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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee



R. C. Zaehner's Works

Dawn & Twilight

10. Classical Zurvanism

Zurvan, the One and the Many

Zurvan's Doubt

Ohrmazd and Ahriman in Mythological Zurvanism

Main Differences between Zurvanism and Orthodoxy

Aberrant Versions of the Zurvanite Myth

Sect of Gayomart

Four Elements and their Prototypes

Infinite and Finite

Emergence of Finite from Infinite

Emergence of Consciousness & Genesis of Evil

Changelessness of Created Being

Az, Weapon of Concupiscence

The 'Endless Form' or Macrocosm

The Zurvanite and the Manichaean Az

Az - a Borrowing from Buddhism?

Essential 'Zoroastrianism' of Classical Zurvanism

Gender and Sex of Az

Wickedness of the Female

Defection of Woman to Ahriman

Defilement of Man by Woman


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

The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism

Chapter 10. Classical Zurvanism (Part 3)

Az - a Borrowing from Buddhism?

Yet different though the goals of Buddhism and the Zurvanism deducible from the Pahlavi books may be, the demon Az is a Buddhist rather than a Zoroastrian idea; there is no trace of it in the Avesta. In Buddhism, on the other hand, the root cause of the chain of conditioned existence is avidya, 'ignorance', and its principal manifestation is trshna, 'thirst', which means the desire for continued existence in time -intellectual error, then, manifesting itself in concupiscence. The Zoroastrian Az, too, is both 'ignorance' and 'thirst', both 'wrong-mindedness' and concupiscence; she attacks man both in his body and in his mind. To the body she ultimately brings death, and, in the sphere of responsible human activity, she seeks to drive a wedge between intellect and will. In this she is identical with Akoman, the Evil Mind.

God's weapon is the embodied Zurvan, finite time operating in finite space, the khwarr of the whole world; Ahriman's is Az and Az thus attacks both the macrocosm, the embodied Zurvan, and the microcosm, man; she is the arch-enemy of both nature and reason. 'During the period of the Aggressor's operation in this world man is tained with concupiscence whose object is to destroy his khwarr,' that is, to divert him from the end for which he was created. Reason, on the other hand, 'was created by the Creator to protect his khwarr from concupiscence. Concupiscence is the vice most akin to desire, and a limit [must be set] to desire. Once desire for wealth and power is gratified, concupiscence will be greatly strengthened and reason gravely impaired in [its function of] protecting the khwarr from concupiscecnce.'

Concupiscence, then, tries to divorce man's natural desires from the control of reason: as such it is 'self-will', 'wrong-mindedness', and 'heresy'; it leads astray, unsettles, and deceives. In short it is 'ignorance' of the right order of things on the intellectual plane, gluttony, lust, and avarice on the material. It is the transposition of the Buddhist avidya and trshna into a Zoroastrian scheme of things. But the Zoroastrian version of what constitutes 'ignorance' is very different from the Buddhist; it is no sense a cosmic principle inherent in the vary nature of the transitory world, it is simply the failure to recognize the right order of things; it is a deviation from the Aristotelian Mean which the Zoroastrians interpreted as meaning the orderly arrangement of a cosmos created by God. If the idea is originally Buddhistic, the working out of it is thoroughly Zoroastrian.

Essential 'Zoroastrianism' of Classical Zurvanism

What remains of Zurvanism in the Pahlavi books is orthodox to this extent, that the goal of creation remains the same as for the orthodox dualists; it is the final expulsion of evil, that is, disorder in all its forms, from the universe, and the transfiguration of the material creation into a 'spiritual' form of existence in which neither death nor wrong thinking will have any place. In the terminology of the Zurvanite myth it means that Zurvan whose doubt engendered Ahriman will, by himself taking on material form, in the end be freed from doubt and all imperfection for ever and ever. Zatsparam, too, in his apocalyptic vision of the end, says: 'There will be seen by night in the atmosphere a form of fire in the shape of a man, conceived by the spiritual powers, riding as it were a fiery horse, and fearful [to behold]: and all will be freed from doubt.'

