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Theology and Worship 

in Elam and 

Achaemenid Iran 



It is very difficult to say anything certain about 
Elamite religion. Elamite literature is not avail- 
able and the Elamite language still poses many 
problems and uncertainties. We do not know 
anything about Elamite mythology. Our main 
sources of information are the building inscrip- 
tions of the kings and consecration texts. They 
can indicate which of the gods was important 
for certain kings and for their policy. Hints con- 
cerning the beliefs of the people can be given 
by all the personal names which are preserved 
(personal names often contain names of gods). 
But legal and administrative documents, which 
also contain many names, are preserved only 
sporadically. However, although there are many 
difficulties, it is still possible to gain an impres- 
sion of the Elamite pantheon if one takes into 
consideration every occurrence of the gods' 
names and looks at all the scattered material as 
a whole. 

The Elamites had close contacts with the in- 
habitants of Mesopotamia over hundreds of 
years, and for long periods they were ruled by 
the Akkadians. Elamite kings brought statues of 
gods back from Mesopotamia as booty. Akkadian 
and Babylonian princesses came to the Elamite 

court as a result of diplomatic marriages. These 
are the reasons that several Sumerian and 
Akkadian gods were also worshiped by the 

Elamite Gods 

The earliest attestations of Elamite gods go back 
to the middle of the third millennium bce as 
components of the names of kings. Under the 
rule ofKingLukh-khisshan of A wan, a contempo- 
rary of Sargon of Akkad (around 2334—2279), was 
mentioned a vice-king of Elam, Sanam-Simut. 
Thus, Simut is the first Elamite god to appear 
in history. It is striking that he in particular was 
called in later times "the god of Elam" (by King 
Shilkhak-Inshushinak I [around 1150-1120]). In 
another context he was addressed as "the power- 
ful herald of the gods." Simut was mentioned 
continuously over the centuries, especially in 
names of the old Elamite period (up to about the 
fifteenth century), but he never had an eminent 
status. His wife was the goddess Manzat. Her 
name has been taken as a loanword into Akkad- 
ian meaning "rainbow." Like her husband's, her 
name occurred in several old Elamite personal 
names, some of them female. After 1050 she was 
no longer mentioned as such but rather as NIN- 
ali (or Belet-ali, "Lady of the city"). One of her 


Religion and Science 

possible functions was to protect pregnant 
women, because the votive offerings found in 
her temple in Dur-Untash (modern Chogha Zam- 
bil) show women holding up their breasts. In 
that case her main opponent would have been 
the terrifying Lamashtu, who was responsible 
for puerperal fever and infant mortality. In an 
incantation text from Uruk, Lamashtu is called 
" an Elamite." In Elam she functioned as guard- 
ian of the temple. 

Successor to King Lukh-khishan was Khishep- 
ratep (about 2330), whose name means "the re- 
nowned nourishers." Originally, this must have 
been part of a much longer name, in which 
Khishep-ratep took the place of a god-name in 
similarly constructed personal names. Usually 
the personal names were constructed as such: 
"God X loves me" or "God X may protect me/ 
him." When these sentences, used as personal 
names, became too long, they were short- 
ened — and only the name of the god remained. 
The plural "p" ending points to a group of gods. 
And indeed there is known a group of gods for 
whom king Untash-Napirisha (around 1275— 
1240) more than a thousand years later built a 
temple in his holy city, Dur-Untash. They are 
called Nap-ratep, or "Nourishing Gods." 

At the end of the twenty-third century, Eshba 
(or Eshbum), governor of Susa (biblical Shu- 
shan), consecrated a statue of his Akkadian over- 
lord, Manishtushu (around 2269-2255), to the 
goddess Narunde. She is to be found only in old 
Elamite times. In Akkadian sources she is called 
"the sister of the seven demons." There existed 
two groups of demons, the evil and the good. 
The good demons were also named the "Seven 
Wise Men." Their sister was Narunde, who ap- 
pears in incantation texts as resolved to fight 
against the evil demons. In most cases she seems 
to have been triumphant, for she became the 
goddess of victory. Her accompanying animal is 
the lion. A list of gods from Mesopotamia, called 
"An-Anum," mentions a group of "Seven Gods 
of Elam." Perhaps these are the seven good 
demons, brothers of Narunde. In Akkadian texts 
from Old Babylonian times onward, we also find 
a group of seven (?) "Great Gods of the Sky" 
called Igigi. This is a hypocoristicon (shortened 
name or one of endearment) to the Elamite word 
igi, "brother." Igigi also occurs as short name 
and as component of a theophoric name (com- 

posed with name of a god) (i-gi-gi-tu-ni-is, or 
"Given from [the God(s)] Igigi"). It is tempting 
to see in all of these terms the same group of 
gods and their origin is Elamite. 

In sum, Simut, "the God of Elam," and the 
goddess of victory, Narunde, and two groups of 
gods, the "Renowned Nourishers" (Khishep- 
ratep) and the "Seven Wise Men" (Igigi), are the 
first Elamite gods who are traceable in history. 

A treaty between the Elamite king Khita and 
Naram-Sin of Akkad (around 2254-2218) is the 
earliest document preserved in the Elamite lan- 
guage. At its beginning, thirty-seven gods are 
called to witness, in first place the goddess 
Pinengir and the "Divine Good of the Sky" 
( d ba-ha-ki-ki-ip). Are these the "Great Gods of 
the Sky," the "Seven Gods of Elam," the "Seven 
Wise Men," the brothers of Narunde? It seems 
likely. Perhaps they can be traced also during 
the following centuries, when, for instance, King 
Khumban-numena (around 1300-1275) men- 
tions the "Divine Benefactors" ( d ba-ha-hu-ti- 
ip-pe) or when King Adda-Khamiti-Inshushinak 
(around 653-648) cites the "Divine Good" 
( d ba-ha-ib-be). 

