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The Bundahišn:
The Zoroastrian Book of Creation:
A New Translation

edited and translated by domenico agostini and samuel thrope
oxford university, 262 pages, $99

Iranian rule has come to an end in the country of Iran!” So declared Persia’s chief Zoroastrian priest, Adurbad-i Emedan, roughly a thousand years ago. Arab armies flying the banner of Allah had checkmated the Sasanian dynasty four centuries earlier. In a.d. 651, the last Sasanian monarch, Yazdegerd III, was killed by a miller in Merv, in today’s Turkmenistan, following a failed attempt to retake his throne with Chinese aid. The local Nestorian bishop organized a funeral for the Shah, whose grandmother had been a Christian.

Yet that calamity didn’t lead to the mass Islamization of Iran or the immediate decline of Zoroastrianism. The invaders considered the adherents of Iran’s native religion Ahl al-Kitab, “People of the Book,” and entitled to legal protection on that account, provided they paid the jizya, or poll tax, and provided they didn’t proselytize or intermarry with ­Muslims—things the Zoroastrians were disinclined to do anyway.

The Arabs quickly saw the upside in maintaining the Sasanians’ well-oiled administration and so urged Zoroastrian potentates to continue operating the machine well into the eighth century. ­Many of these elites chose to accept the religion of the Hijazi warlord-prophet in order to be freed of the obligation to pay the jizya and secure political advantage under the new order. But the lower ­classes often weren’t exempted from the jizya even after conversion, and so had little inducement to abandon the ancestral faith; much of the countryside remained religiously unchanged.

Over time, the Arabs tightened the screws, barring non-Muslims from government and targeting hitherto unmolested Zoroastrian fire temples. Local resistance flared up but was quickly extinguished. By the ninth century, anti-­Zoroastrian persecution turned both more intense and more systematic. With help from native Persian collaborators, the caliphs thinned the ranks of the Zoroastrian priesthood, demolished temples, and even chopped down a tree supposedly planted by Zarathustra himself. Two centuries later came yet another crisis: a thorough and humiliating Seljuk (Turkish) invasion. The status of Zoroastrianism was inexorably slipping from the mass religion of Iranic peoples to a marginal, if still living, faith.

It was at this grim moment that Adurbad-i Emedan lamented that Iranians no longer ruled Iran. For the priest, Iranian-ness and Zoroastrianism were so tightly bound up with each other that to abandon the one was to lose the other—a worldview that underscores how, as one historian has written, Zoroastrianism was “from the earliest times . . . linked with ethnicity.”

At the same inflection point, the Zoroastrian priests inscribed the Bundahišn, a treatise on cosmogony and eschatology, following an indeterminate period of oral transmission. As Zoroastrian power collapsed and a whole Iranian life-world disintegrated, the sages of Zarathustra wrote down a creation account that framed the Iranians as central protagonists in the cosmic narrative. Amid discontinuity and dislocation, the Bundahišn promised continuity, belonging, and redemption.

Composed in Middle Persian, the Bundahišn (lit. “the primal ­creation”) reflects the influence of late-­antique and medieval Islamic and Christian thought, behind both of which hovers Greek philosophy, especially Neoplatonism. But as modern scholars and classical sources alike attest, Greek philosophy was itself touched by Zoroastrianism in an earlier age. Zarathustra’s ­sages were reacting to ideas that their own predecessors had helped shape, through the Greco-Roman world’s long history of encounters with ­Iranian civilization.

Now, thanks to the first-ever complete English translation of the oldest extant manuscript, Anglophone researchers and lay readers can enjoy unprecedented access to this treatise. The new translation, by Israel-based scholars Domenico Agostini and Samuel Thrope,won’t easily settle the questions swirling around Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, Agostini and Thrope’s work may go some way toward recovering the Iranian contribution to universal civilization.

Zoroastrianism or, better yet, Mazdayasna (“wisdom-­lord-worship”) long predates the writing of the Bundahišn. Sometime in the mid-second millennium b.c., long after the Iranian tribes had parted ways with the Indo-Aryans and settled somewhere in south-central Asia, there emerged among them a prophet named Zarathustra, bearing a message from the wisdom lord in the form of Avestan-language poems called the Gathas.

Wisdom-lord-worship sang of intensely particularistic and essentially pagan loves—of commitment to a mythic space called Airyana ­Vaejah, the Aryan expanse, “the best of places,” which God had gifted to the Iranian peoples (Airyana Vaejah shifted eastward as the tribes settled the Iranian Plain). But the faith also made abstract claims: about the cosmos as an orderly whole, and man called to live in harmony with this whole by choosing good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. These aspects strikingly resemble both ­Judeo-Christian revelation and Greco-­Roman reason.

