Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.17

Wouter Henkelman, Celine Redard (ed.), Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Period. Classica et orientalia, 16.   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017.  Pp. 496.  ISBN 9783447106474.  €98,00.  

Reviewed by Zachary W. Silvia, Bryn Mawr College (

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]

Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Period presents the proceedings of a 2013 colloquium concerned with religion in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Twelve articles are included, drawing together perspectives from archaeology, art history, Avestan scholarship, history, and philology. The book is primarily concerned with regions east of the Zagros Mountains and southern Central Asia and thus will appeal to scholars and graduate students in fields related to these geographic regions during periods of Achaemenid and Hellenistic contact.

The stated goal of the 2013 colloquium was to form a bridge between different types of primary source material from all disciplines concerned with religion under the Achaemenids, in the hope of developing a comprehensive model of analysis that breaks free from an over-reliance on Achaemenid monumental architecture and royal inscriptions. Each contribution illustrates a breadth of evidence and interpretive frameworks traditionally underutilized in scholarly treatments on the same subject. Several authors in this volume (Henkelman, Callieri, Garrison, Jacobs) express frustration with the amount of conjecture for religious life under the Achaemenids. This conjecture has often defined grand narratives of Achaemenid religion, ancient Zoroastrianism, and the relationship of Iron Age Iran with Zoroastrianism. Thus, each article seeks to overcome the vexed question of the so-called “Zoroastrianism” of Achaemenid royal elites.

There is no clear structuring principle which organizes the sequence of chapters and disciplinary perspectives. Thus I have grouped them thematically for the purposes of this review. The first three articles engage most directly with evidence from the Avesta, a corpus of Zoroastrian religious texts from eastern Iran that was primarily transmitted orally before being transcribed in the Sasanian period (224-641 CE). Most of the corpus dates to the Sasanian period, although for linguistic reasons it is widely accepted that certain hymns are as early as the late second millennium BCE. When this corpus is used critically, much can be gleaned about Iranian religion in the first millennium BCE. Scholarly study of the Avesta—its age, transmission, language, religious content—is an extraordinarily complicated field in its own right, so the inclusion of three articles which employ comparative evidence from the Avesta and the art, epigraphy, and archaeology of the Achaemenid heartland is one of the book’s great strengths. This especially shines through in the first chapter, a brief note by Jean Kellens that offers a comparative onomastic study of Achaemenid inscriptions and Avestan parallels alongside evidence for ritual activity present in the Achaemenid Daiva inscription of Xerxes.

Continuing with evidence from the Avesta, Alberto Cantera’s “La liturgie longue en langue avestique…” analyzes evidence for the so-called Avestan “Long Liturgy” to Auramazda alongside Achaemenid inscriptions. Cantera is the foremost scholar on this liturgy, which was orally transmitted from the pre-Achaemenid period before it was transcribed in the Sasanian period, and even then it was likely still orally transmitted in parallel to the written tradition. Cantera’s article draws attention to evidence for the earliest oral transmission of the liturgy in light of what is known from a variety of texts dating to the Achaemenid period. Antonio Panaino’s article, “Liturgies and Calendars…” also draws together evidence from the earlier Avesta and texts contemporary with the Achaemenids, highlighting the complexities and correspondences in calendars of the first millennium BCE from Anatolia to Sogdiana with an eye to the theophoric names of months and days.

Bruno Jacobs, Mark Garrison, and Salvatore Gaspa deal directly with differing aspects of Achaemenid expressions of kingship in epigraphic and iconographic sources. Jacobs looks at the iconography of the Achaemenid “winged disc” motif on seals and the monumental Bisotun relief of Darius I, and addresses these visual expressions in light of statements made by kings in various Achaemenid texts. Challenging the notion that the winged disc merely represents Auramazda as the principal deity of the Persian royal family, he argues for a more nuanced reading in which the god’s principal significance lay in his role as a direct ancestor and eponymous hero of the Achaemenids. As Jacobs notes, the lineage might have been an embellishment made by Darius I to legitimate his already questionable inheritance of the empire.

In “Beyond Auramazda and the Winged Symbol…,” Garrison also addresses the iconography of the winged disc and all of its variants found on sealings from the Persepolis Fortification Archive (“PFA”). His detailed observations elucidate the subtleties of the numinous and royal iconography found within the archive. As with much of Garrison’s work, his study demonstrates the critical necessity of considering the broader Near Eastern glyptic tradition for understanding Achaemenid seals and sealing practice and the importance of Elamite and Assyrian influence on Persian administration.

