Within each species, species within species are created, so the total is two hundred and eighty-two species. . . Many animals are created in all these species for this reason, that if one of them perishes through the evil spirit, another shall remain.

Bundahisn 14:27, 31, an early medieval Zoroastrian text

Iran is home to many kinds of habitats - desert, forest, mountains, plains - and, as the passage above describes, rich with diverse species of animals. Faunal finds from numerous sites in Iran confirm that the region’s earliest inhabitants were avid hunters of gazelles, wild asses, ibex, and other species. With the introduction of domestic species from ca. 11,000 BC – first goats, then sheep, cattle, and eventually pigs (by ca. 8000 BC) – early agricultural villages came to depend on animals for many different aspects of their diet, tools, and clothing. Prehistoric Iranian art allots a prominent place to animals, both wild and domestic. Indeed, animals were central to daily life in the ancient Iranian world in a way that is difficult for inhabitants of modern industrialized countries to imagine. They provided muscle power for farming, trade, and war, and served as metaphors for heroism and kingship. As a result, animals became deeply intertwined with Iranian culture and a key feature of Iranian religion. 

Zoroastrianism, the most prominent Iranian religion, divided animals into two categories: gospand, or animals beneficial to society, and xrafstra, or evil and threatening animals.  The first category included most domestic and wild species, with cattle in particular given a place of high honor. One version of the Zoroastrian creation story makes the ox the companion of the first human, Gayomard. As described in the story of the Primeval Ox, the evil spirit Ahriman attacks the ox first, correctly recognizing that if he were able to bring her down, he would soon be able to destroy the harmony of the entire world. Protecting cattle and other livestock thus became a key virtue as a way to preserve Ahura Mazda's creation. 

Gospand later became a word specific to livestock (the linguistic ancestor to gusfand/گوسفند, or sheep), but in the ancient Iranian world it included all good animals, both domestic and some wild, which were seen as vital to upholding the cosmic order and defeating Ahriman.  

Zoroastrian thought and ritual also assigned a special place to dogs. In a practice found nowhere else in the Middle East, ancient Iranians deliberately exposed corpses to be consumed by dogs rather burying them in the earth. As the Greek historian Herodotus observed (writing ca. 430 BC), “It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey" (Histories, 1.140). The glance of a dog (sag-did) was also believed to prevent the death-demon from corrupting the corpse. As a result, measures were put in place to keep people from harming these dogs, cattle, and other beneficent species unnecessarily.

Animals falling into the second category as xrafstra, including frogs, snakes, flies, and lizards, were afforded no such tolerance.  Indeed, it was considered the duty of pious Zoroastrians to kill these cursed creatures whenever possible. In the popular Middle Persian tale of Arda Viraf’s visions of the afterlife, the righteous protagonist sees an evil man being boiled alive - that is, all of him except his foot, which he had so often employed to stomp on xrafstra during his life (Book of Arda Viraf, 60:1-8)!

The Animals Exhibit explores the social and religious meaning of animals in Ancient Iran. On the menu on the left, you will find links to the Animals exhibit we built for Ancient Iran Day, as well as a further section on animal symbolism and the story of the primeval ox.