Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yima, the Iranian Prometheus

The killing of Yima/Jamshid, illustration from an old Persian manuscript, copied from his Wikipedia page.

In a number of mythologies, the primordial state of mankind is a blissful Golden Age of plenty, joy, universal love, harmony and often immortality. Then humans do something they shouldn't, usually in violation of an explicit divine order. They taste a forbidden fruit of knowledge, or steal the fire, or become greedy for gold, or something of this sort. This leads to a Fall - an abrupt termination of the Golden Age and establishment of the human condition as we know it.

These recurrent tales are more related to psychology than to anthropology. An age when "the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly" (quote from Works and Days, by ancient Greek poet Hesiod, translation by Evelyn-White) of course never existed in reality. Moreover, anthropologists have not found a single primitive human society, ancient or modern, to rely on the "fruits born by the fruitful earth". So it is striking that in Golden Age myths, humans are invariably plant eaters.

Besides animal food, our mythic ancestors are deprived of another human trait - consciousness. They are peaceful and vegetarian as oxen, and almost as intelligent. They have everything they need, because they lack the mental skills needed to figure out that they need more than they have, nor can they plan how to acquire it. Small wonder that these wretched pea-brained humans usually cannot manage even the Fall on their own and need a snake to tell them that knowledge is power, or a Prometheus to bring them the stolen fire.

The earliest text about Prometheus, Hesiod's Theogony, actually mentions another sin besides the theft of fire: tricking Zeus to take only the bones of a sacrificed ox and to leave the edible parts to humans. The quote below is from Evelyn-White's translation:

"(507-543) Now Iapetus took to wife... Clymene, daughter of Ocean... And she bare him... clever Prometheus... and scatter-brained Epimetheus who from the first was a mischief to men who eat bread; for it was he who first took of Zeus the woman, the maiden whom he had formed... 

And ready-witted Prometheus he (Zeus - M.M.) bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver... That bird Heracles... slew... Though he (Zeus - M.M.) was angry, he ceased from the wrath which he had before because Prometheus matched himself in wit with the almighty son of Cronos (this is again Zeus - M.M.).  

For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to befool the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat. Then the father of men and of gods said to him: 

(543-544) `Son of Iapetus, most glorious of all lords, good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions!' 

(545-547) So said Zeus whose wisdom is everlasting... But wily Prometheus answered...:

(548-558) `Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take which ever of these portions your heart within you bids.' 

So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars. But Zeus who drives the clouds was greatly vexed and said to him: 

(559-560) `Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!' 

(561-584) So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to... mortal men who live on the earth. But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire..."

To cut the long story short and spare you a larger dose of the cumbersome Hesiod's narrative, let me just mention that the "evil thing" was the woman. With or without an accompanying jar of other evils, she was given to Prometheus' stupid brother, Epimetheus. Pay attention that, although the pious poet stresses that Zeus "whose wisdom is everlasting" saw through the trick from the beginning, he was actually duped; otherwise, it is difficult to explain why "wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out".

Prometheus was made popular by a later play, traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, which concentrated on the theft of fire and other contributions to civilization and omitted (and even negated) the sacrifice trick; this is why the latter is not known to the general public. It is clear that the deceptive sacrifice and the theft of fire were initially independent elements. They do not fit well together because animal sacrifice requires fire (a more logical combination would be theft of fire first, sacrifice trick second). The theft of fire, though present in many mythologies, is not typical for Indo-Europeans. It is likely to have been borrowed from the Caucasus, where different variations of it exist, some including the eagle and some without it. As for the sacrifice, scholars tend to dismiss it as a local "etiological myth" to explain why humans eat most of the sacrificial animal and burn only the bones at the gods' altars. Some even suspect that it is Hesiod's invention. Therefore, I was surprised to read that as early as 1975, Bruce Lincoln had written the following:

"I attempted to trace out a myth of Indo-European provenance that detailed the events which were believed to have been crucial in the establishment of the world as the Proto-Indo-Europeans knew it. There I argued that this myth told of two brothers, *Manu- "Man" (Sanskrit Manu, Avestan *Manus, Germanic Mannus being linguistic correspondences; Old Norse Odinn and Latin Romulus being structurally related) and *Yemo- 'Twin" (Sanskrit Yama, Avestan Yima, Old Norse Ymir, and Latin Remus being linguistic matches; Germanic Tuisco being a semantic match; Sanskrit Mandvi and Purusa, Pahlavi Gayomart being structurally related). Originally, this myth told of how *Manu, a priest, sacrificed *Yemo, a king, together with a bovine animal, and then created the world from their respective bodies..."