The fact that Pinengir is summoned first in 
the treaty between Khita and Naram-Sin has led 
to the assumption that she originally was the 
main goddess in the Elamite pantheon. Proofs 
even for an early Elamite matriarchy, perhaps 
reflecting in heaven the situation on earth, have 
been derived from that text alone. However, the 
existence of a heavenly matriarchy cannot be 
corroborated by other inscriptions. On the con- 
trary it must be noted that, strangely, her name 
occurred so rarely. Extremely few personal 
names were composed with her name. 

Not before middle Elamite times do we learn 
anything about her character. King Untash- 
Napirisha (circa 1275—1240 bce) consecrated in 
his holy city, Dur-Untash, a temple for Pinengir, 
among others, and donated a golden statue to 
her. In addition he built an astam for her. This is 
a loanword from Akkadian astammu and means 
"inn." Such inns served beer, and they func- 
tioned as brothels as well. Like the Sumerian 
Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar), Pinengir was obvi- 
ously responsible for love and sex life. And like 
the goddess Ishtar in Mesopotamia, she ac- 
quired motherly features during the second 
millennium, as is demonstrated by the many 


Theology and Worship in EJam and Achaemenid Iran 

terra-cottas with nursing mothers that have been 
found in her temple in Dur-Untash. 

Toward the end of Elamite history, two kings 
in particular venerated Pinengir. Shutruk- 
Nakhhunte II (around 717—699) called her 
"Mistress of the Sky, my god," and Tempt-Khum- 
ban-Inshushinak (around 668-653) a l so ad- 
dressed her as "my god." After that time she was 
no longer mentioned. 

Another goddess, called Kiririsha, the "Great 
Lady," is found in an old Elamite incantation 
text from Mesopotamia, as well as in personal 
names from the beginning of the second millen- 
nium. It has been suggested that at a certain 
time the name of Pinengir was put under a taboo 
and that from this time onward, she was called 
only "Great Lady." However, this cannot be 
proven. It is also possible that Kiririsha was her 
cognomen or that it designated a different god- 
dess right from the beginning. Kiririsha had spe- 
cial connections to the city of Liyan (modern 
Bushehr) on the Persian Gulf. Perhaps she was 
a local goddess who gained influence over all 
the Elamite country. At least in middle Elamite 
times she existed as an independent goddess 
beside Pinengir and had obviously acquired 
much more power than her rival. In the texts 
she is called "Mistress of the Sky," "Mother of 
the Gods," and "Great Consort." Kiririsha seems 
to have been responsible for combat and battle, 
judging, by the votive offerings that have been 
found in her temple in Dur-Untash, which are 
mostly battle-axes. Like Pinengir, Kiririsha dis- 
appeared in late Elamite times. 

Next to Pinengir and the "Divine Good of the 
Sky" in the treaty with Naram-Sin, there follows 
the god Khumban. In the Akkadian incantation 
series Surpu, Khumban is equated with Enlil, 
"Lord Wind," the main god of the Sumerian pan- 
theon. He rules over the atmosphere and can 
bring about disastrous storms against enemies. 
His father was An (Akkadian Anum), the "Sky," 
originally the highest Sumerian god but re- 
placed very early by his son Enlil. 

In Elam the pattern was comparable. In Surpu 
the god Yabru is called the "Anum of Elam." 
His name is preserved only in a single place- 
name (ya-ab-ru-^ 1 ) and in one old Elamite- 
Akkadian personal name. Presumably he was a 
very old Elamite god thrust aside by his son 
Khumban. It might be that Yabru was hidden 

behind the common expression Tempt, or 
"Lord," which is found in many inscriptions. 
Tempt was used as a designation for various 
gods, for instance "a merciful Lord is god Khu- 
tran" or "Inshushinak, Lord of the High Town." 
But on other occasions it seems to have been 
the name of a particular god. In such a usage 
it appeared very often in old Elamite personal 
names. The legal documents of Susa from the 
beginning of the second millennium, for in- 
stance, include seventy-eight personal names 
composed with Tempt. On the other hand, 
names with Khumban occur only three times, 
and those with Pinengir five times. 

Tempt is the Elamite translation of Akkadian 
Bel. In Mesopotamia, Bel also appeared as lord 
of different cities as well as a particular god. In 
late Kassite times he was often equated with 
Marduk, the city god of Babylon. The female 
counterpart was Beltiya, "My Lady," who in mid- 
dle Elamite times was a distinct goddess in 
Elam, too. 

A hint as to the function of Tempt is given in 
a rather late text, where he is said to let flourish 
water and earth. Therefore it is possible that the 
name of the old god Yabru, like those of Pinengir 
and Khumban, had once been taken under a ta- 
boo, and that subsequendy he was called simply 
Tempt, the "Lord." Since we know so little 
about this very old god, we cannot say who his 
consort was. It might have been the goddess of 
the earth, who is designated in the texts only 
with the Sumerogram ki, but whose Elamite 
name is Murun. As a recipient of offerings, she 
appeared only in Achaemenid times, and the 
Achaemenid sources described her in a context 
combined with the Median gods. But the exis- 
tence of a mother goddess must be assumed for 
the earliest times. Possibly the function of the 
old mother goddess had devolved upon her 
daughter (?) Pinengir. The son of Yabru and ki, 
the mother goddess "Earth," was very likely 

Khumban too appeared very early in Elamite 
history. It is possible that the name of the first 
known Elamite king, who must have ruled at the 
beginning of the third millennium, was derived 
from Khumban. He is mentioned in the Epic of 
Gilgamesh as Khuwawa. In later tradition he is 
called Khumbaba. Over the centuries Khumban 
occurred from time to time as a component of 


Religion and Science 

personal names, but he rarely appeared in the 
inscriptions of the kings. As with most of the 
gods, a temple was dedicated to him by the mid- 
dle Elamite king Untash-Napirisha in his holy 
city of Dur-Untash. He was next mentioned by 
Adda-Khamiti-Inshushinak. We find here a phe- 
nomenon comparable to what we have seen in 
connection with the goddess Pinengir. Both are 
old Elamite gods who initially were at the top 
of the pantheon but lost influence over time and 
regained only a portion of their original impor- 
tance at the end of Elamite history. 

