Hell is not explicitly mentioned in the Gathas. There are only allusions made to it, if not in Yasna 31.20, at least in Yasna 46.11, where it is said that the soul and the daēnā (see DĒN) of the wicked arriving at the Činwad Bridge (Av. činuuatō pərətu; see ČINWAD PUHL) will be guests in the “house of falsehood” (Av. drūjō dəmānā-), and in Yasna 51.13. The word hell, literally bad existence (Av. daožaŋᵛha-, Pahl. dušox, Pers. duzaḵ) only occurs in the later Avesta. In the Zamyād Yašt (19.44), Yima threatens to raise the Evil Spirit from the “roaring hell” (Hintze, 1995, pp. 232-35). The Haδōxt nask (2) describes the destiny of the just after death, then adds in a short third chapter the destiny of the wicked. According to Jean Kellens (1995, p. 40, note 50), the writer has created the account of the events at the death of the unrighteous(druuant), who has chosen the path of Falsehood, by transposition, in such a way as to mirror what befalls the just after crossing the very Činwad Bridge. Thus the damned should descend the three levels of Bad Thought, Bad Word, and Bad Deed, exactly as the just rise in Good Thought, Good Word, and Good Deed, which are represented (obviously not in conformity with astronomy) by the spheres of the stars, the moon, and the sun (Panaino, 1995). By the same token, the damned are subjected to despair instead of serenity and to a stinking wind instead of a scented one, and they will have poison for food. Besides, the daēnā, the peregrinating soul which accompanies the ruwān of the just in their post-mortem destiny, only appears in its wicked form in later Pahlavi literature, especially in personification of bad actions, being often synonymous with the Pahlavi word kunišn “action.” This seems to indicate that the representation of hell or hells is rather a late development in Zoroastrian faith. In fact, the third-century high priest Kirdēr insists upon the necessity of believing in the existence of a paradise and a hell, without identifying their locations or their levels (Gignoux, 1991). In his account of his vision of paradise, he says that on passing the bridge his double sees in the well of hell all sorts of Ahrimanian animals, such as snakes, lizards, and other noxious creatures (xrafstar), but he does not visit hell. On the other hand, this is what happens to the soul of Ardā Wirāz, who devotes the major part of his account of his extra-terrestrial voyage (the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag) to the description of hell and the punishments inflicted on the damned. Alexander the Great himself is there for having destroyed the Iranian state and religion. Just as in paradise, there are four levels in hell: the soul of the wicked person descends to Bad Thought, Bad Word, Bad Deed and then to hell proper itself. Hell is described as a deep well, terrifying because it is dark, stinking, and extremely narrow. The smallest of the xrafstars are as big as mountains, and all devour and destroy the soul of the damned. Eighty chapters describe the most horrible punishments and tortures adapted to the sins committed by the damned. There is much emphasis on sexual crimes, but also on other actions disapproved of by Mazdean ethics. Michel Tardieu has shown that there is a probable influence of inter-testamentary apocalyptic writings in these descriptions (Apocalypse of Peter and Paul). Hell is firstly the residence of Ahriman, the demons, and the druzes. All atmospheric calamities are associated with it: snow, cold, hail, rain, burning heat, and so forth.

The Mēnōg ī xrad gives the same account as the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag of the fate of the souls of the just and the wicked. The latter (chap. 2, pp. 158-94), drawn by the demon Wīzarš (Av. Vīzarəša-), meets his daēnā in the form of a horrible woman who reproaches him for all his bad deeds. The damned soul takes three steps, successively in Bad Thought, Bad Word, and Bad Deed; and the fourth step brings him in front of the Evil Spirit and other demons, who mock him. The Evil Spirit orders the most loathsome food cooked in hell for him. He is also served poison, snake, scorpions, and other xrafstars, and he is doomed to eat this to eternity. In his Wizīdagīhā, Zādspram often deals with hell: from the cosmogonical point of view; he teaches (chap. 2.5) that the entrance to hell was built by Ahriman when he made his intrusion into the created world “like a snake coming out of its hole.” It is ignorance that leads to hell, and it is only the “corporal soul” (ruwān ī tanīg) that goes to hell, while the other souls, the vital soul (gyān), the conscience (bōy), the fravaši, and the two other ruwāns turn away from it, but it is not said what becomes of them (chap. 30.44). Hell is also compared to a prison (chap. 30.51) and the damned to a stillborn fetus expelled from the body. From the eschatological point of view, Zādspram affirms that, in the end of the world, a net will be extended by the messenger Ērman in the underworld to get the damned out of hell. They will blame the blessed for not having warned them here on earth, just like the rich blaming the blessed Lazarus. But they are separated like black and white sheep, just as the sheep and goats are separated in Matthew (25.32-33). Then, each blessed person is given a branch and every damned person a root, but the just can climb the branches like a ladder to reach paradise, whereas the damned fall (back ?) to hell because of the movement of the branches. But Ērman will bring all the damned back to earth, where they will be forgiven. The divine compassion is stronger than its justice, as it is also confirmed in the inter-testamentary apocalyptic writings, notably the Armenian version of the Apocalypse of Paul (see Bauckham). Here, hell is not eternal, as it is with Zādspram.

