A Matter of Xwedodah

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Though modern-day practitioners of Zoroastrianism (more accurately referred to as Mazdayasna) tend to dispute this, an abundance of ancient writings, as well as contemporary descriptions by neighbouring peoples, indicate that the religion of Pre-Islamic Persia taught that the most blessed marriage is one with a man’s mother, sister or daughter. That is, consanguinamorous (incestuous) marriage (Middle Persian xwedodah) was not only tolerated, but positively encouraged on religious grounds. Scholars disagree about whether this xwedodah was widespread among the population or was confined to the noble and priestly classes. There is also disagreement as to whether this practice was prevalent throughout the history of the Persian empire, or merely during the Sassanian era (224 to 651 CE), when we find the clearest documentary evidence for it. But the scholarly consensus accepts the existence of xwedodah marriages in ancient Persia as a fact. Awareness of xwedodah has recently been popularized by the strategy game Crusader Kings II.

In this story, I have incorporated actual passages from some of these texts. I have also freely invented as necessary for dramatic purposes. If you want to tease them apart, I direct you to a scholarly article on next-of-kin marriage in IranicaOnline (I’m not permitted to give the URL here, but an online search should lead you to it pretty easily). My research into Mazdayasna for purposes of this story is admittedly cursory. In no way should this be taken as an accurate depiction of Mazdayasna in any time period. No disparagement of Mazdayasna or the Persian people is intended. My goal here is merely to explore what it might have felt like to be in a consanguinamorous marriage within a culture that encouraged such relations. It is also to suggest, by way of comparison, that our Western criminalization of sexual relations between consenting adult family members is arbitrary, pointless, and harmful.

All sexually active characters in this story are over the age of eighteen. The story is set circa 500 CE in the city of Ecbatana, Persia, in the reign of Shah Jamasp.


Part I

‘Ardashir, welcome welcome, my boy! So good to see you again, and in good health, praise be to Ormazd. How many years has it been? But, please, be seated! Markos, bring a cup of cool sharbat for my nephew at once! How is my sister Rudabeh? You will stay for the mid-day meal, of course. Your cousins would be heartbroken if you did not.’

‘Greetings uncle Bamshad, aunt Zarin. My mother is well, thank you. She apologises for not coming herself, but she is in the midst of unpacking and furnishing the house we have taken. She will call on you within a few days. But I had to come at once and offer our congratulations on the good news we just heard, of the twins’ betrothal. And yes, I will stay, I thank you for your welcome.’

‘Our family’s good news’, said Bamshad, ‘is double, praise be to Ormazd: your return to Ecbatana as well as the betrothal. Ah, allow me to present to you our esteemed magus, Firuz. He was just advising us on the most auspicious date for the wedding. Firuz, this young man is my sister’s son, just returned to Persia after many years abroad in Syrian Antioch.’

‘Greetings, Ardashir. Yes, I believe I met your father, many years ago: a Greek named Nichomachus, is he not … a partner in your late grandfather Dariush’s wine trade?

‘Yes. My father died last year, esteemed magus.’

‘My condolences on your loss. Your father was not a follower of Mazdayasna, but he struck me as a man of good thoughts, good words and good deeds. I am certain his soul has crossed over the Chinvad bridge, and is now in the abode of the sacred beings, where is found all comfort, pleasure, joy, and happiness.’

‘I thank you.’

‘So the wine business is in your hands now? Very impressive, to be directing a far-reaching trading empire already, at such a young age! You are how old, master Ardashir, twenty? Will you return to Antioch then, to direct this business?’

‘Indeed I am twenty, esteemed Firuz. But no, we are back in Ecbatana permanently I hope. I can manage the business as well from here, where the wine is produced, as from Antioch, where we sell it. After the death of my father, my mother longed to return home, to live among her own people again.’

‘Speaking of betrothals,’ my aunt Zarin interposed, ‘how is it that you have returned to us still unmarried? Is twenty years old not yet marriageable age among the Greeks?’

‘Indeed it is, aunt. But it is difficult for a Persian, even a half-Persian such as me, to find a wife among the Christians. Though they are eager enough to drink our Shiraz wine, their priests ridicule and denounce us for permitting the marriage of close relatives, xwedodah as we say in Persian. This betrothal of my cousins Mirza and Gulzar, for example, which seems so blessed and honourable to us, would provoke outrage and rioting in Antioch. No Christian father illegal bahis would give his daughter to a Persian, who might subject his grandchildren to such xwedodah. This was another reason for our return to Ecbatana. For it is indeed time I found a wife.’

