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Persian myths are traditional tales and stories of ancient origin, some involving extraordinary or supernatural beings. Drawn from the legendary past of Iran, they reflect the attitudes of the society to which they first belonged—attitudes towards the confrontation of good and evil, the actions of the gods, and the exploits of heroes and fabulous creatures. Myths play a crucial part in Persian culture and our understanding of them is increased when we consider them within the context of Iranian history.
For this purpose we must ignore modern political boundaries and look at historical developments in greater Iran, a vast area covering parts of Central Asia well beyond the frontiers of present-day Iran. The geography of this region, with its high mountain ranges, plays a significant role in many of the mythological stories. Although the archaeological record shows that civilisation in Iran dates from before 6000 BC, it is only the period from c. 2000 BC onwards that is of interest to us here. The second millennium is usually regarded as the age of migration because the emergence in western Iran of a new form of pottery, similar to earlier wares of north-eastern Iran, suggests the arrival of new people. This pottery, light grey to black in colour, appeared around 1400 BC. It is called Early Grey Ware or Iron I, the latter name indicating the beginning of the Iron Age in this area.
The migration of Iranian-speaking peoples into Iran is a widely discussed issue, and many questions about how the migration took place remain unanswered. Certainly there was a break in tradition at sites on the southern slopes of the Alburz Mountains and in western Iran, where stone tombs were filled with rich grave goods. On the basis of linguistic evidence, these newly arrived peoples are regarded as having originally been among the Indo-Iranians who for a long period shared a common tradition while living as nomads in the Asian steppes of Russia. Eventually the two linguistically related groups separated and migrated southwards. By the middle of the second millennium BC, the Iranian group had moved into the highlands of Iran through the flat passable area south-east of the Caspian Sea, while the Indian tribes had migrated into the Indian sub-continent. Whether the migration was violent and whether the tribes moved in large groups are questions that cannot be answered with certainty. One can only see from the archaeological evidence a break from the previous traditions and the arrival of new pottery types and burial rites. Nor do we know what happened to the language of the indigenous population, which in most parts of the country was replaced by the Iranian languages of the newcomers.
The first definite mention of an Iranian tribe, the Medes, occurs in ninth-century BC Assyrian texts. The Medes became the main threat to the Assyrian empire in the east. Whereas at first the Medes were only a loose confederation of tribes, by the late seventh century BC they had become powerful enough to join forces with the Babylonians and cause the collapse of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC. Another Iranian group, the Persians, had settled in southern Iran, in the area of Fars. It was through the amalgamation of the related tribes of the Medes and the Persians under Cyrus the Great that the Achaemenid empire was formed, emerging as the dominant power in the ancient Near East from c. 550 until its conquest by Alexander the Great in 331 BC.
The period of foreign rule by Alexander and his Greek generals, the Seleucids, was brief. Then the Arsacid Parthians, originally an Iranian-speaking nomadic group from the north-east, moved into the area south-east of the Caspian Sea. Under their king Arsaces I, they moved into Seleucid territory and established Parthian rule in 238 BC. By 141 BC the Parthians had conquered Mesopotamia under their great ruler, Mithradates I, and for the next three and a half centuries they remained the major political force in the ancient Near East and the main opponents of the Romans. Under Mithradates u (known as the Great), the Parthian empire stretched from the River Euphrates in the west to eastern Iran and Central Asia.
The dynasty of the Parthians came to an end in AD 224 with the defeat of their last king, Artabanus IV/V, by Ardashir I. The latter was a local prince, from Istakhr near Persepolis, who had received his crown from the Parthian monarch and later successfully challenged him. With his victory, Ardashir established the dynasty of the Sasanians, named after their legendary ancestor Sasan. The eventual collapse of the Sasanians was due to the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest of Iran in AD 642, by which time their army and treasury had been exhausted by numerous wars and the population could no longer endure the high taxes imposed on them. Zoroastrianism, the official state religion of Iran under the Sasanians, was replaced by Islam.
Much of our information about the ancient Iranians, their gods and the creation of their world can be found in the religious texts of the Zoroastrians, whose prophet Zoroaster (Greek for Persian Zarathushtra) may have lived in Khorezmia in Central Asia, or even further north-east. His dates are much debated and far from certain, but linguistic evidence from the Gatha, the prophet's hymns, in a part of the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, suggests a close link with the ancient Indian hymns, the Rigveda of c. 1700 BC. This is the period prior to the migration of nomadic tribes into Iran and India. The original Avesta, written in Avestan, an east-Iranian language, dates from between 1400 and 1200 BC, and Zoroaster himself probably lived around 1000 BC. Some scholars favour a date in the late seventh and early sixth century Bc for Zoroaster, but this is less likely.
The holy book of the Zoroastrians was memorised by Zoroastrian priests and passed on by word of mouth over a long period of time. Later sources claim that the Avesta was originally written in gold on prepared ox-hides and stored at Istakhr, and that it was destroyed by Alexander. Although parts of the sacred text are assumed to have been written down again during the Parthian period, in the first and second centuries AD, the Avesta did not exist in its complete form until perhaps the sixth century AD, under the Sasanians. Unfortunately, this version has not survived. The present Avesta dates back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century and contains only a fraction of the original. It is divided into sections: the Yasna, which is a collection of prayers and contains the Gatha (the hymns of the prophet Zoroaster); the Visparad; the Vendidad (also known as the Videvdat), the 'Law against Demons'; the Small Avesta (Khurdeh Avesta); and the Yasht or hymns, in which many pagan myths of pre-Zoroastrian origin are described.
The Avesta was first translated into a Western language in 1771 by a Frenchman, Anquetil du Perron. This much-criticised French version was followed by a series of translations, although the first English edition, by James Darmesteter, was not published until 1887.
The myths which appear in the part of the Avesta known as Yasht include some tales of very ancient pre-Zoroastrian origin, probably belonging to the pagan Indo-Iranian era. They describe the heroic deeds performed by gods, kings and warriors against both supernatural and human enemies. Many of these myths reappear in the Shahnameh(Book of Kings), an epic in rhyme by the poet Firdowsi, which was completed in AD 1010. Books about the history of the past had previously appeared in the Sasanian period and during the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in the eighth century AD many of these books were translated from Pahlavi (Middle Persian) into Arabic, although in most cases both the original Pahlavi texts and the Arabic translations have been lost. However, writers such as Firdowsi, who were well acquainted with the earlier literature, ensured its survival. Thus written sources, together with a strong oral tradition, have kept the myths and stories of Persia alive down to the present. Their importance and relevance to modern Persian society lies in the fact that most Iranians, whether literate or not, know something about these stories. The Shahnameh in particular plays a crucial role in Persian life and culture, not only because of its considerable literary merit but also because of its importance in preserving the myths and history of a very distant past in the Persian language.