Thursday, July 21, 2011

Were Ancient Iranians & Zoroastrians Vegetarian?

Court of King Gaya Maretan (Gayomard/Kaiumars).
Humans and animals live in harmony.
[Also see our more detailed and recent monographs:
Were Ancient Zoroastrians & Aryans Vegetarian? (pdf) Revised Mar 2015
Were Ancient Zoroastrians & Aryans Vegetarian? - Abridged (pdf) Revised Mar 2015]

Ancient Iranians were Gatherers. But were they Hunters?
Legend informs us that during the Aryan Stone Age - the Age of Gaya Maretan (Gayomard, Kaiumars) - the domestication of animals first started. Then during the Age of King Hushang, the Aryan Metal Age, the concept of agriculture and domestication of animals was further developed [See Hushang and Aryan Pre-History]. Before the advent of farming, we can assume the Aryans were gatherers of plant-based foods. But were they hunters?

The poet Ferdowsi's epic, the Shahnameh, offers an answer.

The Seduction of Zahhak by Ahriman’s Cooking
Ferdowsi’s principal source of information and legend was the Middle Persian Pahlavi Zoroastrian work, the Khvatay-Namak (Khodai-Nama). In one of the earlier legends in Ferdowsi’s epic the Shahnameh, Zahhak was the 'foreign' (perhaps Assyrian who Ferdowsi 'Arabized') king who overthrew legendary Aryan King Jamshid. In the story immediately below, Ahriman, the devil incarnate (Iblis, the Islamic word for the devil, is used in place of Ahriman in some Shahnameh translations) brings Zahhak under his control by becoming his cook and seducing him with the taste of meat. Zahhak develops a taste and fondness for meat and comes under the control of Ahriman, a div (evil being). What follow are the overthrow of King Jamsheed by the Zahhak and the completion of the first great Aryan tragic cycle. The Aryan lands which had risen to great glory, now fell on evil times.

As a youth well spoken, clean, and clever,
Ahriman went to Zahhak with fawning words,
"Let me," he planned, "a famed and noted cook,
Find favour with the king with my cooking."
Zahhak was thus by his appetite seduced,
And commanded the monarch's faithful minister
Give to Ahriman the royal kitchen's key.
Foods then were few, yet people did not kill to eat
But lived on the earth's produce of vegetal.

Scheming the evil-doing Ahriman designed
To slaughter animals for food and serve both bird and beast;
That the monarch when possessed
Of the carnal lust for blood and flesh
Would as a slave obey him, and do all his bidding yet.
Prepared he first a meal of yolk,
Whose flavour the monarch relished so
That he praised the wily Ahriman, who replied thus,
"Illustrious monarch! Forever live!
Tomorrow I will serve you and please you well."
The evil one then counselled the king,
That it was blood that gave muscle and strength.
And thus his food would make the monarch lion-fierce.
All night the evil div mused,
What strange repast shall I proffer on the morrow?
And when the azure vault brought back again the golden gem
Ahriman lavishly presented a meal of partridges and silver pheasants.
The Arab monarch gorged
And lost his diminutive wits in admiration.
On the third day Ahriman served lamb and fowl,
And on the fourth a joint of veal with saffron flavour,
With rosewater, musk and old wine.
Zahhak when he had feasted and tasted blood and flesh,
In wonder at his cook's ability, said,
"Worthy friend! Ask now your recompense."
His scheme fulfilled, the Darkness answered,
“Live, O king! In wealth and power.
My heart does throe with your favour my soul's food;
Yet would I ask one boon above my station?
'Tis leave to kiss and lay my face and eyes upon your shoulders."
Surprised Zahhak replied, “I grant it; it may do you grace."
Permission thus received,
Ahriman kissed the monarch’s shoulders and vanished.
A marvel followed – for from the monarch's shoulders
Grew two black snakes.

Distraught Zahhak sought a cure.
Finding none, he excised them,
But they grew back again!
Oh! Strange, like branches from a tree.
The ablest leechers summoned gave advice in turn
And used their curious arts, but all in vain.
Then in leech form Ahriman himself appeared
"This was your destiny," said he.
"Cut not the snakes but let them live.
Give them men's brains and gorge them till they sleep.
Such food may kill them.
It is the only means."

