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Medicine in Avesta and Ancient Iran [i]


















One of the earliest lawmakers in the history of civilization is the Babylonian king, Hammurabi (1728-1686 B.C.. A total of 282 laws known as the code of Hammurabi have been recognized. (1) The code clearly illustrates its influence in the Judaic and Islamic laws.

Law no: 218 states: “If a physician performed a major operation on a seignior with bronze lancet and caused the seignior’s death, or he opened up the eye-socket of a seignior and has destroyed the seignior’s eye, they shall cut off his hand”.

This law demonstrates that how much the generations of medical professionals have sacrificed to bring the science of medicine to our modern time.  Physicians have lost lives when the result of treatment has been less than satisfactory.  Even in the advanced societies physicians have lost court battles and good reputation for a poor outcome, even though they had no control over the course of events.

Law no: 218 and 194, 195, 205, 226, and 282 recommend amputation of a limb or an organ as a punishment for various crimes, and they vividly indicate influence of Babylonian legal texts on the Islamic code.

Science and medicine in the Gathas:
The teachings of Zarathushtra are general.  He neither comes forward with commands and taboos, nor does set up legal code.  Laws have to change according to the time and the needs of society.  Religious laws however are regarded as divine and immutable, consequently although in the beginning they improve the society, but over the long period of time can become a source of stagnation.  In recent years some societies have attempted to revive and practice the old religious code, but they have faced a dilemma.  On the one hand those statutes are divine and immutable and on the other, they are not practical in modern times.  It is worthwhile mentioning that although Zarathushtra in the Gathas alludes to the law of Asha, nevertheless this law is not a specific one, rather a general term implying cause and effect, action and reaction: ”Happiness comes to the person who radiates happiness to others…”Y43.1-51.8

From the text of Gathas we learn that the prophet is in search of knowledge and truth, and the means of approaching that is wisdom.  The wise should spread the knowledge (Y31.17); the wrongful should be guided and delivered in the hands of righteousness (Y44.12); clean environment and health are the best for living world (Y48.5)”Purity for man from birth is best”; consumption of substances that cause drunkenness and loss of wisdom is prohibited (Y32.14, 48.10)

We can conclude that Gathas emphasize acquiring science and knowledge; science should be disseminated and not monopolized.  Health and sanitation are important and intoxicants and wisdom wasting substances ought to be avoided.

The other aspect of the teachings of Zarathushtra is attainment of spiritual perfection (Haorvatat) and immortality of the soul (Amretat).  He inculcates in his audience how to achieve serenity (Aramaiti).  This final goal can be fulfilled through the power of mind (Vohu Manah) and acquisition of spiritual strength (Khshathra, to overcome vices), in order to discover the Truth (Asha) and realize God.  Zarathushtra in Y43.15 discovers that silent meditation is the best for attainment of spiritual enlightenment at which point one can envision the Light of God (Y43.4, 43.9).  The prophet introduces the concept of two mentalities, and freedom of choice to choose between good and evil through the wisdom of good mind. 

As much as in other religions “heart” is considered to be the organ of thinking, in the teachings of Zarathushtra “mind” is the center of thoughts.  Even heaven and hell are the two states of mind; heaven is equated with the spiritual relief and hell indeed is the inner torment.  Zarathushtra also presents the terms: conscience (Daena), voice of conscience (Sraosha), soul (Urva)(Y51.13) and bliss (Ushta or absolute happiness, spiritual relief, ecstasy).  In the Gathas, the mind sets the conscience and conscience guides the soul.  The separation of the souls (good or evil) poetically is called the sorting bridge (Chinovato Pereto).

These profound spiritual words, along with the extent of serenity that readers find in the Gathas, may make them wonder ”aside from being a prophet and spiritual leader, was Zarathushtra a soul healer or in contemporary term psychotherapist?”  Although Gathas teach that the followers of Asha (Ashavan) should enjoy happiness in this world and improve the living world, nevertheless the spiritual aspects of the book always prevail, as this goal is achievable by attaining the spiritual excellence. 

