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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee



R. C. Zaehner's Works

Dawn & Twilight

11. Zurvan

Sevenfold Zurvan

Macrocosm and Microcosm

Zurvan, the God of Fate

God of Death

God of the Resurrection

Fatalism of Firdausi's Epic

Orthodox Attitude to Fate

Man's Response to Fate

Orthodoxy's Reaction to the Three Types of Zurvanism


9. Varieties of Zurvanism - 10. Classical Zurvanism - 11. Zurvan

The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism

Chapter 11. Zurvan (Part 1)

Zurvanism proper differs from orthodoxy in that it posits a principle prior two the Spirits of light and darkness, good and evil -the principle of Infinite Time. There is no evidence that it made any difference to the cult or that any particular reverence was paid to Zurvan as a god. Indeed, there would be singularly little point in doing so, for as the Infinite he is incomprehensible, and as finite Time he is a Fate that cannot be deflected, a law that cannot be altered. Before we leave him to study a little more closely the theology of the orthodox, let us try to see just what kind of god he was.

The Sevenfold Zurvan

'Zurvan has even faces, and on each face three eyes,' we read. He is a sevenfold god, and each of seven aspects of his complex nature has three facets. As Infinite Time his three aspects are infinite space, infinite wisdom, and infinite power, that is, an infinite potentiality of initiating contingent beings, whether good or evil. He is passionless and indifferent, 'unageing and deathless; he knows neither pain nor decay nor corruption; he has no rival, nor can he ever be put aside or deprived of his sovereignty in his proper sphere.' He has neither 'pleasure nor pain from the evil of Ahriman or the goodness of Ohrmazd'.

As finite Time he is primarily 'he who makes virile, he who makes excellent, and he who makes old'. Alternatively, the order of the attributes is altered and he becomes 'he who makes virile, he who makes old, and he who makes excellent'. As such he is the god of life and death, presiding over the birth, maturity, and death of the body. As Frashokar, 'he who makes excellent,' he is both the god who brings creatures to maturity and the author of the Frashkart, the 'Making Excellent' or final Rehabilitation at the end of time. When he is thought of in this role, the epithet frashokar, 'he who makes excellent' appears at the end of series.

Seen simply as Infinite Time, his aspects are finite Time, the course of fate, and the year. As Order, his aspects are the god Mithra, the Spirit of Right Order (datastan), and Fate; and as Fate itself he is also the actual decree or moment of destiny, the decisive moment at which what is fated comes to pass, and the fixed decision. On the earth he represents the social order, and he is therefore the three great social orders of priests, warriors, and husbandmen. He is also the author of good and evil: he is the Cherisher, the Adversary, and he who has command of both. Thus he sevenfold Zurvan's functions can be tabulated thus:

ZURVAN Being: (Time), Space, Wisdom, Power.
Becoming: He who makes virile, he who makes excellent, he who makes old.
Order: Mithra, Order, Fate
Time: Finite Time, the course of fate, the year.
Fate: the decree, the decisive moment, the fixed decision.
Good and Evil: the Cherisher, the Adversary, the One who has command of both.
Social Order: priests, warriors and husbandmen

Macrocosm and Microcosm

As finite space as well as finite Time Zurvan is embodied in the macrocosm, and man, the microcosm, is made in his image, the parts of man corresponding in every respect to the parts of the universe in toto. Thus, the seven constituents of the material world which themselves correspond to the seven Bounteous Immortals -fire, water, earth, metals, plants, and man- correspond to the morrow, blood, veins, sinews, bones, flesh, and hair of man. The four elements in the macrocosm correspond to the breath, blood, bile, and phlegm in man; and just as the world is controlled and kept in working order by the elements of fire and air, so is man's body controlled and directed by his Fravashi or external soul working in close co-operation with his vital spirit. In the world this vital spirit which maintains the macrocosm as a living unit is Vay(u), the atmospheric wind, in exactly the same way as breath keeps the human body alive. In man it is the soul (ruvan) which guides the body and gives it consciousness; so too is the world guided by the world-soul, which is nothing less than the heavenly sphere. The heavenly sphere, then, is not only the body of Zurvan, but also his soul. And Zurvan is sick in soul.

Zurvan, the God of Fate

He is sick in soul because he doubted; and this sickness reflects itself in the heavenly sphere, for it contains not only the twelve Signs of the Zodiac which pour out abundance on to the earth, but also the seven planets which intercept the good gifts of the Zodiac and divert them to people and purposes for which they were never intended. Thus, the embodied Zurvan is the god of fate, and because he himself must work out his own salvation in finite time and gradually wear away the residue of his sin which is still very much with him, he is willy-nilly the dispenser of good and bad fortune alike. As macrocosm he is subject, like the microcosm, man, to the depredations of Ahriman; and as man is afflicted by disease and sin, so is the poise of the macrocosm upset by the disorderly motion of the planets; and this disorderly motion accounts for the evil lot on earth that man is sometimes fated to endure.

