Hermes in Sassanian Iran – Transmission Part 1

Sassanian Empire

This article barely touches on a very important issue in the history and transmission of ideas, and in particular to those that are related to the celestial arts and related cosmologies. This should be read as one might read the newly exposed contents of a roll-top desk. The topic is potentially so extensive, that a small library would be required to cover even the main points. It should, however, serve as a decent introduction and I have referenced some particularly useful sources for those who wish to delve further. My hope is that this and the articles which follow will ignite further interest in this topic by cultivating informed reflection and discussion.

By way of extending this discussion, I’ve decided that it will best be done by a reasonably detailed account of the part played by three Persian astrologers and polymaths: Māšāʾallāh b. Aṯarī, a Persian Jew from Baṣra, was one of the leading astrologers in the ʿAbbasid caliphate from the founding of Baghdad in 145/762, Biruni, Abu Rayhan (362/973- after 442/1050), scholar and polymath of the period of the late Samanids and early Ghaznavids and one of the two greatest intellectual figures of his time in the eastern lands of the Muslim world, the other being Ebn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Abū Ḥafṣ ʿOmar b. Farroḵān Ṭabarī was an astrologer from Ṭabarestān who translated Pahlavi works into Arabic (for example, the five books on astrology by Dorotheus of Sidon) and paraphrased Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatica Tetrabiblos in 812. The few astronomical theories with which his name is associated are Indian; he presumably derived them from Pahlavi books.  Biographical details courtesy of Encyclopedia Iranica.

There is a great volume of scholarly editions and studies of the Greek Hermes Trismegistus. Although the origins remained murky in the early European Rennaissance, that did nothing to quell the enthusiasm of Marsilio Ficino and those 0f ensuing generations of scholars, philosophers, and demagogues.  However, when we look to the Hermes of the Persians and Arabs, there are precious few studies. One exception to this otherwise bleak outlook is the work of Kevin Van Bladel The Arabic Hermes. The title of this article is the name of a pivotal chapter in that work. In the 2010 edition of the Classical Review, Bryn Mawr provides an admirable summary of the work:

Modern Iran

“Kevin van Bladel has produced an admirable study of the Arabic Hermetic tradition, fleshing out in considerable detail the evolution of Hermes’ image, his identification with Qur’anic prophet Idris as well as the forces driving this transformation, and his connections, real, imagined, and still controversial, with the Harranians, the last organized group of astrolators to continue functioning within Islamic civilization.” .

The most direct source of the reception of Hermetic knowledge in the oriental tradition was Sassanian Persia, the last period of the Persian Empire before the Islamic invasion. The empire took its name from the  House of Sasan who governed from 224 to 651 AD. The Sassanians succeeded the Parthian Empire and was a leading regional and ‘world’ power,  alongside the Roman-Byzantine Empire. Iy held this position for four centuries. This empire was perfectly situated to be a  cultural conduit between India, Greece, Rome and the Middle East and this had been the case for a very long time. Even to this day, the strategic geography of Iran is extraordinary, sharing borders with Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan,, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and beyond. The US military currently has Iran surrounded in ten countries to make sure she is contained. Persia had long had relations with Asia, including China long before the onslaught of Alexander the Great and the subsequent Hellenizing of much of the known world.

In Alexandria, Priests of Isis mixed with Hindus and Buddhists as well as  Jews, Christians and a wide array of Greek philosophers, Gnostics, and Pythagoreans. Ideas, traditions, and wisdom were not merely shared but in many cases, syncretized.  It has been said of the Parsis in India that they are like sugar in milk. This is true of many traditions. It is difficult, for example, to read Plotinus without being reminded of Hindu metaphysics or to read St, John’s Gospel without being reminded of Philo, a brilliant Hellenized Jew. It is not always an easy task to see where one tradition ends and another begins.

