Zoroastrian Sources on Black People

Author: Dan Shapira

Open University of Israel

The purpose of this short note is to draw attention to Zoroastrian attitudes to the Black Africans.1 These attitudes can be seen in the traditional Zoroastrian literature in Middle Persian, which flourished more than a millenium ago.
As is well known, Zoroastrianismwas the state-religion of the Iranian empire, ruled by the Sasanian dynasty (226-636 CE).The sacred texts of this religion exist in Avestan, an ancient Iranian language closely related to Sanskrit, but in fact, Sasanian Zoroastrianism was based on Middle Persian (or, Pahlavi) versions and re-workings of the Avestan texts.4
Soon after the Sasanian Empire fell to the Muslim Arabs in the mid-7th century, Islamized Iranians began to play a highly prominent role in the formation of the new Islamic civilization, which is probably endebted to its Iranian pre-Islamic heritage no less than it is to its Arab legacy. In this respect, it should be interesting to examine Zoroastrian attitudes to the Black Africans, as reflected in the Pahlavi sources. It must however be stressed that we are not implying here that these attitudes determined the Muslim views on race and color.
Iranians of the Late Sasanian period (the 6th/mid-7th centuries CE) were well acquainted with East and North-East Africa,and so it seems, it was in their footsteps that the Muslims (Arabs and/ or Iranians and others, too) were able to establish themselves on the East-African Coast, including Zanzibar, which actually means "the Coast of the Blackmen" in Persian.6
The first text dealing with Black Africans is a short chapter in the Bundahisn [ Bd] (literally, "Creation of the Origins"). Bd is a Pahlavi compendium of traditional lore, which although composed in post-Sasanian times, during the Muslim period (circa the 9th century CE), it is mostly based on older sources, to which some later information has been added. Zoroastrian views on the Blacks are expressed in the "Greater" (or, "Iranian") Bd XIVb.7
This short chapter traces several non-human species -such as apes, bears, "forest- inhabitants", "tailed ones" to the progeny of the first human couple and the dews, Zoroastrian "demons."
As for the Blacks, they are said to be the result of the mental intercourse of a dew and a parig (femal "demon") with an unspecified "young girl" and an unspecified "young man," respectively. On the basis of a parallel text, it could be conjectured that the "young man and young girl" were perceived as not belonging to the progeny of the first human couple. In other words, they were understood as belonging to a different species than the other human beings:
             1. eniz gowed ku: "Yim ka-[sh] x'arrah azish be shud, bem i dewan ray, dew e pad zanih grift, ud Yamig i x'ahar pad zanih o dew e dad; u-shan pad kabig ud xirs ud weshagig ud dumbomand ud abarig winahishnig sardag azish bud; u-sh paywand ne raft."
             2. zangig ray goyed ku: "Az i Dahak andar x'adayih, gushn zan dew abar hisht ud gushn mard abar parig hisht, u-shan pad gushn-didarih8 i awe marzishn kard, az han i nog *ewen kunishn zangig bud."
             3. ka Fredon mad, aweshan az Eran-shahr dwarist hend, pad kanarag i drayab nishanid kard, nun pad dwaristan i Tazigan, abaz o Eran-shahr dwarist hend.

1. The (Avestan text) says, too: "Yim,9 when his royal glory departed from him, took a female dew to wife, and gave his sister Yamig to a dew to wife, because of his fear of the dews; the apes, the bears, the forest-inhabitants, the tailed ones, and other noxious "sorts" (species) arose from them; and his (Yim's) lineage did not progress therefrom."

2. Regarding the Black people, the (Avestan text) says: "During his sovereignty, Az i Dahak10 let loose11 a dew on a young girl and let loose a young man on a parig, and they (the female counterparts) had sex with the visible image of the male (counterparts of each other); through this new way of the action the Black people appeared."

3. When Fredon12 came, they (the Black people) rushed off13 from the Lands of Iran and settled on the coast of the sea. Now, after the Arab onslaught,14 they have again rushed to15 the Lands of Iran.

One might date this denigration of the Black people by assuming that it reflects real historical events. It might refer to the Zandj (or, Zindjrevolt of 868-883 CE in the marshes of southern Iraq under the guidance of al-Barqu'i ("the veiled one"),16 during which Black rebels fiercely fought their white-Muslim former masters.

