341 PERSIA-LANGUAGE AND RELIGION.
refuge. At a time when Media under Astyages was going rapidly down into the bogs of
idolatry, the hardy race of Persians, still uncorrupted by luxury and by pageants
appealing to the senses, sustained the simple faith with earnestness and zeal. Monotheism
was accepted. One God, over and above nature, was believed in and worshiped. To him was
ascribed such titles as the "Lord of Heaven," the "Maker of Heaven and Earth." The
religious idea was dominant. Even in affairs of state there was a strict and outspoken
recognition of Ahura-Mazdao as the supreme ruler of the world. The great kings prayed to
him as the giver of life and victory.
Still, the lesser powers of nature were recognized as divine. It was beyond the genius
even of Zoroaster to grasp the idea of the absolute unity of the universe. It was admitted
that there was a pantheon of minor deities. These might properly be prayed to, or appeased
with sacrifices, Or adored in worship. The unequivocal supremacy of Ahura-Mazdao was the
essential principle. That being granted, it was not impious to cry out to the lesser gods.
It is impossible to say at what precise period in Persian history the doctrines of dualism
began to gain a foothold. Certain it is that they were not of the original system. Their
introduction marks the beginning of that degeneration which has characterized every
religion in the world under the refinements of theology. As already said in the history of
Media, the Zoroastrian priests came by and by to discriminate the evil powers of nature
from the good, and unable to realize the existence of a higher law which includes in its
beneficence the presence of evil as a necessary element in the problem of the world, they
adopted the expedient of personification and set up a catalogue of devils. It was one of
the bad evolutions of depraved ingenuity.
As in the case of the early Medes, the worship of the Persians consisted in prayers to
Ahura-Mazdao and the good spirits who assisted him in the government of mankind. Another
part of the ceremony was the chanting of solemn gathas, or hymns, in praise of the deity.
Sacrifices were offered
both to please and to appease the majesty of heaven, and Soma was worshiped as the best
gift of the gods. In yielding religiously to intoxication man entered into the divine
moods and spirit.
Of the Persian temples not very much is known. It is possible that the square towers,
already described in the chapter on the architecture of the Achaemenians, may have been
edifices for the worship of the deities.1 The form of the altars before which Ahura-Mazdao
was approached in prayer is determined from the sculptures on the tombs. They had in
general the shape of a mushroom. The bottom consisted of three diminishing squares. On
these was set a stone cube with openings through the center, and this was surmounted with
a hemispherical dome. The height of the whole was four or five feet.
Of living sacrifices the horse, as the noblest creature, was preferred. Cattle, sheep, and
goats were also offered, and it is too apparent that human beings sometimes bled before
the altars. Such sacrifices, however, are said to have been rare, as they were certainly
against the nature and spirit of the Zoroastrian faith.
Of idols properly so-called the Persians had none. The Zendavesta everywhere denounces
idolatry as contrary to the religion. Symbols, however, were permitted. The most popular
emblem was that of Ahura-Mazdao, the same being a winged circle, sometimes bearing a human
figure in the center. This famous symbol is thought to have been copied from the
Assyrians, with whom it stood for Asshur. The sign is seen occupying a prominent place in
nearly all the Persian sculptures, especially on the face of the rock tombs where the
kings were buried. At a later date, when the worship of Mithra, the sun- god, was
introduced from the system of India, that deity was honored with a symbol of the great orb
over which he presided, the same being in the Persian sculptures a plain disk and not a
four-rayed circle like that been on the monuments of the Ninevites.
In the account given in Book Fourth of 1 See Book Sixth, p. 324.