Witches Whores And Sorcerers The Concept Of Evil In Early Iran

by S. K. Mendoza Forrest

Author S K Mendoza Forrest Isbn 0292726872 File size 13 2 MB Year 2011 Pages 246 Language English File format PDF Category Religion Mendoza Forrest s study is a comprehensive contribution to the study of the concept of evil in early Iran and a pioneering work It succeeds to combine its thematic structure without losing sight of historical developments through referring to the earliest compositions and then following them up with appropriate later compositions Early Iranians believed evil

Publisher :

Author : S. K. Mendoza Forrest

ISBN : 292726872

Year : 2011

Language: English

File Size : 13.2 MB

Category : Religion

Witches, Whores, and sorcerers


Witches, Whores,
and sorcerers
The Concept of Evil in Early Iran

By s. K. Mendoza Forrest
ForeWord and other contriButions
By Prods oKtor sKjærvø

University of texas Press   Austin

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Forrest, S. K. Mendoza.
 Witches, whores, and sorcerers : the concept of evil in early Iran / by
S. K. Mendoza Forrest ; with contributions by Prods Oktor Skjærvø. — 1st ed.
  p.  cm.
 Includes bibliographical references and index.
 isBn 978-0-292-72687-1 (cloth : alk. paper)
 1. Good and evil—Religious aspects—Zoroastrianism. 2. Avesta—Criticism,
interpretation, etc. I. Skjærvø, Prods O. II. Title.
 BL1590.g66F67 2011
isBn 978-0-292-73540-8 (E-book)


The Avesta and Its Translation by Prods Oktor Skjærvø vii
Preface ix
Acknowledgments xi
Introduction 1
chaPter one. The Study of an Ancient Tradition 7
chaPter tWo. The Iranians and Their Literature 13
chaPter three. Magic and the Magi 21
chaPter Four. General Concepts of Evil in the Avesta 29
chaPter Five. “Naturally” Occurring Evils 44
chaPter six. Sorcerers, Witches, Whores, and
Menstruating Women 62
chaPter seven. The Evil Eye, Corpse-Abusing Criminals,
Demon Worshippers, and Friends 83
chaPter eight. Exorcistic and Apotropaic Rituals 113
chaPter nine. Structure of Avestan Incantations 137
chaPter ten. Uses for Avestan Incantations 151
chaPter eLeven. Exorcisms 166
chaPter tWeLve. Conclusion 188
Notes 195
Bibliography 211
Index 221


the avesta and its translation
Prods oktor skjærvø

the terM Avesta refers to a relatively small group of orally composed and
transmitted texts written down only in the Islamic period, some of them perhaps around the year 600. We have no evidence that all the known texts were
written down at the same time, however. The texts are in Avestan, an Iranian
language related to Old Persian (the ancestor of modern Persian or Farsi),
which was spoken in the northeast of the later Persian (Achaemenid) empire
(550–330 Bce), in the areas of modern Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. The language is known in two linguistic forms: an older form, similar
to the oldest Indic language of the Rigveda, and a younger form, slightly antedating that of Old Persian (known from about 520 Bce). The extant texts were
therefore probably committed to memory sometime in the second half of the
second millennium and the first half of the first millennium Bce, respectively.
We have considerable archeological evidence from these areas dating to these
periods, but with lack of written evidence it is impossible to correlate this evidence with the Avestan texts. This means that we do not know their precise
historical contexts.
The Old Avesta contains the “Gāthās of Zarathustra,” five hymns ascribed
to the (mythical) prophet of Zoroastrianism, and the Young(er) Avesta, miscellaneous ritual texts, among them the Yasna, the text that accompanies the
morning ritual (yasna); the Yashts, hymns to individual deities; and the Videvdad, rules for keeping the daēwas, demons, away, a text inserted in the Yasna
and recited at important purification ceremonies.
The texts are known from manuscripts dating from the thirteenth to the
nineteenth centuries, all of which apparently go back to individual prototypes written around the year 1000 (known from colophons), which means
that there is a considerable gap in the written tradition between the time the
texts were first committed to writing and the earliest known and extant manuscripts. It should be noted that the Avesta is not a single “book” like the Bible,

viii Witches, Whores, and sorcerers

but individual texts transmitted in separate manuscripts. These became a
book only in Western editions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That the translation of these texts presents problems should be apparent.
The translations in this book have been smoothed by leaving out discussions
of problematic translations and marking uncertain or conjectural ones by a
bracketed query: [?]. Hopelessly corrupt or incomprehensible passages have
been left out, sometimes marked by ellipses.