Until the Islamic conquests, which began in the lifetime of Muhammad and spread from Spain to India within 60 yrs of his death, the desert-dwelling Arabs had a primitive, but fascinating desert culture. It mostly consisted of an oral tradition and the level of literacy was not high. Written language had no great utility beyond that used in trade. Indeed the Prophet himself was known to be illiterate. The Arab tribes were frequently at war with each other, which further impeded a scholarly tradition, As a trading people, they did, of course, come into contact with other cultures.  However, there were no centers of learning and those who were identified as learned were most often the Christians, Jews and to some extent the Chaldeans. The work of transposing the spoken word of the Prophet into the written Quran would have mostly fallen to Jewish scribes.

Massive invasions are usually violent and demonstrate little or no interest in the culture being conquered unless it can be readily turned into profit,  either of monetary or propagandistic.  The second form takes places when places of indigenous worship are destroyed and replaced with the religious symbols of the invading force. This has been the key to the creation of hegemony since earliest times. Typically, indigenous languages are also replaced by the language of the conqueror. This was certainly the case with Arabic. The Persians had not taken the threat of an Arab invasion seriously. That was a fatal mistake and one that proved that a sufficiently riled up group of illiterate desert dwellers could do hitherto unimaginable damage to a greatly advanced society. The Armies of Islam would prove the same point, time and time again. Temples were razed. Religions outlawed and Mosques built where previously sacred places were celebrated by the vanquished indigenous culture. Conversely, invading forces are exposed to cultural ideas, including ones seen as scientific, that serve to edify the culture of the invader.

Van Bladel writes: “Middle Persian, the language of the Sasanian court and administration of government, as well as their Magian (Zoroastrian) religion, was displaced by Arabic after the Arab conquest and colonization of Iran in the seventh and eighth centuries.3 Arabic, the prestigious language of the new rulers and of their new religion, Islam, superseded written Iranian languages almost entirely. Education and literacy in Middle Persian and other Iranian languages became practically obsolete for Iranians who converted to
Islam. The children of converts learned Arabic, the language of their scripture, as their own literary medium.” (p.21)

An illustrated leaf from the Sharafnama of the Khamsa of Nizami: Queen Nushaba recognizes Iskandar [Alexander the Great] by his portrait, Persia, circa 1490-1500 miniature 15.5 by 11.2cm.

However, Persia had already suffered a much earlier blow at the hands of Alexander and beyond the savagery and brutal destruction, Persian culture was to attain the advantage of being part of the Hellenized world which, ironically perhaps, helped preserve core texts, even if many were lost forever. Alexander must have seemed a complete monster to the Persian and to this day he is known in Iran as “the horned one.”  It is an irony that beggars belief that Alexander would be included in the line of the Prophets of Islam.

Even then, western knowledge of eastern religions was distorted, mostly out of disinterest. For example, both Greek and Latin sources treated the Magians somewhat vaguely as representatives of eastern cults.  Distinctions between a Magian, a Brahman, and a Chaldaean were of little interest:

“although it was known that they were from three different countries, Persia, India, and Babylonia. But their activities seemed interchangeable, at least from the first century CE onward. Therefore, the ‘wise men’ mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew are called Magians, although the correct term for people observing celestial omens would have been Chaldaeans, mathematicians or astrologers (Chaldaioi, mathematikoi or astrologoi).” (Magians after Alexander.

This is usually interpreted as a diminished occidental view of the orient and it may very well be that. Nevertheless, it may also be a case of a general recognition and familiarity, since European groups such as the Druids were also similar in almost all respects. It may be a case of “a rose by any other name.” Certainly, all these came together in Ficino’s prisca theologia  This is the doctrine that asserts “that a single, true theology exists, which threads through all religions, and which was anciently given by God to man.” (Yates, F., Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Routledge., London, 1964, pp 14–18 and pp 433–434)

In light of the many considerations, it may very well have happened that the ‘un Islamic’ Persian Hermetica would have been lost to history. As it happens, much of it not only survived but made its way into the Islamic world and the Arabic language.

Van Bladel tells us: “The name Hermes was invoked in Sassanian Mesopotamia as a source of occult power. A few surviving texts of Syro-Mesopotamian origin provide the attestations: two Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls containing the same formula, found at Nippur (modern Niffar) in Iraq, once part of the Sasanian Empire, and a magical amulet written in Syriac on parchment dating to Sasanian times.11 Incantation bowls are a type of popular magical apparatus inscribed with texts in different Eastern varieties of Aramaic made from about the fourth to the seventh century, that is, under the Persian Sasanid dynasty, in Mesopotamia.

