Monday, May 28, 2012

Interesting Similarities in Persian and Hindu Mythology

Compared to other mythologies, ancient Persia’s pantheon of gods seldom receives much attention. But the gods and goddesses of this ancient Middle-Eastern society share many of the attributes common among other Indo-European pantheons. After all, Persia, whose territory at one time would have covered modern-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey, was situated between Greece and India, and these three regions shared a great deal of culture, trade, and art with each other.

At the top of the Hindu pantheon, we see three primary gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These are the forces of creator, sustainer, and destroyer, and appear in various incarnations in mythologies around the world. The Persian gods Tiamat, Enkil, and Marduk take on similar roles in their pantheon.

Tiamat was a powerful goddess who was the embodiment of the primordial chaos. She was the mother of the younger gods, against whom she later made war. This is distinct from the role of Brahma, who gave rise not to gods but to humans. In most chaos myths, there is a first separation of the heavens and earth, usually founded on the chaos first forming a primordial sea. In Persia, Tiamat was the primordial sea...the heaven and earth were made from her remains (this is more common in Western threads, like the death of the Norse giant Ymir at the hands of Odin and his brothers). By contrast, Brahma formed the heavens and the earth from the halves of the shell from the golden egg that bore him in the primordial sea.

At a later age, Brahma contested with Vishnu for supremacy, trying to see who was the most powerful of the gods. They called on Shiva to settle the dispute, and this he defeating them both! This is the most direct parallel with the Persian myths, as Enkil, formerly leader of the gods, was unable to defeat Tiamat. He gave the opportunity to the storm god Marduk instead, but Marduk would only accept the challenge if all the gods agreed that he would be their ruler for all time should he prove victorious. After defeating Tiamat there was no doubt that Marduk was indeed the most powerful of the younger gods.

What is fascinating in these two myths is the characters of the two younger gods. Enkil is described as a trickster with a fondness for the foibles of the human race. He is a god of fresh water and purification, and he delights in thwarting the attempts of other gods to interfere with the lives of humans. Marduk, by contrast, is a stern warrior god of the storm. He hurls thunderbolts and his breath is flame. Yet he is also considered wise, meditative, and ascetic. He has four ears and four eyes with which to see and hear in all directions. Many of the attributes of these two gods are considered features of Vishnu and Shiva respectively (although Shiva has only three eyes and two ears). Vishnu often intercedes on the part of people, and enjoys playing tricks and testing them, while Shiva, whose elemental association is fire, is more stern and serious, and is generally more concerned with broader universal issues.

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