The Ameša Spenta and the Bible[1]

JOSÉ ANTONIO ANTÓN PACHECO (Universidad de Sevilla)

  The influence of Iranian religiosity on the Bible, especially angelology, is already a hotly contested question. We are going to make a new cove on this topic, paying special attention to the figures of the Ameša Spenta of Zoroastrianism. Let us then approach these Blessed Saints (or Immortal Saints) who provide a determining key to understanding Zoroastrian piety, philosophy and theology[2].

     The Ameša Spenta are six (or seven) archangels that surround the figure of Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord or supreme God) to whom they are subordinate from a religious and metaphysical point of view. The Ameša Spenta perform the functions that correspond to the figures of angels: they make the transcendence of Ahura Mazda immanent and are like his luminous and benefactor presence in the sensible world: they signify the menogin presence (spiritual, intelligible, subtle) in everything that is getikiano (dense, material and sensitive). Therefore, the Ameša Spenta represent the ontological mediation between divinity and the realm of the mundane and the instrument of action of Ahura Mazda. At the same time they help man in his fight against the powers of evil and darkness, which means that man can assume the virtues represented by the Ameša Spenta. These, then, also have an eschatological function (both individual and collective), a topic so important to Zoroastrianism. Nor can the relationship with the prayer of the sacrificial ritual be absent, a theme so fundamental to Zoroastrianism: in fact, the Holy Immortals intervene in the correct functioning of the rite.

     The Ameša Spenta already appear as such in the Yasna of the Seven Chapters (37, 4: «Let us celebrate the fravaši of the Spenta» and 39, 3: «Now we celebrate the names of the Ameša Spenta») and are, therefore, rooted in archaic Avestan strata, although they are not always found in these strata grouped as Ameša Spenta. We can trace them to the Indo-Iranian background and even Indo-European in general. But without a doubt, its spirituality, its theological structuring are due to a personal initiative of Zarathustra (or to what Zarathustra symbolically represents). The fact is that the Immortal Saints traverse the entire Avesta, although their complete elaboration is due to the elapse Atti del Seminario invernale Il popolo del ritorno: l’epoca persiana e la Bibbia. Lucca, 25-27 gennaio 2000. Firenze, 2001 of Mazdean thought and the religious experience of the Mazdean community.

     As we said, the Ameša Spenta (Amahraspand in Pahlevi) are six (or seven): Vohu Mana (Bahman in Pahlevi) or good thought, takes care of cattle and pastures; Aša Vahista (Ordebehast in Pahlevi) perfect justice or truth, deals with fire; Xšathra Vairya (Sahrivar in Pahlevi) or desirable kingdom, takes care of metals; Spenta Armaiti (Esfandarmaz in Pahlevi) holy ordained thought or holy devotion, take care of the Earth; Hauvatat (Jordad in Pahlevi) or perfection and integrity, protects the waters; Ameretat (Mordad in Pahlevi) or immortality, is dedicated to the care of vegetation. If to these six figures we add Spenta Mainyu, or Holy Spirit, who takes care of man, and which can be considered as an authentic hypostasis of Aura Mazda (sometimes it can even be identified with Ahura Mazda), then we will have the seven Archangels or Immaculate Saints: «We celebrate the preceding religions of the righteous world which were instituted from Creation, the holy religion of the Creator Ahura Mazda, the resplendent and glorious Aša. We celebrate Vohu Mana, the good thought, and Aša Vahista, the best righteousness, and Xšatra Vairya, the kingdom of desire, and the good and beneficent Aramaiti, the true piety that the believer can harbour, and Haurvatat, the fullness and Ameretat, immortality» (Yasna 16, 3)[3].

