Religion in Iran

Mithraism: Mithrâ Khšathrapati and his brother Ahurâ
By: Professor Mary Boyce


Mithra is sacrificing a bull at the presence of the Sun & the Moon.
Louvre Museum, Paris
That the god Khšathrapati in the Aramaic text of the Xanthos trilingual, corresponding to Apollo (a "descendant of Leto") in the Greek version, is to be identified as Mithra was first proposed only tentatively by A. Dupont-Sommer; but the identification being approved by other scholars, he soon developed it with conviction.' The reasons for it appear multiple and individually sound, the main one being that the correspondence of Mithra and Apollo is well attested. The basis for it is taken to be the link which both had with the sun by Achaemenian times; but their concepts harmonised also through their more essential functions of protecting law and order; and this, together with the great power attributed to each, made it appropriate to invoke them, as at Xanthos, to guard legal undertakings.

The title khšathrapati leaves more scope for discussion, partly because its first element, khšathra, has a range of meanings, from "rule, dominion" to the place where rule is exerted, i.e. "kingdom, realm." In the latter sense it could be used both of the kingdom of heaven and a kingdom on earth (hence gradually, in its Middle Iranian forms, of a region, district, and eventually town). The closest Avestan parallel to the title is the Gathic phrase paitiš . . . xša?rahya (Y.44.9), "lord/master of rule," used obliquely of Ahura Mazda; but as a title it was plainly applicable, as far as sense went, to any of the three Ahuras, conceived as being the upholders of aša, "that which is right," which naturally included just rule. So in a relatively late Vedic hymn (tenth century B.C.) it is Mitra who is invoked as "lord of ksatra," ksatra having here the sense of "dominion, rule."

Khšathrapati as used in invocation of Mithra in the fourth century probably had the more concrete sense of "Lord of the realm," i.e. the realm of his Iranian worshippers, the Achaemenian empire.

To protect this would have been a very proper role to assign to the lesser Ahura, acting under Mazda; and that this is how the title was intended is suggested by the fact that its later feminine equivalent, Šahrbanu, "Lady of the realm," was used as a title both for queens and high-born ladies and for the divinity Anahit, who was so often paired with Mithra. That the title kšathrapati was similarly used for kings as well as gods-or a god-is shown by its occurrence in Manichaean Sogdian as *ekhšešpat (Éxšyšpt).' This is attested in parallel with Middle Persian dahybad, which wellknown word, an archaic one of Avestan origin, is used elsewhere in hendiadys with khwaday as a title for the Sasanian king.

The attestation of Sogdian *eaxšešpat as a royal title neither strengthens nor weakens the identification of Khgathrapati at Xanthos as Mithra; but a tiny piece of evidence linking Mithra specifically with khgathra is provided by a proper name on a Demotic papyrus (though admittedly one of slightly doubtful reading): *Mithrakha, seen as a hypocoristic for *Mithrakh§athra, "Having rule through Mithra."

What the occurrence of Sogdian eaxšešpat does indicate is that the title khšathrapati had been widely used among the ancient Iranians; and this fact, and the meaning and uses of that title, undermine the theory advanced by A. D. H. Bivar that it was such an exalted one that it could have been given only to a supreme god. He further argued that since the supreme god of the Zoroastrian was Ahuramazda, the divine Khšathrapati, i.e. Mithra, must have been the supreme god of their imperial predecessors, the Medes, who he assumed were adherents of the Old Iranian religion. It is true that, as he emphasizes, Xanthos had Median connections, through Han pagus, from the time of Cyrus the Great' conquest; but it is by no means certain that those connections even then would have been non-Zoroastrian. The western priests of Zoroastrianism were Median magi, and Persia appears to have been converted to the eastern Iranian faith largely through Media.

In any case, by the time that the Xanthos stele was erected, in 358 BCE, the Zoroastrian Achaemenians had been in power for generations; and however wide their tolerance of the beliefs of their subject peoples, it is unthinkable that they should have permitted any of their Iranian satraps publicly to maintain a religion other than their own. Zoroastrianism, as the royal religion, must have provided the Achaemenian Empire with its rituals of oath-taking, its public forms and ceremonies, its official holy days. A scattering of Persian words in the Xanthos Aramaic text accords with this having been prepared in the satrapal chancellery; and in such a place no unofficial form- of Iranian religion can be held to have been countenanced.'

