On a Possible Lack of Incest Regulations in Old Iran

Author: Professor J. S. Slotkin
Source: American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, Part 1 (Oct. - Dec., 1947)

There is a consensus among anthropologists that all societies have exogamic regulations, the violation of which is incest. However, data exist which raise the question as to the truth of this proposition in regard to old Iran.
The earliest text on the subject seems to be by a Greek writer, Xanthus, and has reference to the Magi:
... he says that the Magi cohabit with their mothers and their daughters, and according to law have intercourse with sisters; and also that the wives are common, not by violence and stealth, but by mutual agreement, when one wants to marry the wife of another.1
Three other fairly early sources follow:
... they [the Magi] see no impiety in marriage with a mother or daughter.2
From the unholy commerce of Gellius and his mother let a Magian be born,and learn the Persian art of soothsaying; for a Magian must be the offspringof mother and son, if the unnatural religion of the Persians is true, so that their child may worship the gods with acceptable hymns, whilst melting the fat caul in the altar flame.3
... these Magi, by ancestral custom, consort even with their mothers.4
The preceding passages refer to "Magi"; the succeeding ones speak of "Persians":
Alcibiades lay with his mother, his daughter, and his sister, as Persians do.5
Persians have illicit intercourse with their mothers.6
the Persian magnates marry their mothers and regard the children of the marriage as nobles of the highest birth, worthy, so it is said, to hold the supreme sovereignty.7
The Satrap [of Nautaca in Sogdiana]  was Sismithres,who had two sons by his mother; for among them it was lawful for parents to disgracefully copulate with their children.8
Alexander [the Great] . . . persuaded . . . the Persians to revere their mothers and not to take them in wedlock.9
An early, but unfortunately vague reference to the subject occurs in Euripides:
Such is the whole race of the barbarians: a father is united to his daughter, and a son to his mother, and a maid to her brother.10
Concerning this a Byzantine scholiast explains, "All Persians have such customs,"11 but of course this does not have the same validity as such a statement coming from Euripides himself.
At this point let us analyze these Greek and Latin sources. A crucial question is the relation between the "Magi" and "Persians." One possibility is that the Magi always were the priestly division of the Persians, and that those who speak of "Persians" in general really have particular reference to the priestly division among the Persians.12 If this were so, we have merely a case of incest for supernatural reasons, which occurs in many cultures. Another possibility is that the Magi and Persians originally had distinct cultures. In that case the Magian culture had no incest regulations. But then what about the Persians? The Persian datum given by Philo Alexandrinus does not surprise an anthropologist; he is familiar with cases of incest among rulers. However, the other sources do not limit the practice to Persians of higher status. Thus either the quotations are vague, and when speaking of Persians in general really refer only to the Persians of highest status, or there were no incest regulations among the Persians.
The next set of data, chronologically speaking, comes from the Greek and Latin Christian fathers. In my estimation these are probably all indirect sources and not as reliable as the previous ones, for it is doubtful if any of the writers had first-hand knowledge of Iran. For what they are worth, I give them in chronological order:
The Greeks consider intercourse with a mother as unlawful, but this practice is esteemed most becoming by the Persian Magi.13
[Persian royal] children ... on reaching maturity have sexual intercourse with sisters, and mothers, and women, wives and courtesans innumerable.14
... the laws ... of the Persians . . . do not forbid the marriage of sons with their mothers, or of daughters with their own fathers.15
Among the Persians, a promiscuous association between sons and mothers is allowed.16
the habit of the Persians to marry their own mothers, sisters, and daughters, while marriage with other women is called most barbarous?17
The Persians, Indians, . . . have intercourse with mothers and grandmothers, with daughters and grand daughters.18
... the ancient Persians . .. shamefully had intercourse with their mothers, sisters, and even daughters.19
Notice that there is the same ambiguity about "Magi" and "Persian" that we found before.
Now let us turn to some Near Eastern texts. The Syriac church father Bardaisan may be classed with the Greek and Latin fathers, but he seems to have had access to better sources than they, and is therefore more reliable.
... the Persians have made laws for themselves that they may take for wives their sisters, and their daughters, and their daughters' daughters; and there are some that go further, and take even their mothers.20
There are two later Christian texts, Syriac and Arabic respectively, which represent an interesting tradition, for they hint that the incest occurred for supernatural reasons.
... the devil said unto the priest [Idhashir], "A man cannot become a priest and a Magian until he hath known carnally his mother, and his daughter, and his sister." And Idhashir the priest did this, and from that time the priests, and the Magians, and the Persians take their mothers, and their sisters, and their daughters to wife.21
And Nimrod came down and saw the fire and worshipped it, and he established a man there to care for the fire and to throw frankincense upon it. From that time on the Magi started to worship the fire and to bow down to it. And the name of the man whom Nimrod established to care for the fire was Andeshan, and the devil spoke to him from the mouth of the fire, saying "No one can worship the fire and learn my religion without his having intercourse with his mother and sister and daughter." And Andeshan did what the devil told him, and from that time on the priests of the Magi started to have intercourse with their mothers and sisters and daughters.22
It may be asked why no indigenous Iranian sources have been mentioned so far. The reason is both simple and surprising. Such data exist, but they are all relatively late. They deal with xvaetva-datha,23 usually translated as "next- of-kin marriage." The subject is first discussed in the later strata of the Avesta and in such a form that who these "next-of-kin" are remains uncertain.