Perhaps the fiery horseman is nothing less than that original 'form of fire, bright, white, round, and manifest afar', with which, in the beginning, Zurvan armed his beloved son, Ohrmazd. Perhaps it is the finite Zurvan himself, the totality of created being, riding back, purified from all doubt and unlawful desire, into the Infinite from which he originally proceeded.

The Gender and Sex of Az

In its teleology Zurvanism does not seem to differ appreciably from orthodoxy, but there was nonetheless an un-Iranian and Gnostic current within Zurvanism which sought to identify the typically Zoroastrian polarity of good and evil with the more basic polarity of male and female.

Throughout this chapter we have spoken of the demon Az as 'she'. Middle Persian, however, has no means of distinguishing gender, and there is nothing in the Pahlavi texts themselves to show to what gender this particular demon belongs. In the Avesta, it is true, there is a demon Azi of masculine gender who extinguishes the fire at night, who is the opponent of the sacrifical milk and fat and of the khwarenah; his stock epithet is daevo-data, 'created by the demons' or 'following the law of the demons'. It is also true that the Az of the Pahlavi books has the same stock epithet and that is also assails the khwarenah or khwarr. But here the resemblance ends, for nowhere does it appear that the Azi of the Avesta is specifically the demon of greed, and this is the basic characteristic of the later Az.

The demon Az, however, as it appears in Zatsparam, is closely akin to the Manichaean demon of the same name. In the Persian Manichaean texts, as we have seen, Az corresponds to the hyle of the Greeks -matter not at all in the Aristotelian sense, but in the typically Manichaean sense of 'disorderly motion'. Fot the Manichees, indeed, 'disorderly motion' was inseparable from everything that exists in space and time, whereas, for the Zoroastrians, it was something imported from outside. The Manichees, however, in attaching Zoroastrian names to their own concepts, did try to make the correspondence as exact as possible. Thus it is not surprising that they should have chosen Az to represent the totality of the realm of matter which is, for them, through and through evil since, in Manichaean eyes, matter and concupiscence are interchangeable terms.

The Manichaean Az, however, is feminine: she is the 'mother of all the demons'. It is, then, reasonable to suppose that the Zoroastrian demon was also feminine as the Manichees would scarcely choose a male Zoroastrian demon to fulfil the role of the 'mother of the demons'. Moreover, were it not for the fact that they needed a female entity to represent the totality of evil, they could scarcely have failed to pick on Ahriman for this part.

The Wickedness of the Female

The equation of light with the male principle and of darkness with the female corps up all over the world and has been made much of by C.G. Jung in his psychology of the archetype. It is, however, a thoroughly un-Iranian idea, yet we do find it cropping up both in the Christian account of Zurvanism and in the Pahlavi texts themselves. Hippolytus, as we have seen, said of Zoroaster that he believed the whole universe to have developed from a primal father and mother, the first of whom was light and the second darkness. Similarly we saw that in the Pahlavi texts fire and water were spoken of as male and female, brother and sister, husband and wife, and that from their union proceeded 'all becoming, ripening, and order'. The same is true of the Zurvanite treatise, the Ulama-yi Islam. Water, moreover, is the dark element, and what is dark is generally evil. Water, however, had from the days of the Gatha of the Seven Chapters been regarded as holy and was venerated as such throughout the whole chequered history of Zoroastrianism. Zurvanism, however, is not fully explicable as a purely Iranian phenomenon, and it should not surprise us to find what seem to be un-Iranian ideas in it. Thus a Christian convert from Zoroastrianism tells us that water, though created by Ohrmazd, deserted him for Ahriman. These Zurvanites were not prepared to go so far as to say that water was evil in itself; it only chose evil just as Ahriman himself had done.

