Having taken an interest lately in the ancient tribes – both Scythian and pre-Scythian – that settled in Iran, and fancying a break from my main reading and writing on Celtic myth, I thought it would be interesting to discuss a less well-covered topic in mythological study in relation to the ancestral and bear cults of antiquity. Much has been written about Egyptian myth, the ultimately European origin and the striking parallels here, so I wanted to examine some of the art and archaeology relating to pre-Zoroastrian religion especially in relation to rebirth, totems/demons, the she-bear, the world tree, and so on. Particularly with earlier art found, there will be a degree of comparison to Mesopotanian/Akkadian art forms and myths, which likewise, share similar roots and parallels, but the focus of this is on the tribes that settled ancient Iran and on drawing parallels and comparisons between the myths and symbols before Zoroaster to those of Europe. I will include survive elements of these ancient traditions from the Zoroastrian period when relevant.
Clay “Venus” figure, representing the pregnant mother (or “fertility symbol”), Tepe Sarab, Neolithic period.
Clay boar figure, Tepe Sarab, Neolithic period. The boar is an ancient pan-European symbol in all pantheons. Like findings elsewhere the lines appear to represent wounds, with the figure likely intended to provide good luck in the coming hunt, as well as acting as a primitive, symbolic depiction of the slaying of the beast or placenta in the “battle in the womb” to ensure rebirth. Symbols relating to hunting – antlers, crowns, axes – played significant roles in these initiation rituals. The “practical” or everyday purpose of this as a talisman to bring its owner good fortune in hunting relates to a culture that continued until the Sassanid period.
Here we see an Akkadian relief from the Iranian side of the border with Mesopotamia, near Kermanshah. Possibly influenced by an older relief from Iraq, this shows the king Anubanini (of the Lullubi tribe, who spoke an unclassified language) defeating his enemies with the assistance of the goddess Inanna. Inanna hands him the ring, a symbol of the king’s power in Mesopotamian art. The ring is also a cycle, representing rebirth, and the gold of the ancestors. This role of Inanna parallels that of Pinikir in the Elamite pantheon. Though this figure of a major female deity apparently declined later under the “official” religion of Elam, such images persisted as seen in archaeological finds and continued to be worshipped on a popular level. With Anahita of the later Persian pantheon there was a revival of this official tradition of venerating the female goddess.
In this cylinder seal from Susa, the Akkadian period, in art of unknown but apparently distinctly Iranian origin, we see an apparently female figure flanked by two snakes with a bull’s head above her head, as well as an eagle. Like in Roman art and symbolism, and the falcon in Egyptian art, the eagle is a prominent symbol in Iranian art from different periods, and the bull’s head we could easily compare to the Minotaur in Greek myth. Bulls also feature prominently in Iranian art, often featuring in the common motif of two flanking animals.We could also parallel this image of the probable deity with that of the so-called “snake witch” stone from Gotland, Sweden, pictured below. Above the eagle’s wing is a human head – this could be a depiction of Etana, the shepherd king who flew to heaven on an eagle’s back to obtain the plant of birth for his wife. This was a common motif in Akkadian cylinder seals. As a probable solar symbol (the bird later appears more explicitly as a bird of the sun and heaven), the eagle represents reincarnation, much like the phoenix (similarly associated with the sun and the fires of death and rebirth). We might also compare the symbol of the eagle spreading its wings and feathers to the world tree spreading its branches. In the Etana myth, the Iran equivalent of which may involve a female serpent if this image is anything to go by, the eagle feeds on the snake’s young (as Kronos “ate” his sons, as the she-bear gathers her embryos and discards those she does not need) and in revenge under the guidance of the sun god Shamash (guided by the light of rebirth) the serpent hides in the belly of an ox carcass (notable as the ox has a similar gestation period to humans) and attacks the eagle when it crawls into the carcass to feed on it. In this case the eagle again appears to parallel the beastly avatar of the placenta, with the serpent or umbilical cord “attacking” it in the womb of the mother ox. In the image of this Iranian seal, this appears to be represented with the female body and snakes between the two halves of a bull or ox.
