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date: 03 October 2022

Near Eastern and Old Iranian mythsfree

Near Eastern and Old Iranian mythsfree

  • Jenny Rose


This entry concerns mythological narratives that developed in ancient times in lands extending from the eastern Mediterranean seaboard as far as Central Asia. Whereas the term Near Eastern applies to a range of different cultures—including Mesopotamian, Elamite, Hittite, Canaanite, Hebrew, Urartian, Phoenician, and Egyptian—the expression Old Iranian is used only of ancient Iranian culture as evidenced primarily in the texts of the Avesta, and in certain Old Persian inscriptions and iconography. From the early 1st millennium onwards, as ancient Iranians moved across the plateau into Mesopotamia and beyond, so Iranian culture, including its mythology, interacted with that of the Near East. The ensuing worldviews continue to impact the religions that evolved within the region, specifically, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

Mesopotamian myths comprise the earliest literature committed to writing. Alongside the discovery of archaeological sites in which some of the myths are set and of material objects relating to those myths, these texts provide insight into the general ethos, ritual activity, and social structure of the pertinent cultures of Mesopotamia—notably, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian. The contemporary ancient Egyptians present a similar richness of material and literary culture. In contrast, the Old Iranian myths of the Avesta endured within an oral context until about the 6th century ce, with only cursory allusion to a cosmogony in Old Persian inscriptions, Achaemenid reliefs, and stamp seals. It is the Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts of the late Sasanian/early Islamic period in Iran that provide a systematized cosmology and attendant mythology, and the New Persian national epic, the Šāhnāme, that develops many of the characters and events of Old Iranian text within its dramatic re-telling of Iranian history.


  • Near East

Near Eastern Myths

The earliest recorded myths were committed to writing in the ancient Near East by the Sumerians in the 3rd millennium bce. Around twenty myths, alongside several epics and two hundred hymns in Sumerian, represent the first examples of literary composition.

At the same time that Sumerian signs incised on clay tokens began to morph into something resembling a written language (c. 3300 bce), walled cities with temple complexes were being constructed in Mesopotamia. These early fortified cities focused on the cult of one or more gods: for instance, the Sumerian city of Uruk was the cultic center of An (sky, heaven), the chief god; and the Eanna temple there was the center for worship of Inanna (lady of heaven), a goddess of love, fertility and war.

Sumerian mythology underlay the basic worldview of subsequent Mesopotamians. By the end of the 3rd millennium, the predominant Akkadians had assimilated the Sumerian gods to their own pantheon, sometimes preserving the Sumerian name, sometimes using a Semitic equivalent; Inanna was syncretized with the Akkadian “Ištar,” and her stories and hymns were adapted by the Babylonians. The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh was translated into Akkadian, as well as the languages of the Hurrians and Hittites, whose general mythology differed somewhat due to their respective pantheons. This interwoven network of gods differentiates the myths of Mesopotamia from those of other Semitic peoples closer to the Mediterranean Sea, such as the Canaanites, Hebrews, and Phoenicians, despite some overlap in narrative.

In most of these ancient Near Eastern cultures, deities were thought to be attracted to specific natural sites or purpose-built temples, where they were worshipped. The activity of the gods affected both the lives of mortals and the workings of the universe. Iconography on the interior and exteriors walls of temples, alongside both ritual and domestic artefacts such as clay tablets, stamp seals, pottery vessels, and sculptures, often provide insight into mythology relating to the gods.

Myths of Sumer and Babylonia


The earliest cosmogonic myth in literature is the Sumerian “Huluppu Tree,” which begins by setting existence within the context of time—days, nights, and years—then refers to the coming into being of the vital elements of life, including bread, before the unity of heaven and earth is divided, and humans are brought to consciousness. The Sumerian understanding of the universe consisted of four main elements, each with a divinity (Sumerian, dingir) in charge: An of the sky, Ki of the earth, Enlil of the air, and Enki of the waters and wisdom. In the Huluppu Tree myth, Enki sets sail for the underworld and faces a stormy onslaught that carries a tree to the sacred garden of Inanna, the daughter of the sun god Utu. A serpent, a bird, and Lillith “the dark maid” build their homes in this huluppu tree and cannot be dislodged until Gilgamesh uproots the tree and makes it into a throne and bed for Inanna. In return, she fashions a pukku and mikku for Gilgamesh, “the hero of Uruk.”1 Inanna thus assumes her role as Queen of the land of Sumer, and of fertility.


The story of Gilgamesh (Sumerian Bilgames), an important religious text of the Sumerians, is one of the oldest known works of literature. The figure of Gilgamesh was probably based on an actual king of Uruk, a successor to Dumuzi, who was also probably a historical ruler. According to the Sumerian king-lists, Gilgamesh lived around 2600 bce. There are five separate extant Gilgamesh stories in Sumerian, dating to around 2100 bce. Elements of these were preserved by the Babylonians in a surviving Akkadian epic, inscribed on eleven tablets dating to about 1700 century bce, which were found in the ruins of Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh in 1844. A standard version of the epic was produced by the poet Sin-leqe-unnini around five centuries later. Most modern translations use this later version as their basis, supplemented by reference to the Sumerian and older Akkadian texts to fill in the gaps, although much of the story remains missing. The Gilgamesh story contains many themes that recur in subsequent Near Eastern mythologies.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu

Gilgamesh is two-thirds divine, one-third human, endowed with enormous size and strength, but is a selfish tyrant about whom the people of Uruk complain to Anu (Sumerian, An), father of the gods. Anu asks the mother goddess Aruru (Sumerian, Ninhursag) to create a man equal in strength to Gilgamesh, which she does. This new hero, Enkidu, formed from the dust, lives with the animals, eating grass, and the hunters are frightened by him. Gilgamesh sends a priestess from the temple of Ištar to seduce Enkidu, which changes him, so that the animals no longer accept him as their companion. The priestess, Shamhat, talks with Enkidu, provides him with clothes, teaches him to eat human food, and takes him to the city of Uruk, where he challenges Gilgamesh to a fight. The two heroes wrestle through the streets of the city until both are exhausted. Then they pledge friendship and embark on a series of adventures together, during which Gilgamesh enters the Cedar Forest, attacks and slays the fire-breathing giant Huwawa (Assyrian, Humbaba) with the aid (and perhaps at the instigation) of the solar deity Shamash (Sumerian, Utu).

The showdown between Enkidu and Gilgamesh has been understood as representing the challenge for supremacy between country and city at a time when urban centers were on the rise in Mesopotamia: the city wins. In fact, Uruk is the locus that frames the whole Gilgamesh story, which begins and ends in the great temple of Inanna at the city center. This tension between city and country continues as an underlying theme in several Mesopotamian myths, including the Babylonian story of Marduk and Tiamat.

The Bull of Heaven

Upon Gilgamesh’s triumphal return to Uruk, he is propositioned by the goddess Ištar (Sumerian, Inanna), but he rejects her, naming half-a-dozen of Ištar’s previous lovers whom she had turned against. In frustration and anger, Ištar tells Anu that she will release the dead upon the world unless he sends the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh and his palace.

The Bull begins to attack, but is quickly dispatched by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, enraging all the gods, who assemble to determine what punishment to impose. They curse Enkidu, who becomes ill and dreams of his death: he sees a place of darkness from which there is no way back, and where the dead eat dirt and clay. After twelve days of pain, Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh mourns his friend, but does not want to suffer the same fate. The last part of the story is that of a prototypical heroic quest, during which Gilgamesh struggles to understand the purpose of life, and to accept the inevitability of death.

In this episode, all the gods, but particularly Ištar, are presented as temperamental and testy. The trope of the death of a sacred animal and retribution demanded by the gods is echoed in Indo-European mythology, such as that relating to Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting. Greek myths concerning Hera, the Queen of the gods, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, reiterate the topos of a rejected, powerful female—goddess, or not—who seeks revenge: the theme also appears in Near Eastern tales, including the narrative of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, and in the Iranian national epic, Šāhnāme, in the story of Siyāvōš and his stepmother Sūdābe.

The Story of the Flood

The eleventh tablet of the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic describes how, on his quest, Gilgamesh crosses the Waters of Death to meet with Utnapishtim, the only mortal to have received the gift of immortality from the gods. In answer to Gilgamesh’s enquiry as to how he overcame death, Utnapishtim narrates the story of the flood.

Utnapishtim had been forewarned by Ea (Sumerian, Enki), the river god “who knows all,” and who is the offspring of Anu, via whisperings through the reed wall of his house, of the divine plan to send a great deluge. He had built a boat according to Ea’s instructions and loaded it with his possessions and relatives, skilled craftsmen of every kind, and domesticated and wild animals. For six days this mixed cargo survived the flood, which engulfed the earth and destroyed the rest of humanity. On the seventh day the boat landed on Nimush mountain. A week later, Utnapishtim released a dove and a swallow, but neither found dry land to rest on. Finally, a raven that he released did not return, indicating that the waters had receded. Utnapishtim allowed his passengers off the boat, and offered sacrifices, the aroma of which drew the gods to that place. Enlil then bestowed the gift of eternal life on Utnapishtim and his wife.

Utnapishtim asks Gilgamesh whether he can ward off sleep for seven days, and so perhaps ward off death. Gilgamesh falls asleep immediately, and sleeps for the entire seven days, proving that he is an ordinary mortal. Before Gilgamesh crosses the water back to Uruk, Utnapishtim tells him about a prickly plant at the bottom of the ocean that can restore youth. Weighted with stones, Gilgamesh dives deep and finds the plant. On the way back home he stops to bathe in a pool of fresh water, and a serpent steals the plant, sloughing off its skin as it slithers away. Gilgamesh weeps, but when he thinks of the splendor of his home city, Uruk, he realizes that he can be satisfied without eternal life.

Several other tropes in the Utnapishtim narrative reappear in variant Near Eastern flood stories, particularly the Akkadian Atra-Hasis and the account of Noah’s ark in the Hebrew Bible.