In the Dādestān ī dēnīg (chap. 26), Manuščihr enumerates the four infernal places, parallel with the four celestial places. His description conforms to all the Mazdean traditions: hell is very deep, darker than anywhere else, most terrifying, and the hideaway of all the demons and the druzes. It stinks and is full of dirt, pain, and unhappiness; wickedness is not mixed with goodness as in this world, and this makes it extremely awful. In hell, the soul of the damned (chap. 31) finds the demon that corresponds to its sins, as in the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag, which will torment it until the day of the final renovation (frašegird; see FRAŠŌ.KƎRƎTI). It has never enough of the filthy food which it is made to eat forever, and its punishment is related to its principal sin. In question 32, the author defines three infernal places: hamēstagān, hell (dušox) or “worst existence,” where poison grows, and drujaskan (Av. druǰas-kanā-), which is at the bottom of darkness and where the chief demon resides. These places are even geographically situated at the north, the demoniac direction, under the earth; and the gate to hell is the “Arzur ridge” (see ARZUR), which is very famous for its demons and which is in the Alborz mountains (cf. Bundahišn 12.8; Vendidad 3.7). Manuščihr finally teaches that at the time of the final renovation the souls of the wicked go through the ordeal of molten metal for three days in order to be purified. Thereafter there shall be neither demon, nor punishment, nor hell. Thus, hell is not eternal.

In the Bundahišn (27.53), it is also said that in hell darkness is so thick that it can be held in one’s hand, the stench is so strong that it can be cut by a knife, and loneliness is absolute. Hell is related to the seven planets, especially to Saturn (Kēwān), which is very cold, and to Mars (Wahrām), which is very hot. Finally, the Dēnkard V summarizes all these data: Hell is situated under the earth, it is dark, narrow, stinking and without bliss, and contains all wickedness.




Tahmuras Dinshah Anklesaria, Dati-stan i Dinik, Part 1 Pursishn I-XL, ed. Ervad Tahmuras Dinshahji, Bombay, n.d.

Richard Bauckham. “The Conflict of Justice and Mercy: Attitudes to the Damned in Apocalyptic Literature,” La Fable Apocryphe, Apocrypha 1, Brepols, 1990, pp. 181-96.

Philippe Gignoux, Les quatre inscriptions du mage Kirdir, Paris, 1991.

Idem, ed. and tr., Ardā Wirāz-nāmag as Le livre d’Ardā Vīrāz, Paris, 1984.

Almut Hintze, ed. and tr. with comm., Der Zamyād-Yašt, Beitrage zur Iranistik 15, Weisbaden, 1994.

Jean Kellens, “L’âme entre le cadavre et le paradise,” JA 283, 1995, pp. 19-56.

Antonio Panaino, “Uranographia Iranica I: The Three Heavens in the Zoroastrian Tradition and the Mesopotamian Background,” in Rika Gyselen, ed., Au Carrefourdes religions: Mélanges offerts à Philippe Gignoux, Bures-sur-Yvette, 1995, pp. 205-25.

Dastur Darab Peshotan Sanjana, The Dînâ îMaînû Khrad, or the Religious Decisions of the Spirit of Wisdom, Bombay, 1895.

Michel Tardieu, “L’Ardā Virāz Nāmag et l’eschatologie grecque,” Stud. Ir. 14, 1985, pp. 17-24.

Fereydun Vahman, ed. and tr., Ardā Wirāz Nāmag: The Iranian Divine Commedia, Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies, Monograph 53, London and Malmo, 1986.

Zādspram, Wizīdagīhā, ed. and tr. with comm. Philippe Gignoux and Ahmad Tafazzoli as Anthologie de Zādspram, Paris, 1994.

(Philippe Gignoux)

Originally Published: December 15, 2003

Last Updated: March 22, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XII, Fasc. 2, pp. 154-156