Similar image on the “snake-witch” stone, Gotland, Sweden, circa 400-600 AD. The serpent of course represents the umbilical cord, hence its association with a female figure in both of these pieces (we can also compare this figure to Eve and the snake in Eden)
We also see the same figure in a proto-Elamite vase, found in Ur dating from 2600-2300 BC:
We see it again in this example, a carved chlorite vase this time depicting the horned god wrestling two serpent goddesses, from a vase of the suggested “Jiroft culture” of the bronze age, from south-East Iran,
One of several barbarian tribes that brought about the collapse of the Akkadian empire were the Guti, who spread out from the Zagros mountains. The Guti spoke an unclassified language (there are theories suggesting it was linked to the Indo-European Tocharian languages), and, along with Kassites, Elamites and later Scythians contributed to the population later known as the Lurs. Guti cylinder seals were found at Susa, which commonly depicted a figure with one or more pairs of horns (which we could compare to a crown of antlers as was custom in prehistory, or to Pan or Cernunnos) with the figure grasping a two-headed horned animal (which we could compare to Cerberus, the Chimera or the common motif of two goats, bulls, lions etc. in art of this region) while confronting another horned animal. This is also likely linked to the image of Mithras sacrificing the bull and the ancient ancestral bull cult that it is rooted in. These Guti seals are possibly influenced by Mesopotamian motifs, but this motif of the horned demon and “master of animals” was known to the Guti and preserved in this region. This use of cylinders marks the extent of the Mesopotamian and Elamite influence in Iran, and is essentially absent in finds in the north-east.
Depiction of ibexes is common. In Dardistan, north-west India, where traditions managed to escape the destruction of pagan traditions by Islamic conquests in less isolated neighbouring areas, the people of these remote valleys most of whom are of Indo-Iranian descent have an interesting tradition surrounding the goddess Murkum. Worshipped by all the women in the Haramosh valley, she helped deliver newbowns and protected the mother and child. She was the chief owner of ibexes and wild goats collectively called “mayaro”, and was also venerated by hunters. Here we again see the parallel association with the pregnancy/reincarnation process and the wild hunt, as with many animal totem/demon traditions, and might parallel this veneration of the goat with that in Hellenic and Norse tradition, for example, as well as with more anthropomorphised horned deities. For example, this striding “Pan”-like figure of either Proto-Elamite or Mesopotamian origin, 3000-2800 BC:
The origin of the Elamites and their language is ambiguous. Their language appears to be a language isolate, unrelated to Semitic, Indo-European and even Sumerian. We can, however, find many striking parallels in their artwork and what we can observe about their religion. The Old Elamite cylinders conform to Old Babylonian ones in the way they depict scenes of worship, but some aspects of these scenes originate in Susa. One such example is the depiction of a tree at each end of a scene, showing us the universal world tree and placenta image. The same applies to the depiction of a table before the deity bearing a bird, as in Babylonian seals the world tree symbol and food offerings were absent. We see these characteristics here in this Old Emalite cylinder seal from Susa, 10th-17th century BC:
These distinct Elamite practices were depicted several centuries later in Assyria. In the Middle Elamite cylinder pictured below, found in Luristan dating from the fifteenth century BC, we see a horned deity seated on a throne, with an animal’s head emerging from the throne. Other finds in this group actually depicted the deity sitting on an animal. This is characteristic of the Iranian custom of decorating inanimate objects with animal heads, which along with the familiar image of the horned deity once again is indicative of their deeply animist belief system. We can also note the follower carrying a sacrificial goat, and the image of the lion chasing a horned animal, a ancient motif seen in Mesopotamian and Iran art until the latest periods.
Below we see the foot of a tray featuring an ibex, and a bowl featuring a ram, both from the Old Elamite period, early second millennium BC. Another example of this animist tradition of decorating inanimate objects and furniture with animals.
