Some Remarks on Water and Caves in Pre-Islamic Iranian Religions

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  Some remarks on water and caves in pre-Islamic Iranian religions By Philip G. Kreyenbroek  Keywords: Western Iran, Pre-Islamic Religions,  Ne¯ rangesta¯ n, cave, cult of water  The discovery of what is undoubtedly an ancientsanctuary at Ves˘nave confronts us with aspects of religious life in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Iranthat are not widely considered in the academic lit-erature on the subject so far: –  the prominent character of the cult of water inbranches of Sasanian Zoroastrianism; –  the role of caves in religious life; –  the existence of aspects of ritual and observancewhose existence was at best reluctantly admittedby the Zoroastrian priests who supervised the fi-nal redaction (in the  9 th and  10 th centuries BCE)of the Pahlavi Books, our main sources of infor-mation about Zoroastrianism in Sasanian andearly Islamic Iran; –  the probable existence of popular cults inParthian and Sasanian Iran besides the ‘official’form of Zoroastrianism reflected in the PahlaviBooks.As doctrinal aspects of the cult of water in Zoroas-trianism and a range of observances connectedwith water in that religion will be discussed else-where in this volume, the present paper will dis-cuss the evidence of the  Ne¯ rangesta¯ n  about thecult of water; aspects of the ancient Iranian cos-mogony which may account for the popularity of caves in pre-Islamic Iranian religion(s); draw atten-tion to a number of similar but hitherto barely ex-plored instances of the combination of a water cultconnected with caves; and discuss some of the im-plications of the material examined here, notablythe probability of the existence of popular cults,and the relationship between srcinally Zoroastrianand earlier beliefs and observances in WesternIran.The  Ne¯ rangesta¯ n  is a work whose core con-sists of Avestan teachings concerning ritual mat-ters, and also contains a translation and commen-tary of these texts in Middle Persian. 1 The term‘Avestan’ is used for the sacred, liturgical languageof Zoroastrianism, an Old-Iranian language that iswidely assumed to have been spoken in easternparts of Iran. The  Ne¯ rangesta¯ n  (hereafter   Ner   ) haslong been transmitted orally in centres of priestlyeducation. The time of srcin of the Avestan textstherefore cannot be ascertained but, as was ar-gued elsewhere, 2 it is likely that the fixation of Avestan texts 3 in oral transmission took place inthe course of the Achaemenid period. At that time,Western Iran became the centre of the Zoroastrianworld, and Western Iranian priests, whose nativetongue was not Avestan, began to learn thesacred texts by heart rather than acquiring an ac-tive command of the sacred language. Given theunstable nature of texts in free oral transmission,and the freedom of the transmitters to discardwhat was no longer relevant, texts that were in-cluded in the ‘fixed’ Avesta in Achaemenid times,were probably felt to be true and relevant at thattime.The Pahlavi commentary of the  Ner  , on theother hand, reflects the opinions of much later gen-erations of Zoroastrian priests  –  particularly, itseems, those of the late Sasanian period. 4 As willbe seen below, the Pahlavi Commentators had torespect the authority of the Avestan directions, butwere often able to interpret these in the light of their own understanding and preoccupations.The Zoroastrian ritual as we know it from con-temporary ritual practice and from the PahlaviBooks includes at least two distinct offerings to thewaters (  a¯ b-zo¯ hr   ): –  an independent offering, which could be madeeither by a priest commissioned for the pur-pose, or by a lay person; it involved pouring amixture of milk and some other fluids (see be-low) into a source of water, while reciting Ave-stan prayers; –  an offering that forms part of the high priestlyritual known as  Yasna,  which is now always per-formed by priests who are in a state of purity,in a special place (  Dar(b)-e Mihr   ), which oftenforms part of a fire temple. The  Yasna  is alwaysperformed in the first watch of the morning, i.e.relatively early. The actual rite known as  a¯ b-zo¯ hr  comes towards the end of this ritual (Y.  62 . 11 - 70  ), 1 Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  1992 ; Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  1995 ; Kotwal/ Kreyenbroek  2003 ; Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  2009 . 2 Kreyenbroek  1996 . 3 With the exception of the Ancient Avestan texts such as the Ga¯t-ha¯s, which had been memorised  verbatim  from a much earlier period, see Kreyenbroek  1996 . 4 Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  2003 ,  17 – 18 .  and involves the offering of two forms of a fluidknown as  parahaoma 5 –  to the Waters.The  Ner   contains references to both these obser-vances. While the Pahlavi commentary tends to in-terpret the Avestan passages as references to thefinal part of the  Yasna,  however, the Avestan textsthemselves are more easily interpreted as refer-ences to independent  a¯ b-zo¯ hr   offerings. In the Ave-stan part of   Ner   30 . 1 - 7 , we find: 6 30 . 1  ) From what time onwards does the worship of the divine Beings [i.e. the ritual] through the(offerings to) the Good Waters commence? 30 . 2  ) It (can) last from sunrise to sunset. 30 . 3  ) Both in summer and in winter. 30 . 4  ) He who offers a libation to the Water [ a¯ b- zohr  ] 30 . 5  ) after sunset (or) before sunrise, 30 . 6  ) does not perform a better action than if hewere to sprinkle it on the jaws of a veno-mous snake.In other words, it is said in the Avestan text thatone may make the offering to the Waters from sun-rise to sunset. Since, as we the saw above, the pro-per time for the  Yasna  is restricted to the firstwatch of the morning, the passage can only meanthat the rite referred to here is the independent  a¯ b- zo¯ hr  . The Pahlavi commentary of the same Chapter includes the following passage. 7 30 . 10  ) When he takes the  zo¯ hr   he should move inthe direction of the water and recite (the fol-lowing prayers) near the water:  . . . 30 . 11  ) And  . . .  (he should  . . .  recite):  fra¯ .te stao-maide ahura¯ ne ahurahe van  J  h  e us˘  yasna˛scavahma˛sca hub  e r   e t  ı ¯   s˘ ca us˘ ta.b  e r   e t  ı ¯   s˘ ca van-ta.b  e r   e t  ı ¯   s˘ ca  . . .  yazatana˛m  above the water;(at)  Ł   a¯   he should turn (the  Haoma  cups)face down; (at)  as˘ aona˛m  he should fill themwith a little consecrated water; (at)  kuxs˘ nis˘ a he should fill them completely; (at)  us b ı ¯ bara¯ mi   he should lift them up from thewater; (he recites)  ra Ł   asca b  e r   e  za¯ to¯   on hisway (to the ritual table, and)  ga¯  Ł  a˛sca sra¯ uuaiio¯ it   at the place where he puts itdown.The Avestan texts included in the Pahlavi commen-tary are passages from the liturgy of the  Para¯  gna ceremony which precedes the  Yasna.  Otherwise  Ner  30  contains no clear reference to the  Yasna  liturgyin connection with the offering. This suggests thatthe later priestly commentators could not imaginethat a minor, potentially lay ritual could be referredto in such a venerable, ancient text, and took thepassage to refer to the  Yasna  ritual. The  Ner   textcontinues: 30 . 12  ) If one commissions two priests to do thework, then one of them should take the  ba¯  j  from the other, 8 and they should recite  ra- Ł   asca b  e r   e  zato¯  .The implication, in this priestly text, is that the ri-tual can be carried out by priests. Modern practiceand other evidence suggest, however, that this onlyhappened if the ritual was particularly important. Inother cases it could be done by the laity, notablyby young girls. Mary Boyce, 9 describing the ritualpractices of the Iranian village of S˘arifa¯ba¯d in the 1960 s, writes:It was when the villagers wanted the rite per-formed for the dead that they entrusted it to theDastur [i.e. the priest, PK] so that it should be ri-tually correct and fully effective, but during the ‘be-loved’ months [certain months of the Zoroastrianyear, PK], girls used to do it more simply for theliving members of the family, carrying the libationsto every stream in the village and pouring a littleinto each while reciting some piece of Avestan.Interestingly,  Ner   30 . 8  also refers to a (ritual)bowl ‘prepared by children’ and ‘  parahaoma  pre-pared by children’ as a possible part of the offer-ing. 10 Boyce describes the practice at S˘arifa¯ba¯d asfollows: 11 The libation itself was provided by the laity inthe following way: A bowl, usually one inscribedand kept for ritual use, was filled with milk directlyfrom the cow, a handful of oleaster fruits wasadded and rose petals and marjoram leaves weresprinkled on the surface, and then the bowl wastaken to the Dastur.As we saw earlier, the Avestan parts of   Ner  30  probably referred to the independent  a¯ b-zo¯ hr, with a single Pahlavi passage suggesting that thetext was later associated with the  Yasna  ritual. Thesame may be true of   Ner   51 , where the Pahlavicommentary refers clearly to the latter part of the Yasna  service, 12 suggesting that the rite referred towas the  a¯ b-zo¯ hr   for the  Yasna  ceremony. The srci-nal, Avestan part of this chapter on the other hand, 5 Viz (  1  ) a mixture of leaves from the pomegranate tree, twigs of the haoma plant, and consecrated water which is prepared bymeans of pounding and straining during the preparatory cere-mony (Paragna¯ ) preceding the Yasna (the ‘first parahaoma’);and (  2  ) a similar mixture, this time containing milk (the ‘secondparahaoma’), which is prepared during middle part of the cere-mony (Yasna.  22 – 28  and Yasna  31 – 34  ); for references see Kot-wal and Boyd  1991 ,  169 , s.v. para¯ho¯m 6 Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  2003 ,  128 – 31 . 7 Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  2003 ,  132 – 33 . 8 I.e. ‘exchange parts of a ritual formula with’. 9 Boyce  1977 ,  190 . 10 Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  2003 ,  130 – 31 . 11 Boyce  1977 ,  190 . 12 Nerangestan  51 . 10 ,  11 .  –  see Kotwal/Kreyenbroek  2003 , 234 – 5 . Philip G. Kreyenbroek 158  refers to a much more variable act than the  Yasna as we know it. 51 . 1  ) One who makes offerings to the water, not tothe  bar   e  sman 13 51 . 2  ) If the  bar   e  sman  is placed within a distanceof the length of a chariot-pole, (or) thebreadth of a barley corn, 51 . 3  ) Let him offer it to the  bar   e  sman  also. 51 . 4  ) If not, he shall be punished with three (lashes)or a day’s length of work in the field. 51 . 5  ) He who (offers it) to the  bar   e  sman , not tothe water, 51 . 6  ) Ifthewateris within adistance of three paces, 51 . 8  ) If he does not offer it he shall be punishedwith three (lashes) or with a day’s length of work in the field.The text discusses offerings to the waters not in-tended to include worship of the  bar   e  sman,  and vice versa.  As it is unlikely that the elaborate ritualwe call  Yasna  could be performed without homagebeing paid to both water and  bar   e  sman , the srci-nal reference was probably to an independent ri-tual, and was associated with the  Yasna  by the la-ter commentators.The evidence of the  Ner  , then, shows thatthere were considerable changes and developmentsin the way rituals were described in religious textsrepresenting the Achaemenid and the later Sasa-nian and early Islamic periods. One tendency sug-gested by the texts is that offerings to the Watershad considerable prestige in early Zoroastrianismbut  –  at least from the point of view of the priest-hood  –  later declined in importance. Such a devel-opment may have resulted at least in part from theincreasing importance of fire, as the object and iconof the temple cult. The latter probably became par-ticularly prominent in Sasanian times, when it wasactively promoted by the State. 14 In the Pahlavi Books and in contemporary Zor-oastrianism  –  i.e. in the priestly tradition as it wasprobably defined in the course of the Sasanian peri-od  –  fire clearly overshadows water as a focus of worship. Older sources show, however, that consid-erable offerings could be made to the Waters. Stra-bo, who flourished from  63  BCE till  23  CE, writes: 15 But for water they go to a lake or a river or aspring, dig a trench and sacrifice (the victim) over it,taking care that nothing of the water near by is soiledwith blood, because thus they will defile it. Then theyarrange the pieces of meat on myrtle or laurel, theMagi touch it with slender wands [i.e. the  bar   e  sman ,PK] and sing invocations, while pouring out a libationof oil with milk and honey, not into the fire or water,but upon the ground. And they sing invocations for along time, holding the bundle of slender tamariskwands in their hands.The passage 16 is interesting because it de-scribes offerings to the Waters of a size that is un-heard of in modern practice: while modern Zoroas-trians pour some liquids into the water or on to theearth, here the offering consists of animal sacrifice.For a long time no other references to such an  a¯ b- zo¯ hr   were widely known to exist. Strabo’s informa-tion is confirmed, however, by the  Ne¯ rangesta¯ n , ina passage dealing with the ‘nourishment’ of theWaters in a way that seemed wholly puzzling untilthe discovery of Ves˘nave suggested an explanation. 