Discussion Responses (Religions of Ancient Iran Course)

Please dedicate 1 page per response to each weeks readings. I have attached the readings that you will need. I have also provided a peer’s sample answer for each weeks discussion. Please do not copy it but feel free to use it as inspiration.

Week 1 Reading: Briant & Stolper Forgotten Empire extracts
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Sample Response: What struck me most about this weeks readings is how power explains itself. The Cyrus Cylinder is an excellent example of this. The narrative that the document presents denies the human agency and the historicity of political conflicts. It depicts Cyrus as the executor of the divine will, a tactic that is not entirely alien to the modern world we inhabit.

But if power can conquer and rule, why does it disguise itself under cover of divine law and order? Why is power justified and is not in itself a justification?

In her article, Baghoolizadeh explains that religion was used to placate newly conquered peoples more swiftly. I am usually wary of such explanations because it robs people of their agency in believing the discourse of power. I believe that people yield to power either because they cant challenge it or because their interests align with it. But I might be projecting a modern understanding of agency and will into the past.

I am more inclined to believe that the religious narrative is invoked not to justify but to dominate. Like Lisa Wedeen, I think domination works by imposing a narrative that nobody believes in, but nobody dares to challenge. I am not necessarily saying that this was the case with the Cyrus Cylinder. Still, I am suggesting that what seems to be a religious justification of a military conquest might have been, to borrow Stoplers sentence, a mark of the great kings presence and domination.

Week 2 Readings:
Briant Between Men and Gods
Hintze Zamyad Yasht
Skjrv Achaemenids & Avesta
Skjrv Avestan Quotations.
Waters Achaemenid Religion
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Sample Response: Looking at the Achaemenid Royal inscriptions this week, I’ll admit I focused quite a bit on the language of the inscriptions. We discussed the use of ‘Daeva’ in Xerxes’ inscriptions, which has made me reconsider putting too much weight on the proto-Indo Iranian religion as an influence on Zoroastrianism in the time of Xerxes and Darius. I feel that the demonization of the daevas in Iran took place too late for it to part of the Indo-Iranian religious tradition.

This begs the question – What is Zoroastrianism? We touched on this topic briefly in class, whether the worship of elemental gods such as Mithra and Anahita fell under the category of Zoroastrianism.

One thing I find very interesting is the promotion of Ahura Mazda above all other gods, as a supreme creator. In the post-Vedic period, worship of Indo-European elemental gods declined and people started to worship a supreme being. This is a mere observation on my part, but I find it interesting how in both India and in Iran, Indo-European elemental gods declined but did not disappear, instead becoming assimilated into the local culture, and the notion of one supreme creator rose to prominence.

Going further, do the terms religion and Zoroastrianism even apply in the time we are talking about? I doubt one identified themselves as a Zoroastrian in Cyrus’ era. The Achaemenids were basically Ahura Mazda worshipers. And yet, Zoroastrianism implies as if the religion centers not around the God, but the profit that started it.

Week 3 Readings:
Daryaee Sasanian Empire
De Jong One Nation Under God
De Jong Religion and Politics Pre-Islamic Iran
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Sample Response: The main question that this weeks readings are responding to is whether or not the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanians were Zoroastrians. This question raises other questions on the history of Zoroastrianism and the Avesta.

Traditionally, scholars used the Avesta as a yardstick against which they measured the Royal practices. However, in both of his articles, De Jong challenges this approach. On the one hand, he claims that the Avesta, in its present form, was written in the late Sassanian empire just around the time of the Islamic conquest, and therefore it produced:

a narrative that united the story of the religion with the history of the Iranians; by the restatement of Zoroastrianism as a religion with a (known) history, grouped around a divine text revealed to a founder figure; by interpreting the religion as based in this text, fully living up to its message, a message, moreover, that was free of contradictions; by having removed from the religion those aspects a chaotic pantheon, the cult of images that would have made it vulnerable to Muslim derision. (Religion and Politics in PreIslamic Iran, 100)

On the other hand, he argues that earlier in the Sassanian Empire, Ardeshir had produced a parallel religious narrative that aimed to unify the Iranians by destroying Zoroastrianisms local variants that were popular during the time of the Parthians. In other words, De Jong is arguing that Zoroastrianism and the Avesta were shaped/influenced by the political ideology of the Sassanians who used religion at different stages of the empire to respond to political challenges, be it the fragmentation of the empire or the threat of another conquest.

This argument seems to be sound and sensical; however, I am slightly puzzled by the fact that the Avesta, despite being influenced by the political ideology and challenges of the time, still lacked any mention of the king, let alone the king of kings. As De Jong himself argues, the Avesta represents small-scale social organizations with a tribal character that organized themselves under a rulers leadership. (One Nation Under God? 226)

My question is, if the narrative of the Avesta was constructed to tell a story that unites religion with history, why didnt it incorporate the king or images from the empire in the religious text? I feel that I am misinterpreting something, but I am not sure what it is!

Week 4 Readings:
Martyrdom of Abbot Barshebya tr. Smith
Persian Martyr Acts tr. Brelaud
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*No Sample Response*