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Verethragna (vərəθraγna) is an Avestan language neuter noun literally meaning "smiting of resistance" (Gnoli, 1989:510; Boyce 1975:63). Representing this concept is the divinity Verethragna, who is the hypostasis of "victory", and "as a giver of victory Verethragna plainly enjoyed the greatest popularity of old" (Boyce, 1975:63).
The neuter noun verethragna is related to Avestan verethra, 'obstacle' and verethragnan, 'victorious'. (Gnoli, 1989:510) In Zoroastrian Middle Persian, Verethragna became Warahran, from which Vahram, Vehram, Bahram, Behram and other variants derive. The once-followed theory that Verethragna had Indo-Iranian origins is no longer followed today (see In Avestan scholarship for details).
The name and, to some extent, the deity has correspondences in Armenian Vahagn and Vram, Buddhist Sogdian Wshn, Manichaen Parthian Wryhrm, Kushan Bactrian Orlagno. While the figure of Verethragna is highly complex, parallels have also been drawn between it and (variously) Vedic Indra, Puranic Vishnu, Manichaean Adamas, Chaldean/Babylonian Nergal, Egyptian Horus, Hellenic Ares and Heracles.
In the Bahram Yasht
Yasht 14, the hymn of praise to Verethregna, "though ill-preserved, contains what seem very archaic elements" (Boyce, 1975:63). There, Verethragna is described as "the most highly armed" (Yasht 14.1), the "best equipped with might" (14.13), with "effervescent glory" (14.3), has "conquering superiority" (14.64), and is in constant battle with men and daemons (14.4, 14.62).
Verethragna is not exclusively associated with military might and victory. So, for instance, he is connected with sexual potency and "confers virility" (Yasht 14.29), has the "ability to heal" (14.3) and "renders wonderful". The Yasht begins with an enumeration of the ten forms in which the divinity appears: As an impetuous wind (14.2-5); as an armed warrior (14.27) and as an adolescent of fifteen (14.17); and in the remaining seven forms as animals: a bull with horns of gold (14.7); a white horse with ears and a muzzle of gold (14.9); a camel in heat (14.11-13); a boar (14.15); a bird of prey (veregna, 14.19-21); a ram (14.23); and a wild goat (14.25). Many of these incarnations are also shared with other divinities, for instance, the youth, the bull and the horse are also attributed to Tishtrya. Likewise, the bird, the camel and the wind to Vayu-Vata, another member of the Zoroastrian pantheon associated with martial victory.
In other texts
Together with Čistā, Verethragna is a principal companion of Mithra (Mihr Yasht 10.70). Several sections of the Bahram Yasht also appear in hymns dedicated to other divinities, but it is rarely possible to determine in which direction those sections were copied.
The identification of Verethragna as a boar in Yasht 14 led Ilya Gershevitch to identify Dāmōiš Upamana – a boar in the Avestan hymn to Mithra – to be an alter-ego of Verethragna (Gershevitch, 1959:166-169; pro Gnoli, 1989:511; contra Boyce, 1975:83, n. 416)
In culture and tradition
In the Zoroastrian hierarchy
In the Zoroastrian hierarchy of angels, Bahram is a helper of Asha Vahishta (Avestan, middle Persian: Ardvahisht), the Amesha Spenta responsible for the luminaries. In the Zoroastrian calendar instituted during the late Achaemenid era (648–330 BCE), the twentieth day of the month is dedicated to Bahram (Siroza 1.20).
In the later middle Persian texts Bahram is especially venerated as the seventh of the Amesha Spentas, effectively giving him the rank of an archangel for his success in driving back Angra Mainyu from hell (de Menasce, 1948:5-18; Gnoli, 1989:513).
As the name of a planet
In the astronomical and calendrical reforms of the Sassanids (205-651 CE), the planet Mars was named Bahram. Zaehner attributes this to the syncretic influences of the Chaldean astral-theological system, where Babylonian Nergal is both the god of war and the name of the red planet. (Zaehner, 1955:147ff.; see also: "Fatalistic" Zurvanism).
