Bahá’u’lláh and the Houri of the Deep

There is an old mystical tradition in Islám, generally attributed to Sufis and Persian poets that represents God as “the beloved,” a beautiful “youth” who can sometimes border on the erotic. It seems to be that some more subversive poets such as Hafez made use of this equivocation between God and desire in taking license to celebrate wine, women, and song. Where did this sense of God as the obsession of a drunken lover come from? I haven’t studied this topic nearly enough to hope to have anything new to contribute on the matter, but here’s what I’ve got.

La Houri: Black-eyed beauty , 1919

Constant Montald: La Houri: Black-eyed beauty, 1919

Let’s go back to the old Zoroastrian tradition of Daena, the goddess or daemon that greets each soul three days after death. The old tradition says that good souls are greeted by a beautiful, even voluptuous maiden, but bad souls are greeted by an old hag. I composed (or perhaps plagiarized) a poem on the subject years ago. It turns out that Daena, that heavenly reward for the good and punishment for the wicked is really just a reflection of the soul’s own character, expressed esthetically and sexually. The “paradise” of this model is the paradise of one’s own character. As Heraclitus is known to have said, “character is destiny.”

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So Spoke Zarathustra

“The gods indeed did not choose rightly …” —Ahunavaiti Gatha

The clouds rumbled.

“Bastard! Devil!,” a bearded man screamed at the sky.
The mountain wind whipped his hair across his face.
The hair was not grey, but the face was not young.

He looked around,
surveying the black bellies of the thunderheads
gathered around the mountain.
The man turned his eyes back to heaven.

A smile spread from his cheeks to his eyes.
He inhaled deeply.
A mad laugh burst out of him,
and he shouted at heaven.

“You dare not kill me, you fool!”

and he shook his head.

With a lower voice, he began to speak as though
he were talking to another man on the summit.

“Death is my ally. Death—
is my power over you.”

His voice elevated as he continued:
“Kill me and you have nothing!”

Now he began to whisper, as if to a confidant.

“My friend. You and I know of powers
greater than the thunderbolt.
Greater than flood! Drought!

… If you do not kill me now, I will tell the others.”

A flash struck the peak to the south, and then a crack split the air.

“You — MISSED!” The first man screamed, laughing,

but then the wind subsided, and
his face grew more solemn.

“You know, we too
have harnessed fire.”

© 2013 Kaweah


The Hungriness of Stuff

We previously reflected upon the intimate, multifaceted relationship between ancient man and fire, and considered how easy it would have been for a man such as Heraclitus to conceive of the idea that fire is the fundamental constituent of all matter.

Heraclitus was, after all, a subject of the Persian Empire, a land of fire worship, and the reputed cradle of alchemy. Alchemy is a practice of transmuting matter that depends greatly upon fire. It seems to be a natural—albeit mystical—offspring of the bronze age.

Perhaps after recognizing the ubiquity of fire, Heraclitus reflected upon the nature of fire, and came to this conclusion:

Burning Man effigy, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man effigy, Black Rock City, Nevada

fire is hunger and satiety.


Fire is indeed a hungry phenomenon. It seems to exist exclusively to consume, though the light and heat it has provided us through the millennia make it much more than a consumer. Yet it remains an archetype of consumption. Is not combustion the primal hunger within us? Is it not our deepest physiological craving for the fuels of combustion: oxygen and carbon compounds?

But fire is obviously not equal to hunger, for as consumption, it is also the satisfaction of its hunger.

Seeing everything around us as governed by this paradox, one can easily see the function of fire in the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus taught that the world is governed by a harmony of opposites. Recognizing that harmony, he saw wisdom in the working of things, but it was a harmony of war, of hunger. Whatever equilibrium he could see was a dynamic, cyclic equilibrium under tension. To Heraclitus, fire must have seemed fundamental both literally and metaphorically.

The Burning Bush

When God spoke to Moses, God took the form of a burning bush.

The fire is in the bush from the beginning.

The fire is in the bush from the beginning.

Why did an ancient Israelite think that God would take the form of a self-immolating bush?

It might be natural enough to think that fire consumes a bush, but there’s another way to see it—the way that many ancients saw it: the fire is in the bush from the beginning. It’s not really such a crazy idea if one considers that the fire cannot occur without what’s in the bush. Sure, the fire also needs oxygen, but again: the bush exhales oxygen as it generates wood and foliage. It provides the fire with everything it needs. It is, in a real sense, a terrestrial offspring of the sun, waiting to ignite.

With the igneous nature of vegetation in mind, consider the igneous nature of the earth. Volcanoes could not have escaped the awareness of the ancients. With accompanying seismic activity, it must have been easy to conclude that the earth itself has a fiery cauldron at its heart. Gas and oil seeps, when ignited, may have lent some corroboration to this conclusion. Indeed, it is well-known that a fire temple recently made use of the natural gas seeps at Baku, Azerbaijan.

