Paraphrase of the Book of Arda Viraf

This is a paraphrase of the Book of Arda Viraf, which tells the story of a Mazdayasnian (Zoroastrian) who reportedly travelled to Paradise and Hell and was given a guided tour of both. Regardless of its authenticity, it contains much truth and it is accepted by most traditional Mazdayasnians. As the story goes, the Mazdayasnians decided to send someone to Heaven to verify for the doubtful that their religion was true.[1] They picked seven men, then narrowed them down to three, then from these three they chose Arda Viraf. Then they cast lots, and Arda Viraf was chosen. Arda Viraf’s journey was initiated by a mixture of wine and a mysterious narcotic. He fell asleep and his soul travelled to Heaven. As he slept for seven days, the priests and his seven sisters watched over him and recited the Avestas.

First, Viraf was approached by Sraosha and Adar the angel of Fire. They bowed to him, and he introduced himself as a messenger (from man to Ahura). Viraf was taken by the hand, and in three steps (good thought, word, and deed) he came to the Chinavat Bridge. He saw a soul of the departed seated upon its body, uttering a verse of the Gathas. For three nights, the soul experienced as much joy and comfort as it had witnessed during its entire stay on the earth. Then it was taken by a fragrant breeze and introduced to the beautiful virgin of its deeds.

Thereafter, Viraf was helped across the bridge by the angels. He saw Rashnu the Archangel of Jusice weighing men’s deeds. Sraosha and Adar informed Viraf that they were going to give him a tour of Paradise and Hell. They mentioned that the punishments of Hell would be inflicted by demons and sorcerers, and said that they would show Viraf the Reality of Ahura Mazda and the Archangels, and the unreality of Angra Mainyu and the devas. First, he was taken to Purgatory, where he saw several people, all of whom were immobile. Sraosha told him that their only punishment was cold and heat from the revolution of the atmosphere.

And Viraf was taken to the Star Track, where good thoughts are received. He saw radiant souls seated upon splendid thrones. These were those who practiced no religion and had no positions of leadership in society, yet they were pious in other ways. Thereafter, he stepped into the Moon Track, where good words are received. He saw a large assembly of good souls. These were more of those who practiced no religion, yet they were pious in other ways, possibly including righteous leadership. Then Viraf stepped into the Sun Track, where good deeds are received. He saw the pious upon thrones and carpets of gold, a people whose brightness was like unto the brightness of the sun. These were those who ruled justly.

And Viraf entered Garothman, Paradise, where he was greeted by the inhabitants. Adar showed him a tank of water produced by Viraf’s religious services. Then Vohu Mana brought Viraf to Ahura Mazda and the other Archangels and the fravashis of the prophets. Then he saw the souls of those who married their next of kin[2], living in ever-increasing prosperity. He saw the righteous monarchs, who wore golden pants. He saw the righteous women, who wore luxuriant clothing embroidered with gold, silver, and jewels. He saw the priests, who were seated above the other souls. He saw the jihadis, who had fine arms and pompous pants. He also saw those who killed vile creatures (exterminators), and humble agriculturalists, and artisans who served their rulers well, and shepherds, and teachers, and truth-seekers, and peacemakers. There were many golden thrones, fine carpets, and luxuriant cushions.

And Viraf was taken to a dreadfully gloomy river. Many souls and fravashis endeavored to cross the river, some with ease and some not at all. Sraosha explained that the river was the many tears of those who wept for the departed unlawfully. Those who were wept for much had difficulty crossing, and those who were wept for little could cross more easily.

And Arda Viraf was brought back to Chinavat Bridge. He saw the first three nights of a wicked soul, who was shown more evil than they had ever seen in the world, and who was made to experience as much misfortune as happened to a man who lived a difficult life in the world. Then the man was met by a reeking cold wind, in which he saw “a profligate woman, naked, decayed, gaping, bandy-legged, lean-hipped, and unlimitedly spotted so that spot was joined to spot, like the most hideous, noxious creature, most filthy and most stinking.” She introduced herself to him as his Din, and explained to him how she came to be more hideous because of him, though she was already hideous without him. The man took three steps, and fell into Hell.