Our Zoroastrian source tells us, correctly, that the Blacks appeared on the Iranian borders, in southern Iraq, after the Muslim Arab invasion of Iran, which took place in the 30s-50s of the 7th century, thus clearly indicating the post-Sasanian date for (at least) Bd XIVB.3. However, the same source mentions the sourjourn of the Blacks on the Iranian coast (apparently,of the Persian Gulf) in the mythical times of Fredon. This could be a vague referenceto the existence of ancient dark-skinned populations in southern Iran, of which the Brahui people, perhaps related to the Dravidic peoples of southern India, is the only remnant.17
In another passage of the Bundahishn (Bd XIV.36-39) it is stated that all of humanity originated from one human couple.18 This includes fifteen sardags("sorts,"or "species,""races")living in the seven kishwars, that is "climes,"or "continents" (not to be confused with what we call "continents" now), but also another ten sardags of fabulous creatures, such as "those with eyes in their breasts, those who have wings like bats," and monkeys, too. It was only later that two new sardags sprung, due to the intermixture caused by the Adversary,19 namely the "Blackmen" and another sardag. The text of the passage in question20 reads as follows:
             did pad wahan i petyarag,gumezishnih bud ciyon Zangig ke abig ud zamigig bawed ud ke ab ud zamig har do ziwed.
             "Again,because of the Adversary, the Mixture occured, such as Zangig, who are (those) of water and (those) of earth, who live in both water and earth."

The difficulties in deciphering texts written in the Pahlavi script are well known. The problematic word (X) can be read as either gilabig ("of clay and water"),21 or saglabig (Saqlabs",Slavs").22 At first sight, there are good reasons to assume that the reading/ meaning "Slavs" is correct. In the 9th century Khalifate both Blacks and Slavs were widely used as slaves, and in this social-racial context, one could easily imagine that both groups might have been linked and dehumanized.
However, in this case we should suggest that our Bd text reflects the conditions of the early Islamic period and cannot be traced to the Sasanian period. Although Sasanian Iranians were familiar with Black Africans, they could hardly have had any knowledge of Slavs for the simple reason that the Slavs were scarcely known under this name in the 7th century and certainly were not important enough to be mentioned, so if this passage dates to the Sasanian period, the reading "Slavs" has to be abandoned. On the other hand, if this passage dates from the post- Sasanian period, then the Slavs could be mentioned, and the description, provided by the Zoroastrian compiler, of their way of life in places abundant in water fits well the contemporary descriptions of the Eastern-European tribes, among them Slavs, Rus' and others, which are found in Arabic geographical works of the 9th-
10th-centuries.23 In addition, relevant passages are found in the already mentioned Pahlavi Ayj, in which Arabs and the inhabitants of Berberia were discussed in ch. 8. Ch. 9 was dedicated to fabulous creatures, such as "those with eyes in their breasts,"etc.; it is in the next short ch.10 24 that we encounter the people designated by the problematic word looking like *saglabig which could be seen as referring to "Slavs" or to "those of clay and water." This word was taken by the editor Messina as referring to Cylon (Silan).25 The text of Ayj 10 is as follows:

             pursid Wishtasp shah ku aweshan mardoman i *Saglawig ud haniz i andar zreh ud drayab manend, u-shan ziwishn widarishn ce? u-shan x'aday ud sardar ke? pad nemag i ke estend? ud ka mirend o ku abganend, u-shan ruwan o ku shawend? guftish Jamasp i betaxsh ku aweshan mardoman i andar zreh ud drayab mardom hend i abig ud pad nemag i Yazadan estend u-shan gyag baromand u-shan caharpad ud murw ud mahig ud xrafstr was ud hamag be x'varend ka mirend o *ata[x]sh26 abganend ud hast i o Wahisht ud hast o Dushax shawend.
             Wishtasp the King asked: "these people of *Saglawig and those who live in the seas, what is their manner of life and death? And who is their lord and chieftain? To whose lot do they belong? And where they do throw the corpses when they die, and where do their souls go?" Jamasp the vizier said: "these people who are in the seas are watermen and they belong to the lot of God[s] and their land is fruitful. They have a great deal of quadrupeds, birds, fish and noxious creatures, and they eat everything. When they die, they throw the corpses into fire. Some go to Paradise, some to Hell."
It is clear from a comparison of both versions in which the problematic word occurs that the version of Bd XIVb made use of Ayj IX-X, in which neither Blackmen nor Slavs appear.27 The conclusion must therefore be that our last Bd passage is clearly post-Sasanian (and the same may be deduced regarding our "Slavic" passage),28 and the same late, post-Sasanian date could be ascribed to other Pahlavi passages referring to Black people.

1- Henceforth: Blacks, Black people.

