Iranian Documents


Iran is the modern name of the realm which has also been known as Persia.

We are here concerned with three periods:


The lifetime of Zarathushtra

This is not known. Was it the sixth century B.C.E., or was it much earlier?

We could argue for the sixth century in this way:

Cyrus (559-530 B.C.E.), the founder of the Persian Empire,  mentions the god Ahura Mazda, the god proclaimed by the prophet Zarathushtra, though  he names other gods as his patrons.

Darius (a successor of Cyrus but not a descendant ) likewise acknowledges Auramazda but also "the gods that there are";

the name of the king who protected Zarathushtra was Vishtaspa, and that was also the name of the father of Darius, who  ruled Parthia  while Darius was  emperor;

so Zarathushtra lived in eastern Iran (in or near Parthia) during the reign of  Darius (522-486).


On the other hand, some scholars suggest, on the basis of Iranian and Greek traditions, that the prophet belongs in the second millennium B.C.E., perhaps contemporary with Moses, rather than with Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and the Buddha, in the sixth century B.C.E.


The Islamic author al-Biruni gives the date of Zarathushtra as 258 years before Alexander the Great.

The date of Alexander's defeat of Darius III of Persia was 330 B.C.E.;

subtracting 258 from this produces 588 B.C.E., as the birth-year of the prophet;

tradition says that he died at the age of seventy-seven;  this gives his dates as 588-511.


The Achaemenid period

The era of the empire of the Medes and Persians, from Cyrus  (559-530) to Darius III (336-330). Darius the Great (522-486) states at the beginning of his Behistun inscription (1-3), that he was a descendant of Hakhamanish (Greek Akhaimenes), and thus an Achaemenid.


The Parthian period

The era of the Parthian empire (2nd century B.C.E. to 3rd century C.E.), when the Arsacid dynasty asserted Iranian independence from the Greek and Roman empires.

Christianity was established in the Parthian empire, notably at Edessa (Urhai), a city lying between the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Acts of Judas Thomas was possibly produced there in the 2nd or 3rd century, including the  Song of the Pearl.

This poem mentions other parts of the empire, notably Hyrcania (Warkan), Mesene (Maisan), and Babylonia (Babel). 

The Parthian emperors assumed the old Persian title"king of kings" (cp. Song of Pearl VI).

They established their capital at Seleukia-Ktesiphon (on the Tigris), north of Babylon (on the Euphrates).



Two language groups of the ancient Iranian realm need to be distinguished: Elamite and Persian.


Elamite was the  most ancient language of the land on the eastern side of the Persian Gulf, known as Elam. This language is neither Semitic nor Indo-European, and so it was unrelated to either Akkadian or Iranian; nor was it connected with Sumerian.


Old Persian is the language of ancient Iranian royal inscriptions, employed by such

emperors as Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes (as the Greeks called them).

Like Greek and Latin, the Iranian language is of the Indo-European family.

It is closely related to Sanskrit, with which it forms an Indo-Iranian sub-group of the

Indo-European family.

The connection between Persian and Sanskrit is seen in religious vocabulary they share.


            Sanskrit            Persian

            asura    lord            ahura    lord

            deva      god            daeva   demon

            rta       order, right            arta or asha   order, truth

            soma    a sacred drink            haoma   a sacred drink

            Mitra   covenant god            Mithra  covenant god


Sanskrit and Persian are Aryan languages, and the name Iran comes from the word aryan, which apparently means "noble". Thus Darius the Great says:"from of old we have been nobly born" (Behistun inscription, 3);

Auramazda is "the god of the Aryans" (63);

the inscription  "was composed in Aryan" (70).

Note that the name Eire (Ireland) is also derived from Aryan.


Some Aryans migrated into the Indian sub-continent, as the Vedic-Sanskrit people.

Others moved from Central Asia into Mesopotamia. Thus in a treaty between the Hittites (who also had Indo-European languages) and the land of Mitanni (that is, the Hurrian kingdom of northern Mesopotamia) the names of the gods invoked as witnesses include  not only Hittite and Hurrian deities,  but also gods known from Mesopotamia and India:

            Ea-sharru lord of wisdom, Anu and Antu, Enlil and Ninlil,  (all Mesopotamian)

            the twin gods Mitra and Uruwana (Varuna), Indar (Indra),

            the Nassatiyan gods (the Vedic twins known as the Nasatyas or the Ashvins)


The languages of interest to us here are:

            Old Persian, in the royal inscriptions;

            Avestan, the language of the Avesta, the Zarathushtrian sacred scriptures;

            the language of the Gathas (hymns) of Zarathushtra, an Iranian dialect which differs considerably from the language used elsewhere in the Avesta.

            (Why? Because it is centuries older? A more eastern dialect?}

The kings also wrote inscriptions and documents in Elamite, Akkadian, and Aramaic.

Thus the Behistun  inscription of Darius has its text in Persian, Elamite, Akkadian,

and it was promulgated throughout the provinces in Aramaic.


The scripts used in the texts we study are:

            Persian cuneiform syllabic writing, for the Achaemenian inscriptions

            (deciphered in 1802 by Georg F. Grotefend, a German school teacher of Greek);

            Elamite cuneiform syllabary and Babylonian cuneiform syllabary

            for the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenian period;

            Aramaic alphabet, for royal decrees and epistles throught the Persian empire;

            Persian alphabet, used by Parthian and Sassanian kings;  and also by Persian

            priests for the Avesta; it was based on the Aramaic alphabet.



The texts include hymns, royal inscriptions, and an allegorical poem.

The Gathas ('odes') are the oldest poems in the Avesta (the Zoroastrian scriptures), and presumably go back to Zarathushtra himself.



Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord"; ahura  corresponds to Sanskrit asura "lord").

The name also occurs as Auramazda, and Ohrmazd or Ohrmizd.

Was Ahura Mazda the Vedic Asura named Varuna (the sky god who punished sinners)?

Or another asura, distinct from Varuna and Mitra (so Rig Veda 5.63.7)?

(Mary Boyce's theory)

Spenta Mainyu, the "Blessed Spirit" or "Bounteous Spirit" or "Holy Spirit".

Other deities named outside the Gathas are Mithra (Vedic Mitra, god of covenants, close companion of Varuna), and Anahita (goddess of water and fertility). Herodotos said (5th century B.C.E.) that the Persians worshipped the sky, sun, moon, earth, water, and winds.



Ahura Mazda was "spirit", but was he envisioned anthropomorphically  by Zarathushtra?

In Achaemenid iconography Ahura Mazda is depicted as a bearded god in a winged sun disk.



Was Zarathushtra a monotheist?

Darius certainly gives preeminence to Ahura Mazda; but he mentions "the other gods that there are" (Inscription, par. 62); so he was a polytheist. 

Like Cyrus, he recognized the gods of all the peoples in his empire. He also authorized the rebuilding of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem (see Ezra  6, where Darius reasserts the decree of Cyrus). 

Darius  affirmed Zarathushtra's  dualism of truth and falsehood ; it was deceit (drug) that made vassals rebel against him.



No family groupings, unless the Spenta Mainyu is the son of Ahura Mazda.

Ahura Mazda has the six Amesha Spenta as associates (attributes, or angels?):

Vohu Manah  (Good Mind, Good Thought = cattle) 

Asha  (Truth = fire)

Kshathra   (Power, Rule, Dominion = metal)      

Armaiti  (Devotion = earth)

Haurvatat  (Wholeness = water)                          

Ameretat  (Immortality = vegetation)

The two spirits: the  good  spirit of truth

and the  evil spirit of deceit (Drug or Druj)

Ahuras opposed to daevas (demons).

(In Hinduism devas are gods and asuras are demons.)



Ahura Mazda is the supreme god.

Mithra 'the lord of ample pastures', god of loyalty.



The spirits help or hinder Ahura Mazda in his work.



Zarathushtra  as a prophet, like Moses and Muhammad. 

Also a sacrificial priest?



Ahura Mazda as creator of the universe.



Doctrine of paradise and hell, with judgement at the Bridge of the Arbiter, over the abyss.



Winged sun-disk (originally Egyptian; in Mesopotamia the God Assur appears in the disc, and in Persia it is Ahura Mazda, and this symbol has survived).


Religious Pluralism

The texts (HaC, 222-242) involve many religions of the ancient Iranian empire:

Babylonian religion

Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and claimed he was doing so at the behest of Marduk.


Egyptian religion

Darius the Great, being the ruler of Egypt, styled himself the son of Rey.



Hymns of the prophet Zarathushtra (Greek: Zoroaster),

from the Avesta, the scriptures of this faith;

the hymns are addressed to the god Ahura Mazda and his associated spirits.


Monumental inscriptions of Cyrus and Darius  (6th-5th century B.C.E.), memorializing

their own empire-building feats, and giving thanks to Auramazda (Ahura Mazda).



Hebrew documents relating to King Cyrus the Great (6th century B.C.E.), founder of the

Iranian empire (the empire of the Medes and Persians), by his conquest of Babylon.

He is also mentioned in the Book of Daniel, it should be noted, where he is apparently

called not only Cyrus the Persian (6:28) but also Darius, "by birth a Mede" (9:1).



The Song of the Pearl is a Christian allegory set in the Parthian empire.  All the places named in it, except Egypt, belong to the Indo-Aryan world of India and Iran, not to the Roman empire; note the names Parthia and Hyrcania, as in the inscription of Darius (35).


Brian E. Colless, Hieroglyph and Cuneiform: Ancient Religious Writings (Massey University, 1997)

    Not available commercially, but much of it is in the Collesseum sites.

Ninian Smart, Persian Zoroastrianism,

            The Religious Experience of Mankind (Fontana paperback), 302-315.

            "Zarathustra himself stressed the ethical dimension of religion"

            "the Mazdaeism of the Achaemenid period stressed the ritual dimension"


M.J. Dresden,  Mythology of Ancient Iran, in S.N. Kramer (ed)

            Mythologies of the Ancient World, 332-366


S.G.F. Brandon,  Zarathustra and the dualism of Iran,

            Religion in Ancient History (1973), Chapter 13


R.C. Zaehner,  Zoroastrianism

            The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (1971) 200-214


R.C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961)


Mary Boyce,  Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979)

            The Background,  1-16

            Zoroaster and his teaching,  17-29

            The establishing of Mazda worship,  30-38

            The unrecorded centuries, 39-47

            Under the Achaemenians, 48-77  (Cyrus, 50-53;  Darius the Great, 54-56)


Mary Boyce,  A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. 1  (1975)

            A detailed study by one of the foremost authorities on the subject




Subpages (1): Zoroastrian Texts