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7-08-2015, 20:25

Sasanian shahs and the zoroastrian priests

Divine sanction was an important part of royal legitimation, and one must therefore investigate the relations between monarchs and the Zoroastrian priesthood, the repository of pristine mythological traditions. The established view that the Sasanian shahs relied on the Zoroastrian priesthood’s support, and as a consequence actively encouraged their beliefs and enhanced their power, has been largely modified in recent decades.28 Although the term mazdesn (Mazda-worshipping) recurs frequently on Sasanian monuments as a royal epithet, this need not imply automatic recognition of one organised priesthood as sole exponent of this deity’s cult. Shahs could perhaps best consolidate royal power by fostering variety, both inside the Zoroastrian church and between different religions. The traditional view encounters difficulties even with the dynasty’s founder, Ardashir I. According to the Denkard – the post-Sasanian Zoroastrian encyclopedia – Ardashir should be considered as the great restorer of the Zoroastrian faith: it was under his aegis that the priest Tansar allegedly collected the scattered remnants of the Avestan books, which had survived since Alexander’s conquests.29 However, the picture that emerges from the Res gestae divi Saporis is rather different: it makes no mention of Tansar or any member of the Zoroastrian priesthood other than Kirder, whose appearance is rather muted. Ardashir himself can reliably be described as a worshipper of Anahita of Stakhr, whereas evidence of his attachment to Ahura Mazda is more equivocal. As worshipped by the early Sasanians, Anahita was the goddess of victory at whose shrine the severed heads of vanquished enemies were habitually dedicated. If the devotion of Ardashir and his immediate successors to Anahita can be considered as part and parcel of a Zoroastrian orthodoxy, then this orthodoxy must have been entirely different from the kind of orthodoxy assumed in his glorification in the Denkard.30 The absence of any clear reference to an organised clergy in the Res gestae divi Saporis is at odds with the role ascribed by modern scholars to a ‘Zoroastrian church’, at least under the early Sasanians. This gap is not filled by the far-reaching claims made in four inscriptions celebrating the career of Kirder, the one priestly character who does figure on Shapur’s monument. Kirder was promoted within the Zoroastrian priesthood from a mere herbed under Shapur I to the rank of a mobed (chief magus) under his immediate successors,Hormizd I (270–1), Bahram I (271–4) and Bahram II (274–93). Bahram II bestowed additional honours and supposedly authorised Kirder to enforce Zoroastrianism and persecute heresies and other religions. This only indicates that this shah was attached to the kind of Zoroastrianism preached by Kirder, which is more than can be said of Shapur I.31 The extent of Shapur I’s Zoroastrian piety as it emerges from his own Res gestae is not entirely clear. He was indeed the founder of many fire-temples throughout his realm, according to his own testimony as well as to Kirder’s. Yet fire-temples were sacred not only to Ahura Mazda but also to Anahita, and Shapur’s favourable attitude to Zoroastrianism should be conceived in the framework of a religious eclecticism that could also accommodate Manichaeism.32 Furthermore, the fact that he granted Kirder sweeping powers to conduct religious affairs, without matching these powers with the appropriate title – whatever its meaning, herbed appears to be a rather modest rank – suggests that Kirder was more a court priest than the designated head of a powerful church. We cannot rule out a degree of tension between Kirder in this function and some of his brethren. Reiterated as a refrain on his inscriptions, Kirder’s statement that under his leadership many of the magi (not all of them) were happy and prosperous implies an attempt to mute some opposition voices. The early Sasanian monarchs, far from depending on an already powerful organisation for vital support, may rather have helped Zoroastrian clergy to improve their position in a fluid and competitive religious milieu. It is usually assumed that under Narseh the influence of the Zoroastrian priesthood declined, but that it regained much of the lost ground under Shapur II. The figure of Aturpat, son of Mahrspand, looms large in post- Sasanian Zoroastrian literature: he is depicted as a model of Zoroastrian orthodoxy who submitted himself to the ordeal of molten metal to refute heretics whose precise doctrine is disputed. It is natural enough to suppose that Aturpat stood at the head of a mighty Zoroastrian hierarchy, authorised by the shah himself to administer the institutions of the only fully recognised official state religion.However, the hierarchy of what tends to be conceived of as ‘the Zoroastrian church’ did not in all probability become fully established until much later. It is only under Yazdgard II (438–57) that the high priestMihr-Shapur, who had already distinguished himself under previous reigns as a persecutor of Christians, is called modaban mobad, the earliest reliable attestation of this title. But even then the relative position of mobeds and herbeds in the organisation of Zoroastrian clergy is not entirely clear. The title herbedan herbed, conferred upon Zurvandad, the son of Yazdgard’s powerful prime minister, Mihr-Narseh, has been interpreted as evidence for a hierarchy distinct from that of the mobeds within the Zoroastrian church. The Zoroastrian priesthood appears to have gained a truly undisputed position as the sole representative of the one and only state religion in the course of the fifth century. It is precisely at this time that Avestan names suddenly proliferate among members of the royal house, and the title kavi or kay appears on its coins, marking a crucial stage in the fabrication of the Kayanid genealogy as a source of legitimation of the Sasanian dynasty. Yet the Zoroastrian priesthood was soon to suffer a severe blow under Kavad I (488–96), during the Mazdakite revolt (see below, p. 149). The reign of Khusro I (531–79) appears to have been a period