‘And what,’ asked the magus, ‘are your views about xwedodah, master Ardashir? You call yourself half-Persian: do you follow the teachings of the Christians on this matter, or those of our prophet Zartusht? I see no half-way ground between the two.’

‘My mother taught me that xwedodah is noble and righteous, in accord with the principles of the Mazdayasnian religion.’ For her own parents, and uncle Bamshad’s, were themselves a mother-son xwedodah marriage.

I continued, ‘My father, though officially a Christian, privately had little use for their priests’ teachings: he said that any marriage custom that had produced so beautiful and good-hearted a woman as my mother could not be evil. Publicly, my father called me by my Greek name Athanasius, but in the home, and among Persians, I was and am Ardashir, for that is the Persian name my mother gave me. I have returned to Persia now with her, intending to live as a Persian, following Masdayasna; but my knowledge of it is imperfect. I cannot say that I truly understand, for example, why xwedodah is so highly valued in our religion, when all other nations seem to abhor it.’

‘Then it will be my duty as a magus, and my pleasure as your friend, to call upon you and instruct you in Mazdayasna, if you will permit me.’

‘Thank you, Firuz, I shall be delighted to receive you and learn from you.’

* * *

So my mother and I settled into our new life in Ecbatana. The wine trade mostly managed itself, requiring little intervention from me. For my grandfather and father had chosen reliable, trustworthy brokers to buy from the Shiraz vineyards to the south, reliable ships to transport the wine via the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, and reliable distributors in Antioch, Constantinople, and points west. I merely counted up the gold coins that poured in and invested them, purchasing vineyards of our own, and hiring reliable men to cultivate the grapes, working closely with our master vintner Parviz to create a vintage that I knew would appeal to the Christians’ palates. After a failure of the Thracian grape harvest that crippled our main competitors, our profits soared.

About a month after our arrival, the wedding of my cousins Mirza and Gulzar took place, amid lavish celebrations. I was reminded, seeing the twins’ joy, of my own need to find a wife. The guests were a combination of my aunt Zarin’s numerous kin and uncle Bamshad’s even more numerous business associates. I was sobered, however, to realize that, aside from my uncle and the twins, I have no living blood-relative but my mother. (My Greek cousins in Antioch do not count: they disowned us because my father had married outside the Christian faith.)

Meanwhile, over the next several months, Firuz met with me frequently, and set me to work studying the Gathas, a collection of hymns composed by Zartusht himself, as well as other sacred writings of the Avesta. These writings were extraordinarily difficult to understand, for the language is ancient and obscure, related to but still quite different from the Persian tongue that I knew.

But as I made my way through these scriptures, the magus explained the difficult words to me, as well as providing background on the Mazdayasnian world-view, ethical teachings, and ritual practices, filling in the partial learning I had received from my mother. That is, how the good god Ormazd created the world and gave it order, but the wicked god Ahriman invaded the world and sowed evil, disease and decay. The present world is thus a place of battle between Ormazd and the pure spirits that he sired, versus Ahriman and his devs, the lying, unclean spirits. Humans have freedom to choose, and thus can assist Ormazd, or succumb to Ahriman. We assist Ormazd by good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Those who follow the path of truth go to paradise after death; but those who serve the lie go to darkness and torment, till the end of time, when Ormazd will vanquish Ahriman and reconcile all souls to himself.

‘And what, esteemed Firuz,’ I asked him one day, ‘are the good deeds, precisely, that assist Ormazd in his struggle against Ahriman?’

‘Ah, an excellent question, showing pious intent. There are many good deeds, Ardashir. Showing respect for one’s parents is a good deed. Giving proper care to one’s beasts of burden is a good deed. Reciting the yasnas and making fire-offerings are good deeds. But of all these, the greatest deed is xwedodah.’

‘Ah, back to xwedodah, my original question. Tell me, what is so special about xwedodah, and why is it so important in Mazdayasna? I do not see it explicitly explained in the parts of the Avesta that I have read so far.’

