Lecture 1 of 3
lecture 3 of 3
The sources for the
history and the history of culture in Iran are not uniformly satisfactory
Going back beyond the conquest of Persia by the Arabs in the seventh
century, we find ourselves well informed about the Sassanian period, i.e.
from the third century of our era onwards. We are well acquainted with the
social history of that time, with the religions, with the material
culture, with almost any side of human activity. There is a multitude of
written documents in Iranian as well as other languages, in Syriac,
Armenian, and Greek; in addition, many books of that period were later
translated into Arabic and so were preserved, as a whole: or in extracts,
to the present day.
Before the Sassanian
epoch, in the five hundred years of Greek and Parthian rule from 300 B.C.
to A.D. 200, there is a dark period. In spite of the accession of fresh
material through excavations carried out in the last few decades, our
information remains scanty; in comparison with our knowledge of the
Sassanian times, it is negligible. Here we deplore chiefly the nearly
total absence of material written in the indigenous languages: a couple of
documents in Parthian, an inscription in Parthian from the end of the
period, a few coin legends, and a few seal inscriptions---that is almost
all. There was a series of interesting rind very informative letters in
the Sogdian language which were ascribed to the early part of the second
century of our era; but recently it had to be shown that in fact they were
two hundred years later than it had been thought.
For the lack of first-hand material, we feel scarcely compensated by the
two Zoroastrian books that must have been composed in that period: the
Vendidad and the Nirangistan, two fragments of a priestly code. Their
authors were anxious to preserve the ancient laws of the Magi, which
threatened to fall into destitute, and at the same time to elaborate them
in a spirit of narrowness and bigotry. These books are typical
products of priests who find themselves powerless to enforce their
authority, as indeed the Magi were, under Greek rule. They are so busy
with regulations, which are often fictitious, and sometimes absurd that
they throw nearly no
light on contemporary reality, except, of course, on the
author's state of mind. So we have to rely, for this period, almost
entirely on Greek sources, supplemented by Roman and Babylonian material.
Even though some of the Greek material is first-hand and first-class, the
sum-total of the evidence is insufficient to give us a tolerably clear
picture of those five hundred years.
We are far better off for
the preceding period, the time of the Achaemenian Empire down to its
conquest by Alexander. Here the indigenous material, from excavations and
inscriptions, is more plentiful. The Greek reports are far more
comprehensive. Living on the fringe of this gigantic state and constantly
threatened by it, the Greeks of necessity saw to it that they kept in
touch with what went on in their neighbor’s lands. At the close of that
time, we receive a full-scale view of the whole country, from Asia Minor
to the Indian frontier, from the Jaxartes to Baluchistan, through the
reports on Alexander's expeditions. Even if we allow for the partiality,
which inevitably consciously or unconsciously colours all Greek reports,
we still can say that we are well informed on that period.
When one approaches a
problem of the cultural life of Iran, one does well to call these facts to
mind. From the latter part of the sixth century B.C. onwards Iran is not
an unknown land. Its inhabitants were constantly under the eyes of
foreigners, foreigners, too, who more often than not were not well
disposed! The Iranians, if not downright hostile, any little oddity they
observed was noted down eagerly and proclaimed to the world. Any custom
that did not conform to Greek ideas was seized on to revile the powerful
Persians, especially in the early period when the Greeks had good reason
to fear and hate them. And what is the result of scrutinizing the records
left by Greeks and other observers? It is this that the Iranians, all of
them, were thoroughly sane people.
Had any such primeval
customs as Nyberg ascribes to Zoroaster existed in Iran, anywhere in Iran,
we should for certain have heard all about it. The Greeks, of whom it has
rightly been said that they had a keen sense for the ridiculous, would
never have passed by in silence this witch-doctor or shaman who exposed
himself -- for payment – to his fellow tribesmen, shrieking animal sounds,
' foaming at the mouth, in a war-dance that ended up in a grand coma. The
ventriloquism that forms an integral part of the shaman's art would also
not have remained unnoticed. This figure of fun would inevitably have
become a standard item in the Greek Comedy.
Nyberg does indeed not
claim that such customs persisted until the Persian period; for such a
claim could not be maintained for a moment. They must therefore have
disappeared, conveniently, between the time of Zoroaster and that of Cyrus
or Darius, without leaving a trace. Nyberg's assumption that they ever
existed is one that I cannot share. There is no evidence in its favour,
except, of course, the arbitrary attribution of shamanist meanings to
innocent words, which was described in my first lecture: 'trance' to
'sleep', 'mystical union' to 'company', 'companion in mysteries' to
'friend', 'shamanist rites' to 'action', and so forth.
