Zoroastrianism and the Pre-Islamic Religions: New Perspectives

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


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It’s been often heard that, as opposed to the Achaemenids and the Parthians, the Sasanians promoted a Zoroastrian religious “orthodoxy.” Yet, efforts by some of the most eminent scholars of the field to define the nature of this orthodoxy, the mechanisms for establishing it, and its distinguishing characters from heterodoxy, has been proven unsuccessful! [1]
Now, it has been generally accepted that some of the canonical Middle Persian Zoroastrian writings, including Dēnkard, Dādestān-ī Dēnig, Mātakān-ī Hazār Dātistān, Ardāvirāz Nāmag, Kārnāmag-ī Ardaxšēr-ī Pāpakan, Vizīdagīhā-ī Zādisparam and Letters of Manučihr, as well as some minor texts (such as those of Adurbād-ī Farrōbaγān: Rivāyat, Andarz and Mātigān- ī Gujastak Abālish), had been finally composed and written down in south-western Iran and specifically in the Fārs province, mostly during the 9th-10th century CE.
In this paper, I will argue that the often neglected local and regional aspects of these texts, have had a huge impact on shaping our understanding of what the Zoroastrian orthodoxy is. Additionally, there will be another argument against the current approach by mainstream scholars in ignoring those features of Iranian pre-Islamic religions which deviate from our definition of the orthodoxy. We have to reconsider taking the claim of the 9th-10th centuries’ mobeds of Pārs that Iranians during the Sasanian period were practicing their version of orthodoxy, at face value.
By re-examining and contextualizing some of the mentioned texts, as well as taking new archeological evidence and some literary sources (such as Shāhnāmeh) into consideration, I will demonstrate that, this perspective is valid, and may even provide us with new grounds for investigation. Hopefully, this may create a more accurate picture of the religious life of Iranians during the Sasanian – early Islamic period.

1-For example, look at: Zaehner, R. C., 1955, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Oxford; Shaked, Shaul, 1994, Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran, London: School for African and Oriental Studies; De Jong, Albert, 1998, Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World), Leiden; and Boyce, Mary, 1996, “On the Orthodoxy of Sasanian Zoroastrianism.” Bulletin for the School of Oriental and African Studies 59: 11-28.

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The single most important element that dominates the landscape of ancient Bactria is the river Amu Darya, the ancient Oxus, and its many tributaries. Bactria without Oxus is almost unimaginable. Still, the past hundred years many archaeological sites have been excavated or surveyed in this area, hundreds of coins catalogued and analyzed, dozens of inscriptions restored, transcribed and studied, new material published and the local language (a middle Iranian language in Greek script) deciphered, but the most part of this work has been confined to the study of the "major" religions (Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and/or Islam). Despite that, the local Bactrian polytheistic pantheon presents an amazing richness and forms a fascinating field of study, yet acknowledged by not many modern scholars. The present paper draws from this large body of evidence in order to study one of these pre-Islamic local gods of Bactria, the god that personified its single most important source of life, prosperity and abundance, the river Oxus. It is a river deity or aquatic deity for which we know two things for certain: that in the Hellenistic period a whole temple was dedicated to this god and that much later, in the seventh and eighth century CE, local people took its worship seriously by taking oaths on its name during their legal and economic transactions. By using an interdisciplinary approach this paper will evaluate material from archaeological excavations and field surveys, epigraphic and numismatic corpora, and recently deciphered (yet poorly studied from the perspective of religious studies or cultural interpretation) written sources, in order to reconstruct this lost part of the Bactrian pantheon. In addition, this paper will use theoretical approaches from other central and south Asian regions to understand how a religious system can be connected to the management of water supplies in areas as difficult to survive as in Bactria, in order to see if and how the worship of the spirit of this river was affected in any way by similar local political and economic developments. Special focus will be applied on eras when the Oxus cult is the least present (i.e. the Kushan and the Islamic era, when irrigation works and water reservoirs where built in the name of the Kushan emperors and Allah, respectively).