I praise at once . . . the Faith of kindred marriage.24
Yea, we sacrifice to the youth who is given to his kin and married to his blood, the holy lord of the ritual order.25
I summon the youth of holy thoughts, words and works, and of good conscience; yea, the youth of good speech, given in marriage to his kin.26
To thee [the Law] comes . . . every one who performs the next-of-kin marriage.27
Which is the urine where with the corpse-bearers shall wash their hair and their bodies? ...
Ahura Mazda answered: It is of sheep or of oxen; not of man nor of woman, except the two who are male and female participants in next-of-kin marriage.28
About all that we can gather from these Avestan passages is that Zoroastrianism in the fourth to ninth centuries supernaturally sanctioned next-of-kin marriages, whoever the kin involved may be.
When we reach the indigenous Pahlavi texts we are much better off. There is no longer any doubt that father-daughter, mother-son, and brother-sister marriage is meant, but whether these kinship terms are classificatory or descriptive is unknown to me. An example of such a source, and one of the justifications for such marriage, follows:
... pleased is he who has a child of his child, even when it is from someone of a different race and different country. That, too, has then become much delight which is expedient, that pleasure, sweetness, and joy which are owing to a son that a man begets from a daughter of his own, who is also a brother of that same mother; and he who is born of a son and mother is also a brother of that same father; this is a way of much pleasure, which is a blessing of the joy . . . the family is more perfect; its nature is without vexation and gathering affection.29
These Pahlavi sources support next-of-kin marriage with numerous supernatural sanctions. For instance:
For the sake of much terrifying of the demons, and much lodgement of the blessings of the holy in one's body, next-of-kin marriage is to be practised.30
Next-of-kin marriage will extirpate mortal sins.31
The Iranian texts are confirmed by a couple of Arabic sources which state that Bih'afrid (eighth century A.D.), a Zoroastrian reformer, was opposed to next-of-kin marriage.
Bih'afrid ... ordered them ... not to marry their mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces.32
Later Pahlavi texts exhort people to engage in next-of-kin marriages:
The most perfectly righteous of the righteous is he who remains in the good religion of the Mazdayasnians, and continues the religious practice of next-of-kin marriage in his family.33
Such passages as these lead one to feel that the later texts are in effect propaganda on its behalf by conservatives.
Thus the Iranian sources do not merely negatively show a lack of incest prohibitions, but positively advocate the preferential mating of next-of-kin. Another important observation is this: On the face of it, the Iranian texts seem to advocate next-of-kin marriages for all Zoroastrians, and not merely for priests and rulers.

1. Xanthus Lydus (6th-5th cents. B.C.), frag. 28; in Fragmenta historicorum Graecorum,ed. K. Muller (Paris, 1841-51), I, pp. 36-44; IV, pp. 628-29.
2. Sotion Alexandrinus (fl. 200-170 B.C.); quot. Diogenes Laertius, De vitis philosophorum, ed. R. D. Hicks (London, 1925), prooem., 1.7.
3. Catullus (84?-54 B.C.), Carmina, ed. R. Ellis (Oxford, n.d.), 90; tr. F. W. Cornish, London, 1912.
4. Strabo (63 B.C.?-24 A.D.), Geographica, ed. A. Meinecke (Leipzig, 1915-25), 15.3.20; tr. H. L. Jones, London, 1917-32.
5. Antisthenes Atheniensis (ca. 450-ca. 365 B.C.), frag. 9; in Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum,ed. F. W. A. Mullach (Paris, 1875-81), II, pp. 261-93.
6. Ctesias Cnidus (4 cent. B.C.), Persica, ed. J. Gilmore (London, 1888), frag. 22.
7. Philo Alexandrinus (born ca. 20 B.C.), De specialibus legibus, 3.13; in Opera, ed. L. Cohen, et al., Berlin,1886-1930; tr. F. H. Colsonand G. H. Whitaker, London,1929.
8. Curtius Rufus (1 cent. A.D.), Historia Alexandri Magni, ed. E. Hedicke (Leipzig,1908),
9. Plutarch (46?-120?A.D.), De Alexandri magni fortuna, 328 c; in Moralia, ed. C. Hubert, et al., Leipzig, 1925-; tr. F. C. Babbitt and H. N. Fowler, London, 1927-.
10. Euripides (5 cent. B.C.), Andromacha, 173-175;in Tragoediae, ed. G. Murray, Oxford, 1902-09.;tr. T. A. Buckley, London, 1867.