Shamanism is a primitive
type of religion characteristic of culturally backward tribes in northern.
Asia and Europe, of the Indians of northern America, Esquimaux, and
others. Its existence among Iranians and Indo-Aryans has never been
demonstrated. Even the ancestors common to the Iranians and Indo-Aryans
possessed a religion that, if there is such a thing as progress in
religious beliefs, had progressed considerably beyond the stage associated
with shamanist practices. Zoroaster and his tribe must therefore have
regressed to a level long surpassed by their fellows. Those who wish to
follow Nyberg will have to convince us that a part of the Iranian tribes
relapsed from the Indo- Iranian religion into beliefs characteristic of
the childhood of humanity, but that these tribes recovered their good
sense sufficiently quickly to escape all observation in the time of the
I said a little while ago
that, to go by Greek and other reports, the Iranians, from their first
appearance in history, were eminently sane people. There are, however, a
few passages in Greek books, which to a casual reader, many seem to run
counter to this judgment -- passages which attribute monstrous customs to
some of the Iranian tribes. So monstrous, indeed, that one might be driven
to say that these people must have been a little peculiar, to say the
least. Those who write on the ancient Iranian religion are very fond of
these rare passages and never fail to quote them. Among them, there is
one, on the customs of the ancient Bactrians, that surpasses all others in
the attribution of magnificent savagery; it has been reproduced often, I
think once too often. I have long been looking for a chance to demonstrate
In discussing the mode of
exposing the dead to be devoured by wild beasts, Nyberg has this sentence:
Strabo attests this custom for Bactrian a very cruel form, the sick and
decrepit being exposed even before death, and for the Massagetae, while
Herodotus reports that the latter buried those who died of illness.
'Strabo attests' -- this
statement is already misleading. It suggests that Strabo, contemporary
with the Emperor Augustus, witnessed the Bactrian habit himself. In fact,
Strabo merely quoted an earlier author, and quoted him with evident
disapproval. This author was Onesicritus, one of Alexander's officers. The
responsibility for the veracity of the story thus rests solely on
Onesicritus, and the story, of course, refers to his time, not to the time
of Strabo. Let us hear what Strabo does say:
Both the Sogdian and the
Bactrians not, in ancient times, much different from nomads in their
manner of living and their customs, although those of the Bactrians were a
little: more civilized. Onesicritus, however, does not tell very nice
thing of these either: namely, that those who break down by reason of old
age or sickness are thrown alive to dogs reared and kept for the purpose
and called 'undertakers' in the native language; that within the walls the
capital city, Baktra, was for the greater part littered with human bones,
while the outside proved clean and that Alexander abolished the custom.
Anyone who is evens
lightly acquainted with the history of Iran has only to consider the
implications of this talc to realize that it is utter nonsense. When
Onesicritus visited Bactria -- if he ever did -- that province had been an
integral part of the Persian Empire for over two hundred years. The
Persian Empire was in many respects not so very different from a modern
state. It had a centralized administration to which the provincial
governors had to submit written reports, a complicated system of taxes and
a cadastral survey. Regular inspection of the provinces by high officials
to ensure that the policy laid down by the central government was carried
out, a common system of writing, a common administrative language, a
unified coinage, a network of admirable high roads, a highly developed
judiciary, police and intelligence officers, a postal service, a primitive
Onesicritus pretends to
have made his curious observations not in an out-of-the-way corner of this
state, but in the capital of a province, the seat of the local government,
which almost wholly consisted of administrative offices, residences for
the staff, from the
governor down, and military barracks. The leading members
of this community were no doubt Persians, while most of the clerks
probably came from Babylonia or Mesopotamia. If we are to follow
Onesicritus, we have to visualize these officials wading their way to
their offices through a litter of human bones and, when they felt a cold
coming on, looking anxiously over their shoulders at the terrible
undertaker dogs, lest they might mistake their flushed appearance for a
serious illness and take appropriate action. For two hundred years they
bore up under the strain without stopping to think whether the custom was
necessary, without ever making so much as a murmur of protest when they
were assigned a post in dangerous Bactra: until, at last I glorious
Alexander came, saw, and did, once again, what no one else was capable of
If this fairy tale had
been related by one accounted as the most reliable of authorities, we
should still be compelled to reject it and rather begin to look askance at
other statements emanating from the same source. As it is, Onesicritus has
no authority at all. He is responsible for many fancy stories: the meeting
between Alexander and the Queen of the Amazons, the hippopotami in India,
snakes forty and seventy yards long, kept by an Indian king, the
inscription in the Greek language but Persian script on the tomb of
Cyrus, and so on. Already in ancient times, serious authors,
e.g. Plutarch and Arrian, made fun of him; and Strabo himself described
him as 'the captain-in-chief of incredible stories rather than of
Alexander's (ships)'. He had been a sea captain, and as such
had seen honorable service in Alexander's navy. When, in his dotage, he
wrote his memoirs, he embroidered and embellished his adventures to make
them more interesting; he was neither the first nor the last ancient
mariner to love startling his audience. Nowadays the question discussed by
historians is whether he was an out-and-out: liar ox a harmless
the answer is not of much importance: the point
is that he should not believed.
