Music in the Avesta and Ancient Iran

There is reference to the use of trumpets in the Zoroastrian Vî-daæv-dátá or Vendidad.Avesta tells the story of shining Yimá (Old Norse Ymir, Vedic Yama are related.) In the Avestan lore, Yima was an ingenious leader. He reigned during the golden age when weather was fair, and sickness or death unknown. But a severe winter set in, and Ahûrá Ma(n)zdá counseled Yimá to bring plants, animals and humans to an underground shelter, while providing two implements to accomplish this task: a golden sufrá and a gold-plated aštrá.

As J. Duchesne-Guillemin (“Cor de Yima,” esp. pp. 540-41) has shown sufrá is, in fact, a trumpet. The myth implies that a trumpet was used to call animals to their safe underground shelter. Recently excavated Oxus trumpets seemed to have been used for a very similar purpose. Another link to Yima story is that gold was used for some Oxus trumpets.

It seems that Zoroastrianism arose near the regions of Bactria and Margiana (Lawergren, “Oxus Trumpets,” p. 95, n. 77). About 40 small trumpets from oases in Bactria and Margiana have recently been brought to light by looters in southern Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan. They are much shorter than modern instruments despite their similar shape. Most are made of silver, some of gold, and a few of copper.

The trumpets associated with the Bactrian-Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC) are dated 2200-1750 B.C.E. (Hiebert, p. 376).

Of course the most ancient part of the Avesta is the poetic gathas of the Aryan seer/prophet. The poetic gathas go back to the 2nd millennium B.C.E and are hymns similar to the Vedic Samhitās, meant for melodious chanting. The very word gáthá is related to Lithuanian giedoti “to sing” (Compare Proto Indo European gei.)

According to Neyrangestan or the Zoroastrian “book of spells” the poetic gathas were sung and chanted melodiously. Also, Herodotus reports that the Zoroastrian Magi or priests chanted songs to the gods (Histories 1.132).

Furthermore, the highest heaven in the poetic gathas is called garö-demánæ (Middle Iranian garödmán) “the abode or house of music.”

For Ahûrá Ma(n)zdá has created the many worlds by his melodious mind-formulas and enchanting thoughts. The highest heaven is thus a delightful house of music. From the enchanting melodies that come from garö-demánæ (Middle Iranian garödmán) new worlds are created and existing ones are remade ever better and more brilliantly. This house of music is where ma(n)zda is the prime force and the god-men/god powers will enter as ma(n)zda’s brilliant co-workers.

Under Zoroastrian influence similar ideas entered Mahayana Buddhism whose sutras describe music as one of the chief delights of paradise (Lawergren, “Buddha,” pp. 234-38).

During the Achaemenid period, 550-331 B.C.E music flourished in ancient Iran and musicians held privileged positions at court.

In the Cyropaedia, Xenophon (ca. 430-after 356 B.C.E.), who had visited ancient Iran in 401 B.C.E., told of the great number of singing women at the Achaemenid court (4.6.11; 5.1.1; 5.5.2; 5.5.39).

Athenaios of Naucratis (3rd century C.E.?) mentioned a court singer who sang a warning to the king of the Medes of the acquisitive plans of Cyrus II (ca. 600-530 B.C.E.

He also related that the Macedonian general Parmenio captured the 329 singing girls of the court of Darius III (ca. 380-mid-330 B.C.E.; Deipnosophistai 13.608.)

Furthermore, recently evidence for Achaemenid influence on Chinese instruments has emerged in China.

During the Parthian Period gösán or musicians played a prominent role in the Parthian society.

The Greek writer Strabo (ca. 64 B.C.E.-9 C.E.) noted that Parthians taught their young men songs about “the deeds both of gods and of the noblest men” (Geographica 15.3.18).

According to Plutarch (ca. 46-ca. 120 C.E.), the gösán praised Parthian heroes and ridiculed the Romans with equal gusto (Crassus 32.3).

The Parthian gösán “minstrels” influenced the Armenian courtly gusanner who sang heroic tales to the accompaniment of drums, pipes, lyres and trumpets (Boyce, 1957, pp. 13-14).

To the bewilderment of the Romans, the Parthian army used large drums (Gk.rhoptron, pl. rhoptra) to prepare for battle: “they had rightly judged that, of all the senses, hearing is the one most apt to confound the soul, soonest rouses its emotions, and most effectively unseats the judgment” (Plutarch, Crassus 23.7).

The most magnificent depictions of Parthian musical instruments are carved on ivory drinking horns of the 2nd century B.C.E., and found at the ancient Parthian capital of Nisa, near Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan (Colledge, fig. 2; Karomatov, pp. 54-59.)

The evidence for Sassanid Music, in the context of Zoroastrian ritual, is more substantial than that for music of other aforementioned Empires.

According to the Arab author Masʿudi (d. 956), music was greatly esteemed at court, and Ardeshir I (d. 242), the founder of the glorious Sassanid dynasty, gathered singers, minstrels and musicians into a special courtly class (Boyce, “Parthian Gōsān,” p. 22).

Two centuries later, Bahrám V Gœr (r. 420-38) elevated this class to the highest rank (Christensen, p. 31). He was fond of music, and recruited 12,000 singers from India.

Music was even more highly cherished by khosrow II (r. 590-628), whose reign was a veritable Golden Age of Iranian music.

Another Moslem historian reports that . . . . And the harvest thereof was never gathered but with song and music and mirth, which happened on the sixth day after the beginning of Vernal Equinox (The 6th day after the Spring Equinox is the birthday of Prophet Zarathûshtrá.)


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1 Response to Music in the Avesta and Ancient Iran

  1. zaneta garratt says:

    very nice to read this enlightening text

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