The Conceptual Image of the Planets in Ancient Iran and the Process of Their Demonization: Visual Materials and Models of Inclusion and Exclusion in Iranian History of Knowledge

Planetenkonzeptionen im alten Iran und der Prozess ihrer Dämonisierung: Visuelles Material und Modelle der Inklusion und Exklusion in der Wissensgeschichte Irans

Abstract

The present contribution offers an overview of the main problems concerning the representation of the planets in the pre-Islamic Iranian world, the origin of their denominations, their astral roles and the reasons behind their demonization in the Zoroastrian and Manichaean frameworks. This is a preliminary attempt to resume the planetary iconography and iconology in western and eastern Iranian sources, involving also external visual data, such as those coming from Dunhuang and the Chinese world. The article offers an intellectual journey into a net of mutual cultural and spiritual relations, focusing on the image of the heaven (and of its celestial beings), thereby proposing a new synthesis and highlighting a number of intercultural contaminations.

Zusammenfassung

Der vorliegende Artikel bietet einen Überblick über die hauptsächlichen Probleme der Planetendarstellungen in der vorislamischen iranischen Welt, den Ursprung ihrer Bezeichnungen, ihre himmlischen Rollen sowie die Gründe hinter ihrer Verwandlung in Dämonen in den zoroastrischen und manichäischen Lehren. Es ist ein erster Versuch, das Thema der Planetenikonographie und -ikonologie in westlichen und östlichen iranischen Quellen erneut aufzunehmen und dabei auch externe visuelle Daten wie die aus Dunhuang und der chinesischen Welt mit einzubeziehen. Es geht auf eine intellektuelle Reise in ein Netzwerk wechselseitiger kultureller und spiritueller Beziehungen, die sich vor allem auf das Bild vom Himmel (und seinen himmlischen Wesen) konzentriert, und dabei eine neue Synthese des Materials vorschlägt und eine Anzahl interkultureller Verflechtungen betont.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For an introduction to and a more general overview of the history of sciences in ancient Iran, see Panaino (2018). Some different views have been expressed on the same subject by Brown (2018). A large number of pertinent studies on Iranian astronomy, astrology and calendrical matters, are at disposal in the two volumes by Panaino (2014) (with a wide-ranging bibliography). Considering the main scope of the present contribution, most of the specific Iranological linguistic technicalities have been reduced (and so also the relative bibliography) in favor of a larger historical treatment of the problems, with some additional methodological clarifications. Only few problems of technical nature have been treated where their analysis and discussion became absolutely indispensable for the comprehension of the arguments presented in this paper.

  2. 2.

    Tīr was a genuine divinity, probably assimilated with Tištar, mentioned just once in the entire Pahlavi literature in a variant of the Ardā Wīrāz Nāmag, named Wīrāzagān, par. 6 (codex TD 26; Ms. R 494) found in the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute of Mumbay (Asha 2017). The god is here presented as Tīr ī dibīr “Tir the scribe”, near the bridge of Činwad, and keeping records of the good and bad deeds of the dead. I thank Dr. R. Nikoghosyan for having brought this source to my attention.

  3. 3.

    It is very unlikely that Vedic people already classified the five planets as a group of grahas. Sanskrit texts attest explicit references to them only after the Greek settlement in Bactria (third century BCE); Yano (2004: 333).

  4. 4.

    In Pahlavi, the fixed stars were called a‑wiyābānīg, that is “not wandering” (then “fixed”), from the verb wiyābān- “to deviate, to go astray”. We find this designation also in the Classical languages (Gk. ἀπλανής, Lat. inerrans), where the planets were opposed to the stars as “wandering stars” (πλανήτες ἀστέρες). We infer the existence in Pahlavi of the corresponding planetary designation as *wiyābānīg (“wandering”) thanks to the survival of a reference to the stelle beibenie (“beibenie stars”) in Latin translations of Arabo-Islamic sources. We must recall that in the Sasanian astronomical and astrological tradition, the motion of the planets was explained as due to the action played by a number of wind-cord connected with teh Sun. It is probable that this doctrine was of Indian origin, although it was adapted to the Iranian procees of planetary demonization, so that the planets were considered under the direct control of the Sun. This doctrine found a special favour within the Manichaean tradition; see Panaino 1998.

  5. 5.

    In China the list of the planets was expanded to eleven by four pseudo-planets. This system finds a parallel in Iran with the head and the tail of the dragon, as well as the “Dark Sun” and the “Dark Moon”.

  6. 6.

    The Iranian Manichaean sources define these as “the two dragons” or azdahāg; Boyce (1975a: 60); see also Hutter (1992: 10).

  7. 7.

    This phenomenon can be explained by assuming that the Kushan cult of Nana preserved the astral planetary association because it entered the Bactrian area before the definitive systematization of the Mazdean process affecting the demonization of the planets. Furthermore, we can presume that the Indian cult of the planets, as the positive representation of Venus, widespread in the western traditions (so important in the Graeco-Bactrian region) offered a significant alternative to the demonization of the planet Venus.

  8. 8.

    On the Klimova Plate there is an archer below the Moon God. Grenet (2018a: 242) has suggested that this figure symbolizes Uṣas, the divinity of dawn. Although unknown in a strictly Iranian context, in the Indian iconography of Sūrya, Uṣas and Pratyuśas are sometimes represented as archers (see also Frenger’s paper in this special issue). Thus, it is possible that Hindu iconography influenced the Mithraic composition at Bamiyān and perhaps this one as well. But this archer could also be interpreted as the hero par excellence of the Aryans, Εrəxša, whose arrow was connected with the motion of Sirius (Tištrya). Moreover, in the hymn to Tištar, the Moon is mentioned already in the first stanza of the text.

  9. 9.

    In this transformation we could suspect an Iranian intermediation, if we consider the fact that on Bactrian coins of Huviška TEIRO, corresponding to Tīr, is presented as a female with bow and arrow (Shenkar 2014a: 149–151).

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Acknowledgements

The final redaction of the present study has taken place in Berlin in the framework of a fellowship I have received by the Einstein Center Chronoi of the Freie Universität Berlin and the Max-Planck Institute in the months of December 2018 and July 2019. I thank for their support Prof. Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum and Dr. Irene Sibbing-Plantholt. I am very grateful to Dr. Sonja Brentjes (Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, Dept. III, Berlin) for the discussions about many problems connected with the visualisation of the astral bodies in ancient iconography. I also thank Prof. Frantz Grenet (Collège de France, Paris), Prof. Michael Shenkar (Jerusalem University), Dr. Gian Pietro Basello (Università di Napoli, l’Orientale), Dr. Pavel Lurje (Hermitage Museun, St. Petersburg), and Dr. Ruben Nikoghosyan (Armenian University of Yerevan) for their numerous suggestions. A special thank goes to Dr. Lilla Russell-Smith (Curator of Central Asian Art, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Süd‑, Südost- und Zentralasien), who shared with me many reflections about the Turfan and central Asiatic astral visual heritage and its possible interpretations.

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Panaino, A. The Conceptual Image of the Planets in Ancient Iran and the Process of Their Demonization: Visual Materials and Models of Inclusion and Exclusion in Iranian History of Knowledge. N.T.M. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00048-020-00244-w

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Keywords

  • exchange of knowledge
  • planetary iconology
  • planets
  • pre-Islamic Iranian cosmography
  • Zoroastrianism

Schlüsselwörter

  • Wissensaustausch
  • Planetenikonologie
  • vorislamisch
  • iranische Kosmographie
  • Zoroastrismus