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Zurvanism is an extinct "heretical branch of "Zoroastrianism in which the divinity Zurvan is a First Principle (primordial creator deity) who engendered equal-but-opposite twins, "Ahura Mazda and "Angra Mainyu. Zurvanism is also known as "Zurvanite Zoroastrianism", and may be contrasted with "Mazdaism, which is the surviving form of Zoroastrianism and in which Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are either themselves primordial (the traditional view), or the 19th/20th century developments in which Ahura Mazda is no longer the Creator of only the good, but also perceived as the origin of Angra Mainyu.
In Zurvanism, Zurvan was perceived as the god of infinite time and space and was aka ("one", "alone"). Zurvan was portrayed as a transcendental and neutral god, without passion, and one for whom there was no distinction between good or evil. The name 'Zurvan' is a normalized rendition of the word, which in "Middle Persian appears as either Zurvān, Zruvān or Zarvān. The Middle Persian name derives from "Avestan zruvan-, "time", which is grammatically without gender.
Although the details of the origin and development of Zurvanism remain murky (for a summary of the three opposing opinions, see Ascent and acceptance below), it is generally accepted that Zurvanism was a branch of greater "Zoroastrianism (Boyce 1957:157-304); that the doctrine of Zurvan was a sacerdotal response to resolve a perceived inconsistency in the sacred texts (Zaehner, 1955, intro; See development of the “twin brother” doctrine below); and that this doctrine was probably introduced during the second half of the "Achaemenid era (Henning, 1951; loc. Cit. Boyce 1957:157-304).
Zurvanism enjoyed royal sanction during the "Sassanid era (226–651 CE) but no traces of it remain beyond the 10th century. Although Sassanid era Zurvanism was certainly influenced by Hellenic philosophy, the relationship between it and the Greek divinity of Time ("Chronos) has not been conclusively established. Non-Zoroastrian accounts of typically Zurvanite beliefs were the first traces of Zoroastrianism to reach the west, leading European scholars to conclude that Zoroastrianism was a "monist religion, an issue of much controversy among both scholars and contemporary practitioners of the faith.
The Avestan word zruvan is etymologically related to the late (post-Vedic) Sanskrit word "sarva, meaning "all, entire", and which carries a similar semantic field in signifying a monist quality.
The earliest evidence of the cult of Zurvan is found in the History of Theology, attributed to "Eudemus of Rhodes (c. 370–300 BCE). As cited in "Damascius's Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles (6th century CE), Eudemus describes a sect of the "Medes that considered Space/Time to be the primordial “father” of the rivals Oromasdes “of light” and Arimanius “of darkness” (Dhalla, 1932:331-332).
The principal evidence for Zurvanite doctrine in the polemical Christian tracts of "Armenian and "Syriac writers of the Sassanid period (224-651 CE). Indigenous sources of information from the same period are the 3rd century "Kartir inscription at "Ka'ba-i Zartosht and the early 4th century edict of Mihr-Narse (head-priest under Yazdagird I), the latter being the only native evidence from the Sassanid period that is frankly Zurvanite. The post-Sassanid "Zoroastrian Middle Persian commentaries are primarily Mazdean and with only one exception (10th century Denkard 9.30) do not mention Zurvan at all. Of the remaining so-called Pahlavi texts only two, the Mēnōg-i Khrad and the Selections of Zatspram (both 9th century) reveal a Zurvanite tendency. The latter, in which the priest Zatspram chastises his brother’s un-Mazdaean ideas, is the last text in "Middle Persian that provides any evidence of the cult of Zurvan. The 13th century Zoroastrian Ulema-i Islam ([Response] to Doctors of Islam), a New Persian "apologetic text, is unambiguously Zurvanite and is also the last direct evidence of Zurvan as a First Principle.
There is no hint of any worship of Zurvan in any of the texts of the "Avesta, even though the texts (as they exist today) are the result of a Sassanid era redaction. Zaehner proposes that this is because the individual Sassanid monarchs were not always Zurvanite and that Mazdean Zoroastrianism just happened to have the upper hand during the crucial period that the canon was finally written down (Zaehner, 1955:48; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1956:108). In the texts composed prior to the Sassanid period, Zurvan appears twice, as both an abstract concept and as a minor divinity, but there is no evidence of a cult. In "Yasna 72.10 Zurvan is invoked in the company of Space and Air ("Vata-Vayu) and in Yasht 13.56, the plants grow in the manner Time has ordained according to the will of "Ahura Mazda and the "Amesha Spentas. Two other references to Zurvan are also present in the Vendidad, but although these are late additions to the canon, they again do not establish any evidence of a cult. Zurvan does not appear in any listing of the "Yazatas (Dhalla, 1932).
