9. Varieties of Zurvanism
- 10. Classical Zurvanism
- 11. Zurvan
The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism
Chapter 10. Classical Zurvanism (Part 2)
The Changelessness of Created Being
From the One, then, finite time and finite space, which together add up to the material world, are actualized in the order of nature, consciousness, thought, and a sense of purpose in the order of intellect and will. The conditions of creation are now fulfilled, and Ohrmazd creates heaven and earth as his first line of defence against the Aggressor. Finite time is destined to last twelve thousand years, at the end of which it merges again into its source which is the Infinite, and action merges into rest from which it sprang. But the universe created by Ohrmazd in all its infinite variety does not revert to its own source which is the undifferentiated One or primal matter. All creation is dependent on Infinite Time, and as such it must partake of eternity. So it can be confidently stated that 'those things which Ohrmazd created at the original creation do not change'. For Ohrmazd, in creating finite beings to do battle with Ahriman, who can only exist and operate on the finite level, gives them an infinite dimension; and just as Time, Space, Wisdom, and Ohrmazd himself are eternal and immutable, so is all that he creates out of them. All the good creation, then, has an eternal substrate which will be realized at the end of time as eternal well-being and bliss. This constitutes the 'Final Body'- the body of a universe renewed and perfected because finally purged of the malice and corruption of the Aggressor. This 'body' continues to exist in all its variety, and within it exist in harmony the resurrected bodies, now once again united to their souls, of all men reconstituted and transfigured. It is true that every material thing was elicited from the potentiality of matter and every spiritual thing from the
potentiality of spirit, but in the end 'possessed of image and body (adhvenakomand ut karpomand) they will be reunited to their souls, all undefiled, and together with their souls they will be made immortal, reconstituted as eternal beings in perfect bliss'. The end of the cosmic drama, then, is not just a return to the status quo ante, a reversion to a state of pure undifferentiated being, it means rather that every separate creature has grown and developed to its highest capacity, it has become its final cause, the sum-total of all its good thoughts, words, and deeds, what the Iranian call its Khwarenah, or Khwarr as it is now called in Pahlavi. This glorious state it achieves on its own account certainly, but also in full union and harmony with the whole human race which itself is transfigured in the beatific vision of God. Life in Infinite Time is thus a life of union and communion both with God and with the whole of his creation now finally released from all the torments inflicted on it by the Fiend. He and his entire creation will be utterly destroyed. This constitutes the purpose of life for the Zoroastrian, whether he be, in his mythology and philosophy, an orthodox dualist or a Zurvanite.
We have seen how the Denkart tries to achieve a philosophical synthesis between orthodox dualism and Zurvanism, and how it seeks to identify Ohrmazd with Infinite Time, Ahriman with finite Time. Mythologically, however, the two wings of Zoroastrianism are not so easily reconciled.
Az, the Weapon of Concupiscence
In Zatsparam there is a very strange myth concerning Zurvan which we have already quoted, but which must be quoted again in our present context.
'Pondering on the end [Zurvan] delivered to Ahriman an impiement [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."'
Or in slightly deifferent words we read:
'When first creation began to move, and Zurvan for the sake of movement brought that form, the black and ashen garment, to Ahriman, he made a treaty in this wise: "This is that implement like unto fire, blazing, harassing all creatures, that hath the very substance of Az (Concupiscence). When the period of nine thousand years comes to an end, if thou hast not perfectly fulfilled that which thou didst threaten in the beginning, that thou wouldst bring all material existence to hate Ohrmazd and to love thee -and verily this is the belief in one Principle [only], that the Increaser and the Destroyer are the same -then by means of these weapons Az will devour that which is thine, thy creation; and she herself will starve; for she will no longer obtain food from the creatures of Ohrmazd -like a frog that liveth in the water; so long as it defileth the water, it liveth by it, but when the water is with-drawn from it, it dieth, parched."'
