Statue of a Parthian Hatra king holding a votive figure. Hatra was an ancient city in the Ninawa Governorate and al-Jazira region of Iraq, near Mosul. It was known as al-Hadr, a name which appears once in ancient inscriptions, and it was in the ancient Persian province of Khvarvaran. It was built circa 3rd-2nd centuries BCE and flourished 1st to 2nd centuries CE under the Parthians. Many artifacts and much of the remains of the city destroyed by ISIS .
The Parthian Empire: Introduction and Historiography
Very little is known as to the religion of the Parthians. The Parthian Empire, being culturally and politically diverse, had a variety of religious systems and beliefs, the most widespread being those dedicated to Greek and Iranian religions .It seems probable that during the Persian period they submitted to the Zoroastrian system, which was generally maintained by the Achaemenian kings, acquiescing, like the great bulk of the conquered nations, in the religious views of their conquerors; but as this was not their own religion, we may conclude that they were at no time very zealous followers of the Bactrian prophet, and that as age succeeded age they became continually more lukewarm in their feelings, and more lax in their religious practice. The essence of Zoroastrian belief was dualism, recognition of Ahura Mazda or Ormazd as the great Principle of Good, and of Angra Mainyu or
Ahriman as the Principle of Evil. We need not doubt that, in word, the Parthians from first to last admitted this antagonism, and professed a belief in Ormazd as the supreme god, and a dread of Ahriman and his ministers. But practically, their religious aspirations rested, not on these dim abstractions, but on beings whose existence they could better realize, and whom they could feel to be less remote from themselves. The actual devotion of the Parthians was offered to the Sun and Moon, to deities who were supposed to preside over the royal house, and to ancestral idols which each family possessed, and conveyed with it from place to place with every change of habitation.
The Sun was saluted at his rising, was worshipped in temples, under the name of Mithra, with sacrifices and offerings; had statues erected in his honor, and was usually associated with the lesser luminary. The deities of the royal house were probably either genii, ministers of Ormazd, to whom was committed the special protection of the monarchs and their families, like the bagaha vithiya of the Persians, or else the ancestors of the reigning monarch, to whom a qualified divinity seems to have been assigned in the later times of the empire. The Parthians kings usually swore by these deities on solemn occasions; and other members of the royal family made use of the same oath. The main worship, however, of the great mass of the people, even when they were of the royal stock, was concentrated upon ancestral images, which had a place sacred to them in each house, and received the constant adoration of the household.
In the early times of the empire the Magi were held in high repute, and most of the peculiar tenets and rites of the Magian religion were professed and followed by the Parthians. Elemental worship was practised. Fire was, no doubt, held sacred, and there was an especial reverence for rivers. Dead bodies were not burned, but were exposed to be devoured by birds and beasts of prey, after which the dry bones were collected and placed in tombs. The Magi formed a large portion of the great national council, which elected and, if need were, deposed the kings. But in course of time much laxity was introduced. The Arsacid monarchs of Armenia allowed the Sacred Fire of Ormazd, which ought to have been kept continually burning, to go out; and we can scarcely suppose but that the Parthian Arsacidae shared their negligence. Respect for the element of fire so entirely passed away, that we hear of the later Parthians burning their dead. The Magi fell into disrepute, and, if not expelled from their place in the council, at any rate found themselves despised and deprived of influence. The later Parthian religion can have been little more than a worship of the Sun and Moon, and of the teraphim, or sacred images, which were the most precious possession of each household.
While thus lax and changeful in their own religious practice, the Parthians were, naturally, tolerant of a variety of creeds among their subjects. Fire altars were maintained, and Zoroastrian zeal was allowed to nourish in the dependent kingdom of Persia. In the Greek cities the Olympian gods were permitted to receive the veneration of thousands, while in Babylon, Nearda, and Nisibis the Jews enjoyed the free exercise of their comparatively pure and elevated religion. No restrictions seem to have been placed on proselytism, and Judaism certainly boasted many converts from the heathen in Adiabene, Charax Spasini, and elsewhere. Christianity also penetrated the Parthian provinces to a considerable extent, and in one Parthian country, at any rate, seems to have become the state religion. The kings of Osrhoene are thought to have been Christians from the time of the Antonines, if not from that of our Lord; and a nourishing church was certainly established at Edessa before the end of the second century.
The Parthian Jews who were witnesses of the miraculous events which signalized the day of Pentecost may have, in some cases, taken with them the new religion to the land where they had their residence; or the Apostle, St. Thomas, may (as Eusebius declares) have carried the Gospel into the regions beyond the Euphrates, and have planted the Christian Church in the countries out of which the Jewish Church sprang. Besides the nourishing community of Edessa, which was predominantly, if not wholly, Christian from the middle of the second century, many converts were, we are told, to be found among the inhabitants of Persia, Media, Parthia Proper, and even Bactria. The infusion, however, was not sufficient to leaven to any serious extent the corrupt mass of heathenism into which it was projected; and we cannot say that the general character of the Parthian empire, or of the manners and customs of its subjects, was importantly affected by the new religion, though it had an extraordinary influence over individuals.
Greek gods such as Zeus, Pallas , Nike and Apollo appear on Parthian coins , it is hard to say how much common such worship was outside of the Greek cities. No Zoroastern motifs appear on coins, suggesting a weaking of its influence during this period.