What about the later Avestan Books?
In Vendidad fargard 20(1-14) all the herbal plants that remove sickness have been praised.  Various parts of the plants were used: root, stem, scale, leaves, fruit and seeds.  They were used in the following forms:

2-Extracted Juice
3- Boiled     
4- Oil extracted for rubbing on skin
5- Burned on fire for incense or inhalation therapy
6- Ground seeds in the form of granules or powder

Due to their beneficial effects, these plants were later consecrated and entered liturgy.

A plant or flower was assigned to Ahura Mazda and each of His divine attributes and later to the thirty days of the month (2).  To this day, seven plants and flowers representing Ahura Mazda and Amesha Spenta decorate the Nouruz ‘haft chin’ (seven items from plants) table, which was later called the ‘haft seen’(seven items beginning with the letter seen, or ‘S’) table.

To Ahura Mazda was assigned myrthous (Avesta: mourtah, Persian: mourd containing Niaoluie); to Amretat, iris (containing aromatic oil); to Mithra or Mehr, mandragore (Av: mithrogia, Per: mehrgiah, containing Belladona); to Dai-pa-din, Fengreek ( Fengrec, Av: Shanbarid, Per: Shanbalilleh containing Fengene); to Sraosha, Solace ( containing Atropine); to Ashtad, Opiace ( containing Morphine); to Zamyad, Haoma or Ephedra Vulgaris.

Several plants are discussed hereunder:

  1. Haoma (Ephedra Vulgaris, Soma in Hindu Rig Veda)- This plant is indigenous to the Iranian plateau and its scientific name is EphedraVulgaris.  Haoma contains large dose of Ephedrine, which is effective in the treatment of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  It is a small plant with yellow flowers.  Conceivably due to various therapeutic effects, it was consecrated and entered the rituals of the pre-Zoroastrian faith, and a Yasht was composed and devoted to it.  But Haoma was not used only in herbal medicine and soon another effect was recognized.  A juice made of Haoma (prahum), was intoxicant and caused drunkenness.  Some authors maintain that Ephedra Vulgaris and the intoxicant Haoma are two different plants (3).  The text of the Gathas clearly indicates that in the rituals of the pre-Zoroastrian faith it was consumed by the princes (Kavis) and priests (Karapans), and caused them to behave irrationally.  Zarathushtra has derided and condemned the Haoma ritual by mentioning its epithets as invincible (!), and wisdom wasting (Dura Osham)(Y32.14) and intoxicant (Madahya)(Y48.10)

  2. Mixture of Garlic and Rue (Per: Seer and Sedab)-used in Zoroastrian rituals.  The therapeutic effects of garlic are well known; it lowers cholesterol, reduces blood pressure and also is used to combat heart disease and treat infections.

  3. Rue was known to the ancient world.  In Talmud, the ancient book of Hebrew, rue was considered such an important healing agent that it declared no tith (tax) should be imposed on it.  It is mentioned once in the Bible (Luke11:42) as an herb to be taxed.  The Parthian king, Mithradates (132-62 BCE), in order to prevent suffering the same fate of his competitors by poison, took daily quantities of opium, aconite and other poisons to build up resistance.  This is known as Mithradates’ antitoxin therapy.  He also used rue as the primary ingredient of his antidote formulas.

  4. Rue was once popular remedy for earache; it was strewn about the house to deter fleas.  It was also an ingredient in the famous Four Thieves used to thwart the plague during the middle ages.  Rue was used to ease shaking fits of agues or joint pain.  Avicenna (980-1,037 CE) recommended a mixture of frankincense and rue to be rubbed on the head for the treatment of some types of headaches (4).  In the contemporary herbal medicine it is used to relieve gout, rheumatic pain, palpitation, stomach disorder, dizziness, tension headache, cough and to regulate menstrual cycle and eliminate intestinal worms.

