Fire Priests and Magi in Iberia

As scarce and lapidary though interesting accounts attested in written sources as well as archaeological and ethnographic data, dating to the period under consideration, indicate that a certain form of the cult of Ahura Mazda should have penetrated into Iberia as early as the Achaemenid period. Both Iberia and Colchis appear to fall within the political sphere of influence of the Achaemenid Empire. Their rulers were perceived with high probability as frontier “satraps” within the Achaemenid vertical dimension of power and politics. After successful campaigns and the death of Alexander the Great in Persia, which was shortly followed by the division of his empire among his Diadochi (Greek: Διάδοχοι, Diádokhoi "successors") the situation unequivocally changed. The circumstance that Parnavaz borrowed the name for the principal state cult particularly from the Persian religious onomastics – Armazi / Ahura Mazda / Ohrmazdi – indicates that this deity was not unknown in Georgian reality and this is even in the event of being realistic about the fact that the Armazi cult and ideology were neither “Persian” nor “Zoroastrian at all in terms of their essence. The people of Iberia did not perceive it as such either. And still, it is difficult to imagine that this unknown form of the Persian religion could have success in Kartli a tragic example of it is found in Mepeta Tskhovreba (Life of the Kings) where the attempt of replacing the local cult with the Persian religion on the part of King P'arnajom completely failed. This will be even more specific if we consider the fact that the Iberians were not of Indo-Iranian origin either tribally or linguistically. They had their own religious narratives. It is very tempting to identify Aryan-Kartli indicated in The Georgian Chronicles (Kartlis Tskhovreba) as a “primordial homeland” “airyanem vaējah” of the Aryans occuring in the Avestan and Middle Persian tradition; There is a divergent point of view by Ekvtime Takaishvili suggesting that the very term is more of a reminiscence of the Anatolian “Harana Land” which is related to the Hurrian ethnicity and their Anatolian motherland  [Takaishvili, 1948: 621-627]. Today, the latter perspective is not exclusive at all, however, I will not discuss other points of view in more detail within the scope of the proposed article.

Several fairy tales have been preserved in the Georgian folklore that feature the onomastics typical to the Persian reality. Such is, for example, a fairy tale character “Thrithino” addressed by Giorgi Akvlediani [Akvlediani, 1914]. This name of the fairy tale character is definitely related to the Avestan Θraētaona and the Middle Persian Frētūn. The same is implied by certain characters of Georgian Demonology, for example, ეშმა (ešma, devil) – the Avestan aēšma, “fury”, or even “დევი (Avest. daēuva), i.e. evil spirit, დასტური (dasturi, pagan priest) of the religious cult of Georgian mountainous regions which should be related to dastūr, one of the ranks within the hierarchy of Zoroastrian Magi. Several theophoric names occur in Georgian that could be interpreted through the Persian onomastics.

The legend of the fire temple of Adur Gushnasp

One account from The Georgian Chronicles (Kartlis Tskhovreba) attract our attention, implying Persian expansion in the Caucasus as far back as in the prehistoric era prior to the emergence of Alexander the Great: “The son of Shiosh, called Kaikhosro, came here. The Armenians and Georgians could not offer resistance, because his power was too great. He crossed the whole of Armenia and the whole of Kartli, ravaging and capturing people, sacking all the fortresses and cities. He left in the devastated lands his eristavis, and built in Adarbadagan a house of prayer for the followers of his faith and left”. [The Georgian Chronicles I:15]

            Clearly, here it refers to the establishment of the fire temple of Adur Gushnasp that is well-known from the Middle Persian sources. It should have certainly been established by the son of Kaikhosro Siaosh (“Shiosh”), a remarkable representative of “Kava” dynasty. This is from where the earliest Media Atropatene tradition of the Mazdaist fire cult originates. According to some authors, the Shīz (later Takht-e Soleymān) altar was a cultic center of this tradition where the sacred fire Ādur Gušnasp was burning. However, there has been the divergence even between the ancient legends in respect of this issue, since according to other versions, the fire temple was located in Ganzak, rather than Shīz. The two locations, despite their close proximity to each other, should not be absolutely identical.