     As can be seen, the underlying idea is that there is an angel or luminous determination for each segment of reality, symbolically represented through cattle, earth, fire, metals, water, vegetation and man. Thus, these Immortal Saints are in charge of the care of the world, of preserving the work of Ahura Mazda. We have here one of the favourite themes of Zoroastrianism: caring for the world insofar as it is the weapon and the shield against the disruptive shove of Ariman or power of evil[4]. Some elucidation regarding the Ameša Spenta: first, it must be clarified that, from our point of view, they are not abstractions but, on the contrary, they are concrete universals, essential determinations of existence as well as personal realities. (angels, therefore). Nor are they animism in the current sense of the word: it is rather the Presence that shines with determination in everything that is present. We said before that the Ameša Spenta also have the function of helping man in the fight against evil, and in this sense a good mazdeo assimilates the values ​​and quality of the Immortal Saints. That is, there is also a moral dimension that comes from the essence of the Archangels. Thus, from Vohu Mana, who is the one who makes him discern intellectually, the human being assumes the ethical aspects of life; de Aša assumes the principle of harmony and ordering; Xšatra brings the strength and power to perform good deeds; Spenta Armaiti teaches caring for the earth to be just and virtuous; Haurvatat means man’s striving towards perfection; Ameretat makes the human being carry out the continuity of life in the spiritual and corporal worlds; Spenta Mainyu encourages recognition of the essence of Ahura Mazda. It can be seen how the actions of the Ameša Spenta coincide in driving man towards order, perfection, enhancement and ordering of the created. And it is that the analysis of the Ameša Spenta reveals all the phenomenological characteristics of angelology: personal, figurative realities that mediate and watch over the world and act for the fullness of existence.

    We have spoken of Spenta Mainyu as a hypostasis of Ahura Mazda, but it is possible that it preceded Ahura Mazda and appeared as an original opposition to Angra Mainyu (or Ariman), the personification of evil. Only later would it be subordinated to Ahura Mazda, and here one can also appreciate a personal motivation of Zarathustra, or in any case a theological elaboration of the Zoroastrian community. Indeed, everything seems to indicate that the precedence of Ahura Mazda, which according to some corresponds to the Vedic Varuna, is the fruit of the ecstatic experience of Zarathustra.

     Another especially interesting Ameša Spenta is Aša: in fact, it can be considered the main Ameša Spenta. He is an Archangel who has a parallel in the Vedas with Rita, the supreme goddess of the cosmic order. Aša (or Arta, where the origin of the root *rt-ar is seen)[5] has its origins in the Indo-European background and that makes her a very archaic figure. In fact, one of the most pristine dualities of the Iranian conception is Asha versus Druj, Truth versus Lie (once again, dualism is presented to us as an irreducible category in the Iranian world). Perhaps because of this and because it comes from the same source as Rita, Aša enjoys a certain priority among the Ameša Spenta, along with Vohu Mana. Furthermore, Duchesne-Guillemin has spoken of a Mazdean trinity composed of Ahura Mazda, Vohu Mana, and Aša. As can be seen, the meaning of the Ameša Spenta is not established from the beginning: it seems that the most original are Asha, Hurvatat and Amenerat. These last two are always usually associated. Then the other three come: Vohu Mana, Xšatra and Armaiti, who together with Spenta Mainyu do the hebdomad. Xšatra, royalty, has its parallel with the Sanskrit kšatria (the warrior caste) and this same root appears in šahr, kingdom (the Eran Sahr, the Iranian country). A special mention must also be made of Spenta Armaiti, for the meaning it acquires as an Angel of the Earth or luminous and spiritual aspect of nature. Related to the Indian goddess Aramati, she is the only female Ameša Spenta: she is the daughter of Ahura Mazda and she is associated with Daena, another of the great figures of Pan-Iranian religious consciousness[6]. This presence of Daena is highly significant, since she introduces the destiny of the soul in the afterlife in the action of the Ameša Spènta. This same phenomenology of Spenta Armaiti (and of the Ameša Spenta in general) is shared in our time by authors, such as, among others, Reiner María Rilke (Duino Elegies), G.T. Flechner (who wrote his particular Zend Avesta), Eugenio D’Ors (Introduccion a la vida angélica), Eric Peterson (On Angels) and Henry Corbin (all their work attests to this). All of which shows that talking about the Ameša Spenta is not talking about archeology but about realities that motivate the experience of the sacred. Likewise, Vohu Mana (Bahnan) is going to be identified in medieval philosophy with the Agent Understanding, since he is the Blessed Saint who enables us to discern intellectually. This gives us an idea of ​​the significant plasticity and plurality of the Ameša Spenta. In any case, the Ameša Spenta are present throughout the Avesta, they form the spinal cord of Zoroastrian religiosity: together with daena, jorrah, fravarsi, the Avesta and of course Ahura Mazda, they constitute the cultic, devotional and theological core of Zoroastrianism: «We celebrate the Ameša Spenta who rule with righteousness and dispose of everything with righteousness» (Yasna 4, 25); «I offer you, oh Ameša Spenta, sacrifice and prayer, word and action, and also my whole being, my body, myself and the breath of my life» (Jorda Avesta, Juaršed Niyayeš 5); «We celebrate the Ameša Spenta, strength, prosperity, power and victory, glory and vigor» (Yast to Ahura Mazda, 21). But, in addition, so powerful is the dynamism that animates the devotion to the Ameša Spenta that it can be said that the main divine figures of Mazdeism follow a process by which they acquire the status or characteristics of Ameša Spenta. Thus, Mitra, Anahita, Sraosa, Rasnu or Daena herself, among others, perform functions similar to those of them.