Similar considerations affect one of the arguments used by Bivar for associating Iranian Mithra with Babylonian Nergal. 'Some satrapal coins issued at Tarsus in the fourth century B.C. bear the figure of a god in Persian dress who is identified in Aramaic letters as NRGL TRZ', Nergal of Tarsus. This is undoubtedly an odd fact, for which the most likely explanation seems that it had a propaganda purpose, i.e. the wooing of Nergal's many local worshippers to loyalty to Persian rule through this courtesy to their god," who was probably represented by them themselves at that time in Iranian garb." Bivar, however, pursued a more complex line of reasoning. An enthroned Ba on coins struck by Mazaeus at Tarsus provided the model for the enthroned Zeus of Alexander's coinage;" and on some Greco-Bactrian coins a god is shown similarly enthroned, but radiate and/or wearing the tiara. Bivar's identification of this figure as Mithra seems just; and there are other slight indications that in Hellenistic times Mithra was occasionally represented as Zeus. For example at Commagene, where the data are most abundant, Apollo-Mithra shares with Zeus-Oromasdes the emblem of thunderbolts; but it is nevertheless clear that there this god holds his proper place in the Greco -Zoroastrian pantheon, i.e. greatly exalted but below the supreme God, Zeus-Oromasdes. It seems likely therefore that Mithra sometimes received the attributes of Zeus in the Hellenistic period because he was perceived by Greeks as the most powerful and active of the Zoroastrian gods, while the Zoroastrians themselves saw him as carrying out in this the will of his Creator, Ahuramazda. The known data certainly do not provide an adequate basis for the theory that there were Iranians, Achaemenian satraps among them, who worshipped Mithra as supreme god, still less that they recognized in him aspects of the Semitic Nergal.

Bivar has advanced other reasons for what he sees as a Mithra-Nergal syncretism going back to pre-Achaemenian times. One is Mithra's link with the sun and the occasional identification of Nergal with Samag, the great Semitic sun god." This latter association has been tentatively explained as developing because the Babylonians thought that the sun passed through the underworld during the night, returning from west to east, being then in the kingdom of Nergal. The Iranians, however, held that the sun went at night behind the world mountain, Hara. Moreover, they thought that Mithra did not then accompany it, but turned back to continue his fight against evil through the hours of darkness. No trace of an underworld element exists in the concept of Mithra; and even if such an element is to be found in that of Roman Mithras, this is no reason to attribute it to the Iranian Ahura. Other data from Mithraism which Bivar has seen as attesting a contribution to it by Nergal's worship are considered by Semitic specialists to be misinterpreted.

If the theory of a syncretism of Mithra and Nergal is abandoned, this seems at first sight to weaken Bivar's striking suggestion that the god Sarapis, whose existence is first attested in the fourth century B.C., was by origin Mithra, so regularly worshipped at some of his shrines by the title Khšathrapati that there, as at Xanthos, he came to be invoked simply in this way. Phonetically, Bivar has pointed out, Khšathrapati could become Sarapis on Greek lips, and the chronology of the Iranian sound-changes involved is possible, as N. Sims-Williams has shown. Yet there is a prominent chthonic element in Sarapis' cult which, though it might link him with Nergal, has no counterpart in that of Iranian Mithra. However, in a study of Sarapis' worship in Egypt J. E. Stambaugh has shown that this element may not have been original to his cult, but may have accrued to it at Memphis. Before the development of his "canonical" image, modelled, it seems, on that of Pluto, Sarapis appears to have been venerated through two famous cult statues; and the slender evidence for their reconstruction suggests that the one in Alexandria, set up by Ptolemy I, "emphasized the kingly nature of the god," that at Memphis his chthonic fruitfulness. Sarapis had, moreover, not only kingly but benign attributes. He granted favours and blessings, unlike Pluto, to the living and, like Mithra, oversaw the administering of justice, facts which undoubtedly favour Bivar's theory. His cult evidently developed enormously under the Ptolemids, absorbing elements from the concepts of Osiris, Apis, Pluto, Dionysius and Asclepius, so that, even if his concept has its origins in Khšathrapati, relatively little can have survived in it by Roman times of Mithra's own character. The presence of statues of Sarapis, along with those of other gods, in mithraea is thus unlikely to be in acknowledgement of any genetic relationship between him and Roman Mithras.

