Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cyrus the Great - His Religion & Inspiration

Cyrus the Great & Cyrus Cylinder Series:
» Cyrus the Great (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
» Cyrus the Great - His Religion & Inspiration
» Cyrus the Great - Pasargadae, Capital (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
» Cyrus the Great - Information Sources
» Cyrus the Great - Xenophon's Cyropaedia (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
» Cyrus the Great - Hebrew Bible Quotes
» Cyrus Cylinder
» Cyrus Cylinder & its Discoverer Hormuzd Rassam
» Cyrus Cylinder - its Remarkable Discovery
» Cyrus Cylinder - Contents (Eduljee)
» Cyrus Cylinder - Translation (Rogers)
» Cyrus Cylinder - Translation (Finkel)
» Cyrus' Edict & the Chinese Cuneiform Bones
» Cyrus Cylinder - Talk by Neil MacGregor

Today, over twenty five hundred years after his death, we celebrate and honour the life of King Cyrus II, the Great. He is famed as an icon for his humanity and benevolence. What inspired him to these acts? Was he irreligious or pious? If he had a faith, to what religion did he belong? Since we know of no direct statement by him about his faith, we will search the oldest available records about him to seek answers to our questions.

King Cyrus lived between 600 and 530 BCE and was a member of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty of kings. Alexander of Macedonia destroyed the bulk of Achaemenid records when he invaded Persia and deposed the Achaemenids. What remains of the records are mainly rock inscriptions. Most of our information about the Achaemenids now comes from foreign sources: Classical Greek and Roman texts – even the Hebrew Bible. We will examine these records in our search for answers.

Achaemenid Inscriptions
Before we review the surviving Achaemenid inscriptions, a few words about a name we will encounter and its implications. Zoroastrianism is an English name of Greek origin for an old Iranian-Aryan religion founded by Zarathushtra. The older name for the religion is Mazdayasna meaning ‘Mazda-worship’ i.e. ‘God-worship’. A Mazdayasni is a person who worships, reveres, acknowledges or extols Ahura Mazda/Ahuramazda. The Zoroastrian/ Zarathushtrian religion is the only religion whose term or word for God is ‘Ahura Mazda’ –written in the Achaemenid inscription translations as ‘Ahuramazda’.

The earliest surviving Achaemenid stone inscriptions are brief lines by King Ariaramnes the third member of the Achaemenid dynasty (who reigned from 640 to 590 BCE), and those by his son, Arsames. Ariaramnes and Arsames are English names derived from the Greek versions of the names. The original Old Persian names are Ariyaramna and Arshama.

Ariaramnes’ inscription states “Great God Ahuramazda bestowed kingship upon me. By the grace of Ahuramazda, I am king of this country. May Ahuramazda help me.” In his inscription, Arsames states, “Ahuramazda, Great God, the greatest of deities, made me king. By the grace of Ahuramazda, I reign over this land. May Ahuramazda protect me, my royal house and this land over which I reign.”

Only two short inscriptions of Cyrus II, the Great, survive. One states, “I am Cyrus the King, an Achaemenian.” Cyrus was the seventh in the Achaemenid dynastic line.

Darius I, the Great, the ninth in the dynastic line, left behind several inscriptions that have survived and which mention Ahuramazda. In one, Darius states, “By the grace of Ahuramazda I am king; Ahuramazda bestowed this kingdom upon me.”

We see that the Achaemenids before and after Cyrus acknowledged and extolled Ahuramazda. We can only hope that intact inscriptions of Cyrus still survive and await discovery. Thankfully, we have numerous Greek and Roman references to the religion of the Persians, Achaemenids and Cyrus. It is to these references that we now turn our attention.

Greek/Roman Texts
In his Alcibiades I, Greek philosopher, Plato called Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) the founder of the doctrine of the magi. Plato’s disciple, Hermodorus, said Zoroaster was the first Magian. During Cyrus’ time, the Western, i.e. Greek/Latin based, name for the Zoroastrian or Mazdayasna religion was either the ‘Religion of the Magi’ or the ‘Magian Religion’.