11. Scholia in Euripidem, ed. E. Schwartz (Berlin,1887-91), Andromacha, 174.
12. Diogenes Laertius, 9.83, states: "Persians think it not unnatural for a man to marry his daughter." This is presumably based upon the same authority as the reference to SotionAlexandrinus quoted above. If so, Diogenes Laertiusis using"Magi"and "Persians"interchangeably.
13. Tatian (ft.152-172),Oratio ad Graecos, ed. E. Schwartz (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 4,.1) (Leipzig,1888), 1.28; tr. J. E. Ryland, Buffalo,1885.
14. Clemens Alexandrinus(150?-220?), 1.7; inOpera ed. O. Stahlin (Die Paedagogus, griechischen christlichen Schriftsteler, 12,15,17,39) (Leipzig,1905-36), I; tr. W. Wilson, Buffalo,1885. In Stromata 3.2.11, he quotes Xanthus as given above.
15. Origen(185?-254?), Contra Celsum, 5.27; inWerke ed. P. Koetschau, et al.(Diegriechischen christlichen Schriftsteller, 2, et passim) (Leipzig,1899- ), I-II; tr. F. Crombie,Buffalo, 1885.
16. Minucius (fl. ca. 240) Octavius, ed. J.P. Waltzing (Leipzig, 1912),31.3.
17. Pseudo-Clemens Romanus, Homiliae[ca.313-325], 19.19; in Patrologia Graeca,II, cols. 19-468; tr. T. Smith, et al., Buffalo,1886.
18. Jerome (340?-420), Adversus Jovinianum, 2.7; in Patrologia Latina,XXIII, cols.205-338; tr. W. H. Freemantle, New York,1893.
19. Theodoretus (390?-457?), Graecarum aflectionum curatio, ed. J. Raeder (Leipzig,1904), 9.33.
20. Bardaisan(154-222), Liber legum regionum, ed. F. Nau (Patrologia Syriaca,1.2) (Paris,1907), 29; vide ibid., 40, 46; tr. W. Cureton, London,1855.
21. Ma'arrath gazze (The Book of the Cave of Treasures) [6th cent.?], tr. E. A.W. Budge(London, 1927), pp. 143-144.
22. Eutychius Alexandrinus (876-940), Annales, ed. L. Cheikho (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum orientalium, Scriptores Arabici, ser.3, vols.6-7) (Beirut,1906-09),I, p. 20.
23. The word seems to be derived from xvaetav, "belonging to one's own group,"and *vadatha, "marriage," from vad,"lead in, bring." In various contexts xvaetav may refer to the family, the clan, the rulers,or the religious community; vide C. Bartholomae, Altiranisches Worterbuch (Strassburg1,904),s.v.
24. Avesta, tr. J. Darmsteter and L. H. Mills (Sacred Books of the East, 4, 23, 31) (Oxford 1883-95;I, 2nd ed.), Yasna,12.9 [4-5 cents.A.D.].
25. Avesta, Gah, 4.8 [6-9 cents.].
26. Avesta,Visparad, 3.3 [6-9 cents.].
27. Avesta,Yasht, 24.15,17[6-9cents.].
28.  Avesta,Vendidad, 8.13 [6-9 cents.]; translation revised.
29. Dinkard [9cent.A.D.], tr. E.W.West (SBE, 18,34,47) (Oxford,1882-97), 3.82(XVIII, pp. 404-405, 408-409). Other important Pahlavi sources are: Shayast la-Shayast [7 cent.], tr. E.W.West, 18.3-4; in SBE, V, pp. 237-406. Dina-i Mainyo-i-Khirad [9cent], tr. E.W.West, 4.4; 36.7; 37.12; in SBE, XXIV, pp. 1-113. Dinkard [9cent.], 9.41.27; 9.67.7,9. Manuskihar (fl. 881), Dadistan-i Dinik, tr. E. W. West, 37.82; 65; 77.6-7; 78.19; in SBE, XVIII. Zad- Sparam(fl.881), Selections.  tr. E.W.West, 23.13; in SBE,V, pp.153-187; XLVII, pp.131-170;  XXXVII, pp.401-405.
30. Dinkard, 3.195; translation revised.Vide ibid., 3.196.
31. Shayast la-Shayast, 8.18.
32. Albiruni, The Chronology of Ancient Nations [1000], tr. C. E. Sachau(OrientalTranslation Fund,Publications, 73)(London,1879), pp.193-194.Vide al-Shahrastani, Kitab al-Milal wa 'l-Nihal [1127], ed.W.Cureton (London,184246), I, 187.
33. BahmanYast [12cent.?], tr. E. W. West, 2.61; in SBE, V, pp. 189-235. An even stronger and more specific statement is found in a Rivaya toManuskihar, Dadistan-i Dinik, of unknown date; in SBE, XVIII, pp. 415-423.

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