Unfortunately little is known about exactly how they were used.12 The two bowls mentioning Hermes invoke him as a magical power, so that the protective operation is performed not only in the name of four angels but also in the name of “Hermes the Great Lord.” One of these bowls was made for the benefit of “Yazīdād, son of Yazdāndukh(t),” both Middle Persian names indicating a Persian, perhaps aristocratic, recipient. As for the parchment amulet, although it was written in Syriac, it was made for the protection of a certain ¢warrawehzād, called Yazdānzādag, daughter of De¯nag, whose name is also clearly Middle Persian” pp.25-6).

These types of bowls were not uncommon: “Across the ancient world, demons and other forces of evil were treated as genuine threats to reckon with. In Sasanian Mesopotamia from the fifth to the seventh centuries CE, clay Aramaic incantation bowls, commonly known as magic bowls were widely used to expel demons and protect houses.” See the work of Avigail Manekin Bamberger, a doctoral candidate in the department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University. It needs to be said that these bowls were used for the same purposes by Jews and Christians.

Al Kindi

One could fairly ask, why the Islamic and Arabian world couldn’t have simply taken the Hermetic teachings from the Greeks. particularly during this time period, when there was no dearth of excellent translators and as had been mentioned, various cultures had been blending for a very long time. It was not a Persian, but Al Kindi who was largely responsible for the transmission:

Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī, known as “the Philosopher of the Islamic empire.” He was an Arab Muslim philosopher, polymath, mathematician, physician, and musician. :

“A description of Hermes and his teachings is preserved in the collection of wise sayings made by al-Mubaššir ibn Fātik in Fātịmid Egypt, Kitāb Muxtār al-ḥikam. These passages are treated extensively in sections 5.2 and 5.3 in this volume, but a brief summary here will help to make this survey of testimony about Ḥarrānian Hermetica complete. Al-Mubaššir’s source describes Hermes:

“as a prophet teaching pious commandments in the form of maxims, as well as an outline of rules for Hermes’ religion and his wise advice. Although al-Mubaššir’s treatment of Hermes and his instructions include no direct references to Ḥarrānians or to Ṣābians in general, the religion taught by Hermes in this account is similar to as-Saraxsı’s description of the Ḥarrānian Ṣābian religion: it included feasts at astrological conjunctions and at the sun’s entry into a new zodiacal sign, as well as sacrificial offerings to the planets at the appropriate times. Hermes is also said to have commanded them “to perform prayers that he stated for them in ways that he described.” On the other hand, the religious laws of Hermes given here bear close resemblance to Islamic law: they require ritual purity, abstinence from intoxication, gˇihād against the enemies of the religion, alms (az-zakāt), and prescribe most of the punishments called ḥadd punishments in Islamic law. All this leads me to conclude that the “religion of Hermes” described here was developed and described well after the establishment of Islam and Islamic law.” (pp 94-5).

This was a clever maneuver but certainly not unprecedented. Most importantly, it ensured that something of the indigenous religion of Iran would prevail and with this many other elements entered the Islamic world.  This was also the case with the Angelology of Zoroastrianism. It not survived but was exalted by Islamic Persian artists in some of the most exquisite miniatures. Core beliefs of the Persians were passed on. It may well be surmised that without this transmission the Golden Age of Islam would have been far less likely to have occurred.

Persian miniature (1555)

With regard to the import of the book, we began by discussing is brilliantly summarized by “Bryn Mawr in the same classical review article.  I leave the closing words  of this first part of the study to him:

“Hermes the prophet of science is a combination of “ancient Judaean lore” concerning the biblical Enoch with Hellenistic astrology, including stories of heavenly ascents in order to receive science from the angels. ….. With Hermes as its prophet, science becomes revelation and as such is superior to the musings of the philosophers.” (Classical Review 2010.02.63).

In articles to follow, we will look at a variety of other Persian and Indian sources.

Mercury : The Hypocritical Planet?