This obviously forms part of the original Zurvanite myth and is preserved only by Zatsparam who, as we have seen, had Zurvanite tendencies. Even he, however, will not go so far as to say that Zurvan was the father of Ohrmazd and Ahriman; he simply allows him to appear on the scene unexplained. It is, however, Zurvan who offers Ahriman the 'weapon of Concupiscence' by which he and his creation will be ultimately destroyed, and Ahriman chooses it of his own free will 'as his very essence'. It would, then, be reasonable to suppose that Zurvan armed Ohrmazd with a similar weapon -a weapon that would ensure his victory over his enemy. Such a weapon we do find again and again mentioned in the Pahlavi texts, but in no case does Zurvan give it to Ohrmazd. The reason is, no doubt, that the authors of the Pahlavi books were unwilling to represent Ohrmazd as being in any way dependent on, or inferior to, Zurvan. So we find that the Denkart speaks of Ahriman's weapon being bestowed on him 'through Time from its decisive dispension that orders aright', but in the case of Ohrmazd his weapon or robe was 'bestowed on him by his own dispension through finite Time'. It would, then, seem to be abundantly clear that in the original legend both weapon or robes must have been in the gift of Zurvan-Time. In the Bundahishn an attempt is made to fit this episode into an orthodox dualist scheme of things. Thus, in the case of Ahriman, too, the sinister weapon which Ahriman chooses is no longer proffered to him by Zurvan: rather, 'from the material darkness which is his own essence the Destructive Spirit fashioned forth the body of his creation in the form of coal(?), black and ashen, worthy of the darkness, damned as the most sinful noxious beast.'
So too we learn of Ohrmazd that 'from his own essence which is material light he fashioned forth the form of his creatures -a form of fire- bright, white, round, and manifest afar.' This is the dualist account of the affair. In the true Zurvanite version, however, it must have been Zurvan-Time who armed his two sons with their respective weapons, robes, or forms, which they, in their turn, chose of their own free will. This doctrine of the choice granted to the Spirits the orthodox regarded as being heretical, and their own term for this type of Zurvanism appears to have been Zoishik, 'belief in the free choice [of Ohrmazd and Ahriman]'.
Zurvan-Time, then, in the Zurvanite account, will himself have armed the two Spirits with their respective weapons, and we shall now have to consider a little more carefully what these weapons were. We have seen that in the Denkart Ahriman is regarded as being an entirely spiritual being and that the matter with which evil spirits are clothed is borrowed from another source, and that this derives ultimately from infinite Space-Time, mythologically represented by Zurvan. The 'power of Zurvan', then, which the baleful weapon handed to Ahriman contains, is probably no more than materially -in the case of Ahriman material darkness, in the case of Ohrmazd material light; these are the two physical weapons with which the two Spirits will fight.
The 'Endless Form' or Macrocosm
These weapons, however, also have a spiritual side: they have soul as well as body. Ohrmazd's weapon is called the 'Endless Form', and it is in fact the whole material creation contained within the circle of the sky. It was fashioned from the Endless Light, and it is twofold. On the one hand it contains the spiritual creation, on the other the material creation.
'In the spiritual creation the Spirit of the Power of the Word was contained; and in the material creation the Spirit of the Power of Nature was contained, and it settled [in it]. The instrument which contains the spiritual creation was made perfect, and the spiritual gods of the Word were separated out from it, each for his own function, to perform those activities which were necessary for the creation that was within the instrument. And within the instrument which contains the material creation the marvellous Spirit of the Power of Nature was united to the kingdom of the Spirit of the Power of the Word through the will of the Creator.'
Nature and spirit, that is, matter and spirit are thus united to form the cosmos, and the cosmos is the 'Wheel', the heavenly sphere, the embodiment of the finite Zurvan. As the Infinite, Zurvan is the father of both Ohrmazd and Ahriman; as the finite he is the weapon of the one as well as of the other. Thus the 'weapons' he gives his sons are himself in finite form. All that is good in him he gives to Ohrmazd; what is evil he gives to Ahriman, for Az is not only concupiscence, greed, and lust, it is also Varan, which means not only sexual desire but also religious doubt. Az, then, in this myth, must represent Zurvan's doubt -that essential imperfection which lurked deep down in the godhead and, in the course of what perhaps we should call 'aeveternity', took shape and materialized in the form of Ahriman. Zurvan expiates his original sin by becoming embodied in the cosmos and suffering the evil effects of his sin to work themselves out in his own body. In this he, as macrocosm, prefigures the fate of each individual man; and just as he controls human destinies, so does the collective consciousness of mankind -the union of the Fravashis or external souls -control him.
