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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee



R. C. Zaehner's Works

Dawn & Twilight

9. Varieties of Zurvanism

The Pahlavi Books

Priestly Brothers: Manushchihr & Zatsparam

Influx of Greek and Indian Ideas

'Zandiks' and 'Dahris'

Classical Zurvanism & Materialist Zurvanism

Zandik Ontology and Metaphysics

Menok and Geteh

Creative Evolution

Dualist Interpretation of Evolution

Zurvanite View of Evolution

Three Types of Zurvanism

Zurvanite Fatalism

'Classical' Zurvanism

The Zurvanite Myth

Zurvan and the Pact between Ohrmazd and Ahriman


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

The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism

Chapter 9. The Varieties of Zurvanism (Part 2)

The Dualist Interpretation of Evolution

Now, in Greek physics the four primary properties are the hot, the cold, the moist, and the dry; yet the stage called 'becoming' in our texts is equated with the hot and the moist only. Why, one wonders, should this be? The reason can only be that, in the Iranian tradition, Ohrmazd was identified with the hot and the moist, Ahriman with the cold and the dry, for 'the substance of Ohrmazd is hot and moist, bright, sweet-smelling, and light', while that of Ahriman is 'cold and dry, heavy, dark, and stinking'. So, when orthodoxy attempted to adapt the purely physical account of the evolution of the universe which they imported from Byzantium or India to their own way of thinking, they excised the cold and the dry from the group of the natural properties because they were considered to constitute the substance of Ahriman -and the material world is created by Ohrmazd, not by Ahriman. Further, of the four elements it is the air which is hot and moist according to Aristotle, and the air or wind is identical with the ancient god Vayu who, in the orthodox cosmology, has become the Void which separates the kingdom of light from the kingdom of darkness; and this Void is the raw material from which Ohrmazd forms the material universe.

The Denkart is by no means a consistent whole; least of all is it so in its description of the origins of the universe. Because this is so, we are able to register the modifications that a purely mechanistic and atheistic doctrine which was incongruously grafted on to the Avesta, underwent at the hands of the orthodox. The fourfold evolutionary scheme is accepted, but it is no longer an authomatic process. It is controlled and directed by Ohrmazd. The re-definition of menok as meaning not only the traditional 'spirit', intellect, and will', but also all that is beyond the physical senses, that is, primal matter as understood by Aristotle, is accepted; but the world no longer proceeds automatically from this primal matter which is the Time-Space continuum, but is formed by Ohrmazd in the same way that a diadem is fashioned out of gold by a goldsmith, or a spade out of iron by an iron-founder. Ras, that is, primal matter and the embodiment of Time-Space, now appears as the 'implement' which Ohrmazd wields against his eternal enemy. The material world was drawn forth from the unseen 'to strive against the author of disorderly movement (oshtapak), that is, to repel the Adversary of creation; and this has as its corollary an eternal increase in well-being. This is what it was created for.... No action undertaken by any material creature exists which is not aimed at the repulse of the author of disorderly movement. Creation, then, is God's reasoned reaction against the attack he foresees must come from the opposing side. The evolutionary process is now no longer a purely automatic process of development inherent in the very nature of matter. The 'seed' or first origin of the material world is now not from the ras or Time-Space continuum: it results 'from the creative activity of the Creator through the instrumentality of the power of Time-Space'. Time-Space is thus the instrument which God uses to bring his enemy into the open. What is more, eternal Time-Space is now identified not simply with primal matter but with the Endless Light which is Ohrmazd's eternal habitat; and creation, in its various stages, is thus seen as an ever-diminishing reflection of the divine light.

A Zurvanite View of Evolution

Similar ideas are developed on more strictly dualist lines in another passage in the Denkart. Here the menok or invisible world in general is described as being single and uncompounded; but within this unity, it appears, the basic polarity of light and darkness is latently present, and this polarity also includes the polarity of life and death. Through God's creative activity, creation emerges from its pristine unity into a multiplicity of compound beings, 'visible and tangible', and these again will return to their source. The original unity, however, becomes differentiated into the four natural properties of hot, moist, cold, and dry-the hot and the moist being the principle of life, and the cold and the dry being the principle of death; and it is the mere fact that the hot and the moist are naturally alive that enables them to develop in material form. The cold and the dry are sterile by nature and cannot develop any living organism. What appear to be physical manifestations of evil and were traditionally so in earlier Zoroastrianism -wolves, serpents, and heretics, for example -are rather physical manifestations of the original light possessed by an evil spirit: they are the garments put on by the demons. Now, this would appear to be almost exactly the theory of creation which Eudemus of Rhodes attributed to the Magi; for, according to him, the Magi called the whole intelligible universe (which is a unity) Space or Time, and from this unity either a good god and evil demon proceeded, or light and darkness before these. Similarly, in our Denkart passage the menok, defined as 'uncompounded' (a-ham-but), 'single' (evtak), 'invisible and intangible', divides into the menok of light and that of darkness, the first being the principle of life and the second of death. Light, life, hot and moist we know to be of the substance of Ohrmazd, and darkness, death, cold and dry are no less of the substance of Ahriman. Both, then, according to this account, proceed from the single, undifferentiated menok which we have encountered elsewhere as the ras, primal matter or Space-Time. The dualism between the two opposing Spirits is there all right, but it is a dualism that proceeds from the primal unity. This is the Zurvanite heresy in philosophical disguise.