Gemini – Horoscope from ‘The book of the birth of Iskandar” Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This article is little more than a footnote that concerns an intriguing passage I had the good fortune to read while perusing a publication of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1997) : Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art by Stefano Carboni.  The book is out of print, but you can find a digital version @ Google books.

Mercury is known as many, many things, from the Trickster to the Psychopomp, the Magician & the Physician. His very nature is protean and either gender may be applied, depending on the relative position of the Sun. He is also known as Quicksilver and the Patron of Scribes. Mercury is by nature duplicitous.  The glyph for Mercury suggests he is a messenger of the Sun and Moon But the term ‘hypocritical’ has further implications, specifically professing a virtue that not only one does not possess while impugning a lack of the same virtue in others. The term ‘two-faced’ applies and that may be one of Mercury’s greatest possessions.

The word munafiqun (‘hypocrites’, Arabic: منافقون‎, singular munāfiq) was a group decried in the Quran as those who professed to be Muslims but were secretly holding antipathy to the Islamic cause and sought to defeat the Muslim community.  For example, sura ‘Al-Munafiqun’, Quran 4:61, Quran 9:67, Quran 8:49, Quran 4:140, Quran 9:64, Quran 4:145.  Hypocrisy itself is called nifāq (Arabic: نفاق‎).

The Islamic context exceeds the negative connotations of the English word hypocrite. The Munafiq is considered worse than an unbeliever, with the tribal connotations of a traitor.

Ancient Persian gold cup featuring two faces gazing in opposite directions, with entwined serpents. 4th century B.C.E.

When he is represented as one of the seven planets and luminaries, the traditional iconography is maintained. However,  when the same planet is read in actual astrology, “he “hypocritical” association is operative.  Carboni explains that Mercury was considered a munafiq because it “did not have positive or negative influences (in conjunction with a lucky planet, he brought good fortune, and with an unlucky one,  ill fortune.) His neutral and ultimately weak nature was reflected in his image as conveyed by the representatives of the two Zodiac signs he presides over, Gemini and Virgo… that Mercury not only did not maintain his attributes of the pen and scroll but also was superseded by the more powerful image of the Head and Tail of the Dragon.” (p.13)

.This particular twist would seem to be in accordance with the Sassanian schema I discussed in the previous article.  The horoscope of the World is based on Exaltations, rather than the Domicile basis of the Greek Thema Mundi. It is probably the case that the Sassanian model sought one that placed the Sun not only in Dirunal charts but one that places the Sun in his Exaltation in Aries the Tenth House The Exaltation of the Head of the Dragon is Gemini.

Bichitr, A Scribe, ca. 1625.

 We know the Persian influence on Arabian astrology was enormous and we also have the Persian Al Biruni’s view, albeit indirectly expressed.  In this regard, we can look to the talismanic assignments given by Biruni who places a Serpent in the right hand of Mercury. Carboni touches on this briefly in the same article.

>This ought to show that although a great deal of imagery and meaning is shared from one culture to another, that in some cases the meaning can seem virtually alien. This should always be borne in mind when taking concepts from foreign cultures, even when they seem to have a great deal in common. On the other hand, the cognitive jolt one might experience from such interactions can force one to see connections that would otherwise have been missed.

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The Horoscope of the World in the Greater Bundahishn – Part I

Combat between Isfandiyar and Simurgh, from Firdawsi’s Book of Kings, circa 1330.

This is but a cursory introduction to the Greater Bundahishn which will be followed by articles with a sharper focus.  The work contains a concise narrative of the Zoroastrian creation myth, including the first conflicts between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu for the hegemony of the world. In the process, the Bundahishn recites an exhaustive compendium on the nature of things, including the properties of the elements and significant astrological material. For those interested, there is a pdf version of the work here.

The Bundahishn exists in two forms, the Greater, and the Lesser. The first is the longer Persian version and the shorter or lesser is an Indian version. Here we will be discussing the former only. The title of the work translates as ‘primal creation”  The work concerns itself with every imaginable question that might be raised about the Creation, including the origin and nature of the dark force and it’s antagonism to the light force, ultimately for a greater good. Compared to comparable works, such as Genesis, it is concise, to the point and quintessentially Persian in its optimistic point of view, even in the face of cosmic adversity.  Although the work is late, almost certainly the ninth century, it harks back to the ancient religion of Zarathustra.