The Persian Religion
Several Classical Greek and Roman authors describe the Persian religion from their frame of reference. They call Ahura Mazda ‘Zeus’ or ‘Jupiter’ and call the Yazata-angels, ‘gods’ (that is how the English translations read). We will begin our review with Classical Greek author Herodotus’ (c. 485-420 BCE) account of the Persian religion in his Histories (at 1.130).

Immediately after describing the rise of Cyrus the Great as ‘master of Upper Asia’, Herodotus, launches into a description of the customs and religion of the Persians. [Herodotus’ understanding of Upper Asia was the region we know as Aryana, the Aryan lands, i.e., the region west of the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya) and below Scythia (i.e. south of present-day Russia).]

What Herodotus describes is a religion whose priests were the magi. Importantly, he notes that the Persian religion “has come down to them (the Persians) from ancient times.” In other words, the religion of Persia that he describes was not a newly formed religion, but an ancient one. Herodotus then states that the Persians “have no images of the gods, no temples and no altars – and consider their use a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods (sic) to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to making offerings to Jupiter (chief Roman deity i.e. Ahura Mazda), which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament.” Herodotus adds that during a religious offering, one of the “magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the cosmos. No prayer or offering can be made without a magus present.” At 1.140, Herodotus states, “There is another custom which is spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead.” After describing the practice he adds, “That the magi have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practise it without any concealment.” The one feature that sets the Zoroastrian/ Zarathushtrian religion apart is its funerary customs (also see Funerary Customs page 1 & towers of silence).

Herodotus and other Classical authors make the magi part of all the stories regarding Cyrus’ birth and his early years. We describe their involvement during his later years below.

Herodotus does not note the presence of any other Persian religion. Albert de Jong in Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature states, “There is no trace of a plurality among the Iranians. On the contrary, in the (Greek and Latin) Classical texts, only one religion is recognized: the religion of the Persians. This religion is often connected with the name Zoroaster, who enjoyed a wide reputation in the ancient world as the founder of the order of the magi, and by extension as the founder of the wisdom and religion of the Persians.”

The Classical texts are, nevertheless, replete with references to the Achaemenid kings expressing their Magian piety, their consultations with the magi, and their participation in ceremonies officiated by the magi. We will now begin an examination of Cyrus’ religion.

The Religion of Cyrus
Mary Boyce in A History of Zoroastrianism: Volume II: Under the Achaemenians at page 46 makes a convincing argument about a dramatic congruence between the writings of the Second (post Babylonian) Isaiah (in the Hebrew Bible) and the much older Yasna 44, part of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathushtra in the scriptures, the Avesta. [It is in Isaiah 44-45 that we read a reference to Cyrus that bears some similarities to the first part of the text on the Cyrus Cylinder.] Boyce suggests that the relationship between the Second Isaiah and the teachings of Zarathushtra developed through the agency of a magus during the time Cyrus liberated the Jews from Babylon. She ends her analysis by stating that this was “good evidence that the Persian king (Cyrus) was not only a believer (in Zoroastrianism), but one committed to establishing the faith throughout his realms….” Boyce goes on to state that the cosmological teachings of Anaximander of Miletus – a contemporary of Cyrus from Greek Ionia – “show marked Zoroastrian influences”.

Of the several references relating to Cyrus and the magi in Classical Greek/Roman literature, we will mention only a few. Arrian, a second century CE Roman historian, notes that the magi were charged with looking after Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae and had a “small house” close to the tomb. The only purpose of having priests close to a tomb continuously is to tend to an ongoing religious function at the tomb site. One such function could have been the tending of an ever-burning fire and another could have been the recitation of prayers during the five watches of a day. Broken fire-holders (also called fire altars by some) have been found in Pasargadae. The same style of the fire holders continued to be used for Zoroastrian fire-holders/altars in later centuries.

Xenophon in his Cyropaedia devotes a great deal of Book 8 to Cyrus’ piety and his Magian beliefs. At 8.1.23, Xenophon notes that Cyrus “showed himself in the first place more devout in his worship of the deities (Ahura Mazda and the Yazata angels) now that he was more fortunate. From the first time he instituted the College of Magi, he has never failed to sing hymns to the deities at daybreak and to make offerings daily to whatsoever deities the magi directed.