  5. Bangha ( Avesta: bhangh, Sanskrit: bhanga, Persian: Bang, hashish)- It is extracted from the seeds of Canabis Indica (hempseed or Per: shahdaneh)(5)(6) has hallucinating effects.  In ancient Iran it was mixed with wine to deliver anesthesia.

  6. Frankincense (Per: Kondor, Av: Vohugaona, Pahlavi: Hugvan containing benzoid)- used for inhalation therapy.

  7. Aloeswood (Per: Ood, Av:Vohukaratah, Pah: Hukarat, containing camphor), useful for  cardiac disease and to treat irregular heartbeat(7).

  8. It is worth mentioning that antitoxin in Avesta is called Paiti and indicates plants that can treat the effects of different toxins.  The following herbal plants recognized in ancient Iran still are prescribed: Borage (Per: Gavzaban), Sweet Marjoram (Per: Marzangoosh), Fengreek (Per: Shanbalilleh) and Chicory (Per: Kassni).

  9. Bull’s Urine in the book of Vendidad- Vendidad is mainly an ancient scientific book and sanitary dispensation to prevent the epidemics of infectious diseases.  Composition of this book has been initiated at the era of Xerxes (486-465 B.C.) Darius’ son, and completed during the reign of Mithradates of Parthian dynasty (8)

  10. Bull’s urine due to high acidity has antibacterial effect. In ancient times it was used as an antiseptic agent for the treatment of infection and for the prevention of epidemics.  Apparently due to its effectiveness in preventing the dissemination of deadly contagious diseases, received a peculiar attention. In Vendidad it has a prominent place in sanitation and prevention of infections.  Utilization of bull’s urine by different Hindu tribes and camel’s urine by Moslems has been reported (9).  In Vendidad according to fargard 5 (54,56) bull’s urine and fresh water were equally used for purification. Generally preservation of clean environment or by contemporary term, ecology has been strongly emphasized.  In particular pollution of four elements of nature: water, soil, air and fire are to be avoided.  Based on this concept, Vendidad suggests that the land where the corpse was laid on will be clean after one year, and the land where the corpse was buried will be pure after fifty years, fargard 7(46,48).  In the old times some lands were known to cause infection (the cursed lands).  People by walking or injuring there would develop anthrax.  After discovery of bacteria it was determined that these lands were the old burial grounds of the corpses contaminated with the disease.

Proof of Proficiency or Medical license:
According to the Vendidad physicians for the proof of proficiency had to cure three patients from the followers of Divyasnan and if they failed they could not practice medicine.  At the first glance this recommendation may appear discriminative and based on human experimentation.  But some authors have construed that from the beginning physicians were taught to remove the mental barrier and treat adversaries as well as friends (10) (11).  The next stanza, fargard 7 (40), exerts a positive balance toward their opinion as it suggests: “afterwards at his wish he may give medicine to a Mazdayasnan to restore to health, at his wish operate on a Mazdayasnan, at his wish operate to cure”.  An important observation is that nowhere Vendidad recommends that physicians after proof of competency should exclusively treat patients who were Mazdayasnan.  In fact none of the Avestan scriptures make any discriminative recommendation in regard to treatment of patients.  In general, science and medicine in Avesta transcend the barriers of class, ethnicity, nationality, race, gender and religion.  Vendidad further recommends “If a stranger, friend, brother or coreligionist came to you for education, receive him and teach whatever he asks” fargard 4 (44).

It is interesting that physician’s fee for service is based on the patient’s income and the fee for treating a priest is his pious blessing, fargard 7 (41).  Fargard 7 (44) even discusses meeting and consultation among the three groups of physicians: those who operate (surgeons), those who treat by herbs (internists) and the ones who cure by holy words (psychiatrists).  This may indicate a form of medical association of its time.

Ardibehesht Yasht- In this Yasht the classification of physicians is even more advanced:

  • Asho Baeshazo (sanitary physician), who prevents dissemination of contagious   disease.

  • Urvaro Baeshazo (herbal physician), or internist, who treats the patients by herbal medicine.