The Defection of Woman to Ahriman

On the origins of woman the Pahlavi books are extraordinarily reticent. The Bounteous Immortals who have become fully personalized in the Pahlavi books are all male except Armaiti, Right-mindedness, who is identified with Mother Earth. On Ahriman's side there is a mysterious figure Jeh, the Whore. Both the Bundahishn and the Christian Syriac writer, Theodore bar Konai, give accounts of the activities of this lady, but whereas the Bundahishn speaks of her as the 'whore', Theodore speaks of her as simply 'woman'. She too, like water, deserts her creator, Ohrmazd, for his enemy, Ahriman. Theodore describes the behaviour of the first women in these words:

'After Ohrmazd had given women to righteous men, they fled and went over a Satan; and when Ohrmazd provided righteous men with peace and happiness, Satan provided women too with happiness. As Satan had allowed the women to ask for anything they wanted, Ohrmazd feared that they might ask to have intercourse with the righteous men and that these might suffer damage thereby. Seeking to avoid this, he created the god Narseh [a youth] of fifteen years of age. And he put him, naked as he was, behind Satan so that the women should see him, desire him, and ask Satan for him. The women lifted their hands up towards Satan and said: "Satan, our father, give us the god Narseh as a gift."'

The Bundahishn account differs from Theodore's in some respects. There is one Righteous Man only, Gayomart, the progenitor of the human race; and there is one woman only, Jeh, the whore, whose origins are left wholly unexplained. Moreover, Theodore seems to have imported the god Narseh from a similar Manichaean myth, for he is wholly absent from the Bundahishn account.

In Zoroastrianism man is God's supreme creation, designed to play the foremost part in the destruction of Ahriman and the Lie. So holy was he that the mere sight of him caused Ahriman to faint, so hopeless did he now consider the struggle to be.

'When the Destructive Spirit saw that he himself and the demons were powerless on account of the Righteous Man, he swooned away. For three thousand years he lay in a swoon. And as he lay thus unconscious, the demons with monstrous heads cried out one by one [saying] :"Arise, O our father, for we would join a battle from which Ohrmazd and the Bounteous Immortals will suffer straitness and misery." And one by one they minutely related their own evil deeds. But the accursed Destructive Spirit was not comforted, nor he did arise out of his swoon for fear of the Righteous Man; till the accursed Whore came after the three thousand years had run their course, and she cried out [saying]: "Arise, O our father, for in the battle [to come] I shall let loose so much affliction on the Righteous Man and the toiling Bull that, because of my deeds, they will no be fit to live. I shall take away their dignity (khwarr): I shall afflict the water, I shall afflict the earth, I shall afflict the fire, I shall afflict the plants, I shall afflict all the creation which Ohrmazd has created." And she related her evil deeds so minutely that the Destructive Spirit was comforted, leapt up out of his swoon, and kissed the head of the Whore; and that pollution called menstruation appeared on the Whore. And the Destructive Spirit cried out to the demon Whore: "Whatsoever is thy desire, that do thou ask, that I may give it thee." Then Ohrmazd in his omniscience knew that at that time the Destructive Spirit could give whatever the demon Whore asked and that there would be great profit to him thereby. (The appearance of the body of the Destructive Spirit was in the form of a frog.) And [Ohrmazd] showed one like unto a young man of fifteen years of age to the demon Whore; and the demon Whore fastened her thoughts on him. And the demon Whore cried out to the Destructive Spirit [saying]: "Give me desire for man that I may seat him in the house as my lord." But the Destructive Spirit cried out unto her [saying]: "I do not bid thee ask for anything, for thou knowest [only] to ask for what is profitless and bad." But the time had passed when he could have refused to give what she asked.'