The origins of the cult of Zurvan remain debated. One view (Zaehner, 1939; Duchesne-Guillemin, 1956; Zaehner 1955, intro) considers Zurvanism to have developed out of "Zoroastrianism as a reaction to the liberalization of the late "Achaemenid era form of the faith. Another view ("Swedish-school" theory, e.g. Nyberg, 1931; reiterated in Zaehner 1955, conclusion) proposes that Zurvan existed as a pre-Zoroastrian divinity that was incorporated into Zoroastrianism. The third view (Cumont and Schaeder; reiterated by Henning, 1951; Boyce 1957) is that Zurvanism is the product of the contact between Zoroastrianism and "Babylonian-"Akkadian religions (for a summary of opposing views see Boyce, 1957:304).
Certain however is that by the "Sassanid era (226–651 CE), the divinity "Infinite Time" was well established, and—as inferred from a Manichaean text presented to Shapur I, in which the name 'Zurvan' was adopted for Manichaeism's primordial "Father of Greatness"—enjoyed royal patronage. It was during the reign of Sassanid Emperor "Shapur I (241-272) that Zurvanism appears to have developed as a cult and it was presumably in this period that Greek and Indic concepts were introduced to Zurvanite Zoroastrianism.
It is however not known whether Sassanid era Zurvanism and Mazdaism were separate sects, each with their own organization and priesthood, or simply two tendencies within the same body. That Mazdaism and Zurvanism competed for attention has been inferred from the works of "Christian and "Manichaean polemicists, but the doctrinal incompatibilities were not so extreme "that they could not be reconciled under the broad aegis of an imperial church" (Boyce, 1957:308).
Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire in the 7th century, Zoroastrianism was gradually supplanted by Islam. The former continued to exist but in an increasingly reduced state and by the 10th century the remaining Zoroastrians appear to have more closely followed the orthodoxy as found in the Pahlavi books (see also legacy, below).
Why the cult of Zurvan vanished while Mazdaism did not remains an issue of scholarly debate. Arthur Christensen, one of the first proponents of the theory that Zurvanism was the state religion of the Sassanids, suggested that the rejection of Zurvanism in the post-conquest epoch was a response and reaction to the new authority of Islamic monotheism that brought about a deliberate reform of Zoroastrianism that aimed to establish a stronger orthodoxy (Boyce, 1957:305). Zaehner is of the opinion that the Zurvanite priesthood had a "strict orthodoxy which few could tolerate. Moreover, they interpreted the Prophet's message so dualistically that their God was made to appear very much less than all-powerful and all-wise. Reasonable as so absolute a dualism might appear from a purely intellectual point of view, it had neither the appeal of a real monotheism nor had it any mystical element with which to nourish its inner life." (Zaehner, 1961)
Another possible explanation postulated by Boyce (1957:308-309) is that Mazdaism and Zurvanism were divided regionally, that is, with Mazdaism being the predominant tendency in the regions to the north and east ("Bactria, "Margiana, and other "satrapies closest to Zoroaster's homeland), while Zurvanism was prominent in regions to the south and west (closer to Babylonian and Greek influence). This is supported by "Manichaean evidence that indicates that 3rd-century Mazdean Zoroastrianism had its stronghold in "Parthia, to the northeast. Following the fall of the Persian Empire, the south and west were relatively quickly assimilated under the banner of Islam, while the north and east remained independent for some time before these regions too were absorbed. (Boyce, 1957:308-309). This could also explain why Armenian/Syriac observations reveal a distinctly Zurvanite Zoroastrianism, and inversely, could explain the strong "Greek and "Babylonian influence on Zurvanism (see types of Zurvanism, below).
Classical Zurvanism is a term coined by Zaehner (1955, intro) to denote the movement to explain the inconsistency of Zoroaster’s description of the “twin spirits” as they appear in Yasna 30.3-5 of the Avesta. According to Zaehner, this “Zurvanism proper” was “genuinely Iranian and Zoroastrian in that it sought to clarify the enigma of the twin spirits that Zoroaster left unsolved.” (Zaehner, 1961)
As the priesthood sought to explain it, if the Malevolent Spirit (lit: "Angra Mainyu) and the Benevolent Spirit (Spenta Mainyu, identified with "Ahura Mazda) were twins, then they must have had a parent, who must have existed before them. The priesthood settled on Zurvan – the hypostasis of (Infinite) Time – as being “the only possible ‘Absolute’ from whom the twins could proceed” and which was the source of good in the one and the source of evil in the other (Zaehner, 1961).
