Thus Drank Zarathustra: Zoroastrianism and Wine Culture in Ancient Persia
Introduction – Persia and Iran: A Land of Differing Attitudes to Alcohol
The land which lies between the Persian Gulf and the more mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east has long been a centre of civilizations and a crossroads of cultures. Here was the nexus of the Silk Roads of the past. Today it is known as Iran, but in the past it was called Persia.
It was once the centre of one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, an empire which in the fifth century BC had expanded westwards so far that it encompassed all of Egypt and Turkey and threatened to bring Greece and much of the Balkans under its rule too.
These were also times when the attitudes towards alcohol and wine were much more permissive in this part of the world. Persia, and in particular the fabled founder of its main religion, Zoroaster, extolled the virtues of wine consumption. In later centuries the advent of Islam here created a different attitude towards alcohol. But, ancient Persia’s attitude towards wine consumption resulted in an ambiguous legacy which persists in some respects down to the present day.
Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism
Like most parts of the ancient world, many individuals here adhered to polytheism for much of antiquity, that is a belief system which included veneration of hundreds of gods and goddesses in an elaborate pantheon.
However, the situation here began to shift towards monotheism much earlier than the rest of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East. This all centred on the figure of Zoroaster, a semi-mythical religious figure who is believed to have lived at some time between the late second millennium BC or the seventh century BC.
Zoroaster, whose name is often alternatively rendered Zarathustra, and was so famously in the work of the nineteenth-century philologist and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, was the founder of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic belief system which supposes the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful god, whose role it is to stave off the challenge of evil in the world.
Zoroastrianism also includes a conception of heaven and hell and a cosmology of angels and demons. There are consequently a lot of similarities between it and Judaism, which had already evolved to the west of Persia by this time, and the later monotheistic faiths of the Christians and the Muslims.
Attitudes Towards Wine and Alcohol in Ancient Persia
While today much of this part of the world is dominated by Islam and its proscriptions on the consumption of alcohol, by the time Zoraster and his teachings arrived onto the scene Persia had a rich history of viticulture. Wine had been produced in the Zagros Mountains of north-western Persia since the sixth millennium BC, making it one of the world’s oldest centres of viticulture.
Unsurprisingly, Zoroaster commented on wine consumption himself. For instance, an excerpt from one of his writings discussed how the grape harvest should be collected and provided the following reflection: “It is proper to gather the vintage when the moon is in Cancer or Leo, or in Libra, or Scorpio, or in Capricorn, or Aquarius; it is also necessary to hasten to do the work of the vintage when it is in the wane, and under the earth.”
Elsewhere he went on to state that, “It is proper to open the casks when you have observed the rising of the stars, for then the wine is in a degree of commotion, and it is not right, touch it: and if you open a cask indeed in the day-time, you must observe the sun, that its splendour may not fall, on the wine: and if you are to open a cask in the night, necessity often pressing it, it is proper to attend to the light of the moon.”
Thus, what we have here in the writings of Zoroaster was a complex system whereby wine-production and consumption were tied into cosmology and the reading of the heavens. It is indicative that as with ancient Greek and Roman society further to the west, wine was considered central to religion and Zoroastrianism here in ancient Persia. That would soon change, leaving a complex and conflicted legacy.
The Decline of Zoroastrianism and the Rise of Islam
Wine remained fundamental to Persian society in the centuries that followed, even as the political power which pertained here changed on many occasions, with the Medians, the Achaemenid Empire, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, the Parthians and the Sasanian Empire all successively ruling this part of the world between Zoroaster’s own day and the seventh century AD.
However, changes were soon afoot as a new religion burst forth from Arabia in the seventh century. The Arab Conquests soon resulted in the domination of the entire Middle East and beyond by the new Islamic powers. It was a religion with an ambiguous attitude towards alcohol in its early days, but it was always less permissive, and so the amount of wine being consumed in Persia and its centrality to the society of the region declined considerably from the late seventh century onwards.
The Continuing Wine Culture of Islamic Persia
Despite the shift to Islam in Persia from the late seventh century onwards, the region retained a strong attachment to its wine culture, while Zoroastrianism also survived here, albeit in a watered-down fashion. This found its fullest expression in the wine poetry of Islamic scholars living in Persia during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Two such individuals, who are well-known, were Abu Najm Aḥmad ibn Qauṣ ibn Aḥmad Manūčihrī and Omar Khayyam.