Dr. Tarn, who, of course,
also rejects the story about the Bactrian dogs, thinks it may all the same
have a weak basis in reality and suggests that Onesicritus may have met
with, and not understood, a word translated to him as ‘undertaker’
and made up a story out of this word, the pariah dogs, and his own cynic
If it is necessary to find an explanation for the ‘undertaker’ the
may serve. Perhaps one night Onesicritus saw, at a distance, a Persian
badger (Meles canescens), and, upon asking what it was, was told by
his Persian companions that it was 'a kind of dog' named 'grave-digger';
for the Persians had their own peculiar zoological categories, and in the
genus 'dog' they included a weird variety of animals: foxes, beavers,
hedgehogs, and others. In modern Persian, the badger is called gurkan,
'grave-digger', which could suitably be translated as ‘undertaker’ the
ancient term is not known. As the name indicates, the badger has had the
reputation of digging up and devouring corpses in recent times;
this accusation may well have been made against it a long while ago.
So much for Onesicritus
and his (greek text). In the sentence I quoted above Nyberg further stated
that Strabo had 'attested' similar customs also for the Massagetae. Here
again Strabo is not the witness. In his description of the Massagetae he
merely copied an ancient report, one that had already been used by
Herodotus; it is usually, no doubt correctly, attributed to Hecataios of
Miletus. His occasions for writing on the Massagetae was their fight
against Cyrus, who it is said fell in a battle with these ferocious nomads
of the steppes around Lake Aral. No one ever knew anything worth
mentioning about them; no one can say whether even their war with Cyrus is
historical. So when we are told that they sacrificed the older members of
their community at a solemn ceremony, offered up some cattle at the same
time; boiled the flesh of both victims together and feasted on it;
accounted those who thus ended their days the most fortunate; and be
wailed the ill fortune of those who, dying of disease, escaped the
happiness of being eaten by their loving children – we should be wise not
to regards such and similar things as strictly historical facts: for
Hecataios certainly did not visit the Massagetae and observe their horrid
It is well known that the
ascription of displeasing customs of this type to nations about which
nobody knew anything is a standard feature of Greek historiography. The
peoples with whom the Greeks were acquainted were barbarians: those who
lived beyond the barbarians and of whom they knew merely the name were
inevitably cannibals or worse.
We have now dealt with two
specimens of the atrocity stories that Greeks invented about the
Iranians, though it is not even certain that the Massagetae were Iranians.
There are a few more stories of this sort; it would be tedious to
enumerate them: none of them stands up to criticism of the mildest kind.
If, however, one takes all such fancy tales for gospel truth and adds them
up, one is bound to gain a picture of the Iranians that is far removed
from reality. In such a picture, a caricature of the truth even shamanism
will fit in; for why should not those who boiled and ate their parents
have prostituted themselves on a Maga?
As we had to touch on
questions of historical criticism, it may be convenient to fit in here a
few remarks on the historical Zoroaster as represented by Herzfeld. There
is no doubt that the ultimate basis of Herzfeld's theories is the presumed
identity of Viŝtaspa, the father of Darius, with Viŝtaspa, the protector
of Zoroaster. Their identity was first assumed by Ammianus Marcellinus in
the fourth century A.D., but passed unnoticed by Chares of Mytilene, one
of Alexander's officials and a well-informed author, who took down an
elaborate popular story about Viŝtaspa, the protector of Zoroaster,
without mentioning the other Viŝtaspa or confusing the two in any way:
from which one is tempted to infer that the identity was unknown to his
Persian informants, as early as the fourth century B.C. In modern times
the identity has been asserted by various scholars and lately elaborated
Hertel and Herzfeld. One objection has always been raised: the difference
in the genealogies of the two personalities.