There are also parallels from another point 
of view. At the same time as Kiririsha, a god 
Napirisha, or "Great God" — very often written 
d GAL — makes his debut. In Surpu he is equated 
with Ea, or Enki, the "Lord of the Earth," the 
god of wisdom and incantations, who also sends 
the streams of sweet water out of the earth. Illus- 
trations depict him with jets of water coming out 
of his shoulders. It is therefore also possible that 
the Elamite reliefs, like those in Kurangun and 
Naqsh-i Rustam, represent the Elamite equiva- 
lent of this god, namely Napirisha. It is not cer- 
tain if Napirisha was originally a taboo-name 
for Khumban. We could assume a phenomenon 
parallel to the case of Pinengir-Kiririsha and, 
presumably, Yabru-Tempt. But Napirisha, too, 
must have very early been regarded as a separate 
god. The responsibility for the universe was di- 
vided between the two gods. While Khumban 
ruled over the upper regions of the air, Napirisha 
was the master of the earth. In the latter function, 
he rapidly grew in importance and superseded 
his rival, Khumban. During all periods he must 
have been a powerful god, and he was still wor- 
shiped in Achaemenid times . Napirisha and Kiri- 
risha formed a couple. Temples were often 
devoted to both of them. In middle Elamite 
times they were closely connected with Inshu- 
shinak, with whom they constituted a triad, the 
most powerful gods of Elam at that time. The 
son of Napirisha and Kiririsha was Khutran. His 
name probably means "Overwhelmer," so he 
must have been a god of soldiers and fighters. 

Let us return to the treaty with Naram-Sin. In 
the text of the contract, following the enumera- 
tion of gods called to witness, five gods are men- 
tioned frequentiy, always in the same formula: 
"Nakkhunte loves the king, to Inshushinak he 
is subject, Siyashum, Napir(?), and Narunde the 

king obeys." Obviously Nakkhunte was the fa- 
vorite god of King Khita. Nakkhunte is also men- 
tioned in one of the first places among the 
witnesses. Nakkhunte was the sun-god of Elam. 
He was equated with the Sumerian Utu and Ak- 
kadian Shamash and had the same functions, 
being, like them, responsible for law and justice. 
The sun-god was regularly called to witness and 
was guarantor of the observance of the judgment. 
In malediction formulas he was asked to refuse 
the evildoer any offspring. 

In Mesopotamian mythology the sun-god was 
the son of the moon-god, Nanna (Sumerian), or 
Sin (Akkadian), and the brother of Inanna/Ishtar. 
He was also closely connected with both of them 
in his iconography. In Elam the moon-god was 
presumably Napir, or "the God." If this identifi- 
cation is correct, it would indicate that he once 
had a very high standing. He is also mentioned 
in the often-repeated formula of the treaty with 
Naram-Sin (though in all occurrences partly de- 
stroyed). Napir was a component of personal 
names across the centuries, but not very often. 
Writing with the logogram d EN.zu occurred 
much more often. 

We do not know much about the goddess 
Siyashum. She may have been the "Keeper of 
the Palace of the Gods." Besides having been 
named in the treaty with Naram-Sin, she was a 
component of two old Elamite personal names 
and had a temple dedicated to her by King 

The most important god for King Khita seems 
to have been Inshushinak, to whom he was sub- 
ject. And at the end of the treaty, he puts the 
entire agreement and the statue of Naram-Sin 
made for commemoration of the event under the 
protection of Inshushinak. So the importance of 
this god is apparent in the earliest document in 
the Elamite language. His name was derived 
from Nin-shushinak, "Lord of Susa," and so he 
was the city god of Susa. Therefore Susa must 
in very early times already have been an extraor- 
dinarily powerful city, since its god gained 
influence over the whole country. For all the 
Elamite kings as well as for the people, Inshushi- 
nak was the most important god. He occurred 
as a component of hundreds of personal names 
and was invoked by every king. 

In the list of gods, or "An-Anum," he is 
equated with Ninurta. Ninurta was the city god 


Theology and Worship in Elam and Achaemenid Iran 

of Nippur (modern Nuffar) and was believed to 
be the eldest son of the god Enlil (who corre- 
sponded to Khumban). Ninurta was responsible 
for fertility and vegetation as well as for the wa- 
ters abounding in fish. He caused the inunda- 
tions in springtime that are necessary for an 
ample harvest. Therefore he was of highest im- 
portance for the farmers and was also called 
"Lord Plough." On the other hand, Ninurta was 
also leader in battle and a king. He was defender 
against enemies from without and judge regard- 
ing grievances within the country. 

All these features fit Inshushinak, too. He had 
a great variety of functions. He was addressed 
not only as "Father of the Weak" but also as 
"King of the Gods." For the general public, In- 
shushinak was the most important god because 
he determined its welfare. From the royal per- 
spective, he was guarantor of the king's reign 
because he fought the king's enemies and sup- 
ported the king in his wars of conquest. Also, he 
safeguarded right and order within the country. 
In the legal documents from Susa from the first 
half of the second millennium, he was, with the 
sun-god, the first called to witness. Furthermore 
both were also responsible for the execution of 
the judge's decisions and for the protection of 
votive offerings and buildings. 