The Zurvanite “twin brother” doctrine is also evident in Zurvanism’s cosmogonical "creation myth, that in its ‘classic’ form, does not contradict the Mazdean model of the origin and evolution of the universe, which begins where the Zurvanite model ends. It may well be (as proposed by Cumont and Schaeder) that the Zurvanite "cosmogony was an adaptation of an antecedent Hellenic "Chronos cosmogony that portrayed Infinite Time as the “Father of Time” (not to be confused with the "Titan, "Cronus, father of "Zeus) whom the Greeks equated with Oromasdes, i.e. Ohrmuzd/Ahura Mazda.
The ‘classic’ Zurvanite model of creation, preserved only by non-Zoroastrian sources, proceeds as follows:
Christian and Manichaean missionaries considered this doctrine to be exemplary of the Zoroastrian faith and it was these and similar texts that first reached the west. Corroborated by "Anquetil-Duperron’s “erroneous rendering” of Vendidad 19.9, these led to the late 18th century conclusion that Infinite Time was the first Principle of Zoroastrianism and Ohrmuzd was therefore only “the derivative and secondary character”. Ironically, the fact that no Zoroastrian texts contained any hint of the born-of-Zurvan doctrine was considered to be evidence of a latter-day corruption of the original principles. The opinion that Zoroastrianism was so severely dualistic that it was, in fact, ditheistic or even tritheistic would be widely held until the late 19th century (Dhalla, 1932:490-492; cf. Boyce, 2002:687).
According to Zaehner, the doctrine of the cult of Zurvan appears to have three schools of thought, each to a different degree influenced by alien philosophies, which he calls materialist Zurvanism, aesthetic Zurvanism, and fatalistic Zurvanism. He proposes that all three have ‘classical’ Zurvanism as their foundation.
Aesthetic Zurvanism, which was apparently not as popular as the materialistic kind, viewed Zurvan as undifferentiated Time, which, under the influence of desire, divided into "reason (a male principle) and "concupiscence (a female principle).
According to Duchesne-Guillemin, this division is “redolent of "Gnosticism or – still better – of Indian cosmology”. The parallels between Zurvan and Prajapati of "Rig Veda 10.129 had been taken by Widengren to be evidence of a proto-Indo-Iranian Zurvan, but these arguments have since been dismissed (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1956). Nonetheless, there is a semblance of Zurvanite elements in Vedic texts, and as Zaehner puts it “Time, for the Indians, is the raw material, the material prima of all contingent being.”
While Zoroaster’s Ormuzd created the universe with his thought, materialist Zurvanism challenged the concept that anything could be made out of nothing. This challenge was a patently alien idea, discarding core Zoroastrian tenets in favor of the position that the spiritual world – including heaven and hell, reward and punishment – did not exist.
The fundamental division of the material and spiritual is not altogether foreign to the "Avesta; Geti and Mainyu (middle Persian: menog) are terms in Mazdaist tradition, where Ahura Mazda is said to have created all first in its spiritual, then later in its material form. But the material Zurvanites redefined menog to suit Aristotelian principles to mean ‘that which did not (yet) have matter’, or alternatively, ‘that which was still the unformed primal matter’. Even this is not necessarily a violation of orthodox Zoroastrian tradition, since the divinity "Vayu is present in the middle space between Ormuzd and Ahriman, the void separating the kingdoms of light and darkness.
The doctrine of Limited Time (allotted to "Ahriman by Zurvan) implied that nothing could change this preordained course of the material universe, and the path of the astral bodies of the ‘heavenly sphere’ was representative of this preordained course. It followed that human destiny must then be decided by the constellations, stars and planets, who were divided between the good (the signs of the Zodiac) and the evil (the planets). “Ohrmazd allotted happiness to man, but if man did not receive it, it was owing to the extortion of these planets” (Menog-i Khirad 38.4-5).
Fatalistic Zurvanism was evidently influenced by "Chaldean astrology and perhaps also by Aristotle’s theory of chance and fortune. The fact that Armenian and Syriac commentators translated Zurvan as “Fate” is highly suggestive.
In his first manuscript of his book Zurvan, R C Zaehner incorrectly identified the Lion-headed leontocephaline of the Roman "Mithraic Mysteries (a.k.a. ‘Mithraism’) as a representation of Zurvan. Zaehner later acknowledged this mis-identification as a “positive mistake” (Zaehner 1972), due to "Franz Cumont’s late 19th century notion that the Roman cult was “Roman Mazdaism” transmitted to the west by Iranian priests. Mithraic scholars no longer follow this so-called ‘continuity theory’, but that has not stopped the fallacy (which Zaehner also attributes to "Cumont) from proliferating on the Internet.