This setting - two brothers, a bovine, and a sacrifice - immediately reminded me of the Mecone scene, which, if not world-creating, was at least world-shaping. Because "Prometheus" and "Epimetheus" are clearly epithets and not true names, it does not matter that they do not sound like "Yemo" and "Manu". "Prometheus" means "Forethinker", various authors have tried other etymologies using the Sanskrit words for "fire-stick" or "steal", but if we leave aside the non-Indo-European theft of fire, we can easily derive it from "prototype sacrifice", which can be reconstructed in Sanskrit as "pra-medha". As for Epimetheus, he assaulted nobody and we don't know whether he was even present at Mecone. However, after the sacrifice, he got a role by becoming a puppet of his brother's enemies and a tool of their revenge.

I looked for more information about other "Yemos". Only the Indian and Iranian versions are preserved well enough. The oldest Indian sacred text is the Rig Veda. In it, there is a remark about Yama finding and bringing fire:

"3 In many places, Agni Jātavedas (Agni is the god of fire - M.M.), we sought thee hidden in the plants and waters.
Then Yama marked thee, God of wondrous splendour! effulgent from thy tenfold secret dwelling...
(Rig Veda, Book 10, Hymn 51, translated by R. Griffith.)

Yama initially was a man, the first man who died and traced the path for others. Then he became god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. However, neither in the Rig Veda nor in later texts you will find how and of what he died. The only clue seems to be this:

"4 He, for God's sake, chose death to be his portion. He chose not, for men's good, a life eternal
They sacrificed Bṛhaspati the Ṛṣi. Yama delivered up his own dear body
(Rig Veda, Book 10, Hymn 13.)

The hint may be that Yama accepted death so that to find or build an underworld for other souls to inhabit. However, it is also possible that he died in some suicide mission which the authors of the scripture preferred not to specify.

More information comes from Iran, though it has passed through not one but two reforms imposing monotheistic religions, first Zoroastrianism and then Islam. The counterpart of Yama is named Yima in the oldest texts (the Avesta) and Jam or Jamshid ("King Jam") in later ones. It seems that Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was not altogether happy with Yima, but had to accommodate him somehow, because he was too popular to be simply left out. The Avestan references to Yima are fragmentary, maybe because Yima was well known to Zoroaster's original audience and no detailed descriptions were needed.

The earliest and most important information is given in the Yasna, a part of the Avesta that includes mainly lithurgical texts. In Chapter 9, he is described as the king of mankind in the Golden Age at the beginning of the world:

"4... Yima, called the brilliant, (he of the many flocks, the most glorious of those yet born, the sunlike-one of men), that he made from his authority both herds and people free from dying, both plants and waters free from drought, and men could eat inexhaustible food.

5. In the reign of brave Yima was there neither cold nor heat, there was neither age nor death, nor envy demon-made. Like teenagers walked the two forth, son and father, in their stature and their form, so long as Yima, son of Vivanghvant ruled, he of the many herds!"

Then in Chapter 32, the Fall comes:

"8. Among these sinners, we know, Yima was included, Vivanghen's son, who desiring to satisfy men gave our people flesh of the ox to eat. From these shall I be separated by Thee, O Mazda, at last."
(Translation by L. H. Mills. Mazda is Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd, the Zoroastrian God.)

As the end of the verse shows, the author is quick to distance himself from the wicked deed of Yima. And for good reason; because the supernatural forces, watching humans eat beef, got as angry as Zeus at Mecone. The gates of Hell opened - literally: humans were made mortal, and the first person to die was Yima himself. He was brutally slain. The Yasna keeps silence about this but another part of the Avesta, Yashts 19 - Zamyad Yasht or Hymn to the Earth, tells the story in a few words. First, it reminds us of the Golden Age in chapter 7:

"30. We sacrifice unto the awful kingly Glory, made by Mazda ....
31. That clave unto the bright Yima, the good shepherd, for a long time, while he ruled...
32. ...In whose reign... aliments were never failing for feeding creatures, flocks and men were undying, waters and plants were undrying;
33. In whose reign there was neither cold wind nor hot wind, neither old age nor death, nor envy made by the Daevas, in the times before his lie, before he began to have delight in words of falsehood and untruth.
34. But when he began to find delight in words of falsehood and untruth, the Glory was seen to flee away from him... When his Glory had disappeared, then the great Yima Khshaeta, the good shepherd, trembled and was in sorrow before his foes; he was confounded, and laid him down on the ground."

