9. Varieties of Zurvanism
- 10. Classical Zurvanism
- 11. Zurvan
The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism
Chapter 10. Classical Zurvanism (Part 1)
Zurvan, the One and the Many
'I do not think that any sensible person will give credence to this idiotic doctrine, or look [favourably] on this feeble and idle religion. Yet perhaps it is a mustery of what is figured in the mind. But whoso knows the Lord Most High in his glory and majesty will not assent to such nonsense, nor lend his ears to these absurdities.'
So does the Muhammadan heresiographer, Shahristani, dismiss the Zurvanite myth, a version of which he has just retailed. Certainly as an explanation of the origin of the universe it is childish, and it is for this reason, presumably, that it is always this myth that the Christian apologists seize upon when they are attacking the Zoroastrians. 'Yet,' as Shahristani says, 'perhaps it is a mystery of what is figured in the mind.' A mystery it certainly is -the perennial mystery with which all religions are at some stage confronted- the relationship between the infinite and the finite, the unchanging, impassive One, and the ever-changing, striving, and active many. For the religion of the Hindus this is the only worthwhile religious quest -how to arrive at the One behind the manifold; and it is quite probable that Zurvanite speculation owes a great deal to India here. Zoroaster was a prophet and, as such, concerned with life as lived in this world; his God was a living god who spoke to him face to face, an active god and the creator of all things. His heaven, too, was no condition of timeless bliss, but an endless prolongation of life as lived on this earth, though purified of all taint of sin and all trace of sorrow. He was vitally concerned with the fact of evil, but did not seek to explain its origin. His followers, however, drifted into a fully dualist position which inevitably limited their God and made him less than infinite and less than omnipotent. Zurvanism, even in its crudest form, is an attempt to arrive at a principle which is an all-inclusive One, changeless in essence, yet the source of all change. The Muhammadan poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi, has some beautiful lines on the mystery of creation:
David said: 'O King, since thou hadst no need of us,
Say, then, what wisdom was there in creating the two worlds?'
God said to him: 'O temporal man, I was a hidden treasure,
And desired that that treasure of loving-kindness and bounty should be revealed.'
This two was the dilemma of the infinite Zurvan. Zurvan-Time alone stands in need of nothing, yet all else needs him. The very 'being of all things has need of Time. Without Time one can do nothing that is or was or shall be. Time has need of none of these for anything.' So even Ohrmazd, God, the Creator, must ask Time's aid when he contemplates the act of creation, for he too needs Time, since without time action of any kind is impossible: were there no time, there would be no creation.
In purely mythological passages the archaic word Zurvan is usually used to represent the god, rather than the ordinary Persian word for 'time', zaman. The term Zurvan, however, is also used to mean the 'Infinite' or 'unqualifiable Absolute' as such. The mythological god, then, must be seen as the centre of the 'mystery' through which the unqualifiable One originates multiplicity. In the Zurvanite myth, Zurvan, like Rumi's God, desires 'that that treasure of loving-kindness and bounty should be revealed'. The latent and potential wishes to become manifest and actual: he wishes to have 'a son whose name should be Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth and all that in them is'. Zurvan, however, does not create out of any super-fluity of being, for at the core of his being there is a latent defect of which he knows nothing. In the myth this is symbolized by his doubt: he sacrifices for a thousand years, and then doubts whether his sacrifice will have any effect. The sacrifice, as in Indian mythology, is also creative and results in the birth of Ohrmazd who is also the 'Bounteous Spirit' or, more literally, the 'Spirit who brings increase', while the doubt, the Absolute's failure of nerve at the very moment when the creator is about to issue forth from him, produces the principle of evil. The 'Fall' in Zurvanism does not originate with man, it results from an imperfection, an unsureness of self, in the very heart of God. The 'One' has given birth to the 'Two', and 'in duality is evil'. The whole purpose of the cosmic drama which is about to unfold is to restore the shattered unity, but this cannot be done by trying to re-integrate the Devil into the Absolute: it can only be done by eliminating him imperfection, his failure of nerve; and if God is ever to become perfect, he must become fully identified with Ohrmazd who personifies his essential wisdom, goodness, and light. God qua the Infinite is the source of good and evil; but God qua creator of heaven and earth proceeds from the Infinite and is absolutely good. The Godhead is divided and can only be restored by the total destruction of evil, when, with the abolition of finite Time, the Infinite and the Good will for the first time be wholly one.
