Zoroastrianism and Peries

Who are the Peries? What are the Peries? Are they good or evil? Where did they come from? What do they signify (and to whom)? The primary focus of this essay is the mythology of the Peries, in an attempt to instill a basic understanding of what the titular subjects of Leyden’s historical manuscript actually are. Peries emerged from the intersection of religious beliefs over the progress of time and through the migration of people through the area that would be the Persian Empire. Leyden must have recognized the Peries as having a mammoth cultural impact. Otherwise, Leyden wouldn’t have centered his collection of oral tradition around these tangential figures.

Before the introduction of Zoroaster’s teachings, Iranian nomadic groups collected various pagan gods. These included the Vedic deva, or Avestan daeva, which means “Shining Ones”. Zoroastrianism was introduced into the Persian Empire in the 7th century BC. Zoroaster – it is believed – was born around 1000 BC. The introduction of Zoroastrianism also introduced the caste system into the Indo-Iranian nomadic population. Zoroastrianism is polytheistic – a religious order believing in multiple gods – with a main god that may go by multiple names. It is believed that the main god of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda or “Lord Wisdom”) is one in the same with the Iranian pagan god “Varuna”. After the main god, Zoroastrians give prayer to the seven Amesha – the seven holy immortal ones. These seven Amesha comprise the Heptad, to which the care of the world was entrusted 1 (Godrej and Mistree, 267). Just below the Heptad come thirty (Boyce, 14) or forty (Dhalla, 173) “yazata”, or Zoroastrian angels. It is believed by some that it is from this rooting pyramid of lesser and lesser angels that the Peries evolved, as creatures trapped on earth, capable of being redeemed and working to return to their position in heaven. And perhaps this is the case. In Leyden’s story, the Peries are a race of creatures that inhabit luxurious palaces that may bring to mind “heavenly” machinations. But this is not all there is to the story. The Peries have an intimate tie to another flavor of mythological beast.

The Divs are demons, “opponents of Ahura Mazda; proponents of lust, deprivation, misfortune, pain and ailment” (Godrig and Mistree, 180). And these demons are as old as the world itself, according to the Shanamah. The Shanamah is the Book of Kings, a creation text fundamental to the understanding of the development of Middle Eastern culture and heritage. The Shanamah explains Ahura Mazda’s creation of the first great kings, those who were also priests, magi, and warriors, existing on a plain between mortals and the spiritual realm (Boyce, 4-8). These Kings were epic heroes who were pitted in armed combat against those who sought to destroy the human race by whatever means possible. Starting with the very first king, Kayumurs, the Sha-Namah describes profound clashes with the “Black Div” who had always thirsted for blood (Rogers, 5). Kayumurs descendants were likewise locked in this struggle to maintain humanity. Kayumur’s grandson, Tehmuras, was able to bind the Div for thirty years, but they returned to try to end civilization, which, at this point in the narrative, has begun to flourish. Jamshid, the second great king, produced massive advancements in the areas of agriculture and technology during his reign because he was able to enslave the Div and make them do his bidding (Godrig and Mistree, 153). Each king is well known for his particular demonic ordeal. Rustam’s war against the Great White Div is certainly one of the most oft depicted in ancient Persian art (Rustam, Godrig and Mistree). As the Sha-Namah continues, we find ethereal, Perie-like angels helping man fight the Div. But are the Peries and the Div on opposite sides, good and evil?

Mary Boyce, in her History of Zoroastrianism, makes the claim that the Peries are of a more malevolent breed. Boyce believes that the Peries are actually descendants of the Divs, or Diu. Stories of the Div are eclectic and various; Div have been known to take disparate form. Although this leaves much room for interpretation and abstracts available for the pondering of modern religious and mythological influence, the Peries have a very feminine, wily nature that is very specific, and extremely distinct from the burly, masculine Div of old. Of course, in Leyden’s story, Div and Peries are two completely separate groups. So, how could the groups be related? Boyce takes a cultural linguistic approach to the understanding of how the Peries came to be. Through the influence of Zoroastrianism, which defined “good and evil” explicitly, and put so much emphasis on the main god (having been influenced by Indo-European monotheism), the Persian, Avestan word “daeva” evolved in meaning from “god” to “false god”. This was marked by a shift from “yatu” to “jadu” and this led to the word “dregvant” or “wicked one” who follows the jadu. The female equivalent of this is the pairika in the original Persian and was linked with a similar term for a particular species of demon that had been described in the Yasna. The Yasna is the primary liturgical collection of texts of the Avesta and described a beguiling female demon that had fallen from the stars or come from the sky (Sethna, 61). One tale of the pairika twin describes one taking on an “enchantingly beautiful” female form to seduce a man (Boyce, 86). This demon bears striking resemblance to the one we encounter in Leyden’s tale. And so, says Boyce, the Perie was born!

1. Godrej and Mistree. “Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion and Culture.” Mapin (2002), 267, 180, 153.

2. Boyce. Mary. “History of Zoroastrianism.” Vol. 1. Leiden/Koln (1975), 14, 4-8.

3. Dhalla, Maneckji. “History of Zoroastrianism.” Oxford University Press (1938), 173.

4. Rogers, Alexander. “The Shah-Namah of Fardusi.” Heritage Publishers (1973), 5.

5. Sethna, Tehmurasp. “Yasna: Excluding the Gathas” Library of Congress (1977), 61.

Further Reading On Zoroastrianism: