RETURN TO CONTENTS

PERSIAN MYTHOLOGY

W.G. Davey: All Rights Reserved

wgdavey@zianet.com

Preface

The importance of Persian mythology lies both in its similarity to Indian legends and to the differences that are found. Many names are almost identical but roles may be reversed; most interestingly, the name of the Indian King of the Gods is found as that of a minor Persian demon. This may be a consequence of telling an ancient dispute from first one side and then the other.

The history of Indo European people in the Middle East is part of a complex pattern of all peoples in this most ancient of lands. We often see hints of connections – we seldom know the whole story. And, in Persian too we have a much reduced survival of the old tales.

Indo Europeans in the Middle East

In modern Iran we have a very clear survival of ancient Persia in language, stories, and people. The very name of Iran derives from the Indo European name for themselves – Aryan – and it is an intriguing link to another such land – Ireland or Erin.

But other Indo Europeans entered this diverse region and their history is poorly known. Particularly interesting is the fact that though the Hittites were mentioned in from the Bible, their very existence was doubted until the amazing excavations in Turkey brought them to light. And now we know that these people created a powerful empire and fought with Egypt, one of the greatest of the powers in this region. But the Hittites were not of pure Indo European origin as shown by the mixed nature of their language and their story is a good indication of the complex struggles that must have occurred. And here, but to a lesser extent than in Persia, we find some names of gods also found in India.

Other Indo Europeans in this area include the Kurds and Armenians, and further east we find some of the tribes of Afghanistan that are closely connected with the many similar peoples of Pakistan and India. We doubt that they can contribute to our search for old Indo European myths.

Sources of Persian Mythology

The written sources for Persian myths probably suffered greatly from the conquest of Persia by the Arabs in about 650 AD. The texts that now exist are written in three languages, Avestan, Pahlavi, and Persian, that are successive developments of the ancient Persian tongue.

The myths can be considered in three parts. The first concerns the pantheon of Gods and demons, the human heroes and heroines created by them and their adventures. The second concerns the story of Zarathustra (often called Zoroaster in the West), his birth, family, and particularly the founding of the religion that bears his name. Many or perhaps most believe that Zarathustra was of the historical times of the Persian kings and would not include these tales in the category of "myths" but this is not so. The third part consists mostly of the story of the Persian hero Rustam, and here too, although assumed to be of historical times, his adventures are part of Persian myths.

In studying the following accounts Persian and Indian names are often compared. The reader should note that in comparing Persian and Indian words, they often can be simply related by recognizing that the Persian "h" is equivalent to the Indian "s".

The Zend-Avesta

The oldest source is the collection of religious documents collected from the survivors who practiced the ancient religion of Zarathustra. They are often referred to as "fire-worshippers" but this is a completely false description since fire is but a symbol.

The survival of the religion and the story of how the Zend-Avesta became known to the Western world is a remarkable testimony to human persistence and also to human foolishness. The existence of Persian texts was known to Greek historians, but little has survived from these sources. And the imposition of the Muslim faith did nothing to preserve the texts or the religion since the surviving practitioners found it necessary to go to the Indian state of Gujurat to practice their faith. It was there that the Frenchman, Anquetil Duperron went and where, after gaining the confidence of the faithful, he was allowed to see and translate such of the ancient texts as had survived. The texts were published in Paris in 1771, but his work raised such a storm of petty academic bickering that their validity was not accepted until 1825 when the eminent scholar Eugene Bournouf studied the languages and the texts.

We now have accepted translations, but they have been described as "the ruin of a religion" because of their incompleteness. Tradition tells of an original Avesta of 21 "nasks" or books some of whose names are known, but only one has survived in a reasonably complete form. The omissions are repaired to some extent in later documents but Persian myths are far less well preserved than Indian. In addition, the surviving texts are religious liturgical formulas and hymns rather than the equivalent of the Bible and, as such, do not contain many stories.

Pahlavi Texts

Pahlavi is the medieval Persian language and the texts are, in general, commentaries on the surviving and lost books of the Avesta. The manuscripts date from the Fourteenth Century AD. They have been translated into English by E.W. West and are published in five volumes of "Sacred Books of the East".