‘I will answer you with a story. There illegal bahis siteleri was once a great king named Jam, whose vassals, stirred up by Ahriman, rebelled against him, so that he had to flee with his sister Jamag. They found refuge upon a small island in a small bay of the great ocean. Ahriman and the evil devs schemed to destroy him. They sought him upon the face of the land but he was not there. They sought him in the ocean, but he was not there. They sought him in the air and under the ground, but he was not there. At last they sought him and found him among the small islands; two devs, who took male and female form, went forth to destroy him, by enticing him into evil.

‘When Jam saw them, he asked, “Who are you?” “We are a brother and sister like you,” the male dev lied, “seeking refuge from evildoers, just as you are doing. Come, give me this sister of yours as wife, and I shall give you mine, so that our lineages may not be extinguished.” And Jam did so. But instead of children, the female dev bore him all manner of wicked monsters; likewise the male dev begat monsters upon Jamag. Jam’s mind was still clouded with grief over the loss of his kingdom, so that he took no notice of the monsters befouling his island and corrupting his soul. But Jamag his sister perceived the state of things more clearly. One day, after Jam and the male dev had been drinking wine, Jamag switched places and clothes with the female dev. Jam, being drunk, lay with Jamag his sister, thinking she was his wife, mingling his body with hers.

‘The power and virtue of this xwedodah by Jam and Jamag, even though he lay with her unawares and in drunkenness, was such that the two lying devs and all the monsters they had spawned were immediately slain, as well as thousands of other unclean spirits. Jam immediately recovered his right mind, and performed yasnas; soon he was restored to the kingship, vanquishing his enemies. His sister Jamag he made his loving queen, and he sired upon her a great dynasty.

‘That, Ardashir, is the power of xwedodah. No other act is as effective in strengthening the good order of Ormazd in this world, and weakening Ahriman. If a man takes his mother, sister or daughter in marriage, the first time he lies with her, two thousand evil spirits are slain. The second time, four thousand more are slain. The third time, eight thousand, and so on. Such is the power of xwedodah, that if such a marriage lasts four or more years, both the man and his wife will become completely righteous, their place in paradise will be assured, and Ahriman will have no power over them. Their yasnas will have the merit of a hundred ordinary yasnas.’

‘But why, O Firuz? What exactly is it that gives xwedodah such virtuous power?’

‘Ardashir, would you tether your horse to a post with a single linen thread? No, the horse could easily pull away: the thread would snap. You would tether it with a strong rope, made of many fibres twisted together. Our individual souls proceed into this world from our fravashis, our guardian spirits, tethered to this world with family lineages. A soul’s bonds to parents, siblings, and children all form part of its lineage. He who marries his mother, sister or daughter creates a double bond in the lineage, and this double bond is vastly stronger than an ordinary one. The more xwedodah in a soul’s lineage, the stronger the soul’s tie to its fravashi, and to the world. By means of this strong tie, the soul is guided into righteousness and order in this world, and cannot be snatched away or deceived by Ahriman. He who performs xwedodah strengthens his family’s lineage, like a workman who twists together multiple strands of fibre to make a strong rope.

‘And I can tell you from my own experience that this double bond of love makes for a good and pleasant marriage. My late wife Laleh was also my sister. We loved each as brother and sister when we were children, but when we married the love of husband and wife was added to our bond. It was sweet, that double bond between us. I lay with her every night, except during illnesses or her times of uncleanness of course. And every time it was a taste of paradise, for both of us. She gave me six beautiful children, three sons and three daughters. Each son has taken a sister as his wife, and they are all as happy in their marriages as their mother and I were.’ Firuz began to cry. ‘I miss her so, my sweet Laleh. The other magi urge me to marry again, but I cannot. How could I take another woman to my heart, mingling my body with hers, after knowing the intimate love of my own dear sister?’

‘Surely, Firuz, you will be reunited with her in paradise, praise be to Ormazd. Then you two will love each other for all eternity.’

‘Yes, thank you, Ardashir. Your words are both true and comforting. It is you who are instructing me in Mazdayasna, my friend, rather than the other way round. Ah well, let me return to the teaching role. Have I answered your questions canlı bahis siteleri about xwedodah?’