i Was in BengaL staying at a small village doing research several years ago,
when one evening I decided to walk along a shadowy road. Like most foreigners, I was unaware of the dangers lurking in the dark. The sky was already
a rich dark blue against the almost black trees, and the few people who were
hurrying home gawked at me as if I had three heads. Being quite used to this,
I continued to make my way to a grove I had discovered earlier in the day.
Luckily, one of my little English students was passing by with her mother.
They looked quite worried, despite my happy greeting.
“Don’t go there,” the girl warned when I explained my quest. “It is a place
where jinn live. They will offer you anything your heart desires, but then your
soul will belong to them.”
I was most interested in meeting a jinni (genie), so I asked her if she had
ever seen one. She had not, but she warned me, “You can recognize them
by their feet—that’s one thing they can’t hide. Their feet look like giant bird
I hardly had time to thank them as they scurried off. As for me, I went to see
if I could meet a jinni, but they had apparently taken the day off. Jinn are the
sometimes-demonic spirits that inhabited the Arab wastelands and deserts,
howling on dark nights and often possessing a hapless passerby. How they
ended up in Bengal, we will never know, but I suspect that the Muslim imagination that brought the other delightful stories of the Arabs was responsible.
It was in this way that I became fascinated with the things people consider evil. Evil is not always something to do with morality, as we in the West
often think. When I once foolishly attempted to catch a large crab-like insect
awkwardly scuttling across a temple floor in India, I saw the looks of horror
people gave me. They warned me not to touch it, but their expressions told me
that it was not just the poison they feared. They regarded the creature with a
kind of awe they reserve for evil. Indeed, later I was told that it was an “inauspicious” creature.
When I started to study Zoroastrianism, evil ultimately hooked me. Evil, I
found, was simple yet complex, disgusting at times, yet attractive. The sources
available for the study of this tradition are scarce, however. I envy scholars
of the Indian traditions for their rich sources, yet there were reasons for the
scholar in the study of religion to revel in the fact that so few of their brethren
have tackled the early Iranian material. I found the study of the Zoroastrian
tradition to be the realm of the philologists, who were, and are, making val-

x Witches, Whores, and sorcerers

iant attempts to translate and make available the difficult texts. The study of
the Iranian texts by scholars of religion has been hampered for several reasons.
The most vexing is the corruption of the texts by scribes. The Avesta, for example, was an oral text passed down since perhaps the first half of the second
millennium Bce. It was finally put into writing toward the end of the Sasanian
period (224–651 ce), but the extant manuscripts date only from the thirteenth
through fourteenth centuries. The priests who transmitted the texts orally and
in writing, but who did not understand the original language, had corrupted
these texts.
Most translations in this book are from the Avesta. In some cases, to avoid
lengthy translated passages, I have paraphrased and shortened some translations from various works I have used, and I have given the English translation
sources for the benefit of the reader wishing to investigate them further. I concentrate on the period of the Avesta and the earlier Pahlavi texts, with the exception of a few passages from the later texts, especially the Persian Rivāyats.
With apologies to all of the learned scholars of Iranian traditions before me, I
have had to lighten the text for print and have not been able to acknowledge
all of the opinions that have been offered in the past in the understanding of
the Avesta. I wanted above all to share my love of these fascinating myths with
my students and with the public so that they too can enjoy the world of evil.


this WorK Was Made PossiBLe by the generous support of the Ford
Foundation. I also thank Harvard University and its Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for allowing me the facilities I needed to complete this work. I am grateful to Centre College for support in the last phase of
my writing. Professor Prods Oktor Skjærvø provided the translations of the
Avesta, for which I am eternally indebted. These new translations will surely
improve our understanding of the Zoroastrian religion.
When I first began studying Zoroastrianism, I realized that an interdisciplinary approach to this religion was essential. The linguists and philologists
working on the very difficult and often cryptic Avestan and Pahlavi texts have
dedicated lifetimes to deciphering them. Scholars in the study of religion, likewise, have developed methodologies to guide themselves in approaching the
interpretation of religious phenomena. I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with Professor Prods Oktor Skjærvø, a leading scholar and philologist in the field of Iranian studies. My hope is that this study will prove to
be a fruitful one; however, any shortcomings in this work are mine alone.
Professor Diana Eck of Harvard’s Committee on the Study of Religion and
Professor Kimberley Patton of Harvard Divinity School deserve my thanks for
their comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to Professor James Russell
of Harvard University for being an outstanding source of knowledge and inspiration. I thank Professor Laurie Cozad of the University of Mississippi for
her many helpful suggestions. Finally, I acknowledge my student assistant,
Gary Andrews.
I dedicate this book to my advisor and friend Professor Prods Oktor
Skjærvø, who labored to teach me the difficult Gathic Avestan, Young Avestan, Pahlavi, and Sogdian languages; and to my mother, Maria Mendoza, who
was never able to finish high school but wanted a better life for her children.
Danville, Kentucky
September, 2010


