The Jewish Persian Period

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Persian Customs - Described by Herodotus in his Histories (400 B.C.)

[Herodotus.Hist.1.131] The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following: they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Jupiter, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed from the Arabians and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know this goddess, whom the Arabians call Alitta, and the Persians Mitra.

[Herodotus.Hist.1.132] To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.

[Herodotus.Hist.1.133] Of all the days in the year, the one which they celebrate most is their birthday. It is customary to have the board furnished on that day with an ampler supply than common. The richer Persians cause an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass to be baked whole and so served up to them: the poorer classes use instead the smaller kinds of cattle. They eat little solid food but abundance of dessert, which is set on table a few dishes at a time; this it is which makes them say that "the Greeks, when they eat, leave off hungry, having nothing worth mention served up to them after the meats; whereas, if they had more put before them, they would not stop eating." They are very fond of wine, and drink it in large quantities. To vomit or obey natural calls in the presence of another is forbidden among them. Such are their customs in these matters.

It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.

[Herodotus.Hist.1.134] When they meet each other in the streets, you may know if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token: if they are, instead of speaking, they kiss each other on the lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other, the kiss is given on the cheek; where the difference of rank is great, the inferior prostrates himself upon the ground. Of nations, they honour most their nearest neighbours, whom they esteem next to themselves; those who live beyond these they honour in the second degree; and so with the remainder, the further they are removed, the less the esteem in which they hold them. The reason is that they look upon themselves as very greatly superior in all respects to the rest of mankind, regarding others as approaching to excellence in proportion as they dwell nearer to them; whence it comes to pass that those who are the farthest off must be the most degraded of mankind. Under the dominion of the Medes, the several nations of the empire exercised authority over each other in this order. The Medes were lords over all, and governed the nations upon their borders, who in their turn governed the States beyond, who likewise bore rule over the nations which adjoined on them. And this is the order which the Persians also follow in their distribution of honour; for that people, like the Medes, has a progressive scale of administration and government.

[Herodotus.Hist.1.135] There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes, considering it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural lust from the Greeks. Each of them has several wives, and a still larger number of concubines.

Issues about entering the presence of the king

[Herodotus.Hist.1.99] (Discussion about Deioces, king of the Medes) All these fortifications Deioces caused to be raised for himself and his own palace. The people were required to build their dwellings outside the circuit of the walls. When the town was finished, he proceeded to arrange the ceremonial. He allowed no one to have direct access to the person of the king, but made all communication pass through the hands of messengers, and forbade the king to be seen by his subjects. He also made it an offence for any one whatsoever to laugh or spit in the royal presence. This ceremonial, of which he was the first inventor, Deioces established for his own security, fearing that his compeers, who were brought up together with him, and were of as good family as he, and no whit inferior to him in manly qualities, if they saw him frequently would be pained at the sight, and would therefore be likely to conspire against him; whereas if they did not see him, they would think him quite a different sort of being from themselves.


[Herodotus.Hist.3.118] (Discussion about Darius, king of the Persians) Of the seven Persians who rose up against the Magus, one, Intaphernes, lost his life very shortly after the outbreak, for an act of insolence. He wished to enter the palace and transact a certain business with the king. Now the law was that all those who had taken part in the rising against the Magus might enter unannounced into the king's presence, unless he happened to be in private with his wife. So Intaphernes would not have any one announce him, but, as he belonged to the seven, claimed it as his right to go in. The doorkeeper, however, and the chief usher forbade his entrance, since the king, they said, was with his wife. But Intaphernes thought they told lies; so, drawing his scymitar, he cut off their noses and their ears, and, hanging them on the bridle of his horse, put the bridle round their necks, and so let them go.