Atra-Hasis is an Akkadian flood epic, named for its boat-building protagonist, the “exceedingly wise.” The earliest extant version dates to the early 17th century bce. This varies from the Nineveh recension in several respects, but, like the narrative of Utnapishtim, contains elements that are also found in the story of the flood in the Hebrew Bible: a deluge sent from on high as punishment; divine instructions for survival given to a righteous individual (through a dream in Gilgamesh and Atra-Hasis, directly in the Genesis account); a boat built for all living things; the destruction of humanity; and the raven who finds dry land.

The geographical setting of these flood stories may reflect the historical flooding that occurred in lower Mesopotamia, perhaps referring to one or more particularly catastrophic deluge. The infliction of a punishment on humanity because the gods are irate at having been awoken from their sleep by the noise of mortals reappears in the Enuma Elish (see section “The Akkadian ‘Enuma Elish’”). Both Atra-Hasis and Enuma Elish relate that humans were created by the gods out of clay, blood and spittle.

Inanna/Ištar: Death and Rebirth

In Sumerian myth, Inanna, whose name translates as “lady of heaven,” not only was linked to the moon and the evening star but also was an earth goddess responsible for the fertility of plants, animals, and humans. After the conquest of Sumerian city-states by Sargon of Akkad (r. 2334–2279 bce), Inanna and An remained the chief divinities. In Ur, Sargon’s daughter, Enheduanna, who was a high priestess of the male moon god Nanna (son of Enlil and Ninlil, goddess of the air), composed a hymn to Inanna that survives. In this first poem in history by a named composer, Inanna is described as having given wings to the storm, before whom the other gods fled “like fluttering bats.”2

In a well-attested text, “The Descent of Inanna,” dating to the early 2nd millennium bce, the goddess descends to the underworld through the seven gates, where she is humiliated by having to remove her accouterments of divinity and her clothing. Then Inanna confronts her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and dethrones her, but is sentenced to death by the gods. Inanna dies and is revived with the aid of Enki, the god of wisdom and the waters. When she returns from the underworld, Inanna has to promise a substitute, and sends her husband Dumuzi in her stead, since he had failed to mourn her. She repents, however, and allows Dumuzi to return to the world of the living every spring New Year, to be replaced during that time by his sister, who is named in other Sumerian myths as Geshtinanna. This part of the myth is the oldest sacred love story.

Inanna’s relationship with the shepherd Dumuzi provides another instance of the tension between city and countryside. During the 3rd dynasty of Ur, in the late 3rd millennium bce, it seems that Dumuzi’s marriage to Inanna and his transformative cycle of death and rebirth were commemorated in successive months, before and after the spring equinox, respectively. Although it is assumed that these events involved an accompanying ritual enactment, scholars differ in their interpretation as to what form this ritual may have taken. Some suggest a royal hierogamy between the king, as Dumuzi, and his queen, or a temple priestess, as Inanna. The death of Dumuzi is reiterated in the biblical account of Hebrew women who mourned Tammuz in the time of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 8.14–15). Tammuz derives from the Akkadian name for Ištar’s consort. By the neo-Assyrian period, the month of mourning had relocated to the period after the summer solstice. In the Hebrew calendar, Tammuz remains the fourth month of the religious year.

The Akkadian Enuma Elish

From Babylon sometime in the mid-2nd millennium bce comes an original creation story Enuma Elish, meaning “when on high.” The oldest extant version of the story is on several clay tablets found in the library of Ashurbanipal (r. 668–c. 631 bce) in Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik, Iraq). Written in Akkadian cuneiform, they are contemporaneous with Ashurbanipal, dating to the 7th century bce. The Enuma Elish assumed a central role in Babylonian hieratic ritual, being recited on the fourth day of the Akitu festival, held early in the month of Nisannu each spring, at the time of the sowing of the barley. This cosmic drama of order and chaos is virtually unknown beyond Mesopotamia.

Enuma Elish begins at the beginning of time, when there were just two divinities, a male, Apsu, of the primordial fresh waters beneath the earth, and a primeval saltwater goddess, Tiamat. These two produce four generations of unruly offspring, whose noise so disrupts Apsu’s rest that he plans to stop their tiresome behavior. Ea, the river god who is the offspring of Anu, slays Apsu and assumes control of his domain of the sweet waters (apsu). Tiamat is enraged at the murder of her consort, and seeks revenge on Anu and the younger gods with an army of serpentine monsters, led by her second consort, Kingu, on whom she has bestowed the Tablets of Destinies. The gods gather in assembly, at first unable to face Tiamat and her army, until the young god Marduk, the son of Ea (born from the “sweet waters”) steps forward and offers to fight Tiamat in return for the throne of heaven. The gods agree, and Marduk gathers his “matchless weapons” and defeats Tiamat’s forces, binding Kingu and placing the Tablets of Destinies on his own chest. Marduk slays Tiamat in single combat, crushes her skull and severs her arteries, then pauses to view her dead body before splitting it “like a shellfish into two parts.”3 This butterflying of Tiamat generates the layered cosmos: half of her body covered the heavens, and the other half became the earth.

The Enuma Elish presents the city of Babylon at the heart of the universe generated by Marduk. At the center of Babylon was the Esagila temple holding the cult image of Marduk. The Esagila, meaning “the House/Temple whose top is high” is mentioned in the narrative of the Enuma Elish. A ziggurat near to the Esagila, which Babylonians called Etemenanki—the “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”—is “the Tower of Babel” referred to in the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 11:1–9). Some scholars consider that aspects of Enuma Elish are close in theme and content to Hesiod’s theogony. Many of its motifs recur in the Hurrian myth of succession and the myth of Ullikummi, which have been found in Hittite recensions at Boğazköy, the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa, dating to the 14th century bce. The Hittite versions, known as the Cycle of Kumarbi (or Kingship in Heaven) and the Myth of Illuyanka, respectively, also have parallels in later Greek mythology, including Hesiod. In the Hittite narrative as to how generations of gods came into being, Anu is deposed and castrated by his son Kumarbi, who is then overthrown by the storm god.


According to sources from the early 1st millennium bce, during the Akitu festival all the gods were said to visit Marduk (whose epithet was Bel, “Lord”) in Babylon, where they gathered in the court of the Esagila. The first among the visiting gods was Nabu, Marduk’s son, from Borsippa. Nabu was the source of the art of writing and wisdom.

Nergal and Ereshkigal

The stele of Nabonidus, king of Babylon (r. 556–539 bce), mentions the Akitu festival tributes offered by the king to “Bel, Nabû, and Nergal, the great gods.” There are two variant myths about Nergal: the earliest and shortest is on a 14th-century clay tablet from Amarna, Egypt; a 7th-century bce account from the Neo-Assyrian city of Sultantepe in Turkey is close to another version from Uruk in the late Babylonian period. In both myths, Nergal the son of Enlil, travels from the upper world of Anu through the seven gates of the underworld of Ereshkigal (Inanna’s sister). Eventually, he becomes king of the underworld as Ereshkigal’s consort.

A cult of Nergal was centered in Cutha to the northeast of Babylon, as well as in Uruk. Nergal is translated as “Melqart”in Phoenician myth, the main god of Tyre, whom Herodotus equates with the Greek mythic hero Herakles (Histories 2.44).

Myths of Assyria


When the Assyrians rose to power in the 9th century bce, much of their culture and ideology derived from that of the preceding Akkadians and Babylonians: they spoke a dialect closely related to that of Babylonia, used the same cuneiform, and retained worship of the Babylonian divinities. Several stele of Assyrian kings show them making a gesture of reverence towards symbols of their main gods: a solar disc, an eight-pointed star, forked thunder, and a crescent moon, representing respectively, the sun god Shamash, Ištar, the storm god Adad (Sumerian, Ishkur), and the god of the moon Sin/Su’en (Sumerian, Nanna). In front of these emblems was a fifth symbol—a helmet with three pairs of horns, representing the indigenous divinity Ashur, who seems to have replaced Marduk as the head of the small Assyrian pantheon.

The land “Assyria” and its people were named after Ashur, who is also represented in Assyrian iconography as a winged solar disc, either alone, or enclosing a warrior with a bow and arrow. Each Assyrian king was the high priest of Ashur, and it was his duty to maintain and extend both the worship of Ashur, and the borders of his domain. Failure to do this was to invite chaos and cataclysm into the land.

Myths of Elam

The rock relief of Kurangun, cut high into the cliff overlooking the Faliyan river valley in the province of Fārs, in southwestern Iran, dates to the Old Elamite sukkalmah period (1900–1600 bce), and depicts motifs that provide insight into prevalent aspects of Elamite mythology. The central iconography is of a divinity wearing a horned headdress, seated on a throne made of a two-headed coiled serpent, which he holds by the neck in his left hand (figure 1). Behind him is a crowned goddess. In a similar, but later, Elamite relief at Naqsh-e Rostam in Fārs (carved over by the Sasanian Persians), both divinities are seated on snake thrones. Snakes were protective beings in Elamite ideology, representing a chthonic wisdom from the earth. Elamite pottery dating back to the 4th millennium displays serpentine forms, as do seals and tablets from the 2nd millennium onwards.

Figure 1. Elamite rock relief, Kurangun, Fars province, Iran. An Old Elamite (1900–1600 bce) rock carving, depicting a god wearing a horned headdress, seated on a coiled serpent throne, with a crowned goddess behind him.

© Jenny Rose.

In the right hand of the male deity at Kurangun is a rod, and an object usually identified as a vessel, but possibly a ring of power.4 The divinity seems to be generating some kind of fluid energy emerging from this object in two streams: one flows back over the god and goddess, and the other towards the worshippers in front (figure 2). This flow emulates motifs seen in Mesopotamia around the mid-3rd millennium bce. Although the Elamites replicated some Sumerian and Akkadian structures (including modelling their early pictographs on those of Sumer), their language is neither Semitic nor Sumerian, and their mythology remains separate and distinctive. It is perhaps due to this individuality, and to the fact that there are so few sources about the Elamite conception of their gods, that Elam is not always included in anthologies of Near Eastern myth. Since the Elamites form a geographical, historical and cultural link between Mesopotamia and the Ancient Persians, however, some information concerning their mythology is relevant here.