Witches, Whores, and sorcerers



a serious ProBLeM in the study of Zoroastrianism is the notion of Zarathustra1 as a prophet, a reformer of what is often referred to as the pagan Iranian tradition. The result is the “textbook” understanding of Zoroastrianism,
which distinguishes between a corrupt period of lawlessness and polytheism
punctuated by a golden age of Zarathustra’s teachings, followed again by a return to the old polytheistic state where superstitions reigned.
Most scholars of religion have long since abandoned the type of thought
that pits “ethical” monotheists against “superstitious” polytheists. Traditions
are just traditions, and one is no better than another. It is our task to observe, not to judge. It is with this thought that I approach the texts. Unfortunately, for scholars of early Iranian traditions, there is very little beyond the
texts. Therefore, we have to let the texts “talk” to us. We have no idea of what
opposing and marginalized groups and individuals practiced and believed.
However, in an oblique way the Avesta reveals the identities and some of the
practices of the outsiders to these traditions—at least those that bothered the
authors the most.
I found it fruitful to examine and catalog ideas concerning evil in these
texts because they reveal many things. In addition to the worldviews of the
elite priests, the texts can also shed some light on the problems people in general faced when they dealt with the elite, who were often state-sponsored. For
example, while scholars may know very little about the practices of women
during the time of the creation of the Avesta, we can know the rules they were
expected to follow, the attitudes of the priests toward women, and what the
sanctions were against them. When the texts deal with the subject of women, I
believe we can learn something very important about the concept of evil itself.
It is precisely when addressing the subject of the female that the ambiguity of
evil in Iran is revealed.
At first glance, one may assume that the concepts of good and evil are
simple for dualists. This does not seem to be the case at all when we examine
their views on humans. The Young Avesta sees a clear separation between the
good god Ahura Mazdā (called Ohrmazd in the Sasanian and later texts) and
the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman in the Sasanian and later texts), and
their respective creations. Humans throw a wrench into the picture. Humans,
and women in particular, have a strange status. Although created by the good
god Ahura Mazdā, humans, like the great deities, have the power of choice:
they can choose good or evil.

2 Witches, Whores, and sorcerers

While women can choose good over evil, the problem becomes complex
because, according to these texts, a woman’s body is naturally linked to evil
by blood pollution. I will deal with this interesting notion in my discussion on
female evil beings. Female beings also appear in the Avesta as important demons or classes of demons. The sanctions against things evil also give us some
insights on their occupations, such as providing for women’s health, and at
times abortions, which put these female health providers under the suspicion
of witchcraft. What was the “magic” or witchcraft that these women used?
Was it herbal medicine, or was it a combination of herbal medicine and spells?
Given such limited resources, we have to make some conjectures, but there
is still quite a bit to learn by what is forbidden in a tradition. If the Avesta condemns abortion providers, then we must assume that they existed. When the
texts forbid the eating of dogs, we can safely assume that some people may
have eaten dogs. This is certainly not unheard of in other cultures. Similarly,
when the texts complain about sorcerers and other evildoers, we will have to
speculate on what they meant. Were they followers of other traditions? Were
they actually practicing alternative magic?
At this point, it is important to say a few words about terms. The word
“magic,” for one, is fraught with a long history of verbal wrangling. It is a
word similar to the term “religion,” a definition of which will never satisfy
every scholar, and will therefore remain elusive. Until recently, magic had a
pejorative meaning. In the past, scholars made a distinction between magic
and religion, and there were numerous attempts to differentiate the two. There
is no consensus, even after many attempts, as to what, if anything, differentiates magic and religion. As I already mentioned, the study of early Iranian
traditions has been mainly the field of philologists, rather than scholars in the
study of religion or anthropology. Because of this, we see that some scholars
in Iranian studies still use terms that today’s religion scholars consider antiquated when describing various rituals and beliefs.
Religions can employ magical formulas, attempt coercion, be public or
private, and so on. Therefore, perhaps looking at the magical part of any religion, we can separate a few aspects that may be contrasted to purely theological thought. My idea is not to single out the Avestan religion as magical, as
opposed to other religions. Indeed, all religions could be analyzed in the same
manner. In the case of the religion of the authors of the Avesta, we have only
the extant texts to guide us, and considering the incredible antiquity of the
religion, they are scant indeed. The elements we can separate as magical were
still to have a great influence on the later development of theology in Zoroastrianism as it began to coalesce during the interaction with Islam in the
seventh century ce and onwards. Magic and magical beings were important

