The Primeval Ox


The Marlik Ox by Monir Ghanbeigi, inspired by prehistoric art

The Creation of the World and the Primeval Ox

In the Middle Persian text the Bundahishn, a description of Zoroastrian cosmology, the high god Ahura Mazda (or Ohrmazd) creates a beautiful world, including a tree, an ox, and a human, Gayomard. An attack by Ahura Mazda's nemesis, Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman), nearly destroys the world, however, leaving it dark and the ox fatally poisoned. The passages below have been lightly adapted into modern English from a 19th century translation by E.W. West.

12. In the month Frawardin and the day Ohrmazd, at noon, Ahriman rushed in[to creation], and thereby the sky was shattered and frightened by him like a sheep by a wolf. 13. He descended to the water below the earth and pierced into the middle of the earth. 14. Afterwards, his path led him to the vegetation [that Ahura Mazda had created], then to the ox, then to Gayomard, and then he came to the holy fire; so, just like a fly, he rushed out upon the whole creation; and he made the world as dark at midday as though it were in dark night. 15. And he sent evil creatures over the earth, biting and venomous creatures, such as the snake, scorpion, frog (kalvak), and lizard (vazak), so that not so much as the point of a needle remained free from these evil creatures. 16. And he spread blight over the vegetation, and it withered away immediately. 17. And he sent avarice, want, pain, hunger, disease, lust, and lethargy abroad upon the ox and Gayomard.

Ahura Mazda tries to save the ox, from the effects of Ahriman's attack, but it dies just the same.  The ox's dying wish is for Ahura Mazda to create more cattle to take its place:

18. Before he came to the ox, Ohrmazd ground up the healing fruit, which some call 'binak,'  so that its hurt and discomfort from the calamity (zanishn) might be less. But it became lean and ill, its breath went forth and it passed away.  As it died, the ox also spoke thus: 'The cattle are to be created, and their work, labor, and care are to be appointed.'

After the ox dies, Ahura Mazda falls into a depression, unable to see why he should continue to create if Ahriman is able to undo his work so easily.  However, the ox's spirit, Goshurun, pesters him from the afterlife, begging him to give humankind another opportunity. Eventually, Ahura Mazda ensures that from the remains of Goshorun's body, grain, an abundance of other animals, and a new pair of oxen emerge to take its place and continue the good world that he made:

1. This also is said, that when the primeval ox passed away it fell to the right hand, and Gayomard afterwards, when he passed away, to the left hand. 2. The soul of the primeval ox came out from its body and cried to Ohrmazd with a voice as strong as a thousand men when they cry out at once: 'Now who will be the guardian of your creatures, when ruin has broken into the earth, the vegetation is withered, and the water is troubled? Where is the man of whom it was said: I will produce him, so that he may preach carefulness?'

3. And Ohrmazd spoke thus: 'You are ill, O Goshorun! you have the illness which the evil spirit brought on. If it were proper to create that man on this earth at this time, the evil spirit would not have attacked as it did.'

4. Then Goshorun walked to the star station (payak) and cried in the same manner, and back to the moon station and cried in the same manner, and then to the sun station, and then the guardian spirit of Zoroaster appeared to her, and Ohrmazd said thus: 'I will produce for the world him who will preach carefulness.' 5. Then Goshorun became content, and said: 'I will nourish the creatures;' that is, she again consented to a worldly creation in the world.

The anecdote of Goshorun, the primeval ox, occupies only a small part of the story of creation, but it highlights the importance that cattle were believed to play in creating and maintaining society. Thanks to Goshorun's intervention, Ahriman's attack fails to undo the order of the universe, and Ahura Mazda decides to send the prophet Zoroaster to take Goshorun's place in caring for all of creation.  By carrying out their religious duties, ancient Iranians continued the work that Goshorun and Zoroaster started.

The Marlik Ox, made by contemporary Iranian ceramic artist Mehdi Ghanbeigi, was inspired by the artist’s study of prehistoric animal figurines found at Marlik in Gilan province of northern Iran, as well as European tradition of Paleolithic art.  The piece, displayed on campus for Ancient Iran Day, evokes the powerful role of the primeval ox in traditional Iranian beliefs. 

The Primeval Ox