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The Hexad of Wisdom

In Zoroastrianism, the benevolent Lord Wisdom interacts with his creation through six gods—or principles—of his making. These can be thought of as the pillars of Zoroastrianism:

  1. Good Thinking. “Good” is regarded in two senses: both as beneficial and as effective. Thus wisdom and goodwill are implied. This “good thinking” is the means by which men are advised by Lord Wisdom.

  2. Truth. This is Asha, the most valued principle in Zoroastrianism. Asha is symbolized by fire, probably for fire’s utility in illumination, prehistoric trials by ordeal, and in purifying metals. Asha is generally translated as “righteousness”, but seeing as Asha is generally juxtaposed against “the Lie” in the earliest sources, it probably originates more in truth rather than in obedience to a moral code.

  3. Reform. This is often described as “desirable kingdom,” indicating the core objective of Zoroastrianism: world reform. This notion might also be expressed more generally as “order,” which is how Plutarch interpreted it. Thinking of it as order, we can easily see why this principle is closely associated with the heavens. Seeing it this way, “reform” can be depicted as bringing the orderliness of the heavens down to earth, hence the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, or as my Bahá’í friends say, “the New Order” or “World Order.” Plutarch describes this Zoroastrian “kingdom” as follows:

    Then shall the earth become a level plain, and there shall be one manner of life and one form of government for a blessed people who shall all speak one tongue.

    I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to interpret “a level plain” politically, rather than physically. Additionally, the principle of world reform need not entail notions of theocratic utopias. The point, I think, is to make a project of ridding the world of suffering.

  4. Devotion. This is generally seen in a conventional religious sense, but when we consider that this god of devotion often doubles as a Mother Earth figure, we can see that “devotion” in this usage can be seen as a loving commitment to the welfare of the world.

  5. Health. Symbolized by water. Coupled with #6 (see below). Sometimes cast as wholeness.

  6. Life. Symbolized by vegetation. Generally specified as immortality or long life. Along with #5, this is often presented as a reward to the righteous. I prefer to think of health and life as values. This is not far-fetched, considering the emphasis placed upon life in Zoroastrianism. Life is, in fact, often equated with goodness itself, opposed to the evil of death. Once the virtue of life is established, the virtue of health can hardly be doubted, but health is also a virtue of its own, for life has significantly less virtue when overcome with illness.

Priest Dogs of Iran

Georgie (

Georgie (

This is a continuation of a thread on dogs.

Zoroastrian funerary rituals appear to indicate that ancient Iranians believed that dogs had a unique power to discern whether the life had departed from a body.

What follows next is known as the dog-sight (sagdid) ceremony. A dog, generally a “four-eyed” dog (a dog with two eye-like spots just above the eyes), is presented so that it gazes at the corpse. Although various reasons are assigned to this ceremony, the purpose in ancient times was to ascertain whether or not life was altogether extinct.

Solomon Alexander Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith

It may be due to this high regard for the perceptiveness of dogs, and not merely the loyalty and utility of dogs, that lead ancient Iranians to treat the corpses of dogs with the same care that they treated human corpses.

Not only did ancient Iranians believe that dogs could alone tell whether a human was truly deceased, they also believed that dogs guarded the bridge to heaven. They may have even believed that these dogs guided souls across that bridge into heaven.

In line with this, dog breeding is a religious matter in Zoroastrianism, and canine pregnancy is treated quite seriously:

It lies with the faithful to look in the same way after every pregnant female, either two-footed or four-footed, two-footed woman or four-footed bitch.

Vendidad, Fargard 15

The Vendidad establishes that people have a moral obligation to care for pregnant strays and the pups of strays. The book lays out—in detail—how to determine who is responsible for a pregnant stray. And upon whomever the responsibility lies, negligence is murder:

If he shall not support her, so that the whelps come to grief, for want of proper support, he shall pay for it the penalty for wilful murder.

Vendidad, Fargard 15

Rough treatment of pregnant dogs is a punishable offense:

It is the third of these sins when a man smites a bitch big with young or affrights her by running after her, or shouting or clapping with the hands; If the bitch fall into a hole, or a well, or a precipice, or a river, or a canal, she may come to grief thereby; if she come to grief thereby, the man who has done the deed becomes a Peshotanu (deserving of two hundred strokes or a proportional fine).