[Herodotus.Hist.3.119] Then these two men went and showed themselves to the king, and told him how it had come to pass that they were thus treated. Darius trembled lest it was by the common consent of the six that the deed had been done; he therefore sent for them all in turn, and sounded them to know if they approved the conduct of Intaphernes. When he found by their answers that there had been no concert between him and them, he laid hands on Intaphernes, his children, and all his near kindred; strongly suspecting that he and his friends were about to raise a revolt. When all had been seized and put in chains, as malefactors condemned to death, the wife of Intaphernes came and stood continually at the palace-gates, weeping and wailing sore. So Darius after a while, seeing that she never ceased to stand and weep, was touched with pity for her, and bade a messenger go to her and say, "Lady, king Darius gives thee as a boon the life of one of thy kinsmen - choose which thou wilt of the prisoners." Then she pondered awhile before she answered, "If the king grants me the life of one alone, I make choice of my brother." Darius, when he heard the reply, was astonished, and sent again, saying, "Lady, the king bids thee tell him why it is that thou passest by thy husband and thy children, and preferrest to have the life of thy brother spared. He is not so near to thee as thy children, nor so dear as thy husband." She answered, "O king, if the gods will, I may have another husband and other children when these are gone. But as my father and my mother are no more, it is impossible that I should have another brother. This was my thought when I asked to have my brother spared." Then it seemed to Darius that the lady spoke well, and he gave her, besides the life that she had asked, the life also of her eldest son, because he was greatly pleased with her. But he slew all the rest. Thus one of the seven died, in the way I have described, very shortly after the insurrection.

Gate to the King's Palace

Cities, towns, temples and the palaces of kings all had gates. They all served a similiar function: restricting access to an area. Some had locks like modern doors, while others were simply blocked shut with bars. They were often guarded, and it was a position of trust to be entrusted with the keys or to be guarding the gates. (Her.Hist.3.155)


[Herodotus.Hist.3.120] About the time of Cambyses' last sickness, the following events happened. There was a certain Oroetes, a Persian, whom Cyrus had made governor of Sardis. This man conceived a most unholy wish. He had never suffered wrong or had an ill word from Polycrates the Samian - nay, he had not so much as seen him in all his life; yet, notwithstanding, he conceived the wish to seize him and put him to death. This wish, according to the account which the most part give, arose from what happened one day as he was sitting with another Persian in the gate of the king's palace. The man's name was Mitrobates, and he was ruler of the satrapy of Dascyleium. He and Oroetes had been talking together, and from talking they fell to quarrelling and comparing their merits; whereupon Mitrobates said to Oroetes reproachfully, "Art thou worthy to be called a man, when, near as Samos lies to thy government, and easy as it is to conquer, thou hast omitted to bring it under the dominion of the king? Easy to conquer, said I? Why, a mere common citizen, with the help of fifteen men-at-arms, mastered the island, and is still king of it." Oroetes, they say, took this reproach greatly to heart; but, instead of seeking to revenge himself on the man by whom it was uttered, he conceived the desire of destroying Polycrates, since it was on Polycrates' account that the reproach had fallen on him.


[3.42] Now it happened five or six days afterwards that a fisherman caught a fish so large and beautiful that he thought it well deserved to be made a present of to the king. So he took it with him to the gate of the palace, and said that he wanted to see Polycrates. Then Polycrates allowed him to come in, and the fisherman gave him the fish with these words following - "Sir king, when I took this prize, I thought I would not carry it to market, though I am a poor man who live by my trade. I said to myself, it is worthy of Polycrates and his greatness; and so I brought it here to give it to you." The speech pleased the king, who thus spoke in reply:- "Thou didst right well, friend, and I am doubly indebted, both for the gift, and for the speech. Come now, and sup with me." So the fisherman went home, esteeming it a high honour that he had been asked to sup with the king. Meanwhile the servants, on cutting open the fish, found the signet of their master in its belly. No sooner did they see it than they seized upon it, and hastening to Polycrates with great joy, restored it to him, and told him in what way it had been found. The king, who saw something providential in the matter, forthwith wrote a letter to Amasis, telling him all that had happened, what he had himself done, and what had been the upshot - and despatched the letter to Egypt.