Now the Pahlavi word for 'whore' means etymologically no more than 'one who bears children' and must originally have meant simply a 'woman', and this presumably is what she originally was in mythology too. There is, moreover, another curious resemblance to Theodore bar Konai's account. Unlike the other demons the Whore does not seem to have been with Ahriman from the beginning: she came to him 'after three thousand years'. So it would seem that in this very unorthodox account of the creation Ohrmazd provided Gayomart with a consort and that the pair of them existed side by side for three thousand years without making contact of any kind; and it was only after the full three thousand years had run their course that the woman, understandably bored, decided to seek adventure elsewhere. Undeterred by the unpleasing from Ahriman had elected to assume just then, she attached herself to him, and by submitting to his kiss became irremediably defiled. As if this were not enough, she then proceeded to 'join herself [to the Destructive Spirit]. For the defilement of females she joined herself to him, that she might defile females; and the females, because they were defiled, might defile the males, and [the males] would turn aside from their proper work.'

The Defilement of Man by Woman

Apart from the three passages we have quoted we know nothing more of the 'Whore', and we are never told the end of the story. Since, however, the Whore is the 'most grievous adversary of the Righteous Man', and since, merely by recounting the harm she can do to him, she could arouse Ahriman from the stupor into which the mere sight of the Righteous Man had cast him, and since her aim is to defile the male through the already defiled female, the end of the affair can scarcely be in doubt: she forced the Righteous Man into union with her. Only so can it be explained how Ohrmazd 'knew that at that time the Destructive Spirit could give whatever the demon Whore asked and that there would be great profit to him (Ohrmazd) thereby'. It was his intention all along that, despite the woman's perverse behaviour, the two sexes should be united so that the human race could increase and multiply. With this end in mind he exhibited to her a 'young man of fifteen years of age'. The stratagem worked, for the woman immediately demanded of Ahriman that he give her the 'desire for man', which, it would appear, Ohrmazd had not himself been able to supply. The balance of advantage was now with Ohrmazd. It is true that Ahriman had suceeded in defiling woman and that she in her turn would defile man, but, in compensation for this, it was now assured that woman would be subjected to man for ever and that -what was much more important- she would enable the Righteous Man to propagate his race.

We have seen that one of the characteristics of Zurvanism is that it does, on occasion, represent Ohrmazd as being rather less than all-wise and all-powerful. It is therefore somewhat surprising to read in an otherwise orthodox book little the Bundahishn that he himself confesses that, think as he might, he could find no other way of ensuring the survival of the human male except by creating 'woman whose adversary is the whore species'. And so he laments:

'I created thee, O thou whose adversary is the whore species, and thou wast created with a mouth close to the buttocks, and coition seems to thee even as the taste of the sweetest food to the mouth; and thou art a helper to me, for from thee is man born; but thou dost grieve me who am Ohrmazd. But had I found another vessel from which to make man, never would I have created thee, whose adversary is the whore species. But I sought in the waters and in the earth, in plants and cattle, in the highest mountains and deep valleys, but I did not find a vessel from which righteous man might proceed except woman whose adversary is the whore.'

This, again, has a zurvanite flavour about it, for Ohrmazd, the all-mighty and all-wise, confesses that he is neither. In order to multiply the males of the human race who fight his battle against Ahriman, he can think of nothing better to do than to create woman, despite the fact that she causes him pain. This attribution of a certain naivete to Ohrmazd combined with an almost horrified aversion to all that is female seems to be typical of Zurvanism. The female is represented as having a fatal propensity to evil, for both water and woman hereself, though created by Ohrmazd, desert him and take the Devil's part.

This Gnostic element in Zurvanism, however, which equates the female with evil, is peripheral, but it is nonetheless there; and it is this, no doubt, that induced the High Priest Manushchihr to say that his brother, Zatsparam, would find few to gainsay him among the Manichees. Zatsparam, indeed, stands nearest to the Zurvanites of all our extant Pahlavi sources, and it is he, more than anyone else, who raises Az-concupiscence to an almost Manichaean eminence in the hierarchy of evil. For him, at least, we cannot help feeling, Az was, as she was for the Manichees, not just one female among many, but the 'mother of all the demons'.

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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.