No evidence of distinctly Zurvanite rituals or practices have been discovered, so followers of the cult are widely believed to have had the same rituals and practices as Mazdean Zoroastrians did. This is understandable, inasmuch as the Zurvanite doctrine of a monist First Principle did not preclude the worship of Ohrmuzd as the Creator (of the good creation). Similarly, no explicitly Zurvanite elements appear to have survived in modern Zoroastrianism, though Western influences have encouraged monotheistic theologies among some modern Zoroastrian reformists that replace the omniscient (but not omnipotent) Mazda with a new doctrine of an omnipotent Mazda that is more like the omnipotent, more strictly monotheistic deities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:
The sacrilege of Zurvanism begins with a heterodox interpretation of Zarathushtra's Gathas:
A literal, anthropomorphic "twin brother" interpretation of these passages gave rise to a need to postulate a father for the postulated literal "brothers". Hence Zurvanism postulated a preceding parent deity that existed above the good and evil of his sons. This was an obvious usurpation of Zoroastrian dualism, a sacrilege against the moral preeminence of Ahura Mazda.
The pessimism evident in Zurvanite fatalism existed in stark contradiction to the positive moral force of Mazdaism, and was a direct violation of one of Zoroaster's great contributions to religious philosophy: his uncompromising doctrine of "free will. In Yasna 30.2 and 45.9, Ahura Mazda "has left to men's wills" to choose between doing good and doing evil. By leaving destiny in the hands of fate (an omnipotent deity), the cult of Zurvan distanced itself from the most sacred of Zoroastrian tenets: that of the efficacy of good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
That the Zurvanite view of creation was an apostasy even for medieval Zoroastrians is apparent from the 10th century "Denkard, which in a commentary on Yasna 30.3-5 turns what the Zurvanites considered the words of the prophet into Zoroaster recalling "a proclamation of the Demon of Envy to mankind that Ohrmuzd and Ahriman were two in one womb." (Denkard 9.30.4).
The fundamental goal of "classical Zurvanism" to bring the doctrine of the "twin spirits" in accord with what was otherwise understood of Zoroaster's teaching may have been excessive, but (according to Zaehner) it was not altogether misguided. In noting the emergence of an overtly dualistic doctrine during the Sassanid period, Zaehner (1961) asserted that
Thus, - according to Zaehner - while the direction that the Sassanids took was not altogether at odds with the spirit of the Gathas, the extreme dualism that accompanied a divinity that was remote and inaccessible made the faith less than attractive. Zurvanism was then truly heretical only in the sense that it weakened the appeal of Zoroastrianism.
Nonetheless, that Zurvanism was the predominant brand of Zoroastrianism during the cataclysmic years just prior to the fall of the empire, is, according to Duchesne-Guillemin, evident in the degree of influence that Zurvanism (but not Mazdaism) would have on the Iranian brand of "Shi'a Islam. Writing in the historical present, he notes that "under "Chosrau II (r. 590-628) and his successors, all kinds of superstitions tend to overwhelm the Mazdean religion, which gradually disintegrates, thus preparing the triumph of Islam." Thus, "what will survive in popular conscience under the Muslim varnish is not Mazdeism: it is Zervanite fatalism, well attested in Persian literature" (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1956:109). This is also a thought expressed by Zaehner, who observes that "Ferdowsi, in his "Shahnameh, "expounds views which seem to be an epitome of popular Zervanite doctrine" (Zaehner, 1955:241). Thus, according to Zaehner and Duchesne-Guillemin, Zurvanism's pessimistic fatalism was a formative influence on the Iranian psyche, paving the way (as it were) for the rapid adoption of Shi'a philosophy during the "Safavid era.
According to Zaehner and Shaki, in Middle Persian texts of the 9th century, Dahri (from Ar.-Persian dahr, time, eternity) is the appellative term for adherents of the Zurvanite doctrine that the universe derived from Infinite Time. In later Persian and Arabic literature, the term would come to be a derogatory term for 'atheist' or 'materialist'. The term also appears - in conjunction with other terms for skeptics – in Denkard 3.225 and in the Skand-gumanig wizar where "one who says god is not, who are called dahari, and consider themselves to be delivered from religious discipline and the toil of performing meritorious deeds" (Shaki, 2002:587-588).
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