Myth plays a crucial part in all cultures including the Persian culture now (modern-day Iran), that developed in around 1500 BC. Myth is difficult to define with many definitions and connotations to it. However it can mainly be acknowledged as something that embodies epic tall tales. These tales were to be recited for generations and as such can be viewed as a fundamental aspect of Persian culture.
Not much is known about the earliest forms of Persian mythology for certain. However its source is likely to have developed from Indo-European peoples who migrated to Persia. It is also probable that the earliest forms of myth were likely to have been borrowed from neighbouring Mesopotamia.
Religion was a dominating factor in conveying Persian myth and there are many accounts that suggest so. Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that was practiced heavily in Persia before the arrival for Islam in circa AD 656. It is from the Zoroastrian religion, which the oldest account, (although not an original) of Persian myth survives. Much of the content found was located in the sacred book, the Zend-Avesta, containing many stories based on myth that were said to be composed by Zoroaster (the prophet of Zoroastrianism). Zoroastrianism developed Persian myth further by adding themes to the existing mythological stories. These themes were centred around; good vs evil, new deities and set on a large universal scale.
The most famous of these myths, The Shahnameh written by Ferdowsi embodied the theme of good vs evil on a universal scale. This was seen in many famous Persian myths. For instance, the Ahura Mazda and Ahriman story. The first story indicates that Ahura and Mazda were the only specimens and what lay between them was barren emptiness. Ahura Mazda was a good wise lord that lived in Endless Light, whilst Ahriman was an evil spirit who lived in Absolute darkness. The story develops as a creation story, in that Ahura Mazda creates the sky, water, the Earth, man, animals etc. Ahura Mazda made contact with Ahriman and wanted him to aid his creations. However Ahriman did not want to help Ahura Mazda. Instead he created dark creatures to attack Ahura Mazda’s creations. He made; witches, demons and monsters. Ahura Mazda was wise and could foresee this and in retaliation made six spirits that were called the Holy Immortals that were designed to protect Ahura Mazda’s creations. Failing to destroy Ahura Mazda’s creations, all that Ahriman’s minions did was make the creations have faults. For example the water was made to be bitter, instead of destroying the Earth Mountains were formed. This is interesting to note as Persian Mythology is able to use myth as a tool to legitimate the natural landscape as to why in Persia the land has mountainous terrain. What’s more this story includes all items from the cosmos and mentioning new deities, Holy Immortals etc.
Although the most fundamental of the themes is that of good vs evil and Ferdowsi firmly elaborates that not only Ahura Mazda and Ahriman are battling against each other but so are the elements in the story; purity vs pollution to life vs death.
Persian myth also played a huge role on cultural identity. The Shahnameh for instance became the national epic of Iran and other Persian speaking countries like Afghanistan. It is a potent piece of literature that helped piece together the Persian language and to this very day the Persian language has changed very little since the publication of the Shahnameh, leading us to ponder: does this provide sufficient evidence that cultural identity stems from myth? Persian myth at no doubt can be acknowledged as a huge homage to Persian culture as it is recognised still as the country’s national epic, but is there more to it than that and why can it be?
It is important to remember that Persian mythology can be considered as historical, much like Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology. The Shahnameh also acts as a historical account of Persia, providing insightful information about Persia’s past and how the Zoroastrian faith, particularly the creation story of Ahura Mazda and Ahriham depicted the beginning of the Earth and how the Zoroastrian influence fell after the Muslim Caliphate crushed the Sassanid Empire.
However, having said that Persian Mythology does share some similarities to Western Mythology. Similarities often arise in mythological creatures. Regardless of what creatures of myth derived first in Persian or Western mythology is far from the real picture. What is interesting to note though is it is easy to think that cultural identity is limited to one place. For instance the tale of Dragons in mythological texts were not only used in Persian myth, a hero by the name of Rostam slays a dragon. Sounds familiar? Saint George and the Dragon? The same scenario is that of the Peri. At first glance it is simple to think that no other creature could possibly be like this but there is. The Peri is a winged creature. Sounds familiar? A fairy? Again the Peri is another example of how Persian Myth is no different to any other mythology. This strikes up much discussion on how far Persian myth can be intertwined as a sole cultural identity. One thing is certain though is regardless of what different opinions on the subject there are, Persian myth is argued to have universal features of myth from other cultures, whilst it appears at the same time to contain features predominately associated with Persia i.e. idea of myth from the Zoroastrian faith.