49 . 1  ) How much fermented milk should a man of-fer to the stagnant waters? As much as threemouthfuls from the mixing bowl. 49 . 2  ) He may take the food that has been col-lected. [Phl. 17  As much as has been col-lected, that food [meat] he may collect. ] 49 . 3  ) And he may even take up what has beenproffered of curdled milk. Let him keep that curdled (milk) [cheese] for (his own) keeping. 49 . 4  ) Similarly for navigable water. When the water is deep it is the same. 49 . 5  ) But to navigable water, (In the case of) deep water, 49 . 6  ) The Fraberetar  18 may without sin offer half as much of it. He who acts as frab  e r   e tar;may without sinoffer upward of half the quantity [i.e. for ap- portioning (he should) use scales (made) of  skin. 49 . 8  )  Stagnant water accepts that (offering) of which running water accepts half; except for  solid food, for solid food (should have) at least three (bowls?) to be complete, and at most six   . . . 49 . 17  ) Without sin (one may offer)  a whole cooked animal as part of the solid   portion, not theliquid. Without guilt is he who [cooks together] all  five, those of the (solid) offering, not the fat (offering). It is suggestive that the Pahlavi version of   Ner  49  does not translate the Avestan words for ‘awhole cooked animal’, but misinterprets Av.  pux  -      e m  ‘cooked’ as a form of   pux   a-  ‘fifth’. Evidently 13 I. e. the bundle of twigs used in the ritual. 14 Boyce  1979 ,  106 - 9 . 15 Geography  15 . 3 . 14 ; trsl. de Jong   1997 ,  126 . 16 On the questions raised by the description of the offerings seede Jong   1997 ,  140 – 142 . 17 The Pahlavi translation of the passages is here given in italics.Square brackets denote additions to the actual translation bythe commentators. 18 In later usage the word frab  e r   e tar, lit. ‘one who offers’, is al-ways used for a ritual priest. It the Avestan passage, however,it may have referred to anyone who made an offering. Some remarks on water and caves in pre-Islamic Iranian religions  159  the practice described in the Avestan part of the Ner   did not correspond to the observances for theWaters that were known in later Sasanian times.The tendency of the priesthood to keep the ri-tual directions that are referred to in their texts with-in the confines of priestly practice, is illustrated bythe fact that  –  as in the two cases discussed above –  at the end of this Chapter the Pahlavi commentaryagain seeks to explain the passage as part of the Yasna  ritual by referring to the liturgy of Y. 62 - 70 : 49 . 23  )  And at   yen  J he¯.me¯ as˘a¯t haca¯ vahis˘t  e m (Y. 69 . 2  ) both times one should offer the  zo¯hr  . At   yen  J- he¯  , one should pour a little of the libationinto the mortar, and at   pait ı ¯  (one should of- fer) the solid food. The combined evidence of Strabo and the  Ner  ,therefore, shows that major offerings were made tothe Waters by some Iranian communities as late asthe first century CE, while the commentators whoprobably flourished towards the end of the Sasa-nian era, could or would not associate these refer-ences with practices they accepted as part of prop-er Zoroastrian observance.The Avestan part of the  Ner  , which must havereached Western Iran in the course of the Achaeme-nid period, refers to offerings of food and liquids,but no reference is made in any part of the text tojewellery or coins, such as were found at Ves˘nave.As was suggested earlier, a plausible explanationfor this lack of references to what was evidently alater custom, as for the tendency to misinterpretAvestan references to offerings to the Waters, isthat such observances did not find favour with thelater priesthood. In the case