Gaspa addresses thematic predecessors to Achaemenid royal and religious expressions, in particular Assyrianizing aspects of Achaemenid royal ideology and imperial cosmology. He compares the iconographic, material, and literary expressions of kingship in both empires, concluding that the Achaemenids modelled their own imperial claims on Assyrian predecessors. He draws comparisons between the role of Aššur and Auramazda in Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid royal texts. Gaspa’s contribution does well to draw out the key concerns of current scholarship on the issue of Assyrian to Persian cultural transmission.

Wouter Henkelman in “Humban & Auramazda” presents the text Fortification (Fort.) 1316-101 of the Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA). The text is a hitherto unpublished administrative diary indicating provisions for a lan sacrifice to the Elamite deity Napariša. An enormous amount of intellectual gymnastics has led some scholars to argue that the lan is the quintessential provisioning of goods for Auramazda, which as Henkelman has demonstrated many times over is an affront to the actual evidence from the PFA. Through his meticulous study of the archive, Henkelman suggests that the lan is instead “a catchword denoting a specific kind of daily sacrifice, which, in economic terms, served as a basic income for individuals with cultic responsibilities” (284). He places particular weight on the term’s Elamite etymology. The fact that this lan is allocated for the Elamite Napariša in Fort. 1316-101 further complicates any claim of exclusivity to Auramazda, who is never clearly marked as receiving a lan sacrifice when the ceremony is mentioned by name.

After Henkelman’s presentation of this text, he shifts the discussion to other texts reflecting the nature of temples in the PFA, sacrifices to Adad, and the šip feast, a ritual procession and banquet with Elamite origins. It would have been beneficial for the reader if this chapter were split into several separate articles, as the later sections do not seamlessly dovetail with the discussion of Fort. 1316-101.

Pierfrancesco Callieri’s contribution, “Achaemenid ‘ritual architecture’ vs. ‘religious architecture’…” addresses the state of archaeological evidence for Achaemenid temples. Callieri suggests a theoretical shift in how scholars consider the evidence for cultic spaces in Persia’s capital centers (Pasargadae, Persepolis, Susa, Ecbatana). He suggests that rather than attempt to frame Achaemenid religious architecture as temples in the Classical sense, a pursuit that is fraught with difficulty within a Persian context, one should think of buildings instead as multi-purpose spaces among which the staging of rituals was merely one component. Thus, he suggests a semantic shift from describing multi-use spaces as “religious” in favor of the term “ritual architecture.” He does not offer a clear definition of “ritual architecture” beyond this contrast with “temples,” which he likens to modern religious structures such as churches. The distinction is especially unclear when one considers the fact that temples in the Classical sense – and churches in the modern – are themselves not single-purpose structures and regularly organize various levels of social, political, economic, and sacred activities for communities, activities that are often organized by rituals. In the Persian context, buildings such as the tačara and hadiš at Persepolis, possibily used for rituals of kingship among other things, or even the Apadana halls in which the king would host foreign dignitaries, serve a broader religious function since the preservation of the royal seat of power involved rituals that put mortal elites in conversation with some divine protector. What is more, as Henkelman notes in this volume, evidence from the PFA for the provisioning of items for temples to Elamite deities and sacred rituals held elsewhere adds another layer of complexity.

An appendix to Callieri’s chapter, co-authored with Alireza Askari Chaverdi, offers a brief summary of current excavations of the monumental tower of Tol-e Ājori. A glazed brick decorative program, early Achaemenid in date, the tower cites the famous mušhuššu demon of the Ištar Gate at Babylon alongside a bull familiar to the Darius I’s palace at Susa.

Articles by Jan Tavernier and Claude Rapin are directly concerned with religious life in Central Asia. Tavernier addresses religious aspects of the Aramaic documents from Bactria first published in 2012 by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. The 48 unprovenanced Aramaic texts dating from 353-324 BCE are a critical testament to the last years of the Achaemenid Empire. Like the PFA, they are administrative in function, and their interpretation is thus faced with the same analytical problems. Tavernier seeks evidence for religion in fourth century Bactria and Sogdiana. This comes in the form of onomastics with theophoric elements, calendrical systems, and an account of provisions made by Bessus (slayer of Darius III) to the god Bel in Bactria. Significantly, Tavernier demonstrates a strong relationship between Bactrians and the locally venerated gods Vaksh, Mithra, and Tir indicated in the texts. His remarks on the significance of Vaksh in the texts, god of the ancient Oxus River (the modern Amu Darya), should be considered alongside this god’s occasional appearance on the coinage of Hellenistic Bactria, as well as evidence for the his veneration at the Hellenistic temple at Takht-i Sangin and water veneration at the recently discovered Hellenistic rural sanctuary of Torbulak, both in Tajikistan. With the mounting evidence for the veneration of water in Iron Age Iran (see, e.g., Callieri, this volume), one wonders if the practice of water veneration in these two regions should be compared more directly.

