Aži Dahāka is one of the most frightening yet one of the most famous demons in iranian mythology. Such is his influence that even nowadays exist many references in popular art, folklore and the universe of fantasy, since as many other dragons and monsters the attraction he exerts is really powerful. But who is truly this creature and what is the information remaining of it? This article presents the obscure and terrifying figure of Aži Dahāka.
M13.1 Herakles and the Hydra. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California, USA
Caeretan Black Figure. Attributed to the Eagle Painter. Date: ca 525 BC
Dragons in Ancient Iran
First and foremost, a question must be answered: does Zoroastrianism and Avesta consider the existence of dragons as western mythology depicts them? In fact they do, but not as traditional European folklore shaped them. The word aži or azhi in Avestan language comes from the Indian ahi, and both terms originally meant «snake». In referring to creatures of a demonic nature and evil behaviour, the concept could be translated as «dragon», in the sense that alludes to a monstrous supernatural being. Caution is required when managing different mythologies from another cultural perspectives, as traditional studies tended to state equivalents between East and West, misunderstanding concepts. Such is the case of the ažis, that could be taken as dragons if it is understood they were terrible outrageous snakes; in fact they do not have wings nor spit fire from their mouths, but poison.
Same way the word aži was taken from Indian, the myth of the serpent-demon travelled to Iran as a part of the common Indo-Iranian mythology. There are some examples of the legends of the dragon-slaying heroes —such is the case of the creation legend of Merodach, the dragon hunter—, but the most similar resemblance of what Zoroastrianism considered ažis is found inside the Vedic tale of the confrontation of Indra and Vṛtra, in what scholars described as «the Great Sky War». Indra, thunder god and head of the Vedic pantheon, marched against Vṛtra, who kept imprisoned the primordial waters in caves inside the mountain. By slicing the head of the serpent-demon, those waters were released and creation could take place.
This story was transferred to the cosmological thought of Iran, although including some modifications. Skjærvø states that, despite the dragon-slaying myths are common to India and Iran, they developed differently and separately. For instance, the Vedic stories are starred by humans charging towards demons and not by gods, as it happens in Vedic texts. The myth of the releasing of the waters had its place as well in the Zoroastrian world, but confronting two gods: the star Tištrya/Tištar and the demon Apaoša, who battled for the liberation of the creation ocean Vourukaṧa at the pick of the mountain Harā bərəzaitī. This myth can be found in the Tîr Yašt (Yt. viii, vi, 13-34).
Nevertheless, in spite of this episode, ažis do not appear linked to the waters but to the drought. Sometimes they dwell by the rivers, but with the exception of Gandarw, they do not inhabit inside of them. Thus, dragons in Zoroastrianism are materially huge monsters, with ravenous appetites by men and horses. They are presented in this dual universe’s religion where everything has its counterpart as the evil creation, antagonists of other beings resulting from the true side; this is, from Ahura Mazdā.
Photograph by Mgkuijpers, Dreamstime
The appearance: man or dragon?
Despite Aži Dahāka is included inside the species of the ažis –all with a quite similar appearance and same kind of creature according to the texts– sources can give some interesting details about the looks of particular characters. This is the case of Sruuvara, another aži, who is said to be yellow coloured, horned and capable of spiting poison from its speared fangs.
Aži Dahāka is, according to the most ancient texts, three-headed, three-jawed and six-eyed, what common sense associates to be two per each head. It is the size of a mountain, and of mighty strength. Angra Mainyu himself created him from the darkest most terrible druj to spread terror and burn to ashes the dwells of asha, what could suggest certain relationship with the fire (Hom Yašt, IX, 8; Zamyad Yašt, VIII, 37). It is described as cunning, with a thousand viles inside and terrifying. Generally it does not only posses animal traits, but it is privileged with human intellect. This has lead to consider the truly nature of its body, as the latest texts reference Dahāg/Zahhāk as a monstrous man and not as a dragon.
Piotr Skjærvø described this as an example of mythologized history or historicized mythology. Contrasting the information about Aži Dahāka it is not clear enough if it is a man in a dragon-shape or a dragon in a human-shape. Avestan texts lean towards the monstrous form, while Pahlavi texts blur slowly this idea to leave the character as a man, and the draconian nature would be a metaphorical allusion to his demoniac essence. Following the theory of linguistic comparison from Martin Schwarzt, the epithet Dahāka could be translated as «man(-like)», what would lead to a hominoid serpent or a snake-man.