Figure 2. Elamite attendant (a king?), Naqsh-e Rustam, Fars province, Iran. This 8th-century ce rock relief was part of a larger mural that included an earlier carving similar to the central scene at Kurangun.

© Jenny Rose.

Inšušinak and Napiriša

The divinities at Kurangun may represent the god Inšušinak of Susa, or Napiriša of Anshan, the large power base of the Elamites at the time, and the goddess Narunde or Pinikir (from northern Elam), whose cult by 1800 bce was paralleled with that of Kiririša the “Great Goddess” of southern Elam, particularly the capital Susa. The earliest Elamite linear text, a treaty dating to the late 3rd millennium bce, declaims Pinikir as the foremost divinity in a pantheon which formed the focus of Elamite cult until the time of the Persians.5

The predominance of a female deity declined in the later official religion of Elam, as the male god Humban gained prominence as Kiririša’s consort, and Inšušinak (whose Sumerian name means “lord of Susa”) rose to rival the pair in importance. Around the mid-13th century bce, a large Elamite cult center was built to the west of Susa in honour of Inšušinak and was also dedicated to Kiririša. It was known to ancient Elamites as Dur Untaš, the “town of Untaš,” named after the king Untaš-Napiriša (modern Choga Zanbil; figure 3). Napiriša, the Elamite “great god” associated with Anshan, the highland capital, was included in later inscriptions on bricks at Dur Untaš, along with around twenty-five other Elamite gods, who also appear to have been worshipped at the site, although not all in one period.6

Figure 3. Choga Zanbil (ancient Dur Untaš), Khuzestan province, Iran. Dur Untaš was an Elamite cult center to the west of Susa, built by King Untaš-Napiriša in honour of Inšušinak (“lord of Susa”) around mid-13th-century bce.

© Jenny Rose.

Although not much is known about Elamite religious beliefs, the idea of a final judgment is prevalent in some texts, which reflect the concept of an afterlife tribunal including Inšušinak as the judge, Išnikarab, who weighed or tried the soul of the deceased, and Lagamar, goddess of the world of the dead. It has been suggested that some of these elements may have impacted Persian thought in the Neo-Elamite or Achaemenid period.7 Thousands of clay tablets in Elamite discovered in the ruins of the Achaemenid palace complex of Persepolis record rations given to priests for offerings to Elamite divinities, particularly Humban and Napiriša. This indicates a continuity of Elamite religion well into the Persian period.

Myths of Egypt

Egyptian material culture relating to tomb murals, hieroglyphic funerary inscriptions and spells, figurative canopic jars, and also the form of mausolea—provides a primary source of information regarding the prevalent mythology of each dynastic period. As the Egyptian hierarchy of gods developed, they became increasingly anthropomorphized, and their relationships with each other mirrored the multifaceted social and familial groupings of humans. Eventually the pantheon included thousands of minor deities. Sometimes, the development of a divinity within the Egyptian pantheon may be traced through the significance of the name, although not every name has a meaning that is understood.

Ancient Egyptian mythology is also expressed in illustrated papyri containing funerary, ritual and magical texts. The most important of these are the funerary Books of the Dead, which were recited from around the mid-16th century bce until the time of Cleopatra, in order to direct the soul toward the judgment of the great god Osiris in the Hall of Truth, where the heart was weighed against Maat, the goddess of truth, sometimes represented by a feather. Evil action such as lying or stealing would literally weigh down the scale. The raven-headed divinity, Thoth, would write down the judgment. The notion that one’s good and evil acts would have consequences after life was novel. In contrast to the somewhat gloomy Sumerian view of the afterlife in the netherworld of Ereshkigal, the Egyptians retained the certainty that the spirit of the individual—even an animal—might continue on earth after death. If the gods permitted, a good afterlife was also possible in the underworld.

Pharaohs were thought to become gods after death, and so were treated as such in life, with names that reflected their divine association. Each pharaoh of Heliopolis from the mid-3rd millennium onwards was given the title “son of Ra.” The name Rameses, used for several pharaohs towards the end of the New Kingdom period, means “born of Ra.” When the Achaemenid kings Cambyses II, Darius I, and Xerxes ruled Egypt, they, too, received the title “Son of Ra” (figure 4).

Figure 4. Statue of Darius I (r. 522–486 bce), National History Museum, Tehran. A granite statue of Darius I, thought to have stood in Heliopolis, Egypt, prior to its transferal to the Achaemenid royal palace in Susa. Hieroglyphs acknowledge Darius as “the living image of Ra.” The Old Persian inscription begins: “A great god is Ahura Mazdā who created this earth, who created that sky, who created humankind, who created happiness for humankind, who made Darius king.”

© Jenny Rose.


Several Egyptian cosmogonies evolved simultaneously, each associated with a specific center of religion. Myths concerning the origin and function of the universe seem to relate to the actual annual flooding of the Nile. From Heliopolis (Egyptian, Iwnw) comes the most familiar cosmogony, beginning with the primeval waters of Nun or Nu, which contained all existence until the emergence of a solar deity, Atum (meaning both “complete” and “non-existent”), who generated the components of life—including humans and gods—from himself. Two of the divinities of the original Heliopolitan Ennead to emerge from Atum were Isis and Osiris. Atum was then assimilated with another regional divinity worshipped in Heliopolis, the sun-god Ra, as Ra.Atum, who presides over the setting sun.

With the Middle Kingdom restoration of Pharaonic rule in the early 2nd millennium bce, a variant cosmogony arose in the region of Thebes with a new pantheon of divinities, the chief of whom was Amun (“hidden”), who merged with Ra as Amun.Ra, to become the chief deity of the great temples at Karnak and Luxor. During this period, another important cosmogony developed at Hermopolis (Egyptian, “Khmnw”), the city of Thoth, the god of the moon, wisdom, and writing. It begins with eight gods, some of whom are connected with the Ennead of Heliopolis.

At some point in about the 11th century bce, Ra syncretized with the god Horus (represented in the form of a falcon or wings) as Ra.Horakhty—“Ra [and] Horus of the horizon,” who ruled over creation and the other gods. In New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Ra is depicted sailing the sun boat with other gods on board, across the sky from one horizon to the other—East to West—during the twelve hours of daylight: for the twelve hours of the night, he is in another boat that carries the souls of the dead through the underworld, where he merges with Osiris, to be reborn with the sun in the East the following morning.

Isis, Osiris, and Horus and Seth

Stories about Isis and Osiris are known from the walls of Egyptian pyramid burial chambers and later funerary texts. The most complete extant account of the myth of Isis and Osiris is inscribed on a limestone stele from the late 2nd millennium bce. It describes how Isis protected Osiris, her brother-consort, as the living king, and how she roamed across the land after he had been killed by their brother Seth, looking for the dismembered parts of his body. Isis reassembles Osiris’ body and breathes life into him so that she may conceive a child to avenge his death. That child is Horus.

Horus, too, is a dying and rising god. In one episode in his childhood, he was stung by a scorpion and died. The distraught Isis, with the aid of her sister Nephthys and the god Thoth, restored him to life again. Horus fought physically with Seth, and eventually gained the approval of the whole Ennead to rule the two lands (upper and lower Egypt).

Isis’ role as guardian of the pharaohs endured: she was thought to bestow a good afterlife on all who performed the proper funerary rites in her honor.

Discussion of the Literature

Egyptian mythology relating to Isis was known to the Greeks at least as early as Herodotus, who compared her to Demeter (Histories 2.59). Not long after Alexander of Macedon’s conquest of Egypt, the Greeks began to pay homage to Isis and other Egyptian deities alongside their own.8 Although Herodotus skims over the Isis and Osiris story, some of his information seems to be replicated by Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 45–125 ce), who provided a detailed description and interpretation of the myth of Isis, Osiris, and Seth in his De Iside et Osiride, which was dedicated to his friend, Clea, a priestess of Isis. Plutarch’s Platonic analysis of the myth and its associated cultic ritual includes a lengthy discussion of the dualism presented by the notion that Osiris is only good, Seth (Greek, Typhon) is only evil, and Isis somewhere in between. Within this discussion, Plutarch presents “the Persian religion” as the primary example of cosmogonical dualism (see section “Old Iranian Myths: Eschatology”).

Recent literature relating to Near Eastern mythology has included not only new translations and paraphrasing (such as Stephen Mitchell’s Gilgamesh, or Diane Wolkstein’s rendition of the stories and hymns relating to Inanna), but also new approaches that provide a more socio-analytical perspective on the function of myth. Neal Walls, for instance, explores the erotic and homoerotic aspects of the Gilgamesh story; Freudian analysis of the myth of Isis, Horus and Seth; and the themes of sex, power and violence in the narratives of Nergal and Ereshkigal.9 Such analysis of these ancient myths using contemporary critical literary theory offers new perspectives on their multivalent symbols and makes them more accessible to a (post)modern audience.

From the time of the first deciphering of Akkadian inscription in the late 19th century ce, scholars have debated the impact of external Near Eastern thought on the development of the Hebrew Bible, raising questions concerning the historicity of biblical narrative. Although some current Biblical scholars refute both the notion that the Bible contains any “myth” and that there was any impact of neighboring religions on the religion of the Israelites, most are prepared to engage in discussion relating to new questions of historicity. One such scholar, Bernard Batto, discusses the issues in his online article, “Myth in the Hebrew Bible.”10 Batto’s book, Slaying the Dragon, argues that the authors of biblical texts followed other Near Eastern traditions in the use of myth as the underpinning of theology.11 Nicolas Wyatt’s study of the cultural context within which the distinctive character of the Hebrew Bible developed focuses on the impact of the Ugaritic texts of the Canaanites as well as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt.12

Old Iranian Myths

Many of the oldest Iranian myths retained in the extant Avesta, particularly the Yašts (“Hymns”) to the yazatas (beings “worthy of worship”), display a general thematic and linguistic relation to other Indo-European mythology and some close parallels with the Old Indic myths of the Ṛg Veda. In comparison with Indic, Greek, or Roman stories concerning deities, much Avestan mythology relating to the yazatas (who include Mithra, Anāhitā, Haoma, and Xᵛarənah) lacks narrative. The main Avestan (Av.) leitmotif is the tension between good and evil, with little development of the cast of characters involved in the struggle. Although the Old Avestan (OAv.) Gāthās (“songs” or “poems”) refer to a few individuals by name (specifically, Zarathustra, Vištāspa, and Jāmāspa), and the Young Avestan yašts and parts of the Yasna (Y), the liturgy, include a few stories concerning both heroes and villains, the central dramatic focus of these Old Iranian texts is on the purpose and function of a world generated by Ahura Mazdā, the “Wise Lord,” supported by the yazatas.

