Zeus and Zoroaster

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” – Barack Obama

An ideology of cultural exceptionalism developed in both Greece and Iran in ancient times. Among the Greeks arose the notion that they were a naturally free, vigorous and rational race, while the barbarians of Asia were soft and slave-like. To the followers of the prophet Zoroaster, Iran was the holy heartland of the one true mazda-worshipping religon. An-Iran, on the other hand, was the abode of irreligion. In this post, I will try to briefly sketch the historical evolution of these beliefs, with direct reference to the writings of ancient authors.

I use the terms “Greece” and “Iran” as labels for loose cultural spheres rather than unitary states with definite borders. The classical Greek-speaking world included hundreds of independent city states and colonies outside of Greece proper. This politically and geographically fragmented world extended west to Spain and east to the Black sea coasts of Ukraine. The Greek city states prided themselves on their scrappy independence. We know something of the many wars and revolts they staged against powers with hegemonic ambitions in the Mediterranean, like Persia, Rome, Macedon, Athens and Carthage.

Similarly, the word ‘Iran’ – the “Land of the Aryans” – has in the past been used to signify a cultural bloc in Asia that extends beyond the limits of the present-day country, into Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan or Afghanistan, where populations of Iranic-speakers have lived for centuries.

After the conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander, Greek culture washed over Western Asia and had a tangible impact on the art and language of the region. But in the centuries that followed, Iran’s mythic sense of its own place in history endured – even after it was conquered by Arabs. It received a lasting expression in the poet Ferdowsi’s national epic, the Shahnameh.

Greek exceptionalism


Aristotle was no great traveler of his age but his years of fierce reading and fact-collecting gave him some window into the geography and culture of the world beyond Greece. Like Pythagoras before him, he knew that the earth was a sphere. He was the first to support this idea with empirical observations, pointing to – among other things – the circular shape of the earth’s shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse.

Many creatures not native to Greece  (hippopotamuses, peacocks, elephants, camels, crocodiles, apes and mythical cinnamon birds) feature in Aristotle’s  zoological works. His writings contain references to elphant-drivers in India, Celts in Europe, Scythians on the Asian steppe, the life of Iranian prophet Zoroaster, the river Tartessos in spain, the Dead Sea in Israel, the sheep of syria and the rains in Ethiopia. His lifetime saw Macedonians and Greeks penetrate further into foreign lands than ever before. His most famous student, Alexander of Macedon marched an army from Turkey to India and destroyed the Persian Empire along the way. On a return trip the India, Alexander’s admiral Nearchus sailed into the Persian gulf and visited the island of Bahrain. Around the end of Aristotle’s life (perhaps a bit after), an explorer named Pytheas sailed past the Straits of Gilbraltar and into the Atlantic, and managed to reach as far north as the shores of Britain, where he purportedly encountered some of island’s celtic inhabitants.

What was the place of Greece in this wide and ever-broadening universe of barbarian peoples? In Aristotle’s view, the Greeks were the most suitable race to rue over mankind. In the Politics, he argues that the barbarians of northern Europe were courageous and full of “high spirit”, but their political systems were primitive and disorganized. He considered the Eastern races to be inventive and intelligent, but lacking in spirit, and therefore prone to being subsumed under autocratic systems of government. The Greeks, he writes, combine vigor with intellect and so were fit to be masters over the whole human race. To him, non-Greeks were naturally slaves. This thought was echoed in other works. The playwright Euripides has one of his characters say – “It is right that Hellenes should rule barbarians, but not barbarians Hellenes, those being slaves, while these are free“. The Athenian Solon regarded a patriotic Greek citizen who sacrificed his life for his home city to be more fortunate than the richest Lord of Asia. The orator Isocrates wrote to the King of Sparta encouraging him to “curb the insolence of the barbarians, and deprive them of part of their ill-gotten gains” and to the King of Macedon telling him to extend his “power over the greatest possible number of the barbarians”.