As stated by the author at Encyclopedia Iranica, “it’s a major Pahlavi work of compilation, mainly a detailed cosmogony and cosmography based on the Zoroastrian scriptures but also containing a short history of the legendary Kayanids and Ērānšahr in their days. There is also a Ṣad dar-e Bondaheš, a considerably later (ca. 8th-9th/14th-15th century) work in Persian of a hundred miscellaneous chapters on the Zoroastrian religion, morals, legends, and liturgy.” (Encyclopedia Iranica)

As David Pingree has observed,  “the Sassanian horoscope is quite different from the normal Greek Thema Mundi. with which it has been compared.” (Masha’allah: some Sasanian and Syriac sources. pp. 5) The most immediately noticeable feature of the Sassanian horoscope is that it is diurnal, with Aries, the exaltation of the Sun occupying the tenth house, rather than the Sun with Leo in the second house in the diurnal Thema Mundi. Instead of the planets and luminaries being placed in their respective domiciles, they take the place of their exhalations.  However, there are some interesting anomalies. The Ninth House is occupied by the sign Pisces with Venus and Mercury, the first is exalted in Pisces, but Mercury falls in the sign of the Fishes.

The degrees assigned to the signs and planets is crucial to the overall meaning. We know that Persians translated Greek astrological material. Less often mentioned is the influence of Indian astrology.

Thema Mundi

The Ascendant is in Cancer at the same degree as Sirius, “know as Tishtar in the Khurta (Lunar constellation) Azrarag, which corresponds to the Indian naksatra, Aslesa [9th of the 27 nakshatras in Hindu astrology.] (Cancer 16;40° – 30°)” Pingree p. 5-6.

The other most striking difference is in relation to the nodes, in the exaltation but occupying the unfortunate houses. The house of the Evil Spirit is given to the North Node (Rahu) and Gemini. The S. Node (Ketu) is given to Sagittarius.

However, the exaltation of the Sun in Aries is shown at 19° which concords with the Greek assignment. The Indian degree of exaltation is 9°. The Persian sources appear to be troubled by the Sun being in a nocturnal chart of creation. This makes perfect sense considering the importance and symbolism of the Sun in indigenous Persian religion. The Lunar Mansions and Fixed Stars clearly play a role in the placement of the planets and luminaries but beyond that, we need to refer to the Persian accounts of Creation.

The Hermetic Thema Mundi is an astrological teaching tool and it is also decidedly Platonic in its expression of a perfect world of the Forms to be referred to for those who practise astrological divination. It may very well be more than that, but the Sassanian version is something quite different. It appears, after all, in a text describing every element of creation, according to ancient Persian and specifically Zoroastrianism cosmology:

“According to the spherical model assumed in Sasanian Iran under the impact of Greek and Indian astral sciences, the inferior sphere was called the spihr ī gumēzišnīg “sphere of mixture;” it comprised the twelve constellations (Pahl. 12-axtarān) which were subjected to the “mixture” with the demoniac and evil forces (planets, falling stars, comets, etc.); this sphere, of course, included the Zodiacal belt (see Ir. Bd., II, 8-9; cf. Henning, 1942, pp. 232-33, 240; Belardi, 1977, pp. 125-26) with its 12 constellations (Gignoux, 1988); here a most important battle between astral demons and divine star beings takes place, according to the Pahlavi sources. In the framework of the fight between stars and planetary demons, the Zodiacal constellation were considered as bayān, in its early meaning of “givers” of a good lot in opposition to the planets, who are “bandits” (gēg) and robbers of the human fortune.” (Encyclopedia Iranica)

The Greater Bundahishn is a compendium of ideas that are believed to pre-date Zoroastrianism, but the core is true to the cosmology of that religion. There are also some elements that would indicate knowledge relatively contemporary to its ninth century appearance. It appears to be putting preserved knowledge in one place after the horrific destruction in the wake of the Islamic invasion.