The narrative material that is adumbrated in the Avesta and which must have been preserved in other ancient Iranian oral tradition was elucidated through the recitations of minstrels and professional storytellers at the Parthian court (c. 250 bce–224 ce). The protagonists of these narrations become more rounded in Middle Persian (MP) written texts that contain translations or summaries of, and commentaries on, the Avesta, much of which is now lost.13 Such Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts (some of which are themselves incomplete) include in particular the Dēnkard (“Acts of the Religion”), Ayādgār ī Zarērān (“Memorial of Zarēr”), Bundahišn (“Creation”), Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram (“Selections of Zādspram”), and Zand ī Wahman Yasn (“Commentary on the Bahman Yašt”). Iranian heroic characters and their foes feature in the later national epic of Iran, the New Persian (NP) Šāhnāme, composed by Ferdowsi in the late 10th/early 11th century ce. Šāhnāme remains a powerful vehicle for an Iranian understanding of the ancient past.

Other Old Iranian material may be gleaned from the earliest iconography of the Ancient Persians at the palace complex of Cyrus II (r. 559–530 bce) at Pasargadae, which contains Near Eastern components and indicates that Iranian ideology of the period was impacted by both the model and function of certain Near Eastern divinities. Although the buildings at Pasargadae do not seem to elaborate either visually or structurally on themes of Old Iranian myth, some elements may be found in free-standing and rock-carved reliefs at Persepolis and in trilingual inscriptions by Achaemenid kings, beginning with Darius I (r. 522–486 bce). Some of these inscriptions suggest that the Ancient Persians appropriated some Babylonian myths about kingship (figure 5).14

Figure 5. Darius I’s inscription at Behistun, Kermanshah province, Iran. The earliest Achaemenid trilingual inscription, in Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite, dating to the beginning of Darius I’s reign (520–519 bce). The inscription tells how Ahura Mazdā authorized Darius to rule Persia and its subject peoples. The relief depicts the king standing before those he has defeated.

© Jenny Rose.

Under the Sasanian Persians (224–651 ce), a reworking of national history seems to have taken place. Various myths, legends and historical details were apparently compiled at the Sasanian court into a chronicle known as the Xwadāy-nāmag, or “Book of Kings.”

It was during the Sasanian period that Middle Persian Zoroastrian cosmogonies were compiled, emphasizing the linear outworking of the struggle between good and evil in the two spheres of “thought” and of “living beings”. Remnants of ancient Iranian oral narrative are also found in Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian texts, although the beneficent beings of the Zoroastrian tradition (such as the Ameša Spentas, Mithra, Yima, and even Zarathustra) are reconfigured in the Manichaean cosmic schema. The dēws, or “evil beings,” of Zoroastrian cosmogony (from Avestan daēuua-) remain evil: for example, the female dēw Āz is retained as the source of lust in Manichaeism.

Ferdowsi’s New Persian Šāhnāme derived largely from the Middle Persian Xwadāy-nāmag, supplemented with ancient oral traditions, including those of the Avesta, particularly in the early part of the text. Šāhnāme begins with the mythical Pišdādian (“first law givers”?) heroic rulers, followed by the legendary Kayanian (MP and NP, “sovereign”) dynasty, and then a few historical kings to the time of the Sasanians, some of whose royal names show traces of earlier mythical rulers. The Šāhnāme presentation of the kings and heroes of Iran, both mythical and historical, as being in constant strife with tyrants, echoes not only the struggle with the “Xiionians” in the Avesta, but also the tension between the elements of good and evil.

Old Iranian elements incorporated into Šāhnāme include those that endow both the story of the origins of the Iranian peoples and the country of “Iran” with an antiquity dating back to the beginning of the world, and a (divine) mandate to embody order and to promote the good. Those features continue to resonate for Iranians today.


Although the notion of sustaining cosmic order is central to both Old Indic and Old Avestan texts, expressed in the terms Ṛta and aṣ̌-->a respectively, the cosmology of each tradition differs. The five Old Avestan Gāthās reflect a worldview in which the supreme, creative agency, Ahura Mazdā, the “Wise Lord,” engenders and protects both the conceptual and material spheres of existence. One passage in the second Gāthā (known as Uštavaiti Gāthā) poses a series of questions about how the various components of the material world originated: the presumed answer is that this occurred through the activity of Ahura Mazdā (Y 44.3–7). In this text, the stages of generation of the cosmos begin with aṣ̌-->a, “order,” then the course of the sun and stars, and the cycle of the moon; the “holding up” of the earth below and the sky above; the waters and plants; the movement of the winds and clouds; good thought (Av. vohu manah); light and darkness, sleep and wakefulness, and the passage of the day through dawn, noon, and night; the milk-producing cow; and a dutiful son for the father.

This cosmogony is partly reiterated in the Old Avestan Yasna Haptaŋhāiti (YH) the “worship in the seven sections,” which praises Ahura Mazdā as the one who “sets in place” the cow, aṣ̌-->a, the waters and plants, the lights and the earth, and “all that is good” (YH 37.1).

After the delineation of the generation of the universe, a subsequent passage in Uštavaiti Gāthā refers to a destruction of the world through a deceptive, evil impulse or spirit that does not accord at any level with the impulse of good thought, word, action or spiritual understanding (Y 45.1–2). Elsewhere, the good spirit is allied with life and the bad with “not life” (Av. ajiiāitī), that is, death (Y 30.4). Other poetic stanzas in the Gāthās contain the idea that the detrimental impulses that afflict the world can be healed by those who follow aṣ̌-->a, particularly those future benefactors “who will be strong” (Av. saošiiaṇ̣-->t). Such concepts contain the seeds of a collective and universal eschatology that is more fully developed in Young Avestan texts, such as the Hadokht Nask and the Zamyad Yašt. Middle Persian Zoroastrian literature then gradually defines a cosmogony with a binary division between the good attributes and co-agents of Ahura Mazdā and the harmful, evil forces associated with Angra Mainyu, the “destructive spirit.” The seven qualities or aspects of Ahura Mazdā that both protect and permeate the generated world, particularly its humans, are referred to collectively as the ‘life-giving immortals (Av. Aməṣ̌-->a Spəntas).


Passages in the Young Avestan Vidēvdād (Vd.) and Yašts (Yt.) delineate an early image of a mythical Iranian world, suggesting an original, coherent cosmology. A passage in the hymn to Mithra (Mihr Yašt) refers to “seven climes” of the world, the center of which is Xᵛaniraθ‎a, “the wheel of the sun,” where mortals and other living beings inhabit (Yt. 10.15). Vidēvdād names sixteen countries established for the Iranians by Ahura Mazdā, of which the first and central land is Airiiana Vaējah, the “Iranian expanse.” Elements of the material creation around this land include the Vourukaṣ̌-->a Sea, which is the gathering point of all waters, and where a tree of all species grows, called the Saēna Tree (Yt. 12.17). The sun, moon, and stars rise up over “Hara the high” (Av. Harā bərəzaitī) bringing light to the world. Elsewhere, “high Hara,” meaning something like “high protector,” is depicted as the first in the great mountain chain that encircles the earth. Just as the Saēna Tree contains the seeds of all good, healing plants, so a “first-created bull/animal” (Av. gao- aēuuō.dātā-) contains the seeds of all animals, and a “living mortal” (Av. gaiia- marətan-) is the first aṣ̌-->auuan (“follower of aṣ̌-->a”) from whom, according to Middle Persian texts, all human beings derive. The motifs of a world tree or plant and a world mountain have parallels in Indo-European and Near Eastern/Semitic myth, as do those of a primordial animal and human.

According to the Gāthās the “seventh [part] of the world,” is where the daēuuas or “false gods” operate (Y 32.3). Vidēvdād reports that the “good lands” of Ahura Mazdā were assaulted in various ways by Angra Mainyu, including the infliction of death with its attendant pollution of dead matter (Av. nasu), but concludes with the promise of healing the 99,999 afflictions wrought by evil, through the recitation of sacred manthras. These litanies remain part of Zoroastrian prayer today. The ending of the text with the healing of the good creation reflects the Avestan concept of frašo.kərəiti—the final “miraculous” revitalization of the cosmos that will take place at the end of historical time.

Achaemenid inscriptions preserve elements of these Avestan accounts of the creation of the world by “the great god” (OP baga vazạrka) Ahuramazda, who is lauded by Darius I as establishing the cosmos, setting in place the earth, the sky and humankind, and making happiness for humanity. The phrasing of the formula “this earth and that sky” parallels that of the Young Avesta, as does the notion that happiness is created for humans by Ahura Mazdā.15 The word frašō.kərəti as “excellent” in Darius I’s Old Persian inscriptions appears in a range of contexts that reflect the creative activity of Ahura Mazdā, as well as the work of the king (figure 6), echoing the Avestan notion that the world is moving towards a return to an original “excellent” or “perfect” state (figure 7).

Figure 6. Darius I’s tomb, Naqsh-e Rustam, Fars province, Iran. Darius’ tomb design became standard for subsequent Achaemenid kings. It shows the monarch giving reverence to fire beneath a winged figure. The inscription introduces Darius as ruling “by the favor of Ahura Mazdā” and lists the subject countries.

© Jenny Rose.

Figure 7. Entrance of Darius I’s Tomb, Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran. The inscription in this lower register of the tomb portrays Darius I as upholding the qualities and skills of a good king, which have been granted to him by Ahura Mazdā; Darius states that he is a friend to right, not to wrong, nor to the follower of the lie.