It is interesting to note the ways in which ancient Greek prejudices about foreigners differed from modern racism. The Greeks were not ‘white’ racists, and they would not have recognized a pan-European racial category of “White Person”. White Celts from Europe were not necessarily superior to black Ethiopians solely on account of their whiteness. Both were barbarians. I will point here to one mention of Ethiopians in the Histories of Heretodotus that seems pretty positive- “the men [of Aethiopia] are taller, handsomer and longer-lived than anywhere else“. He attributed their blackness to the heat of the sun in their native land. Some Greeks were capable of recognizing merit in Barbarians. Xenophon, for example, wrote very highly of the founder of the Persian Monarchy, Cyrus the Great, and praised his sagacity and character in the Cyropedia. In the Politics, Aristotle discusses in detail the Government of the non-Greek Carthaginians who lived on the Tunisian coast, and wrote approvingly that: “It is a general opinion that the Carthaginians live under a polity which is excellent and in many respects superior to all others “.

Hellenism and its discontents

The world would never really be ruled from a citadel in Greece, but in the centuries after Aristotle’s death, Greek culture would ripple across Eurasia and enjoy extraordinary prestige among the elites of many nations. Roman statesmen would compose poetry in Greek, and have their children tutored in the works of Aristotle and Plato. In Central Asia, scuptors would portray the Buddha according to Greek artistic norms, in a standing posture, with stylized curls and realistic bodily proportions. The later Parthian kings of Persia would stage Greek plays and mint coins with Greek letters. The Indian astronomer Varahamhira wrote, “The Yavanas [Greeks] are barbarians, yet the science of astronomy originated with them and for this they must be reverenced like gods”. Fashionable Jews would exercise naked in gymnasia like the Greeks, and even took measures to “surgically correct” their circumcised penises. To the Greeks, circumcision was a form of bodily mutilation, and an abhorrent barbarian practice.

In some quarters in these societies, Hellenization was met with resistance . The Roman senator, Cato the Elder was famous for his opposition to Greek culture, and claimed that “Rome would lose her empire when she had become infected with Greek letters” (Plutarch). Manetho was a native Egyptian who challenged Herodotus’ Greek account of Egyptian history, criticizing him for his “ignorance and false relations of Egyptian affairs.” He produced his own history in greek using Egyptian sacred texts, which has now been lost. According to the Book of Macaabees, When the Greek ruler, Antiochus IV, made gymnasium attendance compulsory for Jews, looted the Holy Temple, and outlawed the sabbath and circumcision, the Jewish nation rose in revolt. The revolution began when a Jewish priest tore down a pagan altar, killed a Hellenized Jew and a government officer, and ran through the town of Modi’in yelling: “Let everyone who has any zeal for the Law and takes his stand on the covenant come out and follow me!‘”

Iran in chains

Persia also had a religious reaction to the Alexandrine conquests. Zoroastrianism was the state-sponsored religion of the Persian empire – it had a dualistic theology that viewed the world as a battlefield between the forces of evil and untruth one side and those of good and light on the other, personified as the rival spirits of Ahriman and Ahura Mazda respectively.

In a piece of Zoroastrian scripture called the Book of Arda, Alexander the Great is portrayed as a demonic villain, fashioned by the Evil Spirit, who persecuted the Iranian faith, slaughtered priests and burned up scriptures. After that time, it declares that the Iranian people “were doubtful in regard to God; and religions of many kinds, and different fashions of belief, and skepticism, and various codes of law were promulgated in the world”. Alexander had brought a golden age of Zoroastrianism, when “men had no doubts” to an end.