In old Elamite times, Inshushinak and the 
sun-god (Nakkhunte, or Shamash) were often ac- 
companied by Nergal . This Sumerian and Akkad- 
ian god was ruler of the underworld, meaning 
supreme lord of the deceased. He caused fever 
and epidemics and controlled the scorching heat 
of the sun that ostensibly caused reed fires. But 
he was also a great warrior. In Mesopotamian 
mythology Nergal was the brother of Ninurta, to 
whom Inshushinak has been equated. It seems 
that in Elam, Inshushinak rather early combined 
the functions of both brothers in his person. 
Thus Inshushinak's power, as lord of the under- 
world too, increased greatly. His symbol was the 
snake, the animal that, as offspring of the dark 
earth, demonstrates in a unique way the ambigu- 
ous, perplexing (and dangerous) nature of 
this god. 

In middle Elamite texts, Inshushinak appears 
as judge of the deceased, accompanied by 
Ishme-karab and Lagamar. Both names are Ak- 
kadian, meaning "He Who Grants the Prayer" 
and "No Mercy," which indicates the disposi- 

tion of each. Both occur as components of 
personal names. Itis understandable thatlshme- 
karab was much more popular. In Dur-Untash 
he had a temple dedicated to him; it was side 
by side with Kiririsha and was given comparable 
votive offerings. In Assyria, Ishme-karab was 
one of the seven judges, but he was more im- 
portant in Elam. 

The power and importance of the god Inshu- 
shinak for all inhabitants of Elam, from the most 
humble up to the king, is quite clear from the 
earliest times onward. So it is a striking fact that 
he disappeared completely in Achaemenid 
times. It is understandable, however, since as 
protector against enemies from outside, he had 
failed. Babylonians and, above all, the Persians, 
had gotten the upper hand, and the Elamites 
had become subjects of foreigners. Thus with 
the decline of the Elamite kingdom, Inshushi- 
nak lost all of his influence. In this situation the 
old god Khumban was able to regain some of his 
original power, though he had to share his place 
with the Babylonian weather-god Adad. 

Aside from these major gods, there were a 
great many lower gods who are mentioned only 
rarely. Among them the god of the river ordeal, 
Shazi, had a certain importance. His role was 
passing sentence. He who committed a breach 
of contract had to go into the waters: "May the 
god Shazi smash his skull!" In Akkadian sources 
(often legal documents) Shazi was said to be the 
son of the river god, but we do not know his 
name in Elamite. 

In surviving texts, the goddess Mashti is once 
addressed as "Good Mother of the Gods." 
Mashti has been compared with dil.bad, the 
"Venus Star," but it is more probable that 
the latter was Narsina in Elamite. King Untash- 
Napirisha built a temple for Rukhu-rater and 
Hish-mitek. Rukhu-rater, the "Nourisher of the 
Legal Offspring," was presumably the same god 
mentioned in Surpu as Lakhuratil. There he is 
equated with Ninurta. But Ninurta corre- 
sponded otherwise to Inshushinak, as we have 
seen. Therefore Rukhu-rater may have been a 
local god with similar functions. Khish-mitek is 
otherwise unknown. That is also the case with 
the god Tirutir, or Tirumitir. The deities Upurku- 
bak and Khaterishni formed a couple. Upurku- 
bak is in one text called the "Mistress of the Way 
of the Nobles." Her partner's name has been 


Religion and Science 

found only recently; it may be translated as "His 
Love May Become Great." 

In addition to the gods, the mythological 
world of ancient Elam must have been popu- 
lated by many fabulous creatures, many of them 
hybrids, half man and half animal. We learn 
about them only from illustrations, above all on 
seals. There they are working in the fields or 
appear as "Masters of Animals" or alternate in 
their appearance on seals as either subduers of 
other animals or victims of them. In most cases 
they behave like men, but in others they func- 
tion as animals on whose back a god is riding. 

A great many gods are known only as compo- 
nents of personal names. We can only hope that 
future research will throw more light on the fasci- 
nating world of Elamite gods. 

Priests and Cult in Elam 

The primary administrator of the gods on earth 
was in all periods the king. He was the leading 
hunter, the first in battle, and the highest priest. 
In the time of the sukkalmakhs, at the beginning 
of the second millennium, the kings obviously 
were themselves regarded as divine. (See "Susa 
and Susiana in Second-Millennium Iran" in Part 
5, Vol. II, for further discussion.) We find several 
names of kings written with the DiNGiR-sign that 
is otherwise the determinative for the names of 
the gods. 

Next below the king was a high priest. We 
know only his Akkadian title, pasisu rabu. It was 
his duty always to accompany the king, even on 
his campaigns. 

A common priest was called satin. As we can 
see from early representations, the priests per- 
formed the divine services naked. Sometimes 
they wore long hair, or perhaps wigs; otherwise 
they had high crowns with horns on their heads. 
We also meet with priestesses. It appears that 
their position was quite equal to that of their 
male colleagues. They sold houses, rented 
fields, and loaned money that must have been 
their own. One priestess transferred a certain 
amount of silver to her nurse. In legal transac- 
tions priestesses acted as witnesses. The girls in 
the "inns" of Pinengir presumably were re- 
garded as priestesses, too. The income of those 
establishments went to the goddess. The gods 
and goddesses usually owned large properties. 
For instance Inshushinak, Shamash, Simut, and 

the goddess Upurkubak were landowners who 
leased their fields and rented grain for their 
fields' cultivation. ("Renting grain" meant that 
a certain amount of seed grain was handed over; 
it had to be paid back with a fixed multiple 
amount.) They also functioned like savings 
banks and loaned money. The sun-god seems 
to have been particularly active in this domain. 
Thus the priests were not only responsible for 
their religious duties but also had to be skilled 
managers of property and funds. 

