Persian mythology developed in what is now Iran after about 1500 B . C . About a thousand years later, a religion known as Zoroastrianism emerged in the region. It held on to many of the earlier beliefs but added new themes, deities, and myths. The result was a mythology based on a dualistic vision: a cosmic conflict between good and evil.
Background and Sources. The roots of Persian mythology lie in the steppes of southern Russia and Central Asia. Between 1500 and 1000 B . C ., Indo-European peoples migrated south from the steppes into the regions now known as Turkey, Iran, and northern India. Those who settled in Iran became the Persians. Their mythology had much in common with that of the early Hindus and probably developed from a common Indo-European source. In time, the Persians also absorbed influences from Mesopotamia * on their western border.
The religious reformer and prophet Zoroaster (probably born around 628 B . C .) founded the faith that dominated Persia until the arrival of Islam in the A . D . 600S. Apart from somewhat unreliable accounts by ancient Greek historians, the earliest information about Persian mythology comes from Zoroastrianism's sacred book, the Zend-Avesta or Avesta. Much of the original Zend-Avesta was lost after Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 334 B . C . What survives is a set of writings gathered and arranged between A . D . 200 and 600. One section, the Gathas, consists of songs believed to have been composed by Zoroaster. Much mythological material can be found in another section containing Yashts, hymns addressed to angels and heroes.
deity god or goddess
dualistic consisting of two equal and opposing forces
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
steppe vast expanse of treeless grassland
prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights
Major Deities and Figures. The driving forces of Persian mythology were two powerful gods, sometimes presented as twin brothers. Ahura Mazda was the creator, a god of light, truth, and goodness. His enemy Ahriman, the spirit of darkness, lies, and evil, created only destructive things such as vermin, disease, and demons. The world was their battlefield. Although they were equally matched during this period of history, Ahura Mazda was fated to win
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
the fight. For this reason, Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, was the supreme deity of Persian mythology. The Zoroastrians identified him with purifying fire and tended fires on towers as part of their worship.
The ancient Persian pantheon also included Mithras, a god associated with war, the sun, and law and order, who became the object of a widespread cult in the Roman empire. Anahita was a goddess of water and fertility. Verethraghna, a god of war and victory, appeared on earth in ten forms: as wind, a bull, a horse, a camel, a boar, a youth, a raven, a ram, a buck, and a man. Zoroaster reduced the role of these and other traditional deities and emphasized Ahura Mazda as supreme god. Religious scholars see this move as an early step toward monotheism. However, Ahura Mazda was said to have created seven archangels, called the Amesha Spentas, who represented truth, power, immortality, and other aspects of his being. These archangels may have taken over some features of the pre-Zoroastrian gods.
Heroes and kings also figured in Persian myth and legend. The hero Traetaona battled Azhi Dahaka, a three-headed demon controlled by Ahriman. When Traetaona stabbed the demon in the chest, snakes and lizards poured from the wound. To prevent the demon from poisoning the world, Traetaona locked him inside a mountain where he will remain until the world comes to an end. When that happens, Azhi Dahaka will break free—but then another hero, Keresaspa, will kill him.
The legendary king Bahram Gur appeared often in poems and tales as the inventor of poetry and a mighty hunter. The greatest hero was the warrior Rustum, whose adventures appear in the epic Shah Namah (Book of Kings), written by the poet Firdawī around A . D . 1010.
Major Themes and Myths. The main theme of Persian mythology was the battle between good and evil. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were not the only ones involved. Hosts of angels called the Yazatas and good spirits or ashavans fought on Ahura Mazda's side. Ahriman headed an army of evil spirits known as dregvants and of demons called devas. Humans took part in the conflict as well. Each person had to choose whether to follow the truth or the lie. Plants, animals, and other things could be good or evil, depending on whether Ahura Mazda or Ahriman created and controlled them.
Ahura Mazda made the world. Creation began when he cast a beam of his pure light into the empty void between him and Ahriman, who had attacked him. Ahura Mazda uttered a prayer that silenced Ahriman for 3,000 years, while Ahriman created the Amesha Spentas and the Yazatas. Ahura Mazda's final creation was Gayomart, the first man. Ahriman then awoke and began his evil work, sending a female demon to make Gayomart sicken and die.
Perhaps influenced by stargazing Babylonian* astronomers, the ancient Iranians associated some of their deities with the stars. The star Sirius represented the rain god Tishtrya, whose main role was to battle Apausha, an evil star of drought. Tishtrya, in the form of a white stallion, and Apausha, a hideous black horse, fought for three days. Then with Ahura Mazda's help, Tishtrya defeated Apausha. Tishtrya and other star gods who protected agriculture also took charge of battling meteors, or shooting stars, which the Persians believed to be witches.
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
monotheism belief in only one god
immortality ability to live forever
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
Gayomart's body became the silver and gold in the earth, and in death he fertilized the ground so that a plant grew and became a man and a woman. These two people, Masha and Mashyoi, were
The legend of Rustum shows the part human heroes play in the great drama of good and evil. Rustum was so strong and brave that the king made him head of the army. Then the White Demon seized the king, and Rustum set out to rescue him. In the course of his travels, Rustum encountered a lion, a desert, a dragon, a demoness, and a demon army. He overcame all these obstacles with the help of his faithful horse Ruksh and a warrior named Aulad, whom he defeated in combat and who then became an ally. Rustum's adventure ended in a cave, the lair of the White Demon, where Rustum tore out the demon's heart.
Death in Persian mythology involved a journey into the afterlife. The soul of the dead person had to cross a bridge called Chinvat. Good souls found the bridge to be a wide and comfortable beam leading to heaven. For the wicked, it was a razor-sharp blade from which they fell headlong into hell.
Zoroastrianism was one of the first belief systems to include a vision of the end of the world. It would be signaled by the appearance of three saviors, sons of Zoroaster. Upon the arrival of Hushedar, the first savior, the sun would stand still for 10 days, and people would stop eating meat. When Hushedar-mar, the second savior, appeared, the sun would halt for 20 days, and people would stop drinking milk. Just as the world neared a state of purity, however, the evil demon Azhi Dahaka would break free from his mountain prison. Only after he had been killed would Soshyant, the third savior, arrive. People would stop eating plants and live only on water, and each soldier of good would fight and defeat a particular evil enemy.
Then the world would be enveloped in fire and molten metal for three days. Everyone who has ever lived would return to life to cross the fire, but only the wicked would suffer from the heat. This final judgment would purge sin and evil from the world, leaving an innocent human race in a cleansed world to worship Ahura Mazda.
Legacy. Persian religion and mythology had far-reaching influence. Historians of mythology think that certain beliefs in the Jewish,
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Christian, and Islamic faiths probably grew out of Persian traditions. The tendency of Zoroastrianism toward monotheism—turning multiple gods into aspects of one god—may also have helped shape those faiths.
Unlike some ancient belief systems, Persian mythology remains alive outside the covers of old books. It has survived continuously for thousands of years, and isolated groups of Iranians still worship Ahura Mazda. Other Zoroastrian communities exist in India, where the descendants of immigrants from Iran are known as Parsis or Parsees, a reference to their Persian origin.