PAIRIKĀ, feminine, non-Gathic Avestan noun denoting a class of female demonic beings in the Avesta and often translated “sorceress, witch, or enchantress.” We shall deal with the Avestan term pairikā- (I.-E. *parikehₐ-, OPers. *parikā-, MPers. parīg, Sogh. prʾykh, Manich. MPers. parīg, Khot. palīkā-, Pers. parī, Pashto pēraī, Nuristanī pari/bari/barai, Arm. parik) chronologically, beginning with (1) the suggested etymologies, (2) the Old Iranian phase, then continue with (3) Middle and (4) Modern Iranian languages along with the pertinent texts, and finally we will examine the occurrences of the term in (5) extra-Iranian sources.
1. Possible etymologies. Various etymologies have been proposed for the word pairikā-; as the divergence of opinions clearly illustrates, they are all highly speculative. Geiger (1882, pp. 81 f., 112 f.) suggested that pairikā- represented “foreign women” (die fremde Frauen) and took it to be the fem. form of *paraka; he compared the latter with Vedic parakīya- ‘belonging to others, enemies.’ Güntert (1913, pp. 201 f.), however, derived pairikā- from the Indo-European root *pelē- ‘to fill,’ Latin plēnus ‘full.’ He considered it to be a cognate of Parcae ‘Fates’ of the Roman pantheon, who were originally birth-goddesses, and to have survived in Latin, for example, pario ‘to bring forth, bear.’ He, furthermore, considered pairikā- to be the demoness of fullness, the counterpart of the goddess Pārəndi- ‘Fullness.’ On the other hand, Thurneysen (1924, p. 143) connected the term with Old Irish airech ‘concubine, wanton woman,’ and he was followed by Silvestri (1974, pp. 99 f.) and Mallory and Douglas (1997, s.v.). Walde and Pokorny (1926) associated pairikā- with Greek pallakis ‘concubine,’ pallax ‘youth, maiden,’ and pallas, the epithet of Athene. Gray (1929, pp. 195, 197) understood the word as “she who surroundeth, the surrounding one, enchantress,” which he analogized with Sanskrit abhicāra- ‘enchantment, bewitchment,’ derived from abhi-car- ‘to go around.’ Hertel (1931, p. 42) and, later, Duchesne-Guillemin (1936, p. 77) offered the unlikely interpretation pairi + kā ‘around + shine, glow,’ hence “she who is surrounded by (daēvic) light.” Sarkārātī (1350 Š./1971, pp. 5 f.), accepting the Indo-European root *per- ‘to create, to bear,’ offered an equally unlikely etymology: he assumed that the fem. suffix -ī was initially added to the root, hence *parī-, which was then followed by the addition of another suffix, kā-, to form pairikā-.
2. Old Iranian. In the Avesta pairikās (Bartholomae, 1904, s.v.) often appear in conjunction with other demonic beings, for instance, in daēuuanąm mašiiānąmca yāθβąm pairikanąmca “demons and evil men, sorcerers, and sorceresses” (e.g., Yašts 10.34; 14.4, 62). Darmesteter (1887, pp. 173-77) considered pairikā- to be a demonic nymph who robbed men and gods of celestial waters. According to Vendīdād or the “Anti-demonic Law” (11.9), Pairikās must be fought, for they are the opponents of Fire, Water, Earth, Ox, and Plant. Also, similar to the jinns’ response upon hearing (Ar.) bismillāh “In the name of Allāh” in Islamic lore (Donaldson, 1930, p. 186), Pairikās fled when Zarathuštra uttered the Ahuna vairya prayer (Yt. 11.6). The term pairikā-, moreover, appears in two adjectival compounds: aš.pairikā- ‘accompanied by great, mighty sorceress’ (Yt. 19.41)—as suggested by Schindler (1987, pp. 338 f.) and followed by Hintze (1994)—and pairikavant- ‘accompanied by witches’ (Yt. 11.6). The first adjective aš.pairikā-, found in Zamyād Yašt (19.41), is an attribute of Pitaona, a fiend killed by Kərəšaspa/Garšāsp in a series of slayings by the hero—alternately and unnecessarily, Humbach and Ichaporia (1998) translate it “most devoted to witches.” The other adjective, pairikavant-, is found in Sroš Yašt (11.6): āat̰ druuatąm daēuuaiiasnąm yātušca yātumatąm pairikåsca pairikavatąm t̰baēšō fratərəsąn fraduuarąn “Then the hostility of the wicked demon-worshippers, sorcerers, witches, Pairikās, and those who are accompanied by Pairikās will be frightened (and) flee” (Kreyenbroek, 1985).
