The Mazdean Image of the Bird and its ‘Earthly’ Egg in Light of Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride, ch. 47, and its Later Continuations

In: Iran and the Caucasus
Antonio PanainoUniversity of Bologna, Bologna, Italy

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The Avestan text of Yašt 13,2-3 preserves an archaic simile in which the earth is described as an egg brooded by a bird. This beautiful image cannot be framed within any proto- Iranian cosmological myth, so that we cannot presume a priori the existence of an ancestral description of the earth and the sky as globular or spherical. Of course, images such as the one of Yašt 13,2-3 might inspire later cosmological developments, although the inter-textual references are unclear and need a further investigation. In this respect, it is remarkably important a brief, but precise, allusion to a cosmic “egg” (ᾠόν), mentioned in a well-known book of Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride, ch. 47). This source actually introduces the image of the whole “good creation” compared with an “egg”, practically corresponding to the earth. Thus, this cosmic egg assumes a specific role within the myth of the Ahremanic extra-cosmic aggression of the world. In fact, Ahreman attacks and pierces the surface of the egg. The present doctrine could be a reflex of an earlier Avestan tradition, although not explicitly preserved, in which the eggshell represented the heavens, while the yolk corresponded to the earth. This simple cosmological architecture would have probably paved the way to some later Mazdean visualizations of the heavens, as the one contained into the Dādestān ī Mēnōg ī Xrad 44,8-11, which compares the sky, the earth, the waters and all the rest placed in between with an egg” (xāyag-dēs). In any case, a prudent approach to the sources does not allow us to assume that the early Iranian cosmology developed any special doctrine of Indo-Iranian heritage with regard to the cosmic egg, although this image assumed an interesting role in later times, but without the same emphasis attested in other ancient cultures.

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