of Ves˘nave, the narrowentrance, which forces visitors to crawl on all fours,would have made it almost impossible for a Zoroas-trian priest to keep the physical purity required for ritual practice. It could be deduced, then, that thecult at Ves˘nave was not primarily a priestly one. If this is so, Ves˘nave is the first documented site of aZoroastrian popular cult in Iran.In Western Iran, Zoroastrian teaching, and tosome extent observance, was superimposed on anexisting tradition. This process probably began inAchaemenid times, and probably took place fromthe top down. Priests  –  the only group who wereable to recite the sacred Avestan texts  –  clearlyplayed a key role in its transmission. As a result, agrowing distinction came to be made between high,priestly rituals  –  in the course of time this came tomean ‘intrinsically connected with the temple cult’ – and popular, largely lay observances. Many of thelatter   –  such as the offerings to water   –  probablywent back to common Iranian culture and may haveexisted in both the pre-Zoroastrian and Zoroastriantraditions. As the priesthood was presumably pre-occupied with ‘high’ rather than popular ritual, Zor-oastrianism came to be represented in writtensources mostly in terms of the former, while tradi-tional observances that required neither temple nor priest, continued to be practised, but were not pro-minently described in the Pahlavi Books. This mayexplain why ‘official’ Zoroastrian sources of thepost-Achaemenid era implicitly describe fire asmore worthy of worship than water, while offeringsto the Waters clearly played an important part inlay Zoroastrian observance. In fact, such offeringswere not only made under the Sasanians, as isshown by the evidence of Ves˘nave, but continue tobe made to this day by non-Zoroastrian Iranians,both in the Kerma¯ns˘a¯h region 19 and in northernFars. 20 This strongly suggests that offerings to thewaters persisted on a popular level.The existence of a water cult can thus be shownto have ancient roots in Western Iranian religion. A closely related question, in a work focussing on Ves˘-nave, is to what extent the same is true of caves.Although Ves˘nave is the only sanctuary of this type tohave been investigated in any depth so far, a number of other, similar sites have come to light, or come tobe associated with pre-Islamic religion, in the pastdecade or so. Perhaps significantly these seem to oc-cur in clusters, two of which can now be identified.Not far from Ves˘nave is the cave system of N ı ¯ a¯sar,next to which a spectacular waterfall is found. In oneof the central ‘halls’ of this system of caves, the imageof a sun has been carved into the rock. 21 In many ways, the system of caves under theYezidi sanctuary of La¯les˘ in Northern Iraq is similar to that of Ves˘nave: in both cases there is evidencethat the caves were used for religious purposes be-fore Islam became dominant, 22 in both cases water springs from living rock, and in both cases accessto the main cave is through a narrow corridor. Thesanctuary of N ı ¯ a¯sar has a counterpart not far fromLa¯les˘, at Cha¯rst ı ¯ n/Cha¯rsitun near Duhok. There onefinds traces of a waterfall, 23 with conduits to takeits water into the cave. In the cave itself there is a 19 Information received by the author from several inhabitants of Kerma¯ns˘a¯h, who pour rose-water into streams. 20 I am indebted for this information to Dr. Kianoosh Rezania,who informs me that Moslem friends of his family used to ma-ke such offerings ‘for barakat (blessings)’. 21 Information I owe to Dr. Shahrokh Razmjou (oral communicati-on London,  7  May  2008  ). 22 In one, apparently man-made, hall in the rock adjacent to thenatural caves, a man-shaped figure was hewn into the rock.Although the figure is now corroded, or has been defaced bylater generations of visitors, the most plausible reason for creating such a monument in a subterranean space appears tobe the need for the representation of a divinity. The fact thatthe hall strongly resembles a Roman Mithraeon may or maynot be relevant here. 23 An artificial waterfall has now been created in the bed of thenatural one, so that water can be seen to fall even during thedry season. Philip G. Kreyenbroek 160
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