  • Karato Baeshazo (knife-physician), or surgeon.

  • Dato Baeshazo (law-physician), equivalent of a coroner or the one who practices forensic medicine.

  • Manthra Baeshazo (holy word-physician), who cures by holy words, equivalent of   psychiatrist.  Manthra physician has a very prominent place among the physicians.

Caesarian Section or Rostamian Operation?
Delivery of a newborn baby through abdominal operation worldwide is called Caesarian Section.  It is named after Julius Caesar who is believed was born through the abdominal route.  But this view has been contested, because long after the Caesar’s era no woman survived the operation.   However there is evidence that his mother lived long after giving birth to Julius.  By another version the Lex Caesarus, the ancient Roman Empire code of law required the surgical removal of a baby from the abdomen of its dead mother, thus giving us the term, Caesarian Section (12). 

Long before Julius Caesar, according to Shah Nameh, Rostam was delivered by abdominal surgery.  Ferdowsi skillfully explains how Rostam’s mother, Rudabeh underwent the operation:

An expert Mobed arrived
By the wine made the moon-faced (beautiful Rudabeh) drunken (anesthetized)  

Without pain her side was cut open
He brought the boy’s head in view (delivered the head)

It was done so harmlessly
That no one had seen such a marvel

Shah Nameh and events of Rostam’s delivery indicate that Mobeds were also practicing physicians. 

Najmabadi suggests that delivery of an infant through the abdominal route should be renamed “The Rostamian Operation”(13).

Science in Avesta and later era:
The 21 books of Avesta during the Achaemenians encompassed 815 chapters, thus by volume it was three times larger than the compiled books of Sassanian era.  These books in effect were the encyclopedia of science consisting of medicine, astronomy, law, social science, philosophy, general knowledge, logic and biology.

Science (Chista) and Knowledge occupy a prominent place in the Zoroastrian doctrine.  Yasht 16, Dinyasht karda 1(1) is the best witness: “We revere the most righteous, true knowledge created by Mazda, the holy, leading to righteous path, quick progressing in the best manner, bringing righteous dedication, morally good, purifying the self…” By these words only the sciences that promote the living world toward perfection are revered, not the ones that annihilate man’s civilization.  In Yasht 16, karda 1(2) Zarathushtra’s love for science and knowledge in a poetical elegance is declared: “Zarathushtra revered science, rise from your seat, come forward from your abode, you most righteous true knowledge, created by holy Mazda…If you are before me, there wait for me, if you are behind me, there overtake me”.  By studying Dinyasht and other Avestan scriptures, one can conclude that based on the Zoroastrian tenets, science and religion know no border, as they belong to humankind beyond the class, nationality, race and creed.  Dinyasht concludes with the following words: “May the knowledge as extent and fame of commandments of the Mazdayasni religion ever increase over the world, over all the seven regions”. 

According to the Avestan texts, men and women have an equal responsibility in disseminating the knowledge: “Whatever a man or woman knows that is good and right, not only should practice but inform others to perform accordingly…” The same equality exists in regard to propagation of religion.  In Yasna 68(12), an expression of good wish and support is made for all the women and men, girls and boys who strive for good deeds and propagation of the Path of Truth.

Famous physicians in Avesta and medical schools:
It is interesting that Farvardin Yasht, Karda 25 (97), reveres the fravashi of Saena a knowledgeable physician with hundred pupils that denote the existence of medical school.  It is said that Saena Poure Ahumstute was a student of Zarathushtra who founded the school of Ekbatan.  Plutarch (45-125 CE) writes that he personally studied in the university and various topics of philosophy, astronomy, medicine and geography were taught and hundred pupils educated there. Also Vendidad, fargard 20 (2) names Thrita as the first man skillful in the art of healing wounds who was also acquainted with how to prevent the sickness as well as to repel the disease and fever.  FarvardinYasht, K131, reveres the Fravashi of Thraetona (Thrita)(Freidoon) of the Athwya (Abteen) house for offering resistance to itches, fever, ague, treating snakebite… Also according to tradition, Yama was able to isolate the patients suffering from skin, bone and dental diseases.