2- On Zoroastrianism in general, see Boyce, Zoroastrians; on different aspects of the history of this religion, see Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism; Boyce & Grenet, The History of Zoroastrianism; cf. also Gershevitch and Yarshater, The Cambridge Heistory of Iran.
3- The first date is that of the coronation of Ardashir, the founder of the dynasty; the second is that of the seizure of the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon by the Muslim Arabs.
4- For representative samples of Zoroastrian literature in Avestan, Pahlavi and other languages in English, cf. Boyce, Textual Sources; on the Pahlavi literature, see Boyce, "Middle Persian Literature," on the complex interaction between the Avestan originals and their Pahlavi versions, cf. Shapira, Zoroastrian Exegesis.
5- Cf. the Pahlavi composition Ayadgar i  Jamaspig (edited: Messina, Libro apocalittico)
[henceforth Ayj] 8.7: Tazigan ud Barbaristan shahr garm ud husk wyaban, nest bar ud ab tang u-shan xarishn shir ud xrafstaran ud mush ud mar ud gurbag, robah ud kaftar ud abarig az en ewen, uzdes paristend u-shan ziwishn az ushtr ud cahar-pad, any cish nest, "The land[s] of the Arabs and Berbers is a hot and dry desert, it has no fruit and water is scarce, and their food is milk and xrafstras(noxious creatures) and mice, snakes, cats, foxes, hyenas and others of that kind. They worship images/statues and their living is on camels and quadrupeds, having nothing else." In my opinion, it is fairly clear that this description of Arabia is of pre-Islamic origin; the importance of uzdes, "pagan sanctuary," for this dating is uncertain, but the tone is not hostile (as was the rule in the post-Sasanian Zoroastrian references to Arabs and Islam). Unlike in other post-Sasanian Zoroastrian sources, we are told nothing about *dad i wad i Tazigan",the evil Arab religion,"and Berberia could have been mentioned only during the short period of the Sasanian occupation of the Western outskirts of Siwah and Fayoum (Messina, Libro apocaliptico, p. 162, n. 1, was of the opinion that by Barbaristan here Eastern Africa (Somaliland) is meant; in the last case, the date could be the latest years of the reign of Husrau I and later (577-). For Barbarestan in the East of Iran, cf. Monchi-Zadeh, Topographisch-historische Stuedien, pp. 88-91; cf. also Bivar, "The Persian Fairyland".

6- Zanzibar, Arabic Zanjabar, from Persian zangi-bar, literally, "the coast of the rusty- colored people." In New Persian, zang means "rust," and zangi means "Blackman, a person of the rusty color," whence Arabic zanj, or zinj (Collective), Plural zunuj, Singular zanji, or zinj,with the same meaning. In passing, it may be observed that the name of the best known African language, Swahili, may derive, ultimately, from Persian (probably, even Middle Persian); "Swahili" is from Arabic Sawahili (Sawahil:"the Coast[s]"), which is a calque of Persian bar,used with the same meaning as in Zanzibar.
7- Text: Anklesaria,The Bundahishn, p.108 1. 8-p.109 1. 3;transliteration and translation: B.T. Anklesaria, Zand-Akasih pp. 136-7; my transliteration and translation are slightly different.
8- Or: wenishn-didarih, "sight-seeing."
9- Yim, or Yima, or Jam, is the Zoroastrian First Man. Beside Yim and his twin-sister Yamig, or Yami, the Zoroastrian tradition knows another first couple of twins, Mashya and Mashyanag; cf. n. 18 below.
10- The Zoroastrian arch-demon, Dahhak of the Persian Epic Shahname.
11- On the expression gushn-hilishnih "releasing, setting free males (of the cattle) into the
females," cf. Asatrian, "Armenian xoygot'owt'iwn...," esp. p. 64.
12- A Zoroastrian mythical hero, redeemer of Iran.
13- The verb used here normally applies to movements of demonic creatures and
Ahriman, the Zoroastrian "Devil."
14- Cf. the previous note.
15- A variant: gumext hend,"mingled with the (people of) the Lands of Iran."
16- Cf. Massingnon, "Zandj," with the bibliography (eg., Tabari, iii. 1742-1787, 1835- 2103); cmp. also Walker, "A Rare Coin of the Zanj."
17- In the Early Islamic times, Black people seen as descendants of Ham were attested in Azania (Zanj), Abyssinia, Nubia, Barbary, *Phazania (*wa*an), and the maritime and [southern] region of Persia, cf. Martinez, "Gardizi's two Chapters on the Turks," p. 117.
18- The already mentioned Mashya and Mashyanag; cf. n. 9 above.
19- I.e., the Zoroastrian Devil, or the onslaught caused by him.
20- Bd 14.39; TD2 107.11-13.
21- As did Anklesaria, Zand-Akasih p,p.134-5.
22- Similarly, Monchi-Zadeh, Topographisch-historische Studien,pp. 98-9 and n. 9.
23- Cmp. Shapira, "Armenian and Georgian Sources on the Khazars;" "Iranian Sources
on the Khazars."
24- Cf. n. 4; Messina, Libro apocalittico p,p. 53-4, translation:p. 104.
25- But cf. Monchi-Zadeh, Topographisch-historisch Studien, pp. 98-9 and n. 8-9, who
interpreted it as referring to "Slavs."
26- The reading of Monchi-Zadeh, Topographisch-historisch Studien, p. 99 n. 8.
27- But rather silanig, "inhabitants of Cylon," or gilabig, "people of clay and water," called also mardom i abig,"watermen."
28- Cf. also Shapira, "Was there Geographical Science in Sasanian Iran?".

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