[3.72] Otanes, when he saw Darius so hot, replied, "But if thou wilt force us to action, and not allow a day's delay, tell us, I pray thee, how we shall get entrance into the palace, so as to set upon them. Guards are placed everywhere, as thou thyself well knowest - for if thou hast not seen, at least thou hast heard tell of them. How are we to pass these guards, I ask thee?" answered Darius, "there are many things easy enough in act, which by speech it is hard to explain. There are also things concerning which speech is easy, but no noble action follows when the speech is done. As for these guards, ye know well that we shall not find it hard to make our way through them. Our rank alone would cause them to allow us to enter - shame and fear alike forbidding them to say us nay. But besides, I have the fairest plea that can be conceived for gaining admission. I can say that I have just come from Persia, and have a message to deliver to the king from my father. An untruth must be spoken, where need requires. For whether men lie, or say true, it is with one and the same object. Men lie, because they think to gain by deceiving others; and speak the truth, because they expect to get something by their true speaking, and to be trusted afterwards in more important matters. Thus, though their conduct is so opposite, the end of both is alike. If there were no gain to be got, your true-speaking man would tell untruths as much as your liar, and your liar would tell the truth as much as your true-speaking man. The doorkeeper, who lets us in readily, shall have his guerdon some day or other; but woe to the man who resists us, he must forthwith be declared an enemy. Forcing our way past him, we will press in and go straight to our work."

[3.77] At the gate they were received as Darius had foretold. The guards, who had no suspicion that they came for any ill purpose, and held the chief Persians in much reverence, let them pass without difficulty - it seemed as if they were under the special protection of the gods - none even asked them any question. When they were now in the great court they fell in with certain of the eunuchs, whose business it was to carry the king's messages, who stopped them and asked what they wanted, while at the same time they threatened the doorkeepers for having let them enter. The seven sought to press on, but the eunuchs would not suffer them. Then these men, with cheers encouraging one another, drew their daggers, and stabbing those who strove to withstand them, rushed forward to the apartment of the males.


[3.117] There is a plain in Asia which is shut in on all sides by a mountain-range, and in this mountain-range are five openings. The plain lies on the confines of the Chorasmians, Hyrcanians, Parthians, Sarangians, and Thamanaeans, and belonged formerly to the first-mentioned of those peoples. Ever since the Persians, however, obtained the mastery of Asia, it has been the property of the Great King. A mighty river, called the Aces, flows from the hills inclosing the plain; and this stream, formerly splitting into five channels, ran through the five openings in the hills, and watered the lands of the five nations which dwell around. The Persian came, however, and conquered the region, and then it went ill with the people of these lands. The Great King blocked up all the passages between the hills with dykes and flood gates, and so prevented the water from flowing out. Then the plain within the hills became a sea, for the river kept rising, and the water could find no outlet. From that time the five nations which were wont formerly to have the use of the stream, losing their accustomed supply of water, have been in great distress. In winter, indeed, they have rain from heaven like the rest of the world, but in summer, after sowing their millet and their sesame, they always stand in need of water from the river. When, therefore, they suffer from this want, hastening to Persia, men and women alike, they take their station at the gate of the king's palace, and wail aloud. Then the king orders the flood-gates to be opened towards the country whose need is greatest, and lets the soil drink until it has had enough; after which the gates on this side are shut, and others are unclosed for the nation which, of the remainder, needs it most. It has been told me that the king never gives the order to open the gates till the suppliants have paid him a large sum of money over and above the tribute.


[3.119] Then these two men went and showed themselves to the king, and told him how it had come to pass that they were thus treated. Darius trembled lest it was by the common consent of the six that the deed had been done; he therefore sent for them all in turn, and sounded them to know if they approved the conduct of Intaphernes. When he found by their answers that there had been no concert between him and them, he laid hands on Intaphernes, his children, and all his near kindred; strongly suspecting that he and his friends were about to raise a revolt. When all had been seized and put in chains, as malefactors condemned to death, the wife of Intaphernes came and stood continually at the palace-gates, weeping and wailing sore. So Darius after a while, seeing that she never ceased to stand and weep, was touched with pity for her, and bade a messenger go to her and say, "Lady, king Darius gives thee as a boon the life of one of thy kinsmen - choose which thou wilt of the prisoners." Then she pondered awhile before she answered, "If the king grants me the life of one alone, I make choice of my brother." Darius, when he heard the reply, was astonished, and sent again, saying, "Lady, the king bids thee tell him why it is that thou passest by thy husband and thy children, and preferrest to have the life of thy brother spared. He is not so near to thee as thy children, nor so dear as thy husband." She answered, "O king, if the gods will, I may have another husband and other children when these are gone. But as my father and my mother are no more, it is impossible that I should have another brother. This was my thought when I asked to have my brother spared." Then it seemed to Darius that the lady spoke well, and he gave her, besides the life that she had asked, the life also of her eldest son, because he was greatly pleased with her. But he slew all the rest. Thus one of the seven died, in the way I have described, very shortly after the insurrection.