V. Minorsky notes that Shīz has been localized in the vicinity of Takht-e Soleymān for the first time by Henry Rawlinson. [Minorsky, 48] Archaeological excavations have resulted in the discovery of a fire temple, however, its immense antiquity was not verified. It should have been built in the Sasanian period. In 1963, a seal was discovered there with an inscription, dated back to 400-425 CE, which reads: “mowbed of the fire temple of Adur Gushnasp”. The temple discovered as a result of archaeological excavations represents a complex, a yard with a colonnade, domed structures built with cobblestone and attached from the outside, a large hall with a colonnade, and a Sasanian balcony. [Schippmann, 1971:352]

As we see, the archeological data would not let us assume the presence of a temple here prior to the 4th-5th centuries, however, the issue could not be deemed solved since there is the Median tradition of fire worship associated with  these locations. It has been reflected both in Herodotus writings and the Middle Persian, Armenian and Arabic sources. It is highly unlikely that it emerged for no reason.

The Median Magi who had been the guardians and protectors of this tradition, believed that their origin could be traced to the very remote past. They considered Manuchihra of the legendary tradition of Paradata to be a protagonist of their ancestry. According to Herodotus, from the very beginning, the Magi represented one of the Median tribes who enjoyed privileges of the clergy. There is a perspective in the contemporary scholarly literature that suggests that they have never been Zoroastrians. Rather, they apparently adjusted to Zoroastrianism later, integrating into the latter the elements of worship of Zurvan, “infinite time”. [Wikander, 1944:109] R. Frye and M. L. Chaumont disagree with St. Wikander’s thesis, [Фрай,.. 1972: 129]

The analysis of these legends makes us think that some unknown form of fire worship or cult distinct from Zoroastrianism should have existed here even prior to the Achaemenid period. According to the list of the Iranian provincial capitals, Persia’s deadly enemy, the Turanian king Afrāsīāb, i.e. the Middle Persian Frāsiyāk, is considered to be the founder of the town of Ganzak. According to the Avestan tradition, this town was located on the shores of Čaečāsta, which means “a deep salty lake”. [Marquart, 1931:58] Lake Urmia is such a lake in this region. According to the Avestan tradition, Kava Haosravah or Kai Khosrow killed Afrāsīāb of Turan near this lake, that was followed by the destruction of the shrine and establishment of the fire temple of Adur Gushnasp. According to the Middle Persian text entitled Menokh-i Khrat (Spirit of Wisdom), the evil spirit would have dominated the world forever, unless Kaikhosro had demolished the shrine near the lake Čaečāsta. [The Book of Mainyo-i Khard, 1871: 94-95]

Bundahishn or the Middle Persian compendium of the history of creation suggests that Gušnasp-fire was itself settled on the mane of Kaikhosro’s horse, dispelling darkness and shedding light on the world, until the accursed shrine (uzdesčar, uzdes-cadak) was destroyed.

Apparently, the Middle Persian adaptation of Čez derived from the hydronym Čaečāsta, which later transformed into the Arabic Şiz, al-shiz or Jis. [Касумова, 1983:20] However, the problem of correlation between Shīz and Ganzak has not been solved in scholarship so far. Because calling the tradition into question and taking only empirical materials into consideration leads sholars to the conclusion that the town emerged in the Sasanian era. Collation of source data demonstrates that it is unlikely that there was enough territory in the vicinity of the site of ancient town Takht-e Soleymān for such a large town as Ganzak should have been in the Sasanian period. Such a misunderstanding occurs as far back as in the historical sources. Arab authors, Ibn al Fakih [Ibn al Fakih, 32:246] and Al-Mas’udi [Al-Mas’udi,… IV-74] attempt to avoid it and indicate that the fire of Ādur Gušnasp was transferred from Ganzak to Shīz. Al-Mas’udi himself refers to the temple of Shīz among those one thousand fire temples that existed prior to the emergence of  Zarathushtra. [Al-Mas’udi,… IV-74] Sebeos, the Armenian chronicler of the same period mentiones the fire temple in Ganzak with the burning fire of všnasp. [Schippmann, 328]

There are references of the Arab historian Al-Tha’alibi to Bahram Gor’s visits to the temple of Ādur Gušnasp. [Zotenberg, 558] There is nothing surprising about it, considering how diligently the “Kava” traditions were maintained by the Sasanians who always emphasized ideological connection between the two. The availability of two distinct fire-altars does not seem convincing, and moving the main fire temple from one location to another due to “natural” or any other circumstances is even more unconvincing. Clearly, the same tradition and the same narrative are being discussed here. A shrine implies the existence of some cult that seems to be absolutely unacceptable and incompatible with the Iranian Zoroastrianism, the more especially as it is associated with the Turanian Frāsiyāk, Iran’s worst enemy.