The theory that Mithra lost his proper name locally to a cult epithet is all the more plausible because this is a well-known phenomenon of Indo-Iranian religious history, attested at diverse periods. Thus at Ray the title Šahrbanu replaced Anahit's name and came to provide in Islamic times the basis for a new shrine-legend. Much earlier the goddess Harahvati seems to have become known generally by her epithets aredvi sura anahita, with her own name dropping wholly out of use, while in a related but different development the minor divinity Druvaspa is thought to have come into being from the cult epithet of a greater goddess, perhaps Ak. In most such cases it is necessary to make qualified statements, because the very fact that the epithet has replaced the proper name makes it difficult to prove that this has been the case.

The success of the process obliterates the evidence. In one particular instance, however, the Indian tradition preserves valuable data. There Mitra's brother Asura is Varuna, whose name appears to be close in meaning to Mitra's own, and who was presumably once known by it to the Iranians also. The divine pair are so closely knit that it has been said that "the only trait which makes a palpable difference between them is that Mitra dwells in fire, Varuna in water" -hence the latter's appellation Apam Napat, "Son of the Waters." One Vedic hymn (RV 2.35) addressed to him, seemingly, by this title only, invokes him in exalted terms. In another Agni, god of Fire, is told: "You become Varuna when you enter on behalf of rta [Avestan aša ], you become Apam Napat" (RV 10.8.5). The Brahmans wove subtle thoughts about how Agni, born of a spark from water-nourished sticks, was sprung from water; and as this god's cult expanded, the title "Son of the Waters" was annexed for him; but it was also given occasionally to the solar divinity Savitr, because the sun was thought to quench itself in the sea and so to "become" Varuna.31 Thus in India Varuna lost his ancient and significant title Apam Napat to these other divinities, but continued to be worshipped by his proper name, whereas in Iran he (like Harahvati and Mithra as Khšathrapati) lost his proper name and was worshipped instead by the appellation. Hence in the Avesta and Zoroastrian cult Mithra and Apam Napat appear in the same close, fixed relationships as do Mitra and Varuna in Indian tradition.

Another contrast between India and Iran in respect to these two divinities is that in the former country Varuna overshadows Mitra, whereas in Iran it is Mithra who predominates. Mithra's aggrandizement appears as a long slow process, beginning probably in pre-Zoroastrian times. Yet he never totally eclipsed his brother Ahura, who as Apam Napat is still venerated in Zoroastrian liturgies and daily prayers. There are signs, moreover, of a stubborn local devotion to him in the past, in among other places Anatolia. Thus whereas in the best known versions of the Zoroastrian calendar there are no dedications to him, in the Cappadocian one he receives, as Apam Napat, that of the eighth month, following (in the usual way) directly after Mithra.

In other versions the eighth month belongs to the Waters, with whom Varuna is so closely linked. Further, in the Greek text on the Xanthos stele the Nymphs are invoked after the "descendants of Leto," presumably because the sanctuary had a spring; and the Aramaic equivalent for them is Éhwrnyš, i.e. Akhurniš, Avestan Ahuraniš, "Wives of the Ahura." This name for the Waters is parallel to the Vedic one of Varunani "Wives of Varuna"; and there is other evidence to show that Varuna was also hailed in Iran as "the Ahura," and more particularly as "the lofty Ahura," Ahura barazant. The latter title is given him, together with Apam Napat, in his khšnuman, i.e. the fixed formula of invocation by which a Zoroastrian divinity is invited to attend an act of worship. It became accordingly his alternative "name," and in its evolved form of Burj Yazad (the "god Burj") is the one by which he is known in colloquial priestly usage today, Apam Napat being confined to Avestan utterances. That the Waters should be called "Wives of the Ahura" at Xanthos appears to be another indication of devotion to Varuna among the Anatolian Zoroastrians, and it gives indirect support to the identification of Khšathrapati as Mithra, both the lesser Ahuras being thus concerned there.

The extent of Varuna's erstwhile popularity among the Iranians, and the depth perhaps of awe which prevented the speaking of his own name, is suggested by there being a third appellation by which he was invoked, i.e. Baga, the "Dispenser." This does not, however, occur in his khšnuman; and the evidence is more difficult to evaluate because, whereas ahura "lord," is used only of members of the great aša-protecting triad, baga was a general term for "god." It appears frequently as the first element in proper names; and it is widely accepted that *Bagastana (Mt. Behistun) meant "Place of the Gods." Similarly the Old Persian name for September/October, Bagayadi, meant most probably the month for "worship of the Gods," a time of thanksgiving when, with the harvest in and the autumn ploughing over, people could rest and join in communal devotions. The only other month with a similar dedication is November/December, called Aciyadiya, for "worship of Fire," in which presumably the ancient observance of a great winter fire-festival (in Zoroastrianism the feast of Sade) took place.