On the one hand: the father of Darius, the <greek text> Viŝtaspa, son of Arŝama,
of the Achaemenid family; on the other: the father of Spentosata the kavi
Viŝtaspas on of Aurvat.aspa, of the Naotara family. All attempts at
overcoming this objection have failed. One may perhaps interpret away one
point of difference and still expect to be believed; but one cannot
interpret away everything and command, conviction. For example, we are
told that Darius' original name was Spentodata and that he took the name
of Darius as 'throne-name' when he became king. We might credit this
removal of the name of Viŝtaspa's son, even though we should regret the
absence of any evidence pointing to it; but we shall not believe even that
when we find that equally artificial devices are needed to do away with
the name of Viŝtaspa father as well and with all other points of
difference. Indeed it is impossible to accept the whole theory, unless
one: were to assume that all sources, however different in origin and
tendency from the Avesta to the inscriptions of Darius and the Greek
historians, were inspired by the same brand of obscurantism that all were
somehow cooperating to bring about the discomfiture of the students of
There is no point in
pursuing this matter any farther; it has been argued often enough,
However, we have now been presented with a new hypothesis is, which is to
bolster up the discredited theory of the identity of the two Viŝtaspas. It
maybe worthwhile to make a few observations on this new hypothesis, which
I have sketched in my first lecture. Its central point is the assumption
that Zoroaster was of royal birth, a grandson of Astyages, the last Median
king whom Cyrus deposed.
This new hypothesis has
only one merit: that it is new and unexpected. There is a strong a
priori ground against it. In almost all religions, we find a tendency
to provide the founders with a noble: lineage. However humble their origin
in brutal fact, it had to be traced, wherever at all possible, to a king
of the distant past, the more distant the better, to silence critical
spirits. This tendency was not alien to Zoroastrianism. In the Avesta,
events latest parts, Zoroaster has yet no royal ancestors; but in the
Pahlavi books the expected genealogical tree appears, connecting Zoroaster
(a mythical king) in the fourteenth generation, a comfortable distance. If
we were to follow Herzfeld, we should be confronted with the singular
circumstance that although Zoroaster had been not merely of royal
ancestry, but even the legitimate heir to the Iranian throne, yet all
sources, indigenous or foreign, had in unison suppressed his true origin,
which one would have expected his followers at least to proclaim from the
house tops. This runs counter to all historical experience. Again, we find
our sources affected by that strange and deplorable obscurantism to which
I have referred. One can also put it in this way: even if the Zoroastrian
books through the ages had proclaimed, unanimously, that Zoroaster had
been not only a prophet but also the rightful successor to the kingship,
we should not believe one word of it. We should shrug our shoulders and
say: merely another example of the manner in which the founders of
religions are exalted by the faithful. As it is, no claim to such noble
ancestry has ever been put forward either by Zoroastrians or by anybody
else; therefore, it: has no basis in fact.
Let us see now on what the
new hypothesis docs base itself. It is a story told by Ctesias; it is
unconfirmed by any other authority. Astyages, Ctesias said, had no son. He
gave his only daughter, Amytis, in marriage to Spitamas, a Median
nobleman, and promised him the succession. Two sons were born to Amytis,
Spitakes and Megabernes. Later, when Cyrus overthrew Astyages, he killed
Spitamas and took Amytis as his wife,
to secure a pretence of legitimacy Amytis then became the mother of the
two sons of Cyrus, Cambyses
and Bardiya (whom Ctesias wrongly calls Tanyoxarkes). At the end of his
reign Cyrus was involved in a war against the Derbikes (whom Ctesias
wrongly localized on the Indian border while in fact they lived in the
neighborhood of Hyrcania). In the fight, Cyrus received a mortal wound. On
his deathbed he appointed Cambyses as his successor and made Bardiya/Tanyoxarkes
Viceroy of Bactria and other provinces; but he did not forget his two
stepsons: to Spitakes he the satrapy over the newly conquered Derbikes and
to Megabernes a similar post.
So far Ctesias. To the
uninitiated it will not immediately be clear what this story has to do
with Zoroaster. Its concealed pertinence has now been uncovered. We know
that Zoroaster belonged to the Spitamid family. He is called Spitamain the
Avesta, and so are his close relatives. Now there is a Spitamas in Ctesias'
tale: should he not have been a member of Zoroaster's family? At first
might not Zoroaster himself have been the – same as Spitamas, the
son-in-law of Astyages? In the outcome, he abandoned this idea. Perhaps it
would have been inconvenient to let Zoroaster find an untimely death at
the hand of Cyrus in 550 B.C. or close to that date – that would have
badly tangled the web woven around Zoroaster, Viŝtaspa, and Darius;
Zoroaster would not have been available, thirty years later, to counsel
his bosom-friend Darius to proceed to the murder of Gaumata.
