Rethinking Sasanian Iconoclasm.

Author:Shenkar, Michael


"Iconoclasm" (literally "the destruction of icons") was originally a distinctly Christian term commonly applied to a number of religious and political movements, both ancient and modern, that actively and aggressively rejected visual representations of the divine. In a recent study, iconoclasm was more broadly defined as "a motivated phenomenon of annihilation of any presence or power realized by an icon through the annihilation of that icon." (1) In the pre-modern world, "iconoclasm" was perhaps most famously associated with the complex debates waged over icons that took place in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth-ninth centuries C.E. However, the earliest attestation of the term "iconoclasm" itself appears to be surprisingly late, dating only to the middle of the sixteenth century. (2)

The iconoclastic movements that appeared in the Abrahamic religions during certain historical periods, profoundly shaping their theology and cultic practices, have been extensively studied. (3) In the present article, I intend to discuss--and subsequently dismiss--the evidence for an iconoclastic movement in Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest and historically most significant revelation religions in Eurasia.

The existence of a militant, intentional iconoclasm in the Zoroastrianism of the Sasanian period was postulated by Mary Boyce in a groundbreaking article published in 1975, (4) and has since been accepted almost without reservations by both Iranists and the wider scholarly community. Perhaps nothing illustrates this universal approval better than the following quote from a recent article by Frantz Grenet, the leading authority on ancient Iranian and Zoroastrian religious iconography:

Now, nearly forty years after her proposal of this historical model ["Sasanian iconoclasm"], one can say that it remains exemplary to archaeologists and art historians working on the central regions of the successive Iranian empires. It certainly provides a convincing explanation for the restricted and unimaginative religious iconography of the Sasanians, in sharp contrast with their rich secular imagery. (5) This article will present a detailed reconsideration of this well-established and canonized theory by re-evaluating the evidence and arguments offered by Boyce and by situating the discussion in the wider context of Sasanian and Iranian visual culture. The picture that emerges from the examination will be compared with the much better-known iconoclastic movements of the Abrahamic religions. Furthermore, it will address the apparent "sharp contrast" between religious and secular iconography in Sasanian art and question the validity of this division in Sasanian visual culture.


It is a widely known fact that modern Zoroastrian worship is aniconic, with fire serving as the only icon of the divine. (6) At the same time, contemporary followers of Zoroaster are not iconophobic and their fire-temples and community centers in Iran, India, and in the Diaspora often contain full-length portraits of the prophet (7) and of the semi-anthropomorphic "Figure in the Winged Disk." (8) However, these never serve as focal objects of the Zoroastrian cult, which is directed solely towards the sacred, constantly sustained fire.

But was the Zoroastrian faith aniconic from its very beginning, going back some 3000 years? Or can the history of the faith not be described, alternatively, as nuanced, characterized by a variety of iconic and aniconic cultic practices in different regions and periods? Some scholars at the beginning of the last century were quick to draw an undisturbed, coherent, and static picture of an aniconic Iranian religion that abhors idols:

From the earliest antiquity the Persians had no idols in the sense of a representation of the godhead set up as an object of worship. Such allusions to the practice as are found are always in the way of condemning it as an abhorrent custom employed by foreigners and unbelievers. Zoroaster, the Prophet of Ancient Iran, makes no reference to idol-worship, even though his vision saw graphic pictures of the hosts of heaven. These vivid images, however, which might easily have been given a plastic form, remained, with the seer and with his people, simply a visualization of the ideal. Throughout the history of the religion of Iran, idolatry played no part. (9) Indeed, the Avesta and the Old Persian inscriptions, our earliest documents in the Iranian languages, do not contain any term for the veneration of idols; in addition, no traces of a negative or hostile Achaemenid approach toward man-made images is attested from any external sources. However, while it is undeniable that the world of the Avestan people was free from divine representations, the situation with the Achaemenids, who created the largest Empire until their time, appears more complex.