An unknown cult of the Semite Chaldaeans could also be assumed in Media, since in sacral history of Iran, for example, Aždāhak (a legendary-tyrant turned into a monster, with two snake heads growing from his shoulders) was also associated with the Semites in consciousness of ancient Iranians. The conflict between Proto-Iranians and Proto-Semites seems rather reasonable to be reflected both in Mythopoetic and religious traditions. As for the period after the emergence of Christianity, the scholar Lars-Ivar Ringbom analyzes the old European legends about the Holy Grail, concluding about their oriental origin. According to his opinion, the Ganzak fire-altar represents an archetype of the Holy Grail Temple. A round form temple with eighteen pillars displayed on one of the Sasanian coins provides a basis for his conclusion. According to Ringbom, every pillar should have had a carved surface with an inscribed Avestan Gatha (hymn). Although such a hypothesis is artificial, it nevertheless is interesting from the perspective of the history of culture.

It has been known that according to Dēnkard, a Mazdean encyclopedia, it was in Ganzak that Šābur I should have kept Avesta copied on calf skins. The Holy Grail is a symbol of the Christian Apocryphal writings. It is the cup in which Christ's blood was collected by one of his “undisclosed” disciples. Of course, the Holy Grail could not have been associated with the blood of the Crucified One before the time of Christ’s birth and Crucifixion. Therefore, Ringbom discusses it in connection with the sacred drink Haoma. It is the drink that, according to the Gathas, had been extracted by holy kings-Magi who lived much earlier than the “Kava” dynasty, and later by Zarathushtra himself. [Ringbom, 1960: 267-271]

The story of founding of the fire temple of Adur Gushnasp has been narrated in a very interesting way in Risalah“ by the 10th century Arab writer Abu-Dulaf, where this legend has been linked to the Magi kings of the Gospels. It is an important fragment of the history of the relationship between Eastern religions and Christianity. As recounted in the Risalah, the city of temple, Shīz was founded by the Persian King Hurmuza ibn Khosrovshir ibn Bahram. When he found out about the birth of the Blessed Child in Bethlehem, he sent an envoy giving him oil and incense to offer to the mother of a new-born child and ask for her blessings for his country and his people. Mary gave a sack full of earth to the envoy telling him that a town would be built upon this earth. Hurmuza‘s representative returned back, however, on his way home he died without being able to reach the king. When Hurmuza learnt about it, he sent people and commanded them to build a fire temple upon the spot where his envoy had died. When asked how to guess where the location was, Hurmuza told them, they would not miss it. Truly, at night, one of Hurmuza‘s delegates saw blazing light emanating from the earth given by Mary to the first messenger. He marked the location of the blazing light staying awake through the night, and commanding them to build the Temple in the morning. This was the fire temple of Ādur Gušnasp. [Minorsky, 1952:172-175]

Thus, an exceptional nature of the place is emphasized by the fact that it is related to the earth blessed by Mary. If we assume that under the name of Hurmuza ibn Khosrovshir ibn Bahram a normal Sasanian king is implied, then it is beyond belief that this type of legend could be related to the mainstream theme of the Christian community of Iran. They had a rather unfortunate experience both with the Sasanians and their privileged Zoroastrian Magi class. He might have originated from a group embracing an Apocryphal tradition, which had been under the influence of still mechanically functioning Manichean or gnostic or even “magusaion” (i.e. the Hellenized Magi of the Parthian era) elements. The “regular” Christians of Iran believed that the Mother of God and the Church had defeated fire worship as one of the forms of paganism, and initiated the Persians into the true faith. This is echoed in one of the verses of David Guramishvili’s Davitiani where the poet addresses the Mother of God the following way:

“/You, the rescuer of the faith of barbarians, / Undermining sanctity of the Persians, / Draining and ceasing / The fires of worship” [ Guramishvili, 1980:125]

However, none of the canonical or apocryphal traditions provide an account of the conversion of the Persians by or at the instruction of the Mother of God. It is not unlikely that the above-mentioned “Persians” were exactly those Magi kings of the Gospels. According to a widespread theological perspective of the time, they converted to Christianity turning away from idolatry.