Hydra by Sandara in DeviantArt.
The Zoroastrian texts
Various tales exist surrounding Aži Dahāka and not all of them are so known, being the one including Feraydun the most famous. However, it is important to highlight as done before two periods for this serpent-demon. First of them would correspond to the time when the Avestan texts were written, when the figure of Aži Dahāka was considered more snake than human, as a colossal monster who devastated everything in its path by order of its creator, Angra Mainyu.
The Zamyad Yašt, Hymn to the Earth —19 by Darmesteter— narrates the story of how Aži Dahāka and one of its demoniac brothers, Spityura/Spitiiura, confronted the Sacred Fire ātar, a Yazata, for seizing the xᵛarənah or farr, the Glory that merged from the body of Yima/Jamshid once Spityura sawed him in twain (ZYt. VIII, 46). This Glory could not be forcibly seized, so Ahura Mazdā and his Yazatas flung their darts to hold it in a physical place, and so did Angra Mainyu and his daēvas. Once the xᵛarənah was still, the Yazata who approached to catch it was ātar, the Sacred Fire. But Aži Dahāka threw himself on his back threatening him with extinction if hi dares to touch the Glory. ātar took back his hands, affrighted, and then is the serpent-demon the one who approaches and opens its jaw to swallow the xᵛarənah. However, ātar does not startle and threatens the creature by blazing up its jaws with his flames if it takes another step. The xᵛarənah swelled up and reach the ocean Vourukaṧa, where the Son of the Waters, the switfed-horses one, seized it and put it into the bottom of the waters, so creation could develop and Glory could be dispersed through the world (ZYt. VIII, 46-54).
Depths of the ocean. Source:
The Pahlavi Texts
At the so-called post-Avestan sources written in Pahlavi the name of Aži Dahāka is modified and changed to Dahāg and occasionally Zohāk, and at the same time his serpent shape leads to a human appearance, although with the same demonic nature. These texts present Dahāg as the origin of the bad religion, calling him to be immoral, blemished, unrighteous, contemplating injury, harm and devastation of everything surrounding him. He is accused of the corruption of the earth and his own subjects (Dk, 3.229), even of the destruction of the world itself, highlighting his Arab race (Dk, 3.308) .
The Dādestān ī dēnīg presents him as one of the seven worst sinners of creation, the ones really close to Angra Mainyu/Ahriman. In addition it is said he was the first one releasing and lauding the art of sorcery (D. 71). It is quite interesting the fact that the texts provides Dahāg with a monstrous devilish mother (D. 71, 77) called Wadag and accused of practicing incestuous adultery with her own son while her husband was still alive. She is also the creator of whoredom, the higher sinner among women.
Pahlavi texts also provide information about the reign of terror of Dahāg, inserting him inside the dynasty of the Pīšdādīan succeeded Jamshid and preceded Feraydun. His thousand years of rule are described at the Dēnkard (9.21.12-16) and his genealogy at the Bundahišn (31.6), tracing a dynastic line that draws back to the same Evil Spirit.
Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien
Old Avestan Text Sample
Y(asna) 28,1: ms. J2, fol. 175
Thraētaona, the dragon-smiting hero
As was aforementioned, the myth normally Aži Dahāka is associated with corresponds to the one about the hero Thraētaona and the confinement at the mountains.
The hero’s name has been modified along history, evolving to the most known by Iranian folklore, Feraydun, also called Frēdōn or Fereydun. Etymology suggested for this change could have its origins, once more, in India, and this character would be named after the Vedic god Trita and the Avestan Thrita, associated to the winds and thunder. Although Thrita never slain dragons in Vedic texts, he performs great deeds comparable to Indra’s, so it may not be absurd to establish a conection between both characters.
The Avestan texts contain many references to the victory of Thraētaona upon the serpent-demon Aži Dahāka, but not really detailed. The Aban Yašt, Hymn to the Waters —5 by Darmesteter—and Ram Yašt —15 by Darmesteter— gather the same myth that same way can be found inside Hom Yašt —9 by Darmesteter—, but only mentioned. The Pahlavi texts are the sources providing further information, essentially the Dēnkard.
