Religion in the era of Achaemenid Persia Empire
Хасан К. В. Religion in the era of Achaemenid Persia Empire // Молодой ученый. 2016. №2. С. 754-759.
The Iranians of the Achaemenid era didn’t have any official religion. It seems that the Medes and Persian people in this period had three religions which were essentially the same, but have had some trivial differences. The religion of the Achaemenid kings was a combination of the religious beliefs of the Aryans, Babylonians and Elamites. The other one was the Magi religion which consisted of the sum of beliefs and customs which remained for the Magi since the time when the Aryans were not ramified and the Iranians and Indians lived together. The third one was the religion of the Achaemenid people which was not significantly different from the religion of the Achaemenid kings. Although there were commonalities between the beliefs of the Achaemenid Iranians and Zoroastrians, the Zoroastrians should be considered as separated from the religious beliefs prevalent in this age and associated with the eastern tribes of the Achaemenid Empire.
Keywords: Achaemenids, Ahurmazda, Mithra, Anahita, heritage, the clan of the Gods.
The answer to the question that what beliefs and religion the Achaemenid kings and the Iranians in this period had is not clear and our information is confined to the inference of generalities which are found on the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings and the writings of the contemporary historians of this time. Iran in the Achaemenid era was not a society oriented on the basis of religion. It seems that the Medes and Persian people in this period had three religions which were essentially the same, but have had some trivial differences. The first was the religion of the Achaemenid kings, the second was the Magi religion and the third was the people’s religion. In the present research, we will be investigating each of these religions.
1- The religion of Achaemenid kings
As said by the researchers, the religion of the Achaemenid kings was a combination of Aryan, Zoroastrian — which though had not reached a level to become the official religion, Babylonian and Elamite religions. These people believed in the Almighty God, that was called Ahura Mazda or the Wise Ahura [18,pp. 295–296]. In his inscription, Arshameh introduces him the Almighty God who is the greatest of all Gods [15, p. 116]. In his inscription (486–485 BCE), Xerxes says, “the Almighty God is Ahura Mazda, who created the soil, sky and peace of mind for the man and made Xerxes king; He chose one king from among all and made him emperor from among many people.”
(Sharp, undated: p. 148, Xpd 1–12; p. 146–9, Xpc 1–7; 113) Ahura Mazda is the creator of all beings and the patron of all the living creatures and He is the one who determines and guides the deeds of the king, who has entrusted the power to the king himself with his own will and resolve [17, pp. 171–172].
Fire  makes purity and purity is the sign of Ahura Mazda. At the time of praying, the worshippers would turn their face to the fire, and fire would be usually lit in an open space (Pirnia, 1984: 168). After the demise of each emperor, the holy fires would be extinguished as a sign of mourning, and after performing the funeral ceremony, it would be lit up once again [8, p. 1528].
After Ahura Mazda, the Achaemenid kings believed in the abstract creatures which were not in the same rank as the Almighty God. These abstract creatures should be the holy eternals and the lords of the next centuries (ibid). Darius the Great says in his inscription (522–486 BCE): “let Ahura Mazda assist me along with the gods of the dynasty and protect this country. Ahura Mazda, don’t allow the enemy’s army, famine and falsehood prevail this country. I plead to Ahura Mazda and the lords of the dynasty  to do us this favor [15, p. 117]. Let Ahura Mazda and the lords of the dynasty do this favor only to me.”
Ahura Mazda and the abstract creatures have characteristics and features. They are abstract and cannot be seen. Their depiction cannot be created, and they cannot be worshipped everywhere. They are pure, and so sacrifice should be made to them with a clean dress, in an elevated and clean place where the air is clean[8, p. 1362]. In addition to what has been mentioned about the beliefs of the Achaemenid kings, during the reign of the Artaxerxes II (405–359 BCE) Mithra and Anahita are also talked about. In his inscription, Artaxerxes II says, “Ahura Mazda, Anahita and Mithra protect me from what is evil; what I’ve done is what I’ve created.” [15, p. 155], [12, undated].
Artaxerxes II implores all the three gods for the preservation of himself, the reign and the daily affairs.
A group of the researchers opine that the mentioning of Mithra and Anahita’s by Artaxerxes II was a religious innovation and a remarkable transformation in the religious beliefs of the Achaemenid dynasty [10, p. 314]. Kings before Artaxerxes II (559–359 BCE) called Ahura Mazda the great god, not the One God. This is indicative of the importance of other gods which cannot be overlooked [11, p. 192]. Artaxerxes made the construction and worshipping of Anahita, her portrait and statute more conspicuous and this caused consternation and dismay among the traditionalist and elite clergy [7, p. 320], [2, p. 649].
It seems that worshipping Mithra existed in the religion of the ancient Aryans since the time when Avesta was not compiled yet, and had a connection with the sun and was considered as an intermediary between the terrestrial and celestial worlds, as well as light and darkness. During the reign of the Achaemenids, Mithra was the goddess of agreement and promise, and emerged after Artaxerxes II and her name was repeatedly uttered at the time of taking oaths or during the battle[8, p. 169].