The second Ekbatan university was founded in the early establishment of the Median Empire (715 BCE) by a group of Mobed-physicians.  For the first time the graduates had to obtain license in order to practice medicine.

The famous Achaemenid Medical School:
Considering the Zoroastrian teachings, it is not surprising that the famous historically documented medical school was founded and financed by Darius The Great (522-486 BCE) in Egypt.  It was located next to the temple of Neith and named Saiis.  The graduates will scatter all over the empire.  The Egyptian director of the school, Ujahorus was a scientist.  On his statue that is maintained in Vatican the following words have been inscribed: “Darius the great king ordered that I shall return to Egypt and rebuild the Neith Temple…I provided books and educated the youth and brought them instruments.  King realized the value of medical science and for every patient that I saved, he reveres and prays to God “ (14).  It is interesting that on a papyrus uncovered in Egypt, the following words are written: “I have come out of the Saiis”, indicating the pride a   physician took in the university from which he graduated. 

Saiis was regarded as one of the most important scientific centers of the ancient world.  The world’s famous physicians, pilosophers and scientists among them the great Persian Mobed-mathematician, Ostanes were teaching there.  Other universities of Achaemenids are recorded as ”Borsipa, Arshoi and Militus”. There has been another school for the training of bureaucrats.  It is noteworthy that simultaneously two academies of science were operating: first the Academy of Hamadan (Hegmatana), that consisted of one hundred scientists who were introduced or approved by the king, the second was the Academy of Ardeshir (Arthakhshathra), in the city of Sardis (Asia Minor).

Parthian Era (247 BCE-224 CE):
Major inscriptions or monuments, records of arts, literature and generally significant documents are, somehow, conspicuous by their absence.  Yet practical medical knowledge and expertise was carried through into Sassanian times.

University Of Gondishapour:
This international university was founded in 250 CE, during the Sassanian era (224-641 CE) by Shahpour 1 in the southwest of Iran, wherein medicine and other sciences were taught.  The professors and students came from different countries.  During the reign of Khosrow Anoushiravan (531-579 A.D.), seven Roman scientists who had been driven out of their country by emperor Justinianos came to Iran (15) (16).  They were welcomed and well received by Khosrow and were assigned to the university posts.  This was the glorious era of the scientific center.  Medical science, anatomy, dentistry, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, military commandership, architecture, craftsmanship, agriculture and irrigation were taught (17). The scholars and the graduates were later appointed to important governmental positions.  For instance, the minister of health (Iran Dorostbod), was usually chosen from the best physicians, and minister of education (Iran Farhangbod), was a scholar of philosophy, logic, mathematics or psychology.  Physicians had to obtain license to practice medicine (18).  To advance the science of medicine, Khosrow dispatched the famous Iranian physician, Borzoya (Borzouyeh) to India, who brought medical and scientific books, chess, herbal plants and Indian doctors with him. 

The first world medical conference under the patronage of Anoushiravan was convened at 550 CE in Cteciphon.  Hundreds of physicians and Mobeds, and physicians from other countries were in attendance in this congress.  Ferdowsi has versified this historical event in Shah Nameh(19). Because of the reputation of Iranian physicians, during the reign of Khosrow-Parviz (590-628 A.D.), a physician named Khordad-Barzin was invited to China and successfully treated the daughter of queen who suffered from the rapid heart beat (tachycardia).  At this time the sciences of pharmacology and alchemy in Iran were considered “the most advanced in the world”, and a total of five thousand students educated in Gondishapour with five hundred scholars teaching in different scientific fields.  The library of the university consisted of eight floors, 259 halls containing an estimated 400,000 books.

It is worth mentioning that Anoushiravan himself had a profound interest in philosophy and science.  His questions and conversation with a Greek scholar, Prissin have been recorded in a book titled: “Answers to the challenges raised by Khosrow, the king of Iran to the Prissin’s philosophy” (20).