The macrocosm, Zurvan's body, is ensouled by the Spirit of the Power of the Word which appears to be identical with that Wisdom which fosters and protects it. Finite Space-Time, then, which is Ohrmazd's 'creation' and the weapon he had received from Zurvan, is animated and guided by Wisdom or reason. And just as Ohrmazd received light and Wisdom from Zurvan, so did Ahriman receive Az-Concupiscence; and it is with this weapon that he attacks both the 'natural' or material side of Ohrmazd's creation and the 'spiritual' side, the domain of intellect and will. Az, as we have seen, comprises both natural concupiscence and what the Marxists call 'incorrect thinking'. Zatsparam, however, who alone among our sources preserves the myth, knows nothing of the latter; for him Az is simply the instinctual side of man. Her nature is threefold and consists of eating, sexual desire, 'and yearning for whatever good thing one sees or hears'. The Denkart, however, has a fuller account of the activities of this very considerable demon. Man's 'humanity' is defined as a combination of life which he has from nature and knowledge which is of the intellect and will. He is by nature disposed to nourish his own body and to cultivate the religious knowledge which is ingrained in him and which spurs him on to virtue. Az is the power that perverts both his natural and his voluntary drives. Heresy, then, and sensuality are both manifestations of Az. Nature and will, and will and intellect, should all work together, but Az seeks to drive a wedge between them. Her essential activity is 'disorderly motion' or 'disruption' (oshtap), and the whole purpose of the creation of the world is to eliminate this element of instability with which Ahriman has armed himself. Az is the enemy both of the natural order (chihr) and of reason (khrat). As the enemy of the natural order and of life, she also causes death.
'In the mixed state life as a general rule is maintained in the body by the continuous working of the natural functions in the body; and this continuous working of the natural functions is up against the "natural" Az. Az, faced as she is by the natural functions, seeks to destroy them: she withholds Hurdat and Amurdat, [that is to say,] she cuts of food and drink from the natural functions. Nature is the ally [of the body], Az its enemy. When Hurdat and Amurdat, that is, food and drink, are cut off from the natural functions, the latter, deprived of any ally and being in the grip of Az, are destroyed, and life can no longer be maintained in the body; and since this is so, the body is ripe for death.'
Az, then, the demon of concupiscence, is also the demon of death, and in this she is akin to the finite Zurvan of whose evil side she is indeed the earthly manifestation. For Zurvan, as father Time, is seen as the author of both life and death, and since it is death that invariably and inevitably extinguishes individual life, he is primarily thought of as death. In the Avesta, where he is still a very shadowy figure, he controls the path along which the souls of the dead must travel on their way to the Judgement. '[The souls of] wicked and righteous alike proceed along the paths created by Zurvan to the Bridge of the Requiter created by Mazdah.' In the Gathas it is Ahriman who brings death into the world; in Zurvanism Zurvan arms Ahriman with Az, the principle of death as well as of concupiscence, while he arms Ohrmazd with the material world which is his own body and which is destined for immortality once the course of Az has been expelled.
The Zurvanite and the Manichaean Az
Az is the principle of disorder that has invaded the natural order: she is excess and deficiency as opposed to the Mean. But she would seem to be very much more than this; for basically she is desire-hunger and thirst on the one hand and sexual desire on the other. As such she is the very precondition of physical life as well as of physical death; and in this she closely resembles her Manichaean namesake, for in the Manichaean texts Az is the Persian word used to translate the Greek hyle, 'matter'.