© Jenny Rose.


In the interim, Old Iranian mythology concerning the individual afterlife involved a “crossing place of reckoning” (OAv. cinuuat̰.pərətu-), a judgment of one’s thoughts, words and deeds at death, and progress of the soul of the ašauuan to the best existence, passing the sun, moon, stars, until reaching the “endless lights” (Av. anaγ‎ra- raocah-) and garo.dəmāna the “house of praise/welcome,” (Y 51.15; also 45.2, 50.4) or of the “follower of the lie” (OAv. drəguuaṇt) to the worst existence, entering darkness into “the house of deceit” (OAv. druj.dəmāna; Y 46.11, 51.14).

Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts, particularly the Greater Bundahišn, Dēnkard, Dādestān ī Dēnīg (“Religious Judgments”) and Dādestān ī Mēnōy ī Xrad (“Judgments of the Spirit of Wisdom”) provide a more developed and systematic cosmology, theology and eschatology. In several texts, this schema includes divisions of time into thousand-year periods, which may have been impacted by the Babylonian concept of time. In the Bundahišn, Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazdā) creates the world in two stages of three thousand years each; first in its “thought” or “conceptual” state (MP mēnōy), with all the spiritual beings needed to combat evil, then in its “physical” or “living” state (MP gētīy). In the Middle Persian books, echoing the Vidēvdād, this material world was subject to the incursion of Ahreman (Angra Mainyu) and polluted through the mingling of evil with the good creation: disease and death came to the plant, the primordial animal and man (MP gayomard), but the seed of each was preserved, purified, and returned to repopulate the earth. The time of “mixture” of good and evil lasts for another six thousand years, but the advent of Zarathustra at the end of the third millennium begins the preparation for the ultimate separation of good and evil.

That such a division of the world into four three-thousand-year increments already existed by the end of the Achaemenid period is suggested by Plutarch’s reference to the Iranian schema as presented by the Greek historian Theopompus, in his work Philippika, which was completed in 324 bce. According to Plutarch, Theopompus recorded a “Magian” myth that two “gods” (Plutarch distinguishes the creator of good things, Horomasdes, as a theos, and that of evil things, Areimanios, as a daimon) alternate in supremacy for three thousand years, and then fight with each other for three thousand years, until eventually “Hades shall perish, and men shall be happy; neither shall they need sustenance nor shall they cast a shadow.”16 The four-era division of cosmic time as expounded in the Bundahišn appears in another form in the Middle Persian apocalyptic text, the Zand ī Wahman Yasn, where Ohrmazd enables Zarathustra to see into the future. In this vision Zarathustra, sees a tree with four branches of gold, silver, steel, and “mixed iron” respectively, which each representing a future era following the millennium of Zarathustra, culminating in the defeat of evil and the renovation of the world through the agency of the final Saoshyant (Av. saošiiaṇt- “the revitalizer,” “the one who will make [existence] strong.”)

Axes Mundi

As the successive Iranian empires were established, the image of the world as portrayed in the Avesta seems to have been transposed onto the physical geography of the imperial domain. In this re-mapping of sacred locations from the Avestan cosmological schema, the land itself became known as “Iran.” In one Old Iranian myth, an archer named Arash is said to have put all his strength into shooting an arrow from one side of the country to the other, to demarcate the territorial boundaries of the country. The myth, reported in detail by Islamic-era historians, including Bīrūnī, Ṭabarī, Ṯaʿālebī, and Baḷʿamī, originates in the Avesta, which records that Ǝrəxša “of the swift arrow, having the swiftest arrow among the Iranians” shot an arrow from Mount Airiiō.xšuθ‎a to Mount Xᵛanuuaṇt (Yt. 8.6). Neither the identity nor location of these two mountains is known. The event is alluded to in a couple of Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts, one of which specifies that the king of Iran, Manušcihr, and the archer Ēraš re-took the land from Afrāsiāb the Turanian on the day Xordād of the month Frawardīn.17

The locating of several sacred places of the Avesta within the borders of Iran occurred during the three imperial periods. Harā bərəzaitī lent its name to Mt. Alburz, the mountain range to the south of the Caspian; the river Haraxᵛaitī (cognate with Indic Saravasti) became Harī-rūd—the River Hari; and the River Haētumaṇt became the River Helmand in Sistan. In Old Iranian mythology, both Haētumaṇt and the “Lake Kasaoya” (Av. Kąsaoiia-) into which it flows are associated with the birth of the final Saoshyant, who will defeat evil and render the world incorruptible (Yt. 19.66–69, 92; Vd. 19.5). Kasaoya has been identified with Lake Hāmūn in Sistan. The mountain that rises from the lake is known as Kuh-e Khwājeh—the “hill of the master”—and it has been suggested that the early patristic connection with “the East,” of the Magi who visit the Christ child in Matthew’s Gospel, may derive from Zoroastrian mythology relating to the site. Some of the material in the yašts may have developed in the region of Sistan. Curiously, from this part of eastern Iran emerged a somewhat negative portrayal of Vištāspa, Zarathustra’s patron in the Avesta, which is reflected in the Šāhnāme, and is at odds with the Dēnkard and New Persian Zartošt-Nāme.



Particularly associated with “High Hara” is the yazata Mithra (Av. Miθ‎ra-), meaning “contract,” or “bond.” Mithra upholds the social institution that his name implies. The hymn to Mithra describes him watching the deeds of humans from his position above Mt. Hara, and speeding down in his four-wheeled chariot driven by horses “who fly,” his ox-headed mace in his hands ready to punish those who are false to their word. Many elements of this narrative relate to myths of solar deities in other Indo-European cultures. At Nemrud Dağı, a 1st-century BCE inscription identifies Mithra with the Greek divinities Apollo, Helios, and Hermes. Of all the Zoroastrian yazatas, Mithra seems to have been represented most consistently in anthropomorphized form. It has been suggested that this may be one reason that he is retained—as Mher—within Armenian Christian apocalyptic tradition.18

Mithra is mentioned by name after “Ahuramazda” on several Old Persian royal inscriptions of Artaxerxes II (r. 404–359 bce), some of which also refer to Anāhitā, the female yazata of the waters. Mithra and Anāhitā are the only yazatas to be mentioned in any Old Persian texts: Artaxerxes calls upon them, with Ahuramazda, to protect from all evil him, his country, and “that which he has built.”19


The Young Avestan hymn dedicated to Anāhitā (Av. Anāhitā-), Ābān Yašt (“hymn to the waters”), characterizes her as the beautiful goddess of a mythical world river that flows into the Sea Vourukaša and is the source of all the waters. Her Avestan epithets “Arəduuī- Surā- Anāhitā-” translate as “moist, mighty, undefiled,” asserting her identity as a powerful, chaste water divinity. The hymn describes Anāhitā’s benevolent activity as bringing increase to water channels, herds, possessions and the land. She also bestows fertility on men and women, and is a warrior for justice on behalf of the Iranians. In this respect, she is similar to Inanna/Ištar, with whom she is often identified, alongside other Near Eastern goddesses. Middle Persian inscriptions apply the title Bānūg, “Lady,” to Anāhitā, as do Armenian texts, which may indicate a syncretism with Sumerian Inanna, the “Lady of Heaven.” Sogdian Zoroastrian texts from Panjikant refer to their chief divinity as “Nana the Lady,” indicating that Nana was also equated with Anāhitā. Greek authors of the Parthian period identify Anāhitā most frequently with Artemis, but also with Aphrodite and Athena.


Another yazata associated with the waters is the astral divinity Tištriia described as a “bright, radiant star” in the yašt dedicated to him.20 This hymn, the Tīr Yašt, contains a nature myth in which Tištriia overcomes the daēuua of drought, Apaoša (“not thriving”). Tištriia, in the form of a beautiful white horse with golden ears fought hoof to hoof for three days and nights against Apaoša, who took the shape of a black horse with black ears. In danger of being bested by his opponent, Tištriia cried to Ahura Mazdā that he was weak because he had not received the proper worship from humans. So, Ahura Mazdā made an offering to him, and Tištriia, with the renewed strength of ten horses, camels, and bulls, ten mountains and rivers, defeated Apaoša. The rains fell and revitalized the seven regions of the earth (Yt. 8.20–34). Tištriia then overcame the pairikā (female demonic being or “witch”) of famine Dužiiāiriiā “(the one bringing) bad year/harvest” (Yt. 8.50–55).

In the Bundahišn, Tištriia (MP Teštar) is identified as the star Sirius, integrating the myth of the former with astrology. Sirius/Teštar is said to disperse the waters of the atmosphere, spreading them as rain over the earth and seas. At the renovation, Tištriia will restore and nourish the material creation. The fourth month of the Zoroastrian year is dedicated to Tištriia, which falls at around the same time as that of Tammuz in the Hebrew calendar. At some point, Tištriia became identified with “Tīr,” a western Iranian name for the planet Mercury, but also connected by folk etymology with the Middle Persian word for “arrow.” This link may have arisen from the early representation of Tištriia flying across the sky towards the sea Vourukaša as swiftly as the arrow shot by the Iranian archer Ǝrəxša (Yt. 8.6–7, 37–38).


The association of the yazata Tištriia with the release of the waters is paralleled with a Vedic myth in which Indra slays the serpent/dragon Vṛtra (“coverer”), who is blocking the flow of the waters of the world. For this action, Indra is named Vr̥trahan—“overcomer of Vṛtra.” The Iranian form of this epithet is used in the name of the yazata Verethragna (Av. Vərəθ‎raγ‎na)—smasher of obstruction,” whose hymn (Warahrān Yašt) praises ten incarnations of the deity as he opposes foes in the form of a strong wind, a bull with golden horns, a white horse, a camel, a male boar, a fifteen-year-old youth (the ideal age in Old Iranian thought), a swift hawk, a wild ram, a fighting buck with sharp horns, and a Mazdā-made man with a golden dagger. In his boar form, Verethragna is said to speed in front of Mithra to bring a gory punishment to those who break their bond (Yt. 10.70–72).

