Persian Empire Tip: Zoroastrianism Fire Temples Notes

Silver coin of Yazdegerd II with a fire altar and two attendants. Sassanid king. Yazdgard II (438-457 AD). AR Drachm (29mm, 3.68 gm, 3h). Crowned bust right / "Fire" in Pahlavi to left, 'nwky' in Pahlavi to right, fire altar with attendants, holding staves, and ribbon, "rast" in Pahlavi on central column. Göbl I/1; Alram 869. EF, light die rust. Ex Bellaria Collection. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com

Zoroastrians face a source of light when they pray. Fire is one such source, and in their temples, the light source is a flame from an urn. When outside, the sun serves the purpose. [Ahura Mazda, Iranica Online]

Fire temples were important to Zoroastrian worship from at least the Sassanid period, but determining whether they were important in earlier Persian Empires has proven complicated. There’s the Iranian languages and Zoroastrianism scholar Mary Boyce — the most modern of the seminal writers* on Zoroastrianism and debunker of earlier scholarly errors, and then there are today’s scholars, including Albert de Jong**. There is fire worship and then there are fire temples. There are a limited universities where Zoroastrianism is part of their Iranian Studies departments. Such departments tend to focus on post-Islamic Iran and New Persian languages, instead of Zoroastrianism and the Old and Middle Persian languages that would help with the study of the ancient religion. [Stausberg, M. and Vevaina, Y. S.-D. (2015) Introduction, in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism (eds M. Stausberg, Y. S.-D. Vevaina and A. Tessmann), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781118785539.ch0.]

The Zoroastrian collection of religious texts, composed in Avestan, is called the Avesta. Encyclopedia Iranica says of the language that is “an Old Iranian language which together with Old Persian constitutes the Iranian sub-division of the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European.” The priest and founder of the religion, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), is said to have written part of the Avesta. The old section of the Avesta is also known as the Gathas. There is no reference to a temple cult of fire in this work, nor does Old Persian contain a word for fire temple. Temples aren’t mentioned in this or the parallel Indian text, the Rig Veda, and the earliest Iranian temple dates from about 700 BC (Tepe Nush-i-Jan in Media). Whether or not it is a Zoroastrian temple is subject to debate. It isn’t even clear that the Achaemenids were  Zoroastrians.*** [“Temple Architecture in the Iranian World before the Macedonian Conquest”, by Michael Shankar; Iran & the Caucasus, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2007), pp. 169-194]

By the Parthian era, there is such a word, borrowed from Armenian, ātarōšan, meaning “place of burning fire.”  By the Islamic period, if I understand correctly, the word for Zoroastrian fire temples was Dar-e Meh(r). The earliest Iranian remains of a fire temple come from the Seleucid period, at earliest. It was repaired and expanded during the Parthian and Sassanid periods. During the Sassanid period, such temples were square with four dome-supporting pillars, with, correspondingly, four arches. Below this domed sanctuary or gombad lay the fire itself. Most gombads and  ātarōšans were destroyed or converted to mosques after the advent of Islam. [ĀTAŠKADA]

Michael Shankar says the earliest places of worship by the Iranians were out in the open, as befits a pastoral, semi-nomadic people, but they soon came in contact with people who had temples for their gods.

[I]t seems that the majority of ancient Iranians, including the first Achaemenids, worshiped under the open sky.

The term dar-e meh is used for fire temples and fire house; for “place of the fire”, ātašgāh; for place where rituals were performed, yazišngāh; for fire, ātaš. There may have been fire temples in Achaemenid times, but no remnants have been found.  Fire altars from the time of Cyrus the Great have been found, according to Encyclopedia Iranica’s article on ātaš.

Fire temples appear to have been pretty clearly around from at least the Parthian period, with three important fires starting in the Arsacid era: Ãdur Burzênmihr, Ãdur Farrôbag (or Farnbag), Ãdur Gushnasp.

From the first century of the new era, we have the important testimony of Strabo, the Herodotus of his day, who tells us (15.3.15) that the Iranians had both temples to their gods [Parth. bagin] and fire temples [Parth. âtrôshan < *âtrwaxshana > Arm. atrushan]. And we also have the description by Pausanias, a Greek traveler who saw Zoroastrian communities in Lydia.
Introduction to Zoroastrianism, by Prods Oktor Skjærvø.

Mary Boyce says

In his own teachings Zoroaster associated fire with one of the great divinities of his revelation, Asa (‘Righteousness’ or ‘Order’), and his followers were enjoined to pray always in its presence-either turned towards the sun or at their own hearths-the better to fix their thoughts on Asa and the virtue thus represented. Nowhere in the older part of the Avesta is there any allusion to fire enthroned apart in a special place. The first reference of this kind comes in the Vendiddd, a composite work whose final redaction was made after the Hellenistic period, possibly as late as the 1st or 2nd century A.D. This temple cult of fire, once instituted, became much beloved by the Zoroastrians, but it has remained outside their basic observances, and their religious lives can well be carried on without it.
On the Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire, by Mary Boyce; Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1975), pp.454-465


* From the Wiley-Blackwell introduction:

Scholars in History of Zoroastrian Studies

  • Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)
  • Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil‐Duperron (1731–1805)
  • Martin Haug (1827–1876)
  • Friedrich von Spiegel (1820–1905)
  • James Darmesteter (1849–1894)
  • Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson (1862–1937)
  • Henrik Samuel Nyberg (1889–1974)
  • Marijan Molé (1924–1963)
  • Mary Boyce (1920–2006)

** Albert de Jong is a professor of comparative religions at Universities Leiden

***Whether or not the Achaemenids were Zoroastrian is another of the points of contention about the Persian Empire, which Albert de Jong discusses.


Image credit: Silver coin of Yazdegerd II with a fire altar and two attendants.
Sassanid king. Yazdgard II (438-457 AD). AR Drachm (29mm, 3.68 gm, 3h). Crowned bust right / “Fire” in Pahlavi to left, ‘nwky’ in Pahlavi to right, fire altar with attendants, holding staves, and ribbon, “rast” in Pahlavi on central column. Göbl I/1; Alram 869. EF, light die rust. Ex Bellaria Collection.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Attribution: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com

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