Below is another cylinder seal design, most likely Middle Elamite, found in Susa, dating from the thirteenth to eleventh century BC. Again we see the motif of two horned animals, this time flanking a world tree, which in this case appears to represent a date palm. This tree design is typical of late and post-Kassite Babylonian design. Such designs were apparently otherwise uncommon in Susa, but can be seen in bronzes in Luristan. This motif of two animals – be they ibexes, bulls or lions – flanking a world tree is commonly seen across different art periods in the region, and the use of twins can be compared to Thor’s goats Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr, Odinn’s ravens Huginn and Muninn, Odinn’s wolves Geri and Freki, or in a more humanoid representation, Baldr and Hodr. Some Asian cultures reveal a lot about the symbolic nature of twins, and twin animals, in mythology, as is the case in Malaysian custom in particular which views the placenta as “alive” and as a friend, sibling or twin of the newborn.
In the cylinder design below, which is most likely Neo-Elamite, circa 9th-8th century BC, we see two griffins hovering over what appears to be a snake with a bull’s head, again relating to the same placenta/beast “avatar” and umbilical cord symbolism.
The two metal pieces below are from the Old Elamite period, and as the features are not Babylonian they are of either Elamite or “generally Iranian” origin. We might easily draw parallels between this falcon depictions and those in Ancient Egyptian art (along with the eagle solar/rebirth symbol characteristic of the later Achaemenid empire and the Zoroastrian religion of the elites), again an example of the importance of the eagle or falcon as a symbol in many pantheons.
Below we see a silver standard-top from a Susa grave, which is most likely Elamite, but its origins are uncertain – if it is incorrectly dated it might have been made when the Hurrians and Mitannians (whose languages and culture originated in the Caucasus) ruled in northern Mesopotamia and Kassites (who spoke an unclassified language, but bore Indo-European names and possibly, like the Mitannians, an Indo-European elite) in the South after the second millennium BC. If so, their geometric style (also favoured in Elam) would have influenced this piece. It is also possible, however, that this standard-top is from before 1500 BC and predates later geometric styles, and is Persian in origin. Depicting a bird or a lizard, we might easily compare this style of standard-top to the dragon heads in Norse culture that also adorned their ships. We can see many similarities with Norse animism and dragons in particular, perhaps more so under Scythian influence, which will be addressed later. This shows again the importance of animism and demons or totems in ancient Iranian culture.
We can see another example of this adornment of objects and furniture with animals in the topping of a whetstone below, found beneath the temple built by Elamite king Shilhak-Inshushinak in the twelfth century BC. As well as an important totemic animal the lion also acts as an avatar of the placenta, the “beast” in the womb.
Below is an example of the commonly found symbol of two ibexes flanking the world tree, on a rein-ring, a motif also found in the same form on an Elamite cylinder seal. Again, we see another demonstration of the twin animals flanking or guarding the world tree, placenta and rebirth symbol.
In Luristan, which provided green pastures ideal for horse and cattle-raising, the Lurs people have been known to place the horns of an ibex with the head modelled in clay on the edge of the roofs over the entrances of their mud brick houses. This likely relates to a far more ancient custom given how commonly we see ibexes venerated in ancient Iranian art in general. Luristan is known for its bronzes, and among the peoples suggested as the creators of these are the Kassites of the sixteenth to twelfth centuries BC and the Cimmerians of the eighth and seventh centuries BC (Cimmerian origin is ambiguous, but presumed to be ultimately Scythian/Iranian or perhaps Thracian). The bronze sheet ring below, from the 12th-11th century BC from Luristain, shows two bulls flanking the world tree. It bears more stylistic similarities to Elamite depictions of this image than to Babylonian.
On this bowl apparently found with two daggers in a cave near Kermanshah dating from the 12th-11th century BC, we again see two bulls flanking the world tree. This again differs more from similar Babylonian depictions of the image.
In the bronze standard-topper below, from Luristan, 9th-8th century BC, we see a “demonic” figure apparently wrestling with two beasts, again paralleling the images shown earlier of a deity grappling with two snakes.