In the name of a class of fire
According to Boyce, the present-day expression Atash-Behram as the name of the most sacred class of fires is a confusion of the adjectival "Victorious Fire" with "Fire of Bahram" (Boyce, 1982:222ff). The former is the way it appears in Middle Persian inscriptions such as the Kartir inscription at Kabah-i Zardusht, while the latter is what is now understood by the term Atash-Behram. Gnoli attributes the change to natural misunderstanding "abetted in Islamic times by a progressive decay in Zoroastrian priestly teaching" (Gnoli, 1989:512).
In art and iconography
The only evidence of a cult appears in the accounts of the 1st century Strabo, who reports, probably on authority of Nearchus, that the Karmanians worshipped a divinity of victory (Geographika, 15.2.14). That this was Bahram/Verethragna is unlikely if, as per Strabo, he was their "only god." However, the account does reveal that divinities of war were not unknown to the people who were not of the Iranian plateau, evidence for which also comes from Herodotus (4.59.62).
Under the Seleucids (330–150 BCE) and Arsacids (250 BCE–226 CE), that is, in the Empires influenced by Hellenic culture, Verethragna was both identified as Ares and associated with Heracles, and given the Greek name Artagnes (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1984). This syncretism is well attested in statuary and iconography, most notably in that of the inscription of Antiochus I Theos of Commagene, in which all three names occur together.
That Bahram was considered the patron divinity of travelers is perhaps reflected by the life-size rock sculpture of the divinity on the main highway at Behistun. There Bahram reclines with a goblet in his hand, a club at his feet and a lion-skin beneath him.
In the early Sassanid period Bahram is still represented as the Greek Heracles. In the relief of Ardeshir I at Naqs-e Rajab III (ref?), Bahram appears as one of the two smaller figures between Ahura Mazda and the king. There, he has a lion's skin in his left hand and brandishes a club in his right. The other small figure - who appears to be paying homage to Bahram - is the future king Bahram I.
Bahram also appears as wings, or as a bird of prey, in the crowns of the Sassanid kings. This iconography first appears in the crown of Bahram II which also bears the name of the divinity. A similar image is adopted by Peroz (whose name also means 'victorious') as well as by Khosrau Parwez (again, Parwez meaning 'ever victorious'). Similarly, boar and eagle heads on caps crown the heads of princes. Boar figures are widespread in Sassanid art, appearing in everything from textiles to stucco and in silver ornaments, coins, and seals. Other animal motifs have been found that recall the aspects of Bahram (see the ten forms of Bahram in the Avesta, above). The bird motif on Sassanid-era fire altars are also believed to represent Bahram.
As the name of kings
Bahrām was the name of six Sassanid kings:
- Bahrām I, r. 273-276. Son and successor of Shapur I
- Bahrām II, r. 276-293. Son and successor of Bahrām I
- Bahrām III, r. 293. Son and successor of Bahrām II
- Bahrām IV, r. 388–399. Son and successor of Shapur III
- Bahrām V Gōr, r. 421–438. Son and successor of Yazdegerd I
- Bahrām VI Čōbīn, r. 590 - 591. Successor of Hormizd IV
In addition, Ardashir II (r.' 379–383), half-brother of Shapur II, is distinguished (from the founder of the Empire) by the name 'Ardashir Vahram'.
In Avestan scholarship
The interpretation of the divinity was once one of the more widely debated fields in Zoroastrian scholarship since the theories of origin reflected a radical revolution in ethical, moral and religious values. (For a review, see Boyce, 1975:62-64).
Primarily because the Avestan adjective verethragnan (victorious) had a corresponding Vedic term vrtrahan where it appeared "preponderantly [as] a qualification of Indra", one theory (Benveniste/Renou, 1934) proposed that in Indo-Iranian times there existed a dragon-slaying warrior god *Indra and that Avestan Verethragna derived from that divine figure.