Vendidad, Fargard 15

Similar penalties are established for abuse of dogs in general:

It is the second of these sins when a man gives bones too hard or food too hot to a shepherd’s dog or to a house-dog; If the bones stick in the dog’s teeth or stop in his throat; or if the food too hot burn his mouth or his tongue, he may come to grief thereby; if he come to grief thereby, the man who has done the deed becomes a Peshotanu. He who gives too hot food to a dog so as to burn his throat is margarzan (guilty of death); he who gives bones to a dog so as to tear his throat is margarzan.

Vendidad, Fargard 15

Unfortunately, the attitude toward dogs in modern Iran is quite the opposite.

Another means of distressing Zoroastrians was to torment dogs. Primitive Islam knew nothing of the now pervasive Muslim hostility to the dog as an unclean animal, and this, it seems, was deliberately fostered in Iran because of the remarkable Zoroastrian respect for dogs.

Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians, pg. 158

River at the Edge of the World

It may presently be one of the most God-forsaken places on our planet. The Kokcha River region of Afghanistan is good for little more than opium farming and arms smuggling today, though it was once one of the great corridors between the ancient worlds of India and Iran, long before Darius and the Persian Empire.

A lapis lazuli pack train above the River Kokcha.

As early as five thousand years ago, the Pharaohs of Egypt traded for the precious, bespangled lapis lazuli that is still mined from the mountains that are still being excavated by the River Kokcha.

It is the River Kokcha that defines, more than any other stream, the natural boundary between the Pamir and the Hindu Kush. Because of this strategic significance of the river, it must have competed with Khyber Pass for traffic between ancient India and Bactria. This is corroborated by Franz Grenet, who draws clues from the Avesta that indicate that the River Kokcha may have been the major route between Bactria and India at one time. The Avestan pattern Ragha-Chakhra-Varena-Hapta Hendu appears to draw a course from the Panj (Oxus) to India by way of Chitral, Pakistan.

Grenet also suggests that the prophet Zoroaster may have been born and raised at a bend on this river. Alexander the Great would later found his city Alexandria on the Oxus at the mouth of the Kokcha, after he crossed into Bactria from India, likely by way of Dorah Pass, at the headwaters of the very same river, at the junction of the Hindu Kush and the Pamir massif, the “Roof of the World.”

Long after Zarathustra and Alexander, Marco Polo claimed to have traveled along this same river, seeing the fabled lapis lazuli mines, on his way to China:

From Hormuz to Kerman, passing Herat, Balkh, they arrived Badakhshan, where Marco Polo convalesced from an illness and stayed there for a year. On the move again, they found themselves on “the highest place in the world, the Pamirs”, with its name appeared in the history for the first time.

Marco Polo and His Travels

Even today, the majority of Afghans are Iranians. The Tajiks, who speak Persian, are about as Iranian as anybody—”Tajik” is just another word for “Iranian”. Though Uzbeks have ruled and settled the area from time to time, the Kokcha River region is primarily Tajik country. The land immediately across the passes at that boundary between the Pamir and Hindu Kush is called Kafiristan, which may translate, curiously enough, to “Land of the Infidels”. This is a subject of some dispute. It would seem to be apropos, given the great religious divides that must have existed between East and West back into the depths of human prehistory, but perhaps more important than the divisive aspect of these geo-religious differences might be the enlightening aspect of cultural cross-pollination between early Hindus, Zoroastrians, Greeks, and Buddhists over so many centuries.

Asha and Commerce

It’s easy to see the prominent role of moral dualism in Zoroastrianism. It is not always quite so obvious what the characteristics of Good and Evil are considered to be. Ultimately, I think the best answer is that Good and Evil have no characteristics. To associate characteristics with these principles is equivalent to giving names to them, and to name Good and Evil is the essence of idolatry. Of course, Zoroastrianism does offer names for Good and Evil. The question is, how can Good and Evil be associated with actual phenomena? Though we ought to take care in making such a judgment, I think it safe to say that drawing a moral demarcation between general principles is not quite so hazardous as drawing such demarcations between men.

There are two readily recognizable boundaries between Good and Evil in traditional Zoroastrianism:

  • between the Truth and the Lie (Asha and Druj)
  • between life and death

That is to say, as far as particular values are concerned, Zoroastrianism values truth and life above all else.

I’ve been thinking about the Zoroastrian idea of truth, which is called “Asha”, the cousin of the Hindu principle Rta. Asha and Rta both represent universal order, but Asha carries a strong moral connotation. It connotes societal order that results from honesty in human relations. It is such honesty that is the fabric of human commerce, and I am using the broadest definition of “commerce,” including not only the exchange of goods and services, but also intellectual commerce, social commerce, cultural commerce, and even spiritual commerce. Without honesty and trustworthiness, commerce cannot thrive and society loses its very fabric. Hence it can be seen that the two named characteristics of Good and Evil in Zoroastrianism—Asha and Druj—exhibit the emphasis that Zoroastrianism places on human relations, i.e., commerce.