Zoroastrianism, however, even its Zurvanite manifestation, is very different from Manichaeism. For the Manichees 'matter' and 'concupiscence' are interchangeable terms: they are both the 'disorderly motion that is in every existent thing' and, as such, the principle that militates against eternal life. But in Zoroastrianism, whether Zurvanite or orthodox, matter and concupiscence are not by any means identical. On the contrary, matter itself is the vehicle of eternal life, and concupiscence is like an infection that attacks it from outside. Originally man was created without needs; he did not need to eat or drink, and in the last days he will return to his blessed independence and thereby break the power of Az. This means that the material world will partake of spirit without for that reason ceasing to be material; and those who are born in the last days will be 'sweet-smelling, with but little darkness in them, spiritual in nature, without offspring, for they will not eat'; and Nature itself 'will be clad in spirit and intelligence will be more clearly grasped'. This will mean the final annihilation of Az who as universal greed devours creation ever anew and who as sexuality recreates her portion for the morrow. Once men cease to eat and are 'clad in spirit', Az has no power over them, and 'since she will derive no power from the creatures of Ohrmazd, she will chide Ahriman who had appointed her captain of his commanders [saying] in her greed to the judge of creatures: "Satisfy me, satiate me, for I derive nor food nor strength from the creatures of Ohrmazd."' Then at the command of Ahriman she dovours all the demons except only Ahriman himself. This is the final crisis: Ahriman is now left alone and finds himself pitted not only against his eternal adversary, Ohrmazd, but also against the very weapon he had chosen when it was offered to him by his father, Zurvan. This weapon now turns on him fury and threaten to devour him, for there is nothing else left for her to devour. Ahriman, at bay, rather than submit to this final horror, turns in desperation to his ancient enemy, Ohrmazd, and makes his first and last appeal to his goodness to save him. Ohrmazd, rather than see him succumb to her 'who comprises [all] evil', himself administers the coup de grace, while Sraosha is left to finish off Az. In what appears to be the true Zurvanite account, however, the destruction of Az falls not to Sraosha, but to the infinite Zurvan himself accompanied by the Genius of the Law and Fate. This is only as it should be, for it appears the final conquest of Zurvan's original doubt. By doubting he was himself responsible for originating the principle of darkness and evil, and by offering Ahriman that 'implement [fashioned] from the very substance of darkness, mingled with the power of Zurvan, as it were a treaty, resembling coal(?), black and ashen', he divests himself of the 'concupiscence' that is still within him, and thereby assures the ultimate annihilation of his unwanted son through the instrumentality of the weapon he had himself chosen.
All this is, indeed, a long way removed from Manichaeanism, but there are, as in Manichaeanism, distinctly Buddhistic overtones, for not only are the spiritual worlds of Ohrmazd and Ahriman at war with each other, but the temporal and eternal orders also seem to be mutually contrasted and opposed. Ohrmazd's original creation was wholly static, 'without thought, without movement, intangible', and it is only the disorderly movement (oshtap) that is Az that sets the temporal process going. The temporal process is the Buddhist samsara, the ebb and flow of physical life regarded by the Buddhists as being evil simply because it is impermanent and therefore void of lasting value. In Zurvanism, Infinite Time represents eternal and timeless existence and this is the realm of Ohrmazd; finite Time is temporal existence as lived on earth, subject to birth and death, coming to be and passing away, and it is not only the kingdom of Ahriman, but also the very food on which the demon Az thrives. Yet finite Time is not evil of itself; it is the locus of evil and the food by which it lives. When it 'dies' by being reabsorbed into the Infinite, evil, like a cancer whose life is sustained by the thing it kills, must itself perish with it. The world-process, then, is God's struggle to rescue temporal, conditioned existence from the very powers which seem to make its continuance possible -hunger and thirst and sexual desire. The result, however, is not the escape of the individual or of the universe into a featureless and timeless Nirvana, but the subsuming of the material world into spirit in which time merges back into the timeless; but the timeless is now no longer the simple, undifferentiated One from which all existent things originally issued forth, but a timeless world in which all created things share in the plenitude of their khwarr, their consummated personality finally delivered from the toils of concupiscence. Ahriman had foolishly threatened to 'demolish the pact, to demolish time', and by this he meant that he would put an end to eternal existence as such and drag all creation down to a purely temporal and therefore mortal level, thereby depriving men for ever of any hope of immortal life; but in the end he himself is vanquished by Az, the seed of corruption he was fool enough to choose as his weapon against the radiant creation of Ohrmazd. Ohrmazd, on the other hand, once his enemies are annihilated, elevates the whole material creation into the spiritual order, and there the perfection that each created thing has as it issues from the hand of God is restored to it at the final Rehabilitation, the Frashkart or 'Making Excellent' when everything that was excellent in time will be excellent in eternity.
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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.