Here from left to right we have a bronze standard showing two ibexes, most likely Luristan, 10th-9th century BC, a Luristan type bronze standard showing two ibexes, probably 10th-9th century BC and a Luristan type standard showing two feline creatures, also most likely 10th-9th century BC. We see again the emphasis on the twin animal motif, and the feline one on the right might even be compared to Norse and Scythian ways of stylising animals in their artwork.
Below are some horse-bits and cheek plates, from Luristan, 8th-7th century BC. Further examples of how widely used the twin animal (particularly twin goat) symbol was used in the region.
Here on this Luristan-type bronze pinhead, probably from 10th-9th century BC, we again see two stylised feline creatures, this time flanking the world tree.
Below is a part of a quiver plaque from Surkh Dum in Luristan, period unknown, showing two bulls flanking the world tree.
There are striking examples of this animist culture and world-tree worship further north, as we can see by looking at the gold bowls from Marlik, north-western Iran. These finds appear to relate to “Scythian” peoples, or are assumed to be related to people speaking an Iranian language at least, based on the amount of arms, horse trappings and horse burials. In the example below, from the 12th or 11th century BC, two bulls flank a tree again, and in this case wings signify their status as “supernatural” beings, or spirit animals in a sense.
On this north-western gold beaker from the 12th or 11th century BC we see lion demons and gazelles. The motif of the composite demon is repeated three times around the bowl (three being a sacred number, and relating to three symbolic rebirths), and we see again the combination of beast and two snakes.
Below is a gold bowl from Kalardasht. Most likely 12th – 11th century BC. The cheek and body are decorated with swastikas, perhaps indicating its supernatural status, or it being the property of a deity.
The particularly striking and familiar mythic scenes below are from the gold bowl of Hasanlu, 12th – 11th century BC. The top image appears to depict the weather god in his chariot – we might compare this to ancient and bronze age solar symbols and solar chariots from Europe, with the symbol of rebirth in nature being led by the bull (or carried by the bull, as the bull has a similar gestation period). The bottom image depicts a fight with a mountain monster. Like many beasts in European myth, it has three heads, which again parallel the three symbolic rebirths.
Below are scenes from the bowl in detail split between two images. There are three of what appear to be weather deities, with the bull being a common weather deity in western Asian tradition, we may also note here that we have three chariots – two apparently drawn by donkeys, one by a bull. One rider has the horns of the bull, and another the solar wing symbol. We may treat these three chariots as carrying the three symbolic rebirths in relation to reincarnation rites, as well as representing three forces of nature as three weather deities. We see a priest holding a beaker before the last man, showing a scene of worship. The bull-god is the weather god, the god with the horned mitre is the god of the country (i.e. the realm, and the realm of the ancestors) and the one with the winged disc is the god of the sun (the god of rebirth, both of nature and of the ancestors). A female deity opens her mantle to expose her nude body in a style similar to that in Syrian art – we might liken this figure to that of Aphrodite, and perhaps Artemis, and Anahita of later Persian tradition as a “fertility” goddess.We see next to this the image of a bird with an eagle or falcon with a human head, reminiscent of the image in the seal from Susa discussed earlier, relating again to the Etana myth, or local parallel.
In this half of the scene, we see a child being offered to a deity with an axe in one hand – this likely has roots in initiation ritual of the ancestral cult, with the axe representing the ancestral heirloom (originally the tools of the hunter-gatherer ancestors, as well as the “key”or tool used for opening the tomb). In this busy image this might be speculation, but the lion seated behind the deity could perhaps be guarding him (as the wolf in Norse culture is really guarding the entry to the tomb and the ancestors’ domain, and the land of the dead, and Cerberus guards it likewise in Greek myth). Above this we see a man battling the mountain monster, which is linked to the scene above by a stream. We might even link this stream sent down by the weather god to the great flood of Mesopotamian myth, which relates to birth and the water breaking (in Mesopotamian myth this occurred because humans were overpopulated, and in Zoroastrian and presumably older Iranian myth when the population had increased threefold, i.e. after three symbolic rebirths). We see the three headed beast, which we might liken to Cerberus, and to each beast the hero has to defeat or slay in order to enter the tomb and initiation during each symbolic rebirth. We see what appears to be another depiction of the weather god battling the beast in the mountain, which we could easily interpret as the ancestor rising from the “mountain” or burial mound. It’s connection to the rebirth scene above with the weather deities and the initiation ceremony to the left with the baby could be further indication of this.