introdUction 3

for the Zoroastrian theologians in the elucidation of evil in their dualistic system as opposed to the omnipotent power of the god of Islam.
I have gleaned the following definition from older anthropological works,
from Malinowski to Van Gennep’s “magico-religious,” which ends up positing a definition of magic as a part of a religious process, not as opposed to it.
I have adapted it for this book, although in no way do I claim that it can be
used as a universal definition. It seems preferable to tediously using quotation
marks around words like “magic,” “spell,” “curse,” “sorcerer,” etc.
1. Magic consists of words and rites meant to produce a desired result by
the coercion or supplication of forces beyond the realm of humans. This is
basically the same as prayer except that the aims are as below, in point 2.
2. The realm of magic is predominantly practical, because the use of
magic usually has a goal, especially for the aim of suppressing disease,
misfortunes, and evil beings. This can be opposed to simple praise and
prayer, which are also features of the Avesta.
3. Magical rituals are usually private or secret and carried out by specialists
in nonpublic settings. The manthras (mantras in Sanskrit), or spells, to use
a broad, although loaded term, are passed down through a line of priests
thought to be kin somehow to Zarathustra.
4. Magic revolves around a mantra or spell that uses special language and
quite often contains mythological allusions. It is often simply the use of
words from the Gāthās, which, by their antiquity, have acquired sacred

There are always many exceptions to every rule, as scholars in the history
of religion and anthropology will surely point out. To complicate matters, certain terms that have acquired a pejorative meaning will always be problematic. Can we totally avoid these terms? I agree with H. S. Versnel that this may
prove impossible and that the “only realistic alternative is to devise at least
a working definition of the concept you are going to employ.”3 While being
careful not to allow old meanings to color our words, it is awkward to have to
somehow avoid them. When we look at Avestan curses, I could use Versnel’s
term “judicial prayers” because, as he notes, the author is the injured party
and so feels justified when appealing to the gods, as opposed to the demons.4
This is indeed the case with the Avestan counterparts. However, Versnel is opposing his judicial prayers to defixiones, curses, from Graeco-Roman cursetexts. It would be problematic to make that sort of distinction concerning
the composers of the Avesta as opposed to the so- called sorcerers and other
demonic things they oppose, for the reason that we do not know who these

4 Witches, Whores, and sorcerers

sorcerers were, and we certainly do not have any examples of their texts. If we
are to posit some continuity between the approaches of the composer or composers of the Gāthās and the later Avesta, at least in the way they chose their
enemies (and this, I realize is dubious, and poses many challenges), there are a
few ways to look at demons. They would include the so- called evil beings that
plagued the authors of the Avesta and were of three kinds: unseen demons,
persons who actually practiced black magic (or abhicāra as it is called in Sanskrit), and also ordinary people of opposing sects or religions. Another inevitable reason to think in these terms is that the authors of the Avesta themselves
thought in terms of good and bad magic. They called performers of bad magic
sorcerers, witches, and various other names. They also accused these people
of usurping their own rituals and using them for bad purposes. This points to
a conclusion that the actual methods of good and bad magic were not always
In analyzing the Avestan treatment of evil and how to combat it, my definition of “magic” works reasonably well. As far as the words “spell” and “curse”
are concerned, these are mantras5 that, in an effort to bring about the desired
result of what I have termed “magic,” will be discussed later.
Another problem in identifying evil in the Avesta is the obscurity of references in the early Avestan texts. Sometimes they are explained in post-Avestan
texts, and sometimes the myths are fleshed out. We have no way of knowing
if these elaborations are later additions invented to explain the bits and pieces
offered by the early compositions, or explanations passed down orally and
incorporated into the later compositions. Following the example of Wendy
Doniger in her work on evil in the Hindu tradition,6 I will use a thematic
scheme, referring to the earliest compositions and then following them with
any appropriate related later compositions. While it is important to keep in
mind that concepts change and develop over time, this approach may help in
several ways. For instance, one can examine what may be a foundational idea
in the Avesta, or even as early as the Gāthās, and then observe the ways in
which the concepts are interpreted by later authors. This is especially interesting considering that the authors of the Pahlavi compositions were working at
a time when they were grappling with polemic arguments during the period
of Muslim domination.
Using this method, we might ask for example, “What did the Avesta have to
say about women?” How does this persist or change as the tradition responds
to outside forces? While it may not be prudent to use later sources to fully explain earlier ones, looking at references in the earlier compositions to particular themes such as the disposal of dead bodies, and relating them to later texts
that appear influenced by them, is a valid form of inquiry. Presenting the ma-

introdUction 5

terial in a thematic manner will also help to give us a more complete picture
of the tradition as it developed.
This book deals with the question of how evil is understood and categorized, and then finally combated in early Iranian traditions. Very important in
this study is the investigation into the lives of the witches, whores, sorcerers,
and other people thought to embody evil. The priestly incantations are directed at these people. These “evil” beings are even more interesting than the
priests, but they cannot speak. One can only discover something about them
through the very people who hated them.

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