Anāhitā is possibly one of the most famous female divinities from Zoroastrianism, and about her rivers of ink had flown, especially because of her immense popularity and her outstanding role in religious cult from the Achaemenid Persian period on (ca. 700-330 BCE) . This article presents the goddess going back to her origins and to the dawn of the Avestan religion to provide a complete vision of her evolution and of all the sources about her available.
The name of the goddes
In order to present the goddess of waters in a better manner it is necessary to start by her name, about what revolves an interesting controversy and a joint of ideas that must be precisely separated. Despite the most common way of referring to her both in folklore and tradition is Anāhitā, this is not her whole name but a simplification of what once were a group of sacred epithets.
Arədvī Sūrā Anāhitā is the complete designation for this goddess. Sūrā means «mighty», «strong», and Anāhitā is the Avestan word for «immaculate», «undefiled», «pure». While these two terms are commonly found to address other divinities, the only exclusive one for this creature from the waters was Arədvī, interpreted in an etymological sense by Mary Boyce and Herman Lommel as «moist», «humid», being in addition a feminine adjective. Eventually the proper name fell into disuse into the favour of the fusion of arədvī and sūrā, resulting in the Middle Iranian Ardvīsūr or Ardwīsūr, the way she appears on latter Zoroastrian sources.
As well occurs with many other divinities, Anāhitā finds her roots in a mixture of the Indo-Iranian cult and the Vedic religion heritage. Lommel proposes the Indo-Iranian name to be Saravastī, «she who possesses the waters», who was worshipped in Vedic India and so designated a small yet sacred stream in Madhyadeśa. The Iranian form would be Harāhvastī, name given to the modern region of Kandahar because of it riches in rivers. Originally, Harāhvastī designated in Zoroastrianism a mythical river who fell from the peak of the Sacred Mountain, Harā bərəzaitī, and plunged down to the depths of the creation ocean Vourukaṧa, source of all waters in the world.
|Morning Star. Mahmoud Farshchian, 1993.|
The ābān Yašt
As other renowned Zoroastrian divinities, Anāhitā owns her own yašt or hymn, the ābān Yašt that corresponds to the fifth of this collection and is among the three longer ones with 131 verses. Mary Boyce separates four strands inside its composition:
1) The first verses would correspond to an ancient celebration of the goddess of the rivers, gathering a pre-Zoroastrian belief, praising her life-giving powers.
2) Further on and in accordance with the Zoroastrian doctrine the goddess would be presented as created and conceived as a separated existence by Ahura Mazdā himself to help with the struggle of good and evil.
3) Mary Boyce highlights in a certain amount of verses certain evidences of the cult to statues that by association would correspond to the Semitic goddess Anaïtis, discussed below.
4) Linking with the former point, Boyce emphasizes the latter additions to the hymn most probably from the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 BCE) on, the promoter of the inclusion of Anāhitā/Anaïtis inside the Zoroastrian pantheon. Those extra verses undertake with the task of extolling the Yazata, even showing Ahura Mazdā sacrificing to her alongside with other great heroes from epic Iranian tradition. Boyce points out that the majority of the extensions are borrowings from other hymns such as the Aši Yašt (number 17), dedicated to Fortune and Piety divinity finally eclipsed and even assumed by Anāhitā.
These additions would be also tied with a reappearance of the goddess’ popularity in Sassanid period, and it is interesting to recover the theory of Mary Boyce about the disappearance of a hymn to Vouruna, an ancient divinity associated to the Vedic Varuna —god of the creation waters—. According to Boyce, two verses confirm this usurpation: at the 72 appears the word nipātara, «protector», a masculine adjective not required to define a feminine goddess. Moreover, certain parts are copied from the Mihr Yašt, the hymn to Mithra, of who this disappeared Vouruna would be brother.
Some verses are directly repetitive and finally is valid to assume the texts grew from historical processes and the popularity of the divinity was what caused the hymn to be deliberately extended. As a remarkable fact, Boyce writes that this Yašt could be never recited inside a fire temple, not even before a fire.
|Statue of Anāhitā riding her chariot in Maragha, Iran.|
«Beautiful, strong maid»
As was indicated above, it is inside the X where the description of Anāhitā as a goddess can be found, both physically and with her divine attributes and powers. Anāhitā presents herself as a beautiful, strong maid (XIX, 78), of white arms (I, 7) and clad with golden square earrings, a golden necklace, girded her waist tightly so her breasts look well shaped (XXX, 127), crowned by a golden tiara with hundred stars, eight rays and fillets streaming down (XXX, 128), wrapped by beaver skins (XXX, 129).
Anāhitā drives a chariot drawn by four mighty horses: Wind, Cloud, Rain and Sleet (XVIII, 120). She bestows the fertility, purifies the semen of the males and the wombs of the females (I, 2). In addition she makes the milk flow from women’s breasts and she nourishes the crops and the herds (I, 3). Like other ancient countries, exists the association of the waters and wisdom, since it is she the priests and wise worship for knowledge (XXI, 86).