Khayyam flourished in the early twelfth century. He was a non-conformist intellectual who was opposed to the religious fanaticism which he perceived as prevailing throughout much of the Arab world in his day. As such he opposed the Islamic prescription on alcohol, declaring in one of his poems that “If I’m drunk on forbidden wine, so I am! And if I’m pagan or idolater, so I am!” In his writings and those of others we find the residual influence of Zoroastrianism’s emphasis on the drinking of wine and the pagan pleasure found in this.
Persian Wine Today
Persia, or as it has latterly become known in the twentieth century, Iran, has continued to have a wine culture ever since. European travellers and orientalists who visited the region between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries such as the gem-merchant, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, commented on the excellence of the wines produced in the Shiraz region of Persia. By the eighteenth century, there was a thriving trade of Shiraz wines to India where they were shipped back to Europe, such was the wide regard in which these were held.
Things have changed, though, in recent times, particularly following the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s and the establishment of Islamic law in Iran. As this has occurred, the volume of wine consumption in the country has dropped greatly. But, the peculiar aspect of modern-day Iran’s Islamic status is that there is still over half a million acres of land under grape cultivation there today, though the precise extent to which this is being used to produce wine or other forms of grape farming is unclear.
Persia from the Medians to the Sassanids
Persia went through many different political iterations during antiquity. For a time in the sixth century BC it was ruled by the Medians, but these were quickly replaced by the Achaemenids. The Achaemenids created an enormous empire in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, one which eventually extended westwards into Egypt and the Greek Islands. However, they aroused a slumbering colossus when they tried to conquer Greece itself. A century later they paid the price when Alexander the Great brought his forces eastwards, conquering the Persian Empire entirely along the way. Consequently, Mesopotamia and Persia fell under Greek occupation for a time, notably ruled by one of Alexander’s companions, Seleucus and his successors.
By the time the Romans arrived to the Middle East in the second century BC Persia was newly dominated by a native power, the Parthians. They were one of the only powers that could hold off Roman assault and remained the perennial eastern enemy of the Romans for centuries, finally being replaced internally by the Sassanids in the third century AD. Thus, throughout the period when Zoroastrianism largely prevailed in Persia, the country experienced domination by many different political groups, dynasties and ethnic peoples.
Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London, 2001).
Dominic Parviz Brookshaw, ‘Lascivious Vines, Corrupted Virgins and Crimes of Honour: Variations on the Wine Production Myth as Narrated in Early Persian Poetry’, in Iranian Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1 (January, 2014), pp. 87–129.
W.L. Hanaway, ‘Blood and Wine: Sacrifice and Celebration in Manūchihrī’s Wine Poetry’, in Iran, Vol. 26 (1988), pp. 69–80.
John R. Hinnells, ‘Mary Boyce: Soas Professor whose Zoroastrian Studies were based on practice in remote Central Iran’, The Guardian, 11 April 2006.
Thomas Owen (ed.), Geoponika: Agricultural Pursuits (2 volumes, London, 1805–6).
Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
Abraham Yohannan and A. V. Williams Jackson, ‘Some Persian References to Zoroaster and his Religion’, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 28 (1907), pp. 183–188.
A. V. Williams Jackson, ‘The Moral and Ethical Teachings of the Ancient Zoroastrian Religion’, in International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (October, 1896), pp. 55–62.
On This Day
25 August 1900 – On this day in 1900 Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche died in the town of Weimar in the German Empire. Nietzsche is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and iconoclastic cultural critics and philosophers of the nineteenth century, or any period for that matter. One of his most significant works was Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Published in several parts in the mid-1880s, the text offers a wide-ranging and esoteric discussion of various moral matters of the nineteenth century, notably the decline of religion and Nietzsche’s belief in the supposed emergence of an Übermensch or superhuman. The text also has a curious association with ancient wine culture, as Zarathustra or Zoroaster, the mythical founder of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, had promoted the idea of bacchanalian wine consumption. The idea of the Dionysian consumption of wine and Bacchanalian culture were also promoted in other works by Nietzsche, notably The Birth of Tragedy.
2 August 1920 – On this day in 1920 Nora Elisabeth Mary Boyce was born in Darjeeling in what was then British India. Over the course of a several decades long career which lasted down to her death in 2006, Boyce became the most acclaimed scholar of Zoroastrianism of the twentieth century, the ancient Persian religion centred on Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism mirrored many ancient religions in that wine was central to it and Zoroaster wrote both about its production and consumption, linking these to the lunar calendar and other celestial developments. It was through Boyce’s writings that many individuals became familiar with these aspects of antique wine history during the twentieth century.