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.

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