24. Thus, the institutions established by him at that time have continued in force with each successive king even to this day (Cyrus’ faith was not any different from the faith of his successors). In this respect, therefore, the rest of the Persians also imitated him from the first; for they believed that they would be more certain of good fortune if they revered the deities just as he who was their sovereign did – for he was the most fortunate of all. (The Persians) thought also that in doing this they would please Cyrus.

25. Cyrus considered that the piety of his friends was a good thing for him too. For he reasoned – as are the preferences of those who embark on a voyage – that he would rather set sail with pious companions than with those who commit impiety. He reasoned besides, that if all his associates were God-fearing men, they would be less inclined to commit crimes against one another or against him, and if they considered him to be their benefactor.

26. He made it plain how important it was to wrong none of his friends or allies. If he always paid scrupulous regard to what was upright, others also, he thought, would be more likely to abstain from improper gains and to endeavour to make their way by upright methods.” Xenophon goes on to note Cyrus’ piety and his creed’s principles of self-control and moderation.

Further along in his book, Xenophon describes a procession directed by the magi [“for the Persians (i.e. Cyrus as well) think that they scrupulously ought to be guided by those whose profession it is with things divine than those from other professions”] where Cyrus’ chariot was preceded by a chariot carrying the sacred fire on a great altar.

From these few references, we see that Cyrus was a devout and pious man. His Magian faith inspired him to value above all the qualities of character that made him care about the welfare of others. They inspired him to treat others with dignity and respect. He embraced honesty and trustworthiness while spurning greed and lust. Though supremely self-confident in his goals, he was humble when dealing with others.

Xenophon ends his narrative with a lament, that immediately upon Cyrus’ death, his heirs began to quarrel, and everything began to deteriorate including the Persian’s attitude towards religion. In the past, if the king or anyone under his authority made a commitment, they adhered to that commitment strictly, “even if it benefited persons who had committed the greatest offenses.” Because they were of such character and had earned a reputation of honesty and trustworthiness, everyone trusted Cyrus and his officials implicitly and readily placed themselves in their charge. Now (in Xenophon’s time), because of their impiety, nobody trusted the Persians. The Persians had become less regardful of piety towards God, less equitable in their relationships, less just in their dealings, and less vigorous in war.

Alexander, it is said, read Xenophon’s lament and was thus emboldened to hatch his schemes. What happened next is a repeat of the historic tragic Aryan cycle of rise to greatness followed by impiety, lack of regard for a strict ethical code and internecine conflicts that led to a devastating fall from grace.

The Religion & Inspiration of Cyrus – In Conclusion
We have seen that:
  1. The Achaemenid kings before and after Cyrus, acknowledged Ahuramazda and were by definition Mazdayasni. 
  2. The Achaemenid kings were simultaneously described by Greek/Latin writers as Magian and the magi officiated in all religious duties at court to the exclusion of any other religion’s priests. 
  3. The Achaemenid kings therefore belonged to the Mazdayasna-Magian-Zarathushtrian (Zoroastrian) religion. 
  4. Cyrus was a pious Magian-Mazdayasna-Zarathushtrian (Zoroastrian) and his faith inspired his acts of greatness. Indeed, he demonstrated the efficacy of faithfully following the edicts of the Zoroastrian (Zarathushtrian) creed – it is the formula for success and greatness.
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Cyrus the Great & Cyrus Cylinder Series:
» Cyrus the Great (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
Cyrus the Great & Cyrus Cylinder Series:
» Cyrus the Great (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
» Cyrus the Great - His Religion & Inspiration
» Cyrus the Great - Pasargadae, Capital (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
» Cyrus the Great - Information Sources
» Cyrus the Great - Xenophon's Cyropaedia (at Zoroastrian Heritage)
» Cyrus the Great - Hebrew Bible Quotes
» Cyrus Cylinder
» Cyrus Cylinder & its Discoverer Hormuzd Rassam
» Cyrus Cylinder - its Remarkable Discovery
» Cyrus Cylinder - Contents (Eduljee)
» Cyrus Cylinder - Translation (Rogers)
» Cyrus Cylinder - Translation (Finkel)
» Cyrus' Edict & the Chinese Cuneiform Bones
» Cyrus Cylinder - Talk by Neil MacGregor

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