These scenes can be linked to a Hurrian epic focusing on an ancient Kronos-like figure of Kummarbi, preserved in Hittite text. We can only speculate about the impact Hurrians had on Iranian art and myth. In this epic, Kummarbi tried to regain his heavenly kingship taken from him by the storm god Teshup. Kummarbi creates an enemy for the storm deity by impregnating a rock which bears a child with a body of stone. We might link this to the myth of medusa, the myth of Kronos eating his sons and the close association of rocks with burial mounds, the womb and rebirth, and the calcification of the fetus (the rare phenomenon of lithopedion) in the womb. It is likely the child was then raised in water (the water of the womb) in the original myth, hence his being partially surrounded by bubbles in this image. After it was born Kummarbi decided the stone child would attack and crush the storm god. We might compare this to the battle between Thor – the thunder god – and Loki – god of lightning, fire and possibly locks and knots – in Norse myth, and the personification of the stone or “hammer” of Thor chasing the lightning through the sky (as originally the thunder was said to be, or likened to, two stones smashing together). This could, therefore, be directly linked to the seated deity and his axe. The child then emerges from the sea and grows and grows (like a fetus in the womb), and the storm god’s sister Ishtar fails to calm it because it is deaf and blind (like the baby in the womb, deprived of his senses, awareness and consciousness). Teshup is defeated in the first encounter, as is often the case in initiation rituals in myths and folk tales, but the water god Ea eventually severs the stone child from its base (i.e. its link to the host, the umbilical cord). We again see here the juxtaposition of eagle and serpent, and the eagle depicted could relate to Kummarbi’s wish for the monster to scatter the gods down from heaven (i.e. to summon the ancestors). In Sasanian times under Zoroastrianism, Anahita was closely connected to the great eagle or falcon, the symbol of rebirth and force of nature, and this is likely rooted in far more ancient customs.
One other image worth commenting on in this piece is that of two heroes slaying a bearded man, which we can link to that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the demonic guardian of the cedar forest (in other words, the guardian of the womb or tomb) in Mesopotamian myth – this image was adopted by Mitannian seal-cutters and continued in Neo-Hittite reliefs, and is found in some Luristan bronzes, with differing meanings, perhaps indicating a native Iranian concept.
Below is an iron pin decorated with a bronze lion from Hasanlu, period unknown, possibly circa 9th century BC. Here we might recognise the image of the beast that guards the underworld being chained up, often to a rock, just as Prometheus after giving the gift of fire (rebirth) was chained to a rock for eternity (with his liver being devoured and reborn every day), Fenrir and Loki being chained until Ragnarök and an example from Welsh tradition in the Mabinogion of a lion being chained to a rock above a pit of bones. We can liken this image of a chained beast, often attached to a rock, to that of the placenta attached to the newborn with the umbilical cord.
In this glazed knob from Hasanlu, 9th century BC, which is comparable to tiles decorating Assyrian palaces but showing facial characteristics that show Elamite influence, we see a human-headed bull, a reversal of the bull-headed man image perhaps more familiar to us, such as that of the minotaur in Greek myth, but also comparable to centaurs and sphinxes.
In this ivory plaque design below of Assyrianising style, we see two ibexes again flanking a particularly elaborate knotwork world tree.from Ziwiye and found on reliefs and cylinder seals from the reign of Sargon II. Late 8th – 7th century BC.
Below in this especially striking depiction of the world tree image, from fold repousse work from Ziwiye, 9th century BC, which has been linked to Scythians, we see a style of world tree that to many will bear a striking resemblance to the stylised Irminsul symbol in Germanic/Norse art. The apparent combination of Urartian elements and Scythian elements is characteristic of the Iranian Medes in this region.