And Sraosha took Viraf’s hand to protect him from that which he beheld. Viraf saw cold, heat, drought, and stench, such as he had never seen or heard of before. He saw the greedy jaws of Hell, and its great and dark depth, from which there came a stench which would cause anyone to stagger and fall. Viraf says that everyone there is very closely confined and thinks that they are alone. He further says that after three days, the man thinks he has been imprisoned for nine thousand years. The noxious creatures, even the lesser ones, are as high as mountains, and they abuse the souls of the wicked.

And then Viraf was shown a long series of horrible punishments in Hell and informed of the causes of these punishments. This makes up the greater part of the Book of Arda Viraf. First, a man who allowed himself to be sodomized was seen to have a snake which, like a beam, entered his anus and came out of his mouth, as many other snakes seized his limbs. And there was a woman who did not respect the laws of abstinence from certain things while in menses, who was given cup after cup of the filth and impurity of men to drink. And there was a man who killed the righteous, and his head was perpetually being “widened out”, and he was perpetually being killed. And there was a man who had had sex with a menstruous woman, and he was being made to drink the impurity and menstrual fluids of women, and he perpetually cooked and ate his own child. And there was a man who was irreligious and ate greedily,  without saying grace, and he perpetually felt that he was dying of hunger and thirst, and tore out his hair, and ate blood, and foamed at the mouth. And there was a woman who committed adultery, and she was suspended by the breasts as vile creatures seized her body. And there were men and women who ran about naked and shoeless and served Satan[3], and they were being gnawed upon by vile creatures. And there was a woman who scorned, disobeyed, abused, and rejected her husband, and she was suspended in the air with her tongue stretched out on her neck. And there was a dishonest measurer and weigher, a swindler, who was forced to measure dust and ashes and then eat it. And there was a man who was an unmerciful tyrany, who was being perpetually flogged from both sides with serpents. And there was a slanderer and producer of enmity, whose tongue was on his jaw as vile creatures gnawed on him. And there was a man who slaughtered livestock excessively, and his limbs were perpetually being broken and torn apart. And there was a man who was miserly and did nothing with his wealth, and he was stretched upon a rack as a thousand demons trampled upon him. And there was a very lazy man, and he was being gnawed upon by a vile creature, but his right foot was not gnawed upon, because he had cast a bundle of grass before a ploughing ox with it. And there was a man who lied, and a worm ever gnawed upon his tongue. And there was a woman who violated and disrespected fire, and her whole body was being gnawed upon by vile creatures. And there was a sorceress, who chewed and ate her own excrement. And there was a man who apostatized, who had the body of a serpent and the head of a man. And there were men and women who did not care for water and fire, and allowed or caused them to be defiled and extinguished, and these people were suspended upside-down as vile creatures gnawed on them. And there was a man who defiled water and fire with human waste and the like, and he was made to eat human flesh, feces, blood, and other filth. And there was a man who didn’t pay people what was due to them, and who was made to eat human skin and flesh. And there was a man who backbit, and he had to carry a mountain on his back, and he had to go through snow and cold with this mountain on his back. And there was a man who went to a bath and defiled others thereby, and he was given excrement and filth to eat, and he was beaten with stones and axes. And there were several who had a father in their mothers, and whose fathers did not acknowledge them, and they were ever weeping for a father.[4] And there was a man who did not acknowledge his children, and he was attacked and torn by doggish demons, and there were children at his feet, and he perpetually screamed. And there was a woman who killed her infant, and she dug into a hill with her breasts and wore a mill-stone on her head like a cap. And some of the accounts of specific punishment are missing, because parts of the story have been lost.