Possibly in view of such
obstacles Hertzfeld decided to cast Spitakes for the role of Zoroaster.
Spitakes is explained as a diminutive of Spitama; hence it should mean
'the little Spitama.' One regrets to see here again that the genealogies
so little resemble each other. They do not coincide in a single name. On
the one hand: Spitakes, son of Spitamas and Amytis, on the other: Zarathuŝtra,
son of Pouruŝaspa
and Dugdova. The differences have (to be explained away as they were
explained away in the case of Viŝtaspa; but in that case there was at
least one genuine coincidence; here nothing agrees. In this way we could
ns well identify Zoroaster with Homer or with Buddha or with anybody else.
There is only one point
that requires explanation: the use of the name of Spitamas by Ctesias; for
this is certainly an uncommon name, and it is associated with Zoroaster's
family. The explanation becomes obvious as soon as one considers the
nature of the book that Ctesias wrote. He composed it after 398B.C.on his
return from the Persian capital where he had spent long years as court
physician. His book is important enough for the events of his own time,
but almost without any value for the earlier period. For this period, he
relied not so much on information he could have collected in Persia as
rather on Herodotus supplemented by his imagination. He had no
understanding of history, which appeared to him as an endless succession
of court intrigues; the <greek text> on which he pretended to base himself
have long been recognized in their true nature: as harem gossip.
This author, whom Herzfeld
treated as a Father of History, had a low reputation even in antiquity.
Time has not improved it. Modern historians, almost without exception, put
little or no store by what he has to say; Marquart, for example, talked of
him as the Father of Romances, which is appropriate, One of his tricks is
to get all his names wrong, and another, to use names that were current in
his own time in his stories of antiquity. That is why the name of Spitamas
figures in his tale of Astyages and Cyrus. In his time the name of
Zoroaster, the Spitama, was known to everyone in Persia; in honor of the
prophet people chose the name 'Spitama' for their children.
As regards the tale itself, its romantic hue is visible plainly enough to
proclaim its inventor.
Hertzfeld's work is filled
with identifications of names and persons appearing on the one hand in the
Avesta, on the other in the historical records of the early Achaemenid
epoch, identifications which carry as much conviction as does the
identification of Zoroaster with Spitakes, the governor of the Derbikes.
It would be a lengthy business to discuss all of them. Instead of doing
that, I will now give a representative specimen, with full details, so
that every reader can judge for himself whether the method pursued by
Hertzfeld is likely to lead to lasting results.
‘Among the brothers and
cousins, of Viŝtaspa’, Hertzfeld wrote,
'is one Âtarhvarnah.
'The facts are these: in the Farvardin Yaŝt,
a litany commemorating, in the form of a long list, the names of members
of the early Zoroastrian community, one
is mentioned. No details are given of his origin or relationship. To say
that he was a brother or cousin of Viŝtaspa's is mere presumption. It
seems to be founded on the: consideration that names of members of
Viŝtaspa's family are mentioned in proximity, although not in close
proximity, to the name of Âterexvarenah
the inference is scarcely admissible. In truth, the list appears to have
been arranged with regard to resemblance in names rather than with regard
to the relationship of their bearers. Thus
stands in an enumeration of eight names with
-- 'fire' as the first part of compounds:
incidentally, there are no other names of this type (a very common type)
elsewhere in the long list.
One of the most important
discoveries made by Herzfeld was his find of the household archives of the
early Achaemenian rulers, some thirty thousand tablets and fragments of
tablets, most of them written in Elamite, a few in Aramaic. In one of the
Elamite tablets, dated in the year 16 of Darius, par-na-k-ka orders a
to slaughter a hundred sheep; ke-so-pat-ti-ŝ
is said to represent an unattested Persian word getupatiŝ
and mean 'chief of the archived
(perhaps it is merely agaitapatis 'shepherd'). The same Par-na-k-ka occurs
in another tablet as the son of one Arŝama.
Now although Parnaka, in Greek transcription <greek text> and Arŝama
were among the commonest names current in ancient Iran (as common as Ahmad
and 'Ali in Muslim times), nevertheless Herzfeld presumed that this Arŝama
was the same as Arŝama
the grandfather of Darius, and this Parnaka, therefore, a brother of Viŝtaspa
and uncle of Darius.
If we conceded that the
of the Farvardin Yaŝt
was a brother or cousin to Viŝtaspa,
the protector of Zoroaster , (which we do not), and if we conceded that
Parnaka was a brother to Viŝtaspa,
the father of Darius (which we also do not), even then we could not agree
to the identification of Parnaka with
which Herzfeld claimed. The first and characteristic half of the, Avestan
name seems to have disappeared. As always there is an explanation ready to
hand (the one is the full name, the other a shortened form), but the
reader is scarcely in the mood for further concessions to imagination.