The Three Types of Zurvanism

We have seen that three types of Zurvanism were combated in Sassanian times. First there were the Zandiks, Zurvanite materialists who derived all creation from infinite Space-Time, who denied heaven and hell, did not believe in rewards and punishments, and did not admit the existence of the spiritual world. With these we are now familiar. Secondly there were the straight fatalists, and lastly the Zurvanites proper who regarded Infinite Time, in its personification as the god Zurvan, as being the father of the twin Spirits of good and evil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman.

Zurvanite Fatalism

Both the orthodox and the Zurvanite heretics regarded creation as being a limitation of infinite space and infinite time. Primal matter is reduced to an orderly cosmos, and this is the embodiment of limited time and space. Thus the cosmos is a living organism bounded by the heavenly sphere which, being itself limited time-space, controls all that is within it, for it is the soul of the world. All that takes place in the twelve thousand years which is the life-span allotted to this material creation, is, then, controlled by the sphere, and by the twelve constellations and the seven planets that inhabit it. Human destiny, then, must be in the hands of these astral powers. This was the second Zurvanite heresy -astrological fatalism- and it, too, ran directly counter to the Prophet's clear affirmation of the absolute freedom of the human will. Like all things, however, in this state of mixture of good and evil, the luminaries are divided between the good god and his enemy: the constellations or Signs of the Zodiac are on the side of Ohrmazd, whereas the planets are literally the spawn of Satan. Whatever good Ohrmazd transmits to his creatures through the constellations risks being interpreted by the malevolence of the planets and being redistributed unjustly.

'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'.

Of the Pahlavi books that have come down to us it is the Menok i Khrat that shows the most pronounced fatalist tendencies. The orthodox themselves did not deny that one's earthly condition was ruled by fate; what they did deny was that fate could affect moral action on which man's ultimate salvation or damnation depended; these rested squarely in man's own hands. In places the Menok i Khrat comes perilously near to denying this. Fate not only determines one's earthly lot, but also one's character.

'Though [one be armed] with the valour and strength of wisdom and knowledge, yet it is not possible to strive against fate. For once a thing is fated and comes true, whether for good or the reverse, the wise man goes astray in his work, and the man of wrong knowledge becomes clever at his work; the coward becomes brave, and the brave man becomes cowardly; the energetic man becomes a sluggard, and the sluggard energetic: for, for everything that has been fated, a fit occasion arises which sweeps away all other things. [So too] when fate helps a slothful, wrong-minded, and evil man, his sloth becomes like energy, and his wrong-mindedness like wisdom, and his evil like good: and when fate opposes a wise, decent, and good man, his wisdom is turned to unwisdom and foolishness, his decency to wrong-mindedness; and his knowledge, manliness, and decency appear of no account.'

Such were the views of the Zurvanite fatalists against which the High Priest Aturpat, son of Mahraspand, struggled during the reign of Shapur II; but though he won his battle and saved the doctrine of free will for Zoroastrianism, fatalism, in the long run, triumphed over its rival; for, with the coming of Islam to Iran, it found a ready really ally, and Firdausi himself, who did more than any other man to revive the glories of their Zoroastrian past in the minds of his fellow-countrymen, paints a picture of Zoroastrianism that in no way reflects the spirit of hopeful free enterprise that is characteristic of all phases of that religion; rather he shows us a universe inexorably ruled by an ineluctable fate, subject to the revolving heavens and a pitiless Time in which all man's striving and all his heroism crumble away to dust.

'Classical' Zurvanism

Zurvanism proper, it would appear, did not receive official sanction until the reign of Yazdgird II, although it must have existed as early as the fourth century BC as the testimony of Eudemus shows. It was a heresy which, unlike the Zurvanite materialism we have discussed, originally owed nothing to the foreign accretions introduced by Shapur I. It was genuinely Iranian and Zoroastrian in that it sought to clarify the enigma of the twin Spirits which Zoroaster had left unresolved. If the Holy and Destructive Spirits, or Ohrmazd and Ahriman, as they had now become, were indeed twins, then they must have had a father; and this father, according to the Zurvanites, was Zurvan, the Zurvan Akarana of the Avesta, Infinite Time personified.

The myth of the two primeval twins who are born of Infinite Time is only attested in non-Zoroastrian and Anti-Zoroastrian sources: only the late 'Ulama-yi Islam among the Zoroastrian sources preserves it in a modified form. Among the Pahlavi books Zurvan appears as a god, and not a simply as the principle of Infinite Time, in both Zatsparam and the Menok i Khrat; he is also given a brief notice in the Bundahishn catalogue of deities. In the Denkart he never appears under his own name, but is simply referred to as 'infinite time' (zaman i akanarak).