It is quite curious that such a benevolent and pacific in appearance goddess could be at the same the guarantor of providing war chariots, weapons and household goods (XXX, 130), as well as helping to destroy the enemies and achieve the victory in battle (IX, 34) as happened in the episode of Aži Dahāka and Thraētaona (to read further on this story, just click here). This warlike aspect of Anāhitā seems to had been taken from Aši, the Yazata of Fortune, in this assimilation of the verses belonging to her hymn as explained above.
|Chariot drawn by four horses. Piece of the Oxus Treasure. |
Achaemenid, 5th-4th cent. BCE. Currently at the British Museum.
Anaïtis, the Semitic goddess, and her assimilation
As formerly pointed, the popularity of Anāhitā shot up from the Achaemeid dynasty on due to the identification of this Indo-Iranian goddess with another character from the Semitic tradition: goddess Anaïtis. Achaemenids are native from the province known as Persis by the Greeks, settled in the surrounding territories of Persepolis, Pasargadae and Naqš-e Rostam. Contacts with both Greek and Semitic tribes made the devotion to this goddess Anaïtis survive the conversion to Zoroastrianism of the Achaemenids, and it was royal influence the way of including her in the pantheon by merging her with the Zoroastrian agent of the waters. It turned out convenient the epithets to be so similar (Anāhitā – Anaïtis). Artaxerxes II himself (404-359 BCE) invoked this divinity after Ahura Mazdā and Mithra, giving her an outstanding role on the cult.
At this moment the incorporation of the new verses to the X happened. Anāhitā was no more the wild mythical river but a beautiful maid richly clad. No other descriptions of divinities are so detailed, what reinforces the theory of the additions serving the interest of the ruling family.
Anaïtis was the rendering name of the planet Venus in Greece and her cult was powerfully influenced by the Mesopotamian figure of Inanna/Ishtar. Some Zoroastrian texts treat them separately, presenting Ardvīsūr as the river and Anāhid as the star. For instance, the Bundahišn shows Ardvīsūr as the origin of the world’s waters (Gbd., 10.2, 5) and Anāhid as the origin of the planets and parallel to Venus (GBd., 5.4). Nevertheless, in other verses the divinities are already merged (GBd. 3.17) .
|Coin of the Sassanid king Narseh (293-302 CE)|
The problematic identification of Anāhitā in the arts
Prof. Dr. Bier writes about the how this goddess represents one of the most complex iconographic problems of identification, since it rests primarily on her forms, attributes and performing actions, what shows up as pretty risky. It was at the time of the Sassanids (224-651 CE), whose rulers performed as high priests of this divinity, when the number of the assumed representations shot up, being the main center of cult the city of Eṣṭaḵr.
«Neither the images in art nor the architectonical monuments correspond precisely to descriptions in literature, and none of the numerous (contested) attributions to her images and sanctuaries rests upon firm ground», writes Bier. At the time of the Sassanids appeared multiple iconographies of feminine figures in the famous gilded silver plates. They are normally represented naked or scantly clad, associated to birds, children, flowers or grapes. Nevertheless, affirming these are Anāhitā is adventurous since there is not a real connexion between the image and the sources. Artists and builders did not establish a correlation between the imagery and the verbal tradition.
What is indeed accepted is the feminine figure appearing on the reverse of many coins struck by several Sassanian kings could be Anāhitā in her role of investiture of the kings. This would lead to identify the figures from Naqš-e Rostam as Anāhitā crowning king Narseh (293-302) and the ones in Ṭāq-e Bostān as the goddess crowning king Khosrow II Parviz (590-628).
|Anāhitā in the rock reliefs of Naqš-e Rostam. Getty Images.|
The role of Waters in Zoroastrianism
Water is the primordial source of life in Zoroastrianism, the one that nourishes plants, animals and mankind. It is considered the second of the seven creations (dahišnān) the world was divided in —sky, waters, earth, plants, animals, mankind and fire—, and according to the cosmological thought it filled the lower half of the spherical sky, just beneath the earth.
The great ocean Vourukaṧa was the gathering place of waters and it was connected to the mythical river Harāhvastī Arədvī Sūrā. Two rivers were flowing out of it, Vaŋhvī Dāityā to the East and Raŋha to the West. According to Bundahišn this two tributaries encircled the Earth (Bd., 11.100.2 y 28.8) and were cleansed in the tidal ocean Pūtika to then go back to Vourukaṧa. At the same centre of this ocean grew the mountain Us.həndava, around whose summit gathered vapours that were scattered as rain clouds (Bd. 9.8). Henceforth all water on earth came from the mythical ocean, and from the great lakes to the small creeks everyone could be considered as a representation of the sacred water.
This leaded to an important amount of libations and offerings towards the water, what is known as āb-zōhr. Before the sacrifice or worship, water was poured on the ground. Due to its sacred nature it could not be drawn from the dwells when it was dark as that was the time belonging to the daēvas. Same way it was prohibited carrying out offerings or celebrations during the night at the sanctuaries, whose in the large majority of the cases were natural springs.
Dukes Creek Falls, Georgia's Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
Photograph by Cothron Photography, Alamy
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