Ohrmazd and Ahriman in Mythological Zurvanism
All this is to be found in the Denkart. It represent an assimilation by orthodoxy of certain Zurvanite ideas. There are, however, features in Zurvanism which are wholly incompatible with the orthodoxy of Sassanian times. The Ohrmazd of the Pahlavi books is omnipotent in the sense that he can do anything that is possible. 'His power,' indeed, 'in so far as it is confined to the possible, is limited, but in the sphere of the infinite (abrin) it is limitless. This means that in so far as he is identical with the Infinite, every potentiality is latent within him, but in so far as he acts in time, he can only do what is possible. He cannot, for instance, change the evil nature of Ahriman into good, for Ahriman, according to the orthodox, is an evil substance, and a substance is, by definition, something that can never change. In the Zurvanism presented to us by the non-Zoroastrian sources, however, Ohrmazd is neither omnipotent nor omniscient: he is not even capable of looking after his own interests. Thus he gratuitously reveals to Ahriman the secret that whichever of the twins will first present himself to their father, Zurvan, will receive the kingdom. Again, after creating heaven and earth, he can think of no way of illuminating them and has to be instructed on how to do this by a demon who is a renegade from Ahriman's camp. Similarly, Ahriman who is an evil substance for the orthodox, is, for the Zurvanites, evil by choice. He chooses the sinister weapon offered to him by Zurvan, 'like unto fire, blazing, harassing all creatures, that hath the very substance of concupiscence (Az)', and himself boasts that' "it is not that I cannot create anything good, but that I will not." And that he might give effect to his words, he created the peacock.' This is a genuine, and a fundamental, difference between Zurvanism and orthodoxy, and a Christian convert from Zoroastrianism can thus taunt his inquisitors with these words: 'Should we, then, try to please Ahriman who, according to what you yourselves say, appears wise, knowing, and mighty from his works, just as Ohrmazd appears weak and stupid, for he could create nothing till he had learnt from the disciples of Ahriman.'
In asserting that the twin Spirits were good and evil by choice the Zurvanites were nearer Zoroaster's own views than were the latter-day orthodox, but in attributing less than omnipotence and omniscience to Ohrmazd they stray very far indeed from the path that he had traced. Moreover, in the Zurvanite mythology Ahriman is granted far more power to do harm in this world than the orthodox would concede. Zurvan had promised to make the first of the twins which came before him king, and, because his essential nature is rectitude, he cannot go back on his word. Ahriman, then, becomes Prince of this World for nine thousand years, whereas Ohrmazd reigns only in heaven above him. The orthodox are more optimistic, for during the nine thousand years in which good and evil are mingled together and strive with each other in this world 'three thousand years will pass entirely according
to the will of both Ohrmazd and Ahriman and [Ohrmazd] himself will save creation from aggression.'
Main Differences between Zurvanism and Orthodoxy
Thus, apart from the all-important question of origins, orthodoxy and Zurvanism differ in three main respects. In Zurvanism, first, the twin Spirits are good and evil by choice rather than in substance. Secondly, Ohrmazd is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, whereas for orthodoxy he is both, limited though he is by the opposite principle. Thirdly, in Zurvanism Ahriman not only displays the signs of a lively intelligence, but also enjoys the undisputed sovereignty of this world for nine thousand years, whereas for orthodoxy it is his slowness is knowledge and wrong-mindedness, his sheer stupidity, that, despite his aggressive power and lust for destruction, finally brings about his ruin.
The question of origins divides the two parties less sharply, for while the orthodox flatly deny that 'Ohrmazd and Ahriman were two brothers in one womb', they would perhaps not have objected to some such formula as this: Ohrmazd and Ahriman co-exist from all eternity in Infinite Time, but their respective good and evil natures become manifested and actualized only when Infinite Time which knows neither past, present, nor future, passes into finite time; at the end, finite time will be reabsorbed into the Infinite, and with the cessation of finite time Ahriman will be finally and totally incapacitated, whereas Ohrmazd and all his creation will pass again into a state of pure timeless which is eternal rest and eternal bliss.