The purpose of the foul div pray shrewdly scan;
Had he conceived perchance a secret plan
To rid the world of all trace of man?

The words above are fairly clear. Before Zahhak's seduction by Ahriman, the devil incarnate, people did not eat meat [see Shahnameh, Zahhak]. In other words, they were vegetarian.

The legend does not end with that answer. When Ferdowsi made the devil, Ahriman the initiator of eating slaughtered animal flesh, he couldn't have made his point about the ethics of eating animal flesh for food more emphatically.

Further, once gripped by the taste of meat and blood, Zahhak became a slave to Ahriman. Perhaps Ferdowsi was trying to say that meat-eating is an addiction to which people become enslaved.

Since the practice of meat-eating requires killing life, it is not hard to see that the practice is placed under the domain of Ahriman, the Lord of Death, the lord of not-life.

References in Zoroastrian Scripture & Texts
Zoroastrian Scriptures
In the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, direct references to diet are scarce in the few books that survive. Whatever tangential references there are, are prone to different interpretation and polemics by proponents of one view or the other.

Chapter 29 of the Yasna, the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathushtra, relates the lament of Geush Urvan seeking a saviour from violence and evil. Urvan means soul. Geush can mean either cattle, the earth - say Mother Earth or creation. Geush Urvan therefore carries two meanings: the soul of the kine and the soul of life. The Middle Persian translations of the chapter translate the term as the soul of beneficent animals seeking safe pastures free from killing and violence. The verse has a direct meaning and an allegorical meaning.

Verse 32.8 of the Gathas refers to Yima (King Jamsheed, the Aryan monarch who Zahhak overthrew) as a sinner. This verse can also be translated and interpreted differently. One of the interpretations is that King Jamsheed was a sinner because be introduced meat eating - the sin that the poet Ferdowsi ascribed to Zahhak in the Shahnameh verse cited above.

Verse 39.1 of the Yasna mentions the reverence Zoroastrians hold for both geush-urvan and pasu-urvan, the latter often translated as the soul of animals. The verse goes on to say words to the effect that "they (animals) are to us, as we are to them". Sentiments similar to this lead us to the distinction between life forms that have a soul and organisms that are living (organic) such as plants but which do not have a soul.

In the Patet Pashemani(g), the prayers for repentance from sins, the category of mortal sins in Karta 3 includes whoever is "polluted with dead matter, cooks dead matter on a fire, throws dead matter into water and conceals dead matter under the earth" (cf. Vendidad 8.73 & Pahlavi Vendidad gloss to 7.52).

In all, Vegetarianism is consistent with the parallel Zoroastrian attitude towards the harm caused by dead flesh.

Call to be Vegetarians in the Writings of Zoroastrian Head Priests
Perhaps the most explicit call for Zoroastrians to be vegetarian is found in the Sayings of Adarbad Mahraspandan [Zoroastrian high priest and prime minister during the reign of Sasanid King Shapur II (309-379 CE)] which states:
“Abstain rigorously from eating the flesh of kine and all beneficent animals (gospandan) least you be made to face a strict reckoning in this world and the next; for by eating the flesh of kine and other domestic animals, you involve your hand in sin, and (thereby) think, speak, and do what is sinful; for though you may eat but a mouthful, you involve your hand in sin, and though a camel be slain by (another) person in another place, it is as if you (who eat its flesh) had slain it with your own hand.” [Adapted slightly for consistency from the translation by R. C. Zaehner in The Teachings of the Magi (London, 1956) pp. 110 ff. 13-15 and brought to our attention by Zaneta Garratt.]