Under the later Sassanid dynasty, Zoroastrianism reasserted itself as the dominant state religion in Iran. Under various Sassanid rulers, Christiaity, Judaism and the (now extinct) Zoroastrian-influenced religions of Manicheanism and Mazdakism, were persecuted. A certain religious nationalism emerged that celebrated the Sassanids for their restoration and protection of Persian culture. In  a medieval compilation of Persian texts called theDenkard, Judaism and Christianity are described as false and dangerous foreign religions:

“a check should be given to the advancing strength and the attack of the “Yahud” [Jewish] religion of Rum and “the Masahiya” [Messiah, i.e. Christian] religion of Khavar [the West], and the “Mani” religion [Manichaeism] of Turkestan, lest their wickedness and degradation should enter into (our) co-religionist friends and the purity of our religion, which is older than that of Rum, should be dimmed.”
– Denkard

“A certain nation’s scriptures, known by the name of Ture [Torah] have been regarded as the words of the devils, and are not worthy of belief. Nothing mentioned therein deserves to be done for the benefit of the creation.”
– Denkard

What made Iran better than non-Iran was its commitment to truthfulness and the wise teachings of Zoroaster.

“The Iranians are deserving of praise on account of all their honest dealings, while dishonest and blemishful men deserve to be condemned.”

“The greatness of the Iranians (i.e. the Mazdayasnians) is owing to truthfulness in all matters, kind regard, and meditation on the design of Providence in all powerful creations. By these means they keep in affinity to their source (i.e. their Creator), and obtain victory over men of the opposite nature and over the ignoble and wild-looking subject nations of other cities.”

“the struggle and warfare of Iran with foreigners (an-airan), and the smiting of Ahriman [Zoroastrian version of Satan] and the demons it is possible to effect through the power of wisdom.”

– Denkard

Zoroastrian thinkers were not entirely opposed to foreign influences and knowledge. For example, under the Sassanians, a medical school operated at Jundishapur, where many texts were translated from Greek into Persian. This openness to foreign ideas is also reflected in the Denkard:

“If in other countries there be any writings (respecting our religion) worth reading, new, ameliorating, good, and divinely inspired, these should be procured; and there should be no backwardness in the study of them and in the researches into them. And whatever in the writings of other nations is unbelievable should not be accepted.”

“The nature that has concern with the greatest development of wisdom (i.e. is studious) must be admired. Attention should be given to the writings of (the men of) other countries, and the same should not be destroyed.”

Iran under Islam

The next great blow to Iranian nationalism came when it was conquered by Arab muslims. Under the caliphate, Zoroastrianism was persecuted. Fire temples were converted into mosques and religious taxes were imposed on Zoroastrians. A great body of Persian literature and scripture was destroyed. Resistance to Islam took on some interesting forms in this age. A Persian physician-scholar, al-Razi, was a religious skeptic and challenged the truth-value of the Koran in the following statement:

“You claim that the evidentiary miracle is present and available, namely, the Koran. You say: “Whoever denies it, let him produce a similar one.” Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter. … By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: “Produce something like it?”

Another text, the Bundahishn, laments the the coming of the Arab yoke:

“[The Arabs] promulgated their own code of irreligion {ak-den (i.e. Islam)}, and eradicated many usages of faith of the ancients, enfeebled the Revelation of Mazda-worship […]. And from the beginning of creation to this day, no calamity greater than this has befallen; for owing to their misdeeds, on account of supplication, desolation, distressing deeds, vile law, and bad creed, pestilence, want, and other evils have made their abode in Iran.”

Persian revolutionaries like Babak and Mazyar fought a military struggle to eject the Arabs from the country and restore it to Zoroastrianism. They failed. Eventually, Iran was converted to Islam, but its language and pre-islamic history were not erased. Arab caliphs fashioned their governments and court rituals after Persian models. Persian scholars like Ibn Sina and Al-Biruni were at the forefront of Islamic intellectual culture in the middle ages.

200 years after the Arab conquest, a (Persian muslim) poet nicknamed Ferdowsi set upon the task of recording the national mythology and legends of pre-islamic Iran in a mixture of prose and verse for posterity. This came to be the Shahnameh or “Book of Kings”, the defining epic of the Iranian mythic tradition.