In a nutshell, to value Asha is to value human society. In recent years, we have repeatedly witnessed the damage that a lack of honesty and trust can do to an economy, but that is only a particular instance of a general principle of human commerce, to say nothing of the internal, psychological society of the individual.

Reconstructing Zarathustra

I am not as interested in Zarathustra the actual prehistoric man, if he ever existed, as much as I am interested in the name Zarathustra as a label for—or a personification of—the core ideas of Zoroastrianism.

For me, the essence of Zoroastrianism is the existentialist basis of cosmic dualism: the value-laden character of phenomena, or perception. As we’ve discussed here before, Plutarch considered this aspect of Zoroastrianism to be the essence of Zoroastrianism, though of course he did not discuss the idea in existentialist terms. Plutarch identified an essential correspondence between Zoroastrian cosmic dualism and the dialectic of Heraclitus. For Plutarch, all things contain a mixture of good and evil, hence existence is characteristically value-laden.

How might we imagine such an idea might be personified?

We have inherited a fairly rich body of Zoroastrian legend, archaeology, and philology from which we might assemble a myth that is both plausible and true to the meaning of Zoroastrianism.

We can certainly imagine Zoroaster as the legendary prophet who retreated to the mountains, but it seems untrue to the myth to see Zoroaster as a man who began as a prophet. What brought the man to the mountains before his epiphany—his revelation?

I’m inclined to envision the young Zoroaster as a man of some status. I do not dare suggest that a barefoot bronze age serf somehow pulled himself up by his bootlaces. Was he a priest? I think he would have had to have been, given the apparent stratification of ancient Iranian society, but the key is that we don’t necessarily need to envision him as a fully-employed priest. Perhaps he was a disillusioned son of a priest who found work as a herdsman. Perhaps seeing him as a merchant would work even better.

The marketplace is intimately tied to common views of morality that consider actions (AKA sacrifices) to be payments made toward some form of compensation, however postponed. The compensation might be delivered by a government, a god, or a force such as karma. There is a single rule at work, and Zarathushtra is no exception to it. The difference with Zarathushtra is that this celestial justice can be seen as serving a higher principle that is intrinsic and fundamental to our personal experience: the Good. The fact that Zoroastrianism makes the salvation of existence itself the priority reinforces this point. Other principles such as karma may imply the existence of a higher Good, but only Zoroastrianism can be seen as making the relationship explicit. When the Good is only implicit, it can be casually merged with notions of celestial power, which has the effect of reducing the Good to a partner—or worse, a servant—of Power.

The idea, where Zoroastrianism is concerned, is that an economy of moral commerce could be conceived. It would be imagined that this economy might trigger a “renewal of existence”. The challenge would be to motivate people to engage in this exchange of “goods.”

Perhaps this mythical moral capitalist—our prehistoric Adam Smith—might have first found work as a herdsman, and then found something to trade. That commodity could lead him to think about value and exchange. One commonly accepted translation of his name “yellow camel” may even hint that he may have been a traveling merchant. Alternatively, he could have partnered with a merchant. A partnership between a merchant and a priest could be the ideal birth of Zoroastrianism.

The Submission of Iran

It has often been wondered how the Persian Empire was so thoroughly conquered by the armies of Islam. How could so many Persians, with their deep belief in freewill and the divinity of the Good, convert in such large numbers to a religion of predestination and submission to fate?

Since I’ve been reading Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, I believe I’ve gained a new insight into that transformation.

As Ferdowsi depicts the annihilation of the Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander, he has these words spoken by the Persian king Darius III:

Know that evil and good both come from God.

This, to me, may mark the lesson of the Shahnameh in general. It is a book of fate, of mortal glories given and taken away by God. God is in total control of the fates of men. If men have any control at all of their own fates, it is in their ability to accept their fates gracefully. Each man plays his part in the drama, but in the end every step is preordained by God.

This may not have been the way the ancient Persians saw the world given what we suspect were their beliefs, but by Ferdowsi’s time, the Persians were watching their world consumed in Arab conquest, bit by bit. So much of what they had believed in was annihilated mercilessly; much more completely than what Alexander achieved. How else could they have seen God but as a capricious, amoral, absolute dictator? There was no point in striving, and no role for freewill; only an impotent hope that prayer and piety would satiate their new heavenly despot.

The Iranians, it would turn out, were conditioned by events to make the most steadfast of Muslims, for they themselves had witnessed the awesome, amoral might of Fate. They learned that the God of Fate blesses whom he will, so they chose to submit themselves, however reluctantly, to Fate’s favored ones: their Arab conquerors.