And Arda Viraf was taken to a desert beneath the Chinavat Bridge, and Hell was in the midst of it. Angra Mainyu, the devas, and the souls of the wicked made a frightening noise which could be heard from afar. After some hesitation, Viraf allowed his escorts to take him to see the darkest Hell, and it was abominable. And he saw those who committed mortal sins, and extinguished sacred fires, and demolished precious bridges, and spoke blasphemy and falsehood, and bore false witness, and desired anarchy, and led to the deaths of the righteous. And these people were inflicted with punishments of snow, freezing, fire, reeking stenches, stone, ashes, hail, rain, and many other evils. And Viraf saw those who subverted and rejected their God and religion, and they were ever stung and gnawed upon by serpents. And there was a woman who left her infant in hunger and need, and she wept, and she tore and ate her own breasts. And there was a man who committed adultery continually, and he was being cooked in a cauldron, except for his right foot, with which he had smitten vile creatures. And there were atheists and disbelievers in the Hereafter, who perpetually swallowed and ate their vomit over and over again. And there was a woman who hated her husband and behaved improperly with other men, and she gnashed her chest and breasts with an iron comb. And there was a woman who rebelled against and abused her husband, and refused to cohabit with him, and stole from him, and she was made to lick a hot oven with her tongue and burn her hand under the oven. And there was a woman who became pregnant illegally and destroyed her infant, who ran about on molten brass while sobbing and gashing her head and face with a knife, as hail rained upon her. And there were people who troubled their parents, and did not ask them for forgiveness, and these people’s chests were in mud and filth, and a sickle sliced their limbs, and they ever called out for parents.[5] And there were people who slandered and caused strife amongst people, and their tongues were gnawed upon by serpents. And there was a man who ruled unjustly and ignored the complaints of the poor and merchants, and he was suspended in Hell by one leg, and he gashed his chest and armpits with a sickle, and an iron spike was driven into his eye.

And Viraf saw a man and his wife. The former was going to Heaven and the latter to Hell. The woman’s hand was caught in the man’s kusti (sacred thread), and she inquired as to why she was going to Hell while her man was going to Heaven. And the man replied that he had been just and she had followed Satan, to which she replied that she had been under his control and that he had not explained to her why he was righteous. So the man went to Heaven and the woman to Hell, but due to her repentance, her only punishment was darkness and foul smells. And the man was amongst the pious in Heaven, but felt shame at his failure to teach his wife.

