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The Book of Tobit and Zoroastrianism

The Book of Tobit has been part of Jewish literature for over two thousand years. Although it is set in the aftermath of the first Jewish holocaust, when the ten lost tribes of Israel (a separate country from the longer-surviving southern kingdom of Judah) were deported to Assyria in 722 BCE, it was probably not written down in its present form until the last quarter of the second century BCE. Speculation about its likely date varies: some scholars believing it was composed during that early period, some seeing it as deriving from the time of the later, more famous exile from Judah to Babylon, and yet others seeing it originating from the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt.

The origins of the tale remain obscure. Although set in Nineveh, in the period of the Assyrian Empire, the most dramatic and mysterious part of the story takes place in Media and many scholars agree that key features contain strong hints of Zoroastrianism, the old Iranian religion adopted by the Magi of Media and later by the powerful empire of the Persians (from whom the Parsis of today are descended). From my researches into the story I formed the view that the dog, which in its positive representation is unique in Judaic/Christian literature, could be explained by an earlier Zoroastrian foundation to the story, a supposition which is borne out by the fact that Raghes, to which Tobit travelled in his youth, was known as 'Zoroaster's city'.

  The Book of Tobit and Zoroastrianism  
     

For the Zoroastrians the dog was a sacred animal whose function was twofold: the dog was one means by which the bodies of the dead were disposed of, a ritual which makes good practical sense
in a hot climate but which, for the Zoroastrians, had the more crucial religious function of sparing human contact with dead matter. The Assyrians, in fact, like the Jews they took into captivity, practised grave burial. Tobit's preoccupation with burial of the dead is made more intelligible if seen to be set against the Magian practice of exposing the corpse to wild dogs and carrion eating birds of prey.

More crucially, the dog was used in Magian ritual to exorcise the 'corpse spirit', or 'spirit of corruption', and to help guide the departed soul across the 'Bridge of Separation'. For the Zoroastrians the world was a kind of battle ground between the forces of good and evil, which held equal sway in the material world. The spiritual task of human beings was seen as the perpetual struggle to choose the good over the bad, so that life was, for the Zoroastrian, a pathway of dividing ways, each representing an ethical choice until the life came to the point of death. This defined the moment of judgement, when the sum of a person's good or bad deeds is weighed.

Given the role of the dog in exorcising any evil spirit which may have been lodged in the dying person it seemed to me likely, or, imaginatively appropriate, that the dog might also have been used to heal the mortally sick, or in cases of psychological possession, such as that of Tobias's Sara.

This idea was reinforced when I discovered that Asmodaeus, the evil spirit who inhabits the body of Sara, Tobias's eventual bride and has caused her to strangle seven men before him, probably takes his origin from Aesma daeva, the arch demon who is given 'seven powers' to destroy humankind in Zoroastrian demonology and whose principal feature is wrath or anger. Just as the Archangel Raphael is pitted against Asmodaeus, the counter or opposite to Aesma is the immortal being Sraosha, who is central to Zoroastrian angelology.

  The Book of Tobit and Zoroastrianism  
     

Both Judaism and Christianity owe much to the vision of Zarathustra (more commonly known to us by his Greek name, Zoroaster); not least among the ideas we have inherited is the concept of a hierarchy of 'Bounteous Immortals', supra-natural beings who aid mankind in the fight against destruction and evil and towards health, happiness and right conduct. These are almost certainly the originals of our Judeo/Christian angels. Among them is Sraosha, whose remit was specifically to protect the body and to escort the departed soul to the 'Bridge of Separation', where he also acted as a benevolent final judge of a person's life. Sraosha seems to be associated with a dog (as are other psychopomps or soul guides in ancient literature) and this not only reinforces the parallel with Raphael in the Book of Tobit but also provides another explanation for the presence of the dog in the story.

The Talmud tells us that when the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon (encouraged by their tolerant new masters, the Persians), they brought with them from captivity the names of the angels. My hunch is that Raphael, whose name in Greek means 'God's healing', was imported then into Jewish lore, but that he appeared first as Sraosha, one of the Bounteous Immortals, and that the Book of Tobit is really an old Magi tale which has been overlaid with Jewish pieties and strictures. Nor is it commonly known today that the three 'wise men' who, in Christian mythology, followed the star to Bethlehem, were in all likelihood Zoroastrian priests; their famed gifts of myrrh and frankincense being typical of the sweet woods and resins used in the ritual practices of the religion whose founder, perhaps fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, had predicted the virgin birth of a world saviour.


 
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