‘Yes. But alas, I have no opportunity to do this good deed. I have no sister, Firuz: I am the only child of my parents. Shortly after my birth, my father contracted a fever which made his ballocks swell up; and though he recovered, he could thenceforth beget no more children. When I left Antioch, I thought of asking for my cousin Gulzar’s hand in marriage, but I arrived here to find her already betrothed to her twin brother. I suppose a marriage between brother and sister is a better xwedodah than one between cousins. It would have been a sin for me to stand in the way of their marriage, to try to win her away from Mirza.’

‘Indeed it would have been. He who encourages xwedodah does a good deed, as though reciting a hundred yashts; he who prevents or interferes with xwedodah does an evil deed, as though killing a virtuous man. And as you say, the closer the relation, the better the xwedodah. But you are mistaken in one respect: you can still experience the blessing of xwedodah, Ardashir. For the best xwedodah of all is that between a man and his mother: having come from her body, he is nearest to his origin. It is the closest relation possible, hence the most blessed. Ardashir, your widowed mother lacks a husband, you lack a wife. If you truly intend to follow the Mazdayasnian religion to the utmost, your way is clear. This would be the best of all good deeds.’

‘I … I had not thought of … well … a brother marrying his sister is one thing, but … ‘

‘But you cannot imagine loving your mother Rudabeh as a husband loves his wife? You can not imagine lying with her, mingling your body with hers, begetting children upon her?’

‘No! No I cannot. Forgive me Firuz, I was not raised with these customs … Rudabeh is my own mother!’

‘I understand, Ardashir, believe me. This is why xwedodah is difficult. This is why other nations recoil from it. If it were easy, our sacred writings would not need to promote it so emphatically. If it were easy, Ormazd would already have overcome Ahriman. We love a woman as our mother, our sister or our daughter; our thoughts and emotions are confined to that one narrow role and we cannot easily break out of it, to permit ourselves to experience a fuller love for her, that includes marriage and sexual relations. It was so with me when I was betrothed to my sister Laleh – even though, unlike you, I was raised as a Persian, already studying to be a magus. She is my older sister, I said to myself: how can I lie with her? But between the time of our betrothal and our wedding, the idea grew upon me. How pleasant, I thought, that this woman I will share my life with already knows me thoroughly, my strengths and my weaknesses, my likes and dislikes, as I know hers. How pleasant that we have a shared history, so that we understand each other completely. When I was little, she played with me and instructed me, and I gratefully followed her about like a duckling follows its mother. She shielded me from my father’s volatile temper, watching over me like a benevolent yazata. Remembering her many kindnesses to me, I thought, how pleasant to marry such a compassionate, affectionate woman. How pleasant also that she is a beautiful woman, whom any man would be lucky to have as his wife. Then my desire for her was ignited, like a spark on dry tinder. By the time of the wedding, I was as eager as any bridegroom on earth. She was equally eager to give herself to me. Our wedding night was a joyful one.

‘Now tell me Ardashir, do you find your mother Rudabeh repulsive?’

‘Certainly not! How could you say that of her?’

‘I do not say that of her. On the contrary, I would say she is an exceedingly comely woman, both in her appearance and in her character. But I am asking what you think.’

‘As you say, she is a most comely woman, of course. Not the fresh sparkle, perhaps, of a young maiden, but the deep, full-bodied beauty of a woman in the golden summertime of her life. Forgive me if I speak of her as though she were a wine – it is my trade. And she is a very good-hearted woman, certainly. She is devoted to good thoughts, good words and good deeds. But I have never thought … I cannot think … of lying with her.’

‘Have you ever been attracted to an older woman?’

‘Well … er, yes, as it happens, in Antioch: the wife of a Rhodian merchant, a business associate of my father’s. Her name was Lydia. She was about forty years old. When we were alone, she flirted with me, told me I was handsome, rubbed her breasts against me. But we never did anything further. It was just a sort of exciting game we secretly played with each other. I have dreamt of her often since then, though.’

‘Do you still feel the tingle of desire when you think of this woman?’

‘Yes’, I laughed guiltily.

‘And what if you imagine this Lydia, flirting with you, rubbing her breasts against you, but she has your mother’s face, your mother’s voice.’

‘Actually, that is not difficult … both are comely women, of similar figure.’

‘Similar … meaning?’

‘Well, thickset, womanly, with heavy breasts and generous hips.’

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