And Arda Viraf saw some women who committed adultery and defiled their husbands’ bodies and injured their bodies. These women were tied upside down by one leg, and had wooden pegs in both eyes. And many vile creatures such as frogs, scorpions, snakes, ants, flies, and worms entered all of their orifices. And Viraf saw women who broke promises they had made to their husbands, and were discontent, and refused to have sex with them, and these women were hung upside down as a hedgehog-like thing with iron spikes punctured their bodies, then was drawn away (repeatedly), and a small drop of the sexual fluids of demons and demonesses fell from it and entered the mouths and noses of the women. And Viraf saw a man who had committed much sodomy, and debauched the wives of others, and separated them from their husbands. This man was being stung and gnawed upon by serpents, and snakes and worms went through his eyes, and an iron spike was scraped (or grown) upon his tongue. And there were women who did not respect the laws concerning menstruation, and they were ever consuming their own menstrual fluids. And there were women who used makeup and enticed men of God, and these women “shed and sucked and ate the blood and filth of their ten fingers, and worms ever came into both eyes”. And there were people who unlawfully slaughtered animals, and they were hung upside down by one leg, and a knife was driven into their hearts. And there were people who muzzled their animals of labor and did not feed and water them adequately, who  were trampled and gored by cattle. And there were women who committed sorcery and gave men food that they had prepared while in menses, and these women stood on hot brass, and they lacerated their breasts with their hands and teeth, and dogs tore and ate their bellies. And there were people who overburdened their animals, and starved them, and did not take care of their health, and these people had wounds on their backs, hands, and legs, and they were suspended upside down with their heads in melted brass[6], and heavy stone rained on their backs. And there was a woman who became pregnant from another man, lied about it to her husband, and murdered the infant, and this woman “dug an iron hill with her breasts[7], and an infant cried from her side of the hill, yet the woman and the infant were kept apart from each other. And there was a man who took bribes and made unjust decisions, whose eyes were scooped out, and whose tongue was cut off, and who was suspended in Hell by one leg as his body was raked with a brazen two-pronged fork, and an iron spike was driven into his head (or heart). There were people who measured things falsely and swindled others, and they were suspended upside down, and they shoved the blood, brains, and filth of men into their mouths, and put feces up their noses, and cried “we keep just measures”. And there was a woman who committed adultery and practiced sorcery, whose tongue was cut off, and her eyes were scooped out, and her brain was ever devoured by vile creatures, and she would occasionally gnaw upon her own flesh. And there was a woman who was of “sharp tongue”, who troubled her husband with her rude tongue, and her tongue was plucked out. And there was a woman who ate much meat and shared it with others without letting her husband know, and she ate her own refuse. And there was an opium maker and dealer, whose breasts were cut off, and her belly torn, and her entrails given to dogs. And there was a woman who had a good husband, yet committed adultery with a vile man, so on her body “they construct an iron coating, and they turn back the mouth, and put it back to a hot oven”. And there was a man who violated a marriage between next of kin, so a snake went through his body and came out the mouth.[8] And there was a woman who did not breastfeed her child, and she scraped her body and face with an iron comb, and “dug an iron hill with her breasts”. And there was a man who fornicated and seduced married women, so he hung upside down from a gibbet, and he was perpetually having sexual intercourse, and semen was dropped into his mouth, ears, and nose. And there people who were uncharitable, so they were thrown about from side to side as vile creatures chomped on the backs of their limbs, and they cried in thirst, hunger, cold, and heat. And there were people who lied and cursed, so serpents stang and ate their tongues. And there was a judge who judged in a greedy and unjust manner, so he perpetually killed his own child and ate its brains. And there were people who held back good things from others, so they had a wooden peg driven into their eye. And there were people who did not provide for or hire travelers, so they had a punishment of smoke, heat, and a cold wind. And there were women who starved and killed their own children, yet wet-nursed the infants of others, so they placed their own breasts on a hot frying pan and turned them from side to side. And there was a vile woman who did not nurse her own child, but went and had illicit sex with a strange man, so she dug a hill with her breasts and hungered and thirsted. And there was a man who took seeds, saying that he would plant them, yet he ate them instead, so his tongue was removed and he was dragged around by his hair. And there were a man and woman who lied, cursed, and deceived themselves, so their tongues were cut out. And there were a man and woman who ate “dead refuse” and killed animals such as the water-otter, so they vomited and ate excrement. And there were people who committed treason, so their tongues were scraped with wooden pegs, and demons hurt them with an iron comb.

And Arda Viraf saw Angra Mainyu, who ridiculed and mocked the wicked in Hell. Then Viraf was taken to Heaven again. He saw a light and heard a voice, and he knew from the voice that it was Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda instructed him to go to the earth and relate what he had seen. He also provided a message, which is that there is only one true way, the way of the primordial religion, that the world is made of dust, and that the only people who do not mingle with dust are the righteous. Viraf then bowed  to Ahura Mazda, and returned to the earth. When Viraf woke up, he was joyous. He promised the people blessings from their Lord, and instructed them to provide for the destitute and unemployed. Then he ate some delicious food, drank wine, and began to recount his journey as a scribe wrote it down.

[1]   This account is paraphrased from the edition on, which is from the public domain The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Volume VII: Ancient Persia, ed. Charles F. Horne, copyright 1917.

[2]   This is taken by some modern Mazdayasnians to refer to marriage between cousins, but in the past the endorsement of  incestuous marriages (sibling-sibling or parent-child) was common among the ruling class of Persia.

[3]   These were presumably sorcerers, witches, and other Satanists.

[4]   At first sight, it seems as though they are being punished for being fatherless. But that would be unjust, so it must be that they were actually in Hell for something else, and they were not given other punishments only because the thought of their fatherlessness was sufficient.

[5]   It is implied, in the English translation at least, that they did not know who their parents were.

[6]   This has also been translated as « suspended with the posteriors to the face ».

[7]   A probable meaning is that the woman pressed her breasts into an iron hill.

[8]   This punishment is only mentioned in one manuscript of the Book of Arda Viraf.


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