I find it interesting that, in a sacrifice context, Yima is accused in "lie, falsehood and untruth". Did he, like Prometheus, outwit the gods? Unfortunately, we are not told this. And what happened to him after he was laid on the ground? The answer is in the next chapter 8:

"46... Azhi Dahaka and Spityura, he who sawed Yima in twain" (translation by J. Darmesteter).

Azhi Dahaka is an evil spirit that in pre-Zoroastrian Iran must have been in the ranks of gods. I find it noteworthy that, while Yima managed the deceptive sacrifice and the Fall all on himself, or at least Yasna 32:8 tells us nothing about supernatural help, such help was needed for his murder. And who was the murderer, that obscure Spityura? As we should expect from the proto-Indo-European template, he was a brother of Yima. This is mentioned in a later text (the Bundahishn or Creation), chapter 31:

"3. Yim, Tahmurasp, Spitur, and Narsih... were all brothers... 
5. Spitur was he who, with Dahak, cut up Yim" (translated by E. W. West).

Yima also had a connection with fire: he established a sacred fire called Farnbag (Bundahishn, chapter 17). The way he died may be echoed in the sharp weapon inserted into the body of Prometheus, which would of course kill him if he were mortal and which is absent from the Caucasian versions of the myth known to me.

What happened to Yima after his death? The Zoroastrian scriptures say nothing. However, the Pahlavi Rivayat, a work from the 10th century (i.e. already in the era of Islam), tells about it in chapter 31. Briefly, Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) summons the soul of Jam (i.e. Yima) from Hell to show him to Zoroaster. The latter finds the punishment too severe. Yima confesses to have called himself Creator of the world, repents and advises Zoroaster not to repeat his mistake:

"31c5 'And I said that I (had) created all the creatures and creations of the spiritual and material worlds. 
31c6 'For those lies which I uttered, glory and lordship were taken away from me, and my body fell into destruction at the hands of the demons. 
31c7 'You who are Zoroaster, if hardship (or) if prosperity should befall you, do not desist from proclaiming the religion...
31c8 When Jam had spoken in this manner, then confession and contrition came into his account, and he was forgiven by Ohrmazd..., and he went from the northern direction [i.e. Hell] to the state of Limbo and to the lordship of Limbo."
(Translation by A. V. Williams.)

This is maybe the only version where Yima finally becomes, like Yama, an underworld ruler.

Pious Zoroastrians are generally inclined to vegetarianism and sometimes blame Yima/Jamshid for giving people meat. This is no sin in Islam, so early Muslim authors have ascribed to him other crimes to justify his punishment, as evident from the above quote. Today, however, he is acquitted, like his relations - Prometheus, the Caucasian fire-thieves, and of course Eve and Adam. As B. Polka paraphrasing Kant says of the biblical story, it provides "a truly intelligible account of the transition of humankind from nature to freedom, from ignorance to reason, and so of the dignity of human beings who are to be treated as ends in themselves by all rational beings, including God." The same can be said of all mythic sinners who worked hard and took great risk to bring humanity out of the fools' Paradise.

(The outline of this post developed in a discussion on Bill Moulton's blog.)


Bill said...


It is bad of me, but I love your description of the pea-brained Golden Age mortals.

You mentioned that "Prometheus" and "Epimetheus" are clearly epithets and not true names". In Greek myth sons often receive their father's epithets for names. Hence Achilles' son Neoptolmeus is called Pyrrhus on account of his father temper. Assuming that; this means that their father Iapetus was one "who could see before and after". This is high praise in Homeric texts. Maybe I got to rethink what I know about Iapetus.

Maya M said...

Actually, the Golden Age could be just childhood revisited. Young children obtain food without working, and it is usually enough, even if their parents themselves have to tighten the belts. Children in many cultures are isolated from funerals, so, unless they have lost a family member, they can very well consider humans immortal. And while children do eat meat, they are not required to kill animals. I guess that participation in hunt or slaughter has been a rite of passage in pre-supermarket cultures.
Of course, while young children haven't the problems of adults, they have plenty of their own problems. Childhood can be Golden Age only retrospectively, in the selective memories of the adults.

Maya M said...

I'd also wish to know more about Iapetus.

'"As old as Iapetus" was a proverb with the Greeks, equivalent to our "as old as Adam."'
(Commentary of Harold Williams to Lucian's Dialogs of the Gods)

"Neither Homer nor Hesiod recounts the story of Iapetus, but the mention of the same two gods in the same order (i.e. Iapetus and Cronus) in both the Iliad and the Theogony strongly suggests that this is an established formulaic expression."
(N. Yasumura, Challenges to the power of Zeus in early Greek poetry)