Regarding Anahita , it’s believed that her infiltration into Iran is a result of the astronomical convictions of Babylon.
Some others believe that Anahita was pervasively appreciated and worshipped among the Aryans. Anahita was considered as the goddess of waters. Sometime later, the Greek called her the goddess of beauty and worshipping her remained in the Asia Minor long after the decline of the Achaemenids [8, p. 169].
It’s believed that the reason why Artaxerxes II sought help from Anahita and Mithra was because of the impact these two gods had in protecting and preserving him, his reign and his affairs. Actually, it was Anahita and her holy temple in Pasargadae that saved Artaxerxes II from the assassination attempt by his brother Cyrus Jr. in the holy environment of the temple against him.
In accordance with the beliefs and traditions of his time, this nobility of Artaxerxes II is unquestionably a kind of divine patronage and protection on behalf of Anahita to him, especially given the ultimate failure of the conspiracy schemed by Cyrus Jr. who despite the different promises and plans by his mother Parysatis, violated the agreement after returning to the Asia Minor and launched a military campaign against Artaxerxes II. Under such circumstances, in a customary manner, he resorted to the rage and revenge of Mithra — the goddess of commitment and agreement, and brought about the interim failure of Cyrus Jr. like two creatures under her protection and patronage. Given this background, it’s intrinsic that Artaxerxes considers the two gods as the deity that keeps him under her protection and patronage and asks for her assistance in his inscriptions frequently [11, pp. 192–193].
After destroying the temple of divan, Xerxes I (486–465 BCE) made the worshipping of Ahura Mazda and Arta (verity) , which is mentioned in Avesta, prevalent and customary[12, p. 121], [3, p. 104], [6, p. 211]. The new establishment of order by Xerxes was manifested in the worshipping of Arta and Ahura Mazda. As said by Herodotus, constructing temples was forbidden to the Persians[19, p. 104]. However, Artaxerxes II decides to build one, and this action can be interpreted such that at the end of the Achaemenid reign, some of the beliefs of the Babylonians and Elamites infiltrated into the religion of the Iranian kings and elites and their religion could not remain as pure as it was at first and underwent some deviations[8, p. 153].
Unquestionably, there’s no document to accept that the Achaemenid kings also called themselves gods.
In the Achaemenid kingdom, different nations lived with different rituals and customs, so the existence of a clear religious system was difficult under such circumstances. In different states and provinces, numerous religious beliefs would emerge or were related to the rites and hereditary beliefs of every country [9, pp. 130–131].
The viewpoint of the Achaemenid kings regarding the alien religion was based on indulgence and lenience. The treatment of Cyrus (559–530 BCE) in Babylon [1, p. 202], [4, pp. 61–63], [6, p. 209] and Cambyses (530–525 BCE) in the first few months in Egypt [10, p.316].and Darius I (522–486 BCE) in this country demands that they all practiced the religious ceremonies of the Babylonians and Egyptians and behaved like the national Babylonian and Egyptian kings. The kindness of Achaemenid kings toward the Jews is evident in Torah [7, pp. 95–96], [8, p. 1531].
However, regarding this kind of lenience, it’s believed that this was practiced as a principle of running the country’s affairs and a manifestation of solidarity in the Achaemenid Empie[11, p. 194]. The historical review of the Aryans indicates that they had two national characteristics. One was the feudal system of government and the other one was lenience in religious affairs which they didn’t lose and preserved for a long time [8, p. 1533].
2- The Magi religion
The Magi came from the sextet of Medes dynasties, and their beliefs were the sum of beliefs and rites that had remained before the Magi since the ancient ages, that is the time when the Aryans were not ramified yet, and the Indians and Iranians lived with each other. These beliefs were collected at the time of Achaemenids or Sassanids and became the holy book of the Magi, and the Magi had some expertise in identifying the religious principles and traditions and other information about religion[8, p. 170].
Living in the elevated mountains of Azerbaijan and the surroundings of the Ajam district had made the Magi impervious to any kind of spiritual infiltration by the residents of the plateau. Therefore, it’s easily conceivable that the Magi, until the emergence of Avesta, preserved the beliefs and traditions which were conspicuously similar to the convictions and rituals of the Indian people for several centuries [20, p. 79].
The practice of the Magi at the time of the Achaemenids, which they inherited from the Medes according to the rules and witnesses of the clergy, was such that they would interpret the dreams and take part in the coronation ceremony of the new king which was usually held in Pasargadae.
Moreover, they were in charge of training the young people and safeguarding the king tombs such as the shrine of Cyrus, and would invite the people to get married to their close intimates. As regards the philosophy of the universe, they believed in the two principles of God and evil, and as opposed to the Persians who would bury their deceased, they would expose the bodies of their dead to the predators[17, p. 173].
Preparing hauma  was a responsibility of the Magi. It was an intoxicant beverage which was produced from a certain plant and was served in the religious ceremonies of the Persian[17, p. 170], [15, p. 112].