'All the welfare and adversity that come to man and other creatures come through the Seven and the Twelve. The twelve Signs of the Zodiac... are the twelve commanders on the side of Ohrmazd; and the seven planets are said to be the seven commanders on the side of Ahriman. And the seven planets oppress all creation and deliver it over to death and all manner of evil: for the twelve Signs of the Zodiac and the seven planets rule the fate of the world and direct it'.

The orderly functioning of the universe is the responsibility of the Zodiac just as man's ordered moral activity is directed by the Good Mind indwelling him. The planets, on the other hand, originated by Ahriman are likened to the Evil Mind in man; and just as the Evil Mind seeks to drive a wedge between man's intellect and will, so do the planets seek to bring about disarray in the heavenly sphere, the soul of the world.

The Zoroastrian turned the planets into demons because their irregular motion could not be explained. When, however, they came into contact with the Babylonians, they learnt the 'science' of astrology, and this attributed different influences to the different planets. Some, like Saturn and Mars, were inauspicious; others, like Jupiter and Venus, auspicious. How was this to be explained? In the Zoroastrian scheme of things the planets who accompany Ahriman in his invasion of the material world, each choose a specific constellation as their opponent. Thus Jupiter is matched against the Great Bear, Venus against Scorpio. In their case their opponents prove more than a match for them and force them to do whatever they wish. The reverse, however, is true of Saturn and Mars, who, proving stronger than their chosen opponents, are free to do more or less what they like.

The God of Death

Zurvan, as finite Time and Fate, is neither good nor evil: he is 'dyed' with both. Being the embodied universe he is the locus of good and evil, just as man's body is the locus of sin as well as of virtue. As a deity, rather than as an abstract concept, Zurvan, being also fate, is primarily thought of as the god of death, and as such he is:

'mightier than both creations -the creation of Ohrmazd and that of the Destructive Spirit. Time understands action and other. Time understands more than those who understand. Time is better informed than the well-informed; for through Time must the decision be made. By Time are houses overturned -doom is through Time -and things graven shattered. From him to single mortal man escapes, not though he fly above, not though he dig a pit below and settle therein, not though he hide beneath a well of cold waters.'

Time is synonymous with death; and even in the Avesta the paths of Time are the paths the soul must traverse on its way from death to the Judgement.

The inevitability of death and man's helplessness before it is a constant undercurrent of much that is greatest in Persian poetry, and this thoroughly pessimistic and almost morbid strand in the Persian national tradition must ultimately go back to that Zurvanite fatalism over which Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, gained his all too ephermal victory. Typical of this dreary preoccupation with a banal subject is this: 'As to him whose eye Time has sewn up, his back is seized upon and will never rise again; pain comes upon his heart so that it beats no more; his hand is broken so that it grows no more; and his foot is broken so that it walks no more. The stars come upon him, and he goes not out another time; fate comes upon him and he cannot drive it off.'

The God of the Resurrection

Death is the lot of all men, and in this respect the fate of the macrocosm is no different from that of the microcosm. The world is born, grows old, and dies; but the death of the world is only the prelude to its transfiguration at the Frashkart, the 'Making Excellent' of existence when finite Time rejoins the Infinite, and when the Final Body, which is the material creation renewed, sets in. Zurvanism, so long as it remains within its Zoroastrian context, is no more pessimistic than is orthodoxy, for Zurvan is not only Zaroqar, 'he who brings old age', but also Frashoqar, 'he who brings about the Frashkart' itself. The 'fatalists', then, against whom Aturpat strove, were not the same as the 'classical' Zurvanites who saw in Zurvan the father of Ohrmazd and Ahriman.

The Fatalism of Firdausi's Epic

Firdausi, in his great epic, has little to tell us about Zoroastrianism proper. His whole poem, however, is prevaded with an atmosphere of fatalistic gloom which he may well have inherited from the 'fatalists' of the Sassanian period. These may either have been genuine Zoroastrians who merely extended the sphere of fate from man's purely material lot to his moral action, men like the author of the Menok i Khrat whose pessimism we have had occasion to note above; or they may have been, like the Zandiks or Dahris, men who derived all things from Infinite Time and who took no cognizance of either Ohrmazd or Ahriman. That such a sect existed can be inferred from a passage in Firdausi which contains what looks very like a Magian catechism. Zal, the father of the great Iranian hero Rustam, is summoned by the king to appear before the Magian hierarchy, and he is required to answer a whole series of riddles: he is being submitted to an examination in religious knowledge. The first question they put to him is this: 'what are those twelve noble cypresses which grow majestic and luxuriant, and each one shoots forth thirty boughs which neither wax nor wane?'

These, Zal replies, are twelve new moons that occur in every year, and their branches are the days of the month, for 'such is the revolution of Time'.

The second Magus now puts his question: 'Two horses, precious and fleet of foot, are galloping, the one [black] as a lake of pitch, the other lustrous as white crystal. On they hasten, but never do they catch each other up.' 'Both,' says Zal, 'the white and the black are Time, and they are hot on each other's heels. These are night and day, ever passing on, which count every moment of the heavenly sphere above us. They do not catch each other up as they gallop on, running like the quarry before the hounds.'

