developments, and experimental new forms of Zoroastrianism that failed to maintain themselves.

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