The Medes and Persians, both of Iranian/”Scythian” origin, were first mentioned in historical records, in the military and administrative records of Assyrian kinds campaigning in western Iran, from the latter part of the ninth century BC. The archaeological evidence for settling of these regions before these records is incomplete, but the Medes likely conquered the area much earlier than this, with their settlement being located between the (Hurrian-speaking) Manneans to the north and the Elamites to the south. The placement of the original Persians is more difficult as it could relate to several different regions from different periods with the name Parsua, apparently indicating that the Persians progressed from north west Iran in a south-eastern direction. Regardless, this settlement saw the gradual settlement and takeover of the region originally dominated by Hurrians, Manneans and Elamites by the Indo-European peoples hailing from the eastern European and central Asian steppes, namely Medes and Persians. It is worth noting that no undoubtedly Median site or inscribed art has been found, so it is difficult to pinpoint art of specifically Median origin. The Ziwiye pieces could feasibly be Median, but this is unproven.
Below is a bracelet with lion heads, again showing the importance of the twin animal motif, and another example of possible Scythian influence, from Ziwiye, Late 8th – 7th century BC.
Medians like Scythians appear to have shown an appreciation for dynamic patterns over western Asian art forms, which is indicated in the decoration of weapons and scabbards carried by Median dignitaries in Persepolis reliefs and in the scabbard of an armour-bearer of Darius I, as seen below. This is undoubtedly closer in Scythian pieces in terms of design, with many elements such as the row of goats being incomparable to western Asian motifs. The angular poses are similar to Scythian finds in southern Russia, and the spirals around the edge are also distinctly Scythian in style, perhaps relating to hooked beak-heads.
The Achaemenid dynasty was partly Median in origin. I will not discuss the Achaemenid empire a great deal here, as the focus of this article is to draw attention to what we can learn about pre-Zoroastrian religion based on archaeological finds, and by, despite lack of pre-Zoroastrian texts (other than Mesopotamian and Hittite texts with which we may draw close parallels), comparing these finds with those in Europe. Below is a particularly striking relief from the palace of Darius at Persepolis, probably from the reign of Xerxes. It depicts a royal hero slaying a lion-headed beast, again stressing the importance of animism and animal-headed deities even once Zoroastrianism was adopted as the religion of the elites.
To finish I wish to look at a couple of pieces from the Sasanian period. Below is a relief showing two ibex flanking a grapevine. Though the meaning of this symbol of the world tree may have changed slightly over time, it appears to have still been linked with strength and fertility in the Sasanian period, and the choice of a grapevine as a world tree symbol is particularly interesting given the placenta symbolism, as Malaysian folklore for example, as mentioned earlier, provides some particularly interesting folklore relating to unnatural pregnancies and the edematous vesicles of a transformed placenta in later stages, which has been compared to a bunch of grapes or even eggs, perhaps relating to a broader alternative depiction of placenta symbolism other than the more common or universal world tree or “tree of life” symbol.
In this design from a silver bowl from the third century BC, we see a king wearing a ram-horned helmet hunting boar, which again shows the importance of ram and goat horns even as late as the Sasanid period in this region. This also, of course, places importance again on the hunt as a rite of passage.
I could have looked at Armenian and Anatolian art to perhaps draw some parallels between them and some pre-Indo-European tribes in Iran to which they were related, or compared to more Scythian finds from further afield, or more Babylonian and Egyptian art to explore the similar style in depicting scenes of worship among western-Asia and Afro-Asiatic-speaking peoples, but the purpose of this article was to go through some examples, with the stress being on pre-Zoroastrian finds, and compare to some more familiar European examples as well as relate these finds to ancestor worship, birth and rebirth symbols and a broader, more universal European animist culture. I might expand on this topic further in the future at some point.
Art of the World: Ancient Iran – Edith Porada (1965)
Wives and Midwives: Childbirth and Nutrition in Rural Malaysia – Carol Laderman (1987)