of harmony between the monarchy and the Zoroastrian priesthood, but it was a priesthood restored by the shah following the Mazdakite debacle, and consequently more dependent on the shah than before. Under Khusro’s successors, Zoroastrian influence seems to have declined. Khusro II (590– 628), rather than follow his predecessors in the large-scale establishment of fire-temples staffed with a vast multitude of herbedan, relied heavily on Christians, including his favourite wife, his finance officer and his chief general (see below, p. 144); Zoroastrian tradition, as reflected in the apocalyptic composition Jamasp namagh, branded him an unjust and tyrannical shah.33 The figure of Mihr-Narseh, Yazdgard II’s prime minister, illustrates the problem of Zoroastrian orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the Sasanian period. From Armenian sources recounting the persecution he launched against the Christians in Armenia, it is clear that Mihr-Narseh was an adherent of Zurvanism (belief in Zurvan i Akanarag or Infinite Time).34 His son Zurvandad bore a name celebrating this rather shadowy divine personification, and such names seem to have been common among Iranian nobles under the Sasanians. The role of Zurvan in the Zoroastrian pantheon is much disputed, but it represents a trend in Zoroastrianism which sought to provide a unifying monistic framework for its fundamentally dualist theology:Ohurmazd, the good principle, and Ahriman, the evil principle, were depicted as the twin sons of Infinite Time.However, there is little reliable information. Whereas contemporary non-Sasanian and non-Zoroastrian sources suggest that this monistic doctrine was the orthodoxy endorsed by the Sasanian shahs, the Pahlavi Zoroastrian literature of the post-Sasanian era is virtually silent on this.35 Various attempts have been made to explain this discrepancy. One suggestion is that the dualist orthodoxy reflected in the surviving Zoroastrian literature only triumphed after the collapse of the Sasanian monarchy: that the former monistic orthodoxy was deliberately suppressed by supporters of the old national religion, in the face of the new Islamic monotheism.36 According to another view, the story of Zurvanism is one of intermittent success: whereas under some shahs it was indeed the accepted orthodoxy, under others the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and the dualist trend became dominant. Dualism was finally triumphant in the mid-sixth century under Khusro I, whose reign also constitutes a decisive stage in the establishment of a canon of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, and in the development of Zoroastrian theological literature. Attempts have also been made to play down the significance of Zurvanism, either as a fad entertained by the upper classes or as a popular version of Zoroastrianism: nothing tantamount to a heresy in its familiar Christian sense.37 Perhaps the best way of approaching a solution is to get rid of the notion of a Sasanian Zoroastrian church, analogous in its position to that of the Christian church in the late Roman empire and intent upon using secular support to impose a uniform doctrine within its ranks. The truth may well have been that although the early Sasanian shahs found Zoroastrianism, as represented and propounded by the estate of the magi, the most potent religious factor in many of their domains, they were not always prepared to allow it to become the sole officially dominant state religion. Thus, for example, Anahita, who seemingly fades out after the reign of Narseh, springs again into prominence under the last Sasanians, from Khusro II to Yazdgard III.38 Furthermore, the fact that some Sasanian shahs, like Shapur I, were prepared to unleash the Zoroastrian priesthood against the Christians in the service of their own policies does not mean that they themselves subscribed to any version of Zoroastrianism as the binding orthodoxy. Attitudes towards this religion appear to have varied according to circumstances and the tempers of individual rulers. A sober monarch like Shapur I was quite capable of striking an alliance of convenience with the Zoroastrian clergy, while keeping his options open by toying with Manichaeism. Shapur II, a notorious persecutor of the Christians, may well have played off dualism against Zurvanism precisely in order to check the growth of an excessively strong, unified priestly caste. Yazdgard I was favourably inclined towards Christianity and Judaism for most of his reign.39On the other hand, such shahs as Bahram I and Bahram II may be described as truly pious followers of the form of Zoroastrianism propounded by Kirder: probably, but not certainly, dualism. The Sasanian monarchs’ attitude towards Nestorian Christianity is another consideration against interpreting their religious policy exclusively in terms of their Zoroastrian piety. After this creed had been condemned as a heresy at the council of Ephesus in 431, believers found a relatively safe haven in the Sasanian empire. In 457, a Nestorian school was founded in Nisibis by Bar Sauma andNarsai, fugitiveNestorian teachers fromEdessa; it flourished there, particularly under Shah Peroz (459–84), when the Zoroastrian priesthood appears to have been at the peak of its power. There was no danger in a policy of toleration towards a religious sect now banned within the Byzantine empire, whose rulers were either Chalcedonian or inclined to monophysitism. However, even a shah such as Khusro I – who could afford to be tolerant without marring his relations with a Zoroastrian priesthood firmly under his control – could or would not prevent persecution, even of Nestorians, after war against Byzantium flared up in 540. Khusro II is often described as sympathetic to the Christians, but the picture is more complex: he astutely played off monophysites (whose cause was advocated at court by his favourite wife, Shirin, and her influential physician, Gabriel) against Nestorians (who found a faithful champion in his powerful finance minister, Yazdin). Towards the end of his reign, when his empire succumbed to a Byzantine invasion, Khusro reversed his policy of general toleration and threatened a wave of persecutions.