One of the versions narrates how Aži Dahāka worshipped two divinities, Ardvisur/Anahita form the waters and Vayu-Vata from the winds, towards who offered a sacrifice of a hundred male horses, a thousand oxen and ten thousand lambs. He asked in return enough power to leave the seven climates empty of humankind and eradicate it once and for all. Of course, the gods remained deaf to his prayer. Nevertheless, the young boy Thraētaona made the same sacrifice, asking for the strength and courage to march against the serpent-demon. Not only the gods granted him what he demanded, but also tasked them with the liberation of the two wives of Jamšid that the beast held as prisoners and who were told to be the women of the most unsurpassed beauty of all creation —other versions state that they could have been his daughters as well— (AbYt. VIII-IX).
Another version of the myths recounts how the xᵛarənah entered the body of Thraētaona when he was still at the womb of his mother. So he gained the strength to be able to go and search for Aži Dahāka to vanquish him. The X describes how the young hero struck the beast with his club upon the shoulder, the neck and the skull without killing him. Afterwards he took his sword and hewed it three times, what caused the body of the serpent-demon sprouted a black venomous liquid along with many noxious creatures. Ahura Mazdā stopped him then, knowing that the world did not deserve to be filled with those undesirable beings (Dk, 9.20.8-10). Skjærvø perceives in this episode a similarity with so many other myths of creation where the monster is hewed in many parts that originate the elements of the world. He considers this may be a reference to the primal creation of various agents of the Evil Spirit.
The serpent-demon Aži Dahāka is then blinded and chained with the most awful fetters, confined in the inside of Mount Damavand, the Sacred Mountain before called Harā bərəzaitī and doomed to suffer the most terrible punishments.
Thus, Aži Dahāka does not perish, but stays alive in the womb of the mountaing. However, his confinement won’t last eternal, as in the Day of Renovation, during the millennium of Usherdamah, the serpent-demon will break his chains and sprout from the ground, devouring a third of its creation. Ahura Mazdā must be required to bring the soul of Kirsāsp, the hero who once stroke down the dragon Gandawr, for him to vanquish the terror of Aži Dahāka (Pahlavi Rivayat, 30-36).
Mount Damavand. Photography by Hamed Khorramyad (2014)
Curiosities: the Japanese features
· Japanese saga Final Fantasy created a final boss with the name of Azi Dahaka for the X-2 game (2003) for Play Station 2. The monster is a dragon like creature with wings and two scaly prominent horns out of its neck. Video available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3DoqL-2lYg
· Inside Japanese videogame Suikoden V (2006) for Play Station 2 appears a ship with the name of Dahak, casually featuring three dragon or sea serpent heads as figurehead.
· In the collectible Japanese card game Future Card Budyfight (2014), also brought into animation for TV, there is a card/character named Azi Dahaka as the partner of the main antagonist. He is so called «Demise Demonic Dragon».
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WILLIAMS, Alan V.: The Pahlavi Rivāyat Accompanying the Dādestān ī Dēnīg Part II - Translation, Comentary and Pahlavi Text. The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen, 1990. Available online: https://archive.org/details/thePahlaviRivyatAccompanyingTheDdestnDngPartIIi
 Skjærvø, Piotr O., op. cit., p. 1.
 See MACKENZIE, Donald A., op. cit., p. 138-162.
 Ibídem, p. 1-3; Ingersoll, Ernest, op. cit., p. 34.
 Skjærvø, Piotr O., op. cit., p. 2.
 Darmesteter, J., op. cit., pp. 97-102.
 Skjærvø, Piotr O., op. cit., p. 1.
 Skjærvø, Piotr O., op. cit., p. 3.
 English translation used: MILLS, Lawrence H.: Avesta. Yasna: The sacred liturgy and Gathas/Hymns of Zarathustra.
 English translation used: Darmesteter, James: The Zend-Avesta. Part II: The Sirozahs, Yasts and Nyayis.
 Schwartz, Martin, op. cit., p. 123.
 Skjærvø, Piotr O., op. cit., p. 6.
 Ibídem, p. 7.
 Ibídem, p. 8.
 Ibídem, p. 2-3.
 Ibídem, p. 9.