Zoroastrianism and Mazdaism: Evidence from Sogdian and Pahlavi

« previous post | next post »

Since we've been having, and will continue to have, a series of posts on Zoroastrianism and related topics, this is a good opportunity to review a recent, substantial publication related to this subject:

Barakatullo Ashurov, "Religions and Religious Space in Sogdian Culture: A View from Archaeological and Written Sources", Sino-Platonic Papers, 306 (December, 2020), 1-41. (free pdf)

[The following is a guest post by Richard Foltz in reaction to the above paper.]

I cannot understand why scholars (and others) insist upon talking about Sogdian "Zoroastrianism", even while presenting evidence that usually suggests it was something else. Ashurov goes so far as to call it the "national religion" of the Sogdians, despite noting that they had no supreme deity such as Ahura Mazda. The term "mazdayasnish zarathushtrish", used as the self-identification in the Pahlavi texts, means literally "[we who] sacrifice to Mazda [in the manner prescribed by] Zarathushtra". So if a religion doesn't demonstrably consist of performing sacrifices to Mazda by following the liturgical prescriptions of Zarathushtra, then what is the basis for calling that religion Zoroastrianism? The Sogdian Ashem Vohu prayer discussed at length by Ashurov could indeed seem to provide evidence of the presence of a Zoroastrian rite among the Sogdians, but this isolated example can hardly justify calling Zoroastrianism the Sogdians' "national religion". We don't know the context for this prayer, whether it was part of a full Sogdian liturgy (which we do not possess), or represents an attempt by Sasanian missionaries to impose their form of religion on Sogdiana, or (as Gershevitch suggested) was part of a Manichaean text. Meanwhile the bulk of textual, iconographic and architectural relics from Sogdiana show devotional practices which were either their own particular expressions of pan-Iranian religiosity (Siyavash, Nana/Anahita) or — the cult of Vakhsh, for example — entirely local in nature.

The long-established practice of lumping all forms of pre-Islamic Iranian religion under the umbrella label "Zoroastrianism" is as misguided as the now discredited practice of calling Islam "Muhammadanism", and it is far less accurate historically. The overwhelming evidence suggests that the religious life of the majority of Sogdians and other Iranian peoples — possibly even the Persians — consisted of rituals devoted to deities other than Mazda. (See Foltz, Religions of Iran, 2013.) Since the Gathas insist that sacrifices to deities other than Mazda (who are labelled as daevas, demons) are invalid, it makes no sense to call such religious activity "Zoroastrianism". (Yes, the Young Avesta co-opts the sacrifices for certain deities — not demonized but merely demoted — into its ritual catalogue, but that is another problem.)

Even today among themselves Zoroastrians typically refer to their religion as "Mazdayasna" (Mazda-worship), although in concession to popular understanding they will call themselves Zoroastrian when dealing with outsiders. This should not prevent responsible scholars from referring to the religion in a way that reflects what it truly is — Mazdaism. The adjective "Zoroastrian" should be used only in reference to a particular way of worshipping this deity, for which the best evidence is the Pahlavi texts (there are other historical forms of Mazdaism, including but not limited to Mazdakism and Manichaeism), and avoided in cases where clear evidence of devotion to Mazda is not present.


Selected readings


  1. Rodger C said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 9:48 am

    I wouldn't call Manichaeism a form of Mazdaism. It was a highly syncretic religion whose main affinities were with late Hellenistic Gnosticism.

  2. Richard Foltz said,

    January 17, 2021 @ 12:58 pm

    It depends on where it was preached. Among Iranians it was presented as a form of Mazdaism. The Zoroastrian rite as we know it arguably emerged out of contestations agt the Sasanian court between Mani and the chief mobed, Kardir, over the "correct" interpretation of Zarathushtra's legacy.
    Gnosticism (in a Mesopotamian, rather than Hellenistic form) was only one of many elements of Mani's thought, which drew on Iranian cosmology, Jainist non-violence, etc. Later on in China it masqueraded as a Buddhist sect, so much so that today devotees at the Manichaean temples in Fujian province consider themselves to be Buddhists. Anyway the point of the post was that the term "Zoroastrianism" ought to be used more critically, if at all.

  3. Rodger C said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 6:22 am

    Richard, thanks. So there are still Manichaean temples in Fujian? I'd read that those were last heard of in the 17th century. Another "lost species" sighting?

  4. Richard Foltz said,

    January 18, 2021 @ 9:00 am

    I think the interpretation is that "as late as the 17th century" identifiably Manichaean rites were still being practiced in SE China, whereas the temples in question are now considered by locals to be Buddhist. The Cao'an temple has an image with the inscription "Mani, the Buddha of Light". Samuel Lieu has written extensively on these sites.

RSS feed for comments on this post