[3.155] . . . Now, therefore, if there be no failure on thy part, we shall take Babylon. I will desert to the enemy as I am, and when I get into their city I will tell them that it is by thee I have been thus treated. I think they will believe my words, and entrust me with a command of troops. Thou, on thy part, must wait till the tenth day after I am entered within the town, and then place near to the gates of Semiramis a detachment of thy army, troops for whose loss thou wilt care little, a thousand men. Wait, after that, seven days, and post me another detachment, two thousand strong, at the Nineveh gates; then let twenty days pass, and at the end of that time station near the Chaldaean gates a body of four thousand. Let neither these nor the former troops be armed with any weapons but their swords - those thou mayest leave them. After the twenty days are over, bid thy whole army attack the city on every side, and put me two bodies of Persians, one at the Belian, the other at the Cissian gates; for I expect, that, on account of my successes, the Babylonians will entrust everything, even the keys of their gates, to me. Then it will be for me and my Persians to do the rest."

Cupbearer to the King

[3.34] He was mad also upon others besides his kindred; among the rest, upon Prexaspes, the man whom he esteemed beyond all the rest of the Persians, who carried his messages, and whose son held the office - an honour of no small account in Persia - of his cupbearer. Him Cambyses is said to have once addressed as follows:- "What sort of man, Prexaspes, do the Persians think me? What do they say of me?" Prexaspes answered, "Oh! sire, they praise thee greatly in all things but one - they say thou art too much given to love of wine." Such Prexaspes told him was the judgment of the Persians; whereupon Cambyses, full of rage, made answer, "What? they say now that I drink too much wine, and so have lost my senses, and am gone out of my mind! Then their former speeches about me were untrue." For once, when the Persians were sitting with him, and Croesus was by, he had asked them, "What sort of man they thought him compared to his father Cyrus?" Hereon they had answered, "That he surpassed his father, for he was lord of all that his father ever ruled, and further had made himself master of Egypt, and the sea." Then Croesus, who was standing near, and misliked the comparison, spoke thus to Cambyses: "In my judgment, O son of Cyrus, thou art not equal to thy father, for thou hast not yet left behind thee such a son as he." Cambyses was delighted when he heard this reply, and praised the judgment of Croesus.

[3.35] Recollecting these answers, Cambyses spoke fiercely to Prexaspes, saying, "Judge now thyself, Prexaspes, whether the Persians tell the truth, or whether it is not they who are mad for speaking as they do. Look there now at thy son standing in the vestibule - if I shoot and hit him right in the middle of the heart, it will be plain the Persians have no grounds for what they say: if I miss him, then I allow that the Persians are right, and that I am out of my mind." So speaking he drew his bow to the full, and struck the boy, who straightway fell down dead. Then Cambyses ordered the body to be opened, and the wound examined; and when the arrow was found to have entered the heart, the king was quite overjoyed, and said to the father with a laugh, "Now thou seest plainly, Prexaspes, that it is not I who am mad, but the Persians who have lost their senses. I pray thee tell me, sawest thou ever mortal man send an arrow with a better aim?" Prexaspes, seeing that the king was not in his right mind, and fearing for himself, replied, "Oh! my lord, I do not think that God himself could shoot so dexterously." Such was the outrage which Cambyses committed at this time: at another, he took twelve of the noblest Persians, and, without bringing any charge worthy of death against them, buried them all up to the neck.

Status of Women

The following is an account from the British archaeologist, Layard (1850) about the status of women in the Arab culture as he excavated at Nineveh. While the description is 2000 years out of date, it does provide insight into the status of women in the oriental culture of Persia.