Claude Rapin’s “Sanctuaires sogdiens et cultes avestiques” focuses on the Sogdian periphery of the Achaemenid empire. The massive, fortified city of Koktepa in the Zerafshan Valley, 30km north of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is highlighted for its possible relationship with early Mazdaism in the period coinciding with Achaemenid rule (late 6th c.-327 BCE). Rapin repeats much technical information about Koktepa that the he has published elsewhere. What is new here is an effort to associate Koktepa with the ancient Sogdian region of Gava/Gabae, principally known from the Sasanian era commentary on the Avesta—the Widevdad—and classical sources. The argument is partly based on assumptions about the sacred function of monumental platforms at the site, especially one pre-Achaemenid (Koktepa Phase II) and another drastically refurbished during the Achaemenid period (Koktepa Phase III). It is unclear what evidence there is for a sacred function of these structures in light of the presence of substantial fortification walls and towers adjacent to the platforms (pp. 420-421), especially as Rapin notes the absence of archaeological evidence for ritual activity at the summit of the Achaemenid period platform (pp. 423-424). However, the presence of Achaemenid period foundation deposits located at the gate of the enclosure clearly signifies ritual activity. Up to ten pits were dug into the earth and filled with singular, pure materials such as stone or sand, which were used to conceal anthropomorphic stone simulacra placed at the bottoms of each pit. The practice indicates a ritual function. If so, this is without parallel in the broader Achaemenid world, speaking directly to a local Sogdian practice. In terms of the historical geography of Gava, the author also offers a lengthy, compelling case for its localization in central Sogdiana.

Rapin also includes the important temples at Sangir-Tepe and Kindyk-Tepe in Uzbekistan, which were founded in the pre-Achaemenid Iron Age and persist through the Achaemenid to the Hellenistic period. These sites challenge scholarship that traditionally situates the architectural origins of Hellenistic temples in Bactria (Takht-i Sangin, Ai Khanoum) outside of Central Asia. Preliminary publications of both of these sites are otherwise mostly in Russian.

The book closes with a chapter by Adriano V. Rossi, “’…how Median the Medes were?’ État d’une question longuement débattue.” As the title suggests, this chapter is an exposition of the current state of scholarship on the Medes, inhabitants of the Zagros Mountains during the early first millennium BCE whose ethnic name is primarily known from Assyrian and Greek sources. His article summarizes the opinions of archaeologists and philologists that characterize this somewhat archaeologically elusive people, providing a useful overview of a complicated issue.

In all, Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Period is a robust collection of papers that accomplishes its stated task of emphasizing the diverse body of source materials on religious life and ritual in Iran and Central Asia under the Achaemenids. There are many more insights to gain from available evidence when the conversation expands beyond the so-called Zoroastrianism of the royal Achaemenid family.

Table of Contents

Preface, Wouter Henkelman and Céline Rédard (7)
Les Achémenides entre textes et liturgie avestiques by Jean Kellens (11)
La liturgie longue en langue avestique dans l’Iran occidental by Alberto Cantera (21)
Liturgies and Calendars in the Politico-Religious History of Pre-Achaemenid and Achaemenian Iran, Antonio Panaino (69)
Religious aspects in the Aramaic texts from Bactria, Jan Tavernier (97)
State theology and royal ideology of the Neo-Assyrian Empire as a structuring model for the Achaemenid imperial religion, Salvatore Gaspa (125)
Beyond Auramazdā and the Winged Symbol: Imagery of the Divine and Numinous at Persepolis, Mark Garrison (185)
Die ikonographische Angleichung von Gott und König in der achämenidischen Kunst, Bruno Jacobs (247)
Humban & Auramazdā: royal gods in a Persian landscape. Wouter F.M. Henkelman (273)
Of Gods and Men in the Persepolis Bronze Plaque, Gian Pietro Basello (347)
Achaemenid “ritual architecture” vs. “religious architecture”: Reflections on the elusive archaeological evidence of the religion of the Achaemenids, Pierfrancesco Callieri (385)
Sanctuaires sogdiens et cultes avestiques de l’époque de Gave à l’époque hellénistique, Claude Rapin (417)
“…how Median the Medes were”? État d’une question longuement débattue, Adriano V. Rossi (461)
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