A sculptured bronze plate, dedicated by King 
Shilkhak-Inshushinak in the latter half of the 
twelfth century, depicts a ceremony called sit 
samsi, the Akkadian expression for "rising of the 
sun." In the middle of the plate squat two priests 
without clothing. One of them is about to pour 
water over the hands of the other as they perform 
the purification ceremonies at the beginning of 
the day. The water may have been taken from 
the ewer that is standing beside them together 
with two basins. A table for the offerings is to 
be seen between two columns. On both sides of 
the priests are temples. In front of the smaller J 
one extends a holy grove. 

High temples were built in the main cities. 
Usually they were stepped, one block upon the 
other, the so-called ziggurats. We know them 
from archaeological excavations — at, for in- 
stance, Dur-Untash — and from many illustra- 
tions on seals and reliefs. Often they are adorned 
with large horns. As we learn from the consecra- 
tion inscriptions, the horns were made of wood 
or alabaster and were often gilded. Gold was 
used in abundance. Not only were golden stat- 
ues set before the gods, but doors, beams, and 
bricks were gilded. Adding further visual rich- 
ness, the luster of the gold was combined with 
bright colors. We get an impression of the play 
of colors from the many glass rods that once 
adorned the doors of the temples. 

Much more common than the brick-built tem- 
ples must have been the holy groves. They are 
mentioned frequently in the texts. The holy pre- 
cinct was fenced in, and an altar formed the 
cult center. Several altars or offering tables that 
have been found had drains for the blood of 
the victims. Obviously blood offerings were a 
major element of the Elamite cult. The kings 
instituted periodic offerings. For instance King 
Kutik-Inshushinak (around 2250) promised the 





Theology and Worship in Elam and Achaemenid Iran 



god Inshushinak for his temple in Susa each day 
one ram at the high sanctuary, one ram at the 
lower sanctuary, singers in the morning and eve- 
ning, twenty measures of oil to anoint the door, 
and silver and gold. (Apparently there was more, 
but here the text breaks off.) 

In addition to these regular offerings, the great 
feasts were of special interest to all the people. 
The most important of those feasts must have 
been the gusum, which was dedicated to the 
"Lady of the High City." We are not sure who 
this lady was. Presumably the feast was a very 
old tradition and originally may have been estab- 
lished for the old mother goddess. Then it may 
have been passed to Pinengir and afterward to 
Kiririsha. At least in middle Elamite times, it is 
most likely that the offerings were intended for 
this last goddess. Adult fattened rams were 
slaughtered in a certain ritual manner and obvi- 
ously in large numbers because the feast was 
also called "Feast of the Pouring Offerings." 
Streams of blood must have flowed down from 
the altars. This feast always took place at the 
new moon at the beginning of autumn. In the 
early period, this was at the beginning of 
the new year. After the official sacrifices, there 
must have been a public festival with singers 
and music. The meat of the victims was roasted, 
and everyone received a piece of it. 

Music was always part of the Elamite cult. We 
have mentioned already the singers who at- 
tended the daily offerings at the temples, and a 
seal impression illustrating a religious proces- 
sion depicts musicians with harp, lyre, and flute 
accompanying the image of a god. 

A characteristically Elamite phenomenon was 
the kiden. Every god had his own kiden, his 
special charisma, a boundary of magical protec- 
tion. This numinous phenomenon found its ob- 
jective expression in a taboo-emblem. Among 
its uses was the touching of evildoers with this 
emblem before they were executed. In many 
cases they died at the very moment of contact 
with the emblem as a result of their emotional 
response. In a wider sense, the kiden was also 
the room in which the taboo-emblem was kept. 
There witnesses were led before they were 
asked to take an oath. In most cases it was the 
kiden of Inshushinak, but that of Simut is also 
mentioned, as well as those of less well known 
gods such as Rukhu-rater or Kubuzzi. The Elam- 

ites believed that a man must die if a god re- 
moved from him his protective kiden. 


The main source for Iranian theology is the 
Avesta, the songs of the Zoroastrian priests. Its 
oldest part was formed by the gathas, which are 
ascribed to the prophet Zarathustra himself. He 
taught that there is only one god, Ahura Mazda, 
the "Wise Lord." But, he warned, everyone must 
beware of the "Lie" or the "Servant of the Lie." 
Every human being should aspire to come into 
the eternal kingdom of god, he taught. On the 
way a person is supported by three archangels: 
Vohu Manah, the "Good Mind"; Rtam, the 
"Right Order"; and Armaiti, the "Devotion." 

Opinions about the religion of the Achaeme- 
nids are still quite divided. The main question 
is whether they were followers of the prophet 
Zarathustra. Until now our sole sources on this 
matter have been the Greek historians, above 
all Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century at 
the edge of the Achaemenid empire. The inscrip- 
tions of the Achaemenid kings provide some 
hints about the beliefs of the rulers. From them 
we learn that for Darius and his successors, 
Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord," the god of Zara- 
thustra, was the highest of gods. (See "Darius I 
and the Persian Empire" in Part 5, Vol. II.) 

