Zoroastrianism is not only one of the world’s oldest religions; it is also one of the fastest dying religions. Since the dawn of Islam, Persians have been flocking in droves to embrace Islam—the only truly monotheistic faith. It is estimated that there are only approximately 125,000 Zoroastrians left in the world today, and around 70,000 from that number are in India; outside their ancestral home.
The PBS recently reported that these numbers may diminish further, and this seems to be very likely considering that the median age of Zoroastrians is quite high and also the fact that people don’t really convert into Zoroastrianism.
Within this article we’ll be examining a particularly disturbing Zoroastrian practice: “Spiritualized” or “Holy” incest.
Xwedodah: Zoroastrian Incest
Xwedodah is the technical term used to describe Zoroastrian incest.
In Zoroastrian Middle Persian (Pahlavi) texts, the term xwēdōdah (Av. xᵛaētuuadaθa) is said to refer to marital unions of father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister (next-of-kin or close-kin marriage, nuclear family incest), and to be one of the most pious actions possible.
Xwedodah being considered “one of the most pious actions possible” evidently has its roots within the sacred scriptures of the Zoroastrians.
For instance, the Avesta is Zoroastrianism’s primary collection of religious scriptures, and within the Avesta there is a collection of texts called the Vendidad, where we read:
12. O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! Which is the urine wherewith the corpse-bearers shall wash their hair and their bodies? Is it of sheep or of oxen? Is it of man or of woman?
13. Ahura Mazda answered: ‘It is of sheep or of oxen; not of man nor of woman, except a man or a woman who has married the next-of-kin: these shall therefore procure the urine wherewith the corpse-bearers shall wash their hair and their bodies.’
Basically, engaging in Xwedodah is a ritual of such great piety that—by extension—it somehow renders human urine itself into a purifying element.
One academic who has investigated this Zoroastrian practice extensively is Danish Egyptologist Paul John Frandsen in his book Incestuous and Close-kin Marriage in Ancient Egypt and Persia: An Examination of the Evidence.
Frandsen quotes the sacred scriptures of the Zoroastrians to show how “greatly meritorious” an act Xwedodah is within Zoroastrianism.
We thus read on pp. 70-72:
In the 8th chapter there is no shortage of admonitions to practise xvētōdah, nor is the audience left in any doubt as to the ranking system of meritorious deeds.
(8c1) In one place (it is) revealed that Ohrmazd said to Zoroaster: ‘These (are) the four best things: worship of Ohrmazd the Lord; and offering firewood and incense and oblation (to) the fire; and satisfying (the needs of) the priest; and he who practises xvēdōdah with (his) mother or daughter or with (his) sister. (8c2) And of all those he who practises xvēdōdah is greatest and best and foremost.
At the end of the chapter the reason for this priority is given. Zoroaster asks which good deed he should perform first (8n1). To this Ohrmazd replies that xvētōdah is to be given top priority ‘for in the end through xvēdōdah it will come about that all who are in the world convert to the religion’ (8n2). Participation in converting people to xvētōdah is very meritorious and is compared to keeping ten thousand people provided with food and clothing for one winter (8j1-2). Conversely, preventing people from practising xvētōdah is a sure path to ‘hell’ (8k1-2). (…)
While xvētōdah is greatly meritorious per se, some forms are more valuable than others. Accordingly, marrying one’s mother is superior to marrying one’s father, and both are superior to a brother-sister marriage. The reason for the son-mother relationship being superior is that, according to the ‘spiritual authorities (…) he who has come from her body is nearer (to her)’ (8d1). The text goes on to enumerate further developments of these basic combinations, so that, for instance, a son may marry his own mother, and subsequently also the daughter/sister produced by this marriage.
So according to Zoroastrians, Muslims are bound to go to hell since Islam prohibits such practices…
Considering the immense importance which Zoroastrians gave to their “holy incest,” it is thus unsurprising that virtually every other civilization—even as far as Korea—equated Persians with incest.
We read in Jonathan Silk’s Riven by Lust: Incest and Schism in Indian Buddhist Legend and Historiography, on pp. 85-86:
The Abhidharmakoùabhâ∂ya of Vasubandhu, for instance, says:
[Illicit love is] produced by delusion, as with the Persians who consort with their mothers and other women,… And [so too are] those who say “Women resemble a wooden mortar, a flower, fruit, cooked food, a bathing spot, and a road.”
Similar references are repeated in later Buddhist philosophical literature as examples of archetypical immoral behavior. Parallel references also appear in Xuanzang’s seventh-century record of his travels to India, Datang Xiyuji (Great Tang Records of the Western Regions), and in the Wang Och’ônjuguk chôn (Account of Travels to the Five Countries of India) by the eighth-century Korean Buddhist monk-traveler Hyech’o, both of whom refer to the Persians as those who practice incestuous marriages between mothers and sons. Nearly identical references occur in classical (Greek and Roman), non-Buddhist Indian, Arabic, and Chinese sources, all of which view Persians as those who engage in such immoral unions. The Indian Buddhist sources thus share in a judgment widespread among Persia’s neighbors across the ancient world.
This stereotypical judgment of Persian behavior is not a groundless prejudice. The actual referent of such descriptions is clearly and obviously the Zoroastrian practice of xwaètwadatha, so-called next-of-kin marriage. In fact, in their doctrinal and theoretical rationalizations of the practice, some Persian texts advocate next-of-kin marriage with mother, daughter, or sister as superior in religious merit even to the ceremonial worship of Ahura Mazda, for it was through this type of marriage that the religious community could continue itself in purity.
Such ritualized incest was widespread even up to and during the sixth century, which is pretty late (and not long before the rise of Islam). Agathias (Greek poet and once court historian to the famed emperor Justinian I) had made a link between the Zoroastrian burial process and their “sexual abominations.”
We read on p. 166 of A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from History’s Most Orthodox Empire by Anthony Kaldellis:
The sixth-century historian Agathias commented on Persian (Zoroastrian) rites for disposing of the dead, in which bodies were exposed to be dismembered and picked clear by birds and dogs. If the animals moved fast to do this, the person must have been virtuous; if not, he must have had a flawed character. Sometimes they exposed the terminally ill in this way too, to be eaten. But if they survived and returned, looking like someone half-dead, they were shunned as belonging to the underworld (Histories 2.23– 24).
Agathias recognized that all people believe their own customs to be perfect and sacred, reject those of others, and produce every type of clever argument to justify their own. Still, he could not get over the fact that Persians had sex with their sisters, nieces, daughters, and mothers (Histories 2.23– 24). What happened to their bodies after death was a fitting punishment for these sexual abominations (2.31.9).
So I wonder which “legacy” Persian ultra-nationalists prefer:
Being associated with incest?
Or being appreciated as scholars of the Qur’an and the Sunnah; pioneers of the Arabic language; and even the “rational sciences”—all of which was facilitated by their conversion into Islam?