Aberrant Versions of the Zurvanite Myth
Before we pass on to this philosophical synthesis, however, we must say something of some variant forms of Zurvanism which have left traces in the Pahlavi books and are also attested in non-Zoroastrian writers. The starting point of the Zurvanite cosmology is closely akin to that of the cosmologies we find in the Upanishads in India. In the beginning is the undifferentiable One from which all duality and all pairs of opposites proceed. From it proceed not only light and darkness, good and evil, hot and cold, moist and dry, but also that most basic of all polarities -the polarity of male and female. Zurvan himself was originally bisexual; and his full name may well have been Zurvan i Khwashkhwarrik, 'Zurvan whose Khwarenah or fortune is fair'; for a person of the name of Khwashkhwarrik is once said to be the mother of Ohrmazd and Ahriman. This, however, denotes no absolute differentiation of sex, for even those sources which speak of a mother's womb in which the twins are contained later speak of Zurvan as father and mother: as Zurvan he is father, as Khwashkhwarrik he is mother.
In the 'Ulama-yi Islam, Zurvan does not give birth to Ohrmazd and Ahriman directly. He first 'created fire and water, and when he had brought them together, Ohrmazd came into existence'. Thus the first duality to emerge from the One was that of a male element, fire, and a female element, water; for fire is the male principle, water the female, and they are brother and sister, husband and wife. Of the origin of Ahriman no more is said than that he was created by Zurvan. The duality of good and evil is, then, secondary to the duality of sex. The same scheme of things appears in the account of Zoroastrianism attributed to Eudemus of Rhodes, in which Space or Time produces light and darkness first, Ohrmazd and Ahriman second; whereas Hippolytus tells us that according to Zoroaster there are two first principles, a male and a female. The male is light, the female dark, and the 'parts' of light are hot, dry, light, and swift, while the parts of darkness are cold, moist, heavy, and slow. 'The whole universe consists of these, the female and the male.' So, too, the Denkart tells us that 'all material becoming, ripening, and order proceed from the coming together in due proportion of water, the female, and fire, the male'. Hippolytus also tells us that Zoroaster considered that the universe had originated from two demons, the one celestial and the other terrestrial. The latter is water and has its source in the earth, while the former is fire mixed with air.
Water is the moist element par excellence, fire the hot, the quality of cold being subsidiary in the case of water, that of dryness in that of fire. Ohrmazd, who is described as being 'hot and moist', derives, then, from the primary qualities of the sacred elements, Ahriman, moreover, cannot create any material thing because cold and dryness are the qualities of death. Ohrmazd, on the other hand, can do so because his qualities are the qualities of life. So we find in the Denkart that the menok or invisible and intangible principle of light and the menok of darkness emerge from a single, uncompounded menok elsewhere identified with ras, the 'Wheel', itself identical with primal matter or infinite Space-Time. 'The menok of light, because it has the properties of the hot and the moist, that is, the very nature of life, can evolve from a state of uncompounded menok existence (bavishn) to a state of compounded existence which is material (geteh)...while the menok of darkness, because it is cold and dry, the [very] substance of death and meet for damnation, cannot develop into compounded existence or take on material form.' This is pure Zurvanism in philosophical rather than mythological form. Ohrmazd and Ahriman, the Spirit of light and the Spirit of darkness, emerge from the simple, uncompounded One, the one taking on the qualities of heat and moisture which are the positive side of the elements, fire and water, and the source of life, the other receiving only the negative, cold and dryness, the ingredients of death. Seen in this light Ahriman is not only the source of death: he is the very substance of death -and what is dead cannot be said to be. Hence it is possible to say that sub specie aeternitatis 'Ahriman is not': 'he was not eternally nor will he be'.