Next he is questioned about 'those thirty horsemen passing in review before the king -one was lost; but if thou lookest aright all thirty are back again when thou dost number them.' These, Zal sees, must again represent the numbering of the new moons, and the one that appears to be missing is the day on which the moon wholly disappears. Next comes a question concerning a 'meadow full of greenery and streams. A man with a great sharp scythe strides insolently towards the meadow. Moist and dry he mows down, and if thou make supplication he will not hear thee.' Zal has no difficulty in finding the answer to this one, for:

'this is the woodcutter Time, and we are like the grass. All one to him are grandson and grandsire, he takes account of neither old nor young. He hunts whatever prey comes his way. Such is the nature and composition of the world that save for death no mother bore a son. We enter in at one door and pass out of another: Time counts our every breath.'

Next he is again questioned about 'two lofty cypresses [shaken] like reeds in a stormy sea. On these a bird has made its home: at dusk it perches on the one, at dawn on the other. When it flies from the one, its foliage withers, and when it alights on the other, it gives out a scent of musk. Of these two one is ever fresh, but the leaves and fruit of the other are all withered up.'

These, Zal sees, are the 'two arms of the lofty sphere through which we rejoice and through which we are grieved.... The flying bird is the sun from which the world has hope and of which it is afraid'.

The last question has a more sombre note:

'In a mountainous country I came upon a massive fortress. Wise men left that citadel and settled on the plain in a thorny place. They built buildings reaching high up to the moon: some became menials, others men of high estate. Suddenly an earthquake arose and all their lands and habitations clean disappeared. Necessity brought them [back] to the citadel and brought them long forebodings. These words hide a mystery. Seek, and speak up plainly before the lords.'

Zal is not confounded and answers:

'The citadel in a mountainous country is the House of Eternity and the Place of Reckoning. The thorny place is this transitory abode which is at once pleasure and treasure and grief and pain. It counts the breath you breathe, it gives increase and carries it away. Wind and earthquake arise and bring grief and lamentation on the world. [The fruits of] all our toiling must be left behind in this thorny place and we must pass on to the citadel. Another will taste of [the fruit of] our toil, but he [again] must leave them and pass on. So has it ever been from the beginning, so it is, and so will it ever be. If our provision is a fair repute, our soul will be honoured on the other side; but if we practise wantonnes (az) and twist and turn, [all] will become manifest when we pass beyond life. Though our palace outstrip Saturn, nothing but a winding-sheet will be our portion. When brick and earth are heaped upon us, then will there be every reason for fear and care and anguish.'

The whole tone of this passage is totally unlike anything we have yet come across in Zoroastrianism. The buoyant optimism of that religion has given way to the total scepticism of despair, yet the terminology used shows that Firdausi is drawing on a genuine Iranian tradition. The House of Eternity (saray-i dirang) is plainly the realm of Infinite Time whose essence is 'eternal duration (drang) undivided into past and future'. Similarly the 'two arms of the lofty sphere through which we rejoice and through which we are grieved' correspond to that same sphere which is the body of Zurvan and which contains both the Signs of the Zodiac -the source of well-being- and the planets -the oppressors of man- the good sphere 'which gives [good things] in abundance', and the evil sphere 'which gives them sparingly'. Further, the two horses, the black and the white, which are night and day, remind us of the light and the darkness from which, according to Eudemus of Rhodes, the twin Spirits proceeded and which were themselves the first emanation of the ultimate Unity called alternatively 'Time' or 'Space'.

Again, the preoccupation with the days, the months, and the years displayed by Firdausi's Magi takes us right back to the Avesta with its curious veneration of the divisions of time. Firdausi, then, is drawing on genuine Iranian material, but he suppresses the Zoroastrian message of hope which proclaims that though this world is transitory and subject to decay and though its balance has been upset by the disorderly motion brought into it by Ahriman and the demons, this will in the end all be made right; the whole will be redeemed and 'made excellent' in eternity. Of this there is no hint in Firdausi. The House of Eternity is the kind of place you leave to try your fortune in a world you know to be full of thorns, and it is the kind of place that only an earthquake will make you return to and then only with 'long foreboding'. It is implied that virtue will be rewarded and wantonness exposed, but there is no hint of what the reward will be. The House of Eternity is devoid of joy; it is a 'massive fortress' more like a beleaguered city than the traditional 'garden' of paradise. It is the very symbol of hopelessness. Such may well have been the gloomy vision not only of the fatalists but of the Zandiks too, who believed in neither heaven nor hell, God nor the Devil, but only in an impersonal and inscrutable Infinite Time from which a senseless and uncomprehending world proceeds and into which it is reabsorbed.

Zurvanism, then, would seem to have sheltered two quite distinct aberrations within its fold, the one equating the female principle with evil, the other assigning all power to fate and thereby making all action and all resolve futile. Fatalism was perhaps the gravest threat against which Zoroastrianism had to fight, for it sought to undermine the rock of the unfettered freedom of the human will on which the Iranian Prophet's religion was founded. It is now time to consider what the orthodox had to say on this thorny question of fate and free will.

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R. C. Zaehner

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.