     It is important to note that beyond the Indo-European etymologies and origins, beyond the possible functional correspondences with the Vedic gods (as Dumezil wanted), the seven Ameša Spenta have undergone a profound transformation as they have been internalized and adapted by Mazdean religious and philosophical experience. Undoubtedly, here the figure of Zarathustra himself (or what Zarathustra may represent) intervenes decisively.

     Precisely the number seven supposes another profound meaning with respect to the Ameša Spenta. It is not necessary to insist too much on the universality of the seven and on its symbolism. In multiple places we can find this number that designates fullness, perfection, totality. Therefore, the seven Ameša Spenta are homologated to all the series that are regulated by the seven and that in turn regulate themselves through the septenary: seven planets, seven metals, seven kesvar (climates or countries). And the number seven referring to the Ameša Spenta will serve as an argument, certainly no less, to link with biblical angelology[7].

     The biblical passages we are going to refer to are Isaiah 11, 2-3; Zechariah 4, 10; Tobit12, 15; Ezra 7, 14; Revelation 1, 4; 8, 2; 5.6. Let’s add to all these quotes I Enoch 20, 1-7 (since it belongs to the Ethiopian Bible)[8]. We believe that in a clear way the footprint of the Ameša Spenta can be traced in all these references.

     In Isaiah 11, 2-3 we read: «And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord». It is evident that these seven determinations (here spirit is ruaj, and pneuma in the LXX) are working in the same way as the Ameša Spenta. Well it’s true that Isaiah 11 comes from an archaic stage (VIIIth century) but it certainly reflects adjunctions from the Persian era, which makes a Mazdean influence possible. It should not be forgotten that there is a whole direction of prophetic thought that lines up on the side of the Achaemenid monarchy against the Davidic monarchy. Most importantly, the Pentateuch was rewritten in the Second Temple stage, under strong Iranian influence. And it is that the prestige of the Persian culture for Judaism (which we not only see in Isaiah 40, in Esdras 7 or in the reception of the edicts of tolerance of Cyrus in 2 Paralipomena 36, ​​22 and Esdras 1, or in Esther) permeates the culture of the second Temple[9]. Something similar happens in the Greek sphere: we already know the appreciation that Plato, Aristotle, Eudoxus, Pliny the Elder or Plutarch had on the Iranian world[10]. In the case of Christianity, it is enough to quote Matthew 2.

     In Zechariah 4, 10 we read: «These are the seven eyes of the Lord which run to and fro through the whole earth». A very rich symbolism permeates the entire book of Zechariah, also a prophet of the stage of the second Temple, and within this symbolism shabah-elah ‘ene Yahweh represent the scrutinizing actions of God, who like the seven Ameša Spenta, hypostasized in the seven watchful eyes and caretakers of creation.