Equally significant are the occurrences of the specific mūš.pairikā- ‘rat sorceress’ in Yasnas 16.8 and 68.8. She is associated with Āzi ‘Greed,’ against whom the Waters are invoked. The rat belongs to that group of noxious animals which are collectively called xrafstra- (Schmidt, 1980, pp. 213 f.); thus, the most immediate sense of the “rat sorceress” may be she who steals and destroys. Güntert (1913, pp. 202-4), however, associated this fiend with Sanskrit muṣká- ‘testicle, pudenda, muliebria,’ Pers. mošk ‘musk,’ Gr. mūs leukós ‘white mouse, libertine,’ High German maus ‘mouse, connus.’ In his opinion, she represents the demoness of sensuality. In the Tīr Yašt (Panaino, 1990 and 1995), a hymn devoted to the star Sirius (Av. Tištriia), Tištriia overcomes and overpowers the Pairikās who “are assimilated [sic, analogized] to the shooting stars and figure as the chief adversaries of the fixed stars” (Panaino, 1990, p. 139). The mūš.pairikā- has, furthermore, been understood as the one responsible for the eclipse of the sun (Darmesteter, I, 1892, p. 144). In the same hymn, we also encounter another Pairikā, pairikā.dužiiāriia- ‘the witch of the bad year,’ whom the evil-speaking men call the witch of the good year (8.51-55). She, apparently, represents all the discomfort, that is, drought, scarcity, and malaise, associated with a bad year and is eventually defeated by Tištriia. In the Avestan hymn to Mithra (Gershevitch, 1967) we learn that the lord Mithra is “the nemesis of the Pairikās” (10.26), and he assists in the struggle against “the evil gods, men, sorcerers and witches, tyrants, hymn-mongers, and mumblers” (10.34). In Farvardīn Yašt (Geldner, 1886), the hymn devoted to the Frawašis, Pairikās are mentioned in the context of nightmares: “We worship the Frawaši of righteous Hušyaoθna descendant of Frašaoštra … for resistance against bad dreams and bad omens and bad ōifra (?) and bad Pairikās” (13.104).
Again, in Vendīdād (1.9; 19.5), we come across another particular Pairikā, namely pairikā xnąθaitī. This fiend was counter-created by Aŋra Mainiiu ‘Hostile Spirit’ and attacks the hero Kərəšaspa (Nyberg, 1933) in the land known as Vaē.kərəta-, which was later identified with Kābul (kāwul ī duž-sāyag “Kabul of evil shade”) in the Pahlavi Vendīdād. She is eventually destroyed by Zarathuštra: janāni pairikąm yąm xnąθaiti / zanom ān ī parīg kāmagīh ān ī uz-dēs parastagīh “I shall kill the Xnąθaiti sorceress / I shall smite that sorceress of desire, that of idol worship” (Vd. 19.5). Güntert (1913, p. 200) associated Av. xnąθaitī- with Greek knēthō ‘to scratch, tickle, itch’ (not unlike the offensive sense of Pers. ḵārīdan ‘to itch’), which makes her the demoness of prurience. Charpentier (1933, p. 80), however, suggested the unlikely connection with Sanskrit knath- ‘to kill, harm’ (*knanthatī) and translated the compound “murderous sorceress.”