This would appear to be a far cry from orthodoxy which maintained that both Ohrmazd and Ahriman are substances that exist from the beginning. Philosophically, however, it can be justified in this way: Ohrmazd is eternal being and therefore must exist in actu, not merely potentially. Ahriman, on the other hand, can only attain the semblance of being in finite time since in eternity he is not. His actualization depends on the nature of eternal being itself. This being is the simple, uncompounded One, in other words, Zurvan, who, as infinite Space-Time, contains all potentialities within him. Zurvan's doubt in the myth is the mythological representation of an etential flaw in the godhead: the birth of Ahriman represents the actualization of that flaw, and with the actualization of Ahriman, Time and Space too assume a finite form, for finite space and time are in a sense a lapse from the perfect state of infinitude; and it is therefore logical that Ahriman should be lord of the temporal world for as long as it lasts, and it is logical it is logical that Ohrmazd who, as eternal Being, is one with Zurvan, but who is greater than he in that he is also eternal Wisdom, should be separated out from him as soon as Zurvan's inherent defect makes itself manifest. This gives new meaning to the myth of Zurvan and also explains how two versions of it persisted side by side. For beside the myth of Zurvan and the twin Spirits that proceed from him we have that other story in which it is Ohrmazd, in this context, simply called Yazdan, 'God', who has an evil thought, that it is to say, he considers the possibility of what it would be like to have an adversary, and from this unworthy thought Ahriman, the Adversary, is actualized.
The Sect of Gayomart
It is interesting to note that this sect should call itself the 'sect of Gayomart', thereby claiming for itself an immemorial antiquity, for Gayomart is the first man among the Zoroastrians. This, they claimed, was the original doctrine to which the Magi adhered before the coming of Zoroaster. They differ from the Zurvanites in this, that they wholly eliminate Zurvan-Time and have no preoccupations about the infinite. By claiming a revelation older than Zoroaster's they thereby dissociated themselves from the Prophet, and in this they may or may not have done rightly; for though we know that both the orthodox and that wing of the Zurvanites which considered itself to be orthodox, held the absolute goodness of Ohrmazd, the God they worshipped, to be fundamental to their faith, we do not know how far the Prophet would have gone with either party. It is not impossible that the 'sect of Gayomart' more nearly represented the Prophet's own views, though he would have been shocked at the crude manner of their expression.
The Four Elements and their Prototypes
We have seen that Ohrmazd is identified with the hot and the moist in the natural order, Ahriman with the cold and the dry. Between them, then, they share the four natural properties recognized by Aristotle. The simple, undifferentiated One, then, from whom they proceed, must possess all four potentia. Theodore bar Konai, a Christian writer of the seventh century, tells us that Zoroaster recognized four principles which resembled the four elements and whose names were Ashoqar, Frashoqar, Zaroqar, and Zurvan. If this account is to be brought into relation with the semi-Zurvanite fragments preserved in the Denkart, then we would expect these four 'principles' to correspond to the four natural properties from which the elements proceed. The words Ashoqar, Frashoqar and Zaroqar mean 'he who makes virile', 'he who makes excellent', and 'he who makes old', whereas the word Zurvan had in popular parlance come to mean 'old age'. Ashoqar and Frashoqar, then, would represent the polarity of life, Zaroqar and Zurvan the polarity of death. In the Infinite they are no more than potentialities: in finite time they will be actualized as the hot and the moist, the Spirit of life, and the cold and the dry, the Spirit of death.
All that has occurred so far in the cosmic drama belongs to the order of nature (Chihr). Sassanian Zoroastrianism, however, distinguishes two orders, the order of nature and the order of intellect and will (akhw): these correspond more or less exactly to the Avestan mainyu and gaethya. Time and space, whether infinite or finite, are of the order of nature and therefore unconcerned with human virtue and human wickedness. Ohrmazd, however, is not only eternal and infinite in time, he is also possessed of perfect wisdom. The Godhead, in its totally, is then infinite in time, infinite in space, and infinite in wisdom. We have seen how the Spirit of light and the Spirit of darkness proceed from the undifferentiated One, and how the first is life and the second death -life and death, of course, belonging to the order of nature, not to that of will. How, then, did the intellect develop out of the One?