When later the Zoroastrian calendar was created, with numerous dedications to individual gods, Mithra received the month September/October, probably because he was a great divinity with a special link with the sun which had ripened the harvest. The autumn thanksgiving festival then became called by many Iranians Mithrakana; and this has led to the assumption that Bagayadi too was devoted to Mithra (despite its belonging to a different calendar), and that he was the divinity known as the Baga. It seems unlikely, however, that the ancient Persians would have singled out one god from their pantheon in this way, and that god Mithra rather than the greater Mazda (the form of whose Old Persian name shows that he was constantly invoked by them). Moreover, other Achaemenian data do not substantiate this theory.

On Elamite tablets of the time of Darius offerings are five times recorded for mi-(iš)še-baka/mi-ša-a-ba-ka/mi-iš-ša-ba-ka, which has been interpreted as Mica Baga. Once these offerings are made a the same time to Ahuramazda; and long afterwards, when "Mithra" had displaced Old Persian "Mica" as a standard form, Darius' great-great-great-grandson, Artaxerxes III, invoked "Ahuramazda and Mithra Baga." In all these instances, "Bags" has been generally understood to mean "god" as a title for Mithra; but, notably, when Artaxerxes II invoked Ahuramazda and Anahita and Mithra, or Mithra alone, there is no mention of Baga. It follows that Baga was not a fixed Old Persian title of Mithra. It could at most be supposed to be a facultative one-which would make it even less likely that the ancient Persians should have dedicated a month to him by it rather than by his proper name. What appears much more probable is that in these Achaemenian texts "Baga" is not a title for Mithra-for why should he alone of the divinities named there require to be identified, and that only occasionally, as a god?-but rather a title used as a name for his brother Ahura, Varuna, whom Artaxerxes II displaced in promoting the cult of Anahita. This then provides in the pair-compound Mithra-Baga the apparently missing Old Persian equivalent to Avestan Mithra-Ahura-berezanta and Vedic Mitra-varuna.

The interpretation is further supported by the fact that there are good grounds for thinking that Vedic Bagha, corresponding to Iranian Baga, evolved as a distinct divinity from this title of Varuna, which must thus, like Apam Napat, go back to proto-Indo-Iranian times while in one Avestan text (Y.10.10) the Baga is credited with an act assigned in the Rigveda (RV 5.85.1) to Varuna, i.e. setting haoma/soma on the mountains.

Pair-compounds, with two elements set together without a conjunction and inflected in the dual, were fossil-formations already in Old Iranian; and in the case of Mithra-Baga, with Mithra eclipsing Varuna more and more, and the common noun baga in general use, it is small wonder that "Mithra(and)-the Baga" should eventually have been reinterpreted as "Mithra-(who is)-the Baga;" and that locally at least in the Middle Iranian period "Baga" should therefore have come to be used as an alternative for Mithra's name. It seems likely, however, that the otherwise puzzling variations in Zoroastrian calendar and festival dedications to Mithra and to Baga, dating presumably from the fourth century BCE, arose then from local attempts to honour both the lesser Ahuras, rather than being apparently random variants on Mithra's name and facultative title. These dedications were felt by Zoroastrians to be profoundly important blood has been shed over calendar differences in relatively modern times-and there is not likely to have been anything casual or motiveless in such divergences.

There appears, moreover, to be one significant survival of an invocation of both the brother Ahuras in a phrase fossilized among the formulas of a Sogdian marriage contract of the eighth century CE, and used then presumably without full understanding of its meaning: "in the presence of the Baga and Mithra" (awen Va?e at awen Mithra nivandi). Here for once Varuna precedes his brother Ahura, but this can be accounted for by the fact that the Indian evidence shows that as "Bagha" he was especially connected with marriage.

Long before the eighth century, it has been ably argued,' "Baga" was being used to mean "Mithra" in Sogdian theophoric names. Mithra's popularity is attested throughout Zoroastrian history; and this popularity accounts, it appears, for his cult begetting others outside the Iranian sphere which then became powerful in their own right, namely those of Roman Mithras and, so it now seems, Egyptian Sarapis. The impressiveness of this is nevertheless no justification for consigning to oblivion within Iran his also great brother Ahura, Varuna.