In 1933—1934, during the excavations of the 
Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago 
in Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, 
Ernst Herzfeld found an administrative archive 
of nearly thirty thousand clay tablets. Six thou- 
sand of them are more or less well preserved, 
but little more than two thousand have so far 
been published. These tablets are from the reign 
of Darius I ("the Great") (522-486). They are 
written in Elamite and constitute administrative 
vouchers from the heartland of Persia, including 
the Elamite district (later Elymais) up to the 
borders of Susa. This new material provides in- 
formation not only about the economy and ad- 
ministration, but also about the daily life of the 
inhabitants and their religious environment. 
Thus with the help of these original sources, we 
are able to make much more precise statements 
about theology and cult in Achaemenid Iran than 


Religion and Science 

The Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster) 

The exact years of the prophet Zarathustra are still 
unknown, but he appears to have been active about 
600 bce in Bactria (Bactriana), eastern Iran. He lived 
among the Iranian nomads and their princely leaders, 
who appear in his songs, the gaihas. Zarathustra be- 
came a priest and began to teach that there was only 
one god, Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord." Therefore 
the magicians, the priests of the old Iranian gods, 
were his greatest enemies. 

Ahura Mazda is closely connected with a high per- 
sonality called "Holy Ghost" or his "Son," who was 
responsible for the "Right Order" in heaven and on 
earth. The son is also the judge of the Last Judgment, 
when the deceased must pass the bridge of decision 

and either enter paradise or fall down into hell. From 
this it is apparent that the teachings of Zarathustra 
contain many "Christian" beliefs — six hundred years 
before Jesus was born. 

Under the reign of the Achaemenid kings Cyrus 
"the Great" (559-530 bce) and Darius I ("the Great") 
(522-486 bce), Zoroastrianism became the state reli- 
gion of Persia. However, before long the evolution 
of belief had brought about the reappearance of the 
old Iranian gods. By the time of the Sasanian dynasty 
(third-seventh centuries ce), whose rulers called 
themselves Zoroastrians, the religion had altered in 
many fundamental respects. 

State Religion 

Some of the tablets are concerned with expenses 
for offerings. In this context several gods are 
mentioned, various kinds of offerings are found, 
and priests with Elamite as well as Iranian titles 
are cited. At first glimpse the impression (differ- 
ent names of gods and unknown terms) is quite 
confusing, but one term, ( d lan), recurs very often. 
The DiNGiR-sign ( d ) indicates that the term is 
divine. Originally the Elamite word Ian meant 
"divine presence," in the figurative sense of "re- 
ligious cult" or in the concrete sense of "sacri- 
fice." The tablets never say to whom the sacrifice 
was given. Obviously it was well known to every 
inhabitant of the Persian Empire and so did not 
need any explanation. In divine lists the Ian has 
the same status as the names of gods. Therefore 
it is most probable that this special offering was 
addressed to a particular god. 

The Zan-sacrifice was the only one for which 
regular rations were expended every month. 
The amount of the rations differed from town to 
town, presumably depending upon the impor- 
tance of the temple or the size of the community. 
Most common are thirty liters (27 quarts) of grain 
or flour and ten liters (10.6 quarts) of wine per 
month. That would be a daily amount of offer- 
ings of one liter (1.06 quarts) of flour and one- 
third liter (0.35 quarts) of wine. In some cases 
fruits are mentioned instead of wine. On several 
tablets the expenses for the Zan-sacrifice are 

called "rations of the king." This term occurs 
only in connection with the special cult offering. 
Thus the king himself arranged the regular car- 
rying out of this principal sacrifice. Therefore 
we can conclude that it must have been the sacri- 
fice for Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord," because 
he is the only god emphasized (the one who 
gave the king his power) in all the inscriptions 
of King Darius. 

The celebration of the Zan-sacrifice took place 
over all the heartland of Persia. The Ian was 
celebrated in the vicinity of the large cities of 
Persepolis and Shiraz and to the southeast, south- 
west, and northeast of Persepolis. Moving from 
Persepolis westward toward Elam, it was found 
with decreasing frequency. But in the border- 
land and between Persia and Elymais, great festi- 
vals for certain gods were held, apparendy once 
a year. These festivals, which occurred only in 
that region, must have had their roots in local 
traditions. In the Elamite district of Elymais, the 
Ian was found only in two places in the border 
region. Otherwise there is no mention of this 
special offering. This fact shows clearly that in 
Achaemenid times, the Ian was no longer a gen- 
eral expression for sacrifice but a particular of- 
fering. And this sacrifice cannot have been 
dedicated to an Elamite god, because the sacri- 
fice obviously was extremely rare in that region, 
where Elamites lived as the majority of inhab- 


Theology and Worship in Elam and Achaemenid Iran 

The Priests 

Various titles for priests are attested in the texts. 
First there is the old Elamite word satin. Priests 
with this designation were above all responsible 
for Elamite and Babylonian gods, though they 
also worshiped Iranian gods. The second and 
most common title was magus, the "magician." 
These Median priests venerated Iranian gods 
but never Elamite or Babylonian deities. In addi- 
tion they could sometimes be called framazdd, 
or "outstanding memorizer," which was an hon- 
orary title. It occurs only three times in the texts 
that have been found, and in those cases, it was 
in connection with old Iranian gods. Several 
times a magician is called lan-lirira, "Celebrator 
of the Zan-sacrifice." In such cases he was also 
responsible for the Ian. That the administration 
thought it necessary to emphasize this duty 
shows clearly that originally the magicians had 
quite different responsibilities. 