A syncretistic onomastic, “Artagnes (Verethragna)-Herakles-Ares” at Nemrud Dağı, dating to the 1st century bce, denotes the identification of Verethragna with the Greek mythical hero Herakles. This connection is reiterated in the bilingual Greek and Parthian inscription of the Arsacid king Walγ‎aš (Greek, Vologeses), son of Mihrdāt (Greek, Mithradates), dating to 151 ce, inscribed on the bronze statue of the “god Verethragna” (Parthian, Warhraγ‎n baγ‎: Greek “Herakles”), which the king brought from Mesene, and placed in the temple of Tīr (Parthian, Tir: Greek Apollo).

Although there is no Avestan connection of Verethragna with dragon-slaying, the epithet does appear elsewhere in mythology that reflects an enduring ancient Iranian lore: reference to dragon-slaying divinities in Sogdian Manichaean and Armenian texts use the names “Wašaγ‎n,” and “Vahagn,” respectively, which derive from OIr. vərəθ‎raγ‎na-.


Sraoša, meaning “readiness to listen,” is the name of the yazata who was first to tie the barsom, to make an offering to Ahura Mazdā and to sing the Gāthās (Y. 57).21 According to Zoroastrian eschatology, while the soul of the dead person remains within the world of the living for three days, it is under the protection of Sraoša. On the fourth morning after death, Sraoša accompanies the soul over the crossing place to paradise. In the Vidēvdād, the assistant priest to Sraoša (Av. sraošāuuarəza-), is the rooster, who is the first to see the sun, and whose crowing announces the dawn and banishes the demon of sloth (Vd. 18.14–15).

These functions of Sraoša seem to have been figuratively represented on Sogdian funerary monuments discovered this century near the city of Xi’an, in northern central China. Reliefs on several mortuary couches and one sarcophagus depict pairs of Zoroastrian priests performing funerary rituals on behalf of the dead in a similar manner to those on ossuaries from Sogdiana: those found in a Chinese context depict the priests with bird legs, wings and tail, apparently epitomizing the redemptive activity of Sraoša (figure 8).

Sraoša is the only Zoroastrian yazata to re-appear in Islam as a divine being, in the figure Sorūš. Around the beginning of the 14th century, illustrated New Persian narratives of the Miʿrāj-nāme (“Book of Ascension”) contain images of the moment on the night journey of the prophet Muhammad, when He leaves the first stage of Heaven and observes a white cockerel. In the text, Gabriel informs Muhammad that this cockerel is an angel “who keeps track of the hours of day and night” and whose call praising God at the hour of prayer is heard and repeated by its earthly counterparts. This is Sorūš.

Figure 8. Sarcophagus of a Sogdian official, Xi’an City Museum, China, c. 579 ce. The front of this house-shaped tomb depicts a Zoroastrian priest as the sraošāuuarəz, the assistant priest to Sraoša, performing funerary rituals for the deceased.

© Jenny Rose.


A relief on the sarcophagus of a Sogdian Zoroastrian interred in Xi’an in the 6th century ce depicts not only a pair of bird-priests who exemplify the actions of Sraoša, but also an image of the good Vayu, the Avestan yazata of the wind. On the tomb, Vayu takes a prominent place overseeing the judgment of the individual and welcoming him to paradise. In one Young Avestan passage, Vayu (Av. Vaiiu-) as a “sweet-scented wind from the south” greets the soul of the aṣ̌-->auuan (“follower of aṣ̌-->a,” “righteous” person; HN 2.7–8). Bundahišn tells how good Vayu (MP Wāy ī weh) takes the soul of the “righteous” (MP ahlaw) by the hand and brings it to its rightful place in the upper atmosphere: “and the good Wāy would seize by the hand the souls of the righteous ones, upon crossing the Činwad bridge, and take them to his own abode” (ud ruwān ī ahlawān ka pad Čēh-widarg widerēd Wāy ī weh dast abar gīrēd ud ō ān ī xwēš gāh bared: G.Bd. 26.29; 30.23).

Avestan Vayu has a counterpart in Old Indic Vāyu, which is the “energy or movement of air,” the “breath that gives life.” The Avesta also portrays Vayu as an atmospheric yazata, bringing life in the rainclouds and death in the storm: in this duality of function he is somewhat ambiguous, with a “good” and “bad” side. The prominence accorded to Vayu in Sogdian Zoroastrian depiction indicates his enduring powerful role in the realm between that of Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu. In one Avestan passage, Ahura Mazdā offers sacrifices to Vayu, in order to be able to defeat evil and preserve the good creation (Yt. 15.2–3)

Epic Heroes, Villains and Fabulous Creatures


Another Indo-Iranian parallel is found in the concept of the twin, who becomes the Yama of R̥g Veda, the first mortal who discovered the way to the “other world” (RV 10.14.1, 2), and Yima in the Avesta, the son of Vivanghvant (Av. Vivaŋᵛhan-), the first man to prepare the libation of the haoma plant (Y. 9.4). Although the Old Iranian narrative of Yima diverges from the Old Indic, a connection with an underground existence is retained. After declining Ahura Mazdā’s request to become the bearer of the religion in the material world, Yima is given rulership of the seven parts of the earth, over mortals and daēuuas, “wizards and witches” (Vd. 2.4–7; Yt. 19.30–33). Yima could free people and herds of animals from death, plants and rivers from drought (Y. 9.4,5) and had the power to provide humans with imperishable food (Yt. 15.16). Even the winds blew neither hot nor cold during his long-lasting reign, when humans, creatures, and fires multiplied, and the world doubled in size. According to the Vidēvdād, over the course of his nine hundred-year rule, Yima caused the earth to expand by a third three times, in order to accommodate the ever-growing population of animals and humans (Vd. 2.8–19).

Yima is known as yima xšaēta “Yima the shining, or radiant,” who was the most glorious among men. His name becomes J̌am(šēd) in Middle Persian and New Persian texts, and he remains one of the great heroes of Iranian tradition, epitomizing the ideal of kingly power. In the Dēnkard, J̌am(šēd) is said to have driven away four major vices from existence (Dk. 9.5.4).

But Yima’s rule did not last forever, since he was guilty of a “sin” or “fault” (Av. aēnah-: Y. 32.8), although it is not clear what this was. The Zamyād yašt relates how a lie entered Yima’s mind and the divine fortune (Av. xᵛarənah-) departed from him, to become the focus of a tense struggle between heroes and tyrannical forces (Yt. 19.34–38). The Vidēvdād does not attribute any misdeed to Yima, but Ahura Mazdā tells him that he must withdraw to an enclosure (Av. vara-)—which some Middle Persian texts, such as Mēnōy ī Xrad and the Bundahišn, deem to be underground—and which is lit by its own light and supplied with flowing water, in order that he and the best animals, plants, and humans might survive the bitter winter that will afflict the material existence following his rule (Vd. 2.27–28). This decision to protect select samples of each species in the vara and to let others perish is a radical departure from the previous expansion of the world to accommodate all living entities. Later eschatology explained that the people and animals from the vara would repopulate the world to bring a brief period of renewal before the upheavals at the end of historical time (G.Bd.33.30). Both Zamyād yašt and Bundahišn hint at a strange fate to Yima (MP J̌am)—a literal “twinning” when he is “sawn,” or “cut” (in half?) by evil beings, who are named as Dahāg (< Av. Aži- Dahāka-), the dragon-king who succeeded him, and Spitiiura, who bears the Avestan title “Yima-cutter” (yimō.kərəṇta-: Yt. 19.46; G.Bd. 35.5). A similar gory end is retained in Šāhnāme, where Jamšēd is toppled by his own hubris, and flees, but is found by Żaḥḥāk (< MP. Dahāg) by the Sea of China, hiding in a tree, and sawn in half.22

Aži Dahāka/(Az)dahāg/Żaḥḥāk

In one Avestan yašt, Aži Dahāka is presented in conflict with Ātar—the fire that is emblematic of Ahura Mazdā—for possession of the xᵛarənah, the glory that resides with the ruler chosen by Ahura Mazdā, after it has left Yima (Yt. 19.46–50). Avestan aži- means snake or dragon, cognate with Indic ahi. The yašt describes Aži Dahāka as having three heads, three mouths, six eyes, and a thousand powers: he is the “deceiving lie” (Av. daēuuī- druj-), and the “evil liar/deceitful one” (Av. aγ‎a- druuuaṇt-) who threatened the world of living beings (Av. gaēθ‎ā-) with chaos (Yt. 19.37). The serpentine ruler sought to obliterate humans from the seven climes of the earth—that is, the whole world—but his plea was rejected by both Anāhitā and Vayu, who granted the hero Thraetaona (Av. Θ‎raētaona) his request to overcome the powerful Druj (Yt. 5.29–35; 15.19–25). After grasping the xᵛarənah for a time, Aži Dahāka is overthrown by Thraetaona, who comes to rule in his stead. In the Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts, Azdahāg’s reign from Babylon is said to have lasted for a thousand years (G.Bd. 33.2; Dk. 7.4.72).

Thraetaona, son of Athiya (Av. Āθβ‎iia-), whose name is cognate with Vedic Traitana (but whose typology parallels that of the Old Indic hero Trita Āptya) becomes in Middle Persian Frēdōn, then New Persian, Farīdūn/Fereydūn, the Kayanian king who comes to rule after defeating the tyrant Żaḥḥāk with his mace.23 In the Dēnkard account, Frēdōn is warned by Ahura Mazdā not to slay Azdahāg because snakes, frogs, toads, scorpions, and lizards would emerge from him, bringing chaos to the world. So Frēdōn bound Azdahāg with fetters in Mt. Damāvand (Dk. 9.21.8–12). The Bundahišn describes how, in the final millennium of historical time, Azdahāg will break loose from his mountain captivity to devour a third of the living creatures created by Ahura Mazdā (G.Bd. 33.33). The great warrior Kerešaspa (Av. Kərəšaspa, MP Garšasp) will be roused to smite the dragon with his club, and he will be vanquished for all time at the renovation (DD 37.97, 121).