Hertel and Herzfeld have
devoted a colossal amount of labor to the comparison of the Avestan
nomenclature with the names found in the historical records of the
Achaemian state; in this work they have drawn also on pseudo-historical
sources to which one, should not attach much value, such as Ctesias. Great
ingenuity has been displayed by them, all to prove one thing, and one
thing only: that Viŝtaspa, the protector of Zoroaster, and Viŝtaspa, the
father of Darius, were one and the same person. However, the net result is
that they have proved the opposite of what they set out to prove. Not a
single straight equation has been turned up by them, in spite of, the most
comprehensive search, not one identification that could stand on its own
merits without the need of arduous and cumbersome explanations. Were the
basic hypothesis correct, unambiguous equations should have been found
easily and in great number. Their total absence, now amply demonstrated by
Hertzfeld against his will, proves that the two Viŝtaspa have nothing in
common but their name.
Before we can leave the
realm of historical questions, there remains a matter that cannot be
passed over without some: attempt at elucidation. In a way, it is also an
historical problem. I mean Nyberg's suggestion that Zoroaster drugged
himself with hemp.
In order to appreciate how
deeply this suggestion must shock those who call themselves Zoroastrians,
one has to understand the effects which habitual indulging in hemp
produces on the human organism, Schlimmer, an Austrian physician who spent
long years in Persia in the second half of the last century described how
he labored, for three whole days, to bring back to consciousness a man who
had been drugged with Indian hemp oil. He then wrote:
In spite of these terrible
effects, I have never heard of a strictly mortal case; but the repulsive
habit of taking the oil of the tops of Indian hemp and the various
electuaries made from it, in order to secure a moral calmness which lets
one envisage all vicissitudes and miseries of human life in an agreeable
light, induces in habitual takers a state of remarkable dullness and
indolence, which makes them renounce all human decency and delicay.
It is well known that in
Persia hemp, with all its derivatives, bang,
has a particularly bad reputation. A man who is addicted to them is held
in universal contempt. I need scarcely remind readers of the story of the
the Assassins of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; it is familiar
enough. If one reflects on the effects of hemp, the physical, mental, and
moral deterioration it; brings, the resulting destruction of will-power
and stimulation of criminal tendencies, one becomes inclined to reject
Nyberg's suggestion without further consideration. Nevertheless, we will
briefly review the proofs he offers. They can be summed up under three
Firstly, there is an
argument based on what is called 'typological classification'. It proceeds
on the assumption that all persons prominent in religious life can be
assigned to a certain, small number of types, in the characteristics of
which they share. In Nyberg's view, Zoroaster was atypical, shaman. We
should thus have the following syllogism:
Zoroaster was a
Some shamans drug themselves --
Therefore Zoroaster drugged himself.
The fallacy is obvious.
One cannot say 'all shamans drug themselves'; that would be far from the
truth. In any case, we do not admit that Zoroaster was a shaman and would
prefer to allow him some measure of individuality.
The second argument is
based on a passage in Herodotus. The Scythians of southern Russia,
Herodotus said, never washed themselves with water, but took a kind of
vapor-bath. To do so they crept into a felt-covered hut (which can be
compared to the 'sweat-lodge' of the American Indians), put red-hot stones
into it, and threw hemp-seed on the stones: the resulting vapor gave them
delirious pleasure, and 'they broke into shouts of joy.' Here we have, at
last the Scythians, reputedly Iranians, intoxicating themselves with hemp.
We might now get this syllogism:
The Scythians were
The Scythians drugged themselves with help --
Therefore, the Iranians drugged themselves with hemp.
This is even less sound
than the preceding conclusion. Scarcely anyone nowadays would subscribe to
the opinion that all the multifarious tribes to which the Greeks vaguely
referred as Scythians were Iranians; no doubt, there were a few Iranians
among them. At any rate, what the Scythians did in southern Russia has no
bearing on the customs of the Iranians in Persia or on the Oxus.
The third argument rests
on direct statements in Zoroastrian literature. Here we are on safer
ground, There is the word banha in the Avesta, mang in Pahlavi, which,
like the Persian word bang, means 'hemp' according to Nyberg. In spite of
the importance, which Zoroaster is said to have attached to hemp, he is
silent on it in the Gathas. However, the Farvardin Yaŝt,
the list of members of the early Zoroastrian community, mentions a man
with the name Pouro-bangha, said to mean ‘he who possesses much hemp.’