The fact that they sometimes also were given 
the title atrvaxsa points in the same direction. 
This third title, meaning "He Who Lets the Fire 
Grow," is purely Zoroastrian. A priest bearing 
only this title was responsible just for the lan- 
sacrifice, which is further proof that this offering 
must have been for Ahura Mazda. The use of 
the titles "magician" and atrvaxsa side by side 
for one and the same person indicates that they 
originally represented different cults. In the 
time of Darius I, considerations of religious pol- 
icy obviously induced the magicians to adapt 
themselves to the Zoroastrian religion by includ- 
ing it in their program. In this early period, how- 
ever, they could not reach the high position of 
the purely Zoroastrian priests who functioned 
also as inspectors in the administration and were 
called, for instance, to attest the correctness of 

If one takes into consideration all the facts 
cited, it becomes quite clear that the Zan-sacri- 
fice was the most important element of the offi- 
cial religion. And it is rather certain that this was 
the state sacrifice for the god Ahura Mazda, the 
"Wise Lord." The religious policy of the 
Achaemenids tolerated several other gods, and 
they too received offerings from the state. Yet 
the influence of these gods was of only local 
importance. To point out the differences of the 
above-mentioned gods from the official state reli- 

gion represented by the Zan-sacrifice, we will 
take a closer look at these gods. 

Iranian Gods 

The Visai Baga Most often mentioned in the 
administrative tablets from Persepolis is the Vi- 
sai Baga, a group of gods whose name means 
"All Gods." They appear as early as the Indian 
songs of the Rigveda, where they are called 
Vishve Devah, which has the same meaning. 
In the doctrine of Zarathustra, the Devah were 
regarded as evil demons, and the gods were now 
called baga. A memory of this group of gods may 
have survived among the people. Thus the old 
group reappeared with a new name, baga in- 
stead of devah, and was worshiped once more. 
Perhaps Darius referred to this special group 
when he says in his inscription, "Ahura Mazda 
with all the gods." Though the Visai Baga are 
the most frequently mentioned old gods, in com- 
parison to the Ian their occurrence is very rare. 
The tradition of venerating them was preserved 
in only one region, as they received offerings 
in eight places in the district situated west and 
southwest of Persepolis. 

Several scholars have proposed to read not 
Visai Baga but Mica Baga, meaning "God 
Mithra." But such a reading is excluded by the 
Elamite writing. Thus there is no proof that 
Mithra received any offerings during the reign 
of Darius. Mithra, who was originally the god of 
"contract," the literal meaning of his name, later 
became, as sun-god and victorious god of war, 
the most favored god in the Indo-Aryan world. 
His worshipers arranged festivals in dark caves 
at night, during which they slaughtered bulls 
and became drunk with hauma. This intoxicat- 
ing drink was made from dried mushrooms; it 
did not lose its effect until it had passed up to 
eight or nine times through the human body. 

The female counterpart of Mithra was Anahita, 
the goddess of love and fertility. Zarathustra 
fought a fierce battle against both of them, and 
the fact that they did not receive any offerings 
under the reign of Darius demonstrates that they 
were outlawed in Darius's time, quite in keep- 
ing with Zarathustra's doctrine. Both would re- 
gain their former power only after some time 
had passed, reappearing in the inscriptions of 
King Artaxerxes II (405—359). 


Religion and Science 

Zurvan, Hvarira, and Naryasanga The old 
Median god Zurvan appears in the later Avesta 
(texts from late medieval times) as god of infinite 
time and as father of Ahura Mazda and his evil 
counterpart, Ahriman. On the tablets from Per- 
sepolis he occurs only in connection with three 
places that lay close to each other. In the same 
villages, the Visai Baga were also worshiped. 
And in two places of the same region, offerings 
were made to Hvarira, the "Genius of Sunrise." 
In two others we find the veneration of Narya- 
sanga who in the Avesta is called the "Messen- 
ger of the Gods." The area in which these gods 
were venerated lay west and southwest of Per- 
sepolis, which must have been a stronghold of 
the old Median gods. 

Mountains and Rivers In the same district, 
mountains and rivers were worshiped as gods. 
There is no trace of this practice in any other 
region of the Persian heartland. The reason must 
be sought in geographical circumstances. In the 
area in question, southwest of Persepolis, are 
extremely high mountains and many important 
rivers. In some instances the same mountain re- 
ceived offerings in two or three villages, so it 
can be assumed that they must all have been 
situated in the neighborhood of the mountain. 
Places in which the same river was worshiped 
may have been situated farther from each other, 
but in any case on the same river. The names of 
the mountains and rivers regarded as gods sound 
Iranian. Therefore this veneration of conspicu- 
ous natural phenomena must have been an old 
Iranian tradition, but it obviously had survived 
only in this limited area. 

Mizdushish, Brtakamya, and Thaigracish 
In addition to the Iranian gods mentioned above, 
only a few additional, and even more poorly at- 
tested, gods occurred in the adjacent district to 
the north. In two places on the Persian highway 
leading from Persepolis to Susa, just before it 
reached the border of the Elamite region, we 
meet the goddess of fate, Mizdushish. She was 
responsible for the welfare of the human beings, 
and it is therefore astonishing that we do not 
find her more often. But by Darius's time, all the 
functions of the old Iranian gods had presumably 
been concentrated in the one god, Ahura Mazda, 

as a result of the teaching of Zarathustra. In one 
case the goddess Mizdushish was celebrated to- 
gether with the third month, Thaigracish. This 
name can be translated "(the Month) of the Gath- 
ering of Garlic." The fact that the month was also 
worshiped suggests that other personifications 
existed too. Indeed names of months were some- 
times attested with the DiNGiR-sign. 

In two other places, the god Brtakamya, the 
"Fulfiller of Wishes," is mentioned. But the few 
old Iranian gods who were to be found here 
received not regular rations but only cereals, 
wine, and fruits for a special festival, perhaps 
held only once a year. Thus we can state that 
Median or common Iranian gods were still wor- 
shiped in Achaemenid times. They received of- 
ficial rations for their offerings, but they were 
very few in number and restricted to small areas. 