In the partial Sanskrit translation of the Avesta, edited by Bharucha (1910, Y. 16.8; Yt. 1.6, 10; 4.4), Pairikā is rendered mahārākṣasī ‘great demoness’ (nota bene: the typographical error “ix.8” in Gray, 1929, p. 195, should be emended to “xvi.8”). We must bear in mind, though, that the rākṣasīs represented a class of demonic beings whose functions were far bloodier than those of the Pairikās in the Iranian pandaemonium; for example, the Vedic fiends devour men and steal sacrifices, deeds which are alien to the Iranian fiends. Finally, it appears that in its earliest form, Pairikā bore some similarities with the demoness generally called succubus and found in a number of other cultures, such as Sumerian Lillake, biblical Lilith, Slavic Rusalka, who deprive men, particularly religious men, of their bodily fluid at night.
3. Middle Iranian. The sources written in the Middle Iranian languages indicate the emergence of some ambivalence in defining the nature of Parīg (< Pairikā). In most sources, similar to those in Old Iranian, Parīgs preserve their evil nature, while in at least three texts they become benign and perhaps even benevolent, through the process which Asmussen (1982) has called “de-demonization.”
In her still demonic guise, Parīg appears in numerous sources: (a) in the Pahlavi “translation” of the Vendīdād (Anklesaria, 1949, pp. 7, 373), Av. pairikā.xnąθaitī is rendered parīg <ī> kāmagīh ‘sorceress of desire’ and glossed as the patroness of ‘idolatry’ (uz-dēs parastagīh); (b) in the Bundahišn (Anklesaria, 1956, pp. 58 f.; 62 f.), or the Book of Primal Genesis, the muš parīg ‘rat sorceress’ makes another appearance (see above), but now she is described as bearing a tail (MPers. dumbōmand). From reading the same text (pp. 136 f.) we learn that during the initial stages of populating the earth, Jam (Av. Yima) copulated with a demon (dēw)—which may be a mistake for parīg and rectified in the Persian retelling of the myth (see Section 4, below)—and his sister slept with another demon; these unions resulted in the creation of the monkeys, bears, and the forest-dwellers. In the same pages it is further explained that the Negroid race owes its origin to the coition of a young man and a parīg which occurred during the reign of Aži Dahāg; (c) in Dādestān ī Dēnīg (Jaafari-Dehaghi, 1998, p. 126) Ahriman is credited with the creation of wasān parīgān ī tamīgān gōhrān ‘numerous sorceresses of dark substances’ (36.44); (d) in The Anthology of Zādspram (Gignoux and Tafazzoli, 1993) we also come across a Parīg in the shape of a dog (4.13-26) that is cut in two by the hero Srīd (Av. Θrita-), resulting in the release of a thousand more Parīgs from each half, which in turn tear up the hero; (e) in her generic form in Pahlavi texts such as Dēnkard VII (Molé, 1.19; 2.63; 5.8), The Supplementary Texts to the Šāyest-nē-šāyest (Kotwal, 1969, 12.12), The Pahlavi Rivāyat Accompanying the Dādestān ī Dēnīg (Williams, 1990, 8e1, 4; 8f3; 18c2-4), and Gujastag Abāliš (Barthelémy, 1887, 9.9), not unlike in the Avesta, she often appears in the company of other demonic beings, for example, dēwān ‘demons’ and jādūgān ‘sorcerers.’
In the Manichean literature we find parīg (Boyce, 1977, s.v.), and, as seen in the Manichean Turfan texts (Andreas-Henning, 1932, pp. 179, 182, 184), the parīgān are always mentioned together with dēwān. In Sogdian, we encounter prʾykh (Gharib, 1995, s.v.) in the company of other demons (Benveniste, 1940, nos. 1003, 1113; 1946, 6.197). In Sogdian Buddhist texts, prγš ‘servant woman’ is thought to be related to parīg (Bailey, 1979, p. 234), and in Khotanese one finds pālīka-putra-, which was understood by Bailey (ibid.) as the “sons of a pālīka,” that is, sons of a woman of lesser birth or a servant woman.
