We have few literary remains from the ancient Persians. Most of these consist of the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings, notably Darius I (522-486 BC) and his son Xerxes. Old Persian, the language of these inscriptions, is an inflected tongue like Greek and Latin and shares many linguistic features with its close relatives, Avestan and Sanskrit. Old Persian inscriptions were engaged chiefly to record the deeds of the "king of kings" or to commemorate the foundation of a building. They have a declaratory, direct and unadorned style, and are laced with repetitive set-phrases, a style common to the genre in the entire ancient Middle East. A typical opening statement of longer Achaemenian inscriptions can be seen in the inscription of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rostam in Persis. It tells us something about this monarch's faith, as well as his pride in his ancestry and race:
"A great god is Ahura Mazda, who created the earth, who created the sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king ... I am Darius, the Great King, the King of Kings, king of countries containing all kinds of men, king of this great earth far and wide, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenian, a Persian, son of a Persian, and Aryan, having Aryan lineage."
In another inscription we have an instance of Darius's comments on his rule, his temper, and his moral objectives:
"Says Darius the King: by the favor of Ahura Mazda I am such a man who is friend to right; I am not a friend to wrong. It is not my wish that the weak man should have wrong done to him by the mighty; nor is it my wish that the mighty man should have wrong done to him by the weak. What is right, that is my wish. I am not a friend to the man who follows the lie; I am not quick tempered; things which develop in my anger I hold firmly under control by my thinking power. I am firmly in control of my own [impulses]. The man who co-operates, I reward him according to his cooperation. He who does harm, him I punish according to the damage. It is not my wish that a man should do harm; nor is it my wish that he who does harm should go unpunished."
The same theme is expressed toward the end of Darius's Great Inscription at Bistun. The most interesting story that Darius tells concerns the episodes which led to his killing the pretender Gaumata and assuming royal powers - events which, in effect, transferred the line of kingship from Cyrus to a parallel Achaemenian line. The story is related in greater detail by Herodotus, who essentially agrees with Darius's presentation. We hear it from the mouth of Darius himself as a specimen of the Achaemenian recording of history:
"Says Darius the King: This is what was done by me after I had become king. Cyrus's son, Cambyses by name, of our family, was king here. Cambyses had a co-parental brother by the name of Smerdis. Cambyses slew Smerdis. When Cambyses slew Smerdis it did not become known to the people that Smerdis had been slain. Then Carnbyses went to Egypt. When Cambyses had gone off to Egypt, the people became evil. Then the lie waxed great in the country, both in Persia and in Media and in the other provinces."
"Says Darius the King: Then there was a man, a Magian, Gaumata by name, who rose up from Paishiyauvada....He lied to the people thus: "I am Smerdis the son of Cyrus, brother of Cambyses." Then all the people rebelled against Cambyses and went over to him, both Persia and Media and the other provinces. He seized the kingdom....After that Cambyses died by his own hand. Says Darius the King: This kingdom which Gaumata the Magian took away from Cambyses from long ago belonged to our family....Then Gaumata the Magian took it from Cambyses, he took to himself both Persia and Media and the other provinces.... He became king."
"Says Darius the King: There was not a man, neither a Persian nor a Mede nor anyone of our family, who might deprive Gaumata the Magian of the kingdom. The people feared him greatly, [thinking that] he would slay in numbers the people who had previously known Smerdis. He would slay people "lest they know me, that I am not Smerdis son of Cyrus". No one dared say anything about Gaumata the Magian until I arrived. Then I besought help of Ahura Mazda; Ahura Mazda bore me aid; of the month of Bagayadi ten days were past when I, with a few men, slew Gaumata the Magian and those who were his foremost followers. A fortress by name of Sikayauvati [in] the district of Nisaya in Media - there I slew him. I took the kingdom from him. By the favor of Ahura Mazda I became king; Ahura Mazda bestowed the kingdom upon me."
We have no direct record of the myths, legends, and stories of the ancient Persians, or of their poetry, since this literature was orally transmitted and was eventually lost or absorbed by the oral literature of eastern Iran. So, too, was the literature of the Medians, the erstwhile masters of the Persians. The case is different with the Avestan people 1, who produced the most notable religious and literary monument that we have in writing from ancient Iran, namely the Avesta. Frequently displaying a remarkable poetic quality, the Yashts (hymns) describe with moving eloquence lofty mountains, rolling rivers, refreshing rains, and green pastures, as well as radiant, all-powerful deities (yazatas, izads) and virtuous, brave heroes.
1. Zoroaster's people are called Avestan; after the Avesta, the holy Scripture of the Zoroastrians.
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Copyright© 1999 K. Kianush, Art Arena