Figurine from Tepe Yahya
Excerpt from History of the Persian Empire, p 16-19
By A. T. Olmstead
July 16, 1998
Long before the great plateau was called Iran, it was well populated. Obsidian flakes have been found under the alluvial deposits from the last glacial period, while men of the late Stone Age left their flint implements in the open.
By the fifth pre-Christian millennium, numerous tiny hamlets sheltered a peaceful agricultural population, which satisfied its aesthetic instincts through fine wheel-made pots decorated with superb paintings; an elaborate though lively conventionalization of native flora and fauna betrayed more interest for all subsequent art on the plateau.
Burned settlements and changes in property styles indicate population shifts. Only Elam on the west affords us writing and, therefore, history, though tablets from the middle of the plateau inscribed in Elamite pictographs suggest that the same language was spoken there as at Susa, Elam's most important city.
For further information on these early peoples, we turn to the Videvdat, the "Antidemonic Law." Although its form as it appears in the Avesta was written down shortly before our own era, it still retains the essential features of this prehistoric culture.
At first view, it is a pleasant world in which we meet the house master richly endowed with cattle, fodder, hound, wife, child, fire, milk, and all good things, with grain, grass, and trees bearing variety of fruit. Waste lands were irrigated by the underground qanat, and there was increase of flocks and herds and plenty of natural fertilizer. But to obtain these blessings hard work was demanded: sowing and planting and laborious construction of the underground water channels. It was a world in which there was no place for the solthful.
We hear of skins in use for clothing or woven cloth, or tents made of felt such as those yet found in Central Asia, and of houses of wood like those which have left the ash mounds in the Urmia plain. We might rhapsodize over the high position of the dog, elsewhere in the Orient degraded and unclean, but on the plateau treated as an honored member of the family with definite responsibilities and corresponding rewards.
We might prepare to rejoice with the peasants when the long snowbound winter was over and the birds began to fly, the plants to spring up, the torrents to flow down the hills, and the winds to dry the earth, but we should completely misunderstand their mood.
Physically, the inhabitants belonged to their own subdivision of the Mediterranean race. Culturally, they were more akin to the peoples of Central Asia, especially in their religious thinking. Greek writers tell us something of the culture of primitive peoples who still survived to their day along the southern shore of the Black Sea; in the disposal of their dead in particular, they present strange analogies to the practice of the Antidemonic Law.
For example, among the Derbices, men over seventy were killed and eaten by their kinsfolk, and old women were strangled and buried; men so unfortunate as to die before seventy were merely inhumed.
Among the Caspians, who gave their name to the sea formerly called Hyrcanian, those over seventy were starved. Corpses were exposed in a desert place and observed. If carried from the bier by vultures, the dead were considered most fortunate, less so if taken by wild beasts or dogs; but it was the height of misfortune if the bodies remained untouched.
In Bactria, further east, equally disgusting practices continued until Alexander's invasion. The sick and aged were thrown while still alive to waiting dogs called in their language "burial details." Piles of bones within the walls testified to burial customs quite as grim.
To understand the reason for these practices, set out in all their grisly minutiae by the Antidemonic Law, we must turn to read the still vaster magical literature of the Sumerians, immigrants into Babylonia from Central Asia, or the modern accounts of the Shamanism found to this day in the same regions.
To Magian thinking in its earliest form, there were no true gods, only a numberless horde of evil demons who constantly threatened the lives of the unhappy peasants and whose malign attacks could have prevented only by rites of aversion. Their home was in the north, from which more human enemies also threatened; after the Iranian conquest of Iran we are not surprised to find the Aryan storm-god Indra included among these demons. As in Babylonia, the majority of the fiends were without name: "Perish, demon fiend! Perish, demon tribe! Perish, demon-created! Perish, demon-begotten! In the North shall you perish!"
Others personify various forms of illness: "Thee, Sickness, I ban; thee, Death, I ban; thee, Fever, I ban; thee, Evil-Eye, I ban," and so on through a long series. Many more can be driven away if the worshiper knows the demon's names; of these, the most dangerous is Aeshma, "Drunkenness." One demon prohibits rain; there are fiends who seize the man's incautiously trimmed hair and pared nails and from them raise lice to eat the grain and clothing.
Chief of all the demons was Angra Mainyu, the "Evil Spirit" without qualification, the creator of all things evil and of noxious animals; for this reason the Magi accumulated high merit by killing the earthly representatives of these evil spirits -- ants, snakes, creeping things, frogs, and birds -- by stopping up their burrows and destroying their homes. It is also through the incantations of the Magi, fortified by perfumes and the magic furrow, that man was freed from the ailments and his uncleanness.
But powerful as was the Evil Spirit and his demons, in daily life the most feared was the Nasu Druj, the "Corpse Fiend," to whom the greater part of the Antidemonic Law refers. Burial or cremation of the dead might be practiced by neighbors or enemies, but such easy disposal was not for the followers of the Magi. Despite all the precautions, it was inevitable that the Corpse Fiend should envelop the living with her corruption, infection, and pollution.
From the very instant when breath left the body, the corpse was unclean, for the Corpse Fiend hovered over to injure the survivors. Only by the most rigid observance of the prescribed ritual was there safety: the dead must not pollute holy earth or water; corpses must be exposed, carefully tied down by the feet and hair, on the highest points of land where they could be devoured by dogs and vultures.
Only when the bones had been thus freed from all dead and therefore dangerous matter might they be collected in an ossuary (astodan) with holes to permit the dead man still to look upon the sun. This taint of the charnel-house permeates the whole later Zoroastrian literature and, with the host of malignant spirits, makes it depressing reading.
soul rites of the dead among Zoroastrians
From Encyclopaedia Iranica
Art of gaining knowledge by observing and interpreting signs
From the discovery of the wheel to nuclear weapons