Ferdowsi, the author of the Shahnameh

This epic strives to answer a simple question- “How did they hold the world in the beginning, and why is it that it has been left to us in such a sorry state”

The epic begins in a primeval age, when the world was ruled by a single monarch. An initial line of heroic world-kings fought demons and dragons, created religion and invented agriculture, fire, metallurgy, irrigation, animal husbandry, and clothing. These kings were not simple images of prehistoric virtue, but could be haughty, weak or foolish or enslaved by demons. When they could lose the favor of heaven through their deeds, words and thoughts.

One of these world-kings was named Feridoun. He had three sons who he chose not to name until he had made a test of each of their characters. As they were returning from a trip to Yemen, Feridoun took on the form of a terrifying, fire-spitting dragon and descended on them. The first son shed his weapons immediately and fled, saying, simply- “A wise and prudent man striveth not with dragons.” The second son did not retreat, but prepared for combat and drew his bow. The third prince approached the dragon and demanded that he let them pass unmolested. He invoked the name of the mighty Feridoun, advising the reptile to fly away, or else risk the enemity of a powerful king, and face dangerous combat with three lusty princes. The dragon parted.

When they next came before Feridoun, he revealed that the dragon on the road home had been a test. He commended the first son on his prudence, noting that one who does not flee before a great danger is a fool rather than brave. He calls him Sillim, and sets the Western lands of “Roum” as his inheritance. “Roum” refers to the Greek-speaking world of the Byzantine empire. He names the second son Tur and gives him the Turkic and Chinese lands to the East and North of Iran. He praises Tur for his bravery in the face of certain death. The third one he calls “a man prudent and brave, who knoweth both how to haste and how to tarry”. He is equal parts courageous and wise (echoing Aristotle’s argument about Greeks combining vigor with intellect). This man is called Irij and he is given Iran. Iraj is the father of Iran, its name-giver and the ancestor to its royal dynasties.

Here an important distinction is set up between the land of Iran and the land of Turan, which refers to the various Iranic cultures of Inner Asia. The Persians had a long history of military engagements with steppe nomads from beyond the Amu Darya river, like the Scythians, Hephthalites and Goturks. The shahnameh recounts legendary conflicts between these two peoples stretching over centuries. In later history, Turanian came to be synonymous with “Turk”, as Turkic tribes migrated into both Iran and Turan. Their movements spurred conflict.

Eventually, Kings of Rome and Turkestan grew jealous of Iraj and conspired against him. An anti-Iranian alliance between Romans and Turks occurred in actual history. Before it was overwhelmed by Arabs, Sassanid Persia fought a protracted and ruinous war with the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman empire under Heraclius. At the zenith of Persian fortunes, Iranian forces took Egypt and eventually marched up to the walls of Constantinople, which they subjected to a siege. In a daring move, Heraclius personally led armies deep into the Iranian heartlands and contracted a marriage alliance with the Khan of the Turks, Zeibel. He ravaged the Persian empire alongside an allied host of Goturks, who one Armenian historian, Movses Kagankatvatsi, describes as being a “vile, ugly horde of attackers” with “slanting and lidless eyes” .

In the mythical story of the Shahnameh, Tur stabs Iraj in the heart, inaugurating a long sequence of military struggles between the rival nations they founded. In another Persian text, this murder is viewed as the original source of the estrangement between Iran and its eastern and western neighbours.

In the Greater Bundahishn, further episodes of rise and fall are prophesied for the Iranian nation, until the end of the world. In the final apocalyptic era God (Ahura Mazda) and the last prophet Soshyant will raise all mankind from the dead. The good deeds of each person will be judged against the bad. All of humanity will be submerged in a river of liquid metal and be purified. The pain a soul will feel in this molten cleansing will be in proportion to the weight of its sins. To a righteous person, the lava will feel like warm milk, but it will sear the wicked. Then God will destroy the evil spirit Ahriman and his demons and remake the world anew – perfect and purged of evil forever.

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