Chapter 2: xšay- and Iranian Kingship


Iran is an empire and the notion of the sovereign has nothing in common with that of rex. It is expressed by the Persian title xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānam (Gr. basileús basiléōn, Pers. šāhān šāh), the King of Kings; this title designates the sovereign as he who is invested with the royal power, the xšāy-.
Now an epithet of the Achaemenid king, vazraka, which may also be applied to the god Ahuramazda and the earth, reveals that the power of the king is essentially mystical.


The terms which we have just examined form only one of the expressions for this notion of kingship, the one which is common only to the two extremities of the Indo-European world, to the Italo-Celtic and the Indic domains. It is noteworthy that on this fundamental notion Iranian differs from Indo-Aryan. The term rāj-, characteristic of the latter, is missing from the ancient Iranian vocabulary. The sole trace of a corresponding term in Iranian occurs in the dialect of the region of Khotan (in the extreme southeast of Iran bordering on India), where it is attested from the eighth century of our era in a literature of Buddhistic inspiration composed chiefly of translations. This Khotanese dialect contains the terms rri ‘king’, rris-pur ‘king’s son’, which correspond to Sanskrit rāja and rāja-putra. But it is not absolutely certain that these are not borrowings from Indic, given the numerous borrowings evinced by this language and the late date at which it is attested.
If in Iranian the term *rāz- is not current as the name for “the king,” this is because, properly speaking, there was neither king nor kingdom, but rather a Persian empire. This is the reason for the lexical innovation.
In the Indo-European world, particularly as seen through the eyes of the Greeks and the Romans, it was Iran which created the notion of “empire.” Certainly a Hittite empire had existed previously, but this had not constituted an historical model for neighboring peoples. The original organization is that created by the Iranians, and it was the Iranian terms which constituted the new vocabulary referring to it.
There is, in the vocabulary common to India and Iran, a term represented in Sanskrit by kṣatra and in Iranian by xšaθra which indicated in both cases the royal power. It is a derivative of kṣā- (xšāy-) ‘be master of, have at one’s disposal’, a root which provided in Iranian numerous derivatives of the highest importance. A derivative of this root is used in Old Persian (but not in the Avesta) to designate the king: xšāyaθiya. It is from this Old Persian word, which has persisted for twenty-five centuries, that the modern Persian šāh comes by regular processes of development.
The form of the word admits of a more precise analysis: xšāyaθiya-is an adjective derived by a suffix -ya from an abstract noun *xšayaθa-, which is itself a derivative in -θa from the verbal stem xšaya-. The “king” is designated as “he who is invested with royalty.” It will be noted that the abstract notion is here the primary one. In exactly the same way it was the abstract kṣatra which was the base of kṣatriya ‘member of the warrior class’, literally “he who is invested with the kṣatra-.”
It may be noted further that the form xṣayaθ(i)ya is not consistent with the phonetic laws of Persian, according to which the cluster -θ(i)y- develops to -šy-:- for instance the Iranian haθya ‘true’ yields hašiya in Old Persian. It follows that xšāyaθiya- is not a form of the Persian dialect in the strict sense. It did not evolve in the language in which it played so notable a part, but in an Iranian language in which this change of -θiy- to -šy- did not take place. For linguistic and historical reasons this must have been the language of the Medes, who occupied the northwest of Iran. Thus the Persian name for the “king” was borrowed by the Persians from the Medes, an important conclusion from the historical point of view.
This term enters into a formula which is characteristic of the Achaemenid titulature, xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām ‘Kings of Kings’. This formula was first coined in Persia and in the translation basileùs basiléōn (βασιλεὺς βασιλέων) it immediately became the designation of the Persian king among the Greeks. This is a curious expression, which does not mean “king among kings” but “he who reigns over other kings.” It is a suzerainty, a kingship of the second degree which is exercised over those considered by the rest of the world as kings. However, the expression reveals an anomaly: the order of words is not what one would expect. In the modern form šāhān šāh it has been reversed: as such it corresponds to the syntax of nominal groups in Iranian with the qualifying term first. In this we may see a second indication of a foreign, non-Persian origin. The expression must have been taken over ready made and not coined together with the kingdom of the Achaemenids. It was probably invented by the Medes.
From this same root Iranian has derived a number of other terms. First we have the Avestan xšaθra, (which corresponds to Sanskrit kṣatra), the Persian form of which is xšas͜sa. This word denoted both power and the domain within which it is exercised, both royalty and kingdom. When Darius, in his eulogies, says “Ahuramazda has granted me this xšas͜sa” this implies both power and kingdom. This word forms part of an important compound which in Old Persian is xšas͜sapāvan ‘satrap’. In the form of a neighboring dialect, which is more faithfully reproduced in Ionian by ἐξαιθραπεύω ‘exercise the power of a satrap’, it is the title which became in Greek satrápēs, whence “satrap.” This title signifies “he who guards the kingdom.” The high dignitaries thus designated had the task of administering the great provinces (“satrapies”) and thus ensuring the safety of the Empire.
