The Origin of Achaemenid Court Rituals

  February 06, 2024   Read time 4 min
The Origin of Achaemenid Court Rituals
It has long been observed that the Achaemenids did not invent the inner workings of their empire from scratch. In many details they followed the example of the kingdoms their empire replaced.

These were the Neo‐Assyrian Empire, the Neo‐ Babylonian kingdom, the Median conglomerate, and the Neo‐Elamite kingdom, within which the Achaemenid family had begun its rise to power. The best evidence comes from administrative matters, for wherever they found a functioning bureaucracy, the Achaemenids maintained it for its traditional local purposes. Where one was absent, they built one. The type of administration that was most obviously absent was one that would be capable of uniting the various provinces of the whole empire and for this they chose Aramaic as the most suitable language. In this, they followed the example of the Neo‐Assyrian and Neo‐Babylonian kingdoms, where Aramaic had long begun to coexist with the traditional cuneiform administrations. Achaemenid documents in (so‐called) Imperial Aramaic are known from Bactria to Egypt and the spread of this administration is responsible for the development of almost all writing systems east of the Euphrates.

For other formal aspects of their empire, they equally looked at the examples of the kingdoms their empire replaced. This has been observed for royal titles and inscriptions, and for many aspects of court ceremony: royal sacrifices, processions, and similar key moments of imperial self‐representation. When it comes to the religion, however, there was a crucial difference between the Persian religion and especially the royal precedents in Mesopotamia. This is the absence, as far as is known, of temples.

Two cases may illustrate this. The Old Persian inscriptions generally begin with what has been called “the prayer”: a declaration that the world has been created by Ahuramazdā and that Ahuramazdā has given sovereignty to the (present) king. These declarations are then followed by the customary Near Eastern “I am” declarations, in which the king pronounces what he has achieved. Such inscriptions are also known from Mesopotamia, but there the religious declaration mainly appears when the inscription is about the religion, for example, when the king dedicates a divine statue or a temple. In the Achaemenid case, most of the rituals for which Mesopotamian kings would go to the temple were brought into the palace or the royal cities: These were, in the Persian case, open‐air festivals and gatherings, the main marker of which are the large platforms that have been found all over the empire.

The Persian kings adopted, it seems, the Mesopotamian New Year festival, for the structure even of the modern Nowrūz celebration continues traditions from Mesopotamia: The bowls of greens that are sown to shoot up quickly undoubtedly continue the custom known in the West as “gardens of Adonis,” and the conclusion of the Nowrūz celebration by going outside on the thirteenth day also follows Mesopotamian precedent. It is customary to highlight Nowrūz as a “secular” festival – chiefly because the Zoroastrian texts hardly ever mention the festival by its name. These priestly documents, however, do refer to the festival often, but replace it with a term that was meaningful for the priests: Rapiθwin (one of the festivals of obligation).

It is here that we can find decisive proof for the Achaemenid transformation of Zoroastrian rituals. There is nothing in the Avestan passages that mention Rapiθwin (one of the five gods who represent the five watches of the day [MP gāh]; the name itself means “cooking time” and he is associated with the watch of the day that begins at noon, when the sun is at its highest) to suggest that he resided under the earth periodically, but this is how he is celebrated nowadays (Boyce 1968d). Rapiθwin, who is associated with heat, retreats under the earth in winter, to protect the roots of the crops from cold, and reappears above the earth at Nowrūz. This is especially important for priests, for it changes the number of the rituals associated with the watches. Rapiθwin is solemnly welcomed back upon his return for the New Year.

These two facts, Rapiθwin’s departure under the earth for winter and his return with the New Year – wholly unattested in any Avestan text – can only be explained as a result of culture contact with Iran’s western neighbours, where variations on this ritual drama had persisted for millennia. The Achaemenid period is the only suitable timeframe for such a development. The idea that the Achaemenid period in that sense transformed Zoroastrianism even in its ritual expression is strongly supported by the three further transformations to be discussed.

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