Saturday, 30 July 2016

Jiroft culture and Harappa: an iconographic comparison can reveal the deep roots of Indo-Iranian traditions

The first image is given in a recent paper by D. Frenez and M. Vidale, two brilliant archaeologists specialized in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age from Oman to Western India. The plaque does not come from their excavations but from the Barakat Gallery website. So it has no context, but the style is typical of the art of the so-called Jiroft culture of the Halil Rud valley, recently discovered. 
A civilization, as is remarked in the article, rich in contacts with the Indus valley, being contemporary with the Mature Harappan period. These contacts are shown also by this figure, because the figure of a bovine in front of a cup-like container recalls the unicorn seals, like the one shown above (cf. this post). There are also Indus seals with a zebu bull, but without a container. The Jiroft figure thus is not identifiable with any of the two Harappan models, and it reveals a strong originality in the presence of more than one animal: below the zebu, we have a suckling calf, which shows that the zebu is a cow and not a bull as in the Harappan iconography, and above, there is a small animal apparently attacking the hump of the cow. The authors propose many identifications for this animal, and the most convincing seem those about Canidae like wolf, jackal or hyena, because of the pointed muzzle.
This dramatisation of the scene, so different from the static isolation of Indus animals on the seals, apparently expresses a feature of Jiroft imagery and worldview: the opposition of two animals as symbols of two opposing principles, as is remarked in the entry of the Encyclopedia Iranica about the iconography of chlorite artefacts from the Jiroft culture:  
Two opposing principles arise from the Jiroft imagery: one is negative, with the scorpion and the snake, symbols of suffering and death; the other is positive, with the cheetah and the eagle engaged on the side of man against the reptile. It is clearly not feasible to propose an interpretation of the Jiroft iconography before one can integrate it in the culture it stems from. It, however, seems possible to suggest the idea of a dualistic mode of thinking geared to human pursuits. This particular orientation bears the mark of the strongly contrasted natural environment of the Iranian-Indian plateau. Without falling into geographic determinism, account has to be taken of the extremely particular conditions that prevail in this vast region set against the Zagros Mountain range and turned toward the East and Central Asia. The landscapes may have left their mark on the life of the population, its language, writing, culture, and religion since the dawn of history.
It is obvious that this dualism alludes to the historical Zoroastrian worldview, seen as a continuation of a very ancient pattern of thought. And Zoroastrian mythology and ritual might help us to interpret our plaque. Already in the Avesta, the figure of the cow (gav) and the 'soul of the cow' (Geuš Urvan) enjoy an important position. In the later and more detailed Pahlavi literature, Gāw ī Ēwdād is the 'sole-created cow/bull', first animal to live on earth, and killed by the Evil Spirit (Ahriman). On the other hand, the Evil Spirit is closely associated with the wolf, created by him in 15 species (wolf, black wolf, tiger, lion, panther, cheetah, hyena, jackal, etc., see here). So, we can have here a representation of the cosmic fight between the evil and good forces acting in the Zoroastrian world.

But then, why the cup? It is not an object found on Harappan seals. According to the authors,
"This cup closely resembles ceramic forms of similar general classes, well known in the repertories of the Halil river valley, Sistan and Kandahar in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC. Moreover, it also remind[s] the carved chlorite cups of the Halil Rud Civilization."

If we look at the Zoroastrian ritual implements, there is one that reminds the cup of our plaque: the Hawan, the mortar used to press the sacred Haoma (Ephedra) twigs. Here there is a nice picture of it and here is a drawing from the Zoroastrian Heritage site:

Interestingly, Bartholomae says that the havana- (Hawan) today is made of copper, but before it was made of stone, like the chlorite cups. But going back to the comparison with the Harappan unicorn seals, the object in front of the unicorn has been interpreted as a Soma strainer, particularly by Mahadevan, a very good identification in my opinion. So, we can suppose that the authors of the Jiroft plaque were aware of the common Soma/Haoma cult but chose to put the mortar instead of the strainer (that is also among the Zoroastrian implements, see above), maybe because they found it more important, or maybe simply because it was easier to be represented by their technique and material. In this context, the cow can be associated also with the milk that was mixed with the Haoma extract.

I do not suggest that the Halil Rud civilization was already Zoroastrian (Zarathustra should be placed at least in the 2nd mill. BC), but that it had similar rituals connected with the ancestral Indo-Iranian *sauma- cult, and a similar (typically Iranian) dualistic worldview and imagery where the cow could be a symbol of the beneficent side of reality, always threatened by the maleficent, demoniac side, symbolised by the wolf.  


  1. Very well written and suggested :) .

  2. For me, the thing in front of the unicorn is both the pole for the asvamedha and the soma and the container for the ghee. There are also cups in front of animals in SSVC seals too, but they are more like cups, though non of them are chimeras:

    Speaking of chimeras. Compare the mantichore, of persian origin (probably of indian origin): with the upper right creature

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Daniel,

      The Thing in the 1st link picture is very different from the ones similar of Zoroastrian rituals.


    Two reviews of the book Eden in the East