[Layard.Nineveh.Pg 233-236] The principal public quarrels, over which my jurisdiction extended, related to property abstracted, by the Arabs, from one another's tents. These I disposed of in a summary manner, as I had provided myself with handcuffs; and Ibrahim Agha and the bairakdar were always ready to act with energy and decision, to show how much they were devoted to my service. But the domestic dissensions were of a more serious nature, and their adjustment offered far greater difficulties. They related, of course, always to the women. As soon as the workmen saved a few piastres, their thoughts were turned to the purchase of a new wife, a striped cloak, and a spear. To accomplish this, their ingenuity was taxed to the utmost extent. The old wife naturally enough raised objections, and picked a quarrel with the intended bride, which generally ended in an appeal to physical force. Then the fathers and brothers were dragged (Page 234) into the affair; from them it extended to the various branches of the tribe, always anxious to fight for their own honor, and for the honor of their women. At other times, a man repented himself of his bargain, and refused to fulfill it; or a father, finding his future son-in-law increasing in wealth, demanded a higher price for his daughter - a breach of faith which would naturally lead to violent measures on the part of the disappointed lover. Then a workman, who had returned hungry from his work, and found his bread unbaked, or the water-skin still lying empty at the entrance of his tent, or the bundle of fagots for his evening fire yet ungathered, would, in a moment of passion, pronounce three times the awful sentence, and divorce his wife; or, avoiding such extremities, would content himself with inflicting summary punishment with a tent-pole. In the first case he probably repented himself of the act an hour or two afterward, and wished to be remarried; or endeavored to prove that, being an ignorant man, he had mispronounced the formula, or omitted some words both being good grounds to invalidate the divorce, and to obviate the necessity of any fresh ceremonies. But the mullah had to be summoned, witnesses called, and evidence produced. The beating was generally the most expeditious, and really, to the wife, the most satisfactory way of adjusting the quarrel. I had almost nightly to settle such questions as these. Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, who had obtained an immense influence over the Arabs, and was known among all the tribes, was directed to ascertain the merits of the story, and to collect the evidence. When this process had been completed, I summoned the elders, and gave judgment in their presence. The culprit was punished summarily, or, in case of a disputed bargain, was made to pay more, or to refund, as the case required.

When I first employed the Arabs, the women were sorely ill-treated, and subjected to great hardships. I endeavored to introduce some reform into their domestic arrangements, and punished severely those who inflicted corporal chastisement on their wives. In a short time the number of domestic quarrels (Page 235) was greatly reduced; and the women, who were at first afraid to complain of their husbands, now boldly appealed to me for protection. They had, however, some misgivings as to the future, which were thus expressed by a deputation sent to return thanks after an entertainment:- "O Bey! we are your sacrifice. May God reward you! Have we not eaten wheaten bread, and even meat and butter, since we have been under your shadow? Is there one of us that has not now a colored kerchief for her head, bracelets, and ankle rings, and a striped cloak! But what shall we do when you leave us, which God forbid you ever should do? Our husbands will then have their turn, and there will be nobody to help us." These poor creatures, like all Arab women, were exposed to constant hardships. They were obliged to look after the children, to make the bread, to fetch water, and to cut wood, which they brought home from afar on their heads. Moreover they were intrusted with all the domestic duties, wove their wool and goats' hair into clothes, carpets, and tent-canvas; and were left to strike and raise the tents, and to load and unload the beasts of burden when they changed their encamping ground. If their husbands possessed sheep or cows, they had to drive them to the pastures, and to milk them at night. When moving, they carried their children at their backs during the march, and were even troubled with this burden when employed in their domestic occupations, if the children were too young to be left alone. The men sat indolently by, smoking their pipes, or listening to the gossip of some stray Arab of the desert. At first the women, whose husbands encamped on the mound, brought water from the river; but I relieved them from this labor by employing horses and donkeys. The weight of a large sheep or goat's skin filled with water, is not inconsiderable. It is hung on the back by cords strapped over the shoulders, and upon it is frequently seated the child, who cannot be left in the tent, or is unable to follow its mother on foot. The bundles of fire-wood, brought from a considerable distance, were enormous, completely concealing the head and shoulders of those who tottered beneath (Page 236) them. And yet the women worked cheerfully, and it was seldom that their husbands had to complain of their idleness. Some were more active than others. There was a young girl named Hadla, who particularly distinguished herself, and was consequently sought in marriage by all the men. Her features were handsome, and her form erect, and exceedingly graceful. She carried the largest burdens, was never unemployed, and was accustomed, when she had finished the work imposed upon her by her mother, to assist her neighbors in completing theirs.

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