Founder Myths in Iranian History

by: Richard N. Frye

From: Naamely-e Iran-e Baastaan

Published by: Prof. Touraj Daryaee

Contact Prof. Daryaee to order the publication

Most, if not all, people are interested in their origins, who their ancestors were, and their history.  Sometimes the continuity is interrupted by adoption of a new religion, which tries to repudiate or ignore the past.  At other times rulers seek to impose their views of events by lying about them.  In both cases it is difficult to erase beliefs and practices which have become ingrained in the culture or society, and, in the case of religions, sometimes old tenets are absorbed or transformed to fit new conditions, or are secretly practiced.  Let me explain.

When Christianity spread in the Near East, pagan religions were attacked and many customs were banned when conversions took place.  Others, such as fetes and holidays, were transformed into new celebrations with new names and meanings. It is well-known that Christian adopted many practices from re-Christian sources, including even the date of the holiday.  But origins were important to people, and in this case, since the new religion rose from the Jewish faith, its origins of the Old Testament were chosen as Christianity's pre-history rather than the ancient Near Eastern, or the Greco-Roman account of creation and origins.

The pre-history of the Arabs, it seems, was connected to beliefs of the southern tribes in Yemen and the Hadhramaut, until the coming of Muhammad.  He rejected this view of the past to make Islam a continuity of Judaism and Christianity.  Thus, through first Christianity and then Islam the people of the Semitic speaking Near East lost their origins in a confluence of all in the Hebrew account of creation and history as found in the Old Testament.  This was not such a great rupture, for the ancient Hebrews were part of the "Fertile Crescent" with similar peoples and beliefs.  But what of the non-Semitic speaking peoples of the area?    When the Armenians and Iranians converted to Christianity or to Islam, of course they accepted the creation myths of those faiths, but unlike the Semites, their traditions and practices were not so much replaced by new names and conditions, but rather they  made attempts to harmonize the old and new, identifying figures and events in both traditions.  To turn to Iran, the generalities above may be clarified with specific examples.

Shahpur Shahbazi has cogently explained that the early Sasanians were aware of the Achaemenids and their empire.  He attributed the change to the east-Iranian (Shahnameh-Avestan) version of creation, and foundation of the first Iranian empire, to the influence of Zoroastrian priests in the 4th and 5th centuries.  It appears to have been a deliberate policy, in which Zoroastrianism, challenged by Christianity and Manichaeism, sought to replace the foreign, one might say "Biblical," account of history by a religious version based on the tales in the sacred book of the Avesta.  Why was this done in the middle of Sasanian rule?  We may suggest that it was promulgated to counter the religious propaganda of Christian and Manichaean missionaries, and their views of the past.  Why was this not done earlier?  Because previously the "universal" religions had not been formed, and they did not present a threat to the position of Zoroatrianism in the Sasanian Empire.  It was not only the religion which was threatened, but also the creation and foundation myths of the Iranian people, which demanded state actions.  It is not too much to suggest that ancient Iranian culture and civilization would be endangered by the myths of the Old Testament, as again later, in the time of Firdowsi.  The promulgation of the Avestan0east Iranian version of the past was necessary both in the fourth and in the tenth centuries of the common era.

Therefore we should not insist that the Iranians did not know about the Achaemenids, but deliberate religious and government policy promoted the "national " history of Iran.  In so doing the identity of Iran was preserved for posterity.  The long history of Pharaonic Egypt was erased first by Christianity, followed by the Arab conquest, such that Egyptians did forget their history until archaeologists recovered it.  The same happened to the Babylonians, Assyrians and other peoples of the Near East, and only in Iran was an ancient identity preserved.  Firdowsi not only revived and made alive the Persian language, he really saved the self identification of the Iranians.  More than simply the Persians, also Armenians, Georgians and peoples of Central Asia adopted the Iranian version of the past, even though at times in conflict with the Old Testament myths of origin.  Much more research is needed in this domain, but Firdowsi is revealed as much more than a great poet and teller of tales.