The Achaemenid Persians ruled over heterogeneous populations who worshipped different gods, often representing them anthropomorphically. Furthermore, as the study of the religious material from the Persepolis tablets demonstrates, deities of Elamite origin featured prominently in the "Persepolis pantheon" and were probably understood as genuine "Persian" gods by the population of Achaemenid Pars. (10) The statues of these and other, local, divinities might have been respected and honored by the Achaemenids, as can also be deduced from the seal found at Gorgippia depicting a Persian king venerating the great Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. (11)

There is also literary evidence: The Babylonian priest Berossus, writing in Greek in the Hellenistic period, recorded that the Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II introduced statues of the goddess Anahita to the sanctuaries of several major cities throughout the Empire. (12) Unfortunately, the Persepolis texts contain no allusions to the existence of any statues and no sanctuaries that could contain them have been excavated in Pars dated from the Achaemenid period. Therefore, despite Berossus's information, it seems that anthropomorphic cultic statuary was never part of the Achaemenid royal cult, since such statues are attested archaeologically in the Iranian world only from the Hellenistic period. (13) The aniconism of the Persians, which is a common topos among Greek and Latin classical and Late Antique authors, (14) probably correctly reflects the aniconic nature of the "official" Achaemenid worship (15)--although it is likely that when the Persian kings paid homage to the gods of the Babylonians, for instance, this involved veneration of cultic statues. It is also important to keep in mind that the basic perception of the divine among the ancient Iranians was clearly anthropomorphic, both in Avestan society and in the Achaemenid and later periods. (16)

For in the Parthian period, finds of sculpture in the round become more numerous, (17) but only a few of them, such as the bronze statue of Heracles-Varabrayna from Mesene, can be confidently shown to represent an Iranian divinity. (18) Regretably, there are almost no genuine Iranian textual sources from this period, and we are in impenetrable darkness regarding not only the practical use of statues in the Parthian period but also regarding the religious situation in general. However, based on the archaeological evidence briefly outlined above, one may suppose that in the Hellenistic and the Parthian periods cultic images become acceptable and were commonly encountered in the Iranian sanctuaries.

In fact, it is in Middle Persian Zoroastrian literature--a corpus of mainly theological texts containing a compendium of Zoroastrian religious conceptions and knowledge, composed in, or at least assembled and edited no earlier than, the Islamic period (chiefly in the ninth-tenth centuries C.E.)--that we find not only numerous references to idols (MP uzdes (19) and hut (20)) and an explicit prohibition against idol-worship (uzdes-parastih, uzdes-parastisnih, uzdes-paristisnih, uzdes-paristagih), (21) but also their strict condemnation.

According to the Denkard, it was the mythical evil dragon Dahak, whose activities Middle Persian literature places in Babylon, who incited peoples to idolatry. (22) The Denkard states that "Wahram fire represents goodness" and is "the adversary of the idols" (ataxs i warahran wehih ud uzdes petyarag). (23) In Dadestan i Menog i Xrad idol worship is called the "eighth-worst sin," (24) and the text also contains an explicit prohibition against idol worship:

az uzdes-paristisnih ud dew-ezagih dur pahrez, ce paydag ku agar kay-husraw uzdeszar i pad war i cecist ne kand had, andar en se-hazarag i husedar ud husedarmah ud sosans ke jud-jud pad harw hazarag sar az awesan ek ayed ke harw kar i gehan abaz wirayed ud mihrodrujan ud uzdes-paristan i andar kiswar be zaned, eg petyarag edon stahmag-tar bud had ku rist-axez ud tan i pasen kardan ne sayist had. Abstain from idol-worship and demon-veneration, because it is obvious that if Kay Husraw has not destroyed the idol-temple on Lake Cecist, during these three millenniums of Usedar and Usedarmah and Sosans (each of) whom comes separately at the end of each millennium to rearrange the affairs of the world and to smite oath-breakers and idol-worshippers of the land, the adversary would have become stronger, that resurrection and the final embodiment would not be possible. (25) The story in which Kay Khosrow destroyed an idol-temple (uzdeszar) at Lake Cecist and established a fire-cult in its place is also encountered in the Bundahisn and other Middle Persian texts. (26) Lake Cecist is usually identified with Lake Urmia and the temple built by Kay Khosrow with Adur Gusnasp.

From the following passage of the apocalyptic text Zand i Wahman Yasn, it is clear that the idol-temple (uzdeszar) was considered an abode of the Evil Spirit and his demons:

fraz rawed pisotan i wistaspan pad ham-ayarih i adur farrbay, ud adur gusnasp, ud adur i burzenmihr o uzdeszar i wuzurg, nisemag i druwand...

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