Animals in Ancient Persian Culture
Significance of animals in Persian culture:
Below are a few animals which are significant to Persian culture, resulting in their featured heavily in Persian literature, motifs and design.
Dove: Doves were highly regarded in Persian culture. For Muslims (as for Christians) they had a religious valence, as they are revered for once helping Muhammad by distracting his enemies during one stage of the Hijrah from Mecca to Medina, enabling him to escape. They were also romantic symbols, as doves were supposed to act as messengers between sailors lost at sea and their sweethearts, bringing them their final words of love, a tradition that may have arisen from the white doves Greek sailors are supposed to have witnessed escaping from sinking Persian ships during a naval expedition of 492 (Waterfield 32).
Because they were generally associated with and owned by the lower classes--hence they do not feature heavily in Persian art-- and thought to be slow-witted, asses were regarded with some contempt. However, Persians also seem to have found in that same contemptibility a great capacity for humor, wisdom, and moral lessons. Muhammad's Hadiths frequently mention asses, and religious figures associated with them to emphasize the value of humility.
But even religious figures' associations with asses can take a definite comedic turn. One favorite Persian joke concerns a mullah (a term generally applied in Iran to a local Islamic cleric) whose neighbor asked to borrow his donkey. The mullah refused, saying he'd already lent the donkey to another neighbor, when the donkey loudly brayed, causing the neighbor to protest and ask again. The mullah indignantly replied, "Who do you trust, the donkey, or me?"
They are used in proverbial expressions emphasizing stupidity or hopelessness: "Giving advice to a stupid man is like reciting the Koran to a donkey" or "He's stuck like an ass in mud." "These and many other pieces of proverbial wisdom," write Humphreys and Khasrom, "underlie the alleged stupidity of the donkey against the even greater stupidity of mankind in general. Thus, lowly as he is, the ass can still be an object lesson for the man in the street" (35-36). And, we might add, for the perennially transgressing Melech Mahommed in the Tales!
Peacock: The symbol of Persian/Iranian monarchy. This symbolism originates from the Peacock Throne, a famous golden throne stolen from India by the Persians in 1739.
The peacock is a popular motif in Persian designs. An ancient Persian recipe (see below for link) even illustrates how to cook a roasted or barbecued skewered peacock, indicating its popularity among the ancient Persians.
One example of a Persian community who worshipped the peacock were the Yezidis, who inhabit the Armenia，Kurdistan and Caucasus mountains. The Yezidis worshipped Malik-e-Taus, a redeem devil in the semblance of the peacock.
The common motif of two peacocks symmetrically disposed on either side of the Cosmic tree or hom—a feature taken from Persia —denotes the psychic duality of man (related to the myth of the Gemini) drawing its life force from the principle of unity.
Falcon: The faravahar, a winged disc bearing similarities to the shape of a falcon, is one of the best known symbols of Zoroastrianism.
The falcon was a popular pet during the ancient Persian period, leading to several historical theories stating that the practice of falconry originated from Persia. Click here for more images of the faravahar.
Elephant: Elephants' cultural relevance in Ancient Persia harken back to the epic hero Rostam from the Shah-Namah or Book of Kings. It is said that the hero was the only one who was able to slay the monstrous and mammoth elephant that had been terrorizing a Persian village. The strength and valor that he showed demonstrated that he was destined for greatness. The elephant is a recurring theme in tales of epic warriors of the Middle East. Some speculate that in the Rostam tale, the elephant symbolizes a force of conquest from India that the Great Kings were able to fend off.
Horses: The Persians were famous for breeding horses famous for their beauty, grace and strength. Horses did not have any significant symbolic meaning in Persian culture, but they were prized for their invaluable function for transportation and travel. A bequeath of a horse was both a symbolic gesture of favor and a practical gift- due to the beauty of the gift and functionality of the gift itself.
Scorpions: Scorpions have various colloquial and symbolic meanings in Persian culture. The saying “you are (like) a scorpion under the μoor mat” (tu ga dom-e zir-e buria hasti), evokes slyness, accusing the person in question for stinging like a scorpion and then quietly retreating under the mat or carpet. Another strand of folklore material deals with the acceptance that it is simply in the nature of the scorpion (and, by extension, a vile human being) to be harmful. The Persian proverb “the scorpion doesn’t sting out of malice, it is its nature to do so” (nish-e ‘aqrab na az rah-e kin ast, tabiyyat-ash in ast) is used in everyday situations if one feels hurt by somebody else. Due to the ubiquitous presence of scorpions in the region, the scorpion was feared for its poisonous sting, leading to the popular Muslim imagination that particularly dangerous scorpions inhabit hell.
Serpent: The serpent was seen as an evil creature in Persian culture. In Zoroastrianism, the demon Azhi Dahaka was a serpent-demon who slayed the first mortal, Yima. The serpent-demon fought many battles with Persian cultural heroes including Thraetona, an early cultural hero. The Ahriman is another serpentine god of darkness in Persian mythology. The faravahar also features a serpent curling around the falcon-like creature, but its significance in the Zoroastrian symbol is ironically different from the traditional meaning of serpents in Persian mythology- it is part of the seraphim, or guardian angel.
Water bird: Water and birds are significant features in Persian culture and paintings. Water signifies existence and the bird, freedom. Water symbolizes the perpetuity of nature and birds represent salvation and breaking the chains of bondage and controlling the universe. While there are no explicit meaning of the two natural elements combined as one creature, the amalgamation of the two evidently result in natural harmony and the existence of freedom in nature.
Ox: The Ox is not featured heavily in Persian culture and mythology- however, an animal of close association to it, the bull, is. A god called Mithra, a god from pre-Christian paganism, was first worshipped during the Roman Empire and spread to ancient Persia as well. In ancient Persian writings, Mithra slays a bull, in a symbolic act of 'salvation.' Mithra symbolized the Sun, or a celestial being, and the bull symbolized the earth and mankind.
Dog: Dogs were seen as important members of the Persian family during the pre-Islam era, and received a lot of attention in Zoroastrianism. The legal books of Avesta (the Zoroastrian archives) divided the dog into two kinds- the "house" dog and the "herd" dog, with the herd dog having the function to protect cattle and the house dog, to protect the owner's home. The relationship between man and dog is an important one according to the Avesta documents, man has to be grateful to the dog for protecting him and his possessions. The dog had a main role in Zoroastrian funeral customs, being brought to look at a corpse before the corpse was taken to the bier. This was because of the belief that the dog could drive away contaminating demons from the corpses.
Nair, P. Thankappan. 1974. "The Peacock Cult in Asia". Asian Folklore Studies. 33 (2): 93-170.
Ancient Persian Recipe featuring Barbecued Peacock.
A Brief History of Falconry from the International Association for Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey.
Dhalla, Maneckji. “History of Zoroastrianism.” Oxford University Press (1938)
Davis, Dick. “Rostam.” Mage Publishers (2007) Humphreys, Patrick and Esmail Kahrom. "Lion and Gazelle: The Mammals and Birds of Iran."
Frembgen, Jürgen Wasim. 2004. "The Scorpion in Muslim Folklore". Asian Folklore Studies. 63 (1): 95-123.
Beck, Roger. 1998. "The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis". Journal of Roman Studies. 88: 115-128.
Dog in Zoroastrianism by Professor Mary Boyce, The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.
Sykes, Egerton, and Alan Kendall. 2002. Who's who in non-classical mythology. London: Routledge.
Serpent as part of the Faravahar.
Persian Cultural Foundation. Waterfield, Robin. Xenophon's Retreat: Greece, Persia, And the End of the Golden Age. London: Faber. 2006.