The first Iranian dynasty, the Achaemenids of biblical fame, adopted elements of this faith as their public ideology. But it wasn’t until much later, under the Sasanians, that Zoroastrianism was codified ­into something resembling an orthodoxy. The Bundahišn was part of this codification (though, again, it wasn’t written until after the Arab conquest). Yet as the translators note, the Bundahišn is “unbreakably linked to the Avestan tradition”—that is, to the Gathas. Only, instead of Avesta, the Bundahišn cites the dēn.

In modern Persian, dēn simply means “religion.” Yet in this work, the word has other meanings: knowledge, consciousness of good and evil, interior awareness of realities both mundane and spiritual. In one of the Bundahišn’s final chapters, we learn that the dēn of each person meets him at the moment of his death, with the righteous encountering a “comely” girl “wearing a white garment, beautiful in all her limbs,” while the wicked see a hideous witch, who induces “terror and fear in the soul.”

History is divided into 3,000-year cycles during which the forces of order, led by the wisdom lord, ­Ahura Mazda, are beset by evil and chaos, led by the evil deity Ahriman, before ordered existence regains the upper hand and vanquishes disorder. It is a war between the good and bad “dēn.” These theological cycles take on a special poignancy when seen against the backdrop of the “derailment” of Iranian time, as Agostini and Thrope put it, by successive invasions, the Arab one most traumatic of all. The prologue paints that backdrop:

Since the coming of the Arabs to Iran, and their promulgation of an evil dēn and evil will, they [the Iranians] have turned away from the good dēn . . . and from respect for upholders of the dēn, and from the god-given secrets of the deep and wonderful Gathas, and the proper logic of things, right thinking, proper action, and meaningful discourses have passed from the memory and knowledge of the common people.

How might a people trapped in disrupted time come to terms with their condition? The answer: by reframing time itself as a trap set by the supreme deity for his evil adversary.

Zoroastrianism is a dual­istic religion in that good and evil exist as independent principles, originating in complete separation, with a “void” dividing their domains. Ahura Mazda knew that Ahriman would eventually plot against him. So the good deity created time, and good creatures within it, in order to limit the scope of the combat to a temporal span of 12,000 years. In turn, Ahriman marshalled his own army of creatures: the primordial whore, all sorts of vermin. In the time trap set by Ahura Mazda, good and bad became sadly mixed, the scene of man’s life in this present time, before the good deity effectuates a final separation that leaves Ahriman forever behind (the Bundahišn isn’t quite precise about what happens to Ahriman in the end).

This structure—separation, mixture, separation—should be familiar enough to students of Manichaeism, a Persian religion of more recent vintage. Yet the ­Zoroastrianism of the Bundahišn is emphatically not a Gnostic faith, as the prophet Mani’s was. In Zoroastrianism, the enmity of good and evil cuts across the material and spiritual realms, so that there are good spirits and bad, just as there are good material things and bad. In Manichaeism, by contrast, spirit as such is good, and matter as such bad. Indeed, the Bundahišn compares Ahura Mazda’s generation of his creation, with its Neoplatonic echoes, with human conception and birth—a vision very unlike that of Mani, who viewed sexual reproduction as a monstrous process that trapped the divine spark in filthy, fleshly matter. No wonder, then, the Zoroastrian hierarchy sought to repress Manichaeism. (Mani himself was executed by Sasanian authorities at the behest of Karder, the Zoroastrian prelate who arguably did more than any other figure to systematize the faith.)

Like its predecessor, the Avestan wisdom-lord-worship, the religion of the Bundahišn straddles two spiritual realms. One is that of a pastoral ethno-religion that defines what Iranian-ness and Aryan-ness mean. It’s populated by the superheroes and supervillains and deities and demons of Persian lore, and mythic cows and goats whose udders leak milk-semen into the mouths of primordial man and woman. And it isn’t lacking for humor (its version of Adam and Eve fail to have sex for the first fifty years of their marriage; once they finally get down to business, they exclaim, “For fifty years we should have been doing this!”).

The other spiritual realm glim­p­s­ed in the Bundahišn is more universal: It has a place for ­natural law, for a reason that governs the whole of an orderly cosmos, of which man is a part. Its account of the resurrection of the dead (rastakhiz) accords with those found in Abrahamic faiths, while its vision of the rewards of the just and unjust in the afterlife may have influenced the Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic.

Yet even this more universal vision is articulated in a decidedly Iranian key: The deity who lords over ordered existence is Logos itself, the Word. Only, this Word discloses himself in verse and song, humming the world into being. It is this universalistic spirit that for two and a half millennia has lent Iran its intensely spiritual soil, capable of absorbing and making its own the faiths of successive waves of invaders. And if that universalism is indeed part of the true Iranian spirit, then the priest Adurbad-i Emedan was wrong to fret: Iranians never, in fact, ceased to rule Iran.

Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University’s Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life.

Image by A. Davy via Creative Commons. Image cropped.