The mere existence of such a name indicates, according to Nyberg, that the
early Zoroastrians used hemp as a narcotic; others may think that the
name, if correctly interpreted, can at the most serve: to show that they
cultivated hemp, possibly for the purpose for which hemp is cultivated all
the world over, i.e. to obtain its fiber. Except in this name, banha is
mentioned in the Avesta with disapproval throughout. The use of banha, as
a drug employed in producing miscarriage, is prohibited; a demon is
referred to as banha vibanha ; anti in a quaint text Ahura Mazdah is
called axvafna abanha 'without sleep, without banha' or, in Nyberg's
'without trance, without
All these passages occur in the Vendidad and so belong to the time when
the Zoroastrians showed that strange dislike for all that Zoroaster held
dear, which I described in my first lecture.
This is the whole of the
Avestan material. There is nothing here to show that Zoroaster so much as
knew of the existence of hemp. To come now to the Pahlavi literature, we
read in the Bundahishn that Ahura Mazdah gave a dose of mang to the
Primordial Bull to kill him painlessly, so that he should escape the slow
death which Ahriman had planned for him. Then there is the story of Arda
Viraf, which Nyberg regards as the last reflex of the ancient ecstatic
The book in which it is found is a late product from post-Sassanian times.
Arda Viraf, the most saintly among the Zoroastrians, is selected as
messenger to Heaven and Hell to discover the fate of the soul after death.
To speed him on the long and dangerous journey he is to be given a drink
of wine mixed with mang. At first he refuses the poisonous cup; for he
does not wish to die. His seven sisters, whose sole support he is, implore
him to persist in his refusal; for they know that mang is a deadly poison.
But it is hoped that God will not accept this sacrifice and will allow his
soul to return to the Living. So in the end he allows himself to be:
persuaded, makes his last will and testament, and performs the: last rites
as a dying man would do: he drinks the poison and is as dead for seven
days and nights, then comes to, miraculously, and tells his anxiously
waiting friends what: he has seen.
In this story I find no
trace of any ecstatic practices. The point is that mang was a deadly
poison: Arda Viraf returned to life in spite of having taken a poison that
ordinarily brought certain death; that he survived was a miracle. This
view is confirmed by the story in the Bundahishn: the Primordial Bull died
after swallowing mang; he did not gambol and frisk about in ecstasy.
Zoroaster would have been ill-advised, had he tried to make a habit of
taking mang; after the first attempt: he would have been no longer in a
position to compose any Gathas. Incidentally, the two Pahlavi passages
show clearly enough that mang, whatever it was, was not hemp; for even a
large overdose of the worst derivative of hemp does not kill.
'We have now reviewed the whole of the evidence that Nyberg has brought
forward in support of his allegation that Zoroaster may have been a
hemp-addict. We have not found one tattle of proof in it. Any doubts that
may still linger are dispelled as soon as one takes into account certain
facts that Nyberg has not mentioned in his book. I will state them as
briefly as possible.
The derivatives of
Indian hemp known as bang, has is, and so on, were not known in Iran or
anywhere west of Iran before the eleventh century of our era at the
earliest. Acquaintance with Indian hemp is ultimately due to the Muslim
conquest of India in the first years of that century. The plant is first
mentioned by medical writers in the thirteenth century, but must have
been known a little before that date.
At any rate, it is a bad anachronism to talk, as Nyberg does,
of a 'West-Iranian haŝiŝ-nest'
with reference to the sixth century B.C.
The ordinary hemp plant
that was cultivated in Persia and elsewhere for its fiber and the oil of
its seeds, also possesses slight narcotic properties, slight in
comparison with the Indian variety; but on the whole the presence of
such properties passed unnoticed in ancient times. Greek, Syrian, Arab,
and Persian medical books and pharmacopoeias, unimpeachable authorities
in a question of this kind, are unanimous on this point. The most that
is ever said is that one gets a headache if one eats too much of its
Its narcotic quality was discovered only after the Indian variety had
The Persian word bang,
as far as it means 'Indian hemp', is a loan-word from the Indian term
bhanga. In Persian – unfortunately the loan word collided with an
indigenous word bang, which also designated a plant, namely, 'henbane.'
In Persian books bang never mean an anything but 'henbane', at least
until the twelfth century;
it still has that meaning nowadays, beside that imported with the Indian
word. This meaning of course, is appropriate also to the Pahlavi word
mang, which as we have seen was a deadly poison.