     Tobit 12, 15 says: «For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord».  It is not necessary to insist too much on the presence of Iranian elements in the book of Tobit Here that influence seems clear and more specifically, the angelological influence, something continually present throughout the story[11]. Indeed, the relationship of these seven with the Ameša Spenta seems very evident, both for their phenomenology and for their function. We believe that it can also be related to these quotes from the Old Testament Ezra 7, 14. This is the letter that the Persian king Artaxerxes sends to Ezra as a second edict of tolerance that allowed the return of the Jews: «Forasmuch as thou art sent on behalf of the king and of his seven counsellors… ». Are we facing a metaphorical translation of Ahura Mazda and the Ameša Spenta? Or are the Persian sovereign and his advisers outlined in the image and likeness of Ahura Mazda and the Ameša Spenta? The Iranian context (an Achaemenid king speaking) makes such interpretations feasible. If we turn now to the Ethiopian Bible, we find in I Enoch 20, 17: «These are the names of the holy angels who keep watch: Uriel, one of the holy angels, who is the angel of thunder and trembling; Raphael (…) the one in charge of the men’s; Ragirael (…) the one who punishes the universe and the luminaries; Michael (…) in charge of the best part of men and of the nation; Saraqael (…) in charge of the spirits of the human race that make the spirits sin; Gabriel (…) in charge of paradise, the serpents and the cherubs». It could be argued here that the names of the angels are all Jewish, very different from the names of the Ameša Spenta; but we must take into account the phenomenon of polynymy, so typical of this stage. That is, the fact by which religious figures of a numinous or transcendental order of a certain religion acquire names and functions of other adjacent religious figures (this is very evident in Manichaeism).

     As far as the New Testament is concerned, the references are found in Revelation. Thus, Rev 1.4: «… and of the seven Spirits which attend before his throne»; Rev 8, 2: «And I saw seven angels which stood before God»; Rev 5, 6: «… which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth». Since it is an angelological context, the presence of our theme in the Johanic Revelation cannot surprise us, since the figure of the angel is an indispensable element in apocalyptic literature[12]. Here, in addition, the number seven is emphasized, which results in the similarity with the Ameša Spenta; furthermore, apocalypses are literary forms shared by both biblical and Zoroastrian authors. We will add to all this the fact that the apocalyptic takes part in the visionary literature of late Judaism (Hekalot, Maase Bereshit, Maase Merkabá) and therefore the presence of angels is indispensable. All this literature, moreover, is highly determined by the angelology of the book of Ezequiel, precisely one of the Old Testament texts that has a Persian influence (the vision of the quise or divine throne with four wheels will be associated with the chariot or mercabá). Once again we must remember the existence of Iranian traces in books such as Isaiah, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah or Tobit. Let us also bear in mind that the expression “God of the heavens” is of Persian origin, and the heavens (shamayim) are closely associated with the angels who govern their movements.

Massimo Stanzione. The Seven Archangels. Monastery of the Descalzas Reales. National Heritage.

     We will now dispense with references to the huge collection produced by biblical hypertextuality in late antiquity, both in the Patristic and in the Jewish and Christian apocryphal literatures, with respect to the issue of the heptad of angels, all of which is a consequence of mydrasic development and of the symbolic transitivity that said hebdomeda generates[13]. Naturally, in all this accumulation of interpretations the presence of the Ameša Spenta must also be seen, either directly or indirectly. It is true that the systematization of Zoroastrian theology is relatively late (which also affects the articulation of the Ameša Spenta); it is also true that the Persian period of the second Temple signified the Iranian presence in Judaism. There are various factors that favour and enable the exchange of experiences and religious ideas: the koiné established at least since the Achaemenids was a leaven that left these events through the synoecism produced[14].

     Certainly, we can always ask ourselves who influences whom: J. Darmesteter, for example, believed that it was biblical angelology that had influenced the Zoroastrian, that the Philonian Logos became manifest in the Zoroastrian Vohu Mana and that behind the Ameša Spenta be found the dinameis of Philo of Alexandria. However, Stroumsa maintains that it is the Ameša Spenta who have essentially determined the doctrine of the dinameis of Philo, as well as the presence and action of the seven protoctist angels in Judaism[15]. We can think in round-trip processes, where the influence of a nucleus of thought reverts transformed on another nucleus of thought. But ultimately, the coincidences or similarities between the Ameša Spenta and biblical angelology are due, rather than to possible empirically verifiable influences in history, to the similarity of the spiritual horizons opened by each one, that is, by the Ameša Spenta and by the theophoric angels of the Bible. The common Mesopotamian background has also been insisted on as the origin of this heptadic angelology, but this is a very abstract explanation, given the profound theological metamorphosis that this hebdomeda undergoes, both in Judaism and in the Iranian sphere. The same applies here that we argue regarding the Indo-Iranian origins of the Ameša Spenta or their coincidence with archaic Vedic figures: they remain as merely abstract and formal explanations if the concrete transformations that the vivid experiences are exerting in each interpretative present are not taken into account. Finally, to understand the harmony between the Ameša Spenta and the biblical angelology, it would be necessary to refer to the unanimous Tradition as a common and pristine spring cradle.

