Page images

chorus of praise, while king, princes and nobles prostrated themselves before the orb of day.

Persians did not represent Ormuzd as assisted in the work of creation by a feminine companion, and they disliked descriptions of that kind in other religions. They had likewise great abhorrence of images, and lest they should be introduced from foreign nations, they forbade the exercise of any other worship than that of Zoroaster, under the severest penalties. In the beginning they always worshipped in the open air, from an idea that it was impious to enclose the deity within walls; but, in after times, they erected several temples, and had numerous small oratories for the people to go in and pray, where the Sacred Fire was kept burning only in lamps. Sects sprung up and disputed about the origin of evil, and various other questions, each striving to sustain its creed by texts from the Zend-Avesta. Some maintained that Arimanes was co-eternal with Ormuzd; others affirmed that only light and goodness flowed from the Source of Being, that darkness and evil merely followed them as a shadow does the substance. In the reign of Artaxerxes, divisions of opinion had multiplied into seventy-two sects, beside a class of unbelievers, who ridiculed them all. The king summoned the Magi from all parts of his dominions, to the number of forty thousand. From these four thousand of the worthiest were selected; these were again sifted down to four hundred, to forty, and finally to seven. Among these the pre-eminent for holiness was Erdiviraph. Having performed ablutions and other religious ceremonies, he drank a powerful opiate, was covered with white linen, and laid down to sleep, that he might receive divine revelations in dreams. The king and six nobles watched by him while he slept seven days and nights. When he awoke, he declared what was truly the religion taught by the Zend-Avesta. This was carefully written down by an attendant scribe. The people received it as a divine revelation, believing that his soul had been in heaven and received direct instruction from Ormuzd.

The religion of Persia had always been very uncompromising, and intolerant toward other nations; principally owing to their abhorrence of image-worship. When Cambyses invaded Egypt, he mutilated the statues of the gods, and insulted the sacred symbols. Babylon having become a province of the Persian empire, by conquest, Xerxes destroyed the images of the gods, and put their priesthood to death. After Artaxerxes restored the national religion, by an express revelation from Ormuzd to the holiest of the Magi, his desire to preserve the national unity led to a very strict exclusion of all other forms of faith. The adoption of foreign gods, so very common among the nations, was strenuously resisted by the Persians. But nevertheless causes were at work to produce gradual changes. The union of the Babylonian empire with the Persian brought in many Chaldean customs and ideas. Mixture with the Greeks, by war and commerce, and the final reduction of Persia to a Roman province, introduced a flood of foreign innovations. Temples were erected, and, notwithstanding their abhorrence of images, the statue of the goddess Astarte was set up and worshipped in many places, under the name of Mithra. In the latter times, an order of priestesses was likewise instituted, vowed to celibacy, and dedicated to the service of Mithras. But notwithstanding these unsettling influences, the greater part of the Persians clung with tenacious affection to the faith of Zoroaster.

When Mahometans conquered Persia, in the seventh century of our era, followers of the old faith passed through very severe sufferings. But at last, when the new power became firmly established, a fragment of them, consisting of about eighty thousand families, were allowed to settle in one of the most barren provinces of Persia, to build a new temple, and worship in their own way. A few are scattered about elsewhere, but they are always obliged to live in suburbs by themselves, and are employed only in the meanest offices. They make many pilgrimages to Mount Elbourz, the residence of their High Priest, whom they regard as an oracle. Their conquerors contemptuously name them Ghebers, or Giaours, which means infidels; but they call themselves Behendie, signifying followers of the true faith. Europeans generally style them Fire Worshippers; but they say they merely adore fire as the representative of an invisible Spirit, whom they call Yerd. They keep a fire burning in their consecrated places, which they believe was kindled by Zoroaster four thousand years ago. They often build their temples over subterranean fires. Upon their altars, they have spheres to represent the sun. When the sun rises, these orbs light up, and turn round with great noise. The ignorant attribute this to magic. Some of them reside on the shores of the Caspian Sea, about ten miles from a source of perpetual fire, which they hold in great veneration. It issues from the cleft of a rock, and appears like the clear blue flame of burning alcohol. Sometimes it rises several yards; at others, only a few inches above the aperture. It has been burning thus for ages, without intermission, and the rock is neither consumed nor changed in colour. When travellers insert a hollow tube in the ground, for several hundred yards round this rock, a similar fire issues through the tube. Some suppose the story of Zoroaster's burning mountain originated in this, or a similar phenomenon.