High Priest Atrupat-e Emetan (Adarbad, son of Emedan) who officiated after the Arab invasion states in Book 6 of the 11th century CE Middle Persian (Pahlavi) Dinkard: “Be plant-eaters (urwar khwarishn i.e. vegetarian), O you people, so that you may live long. And stay away from the body of useful animals. As well, deeply reckon that Ohrmazd the Lord, has for the sake of benefiting useful animals created many plants.” (Translation by Eduljee)

The admonition of High Priest Atrupat-e Emetan in the Dinkard verse may relate to meat-eating in general and appears to encourage the practice of vegetarianism as a means of promoting good health and long life. In this lone passage, the head priest may also have been trying to say that vegetarianism is consistent with Zoroastrian ideals.

Other References
Frashogard, a journal of the Ilm-e Khshnoom movement, states that at frashogard (Avestan frasho-kereti i.e. making-anew or the final renovation) death will be no more with the connotation that humankind will then become vegetarian.

In the Middle Persian Bundahishn at 30.1 we have, "On the nature of the resurrection and future existence it says in revelation, that, whereas Mashye and Mashyane, who grew up from the earth, first fed upon water, then plants, then milk, and then meat, humans also, when their time of death has come, first desist from eating meat, then milk, then bread and then until they die, they will exist on water. 2. Thus in the millennium of Hoshedarmah, the strength of appetite (az) will thus diminish, and human beings will remain three days and nights in superabundance (sirih) through one taste of consecrated food. 3. Then they will desist from meat food, and eat vegetables and drink milk…."

Of particular interest to us here, is the sequence of learning to eat meat last and giving it up first.

In Chapter 39 of Bundahishn manuscript belonging to Tehmuras Dinshawji Anklesaria of Bombay (as cited by E. W. West in 1880), "the Arabs rushed into the country of Iran in great multitude... and their own irreligious law was propagated by them and many ancestral customs were destroyed, and eating of dead matter was put into practice. ...From the original creation until this day, evil more grievous than this has not happened...."

Classical Greco-Roman References
Diogenes Laertius on the Diet of the Magi and Magians
Vegetables, Cheese & Bread
Third century CE Greek biographer, noted in the prologue to his Biography of Eminent Philosophers (Prol. 7) that the Magi priests of Persia "dress in white, make their bed on the ground, and have as food vegetables, cheese, and coarse bread....".

Pliny's Natural History & Zarathushtra's Diet of Cheese
11.97 "Tradunt Zoroastren in desertis caseo vixisse annis xx ita temperato, ut vetustatem non sentiret."

(Translation by K. E. Eduljee) "It is reported that Zoroaster lived in the deserts (wilds?) on cheese for twenty years, so temperately (moderately/frugally), that he did not feel the effects of old age.

(Translation by J. Bostock): "It is said that Zoroaster lived thirty years in the wilderness upon cheese, prepared in such a peculiar manner, that he was insensible to the advances of old age."

The Efficacy of Spring Cheese
R. Hicks citing  J. Moulton (at Early Zoroastrianism, pp. 410-418) proposes that the Avestan "zaremyehe raoghnahe" in the Hadokht Nask 2.19 is a reference to the "cheese" mentioned by Pliny. Darmesteter in the note to his translation of the Hadokht Nask cites Visperad 1.2's Pahlavi commentary and the Dadistan-i Denig (see below) and further notes that butter from spring milk was "the best". We also find reference to "Maidyozarem roghan" in the Menog-i Kharad at 2.152 as the most beneficent of foods. This author notes that cheese rather than butter would have greater shelf-life and the simple ritual of eating cheese with flat bread is a popular Iranian tradition even to this day.

E. W. West's translation of the Dadistan-i Denig (Religious Decisions) 31.12-14 states, "...but in heaven (Garonmana?) there is no haste as to water and rejoicing with much delight they are like unto those who, as worldly beings, make an end of a meal of luxury (aurvazishnikih). To that also which is the spiritual completion of the soul's pleasure it is attaining in like proportion, and in its appearance to worldly beings it is a butter of the name of Maidyozarem. And the reason of that name of it is this, that of the material food in the world that which is the product of cattle is said to be the best (pashum), among the products of cattle in use as food is the butter of milk, and among butters that is extolled as to goodness which they shall make in the second month of the year, and when Mihr is in the constellation Taurus; as that month is scripturally (dinoiko) called Zaremaya (spring), the explanation of the name to be accounted for is this, that its worldly representative (andazako) is the best food in the world."