     We can draw many consequences from what has been said, but we will outline two: the first lies in seeing the Ameša Spenta as a pan-Iranian category that essentially characterizes an entire theological and philosophical conception, and in this sense it can be aligned with notions such as Daena, Fravarsi Paimán or Jorrah (that is, next to the Iranian “words of foundation”). The second consequence is to affirm the decisive importance of angelology for biblical thought. Without prejudice, of course, that the latter makes his particular contributions to the subject.


[1] A first draft of this article has been published in the Journal of Anthropology and Philosophy of the Sacred, No. 7, January-June (2020) p. 29-39, Universidad de Sevilla-Universidad de Málaga.

[2] Readings consulted: Pierre Lecoq, Les livres de l’Avesta. Textes sacrées des Zoroastriens, Paris, 2016. Arnaldo Alberti, Avesta, Arnaldo Alberti, Novara, 2013. Joaquín Rodríguez Vargas La sabiduría mazdea. Dos textos del Irán antiguo, Madrid, 2007. Jaled Amouzgard and Ahmad Tafazzoli, Le cinquienne livre de Dênkard, Paris, 2000. Mahmoud Jaafari Dehagui, Dadestán i Denig (part I), Paris 1998. Jean de Menasce, Skand Gumanik Vichar (The solution decisive des doutes), Friborg, Switzerland, 1945; Le troisième livre du Denkart, Paris, 1973. Andrea Piras, Hadoxt Nask 2. Il raccopnte zoroastriano della sote dell’anima, Rome, 2000. Ph. Gignoux and A. Tafazzoli, Antologie de Zadspram, Paris, 1993. Nazanín Amiriam, Gatha. El primer tratado de ética de la humanidad, Barcelona, 1999. Alessandro Bausani, Testi religiosi zoroastriani, Catania, 1966.

[3] The names that Herodotus gives them are interesting: Eunoías, Alêzeías, Eunomías, Sofías, Plouton, Êdéion, Dêmiougós

[4]  For this question I refer to my article “Cuidado del mundo, cuidado de la palabra, cuidado del alma. La visión del problema según el zoroastrismo”, Isidorianum 50 (2016) 277-287.

[5] There is a wide set of words from this root. Thus, the Greek verb ararisko, which means to notch, to fit, to join; artios, number, proportion; arti, fairly; ariznós, even number… In Latin we have ars and artus. And then in Spanish a long series of terms (arte, aritmética, rito, ritmo, articulación…) that all indicate ordering and proportionality. We also verify this same etymo in the proper names that begin with Arta-Arda, such as Artaxerxes, Arda Viraz, etc. Cf. Emil Benveniste, Vocabulario de instituciones indoeuropeas (translation by Mauro Armiño, notes by Jaime Siles), Madrid, 1983; Manfred Mayrhofer, Iranisches personamenbusch, Vienna, 1979; Zun Namengut des Avesta, Vienna, 1977.

[6] It is interesting to see how Armaiti is composed of both the previous stem ar and the stem man, thought. That is why the translation of Holy Adjusted Thought.

[7]  The symbolism of seven is universal. A good synthesis of the subject can be found in Alfred Kavanagh, “La organización heptádica de la gnoseología en la tradición cultural irania” (unpublished). A tight and complete summary of the symbolism of seven can also be seen in Cornelio Agrippa, chapter X, El número septenario y su escala, in Filosofía oculta (Spanish version of Héctor V. Morel), Buenos Aires, 1978. But without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and penetrating places of the speculative development of the hebdomeda are found in Philo of Alexandria, De opificio mundi 89, where Philo, combining Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and biblical thought, tackles the exegesis of the seventh day.