In the Šāhnāme, Żaḥḥāk, although a mortal tyrant, is also associated with snakes. Eblīs (the Šāhnāme form of Ahreman), in the guise of his cook, so pleased Żaḥḥāk with delicious food that the king granted him a boon: Eblīs asked only to kiss the king’s shoulders, but from the place where his lips touched, two black snakes grew. The snakes had to be fed the brains of humans, so as to not destroy those of their host Żaḥḥāk. In this way, the land begins to be emptied of humans, just as Aži Dahāka had desired in the Avestan hymns. The dragon-defeating and slaying myth relating to Aži Dahāka/Żaḥḥāk echoes others in Indo-European mythology, not least the story of Beowulf, but also Indra’s smiting of Ahi Vṛtra. Parallels are also found in the Enuma Elish account of Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat and her serpentine army.

Saēna Meregha/Simorḡ

Other fabulous creatures in Old Iranian myth include the benevolent Saēna bird (Av. saēna- mərəaa-), whose tree of healing stands in the middle of Lake Vourukaša, potent with medicinal properties and containing the seeds of all plants (Yt. 12.17). In Middle Persian texts, the bird known as the sēn murw rose from the tree, disturbed the branches, scattering their seeds and fertilizing the earth (MX 61.37–41). Myths about the Saēna bird must have continued among Iranians, since she features as the Simorḡ in the Šāhnāme, as well as in folktales and mystical texts. In Šāhnāme, Simorḡ appears in the story of the warrior Sām, who cursed his child (later named Zāl) for having white hair. Sām commanded that his son be left to die in a remote spot, but Zāl was rescued by Simorḡ, who raised him with her own offspring in her mountain eyrie. As he grew to manhood, Zāl’s stature and prowess reached the court and Sām came to reclaim his son. To protect Zāl against difficulty or dispute, Simorḡ gave him a single feather from her wing, which he was to cast into the fire to summon her. She is called twice to help: once to heal Zāl’s wife Rūdābe at the birth of their son Rostam, and again to heal the adult Rostam—now a great Iranian warrior—and his horse, Rakhsh, from wounds inflicted by arrows shot by Esfandiyār, another legendary Iranian warrior.

Simorḡ became a leitmotif in New Persian literature, often employed as a metaphor for the divine. The most well-known of such texts is Farīd-al-Dīn ʿAttār’s “Conference of the Birds” (Manṭeq al-ṭayr), written in the late 12th century. The trope of being nurtured by an animal or bird is found in many Indo-European myths, including the story of Romulus and Remus, who are suckled by a she-wolf. In an Iranian context, Achaemenes, the eponymous ancestor of the Achaemenid kings, was said, in an early 3rd century ce Greek account, to have been reared by an eagle in a manner similar to Gilgamesh (Aelian, De natura animalium 12.21).


The heroic figure of Rostam is not part of the extant Avesta but does appear to belong to an ancient stratum of Iranian lore and is one of the foremost characters of later Iranian epic. Rostam features prominently in the Šāhnāme, where many of his characteristics are similar to those of Bhīṣma in the Indic Mahābhārata; the parallel denotes that this type of “warrior guardian of dynastic rule” derives from an earlier, Indo-Iranian model.24 A story of Rostam fighting the dēws was discovered in an 8th or 9th century Sogdian fragment from the Library cave at Dunhuang, and several frescoes featuring Rostam have been found in private homes at Panjikant in modern Tajikistan. The fact that the Sogdian story has stylistic features in common with the Avestan description of Zarathustra’s own struggle with the daēuuas (Vd. 19. 45–46) is evidence of the endurance of ancient oral traditions in eastern Iran.25 Both the Sogdian text and iconography reference Rostam’s great red horse Rakhsh, as does Šāhnāme. “Rostam Sagdjik” (Rostam the “Saka,” or “Scythian”) was known to the (ca.) 5th century Armenian historian Movses Xorenac‘i, who noted that the Persians claimed that Rostam possessed the strength of 120 elephants. One Persian epithet for Rostam in Šāhnāme is pīltan, “elephant-bodied”; another is tāj-bakhsh, “bestower of the crown,” which is in keeping with his role as heroic protector of the Iranian monarchy and Iran itself. That Ferdowsi focuses on Rostam’s dew-killing and does not mention the dragon-slaying hero Kərəsaspa at all, has led some scholars to identify the former as a double of the latter.26

Siyāvōš and Afrāsiāb

The ancient city of Bukhara, now in modern Uzbekistan, once Sogdiana, is said to have been founded by a mythical Iranian hero named Siyāvōš (Av. Siiāuuaršan, MP Siyāvaxš), who was buried under one of the gates inside the fortress. This eastern Iranian legend relates to Siiāuuaršan of the Avesta, who is said to have been killed by the Turanian Agraeratha (Av. Aγ‎raēraθ‎a), against whom his son Haosrauuah sought revenge (Yt. 5.49–50; Yt. 19.77). The name Siiāuuaršan means “one who possess black stallions.” Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts present Siyāvaxš as the ideal man: handsome, brave, and a skilled warrior, who built Kang dez—a mythical fortress. According to the Bundahišn narrative, Siyāvaxš went to “Turkestan” (equated with the eastern territory of Tūiriia in the Avesta) to fight its ruler Afrāsiāb (Av. Fraŋrasiian; MP Frāsiyā), but chose not to return to Iran because of Sudābe, the wife of Kay Us (Av. Kauui Usan, NP Kay Kāyus:), his father. Instead, he came under the protection of Afrāsiāb whose daughter he married, and by whom he had a son, Kay Husrōy (NP Ḵosrow), before being killed in Tūrān.

Ferdowsi elaborated this story in Šāhnāme, vividly describing the ordeal by fire that Siyāvōš endured in Iran to prove his innocence following the false accusation by his stepmother Sudābe of rape and abortion. Siyāvōš then removed himself from Iran to the court of Afrāsiāb in Tūrān, where his heroic exploits caused jealousy. Afrāsiāb was persuaded to attack and execute his son-in-law. From the places where the blood of Siyāvōš pools on the ground, a plant grows, later known as “the blood of Siyāvōš.” Local Sogdian folklore concerning Siyāvōš is preserved in Narshakhi’s 10th-century Persian “History of Bukhara” (Tārikh-e Bokhāra), including the account of an annual mourning ritual for him on the day of the springtime New Year (Now Ruz). Narshakhi records that minstrels recited the well-known story of the slaying of Siyāvōš in songs called “the weeping of the magi.”27

Discussion of the Literature

The Old Iranian schema of ethical and cosmological opposition, which remained a constant of Zoroastrian thought, was noted by Europeans from the time of the classical Greeks, including Aristotle, through Plutarch, down to Voltaire and Nietzsche. Old Iranian eschatological mythology, particularly the notion of the role of human agency in the final resolution of tension between good and evil seems to have impacted some of the concepts that arose within Second Temple Judaism and that became prominent in Christian and Muslim traditions. Although there was certainly much interaction and reciprocality of influence across the religions and cultures of the Near East from the Persian period onwards, many of the elements relating to the end of times seem to echo a primary Iranian model. As both Shaul Shaked and Anders Hultgård have illuminated, these elements include ideas of paradise and hell; a judgment of the individual soul; a physical resurrection and judgment; and an end-time savior figure.28 Some scholars have posited the notion that the Iranian division of time into four world eras (which may reflect an earlier Indo-Iranian division) had an impact on Near Eastern ideas, including the vision of Nebuchadnezzar, which is experienced and interpreted by Daniel in the eponymous biblical book (Daniel 2:27–45).29

Although several Biblical scholars, and some Iranists, dispute the ancient Iranian origin of some, if not all, of these themes, Shaked, Hultgård, and Almut Hintze all assert their primacy within the Zoroastrian tradition, noting that Middle Persian apocalyptic elements in the Dēnkard, Bundahišn, and throughout the Zand ī Wahman Yasn, are found in the earlier Avesta.30 The continuity of oral tradition in the transmission of both Old and Young Avestan text, which informed subsequent Middle Persian commentaries on the Avesta, is the focus of recent study by both Hintze and Prods Oktor Skjaervø.31 Skjaervø’s comparative analysis of Avestan and Achaemenid themes and expressions has been important in determining the familiarity of the Ancient Persians with an older, “Avestan” worldview.32 Both Hintze and Skjaervø have also produced recent articles discussing the ancient Iranian understanding of the divine, tackling the thorny issue (stemming from European theological conception) of monotheism and dualism as applied to the Zoroastrian tradition.33

Concluding Comments

Although the development and intent of the myths identified above reflect the disparate cultures that recorded them, there are a number of themes common to both Ancient Near Eastern and Ancient Iranian accounts. Apart from the recognition of the sacrality of natural phenomena—a plant, a mountain, a bull—the most obvious common theme is that of a universal catastrophe leading to the depletion of animals and humans on earth, with the preservation of only a select few. Such an upheaval is represented in Ancient Near Eastern myth by a flood narrative, found across Mesopotamia, beginning with the Sumerian story of Gilgamesh, and reported in a variant form in the Hebrew Bible: in the ancient Iranian context, the decimation of the world is expressed in the myth of the cosmic winter and the refuge of Yima’s vara. Although the Mesopotamian and Hebrew versions of the flood story are too similar to be unrelated—particularly the introduction of a nautical rescue vehicle for the chosen survivors, and the discovery of dry land by a messenger bird—each cultural retelling differs in its reason for the divine infliction of a deluge. In contradistinction to the flood narratives, the Iranian account attributes the winter’s devastation to the forces of evil, not to a divine punishment (Vd. 1.19, 2.22).

Another common theme, mentioned earlier, is that of a powerful female figure, divine or human, whose vengeance on being rejected by a male protagonist has enduring consequences for both him and his people. In connection with this gendered interplay of power is the topos of a dying and rising divinity or hero, which is connected to the seasonal cycle of growth. This seasonal reiteration of birth or rebirth relates to another shared mythological theme—the human quest for immortality (or at least longevity of life), which may involve a visit to the netherworld. Egyptian and Iranian myths address that quest, with stories about a judgment of the individual at death, alongside notions of a paradisal afterlife: the former in the realm of the gods forever, the latter in the abode of Ahura Mazdā, until such time as the world is renovated.

