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In Cicero's Tusculan Disputations (book I, section XLV), he remarks:

It is customary with the Magi, to bury none of their order, unless they have been first torn by dogs. In Hyrcania, the people maintain dogs for public use, their nobles have their own: we know they have a good breed of dogs; but every one, according to his ability, provides himself with some, in order to be torn by them; and they hold that to be the best interment.

This doesn't pass the smell-test for me. Is there any indication, other than in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, that this was actually a historical practice?

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It sounded fantastical to me as well. However, looking into it, if Cicero's reporting is wrong, it probably isn't wrong by a lot.

"Magi" was the name used for followers of Zoroastrainisim, which was the state religion in Persia at the time. It isn't anymore of course, but the religion itself is still very much alive and kicking. Modern Parsis* in fact do hold a very similar funerary practice, although using carrion birds rather than dogs.

Parsi funerals begin in a way familiar to many faiths: prayers are chanted and mourners pay last respects.

But that's where the similarities end, says Khojeste Mistree, head of the Zoroastrian Studies Institute in Mumbai.

"We have an unusual method of disposal of the dead. The Parsi corpse is exposed to the rays of the sun, and the corpse is consumed or devoured by birds of prey — vultures, kites and crows," Mistree says.

For Zoroastrians, burying or cremating the dead is seen as polluting nature. So for centuries, the Parsis in Mumbai have relied on vultures to do the work — that is, until the entire population of vultures in the city vanished.

If I may speculate a bit, I know a lot of central Asian peoples have historically practiced exposure excarnation (as did a lot of the native peoples of North America). Zoroastrianism is thought to have evolved directly from Indo-Aryan religious practices at a time they were essentially fresh off the steppe (2nd Millenium BC), so it isn't entirely without precedent.

All modern practitioners across Asia seem to prefer to put the body on a high place so that its specifically birds that do the work. So its tempting to gig Cicero there. However, the structures Zoroastrians build for this purpose appear to have been developed long after Cicero, and Herodotus reported both birds and dogs used by Zoroastrians for this purpose as well.

* - As a famous example, Freddie Mercury's family was Parsi, and his funeral was officiated by a Zoroastrian priest. However his remains were cremated, not excarnated.

  • Sidenotes: the dogs (rather than wild animals, other animals) strikes me as odd as well. But the sky burial might be one other disingenuous way we found to exterminate species, en passant: timeslive.co.za/news/sci-tech/… – LangLangC Jan 17 at 15:00
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    @LangLangC - Well, I could see a scenario in the middle of a desert (eg: Hyrcania) or a built up city where wild animals might not be available (as the article is pointing out is happening to practitioners in Mumbai). So if its not infeasible, and other sources (Herdotus) also corroborate dogs being used, I'm inclined allow it might actually have been A Thing. – T.E.D. Jan 17 at 15:08
  • Another quirk is in the word Magi. WP tells me these are followers, but I am sure they are just priests, which would also follow more closely the indo-european roots? – LangLangC Jan 17 at 15:14
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    @LangLangC - Following that link...that might actually explain what's been happening to Mumbai's vultures. – T.E.D. Jan 17 at 15:18
  • @LangLangC. It appears the near extermination of vultures is due to the use of diclofenac in livestock, and next to nothing to do with sky funerals. – C Monsour Jan 21 at 0:11

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