Infinite and Finite
Before we attempt to answer this question, however, we must consider briefly the relationship between the infinite and the finite as this was understood by the Zoroastrians. The majority were content to say that the one developed out of the other or that Ohrmazd 'fashioned forth' finite Time from Infinite Time. Mardan-Farrukh, however, thought differently, for he was an extreme dualist and goes far beyond the Denkart in his eagerness to eliminate all trace of Zurvanism from the Zoroastrian faith. He admits, indeed, that there is such a thing as the infinite: both space and time are infinite, and nothing else. The infinite, moreover, is without parts, and it cannot, then, be the source of composite beings: there is no possible link between them. No finite thing, then, can have an infinite dimension, it can have no part in what he calls the Zurvanic substance. Moreover, the infinite is by definition incomprehensible, ans so it cannot be comprehended even by God for 'if he were infinite, he would be unaware of it'. Both God and the Devil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman, then are finite, for only so can God be said to understand and know his own being. All that can be said of the infinite is that it is 'that without which nothing from the first is. Nothing can exist without it or separate from it. But in so far as it is infinite, it cannot be understood.' Infinite Time-Space is an incomprehensible and uncomprehending mystery. To speculate on just how the finite proceeds from it (which Mardan-Farrukh denies anyhow) is a pure waste of time.
'So what, pray,' he goes on to say, 'is the point of stupidly discussing something one does not know, of disputing and bandying words, and so deceiving the immature and those of immature intelligence? If one fatuously asserts that its essence is infinite and that its knowledge is infinite, and that with its infinite knowledge it knows that it is infinite, that is false and doubly false.... Knowledge can only be predicated of a thing that is within the scope of, and comprehensible to, the intellect,'
...and the infinite is therefore incomprehensible simply by the fact of its being infinite.
The radical treatment of the relationship of finite to infinite and the round assertion that Ohrmazd himself is finite, is peculiar to Mardan-Farrukh, and in this respect he deviates from the orthodox norm. The orthodox view of the limitation of space and time is that they are hewn out of a pre-existing infinite substance by God. For the Denkart the process is sometimes automatic, sometimes pat datar abhurishn, 'through the fashioning of the Creator'. The world is formed by God rather as a diadem is fashioned by a goldsmith out of gold. Time-Space is thereby actualized as the universe of nature, while the actualization of the intellect, the faculty of knowing, develops simultaneously along parallel lines.
Emergence of the Finite from the Infinite
Time and Space 'on which the material world is [founded]' are the indispensible prerequisites for the existence of the material universe. 'Knowledge' is an equally indispensable prerequisite for the existence both of the intelligent subject and an intelligible universe. We have seen how the material world in all its variety developed from the undifferentiated One or infinite Space. Such a development, however, presupposes the existence of finite time, and this too comes into being and progresses on similar lines. Finite time, moreover, is the prerequisite of action of any kind, whether 'natural' or 'voluntary'. 'Infinite Time', that is, timeless, can be considered as action in potentia: and 'action in potentia' is also 'the original seed the Avestan name of which is arshnotachin ('the seminal flow'); from this:
'through the Creator's fashioning it forth, [results] the [actual] performance of action with which coincides the entry of Time into action. From the performance of action [arises] the completion of action with which coincides the limit of finite time. The limit of finite time merges into Infinite Time the essence of which is eternity; and [this means that] at the Final Body what is associated with it cannot pass away.'
In terms of time and action the evolution of the cosmos is thus seen to go through four phases:
|(1) Action in potentia
|(2) Action proper
|(3) The completion of action
||The limit of finite time.