From the passages above we gather that the example set by Zarathushtra is the moderate consumption of food that is simple and frugal (and that luxurious foods have no place in heaven). Further, among the simple foods, cheese made in the second month of the year (May-June) is particularly noteworthy. Perhaps the reason for this is that the cows pasturing in the meadows of spring eat a variety of fresh herbs. If this is correct, then it is only cheese made from the milk of free ranging cattle in spring that is particularly health giving.

Community Traditions
Today, other than individuals or a sub-group such as the Parsee Vegetarian & Temperance Society, we have no consistent tradition of community-wide Zoroastrian vegetarianism. The Indian Zoroastrian bastions of Irani-Parsi food in India, the Irani cafés are noticeably non-vegetarian. Nevertheless, this author has heard Iranians state that according to tradition, consuming an excess of red meat and fats results in evil thoughts and make a person selfish.

Vegetation as the Source of Food. Aryan Agriculture
If first gathering and then growing plants (and not hunting or killing animals) were the primary source of food for the early Aryans, this has implications for the diet and food choices of the early settlers - a diet that would have been based on grains and vegetables. In those climates that do not permit year-round natural agriculture, grain and some vegetables, herbs, fruit and nuts - foods that lend themselves to drying and storing - would have provided a year-round source of food. Indeed, even in modern days, the distribution of dried fruits and nuts is continued during the seasonal Gahanbar feasts in Iran. In winter, grains would have been used not just in the making of flat breads such as naan, and cakes, but also in stew-like soups such as the Iranian aush. Storing fruit and natural fermentation could have lent to the discovery of wine-making.

In this context, we note that the archaeological finds along the northern slopes of the Kopet Dag mountains that form the modern border between Iran and Turkmenistan and which in ancient times were located in Parthava (Parthia) – or all of Central Asia for that matter – we find evidence of what might be some of the oldest settled agrarian communities known to humankind [see Nisaya]. Early Aryans also developed a system of water irrigation using the kareez underground water supply system [see Kareez]. Aryans had developed agricultural techniques early in their history.

If ancient Iranians or Zoroastrians were indeed vegetarian as a community, that tradition only survives in legend, for by the time the Greeks started to become the historians of the Persians during the Achaemenian era some 2,500 years ago, the Persians, and by implication Zoroastrians, were firmly meat-eaters.

Where Aryan Vegetarianism Survives
Aryan vegetarianism survives in some forms of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Buddhism originated in the eastern Gangetic state of Magadha. Some scholars postulate that Magadha was established by the Magi, the Magha (cf. Humbach). Their kings used the title 'Arya'. The Indian Aryans as well as the Bon who spread their faith from the Pamirs into Western Tibet (see post) are characterized by the use of the swastika symbol. But that is another story.

The Principle of Moderation
The Zoroastrian guiding principle for many life-style choices (not moral or ethical choices) is moderation between the extremes of too much and too little. Applying the principle of moderation does not preclude the need to apply the tests of goodness to every choice (for instance if something is helpful or harmful). This guiding principle applies to food and drink as part of one's life-style choices.

[Also see Moderation at Overview of Zoroastrianism.]


  1. Very interesting. Do you have any idea what the early zoroastrian peoples attitudes towards milk and eggs was? When the ancient zoroastrians were vegetarian did they also avoid milk and eggs?

  2. Hi Keith,
    I don't have any direct information about the attitude towards milk and eggs. Since the guiding principle was to avoid taking animal life, I presume the eating of eggs would have been considered the same as eating meat. While the drinking of milk does not violate that principle, the principle of moderate consumption would apply to any food or drink.
    K. E. Eduljee

  3. keith as per meat definition eggs are consider as meat but milk is vegetarian food that is called lacto vegetarianism where people are strict vegetarian but they use animal product without harming them like milk and any dairy item....

    1. In the lines from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, we have: the first meal, "Prepared he (the devil Ahriman) first a meal of yolk". I presume 'yolk' means egg(s) here.