|Seal from Mesopotamia, showing the Persian King Darayaush I hunting a lion in his chariot, with his fravashi (guardian angel) in the sky above|
I was recently attacked by a Zoroastrian (it turned into a vicious debate, and I admit I lost my self-control in anger- something which I now regret, as it was somewhat childish) who among other things, mocked and ridiculed our gods and traditions. In his eyes, the 'Semitic' people of the Near East (including the Canaanites, Babylonians, Arabs, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Aramaeans) were savages. This, according to him, began with the Natufians in the Neolithic times. Their 'savage and tribal' practices, to him, are carried out into the present day in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions, and the many conflicts or violence they may engage him. To him, there were two ancient worldviews, in drastic contrast: that of the Semites, and that of the Indo-European Aryans. He claimed that the Semites were barbaric and superstitious, taking up magic rites, and believing that their wars were divinely sanctioned by the gods. They were savage and cruel, taking many slaves, mistreating women, and sacrificing children and animals. He said that the solution to war and conflict is that all Semitic ideologies should be abandoned, and people should convert to an Indo-Aryan religion, like Zoroastrianism, or possibly Buddhism or another similar religion. An Islamic terrorist embarking on a jihad against 'foreign' imperialists is simply a religious war, a calling by a bloodthirsty deity named Allah; and is no different from an Assyrian king claiming that Ashur blessed his nation and instructed them to smite the barbaric Elamites. This is the nature of Semitic religions: they are cruel and intolerant. This is not the first time I have heard these views, and not just from Zoroastrians. Some of those found further west of the Near East can also take the blame. Certain Greek and Roman polytheists have called my gods and traditions barbaric and cruel, and called for a rejection of everything 'Semitic' in order to make our world a better place. We will then embrace philosophy, reason, humanism, logic, intellect, physical athleticism, and freedom; and leave behind cruelty, superstitions, barbarism, despotism, tyranny, human sacrifice, witchcraft, religious conflict, and other activities stemming from the 'Semitic' religion.
According to the same person I had discussed with (and some of his companions, fellow Zoroastrians) this all changed with the coming of the empires of the Medes and Persians. It is said that the prophet Zarathushtra, in his condemnation of the daeva-worshiping priests, the karapans, the usij, and others, was in fact condemning the religion of the Semites. The karapans and usij of the Indo-Aryan society were also claiming divine inspiration behind wars, they too sacrificed humans to appease their vengeful and bloodthirsty gods, and practiced sorcery and superstition. It is said that when King Kurush I, of the Medes and Persians, entered Babylon, he found it an inhuman society devoted to Angra Mainyu (evil spirit), and slave-based and immoral. He was only pretending to show devotion toward Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, and Yahweh, the god of the enslaved Jews. In truth, he and his successors were intending to slowly but surely convert the barbaric Semites to the pureness of Zoroastrianism. Certainly, then, Kurush was a true disciple of Zarathushtra! The Persian Empire was run on fairness and equality, and was only eventually destroyed by the backward Semitic Arabs.
I tried to defend my gods, my ancestral traditions, from such slander. But he would have none of it. The Assyrians were cruel warmongers and criminals, the Babylonians were slave-takers who behaved very cruelly towards the Medes, the Canaanites were bloodthirsty child-killers, the Arabs lacked a civilization. He asked me how it was that the major Indo-Aryan religions (Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism) could peacefully co-exist in India, and how devotees of all of those religions could be found participating in festivals along the River Ganga to the water-goddess in harmony together; while Assyrians were marching to war against the Canaanites in the name of Ashur, Islamic militants were sending suicide bombers into synagogues in order to appease the bloodlust of Allah, and Yahweh was busy telling the Jews to massacre the whole of the Amalekites and leave none of them alive. I should also stop trying to defend 'a bloodthirsty ideology'. I tried explaining that you shouldn't take myths literally, and that our myths are similar to Persian or Hindu- or for that matter, Greek- ones (which also describe things that, if interpreted literally, could be seen as violent or immoral) and that we should look for a higher spiritual meaning behind it all. But I was told that this was me being 'irrational', and that I was just trying to justify a violent ideology.
The purpose of this blog post, I must clarify, is *not* to insult any tradition, religion, or culture. Nor am I intending to show 'Semitic' religions as superior, and insult 'Indo-Aryan' traditions as being backward or barbaric. I merely want to show, now that I am calm and rational, that ancient Near Eastern societies were not drastically different, and nor are modern Near Eastern cultures, regardless of whether they happen to speak a 'Semitic' or 'Indo-Aryan' language- or whether they follow a religious tradition associated with either of those language families. This is solely to help clarify, as well as a defense of some things near to my heart.
Inscriptions about war and conflict in the ancient Near East
I want to start with the Mesha Stele. This is a stele, originally set up by King Mesha, the Moabite. In it, he recounts a war with the Israelites. The Israelites were led by prophets of Yahweh, who promised them victory over Chemosh in battle. If Yahweh was the stronger god, then Israel would prevail. If Chemosh was the stronger god, then Moab would prevail. The stele records that Mesha believed that he was chosen by his god Chemosh, to make war upon the Israelites and to destroy them in battle:
"Chemosh spoke to me: Go, take Nebo from Israel! Then I went by night and fought against Nebo from daybreak to noon. And I took it and totally destroyed 7,000 citizens and foreigners, male and female together with female slaves; for I had consecrated it to Ashtar-Chemosh for destruction. Then I took thence the vessels of Yahweh and brought them before Chemosh."