Elamite and Babylonian Gods 

Because of the Persian king's tolerance, Elamite 
and Babylonian gods received rations for offer- 
ings, too. However, they were venerated only 
by the Elamites. Therefore they were found 
mainly in the Elymais and in some isolated 
places in the Persian heartland. (We should bear 
in mind that Elamites lived all over the country.) 
The old Elamite god Khumban, who was re- 
sponsible for the atmosphere and for storms, ap- 
peared side by side, or with the same amount 
of offerings, with the Babylonian weather-god 
Adad. In several places they were worshiped 
together. On some tablets it is stated that the 
offerings are destined "for the gods." In one case 
"the gods" are described as Khumban and Adad. 
Therefore one can perhaps assume that the 
scribes always thought of these two when they 
wrote "for the gods" in an Elamite context. Out- 
side of the Elymaen region, Khumban was wor- 
shiped in some places in the Elamite-Persian 
border region, where he was the only Elamite 
god receiving sacrifices. He also was associated 
with just one village in the district southeast of 
Persepolis. In another place in the same district, 
the sole appearance of Adad outside of the Ely- 
mais is attested. Together with him is mentioned 
a god Napazapa, who is otherwise unknown but 
whose name sounds Elamite. Napirisha, the 
"Great God," rival of Khumban, was venerated 
in three places in the Elymais and in four places 

i 9 68 

Theology and Worship in EJam and Achaemenid Iran 

in the district southwest of Persepolis, which 
must have been an enclave of his worshipers. A 
number of other Elamite gods, who cannot be 
identified, also appeared in a handful of places. 
Some of them seem to have been responsible 
for abundance of water and fertility. 

Of the highest importance for the Elamites in 
Achaemenid times must have been the special 
sacrifice called kusukum, in which rams were 
slaughtered. It may have had its origin in the 
old Elamite gusum, which was celebrated for 
the "Lady of the High City." As we have learned 
above, the most important element of this festi- 
val, too, was the sacrifice of rams. Yet here, we 
find a decisive difference. As a general rule, the 
Achaemenid administration never dispensed an- 
imals for offering purposes, only grain or flour, 
wine or beer, or fruits. However, the slaughter 
of the rams was obviously very important for the 
Elamites in celebrating their kusukum. There- 
fore in all known cases where victims were 
needed, the Elamite priests saved the grain that 
they had received from the state and bought 
rams with it. This practice clearly shows that 
the sacrifice of animals was not intended by the 

Outside the Elamites the kusukum is men- 
tioned only once, and there the priest received 
nothing but wine. 


On the basis of the Elamite clay tablets from the 
archive of Darius I in Persepolis, some funda- 
mental questions of Achaemenid religion can be 
elucidated. On the one hand, there clearly was 
a state religion that found its expression in the 
Zan-sacrifice. This was the official offering for 
the god Ahura Mazda, which was arranged by 
the king himself. The Zan-sacrifice was the one 
that occurred most frequendy and was the only 
one celebrated regularly. It was practiced 
throughout the Persian heartland but occurred 
at only two places in the Elymais. Aside from 
the Zan-offering, some old Iranian, and above all 
Median, gods were also worshiped, but their 
influence was restricted to small areas where 

they obviously represented remnants of local tra- 

The state distributed offerings for all of them, 
as well as for Elamite or Babylonian gods, the 
veneration of whom was centered in the district 
of Elymais. But while there was considerable 
religious tolerance, certain basic principles had 
to be observed. Only grain or flour, wine or beer, 
or fruits were dispensed, never animals for offer- 
ing purposes. Thus we can say that, judging by 
the sources currently available to us, the early 
Achaemenids must have been followers of the 
faith taught by Zarathustra and that sacrifices of 
animals did not comport with their beliefs. In 
this context, a god such as the bull-killing Mithra 
was not worthy of worship. 


walther hinz, Lost World ofElam: Re-Creation of a 
Vanished Civilization, translated by Jennifer barnes 
(1972), "Religion in Ancient Elam," in The Cambridge 
Ancient History, vol. 1, pt. 2, Early History of the 
Middle East (3rd ed. 1971), and Darius und die Perser, 
vols. 1 (1976) and 2 (1979); Walter hinz and heide- 
marie koch, Elamisches Worterbuch, vols. 1 and 2, 
Archaologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, Erganzungs- 
band 17 (1987); Stanley insler, tra ns., The 
Gathas of Zarathustra, Acta Iranica 8 (1975); heide- 
marie koch, Die religiosen Verhdltnisse der Dareios- 
zeit: Untersuchungen an Hand der elamischen 
Persepolistafelchen, Gottinger Orientforschungen 
III. Reihe: Iranica, Bd. 4 (1977), "Gotter und ihre Ver- 
ehrung im achamenidischen Persien," Zeitschriftfur 
Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archaologie 77, 
no. 2(1987), VerwaltungundWirtschaftimpersischen 
Kernland zur Zeit der Achameniden, Beih. zum Tii- 
binger Adas des Vorderen Orients, Reihe B Nr. 89 
(1990), "Zu Religion und Kulten im persischen Kern- 
land," in La Religion iranienne a I'epoque acheme- 
nide: Actes du Colloque de Liege 11 decembre 198/, 
edited by jean kellens (1991); and Es kundet Dareios 
der Konig . . . Vom Leben im persischen Grossreich, 
Kulturgeschichte derAntiken Welt, Bd. 55 (1992); and 
Ursula seidl, Die elamischen Felsreliefs von Kuran- 
gun und Naqs-e Rustam, Iranische Denkmaler, Lie- 
ferung 12, Reihe 4, Iranische Felsreliefs (1986). 

See also Theology, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Egypt (Part 8, Vol. 
Ill); Theologies, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Mesopotamia (Part 8, 
Vol. Ill); and Theology, Priests, and Worship in Hittite Anatolia (Part 
8, Vol. III).