Performing the slaughtering ceremony was not compliant with the deportment and habit of the Persians. For slaughtering the livestock, no portico was prepared, no beverage would be scattered on the ground and no reed was played[8, p. 1519]. The slaughtering ceremony was performed on high mountains [8, p. 1519] and no knife was used at the time of slaughtering, but the animal which was to be slaughtered would be cut into pieces by firewood [8, p. 1519]. Using a crown of flower or barley was not conventional at this time. Anyone who wanted to sacrifice an animal as a sign of blessing would put a branch on his head, decorate it with the twigs of a tree he liked, take the animal to a clean place and start praying. It was not permissible to simply pray for oneself; rather, he should pray for all the Persians and the king, because he is a Persian himself and the prayer would be applying to him, as well.
Then, they will cut the slaughtered animal into pieces, bake its meat and place it on a soft herb or a leaf of clover which had been prepared before. Afterwards, the Magi will recite holy songs which are about the creation of the gods. After some time, the slaughterer would take the meat home and consumes [8, p. 1519]. The Magi are also careful that the fire may not be extinguished. They will go to the temples at days and recite songs before the blazing fire [8, p. 1519]. The Magi are also careful so that the fire may not be extinguished. They would come to the temples everyday and sing songs before the fire for one hour [8, p. 1519].
The relationship of the Magi with the Zoroastrian traditions sounds suspicious and unacceptable. What has been mentioned of the beliefs and rites of the Magi in the accounts of Herodotus and the developments in this era portrays this relationship less likely.
3- The people’s religion
The beliefs of the Persian and Medes clans have essential and crucial differences with the religious beliefs of the Achaemenid kings and there are no documents showing that they were not committed to the social values. Like Ahura Mazda, neither Mithra nor Anahita were the exclusive gods of the royal family; they were rather gods whom all the Persians implored and worshipped[11, p. 193]. In addition to worshipping these gods, the people of the Achaemenid era worshipped the quartet elements of light, water, soil and wind and polluting water, soil and fire were forbidden [8, p. 169]. The Persians would rub the body of the dead with wax and the wax would become an intermediary between the deceased and the soil, because it was not permissible to pollute the soil [8, p. 1828]. According to Herodotus, if an Iranian has the vitiligo disease, he will not be permitted to enter the city and he would not be allowed to interact or work with the people, and as Iranians say, he has committed a sign against the Sun[19, p. 108].
On the fact that whether the Iranians in the Achaemenid era had Zoroastrian beliefs or not, it seems that there were commonalities between the religion of the Iranians in the Achaemenid era and the Zoroastrian religion, and that there are not extensive differences between them [8, p. 1530]. However, to consider the Achaemenid people or the Persian clans and even the Magi in this period connected to the Zoroastrian custom seems far-fetching.
The existence of some temples and the statutes of gods which were discovered by the archaeologists show that the Achaemenid beliefs were not in agreement with what is considered as the Zoroastrian teachings[11, p. 194]. The researchers have long paid attention to the fact that in the Ancient Persian inscriptions written in cuneiform alphabet, the name of Zoroaster has not been ever mentioned, and from the other hand, they have distinguished the difference of religious terms repeated in the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings and Avesta [3, pp. 126–127].
Speaking of the fact that there’s no reference to Zoroaster’s name in the Herodotus’ narrations — which by itself denies the existence of Zoroaster before and after this period, it should be considered as a reason that in the Achaemenid era and among the Medes, Zoroastrian tradition was not prevalent and extensive and mostly should be associated with the clans and the eastern tribes of the realm of Achaemenid Empire [11, p. 197], [5, p. 48].
Both the followers of the Zoroastrian tradition and the Achaemenids similarly worshipped the Almighty God Ahura Mazda and did not deny the other gods. Both hated falsehood and would hoist the flag of veracity, as it’s mentioned in the Gathes and the Ancient Persian inscriptions. This accordance should suffice to demonstrate that both of them followed a single religious system, while they indubitably had differences in belief, traditions and religious customs [13, p. 197]. The advocates of the ancient Aryan religion mostly paid attention to the traditions and the followers of Zoroastrian religion were mostly inclined to faith and belief [13, p. 189].
There were no official religions in the era of Achaemenid Persia Empire and the people had polytheistic beliefs influenced by the Indo-Iranian convictions. The Achaemenid kings looked at the religious beliefs of the other provinces of the empire with a lenient and indulgent approach and venerated their beliefs.
1- In Ancient Persian language, we have the word “ātar” and in Avesta, we have ātar-āθr; Cf. Kent, op. cit, p. 166
2- In the Ancient Persian inscription, this word is used as viθaibiŠ bagaibiŠ viθ, the first part of which in viθ in Ancient Persian and vīs in Avesta. The second part is baga in Ancient Persian language and baga in Avesta. Cf. Kent, op. cit, pp. 199–208
3- In Ancient Persian language, it’s Anāhitā, and in Avesta, it’s Anāhitā. Cf. Kent, op. cit, p. 167
4- In Ancient Persian language, arta means law and justice and in Avesta, it’s used as aša and arta. Cf. Kent, op. cit, pp. 151–170
5- In Ancient Persian, it’s hauma; in Avesta it’s haoma and in Sanskrit, it’s sōma. Cf. Kent, op. cit, p. 213
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