Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Period / La religion perse a l'epoque achéménide

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Wouter F. M. Henkelman, Celine Redard
Classica et Orientalia [English and French Edition]
  • Wiesbaden-Erbenheim, Germany: 
    , July
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As its bi-lingual title suggests, Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Period/la religion perse à l’époque achéménide edited by Wouter F.M. Henkelman and Céline Redard,emerged from an international colloquium in France. The proceedings—four in French, one in German, seven in English—re-evaluate the scholarly understanding of “Achaemenid religion” using recent archaeological findings and new examinations of textual sources, alongside a re-assessment of the “Avestan tradition.” A central focus is the Achaemenids’s relationship to the diverse religious landscapes within which they rose to power and operated. 

Wouter Henkelman addresses a concern for all the authors when he questions whether the Avestan texts belonging to the “(older) Zoroastrian tradition,” together with the Greek and Roman sources used to substantiate our knowledge of Achaemenid religion, provide “an adequate interpretive framework to address the roles it [the religion] played in the imperial heartland and the reflections thereof in tablets and inscriptions” (290). Since the import of the terms “Zoroastrianism” and “Mazdaism” is not fully discussed at any point, an awareness of the variant interpretations of each is assumed on the part of the reader.

The opening chapters, by Jean Kellens, Alberto Cantera, and Antonio Panaino respectively, consider the role of the Achaemenids in transmitting that “Avestan tradition,” regarded as consisting primarily of liturgical texts and a liturgical calendar, which took shape while Avestan was still a living language. A form of ritual liturgy in the Achaemenid court is indicated in Old Persian (OP) royal texts, with some local acculturation in relation to the conception of “Auramazdā.” Although comparison of known Avestan texts and Achaemenid royal inscriptions reveals no direct quotation of the former in the latter, certain Achaemenid royal onomastics (for instance, “Vishtaspa”) and formulaic references to concepts (such as “daiva”) point to the retention of an older Iranian thematic framework similar to that of Avestan texts. Kellens and Cantera dismiss the notion of an Achaemenid conversion to “Zoroastrianism,” suggesting that common traits are due to a shared past. 

Panaino considers the significance of the emergence of the calendar within the imperial framework, suggesting that ritual partition of time into day, month, and seasonal divisions of the year must have pre-dated adoption of the solar (Egyptian) calendar. Although moderated through the introduction of an external system, and sometimes using non-Avestan forms of Iranian divine names, the calendar reflects an original liturgical sequence relating to an Avestan “Proto-Yasna”.

Subsequent chapters appraise the possible impact of local models of cult and concepts of divinity on royal Persian ideology of Auramazdā. Jan Tavernier assesses the information from Aramaic Bactrian administrative texts, particularly the putative parallels between Bēl and Auramazdā. A single reference to a libation offering “to the temple, to Bēl” may perhaps be compared to Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA) references to cultic activity. Noting that there is no attestation of a cult of Auramazdā before the Persian period, Salvatore Gaspa proposes that understanding this figure in Achaemenid contexts relies partly on the “royal god” model of the Assyrian divinity Aššur, and also on the Elamite concept of kitin (“divine protection”). Gaspa suggests that certain narrative motifs and iconography entered Achaemenid ideology of kingship through Iranian acculturation with Elamites who had attended the Assyrian court. 

Mark Garrison’s use of a wider, western Asian, glyptic repertoire alongside the Elamite PFA texts presents a counterbalance to the presumed (Indo-)Iranian stimulus for Achaemenid royal religious expression. Diverse representations of the divine and emblems of the supernatural (Garrison uses the term “numinous”) on PFA seals reflect earlier visual themes of Assyro-Babylonian iconography, including ritual scenes, that correspond with PFA documentation of worship involving a range of rituals and a variety of deities (including Auramazdā), not all of which can be construed as “Mazdaism.” 

Garrison’s analysis of representations of the winged symbol is followed by Bruno Jacobs’s discussion of the import of the figure within the winged disc. Referring to Greek sources of a divine origin for Achaemenes, Jacobs proposes that the replacement of the horned polis crown of the Bisutun relief by the crenellated crown of later depictions at Naqsh-e Rostam and Persepolis—also worn by the king—signifies an Achaemenid conception of Auramazdāas ancestral dynastic god, with a circumscribed cult. 

The infiltration of Elamite forms and focus of worship into the “Persian” religious landscape is the nub of Henkelman’s comprehensive chapter. PFA textual evidence that priests with Iranian names and/or designation (makušor haturmakša) received rations to make offerings to Elamite divinities alongside Urumasda (Auramazdā), as did Elamite priests (šatin), demonstrates the expansion of the cults of Napiriša, Adad, and Humban, beyond their original geographical and cultural spheres, to integrate into Achaemenid ritual activity in both the heartland and outlying regions. 

A further instance of the impact of Elamite praxis on Achaemenid civic cult may be found in the unique Persepolis Bronze Plaque (PBP), which is discussed by Gian Petro Basello in comparison with the PFA and Neo-Elamite Susa Acropole tablets. Although the legible parts of the PBP Elamite text mainly concern secular matters, a cultic context is suggested by references to ritual activity and an Elamite goddess, as well as the evident composition of the plaque for display. 

In his survey of purported Achaemenid “sacred spaces” at Pasargadae and Persepolis, Pierfrancesco Callieri considers the ritual significance of architecture in terms of cultic activity relating to the king. Other sites indicate the prominent role of water in both common and royal cult practice. In an appendix, Callieri and Alireza Askari Chaverdi discuss Tol-e Ajori, where a copy of Babylon’s Ištar Gate may attest an early Persian adoption of Babylonian technical, iconographic, and ritual motifs.

Claude Rapin’s study moves to the eastern edge of the empire, where “Zoroastrian cults” evolved between the pre- and post-Achaemenid period. Findings from an area identified in Avestan texts as “Iranian” suggest the introduction, in the Yaz I and II periods (14th - 10th century BCE, and 9th to 6th century BCE respectively), of exposure of the dead and monuments of a religious nature, including a central fortified enclosure at Koktepe, Tajikistan, and covered temples at Sangirtepe and Kindyktepe, Uzbekistan. Rapin suggests that diverse, co-existent, forms of local cult practice were “Avestan” or closely related and that when Darius came through the region he may have carried the “Avestan religion” back to Persia with him (448). 

The enduring question as to the extent, and even existence, of a Median empire is mentioned in several papers, and forms the central concern of the last chapter, by Adriano Rossi, which looks at the various Neo-Assyrian, linguistic remnants, and archaeological sites (both “built” and “natural”) associated with “Media” and the “Medes.” The evidence marshaled by Rossi points to a diversity of religious identity and practice among the Medes, some related to a putative “Iranicization” in the pre-Achaemenid period. 

The contributions in this book move well beyond the “reductive binary question” as to whether the Achaemenids were “Zoroastrian” (7). In its exploration of the reverberations of—and possible vehicles of transmission for—an Iranian “Avestan tradition” within the development of “Persian religion,” and the distinction of a royal cult of Auramazdā from civic cult, this collection forms a valuable, Achaemenid-centric, counterpart to the proceedings of other recent symposia, which have focused on relations between Persia and the Classical world or with emerging Judaism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jenny Rose, Department of Religion, Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019


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