The Zurvanite Myth

The myth is preserved in a number of Christian sources which differ but little among themselves, and the purport of it is roughly as follows:
When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan alone existed, whose name means 'fate' or 'fortune'. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: 'What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?' And no sooner had this thought occurred to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived -Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: 'Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.' Ohrmazd was apprised of his father's thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: 'Who art thou?' And he replied: 'I am thy son, Ohrmazd.' And Zurvan said: 'My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.' And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Talking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: 'Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.' But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him :'Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?' And Zurvan said to him: 'O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.' And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautiful and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.

This is the Zurvanite myth in its crudest form, and it is strange that this myth, which was regarded by both Christian and Manichees as being typical of the Zoroastrian religion, is mentioned only once in the whole of the Pahlavi books. This one mention occurs in a passage in the Denkart which purports to be a commentary on Yasna 30.3, the very passage in which the Prophet speaks of the Holy and Destructive Spirits as twins. Even the Sassanian theologians, ignorant though they were of the sacred tongue in which the Avesta was written, must have known that this was the only possible interpretation of the Stanza in question, for it is quite one of the clearest in the Gathas. Their resolution of the dilemma was ingenious, if disingenuous. It so happens that the Avestan word eresh occurs in this stanza; and though they knew that this word meant 'rightly' and usually so translate it, they preferred on this occasion to feign ignorance and translated it with the Pahlavi word arish, which is one of the names of the demon of envy; and so it was possible for the author of the Denkart to represent the offensive doctrine as being the invention of the demons! The whole thing is passed off as being 'a proclamation of the Demon of Envy to mankind that Ohrmazd and Ahriman were to brothers in one womb'. So was the Zurvanite heresy dismissed as being the invention of devilry.

What is rather strange, however, is that though we know of the struggle waged by Karter against the Zandiks and of Aturpat's vindication of his own orthodoxy as against the fatalists, we have no direct reference in the Pahlavi books or elsewhere to any official condemnation of mythological Zurvanism as such. This would lead us Menok i Khrat and in Zatsparam we do still find references to Zurvan which seem to presuppose at least his co-eternity with Ohrmazd and Ahriman. Thus in the former we read that Ohrmazd fashioned his creation from his own light 'with the blessing of the Infinite Zurvan, for the Infinite Zurvan is 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'. And again it is by the agency of Infinite Time that Ohrmazd and Ahriman enter into a solemn pact by which they limit the time in which they will do battle together for nine thousand years, this nine thousand years of warfare corresponding to the nine thousand years of earthly sovereignty allotted to Ahriman by Zurvan in the fully Zurvanite version of the myth.

Zurvan and the Pact between Ohrmazd and Ahriman

This pact is also mentioned by Zatsparam; and his introduction of the figure of Zurvan into the cosmic drama is even odder. Zatsparam starts with the classical dualist account of the creation -Ohrmazd is above in the light, and Ahriman below in the darkness, and between them is the Void. Yet when Ohrmazd begins to fashion forth his creation, he has to beg Time to aid him, for all things have need of Time; and once he has completed his creation, he is quite unable to set it in motion, for Time alone has the power to do this; and it is Zurvan-Time again who settles the terms of the pact between the two Spirits.

'Pondering on the end, [Zurvan] delivered to Ahriman an implement [fashioned] from the very substance of darkness, mingled with the power of Zurvan, as it were a treaty, resembling coal(?), black and ashen. And as he handed it to him he said: "By means of these weapons, Az (Concupiscence) will devour that which is thine, and she herself shall starve, if at the end of nine thousand years thou hast not accomplished that which thou didst threaten- to demolish the pact, to demolish Time."'

It is true neither text even hints that Zurvan is the father of Ohrmazd and Ahriman, or that the two Spirits are twins (Zatsparam even going so far as to affirm his belief in the two Principles through the lips of Zurvan!), yet it is Zurvan to whom Ohrmazd has to appeal for help, it is he who settles the terms of the combat, and he again who arms Ahriman with the one weapons which is certain to destroy him. No Pahlavi text, indeed, ever speaks of Zurvan's paternity of Ohrmazd and Ahriman, but they all agree that Zurvan-Time is co-eternal with them. Zurvanism, indeed, appears to have started simply as an attempt to make sense of Yasna 30.3 in which the two Spirits appear as twins, and to provide them with a father. Under Shapur I the situation is complicated by the fact that the Zandiks -Zurvanite materialists- jettisoned the whole of the ancient tradition and thought to explain the universe as emerging from an undifferentiated One -Infinite Time, which is at the same time Infinite Space and undifferentiated matter. Both doctrines were finally rejected by the orthodox, but orthodoxy itself remained unaffected by neither, and the efforts that it made to assimilate what was assimilable in these two strands of Zurvanism will be occupying our attention in the following chapters.

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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.