Although these texts are recognizable as derivations of the Zend-Avesta, the changes in language have led to considerable modifications of names which can obscure links with the older stories. For example, the supreme god, spelled Ahura Mazda in Avestan has become Auharmazd.

And, even more than with the Zend-Avesta, the emphasis upon religious practice means that the presentation of myths is greatly reduced in scope. Also, as in many other cases we have found it necessary to construct our own indexes to the published volumes.

The Shahnamah

The Persians, though now devout Muslims, retained pride in their history and this is reflected in a poem written in 1120 AD by Firdausi. The title of this poem means "The Book of Kings" but it also contains the creation myths of the Persians as well as many other early stories that are clearly drawn from the oldest traditions. Again the language and the spelling of names has changed but the relationship to the older sources is clear.

But the great contribution of the Shahnamah is the life of the great hero usually called Rustam or Rostam, usually considered to be a true historical figure. But, as we shall see, his tale actually an old Indo European story since it is also found in another mythology.

The Nature and Content of Persian Mythology

We shall present the mythology in three parts, first the older myths of gods, demons and creation, then the times of Zarathustra, and finally the story of Rostam.

The Gods, Demons, and Creation of the World

The roles of the gods and demons show a formal recognition of the almost balanced forces of good and evil that is absent in other Indo european mythologies. The good spirit, Ahura Mazda, creates the universe and then six lesser divinities to help him. But there is an evil spirit, Angra Mainyu, who creates six evil beings to help him. And a further creation of good "angels" is matched by the creation of demons. The almost equality of good and evil is also carried forward in the recognition that there will be three ages of the world, the first where good is dominant, the second where evil is more powerful, and a third and last era where good triumphs in a final battle.

To the writer this balancing of numbers and roles is so perfect that it must have been a conscious creation of one individual or body of people over a short period of time. It is so perfect that it must be artificial and we speculate that it was a late creation of a priesthood, not representative of the jumble of tales that was probably characteristic of the original stories.

To continue, Ahura Mazda and his rival, evil Angra Manyu, created different parts of the physical world. For example the creation of the fruitful land was followed by the creation of the seas that divide the lands, and the creation of the springs which are the sources of life giving water was followed by the creation of the demon of drought.

The names of the classes of beings are clearly significant. The Persian name "Ahura" is simply their version of the Indian "Asura". But the Ahura are good and the Asura are demons, which parallels the fact that the Norse gods are of the "Aesir" which matches Persian name for the good beings. And to support this, as already noted, the Persian Indra is a demon not a god. The name for the other class, evil Daevas in Persia and good Devas in India, also shows the reversal of roles.

To return to creation, man and woman are then produced by Ahura Mazda in a complicated series of events in the forms of trees, who devour their own first offspring, but who then give rise to other humans. The stories are convoluted and are very obscure. We would speculate that the original stories may have been more understandable but, like the rest of Persian tales, have lost much of their meaning because they are incomplete.

But some of the stories are coherent, particularly that of Yima and Yimak, twin brother and sister and also husband and wife. These characters clearly are similar to the Indian twins Yima and Yama, but, although the latter pair also mate, it is with reluctance on the Indian Yima’s part. This pair has a far greater prominence in Persian myth than in Indian tales.

Zarathustra

Zarathustra was born of a woman who became pregnant as a result of a visit by a holy spirit or from drinking a magical potion. Her father sent her away with the child. Zarathustra demonstrated strange powers at an early age and priests of the old religion, the Karbs, tried to kill him, but the holy entities of Fire and the Bull protected him from harm.

But his mission to spread his views did not start until he was thirty when he went to the court of the great king, Vishtaspa, to convert try to him to the new faith. However he is cast into prison and only released because of the influence of the queen who had been converted by Zarathustra.

Although Zarathustra was apparently successful so that his religion finally triumphed, the progress was slow. There was continual opposition from the priests of the old religion; and his first convert, his cousin Maidyoi-maongha is recorded as telling the prophet of his discouragement. Zarathustra lived to the age of 77 and was killed by an old enemy, a wizard, when defending a fortress.