[8] Consulted readings: Biblia hebraica, edts. R. Kittel-P. Kahle, Stuttgard, 1962; Novum Testamentum Graece, edts. Nestle-Aland, Stuttgard, 1994; Septuaginta, ed. Alfred Rahlfs (minor edit), Stuttgard, 2006; La Biblia griega septuaginta, edts. Natalio Fernández Marcos-Mª Victoria Spottorno Díaz-Caro, Salamanca, 2008-2015. The Spanish versions of Casiodoro de Reina and Cipriano de Valera, Serafín de Ausejo, Alonso Schökel-Mateos-Valverde, José María Bover and José O’Callaghan have been taken into account; Apócrifos del Antiguo Testamento (Alejando Díez Macho ed.), Ciclo de Henoc, t. IV, (F. Corriente, A. Piñero, A. Santos Otero, Mª Ángeles Navarro trads.) Madrid, 1984.

[9]  2 Paralipomena 36, 22 and Ezra I are evidently Jewish versions of the original edict. This is reflected in the Babylonian Chronicle of Cyrus: «I, Cyrus, led the gods (of the cities) back to the places where they had dwelt, and installed them in their eternal dwellings. I gathered all the people and re-established them in their homes; and to the gods of Sumer and Acad who, to the great anger of the Lord of the gods, Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon by order of the god Marduk, I made them occupy in their sanctuaries the dwellings that their hearts loved», Miguel Cruz Hernández, La estructura místico-metafísica de saber de alborada, in Homenaje a Pedro Sáinz Rodríguez, vol.IV, Madrid, 1986.

[10]  For this topic I refer to my work El hermetismo cristiano y las transformaciones del Logos, Córdoba, 2017.

[11] It is surprising, and significant, the disinterest that current biblical commentators show with respect to the angelological subject, when their appearance is continuous. The terrible effects of “demythologization”.

[12] Also, on the subject of apocalyptic and eschatology there have been debates about who influences whom. All possible answers have been produced here: those who defend the influence of the Iranian world on the Jew (Reitzenstein, Boice, Philonenko, Capelli), those who sustain the Jewish influence on the Persian apocalyptic (Duchesne-Guillemin in a nuanced way, Gignoux, Russell), as well as as those who consider that the Jewish and Iranian apocalyptic conceptions come from third nuclei of thought, be it the Babylonian, or the Greek. And speaking of eschatology, it must be said that the Ameša Spenta also play an important role in the final fight against Ariman and his powers, which sets them into the eschatological context.

[13] It can be consulted, among others: Philo of Alexandria, Quis rerum 44-45, 216-225, Legum allegoriae I, 8-16, Vita Mosis II, 21, De fuga 94-95. III Enoch 17, Testament of the twelve patriarchs (Testament of Reuben 2, Testament of Solomon 8, Testament of Levi 8); Clement of Alexandria, Stromata IV, 159.2; Irenaeus of Lion, Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching 9, Adversus Haer. I. 5.2. We also find abundant traces of the subject in the Sefer Yetsirá and in Jewish midrashic literature. Very interesting and very significant is the reappearance of the Ameša Spenta (Amaraspand) in Sohravardí’s major work (12th century) The Book of Eastern Wisdom II, 4 (edited by H. Corbin and Chr. Jambet), Paris, 1986 .

[14] Cf. AA. VV, Atti del Seminario invernale Il popolo del ritorno: l’epoca persiana e la Bibbia. Lucca, 25-27 gennaio 2000. Firenze, 2001

[15] Cf., Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, “A zoroastrian origin to the Sefirot?”, Irano-Judaica III, Jerusalem, 1994, pp. 17-33; Philipe Gignoux, “Hexaémeron et Millénarisme: quelques motifs de comparaison entre Mazdéisme et Jadaïsme”, Iranico-Judaica II, Jerusalem, 1990, pp. 72-84. Bogdan Gabriel Bocur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology. Clement of Alexandria and other early Christian witnesses, Boston-Leiden, 2009.

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