The names of other scientists are to be mentioned: Mobed Bakhtafarid, scholar of Avesta and Pahlavi, Saroshiar Bavand, Jabrail Syriani, (a founder and professor of the Gondishapour hospital), and Tribunos, the personal physician of Anoushiravan who was a professor in Godishapour(21).

Unfortunately from hundreds of Iranian scientists only those names are available.  The oblivion is due to the destruction of documents by the Arab invaders.

The Islamic Era:
The Iranian science was interrupted by the Arab invasion (630 A.D.).  Many schools, universities and libraries were destroyed, books were burned and scholars killed.  Due to the extent of cultural calamity the Khwarezmians after one generation became illiterate (22).  Nevertheless, the Iranian scientists carried on and the science of Persia resurfaced during the Islamic period. To save the books from the Arab carnage, many Pahlavi writings were translated into the Arabic, and Iran produced physicians and scientists as Avicenna, Rhasis and mathematicians as Al Kharazmi and Khayyam. 

The first direct communication between the university of Gondishapour and the Islamic Baghdad, took place during the second Abassid Caliph, Abu Jaafar Mansour (136-154 Hijri, 755-774 A.D.).  The director of university, Jirjis was summoned to treat the Caliph.  Many Gondishapour physicians exerted important roles particularly in the development of Islamic medicine and pharmaceutical science.  Many of the herbal plants named in the Islamic books of medicine are in fact the ones used in Gondishapour.  In 190 Hijri (810 A.D.), the Abassid Caliph, Haroon el Rashid ordered the construction of a hospital in Baghdad to match the famous Gondishapour hospital, and physicians from the latter center were brought to serve in the new hospital.  From then on, the Iranian university began to decline. The Iranian physicians even in the Caliph’s court conversed in Pahlavi and they were undaunted by his anti-Iranian sentiments.

During the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the new university of Gondishapour was founded and it is operating today.  It is interesting that even in our time the herbal medicine is practiced in Iran.  There are Iranian herbal physicians who have their own books inherited from the generations back.  Regrettably they do not pass information to outsiders. 

  1. The Ancient Near East (volume 1), edited by James B. Pritchard, Princeton Printing 1973, p.138-167

  2. S.Khodabakhshi, Medicine in ancient Iran, Doctorate thesis, in Persian

  3. A. Jafarey, Haoma, its original and later identity

  4. Avicenna, The canon of medicine, Book3, part 1, p.65, translation to Persian by A.Sharafkandi

  5. M.Najmabadi, History of medicine in Persian, p.235

  6. Webster Dictionary, 1981 p.529

  7. M.Shahrvini, University of Gondishapour in the cradle of history, p.153, in Persian

  8. A.T.Olmstead, History Of Persian Empire, p.132

  9. F.Mehr, Philosophy Of Zartosht in Persian, p.138

  10. M.Najmabadi, History Of Medicine in Persian, p.233

  11. R.Majdari, Medical License And Profession In Ancient Iran, Borzouyeh, September 95, p.42

  12. R.J.Thompson, The VBAC Decade, Medical Economics, Obstetrics/Gynecology, September 2001 (Editorial)

  13. M.Najmabadi, Op.Cit. p.233

  14. A.Sami, The Trend Of Science During The Achaemenian Era, in Persian

  15. A.Sami, Civilization And Culture Of Sassanians, in Persian

  16. The names of the Roman scientists are as follows: Damescios, Simplikios, Eulampios, Perskianos, Isodoros, Hermias and Diogene.

  17. M.Shahrvini, Op.Cit. p.168-176

  18. M.Najmabadi, Op.Cit. p.394

  19. M.Sharvini, Op.Cit. p.165

  20. A.Sami,Civilazation And Culture Of Sassanians, in Persian

  21. M.Shahrvini, Op.Cit. p.220

  22. Birouni, Aussar el Baghieh

[i] This paper was posted on vohuman.org on August 18, 2005, and is based on a paper that appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of the FEZANA journal.