At the turn of the Common Era, Ganzak was famous for its silver and wealth, the account of which is attested in a Gnostic poem the Hymn of the Pearl dating from as early as the first century CE. [Quispel, 1967:39] Once Christianity established itself throughout Iran, and diverse movements split off from the mainstream as a result of theological disputes, the residence of the Nestorian bishop has been located there. There is a reference to Hosea, the bishop of Ganzak and Aturpatakan, in a conclusive statement of the Synod which met in 486. [Marquart, 108] The existence of a powerful Christian community is attested by The Passion of Eustathius of Mtskheta in which St. Eustathius, originally from Ganzak, where he had been taught to be Magus, articulates: “But I did not adopt the Magian creed, for in the city of Gandzak the Christians are in the majority, with their own bishop and priests, and from them I learnt beyond all manner of doubt”.

The list of the Iranian provincial capitals includes an account concerning the founding of Ganzak suggesting that the very town was built by Eran Gushnasp, a great military leader of Aturpatakan. Clearly, the name of the military leader is a compound word rendered according to the name of the famous fire of Ganzak. [Marquart,108] In the Middle Persian tradition, Ādur Gušnasp is a sacred fire of the warrior estate (Avest. Rathaestar). According to the Book of the Deeds of Ardeshir, Son of Papak, every social class, every stratum in Iran had its corresponding sacred fire: Ādūr Farnbagh, Ādur Gušnasp and Ādur Burzēn-Mihr were the sacred fires of Magi and scholars, warriors and military leaders, and cattle farmers and husbandmen, respectively.

Thus, it is clear that the Adur Gushnasp fire-altar represented a cultic center for the Median Magi further transforming into a main alter of the Zoroastrian mobads. Its influence reached the Caucasus as well – Iberia, Armenia and Caucasian Albania encompassing the Parthian and Sasanian periods. When exploring from the prism of the Classical antiquity, Media seems to be rather interlaced with the Caucasian world. For example, Herodotus believed the Median culture to be close to Colchis when specifying that Medea went on to Media. (VII, 62 I;)

Considering the foregoing, it is easy to imagine the Ādur Gušnasp warrior cult being blended with a local tradition in Iberia. [Немсадзе, 1977:108-114]; even the idol Armazi, erected by Pharnavaz, embodied a warrior, with bronze chain armor and golden helmet, and in his hand he held a spear. In the mountainous part of Eastern Georgia, there are remaining deities with the outward appearance of warriors, such as Tetri Giorgi, Kopale, and Iakhsari. It is an interesting circumstance that in the mountainous religious tradition, which incorporates both components – Christian and pagan, those serving at the St. George shrine are referred to as dastūrs. (As mentioned above, the magus, preceptor, instructor of cult practices are referred to as dastūr in the Mazdaist religion.) The names such “Aderk” and “Adarnase” are associated with “fire” (Ādar, or Ādur) in onomastics of the kings of Kartli; the fire temple in the Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik is indicated by the term “Atrušan” of the Middle Persian origin Shushanik says that “Pitiable indeed has become the unfortunate Varsken! He has forsaken the True God, and embraced the religion of fire and united himself to the godless.[Tsurtaveli, I. 1979:I] this word, just as Ātašgāh  must be semantically related to the Middle Persian Ātar/Ātur, the same as Ādur – ”fire”. For the author, when it comes to renegade Varsken, it is clearly convenient to emphasize “fire” as an element, as opposed to highlighting Ahura Mazda as a supreme god.

There is another issue as to what extent Persian religion is viewed as a fundamentally hostile phenomenon from the perspective of a Georgian pagan cult. When the idol Armazi collapsed due to rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, priests’ interpretation according to the text of The Conversion of Kartli is as follows: “It‛rujan, the god of the Chaldaeans, and the god of Georgians Armaz have been enemies from the beginning.  Indeed, the latter turned the sea back on him, so now he seeks revenge. As this excerpt demonstrates, priests perceived Armazi and It‛rujanReferences

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