List of Abbreviations




Dādestān ī Dēnīg




Greater Bundahišn


Hadokht Nask


Middle Persian


New Persian


Old Avestan






Yasna Haptaŋhāiti



Primary Texts

Ancient Near East
  • Dalley, Stephanie. Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. (Originally published in 1989.)
  • Foster, Benjamin R. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 3rd ed. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005.
  • George, Andrew. The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation. New York: Penguin, 1999.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Harps that Once . . .: Sumerian Poetry in Translation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997. (Originally published in 1976.)
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. Sumerian Mythology. Rev. ed. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
  • Lambert, Wilfred G., Alan R. Millard, and Miguel Civil. Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999.
  • Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004.
  • Pritchard, James B. ed. The Ancient Near East, Volume I An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973. (Originally published in 1958.)
  • Pritchard, James B. ed. The Ancient Near East Volume II, A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975. (Originally published in 1958.)
  • Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
  • Wyatt, Nicolas. Religious Texts from Ugarit, 2nd ed. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
Old Iranian
  • Boyce, Mary. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990.
  • Ferdowsi, Abolgasem. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Viking, 2006.
  • Hintze, Almut. Zamyād Yašt: Introduction, Avestan Text, Translation, Glossary. Wiesbaden, Germany: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1995.
  • Hintze, Almut. A Zoroastrian Liturgy: The Worship in Seven Chapters (Yasna 35–41). Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2007.
  • Insler, Stanley. The Gathas of Zarathushtra. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1975.
  • Kent, Roland G., Old Persian Grammar, Texts, Lexicon. New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1982. (Originally published in 1953.)
  • Levy, Reuben. The Epic of the Kings, Shah Nama. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
  • Malandra, William. An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and Achaemenid Inscriptions. Minneapolis, MN: University Minnesota Press, 1980.
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger. Die altpersischen Inschriften der Achaimeniden: Editio minor mit deutscher Übersetzung. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert Verlag, 2009.
  • Skjaervø, Prods Oktor. The Spirit of Zoroastrianism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

Links to Digital Materials

Written Resources

Encyclopaedia Iranica, edited by Ehsan Yarshater. Searchable online encyclopaedia, see articles on: “Alborz,” “Araš,” “Aži Dahāka,” “Babylonian Influences on Iran,” “Elamite Religion,” “Gayōmard,” “Iranian Myths and Legends,” “Kayānian Kings and Heroes,” “Kərənaspa,” “Simor,” “Tištriia,” “Yima,” “Zāl,” and “Zarathustra.”

See also O. P. Skjaervø’s translation of selected Avestan, Old Persian, and Middle Persian texts at:


  • Aro, Sanna, and Whiting, R. M. eds. The Heirs of Assyria: Proceedings of the opening Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project. Helsinki, Finland: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2000.
  • Cereti, Carlo G. “Myths, Legends, Eschatologies.” In The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism. Edited by Michael Stausberg and Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina, 259–272. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
  • Christensen, Arthur. Les Types du Premier Homme et du Premier Roi dans l’histoire légendaire des iraniens. Stockholm, Sweden: Leide, 1917.
  • Christensen, Arthur. Les Kayanides. Copenhagen, Denmark: A.F. Høst & Son, 1931.
  • Curtis, Vesta Sarkhosh. Persian Myths. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J. Mute Dreams, Blind Owls and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Hinnells, John R. Persian Mythology. Rev. ed. New York: Peter Bedrick, 1985. (Originally published in 1973.)
  • Hinz, Walther. The Lost World of Elam: Recreation of a Vanished Civilization. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.
  • Johnston, Sarah Iles, ed. Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1963.
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1986.
  • McCall, Henrietta. Mesopotamian Myths. London: British Museum Press, 2008. (Originally published in 1990.)


  • 1. Possibly a drum and drumstick respectively; see Samuel Noah Kramer, Sumerian Mythology (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 34.

  • 2. James B. Pritchard (ed), The Ancient Near East Volume II, A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 127 (Translator S. N. Kramer).

  • 3. James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, Volume I An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973), 35 (translator E. A. Speiser).

  • 4. On contemporary cylinder seals of divinity, such as from Tan Uli (mid-17th millennium), the rod and ring appear together, indicating sovereign power.

  • 5. The treaty was concluded between Naram Sin and a King of Awan (probably northern Elam) c. 2280 bce.

  • 6. The division of divinities from both regions is reflected in the title of successive Elamite sovereigns, who were called “king of Anshan and of Susa.” This title was assumed by the Ancient Persian king, Cyrus II, and appears on the Cyrus cylinder as “king of Susa and Anshan” in keeping with previous Akkadian texts, which reversed the order.

  • 7. See, for instance, Wouter F. M. Henkelman, The Other Gods Who Are: Studies in Elamite-Iranian Acculturation Based on the Persepolis Fortification Texts (Leiden, The Netherlands: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2008), 61–62.

  • 8. For other examples of Greek identification of Egyptian divinities, see Phiroze Vasunia, The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001).

  • 9. Neil Walls, Desire, Discord, and Death: Approaches to Near Eastern Myth (Boston, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001).

  • 10. Myth in the Hebrew Bible.

  • 11. Bernard F. Batto, Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition (London: Westminster John Knox, 1992).

  • 12. Nicolas Wyatt, The Mythic Mind: Essays on Cosmology and Religion in Ugaritic and Old Testament Literature (London: Equinox, 2005).

  • 13. The Avesta itself was first committed to writing sometime around the late 6th or early 7th century ce.

  • 14. See Antonio Panaino, “The Mesopotamian Heritage of Achaemenian Kingship,” in The Heirs of Assyria: Proceedings of the Opening Symposium of the Assyrian and Babylonian Intellectual Heritage Project, ed. Sanna Aro, and R. M. Whiting (Helsinki, Finland: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2000), 43–45.

  • 15. Yt.13.153 and Visperad 7.3, respectively.

  • 16. Plutarch, “De Iside et Osiride 46–47,” translated by Albert De Jong, in Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997), 165.

  • 17. Māh ī Frawardīn Rōz ī Xordād. See A. Taffazzoli, “ĀRAŠ i. In older literature.”

  • 18. James R. Russell, “The Epic of Sasun: Armenian Apocalypse,” in The Armenian Apocalyptic Tradition, ed. Kevork B. Bardakjian and Sergio La Porta (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 41–77, 46.

  • 19. Cf. Panaino “The Mesopotamian Heritage,” 36–39.

  • 20. See Antonio Panaino, Tishtrya. Part II, The Iranian Myth of the Star Sirius (Rome: Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1995).

  • 21. See Philip G. Kreyenbroek, Sraoša in the Zoroastrian Tradition. (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1985).

  • 22. In Šāhnāme, Jamšēd, seated on a magnificent throne, is lofted into the sky by dews at the spring equinox, instituting the celebration of the New Year. He rules the world from on high for centuries, then becomes arrogant, claiming to be a god, and loses the royal fortune and glory (NP farr). An early connection between Jamšēd and the Iranian celebration of Now Ruz is indicated by a reference in the Sogdian Manichaean Book of Giants that all the world’s rulers would come to Yam on New Year’s Day.

  • 23. There is also an Avestan hero named Thrita. Both names are connected with the Indo-Iranian adjective meaning “third.”

  • 24. Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “Eastern Iranian Epic Traditions II: Rostam and Bhīhma,” AcOrHung 51 (1998): 159–170.

  • 25. Skjaervø, “Eastern Iranian Epic Traditions,” 159, 167–169.

  • 26. Skjaervø, “Eastern Iranian Epic Traditions,” 162.

  • 27. See Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Jaʻfar Narshakhī and Richard N. Frye, The History of Bukhara (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1954).

  • 28. Shaul Shaked, Dualism in Transformation (London: Routledge, 1994), especially 27–51; and Shaul Shaked, “Eschatology i. In Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian Influence,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online; Anders Hultgård, “Persian Apocalypticism,” in The Encyclopaedia of Apocalypticism (Vol. 1), ed. John J. Collins (London: Continuum, 1998), 39–83; and Anders Hultgård, “Zoroastrian Influences on Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” in Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, ed. Michael Stausberg (London: Equinox, 2008), 101–112.

  • 29. See, for instance, Vicente Dobroruka, “Persian Influence on Daniel and Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.”

  • 30. See Almut Hintze, “The Rise of the Savior in the Avesta,” in Iran und Turan: Beiträge Berliner Wissenschaftler, Werner Sundermann zum 60. Geburstag gewidmet. ed. Chr. Reck and P. Zieme, (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1995), 77–97; and Almut Hintze, “The Saviour and the Dragon in Iranian and Jewish/Christian Eschatology,” in Irano-Judaica IV, ed. Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer (Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 1999), 72–90.

  • 31. Almut Hintze, “Avestan Literature,” in The Literature of Pre-Islamic Iran ed. Ronald E. Emmerich and Maria Macuch (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 1–71; Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “The Gāthās as Myth and Ritual,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, ed. Michael Stausberg and Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 59–67; Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “Early India and Iran,” in Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, 409–421; and Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “The Antiquity of Old Avestan: Nāme-ye Irān-e Bāstān,” 3/2 (2003–2004): 15–41.

  • 32. Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “The Achaemenids and the Avesta,” in Birth of the Persian Empire, ed. Curtis Vesta Sarkhosh and Sarah Stewart (London: I.B.Tauris, 2005), 52–84; and Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “Avesta and Zoroastrianism under the Achaemenids and Early Sasanians,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran, ed. Daniel T. Potts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 547–565.

  • 33. Almut Hintze, “Monotheism the Zoroastrian Way,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 24, no. 2 (2014): 225–249; Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “Zarathustra: A Revolutionary Monotheist?” in Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism, ed. Beate Pongratz-Leisten (Winona Lake, IN; Eisenbrauns, 2011), 317–350; and Prods Oktor Skjaervø, “Zoroastrian Dualism,” in Light Against Darkness: Dualism in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and the Contemporary World, ed. Armin Lange, Eric M. Meyers, Bennie H. Reynolds III, and Randall Styers (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 2011), 55–91.