‘Buddha offers fruit to the devil’ from 14th-century Persian manuscript ‘The Jāmi

The Classic Theory of Ferrari d’Occhieppo

This should be read as something of a footnote to my previous article on the magi. Ferrari d’Occhieppo was a well-known astronomer and his work on the Star of Bethlehem became the foundation of a theory that is seldom questioned. It is satisfying mostly because it is rooted in the notion that Jesus was to be the harbinger of the Age of Pisces. I came upon this theory after I wrote my last article on the magi and believe it merits some response.

The chart for the birth of Jesus according to Ferrari d’Occhieppo – 115 September 15, 7 B.C. at around 6 pm in Bethlehem,

I personally find several reasons to questions this classic attempt to discover the birthdate for Jesus using astronomy as well as astrology.  It has a very rationally basis on the Superior Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which occur approximately every 20 years. The observation of the Superior Conjunction was ancient by the time the magi would have seen this one. They are considered important markers for change, including social and regime change.

To some extent, we’re comparing apples to oranges. The article I wrote was designed to discover what the magi probably saw when they spoke of the Star in the East which would lead to the King of the Jews. The article under review purports to discover the birth of Jesus.  Surely the two events were significantly far apart if the magi came from what is now Iran. Nevertheless, the two events are obviously connected.

This is the ‘classic’ theory of  Ferrari d’Occhieppo (1969) – Hughes (1979) – Seymour (1998), compiled by Bernadette Brady:

“.Jesus was born on September 15, 7 B.C. at around 6 pm in Bethlehem, under the opposition of the Sun in Virgo to the conjunction Jupiter-Saturn at its rising. This assumption explains the words of the magi to Herod: ‘We saw his star at its rising’, which supports the supposition that this ‘star’ had not yet disappeared and that it could be observed again, and the enigmatic metaphor of the Immaculate Conception (the text of the Gospel ‘born of a virgin’ could be read rather ‘born in the sign of Virgo’). The simultaneity of the astronomical event occurred with the arrival of the Messiah, king of the Jews (Jupiter, the royal planet, beneficial, in conjunction with Saturn, the planet of the Jews). The symbol of Pisces would have been preserved as a form of recognition and a rallying sign for the first Christian communities. ”

Showing the position of Saturn and Jupiter on the Ascendant

The underlying assumptions strike me as bold, compelling and for the most part, speculative.  The insistence of the Conjunction in Pisces overrides any other considerations in the charts, save the alleged reference to the Sun in Virgo not only as indicative of the virgin birth but perhaps the very meaning of it. Having said that the idea that there are some elements of the Jewish community which would interpret the co-joining of the star of Kings, Jupiter, with Saturn, the star of the Jews as a clear sign of the coming of the promised king.

Although it is not entirely impossible that the Sun in Virgo refers to ‘born of a Virgin’ one would have to run roughshod over a great deal of established theology. It takes as virtual fact that the entire event might be an example of astrotheology, wherein all the players take a symbolic role that can be described by the planets and luminaries themselves. At this point in time, such claims can only be considered as speculative. We have no evidence of this, either way. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Secondly, let’s look at the Superior Conjunction referred to. It occurred 10 Sep 7 – 28 Sep 7- 3 Dec 7 19 Dec 7. There is no doubt that the magi would be very familiar with the Conjunctions as indicators in Mundane astrology. However,  they are considered most significant when there is a change in Triplicity. The previous had been in Leo. We are still left, though, with the Conjunction being the only provable element.

Positional Astronomy. – Superior Conjunctions

The theory goes on to mention the Essenes. I also commented on some elements of the Essenes and pointed out that they had at least as much to do with the Zoroastrian magi as the Jews.  certainly, they were not associated with mainstream Judaism. I do not doubt that this connection should be considered, but so should a very great number of factors.

When all is said and done, I feel even more convinced that the chart I offered in the previous article fits more exactly and for multiple reasons the star in the east seen by the magi. Nevertheless, I admire the work and passion that went the construction of this theory and believe it may raise many questions deserving of research.

The complete text of the article in question is in French @ http://cura.free.fr/16christ.html Feb, 2002