The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination (Exhibition at SOAS)

The Brunei Gallery at SOAS housed an exhibition on Zoroastrianism for a couple of months this year (now finished) called The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. We managed to fit in a trip at the end of November, a week or two after our visit to the mini-exhibition at the British Museum on a similar theme (post). Sadly no photography permitted but we went to the British Museum briefly afterwards, and I took couple photos of related objects (some of which had replicas in the exhibition) to illustrate this post.

The exhibition started by setting the scene of the various cultures present in the Middle East in the first millennium BC when Zoroastrianism got going. They didn’t just have objects from Iran, but also from other cultures across the region – including an example of the Luristan bronzes. I’d not particularly noticed these before (there are a selection in the British Museum, see below for a badly lit example), but they caught my eye this time. The exhibition was saying that these cultures were replaced by Indo-Aryans migrating from the steppes to the north, and Zoroastrianism was brought by these peoples or developed by them. I think this is based primarily on the language used to write the Zoroastrian scriptures. This is called Avestan and is only known from being written down many centuries later by Zoroastrians. The scriptures themselves are collectively called the Avesta.

Luristan Bronze

The next room of the exhibition was a circular space with verses from the Gathas, a key Zoroastrian text which is traditionally believed to be Zarathustra’s own words, on the walls in Avestan and translated into English. This was complemented by audio of these verses being read out. From there the exhibition moved to a very brief description of some of the key principles of Zoroastrianism, for instance the division of the world into 7 classes of things (like fire, water etc), and there were several Zoroastrian texts displayed. I read none of the scripts that these books were written in, let alone the languages, so this section felt rather heavy on texts with too little explanation. Some parts that stick in my mind, however, were firstly the way that the annotations for the rituals would be written in a different writing system to the main text – and upside down. Avestan is written right to left, and the Gujarati annotations are written left to right – so if they’re upside down then they run right to left just like the main text. Also written upside down wherever it occurred was the name of the evil principle, Ahriman. As well as the texts there were illustrations of the Zoroastrian funeral arrangements in this section – because the elements of the world are holy they should not be polluted by the dead body. This means that cremation and burial weren’t regarded as viable ways of dealing with the body (although these days they may be). Instead the bodies are exposed to vultures (sometimes in circular towers known as dhakma) – modern changes in tradition are in part due to a decline in vulture population.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road through Central Asia to China. The objects here consisted of more texts (some of them some of the earliest extant Zoroastrian texts dating from the 9th Century BC) and some ossuaries. The other side of this room showed representations of Zoroastrianism in the Christian world. Not just the Three Wise Men but also Zarathustra shows up in medieval texts as an ancient philosopher and magician – the very word “magic” derives from the Zoroastrian word for priest (Magus). A prime example of how things get garbled as they travel between cultures.

Downstairs the centre piece of the exhibition was a replica Fire Temple. Non-Zoroastrians aren’t permitted in real Fire Temples so this is really the only way to see what one is like. As well as an impression of the building they had a (fake) fire in a ritual cauldron and examples of many of the implements used during rituals. There was a video of a priest and his assistant carrying out the daily ritual of the temple – which involved not just the fire but also water and plants. These days a priest has just one assistant, but they had a book from pre-Islamic times which showed where the 9 different assistants should be positioned during this ritual, so clearly it was once much more elaborate. I think this room was my favourite part of the exhibition, and certainly the most striking.

Sculpture from the Palace of DariusCyrus Cylinder

The rest of the downstairs was divided into two sections – one was Zoroastrianism in Persia and one in India. The Persian side was dominated by a rather fine glass etched replica of the sculptures from the Palace of Darius in Persepolis – the photo above left is of the plaster cast replica in the British Museum. The centre text of that relief is a cuneiform inscription extolling the virtues of King Artaxerxes III who had this staircase added to the palace. It also calls for the Zoroastrian gods to protect him and his country. Other objects in this section included a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder (the photo above right is of another replica in the British Museum, the original is out on tour). This details Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon and again has Zoroastrian themes. One of the interesting bits of information in this section was that it was a Persian Zoroastrian priest who really pulled together the religion into a coherent whole, several centuries after it was originally founded. Prior to him the different cults in different places had their own flavours of Zoroastrianism, but he set down a proper way to do things and enforced it. The other half of the room was Zoroastrianism in India, sadly it seemed to me to lose focus and to devolve into a collection of portraits of notable Indians in (British) court dress – mostly from the Tata family. It is presumably no coincidence that one of the listed sponsors of the exhibition is TATA Enterprises …

Upstairs there were some more modern pictures of Zoroastrians around the world – there are now communities in many countries including Britain. And there was some art with Zoroastrian themes, most of which was not really my cup of tea.

Overall I think it was an interesting exhibition, and I’m glad I went. However, it did suffer from a lack of focus (not just in the Indian section, but that was the worst) and I wasn’t always sure why things were included. And sadly by the time we visited (only a little over a month after opening) the labelling on the cases was beginning to wear off – and particularly downstairs some of the cases were lit in such a way that the labels were pretty much unreadable. We did buy the book, so when I get a chance to read that hopefully the essays will elucidate some of the things I missed!