In her benign guise she appears as a proper noun (i.e., Parīg) in the Pahlavi Vendīdād (viii.31, 35; xiii.48) and Nērangestān (pp. 39v.15; 178r.8), indicating someone who is a venerable commentator of the Avesta. This would be a rare evidence for the existence of a female commentator among Mazdean theologians, unless the proper noun Parīg refers to a man—an unlikely occurrence in light of Old and Modern Iranian onomastics. Another benevolent appearance occurs in the Pāzand Ayādgār ī Jāmāspīg (Messina, 1939, p. 40), where the woman (zan), an offspring of the good Hošang, is compared to a Parī (čūn parī).
4. Modern Iranian. Except in the Mazdean religious texts written in Persian, by the time we reach the Modern Iranian phase and the literature written in the pertinent languages, we see only a shell of this ancient relic. By now, she has lost almost all of her negative attributes and has turned into a beautiful creature, parī ‘fairy, nymph,’ and often appears alongside the less benign jinns (jenn o parī). On some occasions, Parīs are referred to as (Pers.) az mā behtarān “they who are better than we” (Dehḵodā, s.v.), which, as noted by Nicholson (1930, p. 355) and Christensen (1941, p. 79), reminds one of “the good people” of European fairydom and puṇya-janas ‘good people’ of Hinduism (Mackenzie, 1913, p. 68).
In the epics written in Modern Persian, particularly in Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma, one encounters Parīs in several stories, for instance, “Reign of Jamšīd,” “Zāl and Rūdāba,” and “Bīžan and Manīža.” As noted by Christensen (op. cit., p. 63), for Ferdowsi Parī is “always a charming and pleasant figure.” In the other epic Sāmnāma, a work dated to the 13th century and attributed to Ḵwajo-ye Kermanī, we read of the deeds of the hero Sām (Av. Kərəšaspa), who also falls in love with Parīdoḵt ‘Daughter of Parī,’ a daughter of the Chinese emperor (Ṣafā, 1322 Š./1943, pp. 334-38). Furthermore, in the panegyrics and lyric poetry belonging to classical Persian literature, Parī is invariably represented as a benevolent or at least benign supernatural creature (Dehḵodā, s.v.). In Persian folklore, Belqīs or the Queen of Sheba is considered to be the offspring of a Chinese emperor and a Parī. In The Arabian Nights (Burton apud Gray, 1929, p. 196), we encounter Parīzāda ‘Born of Parī,’ a heroine found in one of the final stories of the book. Moreover, Chand and Nā’īnī, the editors of Dārā Šokōh’s Persian translation of the Upaniṣads, render Sk. Yakṣa-, often a harmless being, as Parī (Tehran, 1381 Š./2002, p. 665). Finally, more evidence indicating the benevolence of Parī is found in the realm of rituals; modern-day Zoroastrians of Kermān and Yazd celebrate the ritual known as sofra-sabzī ‘The table-cloth spread on green grass’ or ẓiyāfat-e doḵtar-e šāh-e pariyān ‘feast of the daughter of the king of fairies’ (Asmussen, op. cit. p. 117).
There are also numerous Persian compounds which contain parī; some are feminine proper nouns, for example, Parī-sā, Parī-čehr, and Parī-vaš, while a few others may betray the survival of shamanistic practices in Iranian culture: parī-ḵʷān ‘invoker of Parī,’ parī-gerefta, parī-band, parī-afsā ‘he who has captured Parī’ (Dehḵoda, s.v.).
As noted earlier, a few Persian sources reflecting the Mazdean tradition have preserved the demonic nature of Parī. For example, in The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz it is stated that the kindling of a Bahrām Fire at midnight results in the annihilation of myriads of sorcerers and Parīs (Dhabhar, 1932, pp. 56, 62). Also, echoing Bundahišn (see section 3, above), it is noted that Jam copulated with a Parī, which resulted in the creation of the ape, the bear, the limber-legged ones, and those having ears like a shield (ibid., p. 257).