The arguments against this theory are manifold: For one, there is no hint of Verethragna (or any other Zoroastrian divinity) having dragon-slaying functions. In the Avesta, it is the hero warrior-priest Thraetaona who battles the serpent Aži Dahāka (which, for the virtue of 'Azi' being cognate with Sanskrit 'Ahi', snake, is – by proponents of the theory - associated with Vedic Vritra). Moreover, in the Vedas, the epithet 'hero' (sura) is itself almost exclusively reserved for Indra, while in the Avesta it is applied to Thraetaona and other non-divine figures. The term "victorious" too is not restricted to Verethragna, but is also a property of a number of other figures, both divine and mortal, including Thraetaona. Then, while in the Vedas it is Indra who discovers Soma, in the Avesta it is humans who first press Haoma and Thraetaona is attributed with being the "inventor of medicine". In the Vedas, Indra strikes with vajra, but in the Avesta vazra is Mithra's weapon. Finally, and from a point of basic doctrine far more important than any of the other arguments, Indra is a daeva, precisely that class of divinity that Zoroaster exhorts his followers to reject. Indeed, Indra is explicitly named as one of the six evil demons in Vendidad 10.9 – directly opposing the Amesha Spenta Asha Vahishta, with whom Verethragna is associated.
Attempts to resolve these objections led to the development of another theory, in which, in addition to the pre-historical divinity of victory, there was also a dragon-slaying hero *Indra. Then, while the Iranians retained the figures independently of one another, the Indians conflated the two (leaving an echo in the character of Trita Aptya).
This theory too had its problems, in particular the fact that Indra was already evidently a divine figure, and not a man, in the Mittani treaties, where he appears in the company of Mitra and Varuna. That again raises more questions since the treaties echo the Rig Veda's invocation of all three as protectors of contract, again, not a property associated with Verethragna.
However, as Benveniste and Renou demonstrated, many of the objections to the first theory could be negated if the evidence were reviewed in light of the fact that the principal feature of Verethragna was not to slay noxious creatures but to overcome obstacles (verethra), in particular to unblock the flow of apas, the waters, the holiest of the elements. (Benveniste & Renou, 1934:182)
Paul Thieme agreed with this principal feature, but clarified that while the wealth of archaic elements in the Bahram Yasht clearly point to the pre-Zoroastrian era, the interpretation of proper names is "highly conjectural", and "in no case do we get a decisive argument against their Indo-Aryan or old Indic character" (Thieme, 1960:302). Adopting "the exact linguistic and exegetic analysis" of Benveniste and Renou, Thieme concludes "Proto-Aryan *Indra has assumed the functions of a Proto-Aryan god *Vrtraghna." Noting that Vrtrahan is the name of Indra only in the later Sanskrit texts (but not in the Rig Veda), Thieme adds "there is no valid justification for supposing that the Proto-Aryan adjective *vrtraghan was specifically connected with *Indra or any other particular god." (Thieme 1960:312-313)
- Benveniste, Emile & Renou, Louis (1934), Vrtra et Vrθragna, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale
- Boyce, Mary (1975), History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I, The early period, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-10474-7
- Boyce, Mary (1982), History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. II, Under the Achamenians, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-06506-7
- Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques (1973), Religion of ancient Iran, Bombay: Tata Press
- Dumezil, Georges (1970), The destiny of the warrior, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-16970-7
- Gnoli, Gherardo (1989), "Bahram in old and middle Iranian texts", Encyclopaedia Iranica 3, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 510–513
- Lommel, Herman (1939), Der arische Kriegsgott, Frankfurt/Main: Klostermann
- Thieme, Paul (1960), "The 'Aryan' Gods of the Mitanni Treaties", Journal of the American Oriental Society 80 (4): 301–317, doi:10.2307/595878
- West, Edward William (1880), Marvels of Zoroastrianism: The Bahman Yasht In Müller, Friedrich Max (ed.). SBE, Vol. 5. Oxford: OUP.
- Zaehner, Richard Charles (1972), Zurvan, a Zoroastrian dilemma, Oxford: Clarendon, ISBN 0-8196-0280-9