Some of his followers, in time of Mahometan persecution, fled eastward to India, told their story, and humbly begged permission to stay. A Hindoo rajah took compassion on them, and allowed them to build a temple for the Sacred Fire, which they had carefully brought with them. They remain there in considerable numbers to this day, under the name of Parsees. They are a poor, harmless people, industrious in their habits, rigorous in morals, and honest in their dealings. They worship but one God, and detest idols. They consider Zoroaster the highest of prophets, but have also great reverence for Abraham, and often call their own faith the religion of Abraham. The Sacred Fire they carried from Persia, more than a thousand years ago, bas never been extinguished. They preserve it with the utmost veneration in their temple at Oodwara. In all their other temples is a sacred flame, lighted from this, and carefully watched by priests, who pray with mouths covered, lest their breath should pollute the holy element. The Parsees never blow out a light, but always extinguish it by a fan, or motions of the hand. Priests spend their whole time reading prayers, chanting hymns, burning in. cense, and performing prescribed ceremonies. Devotional exercises mingle more or less with almost every action of life, among this simple people.“ May my prayer be pleasing to Ormuzd,” is the preface to every petition. They have prayers for the new moon, for the fifteenth day of the moon, and for the decline of the moon; but they are especially enjoined to pray often during the growth of the moon. They employ priests to recite many formulas to guard their crops from malign influences; and they themselves utter continual invocations to Spirits of the sun, moon, earth, and waters, to render their harvests abundant. Every day, they pray to the particular Spirit supposed to preside over that day. They wash and recite a prayer before and after eating. They pray when they retire to rest; when they rise in the morning; when they turn in bed, toward a fire, or burning lamp, or moon, or star; when they light a lamp, or see one lighted; when they cut their nails, or their hair; and on many other occasions, which it would hardly be consistent with decorum to mention. They are forbidden to speak while they eat, or while they perform any of the natural functions; because Evil Spirits seek to distract mortals, and insinuate themselves into the body while the senses are busily occupied. When a person sneezes, they consider it a sign that the Evil Spirits, always striving to gain possession of man, are driven out by the interior fire that animates him. Therefore, whenever they hear a sneeze, they say: "Blessed be Ormuzd !” In the chamber where a babe is born, they keep a fire burning continually, because Evil Spirits are afraid to approach that sacred element. Those, who can afford it, keep four priests employed three days and three nights, praying and performing ceremonies for the temporal and eternal welfare of the child. It is washed three times, with water previously consecrated by various forms of blessing and prayer. Whoever touches the new-born before this ablution, must go through a process of purification. Some parents still consult the priests concerning the aspect of the stars at the birth of their offspring. When a child is frightened, or has a fit, or is troubled with any disease, they obtain from the priests, a spell thus worded, and tie it on bis left arm : “In the name of Ormuzd, I bind this fever, and all other evils produced by Arimanes and his wicked Spirits, by magicians, or by Peris. I bind these evils by the power and beauty of fire; by the power and beauty of the planets and fixed stars." Peris are supposed to be descendants of fallen Spirits, doomed to wander about the earth, and excluded from Paradise, till their penance is accomplished. When a man has a fever, or any other malady, they recite prayers similar to the above, clapping the hands seven times. It is supposed that Evil Spirits enter a lifeless body as soon as the animating fire from Ormuzd has gone out of it. Therefore, whoever touches a corpse, even accidentally, must purify himself by ablutions, prayers, and ceremonies. On stated occasions, they offer oblations of flowers, fruit, rice, wine, and sometimes meat, to the souls of departed ancestors, and employ priests to accompany them with prayers. During the last ten days of the year, they believe the spirits of the dead come to earth and visit their relatives; therefore they never leave their homes at that season. They have their houses purified by religious ceremonies, and ornamented with garlands for their reception.

Intelligent Ghebers and Parsees acknowledge that the original Zend-Avesta was lost in the course of their various wars and migrations. Scattered fragments were collected and published, and to this day it is regarded with great veneration, as a book from heaven. A copy is kept in every temple, and portions of it are read to the people at stated times. Anquetil du Perron, a zealous Oriental scholar, spent several years among the Parsees, and trans

Vol. I.--24

« PreviousContinue »