5. Extra-Iranian occurrences. In the folklore of the peoples formerly known as the Kāfirs of the Hindu Kush mountains (currently Nuristān), one encounters paris, baris, or barais (pl. bariān, barizāt) (Snoy, apud Jettmar, 1975, p. 219), which exist in both sexes. Accordingly, the king of the fairies lives in his golden palace in Tirich-Mir Peak in Chitral, while their other forts are located on Boni Zoom Peak in N. Chitral. Since these Parīs, also known as nangini ‘mothers,’ are the owners of herds of markhor and ibex, a successful hunter must first entreat them by uttering formulae such as: “Oh mother adopt me as your son and I request you to give me one of your goats. Be kind and treat me as your guest!” (Hussam-ul-mulk, 1974, pp. 96 f.). Parīs were also thought to control the weather by causing gales and rain. They are invisible and often bathe on the banks of natural lakes in high mountains. A list of the Kāfir fairies includes: Ḵangi ‘The Domestic One,’ Halmasti ‘The greedy fast dog,’ Jaštan ‘The funny little fairy, pixie,’ Pherutis ‘Hissing among smoldering ashes,’ Murghatipi ‘Bird fairy,’ Khaphesi ‘The deaf and dumb fairy,’ Dow ‘Giant,’ Bohten Dayak ‘Stone-Throwing fairy,’ Čumur Deki ‘Iron Legs,’ Gor ‘Witch,’ Bar Zangi ‘The Huge Monster,’ and Nang ‘Cyclops.’ The fairies, jinns, and other kindred spirits are, furthermore, referred to as berio zandar ‘Outsiders’ (ibid., pp. 97-101). Also, in retaliation for injuries inflicted on them by humans, Parīs cause various diseases such as “possession,” Mergi ‘epilepsy,’ and Kodakān ‘fits of convulsions among children.’ In earlier times, the people communicating with Parīs were called betans, who entered a trance state or betan ungeik ‘Betan getting wild,’ in order to perform their task of healing (ibid., pp. 104 f.). Nowadays, the healer who “cures” some of the diseases caused by Parīs is called parī-ḵʷān ‘invoker of fairy.’ This title has erroneously been recorded as parī-ḵān ‘Master of Fairy’ by many scholars, for example, Hussam-ul-mulk (ibid., pp. 105 ff.), but with the exception of H. Findeisen, who reports on the existence of the (Ger.) Feen-Rufer ‘fairies-caller’ in Xinjiang Province, China (1951). It is through the ritual known as parī ḵameik ‘invocation of Parī’ that a parī-ḵʷān can summon these supernatural beings. We also know of a group of women called perižuni (Jettmar, op. cit., p. 443) in Nuristan, whose function is to relieve the patient from Parī-inflicted diseases.
Iranian Parīg, moreover, entered Armenian lexicon as parik (Russell, 1987, p. 449), and her nature is rather similar to that found in the Persian milieu. Eventually, in Armenian she also came to denote “ballerina” (Hübschmann, apud Asmussen, op. cit., p. 117). According to Bailey (op. cit., p. 234), Hebrew plgš, pylgš and Targum plqtʾ, pylqtʾ ‘servant woman’ are ultimately derived from Iranian pairikā- (parīg). Furthermore Persian Parī, modified to Peri, appeared in a number of well-known literary works written in the European languages, the most celebrated example of which is Th. Moore’s book-length poem Lalla Rookh (1817). The tale revolves around a princess’s journey from Delhi to Kashmir to meet her betrothed. Along the way Feramorz (sic, Frāmarz), the king of Bukhara and her husband-to-be—disguised as a poor poet—recounts the historical tales of insurrections and ecstasy, of revolutionary heroes and passionate women, which were much appreciated by the readers of the Romantic period. In the second tale, “Paradise and the Peri,” the Peri, as a fallen angel seeking entry into heaven, must perform a good deed, which she does by saving a boy from a pederast.
The appearance of Peri is not limited to the written words; using Moore’s poem as the basis, the German composer R. Schumann (1810-1856) composed an oratorio for soloist, choir, and orchestra entitled Das Paradies und die Peri ‘The Paradise and the Peri,’ which he considered to be his “most important work in every sense of the word” (Meier, 2004, p. 97). Apparently Richard Wagner, too, had shown some interest in the same poem (ibid., p. 98).
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Originally Published: January 1, 2000
Last Updated: September 1, 2010