The Shahmanah; Rostam and Others

Our main interest here is in the story of Rostam, but the poem begins with the creation of the world and continues through the reigns of the Kings of Persia. Further corruption of the names occurs, Esfaydyar for the Avestan Spento-data and so on, but most of the names are still recognizable.

Rostam was a mighty and honorable warrior who was remarkable from his earliest years. Rejected initially by his father, he grew so rapidly that he had to have ten foster mothers to feed him. He rose to become the defendant of the king and destroyer of his enemies and is always on the side of good. The episode for which he is best known is the story of his son, Sohrab, begotten when he is visiting another country, raised there in his absence, and who goes to his father when he is grown. But when Sohrab meets Rostam he refuses to identify himself, they fight, and Sohrab is killed. The life of Rostam does not seem to have been changed by this tragic episode, and the poet’s own statement that this story was interpolated and came from a different source that the rest of the tale seems reasonable.

The end of the story of Rostum comes when he fights a warrior called Esfandyar (Avestan Speno-data) who was invulnerable to any wound except in his eyes; Esfandyar had obtained this invulnerability by bathing in th blood of the Simorgh, a great bird. Rostum shoots him in the eyes and kills him. Rostum eventually dies in a knife-filled pit by the treachery of Shagdar but he is himself killed by an arrow shot by dying Rostum.

Persian Mythology and Indo European Survivals

Links between Persian and other Indo European mythologies exist but they are almost entirely with India, not with the northern mythologies.

INDIAN LINKS

The links with India consist of individual names, of genealogies, and themes of stories. We do not find significant similarities in creation myths or in the earliest generations of the family of Indian gods, presumably because the earliest Persian stories have been lost and replaced (we believe) by the highly artificial balance of good and bad deities.

Yima and Yimak

Among the most striking cases is that of the twins, Yima and Yimak, and the Indian Yama and Yami. This is shown by the facts that they are twins, that the names are essentially identical, and that they do become mates. However, though their story is prominent in Persia, their role in India is relatively minor. And since these names are exclusive to the East, it may be that the names are not part of original Indo European legends. However the stories may be ancient.

Names of Gods and Demons

Although we will not describe the roles of the persons her, a listing of Persian and Indian names of gods and others is itself very convincing. These are given below.

Persian Indian
   
Indra, a minor demon Indra, King of the Gods
Mithra Mitra
Vayu Vayu
Apam Napat Apam Napat
Yima and Yimak, twins Yama and Yami, twins
Vivanghat, their father Vivasvat, their father
Thraetona, son of Athwya Trita, son of Aptya
Verethragna Vritrahan (Indra)

 

Names and Genealogies Associated with Zarathustra

As with the names of gods and demons there are many similar names associated with Zarathustra. The most striking are listed below; there are many others.

Persian Indian
   
Paitirasp Pattrapati (Garuda)
Pourushasp Purushadya (Vishnu)
Oromazdes Harimedhas (Vishnu)
Zoish Susharman
Dugdov Dugdhabdhi-tanaya (Lakshmi)
Zarathustra Sharadwati-suta
   
Vishtaspa Vastoshpati (Shiva)
Jamasp Jamadagni
   
Arjasp the Hyaon Arjuna the Haihaya

 

Here the first group of names is of the family of Zarathustra, the second is of friends and allies, and the last is of an enemy. These descriptions are as in the Persian myths; they do not necessarily apply to Indian legends.

NON-INDIAN LINKS

Remarkably there is only one major link with non-Indian mythologies; this again may be the result of the loss of earlier Persian stories. It is the story of Rostum’s son Sohrab.

To repeat the relevant points, Rostum begets a son while on a visit to a foreign land and has no further contact with the child as he grows up. The son goes to see his father when he is grown but refuses to identify himself (he may not know the identity of the warrior he is facing). They fight and the son dies.

In these aspects this is an exact match to the Irish story of the great warrior and hero, Cuchulain, and his son, Connla.

Concluding Remarks

The incompleteness of Persian mythology means that its main usefulness is in combination with Indian legends. By looking at the reversal of some of the roles of "gods and demons" we may be able to get a better balanced view of the original legends. In particular we may have a better understanding of the roles of the two contending races that we see at the beginning of most Indo European mythologies.

RETURN TO CONTENTS