Now let's look at an inscription by King Zakir of Hama and Laash, where he believes that Baal Shamem has called upon him through oracles and words of prophets to go to war against foreign king who oppress his kingdom:
"Thereupon I raised my hands toward Baal Shamem and Baal Shamem heard me, telling me, by means of oracles: 'Have no fear! For I have caused you to rule. I will be with you and will free you from all these kings who have laid siege against you'."
Again though, it's simply an invocation of the gods before a king goes into battle. The cause behind the conflict cannot be attributed primarily to religion, nor to anything unique to 'Semitic' religions.
A similar occurrence also happened among the Arabs, where Prince Al-Harit ibn Amr of the Ghassanids burned his enemies alive while invoking the blessings of the gods.
Lastly, I want to go to the Assyrians and the Babylonians of Mesopotamia. These are important, because these are the empires that were ruling the Near East just before the Persian conquest.
From Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria's, description of the destruction of Shushan in the conquest of Elam (interestingly, it's also when the Persians show up for the first time to defend their Elamite allies):
"I destroyed the ziggurat of Shushan. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt."
It is very clear that he marched from 'the land of Ashur' (Assyria) and marched under the banner of the war god Ashur. He then inflicted a horrific destruction upon the Elamites, in revenge for the Elamites' past deeds against his own people, the Assyrians.
|Assyrians counting heads of those slain in conquest|
|The Ishtar Gate, in the city of Babylon|
Since we don't have a lot from either Kurush II (who conquered Babylon, Lud, Media, the Hatti-land, Syria, and Canaan) or Kambujiya II (who conquered Egypt, and much of Nubia), I'll go straight onto Darayaush I (most famous perhaps for his conquests of India and Scythia). Here, we have his Behistun inscription, where he describes his campaigns against rebels within his empire. He does so at the command and with the divine right of Ahura Mazda, his god, and the same god who created heaven and earth.
"King Darayaush says: The following is what I did in the second and third year of my rule. The province called Elam revolted from me. An Elamite named Atamaita they made their leader. Then I sent an army unto Elam. A Persian named Gaubaruva, my servant, I made their leader. Then Gaubaruva set forth with the army; he delivered battle against the Elamites. Then Gaubaruva destroyed many of the host and that Atamaita, their leader, he captured, and he brought him unto me, and I killed him. Then the province became mine.
King Darayaush says: Those Elamites were faithless and Ahura Mazda was not worshiped by them. I worshiped Ahura Mazda; by the grace of Ahura Mazda I did unto them according to my will.
King Darayaush says: Whoso shall worship Ahura Mazda, divine blessing will be upon him, both while living and when dead."
Is it really all that different from those of the Assyrian or Babylonian conquerors before him? In fact, substitute Ahura Mazda for Marduk or Ashur, and it doesn't seem to change much either:
"King Nebukadrezzar says: Those Elamites were faithless and Marduk was not worshiped by them. I worshiped Marduk; by the grace of Marduk I did unto them according to my will."
Of course, it isn't what the inscription really reads, but it does show the Persians' reliance on a model of kingship very similar to that of the Assyrians and Babylonians. In all three cases, this model of kingship is very much influenced by their religion and the personal god worshiped by the king- however, in all three cases, the cause of the conflict isn't primarily due to religion. Nor, in any case, does the victorious king attempt to impose his religion on the conquered people at the point of the sword. Such a thing, as can be clearly seen, was alien to the spirit of the times: whether it was followers of 'Semitic' or 'Indo-Aryan' religions who were responsible.
|Behistun, the mountain where King Darayaush I left his royal inscription and carving to celebrate his victory|
Now let us turn our attention to the royal inscription of Darayaush's son, Xshayarsha I (best known for his invasion of Greece, and for his marriage to Queen Esther). In this inscription, he states that as king, he will do his royal duty to Ahura Mazda and put down any revolts in his empire. He will also destroy 'demons' who oppose him or who he is opposed to (the text is largely non-specific and 'timeless' like so many other Mesopotamian and Persian kingship inscriptions):
"King Xshayarsha says: when I became king, if there is among these countries one that is in rebellion, Ahura Mazda will bear me aid. By the grace of Ahura Mazda I will smite that country and put it down in its place.
And among these countries if there is a place where previously demons (daevas) are worshiped, afterwards, by the grace of Ahura Mazda I will destroy that sanctuary of daevas, and I will proclaim: 'The demons shall not be worshiped!' Where previously the demons were worshiped, there I will worship Ahura Mazda at the proper time and in the proper manner. And if there is other business that had been done ill, that I will make good. That which I do, all I do by the grace of Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda bear me aid until I complete the work."
|King Xshayarsha I and his servants|
Now imagine if we substituted some of the names again, we would end up with something like this:
"King Nebukadzrezzar says: when I became king, if there is among these countries one that is in rebellion, Marduk will bear me aid. By the grace of Marduk I will smite that country and put it down in its place. And among these countries if there is a place where previously demons (edimmu) are worshiped, afterwards, by the grace of Marduk I will destroy that sanctuary of edimmu, and I will proclaim: 'The demons shall not be worshiped!' Where previously the demons were worshiped, there I will worship Marduk at the proper time and in the proper manner. And if there is other business that had been done ill, that I will make good. That which I do, all I do by the grace of Marduk. Marduk bear me aid until I complete the work."
Again, is it really so different?
Far from primitive and barbaric cultures, the (polytheistic) cultures of the Near East which can be called 'Semitic' are very sophisticated and noble traditions, no less noble or venerable than those of Persia, India, or Scythia. To this, I will end by saying that in a very Zoroastrian way, I am fighting against the forces of druj by helping to rid the world of lies, and in doing so oppose the Lie and help act in accordance with the divine law of asha, or truth, mandated by Ahura Mazda.