This notion, which crystallized in Iran, of a world constituted as an empire is not only political but also religious. It might be said that a certain terrestrial and celestial organization took as its model the kingdom of the Persian sovereigns. In the spiritual universe of the Iranians, outside Persia itself, and particularly in Mazdaean eschatology, the realm to which the faithful will attain is called xšaθra ‘kingdom’ or xšaθra vairya ‘the desirable kingdom (or royalty)’. In its personified form Xšaθravairya (in Middle Iranian šāhrēvar) designates one of the divinities called “Immortal Saints,” each of whom, symbolizing an element of the world, plays a double part, both eschatological and material.
Here we have the prototypes of what became in the eschatology of prophetic Judaism and of Christianity the Kingdom of Heaven, an image which reflects an Iranian conception.
The Iranian vocabulary of royalty utilized still other forms made from this root xšā-: the strictly Achaemenid terms are not the only ones. New titles were devised which show the importance of the notion of xšā- and the unity of the Iranian world. The most notable of these, xšāvan, was used in Khotanese in the sense “sovereign.” We encounter it again in the titulature of the petty Indo-Scythian kingdoms the coins of which bear, along with the names of the kings, the title of ÞAONANO ÞAO, which is to be transcribed phonetically as ṣ̌aunanu ṣ̌au. This is not the correspondent of šahān šāh, but an expression constructed on the same model, with šau coming from xšāvan.
There were, however, other local titulatures. In the Middle Iranian dialect of the northeast, Sogdian, which occupied the region of Samarkand, we know a different name for the king in the form xwt’w, that is to say xwatāw, which represents an ancient xwa-tāw-(ya) ‘he who is powerful by himself, he who holds power only from himself’. This is a very remarkable formation and (Meillet was the first to point this out) it is the exact counterpart of the Greek auto-krátōr (ἀυτοκράτωρ). It is not possible to decide whether the Iranian form was translated from the Greek, for on the one hand the Sogdian compound could be much more ancient, as is evidenced by the Vedic epithet sva-tava ‘powerful by himself’; on the other hand, the Greek title autokrátōr does not appear before the fifth century BC.
Whether or not it was created in Iran itself, this title xwatāw is also notable from another point of view. It passed into Middle Persian, where it assumed the form xudā, which is in modern Persian the name of “God,” who is thus conceived as the holder of absolute sovereignty.
This gives us some idea of the gap between this concept and the notion of royalty which is implicit in the Latin term rex and the Sanskrit rāj. This is no longer a kingship of a “ruling” (in the literal sense) kind; the role of the sovereign is not “to trace out the straight road” according to Indo-European ideology. In Iran we see the development of an absolute power which in the eyes of the Occidental world of classical times was incarnated in the Achaemenid Persian kingdom.
It is not merely in the name for the king but also in certain of its epithets that the tradition of Achaemenid Persia shows its originality. Persian is the only Iranian language which possesses certain terms relating to royalty. Among them is the adjective of Old Persian vazraka ‘great’ which has become buzurg in modern Persian. This is exclusively a Persian adjective; it is not known from any other Iranian dialect, and Indic offers no exact correspondent. In the Achaemenid texts, which are royal proclamations, this adjective appears as an epithet of specific notions.
(a) baga vazraka ‘the great God’ is the designation of Ahuramazda and of him alone. Certain texts begin with this eulogy: baga vazraka ahuramazdā ‘the great God is Ahuramazda’.
(b) vazraka is applied to the king: xšāyaθiya vazraka, the royal protocol, repeated immutably after the name of the sovereign, in his three titles: “Great King,” xšāyaθiya vazraka, “King of Kings,” xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām, “King of the Countries,” xšāyaθiya dahyunām. This is a triple definition of his status. The qualification “Great” added to the title “King” was a novelty to the Greeks. Hence the use of basileùs mégas (βασιλεὺς μέγας) to designate the King of Persia. The second title, “King of Kings,” makes him into the supreme sovereign, master of an empire which comprises the other kingdoms. Finally, “King of the Countries” establishes his authority over the provinces of the Achaemenid empire: Persia, Media, Babylonia, Egypt, etc., which are so many “countries.”
(c) vazraka is also applied to the “earth,” bumi, understood in the widest sense as the domain of the royal sovereignty.
The analysis of the adjective remains hypothetical in part. In all probability it is a derivative in -ka of a stem in r- which is not attested, *vazar or *vazra-, from a root *vaz- ‘be strong, full of vigor’ (cf. Lat. vegeo), which corresponds to that of the Vedic substantive vāja-‘strength, combat’. In the “heroic” terminology of the Veda vāja, with its derivatives, has an important place and has a variety of senses which mask the original sense. It appears that vāja indicates a force proper to gods, heroes, horses, which assures them the victory. It is likewise the mystical virtue of the sacrifice together with what this procures: well-being, contentment, power. It is also the power which is manifested in the gift, whence the sense “generosity,” “wealth.”
We glimpse a reflection of this notion in the Persian uses of vazraka. If the god Ahuramazda is defined as vazraka, this is because he is animated with this mystical force (the Indian vāja-). The king is also endowed with this power and likewise the earth, the natural element which supports and nourishes everything.
This qualification by vazraka is perhaps distributed according to the schema of the three classes: god as the source of religious power; the king as master of warrior power; the earth, the prototype of fertility. A simple adjective may express a rich conceptual content.