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The Tri-functional Ideology
The emergence of the concept of "King-Priest"
Part I Part II Part III

Afshin Afshari
December 26, 2004

The Aryan tribes, who, during the second millennia before J.C., established in a region stretching from Syria to the Indus, brought with them an explanation of the world and of society which was, at the same time, simple and powerful. This explanation was based on the existence of three fundamental functions, clearly separated and more or less equivalent in their importance and contribution. These were the religious function, the martial function, and the abundance/wealth creation function.

The tri-functional ideology is founded on the profound realization that, both at the cosmic and the human levels, the harmonious organization of the world requires the collaboration of antagonist forces which, in order to accomplish their destiny within the collectivity, must collaborate while remaining true to their essence. The recognition and acceptance of these forces resulted in a society divided into three classes: the priests (Brahmans), the warriors (Arteshtar), and the farmers (Vastryosh) [1]. There existed even a color-based codification of the three classes: White for the priests, red for the warriors, black for the farmers.

Each class had its own God(s). The religious class which combined spirituality, law and administration, was symbolized by the Mithra/Varuna couple. While Varuna represented the magic, forceful, terrible, somewhat demonic, aspects of the function, Mithra, the God of contracts, presented a gentler, more reassuring face. Indra, the God of the warriors, summarized the necessary brutal Force required to fight demons and save the world. In order to accomplish its deeds, it ingested the intoxicating Soma (or Hoama). Nastaya, the God of the farmers, was considerably less colorful than the others. It mainly represented fecundity, wealth, health, peace, and charity.

According to this vedic [2] pre-Zoroastrian polytheist religion, for each of these "positive" Gods, there existed a contrary, "negative", God. The existence of these contrary powers translated the belief in a radical dualism based on the co-eternity of the Principles of Light and Darkness. 

Since the emergence of the tri-functional ideology predates the migration and separation of the Aryan tribes into the various Indo-European peoples, its traces have been recorded in the history and literature of Iranians, Indians, Romans, and Celts [3].

Take for instance the famous inscription in Perspolis, wherein the Great King Darius prays Ahura-Mazda to preserve his empire from the army of the enemy (second function), bad harvest (third function), and lies (Draugha, a major religious sin for Iranians). Remarkably close is this extract of the Celtic Senchus Mor (Ancient Laws of Ireland, 1873, IV, p.12): "On three occasions, the world perishes: When men die of famine, when the production of wars increases, when verbal contracts dissolve."

In the realm of epic poetry, the tale of Fereydoon is relevant: He had three sons named Salm, Tor, and Iraj. To Salm, he gave great wealth. To Tor, he gave courage. To Iraj, who had the Farr (For a discussion of Farr, cf. my previous article: "The Earth is an Angel"), he gave law and religion. Ferdowsiís Shahnameh also refers to Fereydoonís sons, albeit in a different settings: When exposed to the same peril (a dragon) each brother reveals, by his attitude, his nature. Salm runs away. Tor attacks blindly. Iraj manages to deflect the peril without fighting, using his intelligence.

The Zoroastrian Reform 
Zoroaster appeared in the North-Eastern corner of the Iranian world between 1000 and 600 years before J.C. While recognizing the universal struggle between the Principles of Light and Darkness, Zoroastrianism is clearly a monotheistic religion. Ahura-Mazda, the unique and transcendent God, appears, at times, almost as majestic as the Yahweh of Israel. However, he is not the lone ruler of the universe; he is helped by Six "Archangels" (For a detailed discussion of the Zoroastrian religion, cf. my previous article: "The Earth is an Angel").  

According to Dumezil [3], the Zoroastrian "reform" of the ancient vedic polytheist religion of Iran resulted in a predominance of the religious/administrative function (the priest class): Mithra retained its status to some extent while Varuna and the gods of war and orgy/fecundity were demonized and put in the same category as the original "negative" entities (called Daeva). At the same time, the deeply rooted tri-functional ideology was preserved, albeit in a different setting.

Dumezil suggests that the Six Archangels implement the three fundamental functions: Bahman, the First Archangel, ruler of the animal kingdom and symbol of Good Thought, and Urdibihisht, ruler of fire and symbol of Order and Law, represent the sovereign/administrative/religious function. Shahrivar, ruler of metals and symbol of Power, represents the martial function.

Murdad, ruler of the plant kingdom and symbol of Immortality, Khurdad, ruler of the aquatic world and symbol of Health and Integrity, and Isfandarmuz, the Angel of the Earth and symbol of Pious Thought, together represent the fecundity/wealth function. In the new setting, the Bahman/Urdibihist couple (replacing Mithra/Varuna) is predominant while the fecundity function represented by the triplet Murdad/Khurdad/Isfandarmuz has clearly been revaluated in comparison to the martial function represented by Shahrivar.

The Emergence of the King-Priest 
Thus, the Indo-Europeans had, in a very early stage of their development, intellectually distinguished, analyzed, and meditated the three fundamental functions. Another remarkable Indo-European particularity was that the cohesion of the tri-functional society rested upon the shoulders of a King.  

It can be assumed that, originally, the King materialized a sort of alliance between the three classes. Later pre-Zoroastrian texts, however, reveal a gradual prevalence of the first function (Mithra/Varuna) within the Iranian people; probably under the influence of the neighboring Mesopotamian civilization where the concept of God-sent ruler had been firmly in place for millennia.

This tendency was naturally further accentuated by the advent of Zoroastrianism: The power of governance was conferred to a King-Priest selected by Ahura-Mazda (holder of the Royal Farr). To the point that, under the Sassanid rule, the prevailing politico-religious regime was almost completely in conformity with the commonly held notion of "Eastern Despotism". The complex interactions of the Zoroastrian concept of King-Priest with the Islamic faith and the related notion of Velayat will be analyzed in a future article.
See Part I Part II Part III

While in India, this later evolved into a rigid system of casts, in Iran, the tri-functional concept was more regarded as a model, an ideal (except, perhaps, during the Sassanid rule when it was institutionalized).

[2] The adjective"vedic" refers to the Rig-Veda, the most ancient Indo-European religious text. For instance, cf. Mehrdad Bahar (1996): "A Research in Iranian Mythology" [in Persian]. 

[3] Georges Dumezil (1968): "Mythe et epopee, l'ideologie des trois fonctions dans les epopees des peuples indo-europeens" [in French].

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