The correct word for
'hemp' in Pahlavi and classical Persian is not mang or bang, but
It is very far from
certain that the Avestan word banha is connected at all with Pahlavi
mang, Persian bang. There is the Vendidad passage in which God is said
to be axvafna abanha; to translate, as is usually done, as 'without
sleep, without banha' -- whether hemp or henbane -- makes it appear a
little incongruous. Should prefer 'not subject to sleep, not liable to
perish', taking banha as corresponding to Sanskrit dhvamsa --
'perishing, coming to an end, destruction'. This explanation is in
better agreement with the rules of phonology than the current one, and
the meaning firs the other Avestan passage.
This concludes what I wish
to say on the new theories that Nyberg and Herzfeld have put forward. My
third lecture will be devoted to the examination of a few facts that seem
to be consistent with the common opinion on Zoroaster.
the School of Oriental and African Studies, xii (1948), pp. 601-15.
Nyberg, op. cit., p. 310.
Strabo, XI. II. 3, p. 517.
Cf. W. W.
Tarn, Alexander the Great, ii. 35.
W. W. Tarn,
Greeks in Bactria, pp. 115 sq.
W. T. Blanford,
Zoology (=Eastern Persia, vol. ii), p. 46.
The problem of
the Massagetae has been confused rather than elucidated by modern
writers. Because Herodotus and Strabo tell us that the Massagetae
lived chiefly on fish, Marquart explained their name as 'fish-eaters'.
Nyberg however, states that Herodotus confirms Marquart's etymology
(ibid., p.252); this is putting the cart before the horse. Christensen
proposed a new etymology 'the great Sakas'. With its help, Dr. Tarn
has the Massagetae into 'various subject race, including primitive
"fish-eaters" in the swamps' and 'their Saka overlords -- eating his
cake and having it (Greeks in Bactria, p.81). I would say that the
'fish-eaters' should go out altogether. The wording in Herodotus
(i.216), <greek text> shows that this is merely cur etymology of the
name, perpetrated by Hecataios' Persian or Median informant, who
thought of Olr. Massya 'fish' and gaioa (early pronounced geoa
precisely the equivalent of <greek text>. This is, of course, popular
etymology; the story about the fish-eating came in its train. The y in
the name, in place of the expected k, renders Cristensen's etymology
Cf. Nybery op.
cit., pp.357 sq.
daughter was the mother of Cyrus according to Herodotus (i.75, 91,
I ;iii. 2-3) emphatically state that the mother of Cambyses was an
Achaemenian princess, Cassandane, daughter of Pharnaspes.
op. cit. i. 50 sq.
Spitamas in the time of Artaxerxes I: Ctesias
ed. Gilmore) where the two names are in juxtaposition. Cf. further
Hertzfeld, op. cit., p. 48, on a Spitama of the time of Ctesias.
cit. i. 38.
J. L. Schlimmer,
Terminologie Meaico-Pharmaceitique et Anthropologique
Francaise-Persane (Teheran 1874). pp.105-6.Numberless observations of
similar trend can be quoted.
Cf. Nyberg, op. cit., pp. 177 sq.
cit., p. 178.
Cf. ibid., p.
See above (p.
30) the passage quoted from Schlimmer.
Cf. E. G.
Browne, A Literary History of Perisa, ii. 204 sqq. and his paper. A
Chapter from the History of Cannabis Indica, quoted ibid., p. 205, n.
cit., p. 341 (the Median town Kunduru).
c.g. Kitabu 'l-abniyah
'an Haqa'iqi 'l-adwiyah, p.158, 1. 1.
See e.g. Kitabu
'l-abniyah, pp. 54 sq. There are four kinds of bang = Hyoscyamus, the
black, the red, the white, and the brown. Only the white variety (=
Hyoscyamus albus) is used medicinally. All are highly poisonous,
induce torpor, madness, diasable, &c. On the Syrian and Arab writers
see I. Low, Aramaische Pflanzennamen, p. 381, where Arab. banj (from
Pers. bang) vao. khauos. M. Meyerhof in his edition of Maimonides'
Sarh Asma'i l-Uqqar (Cano1940) attributed confusion of banj with the
Indian bhanga to his author (p. 32); but that confusion is not
present: in the text of Maimonides. Incidentally, Meyerhof remarked
that 'au Caire on vend encore les feuilles ct semences de In jusquiame
blanche' as bing. Dymock, Warden, and Hooper, Pharmacographia Indica,
ii. 628: bang, banj = Hyascyamus specc., tho variety imported from
Khorasan into India = Hyoscyamus zeticulatus L. Armenian bang 'Bilsen-kraut',
Hubschmann, Arm. Gramm., 263.
vibanha = Skt.