Monday, April 22, 2013

Anahita—The Water Goddess

By Heidi Noroozy

Anahita temple in Kangavar, Iran
(with graffiti on one column)
Outside the city of Kangavar in western Iran, a brick wall stretches along the Kermanshah-Hamadan highway. Behind it, tall columns of pale stone rise into the cloudless sky, a sight as unexpected in the arid landscape as the flowering bushes that line the road. These columns, along with the crumbling staircases and rubble that lie at their feet, are all that remain of an ancient temple to one of Persia’s greatest deities, Anahita.

In Persian mythology, Anahita was the goddess of fertility, love (and, strangely, war) as well as all the waters of the world. She also represented justice and wisdom, a quality that many cultures in antiquity associated with water. The goddess is depicted as a voluptuous young maiden with full breasts and a tiny waist. She wears a fur cloak embroidered in gold, a crown of stars and beams of light, and she carries a flowering branch (or sometimes a water jug). In her warrior role, she drives a chariot drawn by four white horses that represent the wind, rain, clouds, and hail. Sometimes, she is accompanied by her sacred animals, the dove and the peacock.

Worship of Anahita dates back to pre-Zoroastrian times. She was a major deity in the pantheon of the Median civilization (728 to 550 BC), which preceded the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great. The Medians, and especially the Magi, their religious sects, referred to her as the Mother Goddess. Not surprisingly, considering her high status among the Medians, the Zoroastrians also incorporated her into their worship, even if she had to accept a demotion from Mother Goddess to guardian angel (yazata). After all, the Zoroastrians were monotheists and worshipped Ahura Mazda (who, incidentally, they also inherited from the Medians) as their only god. The Zoroastrians gave this goddess/angel the name Ardvi Sura Anahita, which means “the High, the Powerful, the Immaculate.” She was believed to have lived among the stars, the brightest of which is the planet Venus (which translates into modern Farsi as “Naheed,” another version of Anahita).

As the Persian Empire expanded, Anahita’s cult spread to other cultures, and she became associated with goddesses honored by the local populations. When Cyrus I conquered Babylon in 539 BC, Anahita blended with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of war, fertility, and love. When the Greeks conquered Persia several centuries later, leaving their own imprint on the culture, they associated Anahita with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In Armenia, she was known as Anahit. And the Indian Parsees call her Anahid.

The Magis also made the transition from the Medians to Zoroastrianism, although these religious cults lost much of their power. They continued to promote the worship of Anahita by reading sacred texts dedicated to her and drinking a beverage called haoma, made from a plant of the same name, which is still used in Zoroastrian rituals today. Anahita’s special day, celebrated with abundant feasts, was the tenth day after the new moon in Avan, the eighth month of the Iranian calendar.

Anahita dish in the
Cleveland Museum of Art
Ardashir II (also known as Ataxerxes), who ruled Persia from 405 to 358 BC, was devoted to Anahita. He had statues erected in her honor in all his major cities and built a temple to the goddess/angel in Ecbatana (present-day Hamadan, Iran). Although Alexander the Great laid waste to the temple in 324 BC during his conquest of Persia, it wasn’t completely destroyed until 2006, when local authorities had the site flattened to make way for a musalla, an Islamic prayer hall.

The Anahita Temple in Kangavar was probably built sometime after the one in Ecbatana, during the Parthian era (246 BC to 224 AD), although some archeologists attribute it to Ardashir. I visited the site several years ago on a road trip from Kermanshah to Tehran. Although the temple was discovered in the early 19th century and excavated 150 years later, it felt as though little work had been done there in decades. Only a few of the round columns stood upright, with most lying broken on the ground. Crumbling staircases led nowhere, and boulders that once formed the temple’s walls were half buried in the soil.

Our guide, well aware of the neglect, apologized profusely for the state of the archeological treasures. He lamented the lack of government funds and pointed out cracks in beams that had been caused not by the ravages of time over millennia but by frost heaves during a recent winter. His concern didn’t stop him from inviting me to touch the marble columns and climb the staircases. After a moment’s hesitation, I couldn’t resist. How often do you get this close to antiquity? Even at Persepolis, Iran’s most famous archeological site, where visitors wander through the remains of ancient palaces, they follow well marked tourist paths designed to protect the monument from damage.

The same year that I visited Kangavar, the temple was submitted to UNESCO for listing as a World Heritage Site. I hope these efforts are successful—and soon—before Anahita’s temple becomes nothing more than a legend, along with the goddess herself.


  1. So fascinating, Heidi! I love these sorts of stories that intertwine history and mythology. And by the way, not sure if you remember the post I wrote in which historians believe Anahita (also called Haravati) is the same goddess the Hindus worship as Saraswati. (Hear the similarity in those names?). Saraswati, however, is considered the goddess of wisdom. Not war or fertility (that I know of). But there's a legendary ancient river was named in her honor: the Saraswati River, so maybe there's a connection between the water theme. Love the cross-connections!

  2. Thanks Heidi!
    I love mythology, too.

  3. Thanks Beth and Supriya.

    And Supriya, I remember the post you did about the Saraswati River. Now that you mention it, I came across the reference to the Indian goddess in my research on Anahita.