|(4) Return to the state of rest
The Emergence of Consciousness and the Genesis of Evil
So much, then, for the evolution of the world of nature -the material cosmos- from infinite Time-Space into a finite mode of existence, its passage from potency into act. What of the order of intellect and will? How does consciousness arise? The Denkart gives the answer, and it is so interesting that we must quote it in full:
Of knowledge (lit. 'the condition of being a knower') thus is it taught. By the Creator's marvellous power, in infinite Time and by its power knowledge came to know (the immutability of Ohrmazd's essence depends of Infinite Time). From this [act of knowing] resulted the rising up of the Aggressor, unwilled [by Ohrmazd], to destroy the essence [of Ohrmazd] (i.e. his immutability) and his attributes, by means of false speech. The immediate result of this was that [Ohrmazd's] essence and attributes turned back [into themselves] in order to [come to] know their own ground. So much knowing was necessary for the Creator [himself] to rise up for the creative act. The first effect of this rising up was the Endless Light. From the Endless Light is the Spirit of Truth which derives from Wisdom (knowledge) because it has the potentiality of growing into the knowledge of all things. By knowing all things he has power to do all he wills. Thence creation and the Aggressor's deafeat thereby, the return of creation to its proper sphere of action, and the eternal rule of Ohrmazd in the perfect joy; for it is he who is the origin of good things, the source of good, the seed and potentiality (or power) of all that is good. All good creatures are from him as a first effect by creation or by emanation, as sheen is from shining, shining from brilliance, brilliance from light.'
Ohrmazd, in this passage, is conceived of primarily as 'Wisdom', that is, the faculty of knowing. He is also immutable being in virtue of the fact that his habitat is Infinite Time, the Absolute. As Wisdom and the knowing faculty he is latent and potential only: he is not yet actualized. This groping awareness seeks an object outside itself, and, finding none, an object generates itself without God willing it, and this self-generated object is none other than Ahriman, the Aggressor, whose object now is to destroy God's essence which is his immutable being. He seeks to imprison the infinite in the finite, the eternal in the temporal, God in the world. His aim is nothing less than to do away with unconditioned being. Thus Ahriman originates in Ohrmazd's accession to consciousness: in Jungian terminology, the dim dawn of consciousness from the unconscious engendered the 'shadow' or dark side of the divine personality. The awakening of the divine consciousness in Ohrmazd is the equivalent of Zurvan's doubt in the Zurvanite myth, and this initial failure to reach full self-consciousness puts Ohrmazd into mortal peril; he risks the loss of his very essence, eternal being which he now sees to be identical with eternal knowing or eternal Wisdom. Hence he makes an effort of total introspection -his 'essence and attributes turned back [into themselves] in order to [come to] know their own ground'. In order to eliminate the destructive element engendered by incomplete knowledge Ohrmazd must first know himself as he is: he must do what Mardan-Farrukh said no one, not even God, could do-he must know himself as infinite and as possessed of infinite knowledge, and this self-knowledge alone will enable him to 'rise up for the creative act'. This saving knowledge engenders endless light, for light, as always, is the symbol of spiritual illumination or insight. This is the light of Wisdom which is proper to the nature of Ohrmazd, that same Wisdom which 'descends from the light on to the earth and by which [men] see and think well', and this Wisdom is identical with the Good Religion. From this Light of Wisdom proceeds the Spirit of Truth which enables Ohrmazd to know all things as they are. By knowing himself and knowing his Adversary too he knows he must create or emanate the universe, if his Adversary is to be defeated; but he also creates because he knows himself as good, and the 'definition of goodness is that which of itself develops'; so God himself must develop and 'grow into the knowledge of all things'.
The whole of this remarkable passage is Zurvanite rather than Mazdean, first because the 'Endless Light' is here originated, not eternal as it is in all the strictly orthodox texts, and secondly because the divine personality is composed not of God, Time, Wisdom, and Light (= Ohrmazd), but of God, Time, potential Wisdom, and Space, from which alone the Endless Light can originate; and all this adds up not to Ohrmazd, but to Zurvan.
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R. C. Zaehner
1913 - 1974 CE
Robert Charles Zaehner was a British academic who specialised in Eastern religions. He studied Greek, Latin, Persian, and Avestan at Christ Church College in Oxford. During 1936-37 he studied Pahlavi with Sir Harold Bailey at Cambridge, where he began work on his book Zurvan, a Zoroastrian Dilemma published in 1955. In 1939, he obtained a position as research lecturer at Christ Church. After reading the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Rumi the Sufi poet, as well as the Upanishads, Zaehner declared that he believed in 'Nature Mysticism'. Nevertheless, while working in Iran as an British intelligence officer during the Second World War, he became a Roman Catholic. His The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism was published in 1961.