the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran that survives there in isolated
areas and, more prosperously, in India, where the descendants of
Zoroastrian Iranian (Persian) immigrants are known as Parsis, or
Parsees. In India the religion is called Parsiism.
Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th
century bc, the religion contains both monotheistic and dualistic
features. It influenced the other major Western religons—Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam. For a discussion of the context in which
Zoroastrianism arose, see Iranian religion.
Nature and significance
The ancient Greeks saw in Zoroastrianism the archetype of the dualistic
view of the world and of man’s destiny. Zoroaster was supposed to have
instructed Pythagoras in Babylon and to have inspired the Chaldean
doctrines of astrology and magic. It is likely that Zoroastrianism
influenced the development of Judaism and the birth of Christianity. The
Christians, following a Jewish tradition, identified Zoroaster with
Ezekiel, Nimrod, Seth, Balaam, and Baruch, and even, through the latter,
with Christ himself. On the other hand, Zoroaster, as the presumed
founder of astrology and magic, could be considered the arch-heretic. In
more recent times the study of Zoroastrianism has played a decisive part
in reconstructing the religion and social structure of the Indo-European
Though Zoroastrianism was never, even in the thinking of its founder,
as aggressively monotheistic as, for instance, Judaism or Islām, it does
represent an original attempt at unifying under the worship of one
supreme god a polytheistic religion comparable to those of the ancient
Greeks, Latins, Indians, and other early peoples.
Its other salient feature, namely dualism, was never understood in an
absolute, rigorous fashion. Good and Evil fight an unequal battle in
which the former is assured of triumph. God’s omnipotence is thus only
temporarily limited. In this struggle man must enlist because of his
capacity of free choice. He does so with his soul and body, not against
his body, for the opposition between good and evil is not the same as
the one between spirit and matter. Contrary to the Christian or
Manichaean (from Manichaeism—a Hellenistic, dualistic religion founded
by the Iranian prophet Mani) attitude, fasting and celibacy are
proscribed, except as part of the purificatory ritual. Man’s fight has a
negative aspect, nonetheless: he must keep himself pure; i.e., avoid
defilement by the forces of death, contact with dead matter, etc. Thus
Zoroastrian ethics, although in itself lofty and rational, has a ritual
aspect that is all-pervading. On the whole, Zoroastrianism is optimistic
and has remained so even through the hardship and oppression of its
History » Pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion
The religion of Iran before the time of Zoroaster is not directly
accessible, for there are no reliable sources more ancient than the
prophet himself. It has to be studied indirectly on the basis of later
documents and by a comparative approach. The language of Iran is closely
akin to that of northern India, and hence the people of the two lands
probably had common ancestors—the Indo-Iranians, or Aryans. The religion
of the latter has been reconstructed by means of common elements
contained in the sacred books of Iran and India: mainly the Avesta and
the Vedas. Both collections exhibit the same kind of polytheism, with
many of the same gods, notably the Indian Mitra (the Iranian Mithra),
the cult of fire, sacrifice by means of a sacred liquor (soma in India,
in Iran haoma), and other parallels. There is, moreover, a list of Aryan
gods in a treaty concluded about 1380 bc between the Hittite emperor and
the king of Mitanni. The list includes Mitra and Varuṇa, Indra, and the
two Nāsatyas. All of these gods also are found in the Vedas, but only
the first one in the Avesta, except that Indra and Nāñhaithya appear in
the Avesta as demons; Varuṇa may have survived under another name.
Important changes, then, must have taken place on the Iranian side, not
all of which can be attributed to the prophet.
The Indo-Iranians appear to have distinguished, from among their
gods, the daiva (Indo-Iranian and Old Persian equivalent of Avestan
daeva and Sanskrit deva, related to the Latin deus), meaning “heavenly,”
and the asura, a special class with occult powers. This situation was
reflected in Vedic India; later on, asura came to signify, in Sanskrit,
a kind of demon, because of the baleful aspect of the asura’s invisible
power. In Iran the evolution must have been different: the ahuras were
extolled, to the exclusion of the daevas, who were reduced to the rank
History » The reformation of Zoroaster
Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) was a priest of a certain ahura (Avestan
equivalent of Sanskrit asura) with the epithet mazdā, “wise,” whom
Zoroaster mentions once in his hymns with “the [other] ahuras.”
Similarly, Darius I (522–486) and his successors worshipped Auramazda
(Ahura Mazdā) “and the other gods who exist” or “Ahura Mazdā, the
greatest god.” The two historically related facts are evidently
parallel: on both sides the rudiments of monotheism are present, though
in a more elaborate form with the prophet Zoroaster.
It has not yet been possible to place Zoroaster’s hymns, the Gāthās,
in their historical context. Not a single place or person mentioned in
them is known from any other source. Vishtāspa, the prophet’s protector,
can only be the namesake of the father of Darius, the Achaemenid king.
All that may safely be said is that Zoroaster lived somewhere in eastern
Iran, far from the civilized world of western Asia, before Iran became
unified under Cyrus II the Great. If the Achaemenids ever heard of him,
they did not see fit to mention his name in their inscriptions nor did
they allude to the beings who surrounded the great god and were later to
be called the amesha spentas, or “bounteous immortals”—an essential
feature of Zoroaster’s doctrine.
Religion under the Achaemenids was in the hands of the Magi, whom
Herodotus describes as a Median tribe with special customs, such as
exposing the dead, fighting evil animals, and interpreting dreams.
Again, the historical connection with Zoroaster—whom Herodotus also
ignores—is a hazy one. It is not known when Zoroaster’s doctrine reached
western Iran, but it must have been before the time of Aristotle
(384–322), who alludes to its dualism.
Darius, when he seized power in 522, had to fight a usurper, Gaumata
the Magian, who pretended to be Bardiya, the son of Cyrus the Great and
brother of the king Cambyses. This Magian had destroyed cultic shrines,
āyadanas, which Darius restored. One possible explanation of these
events is that Gaumata had adopted Zoroastrianism, a doctrine that
relied on the allegiance of the common people, and therefore destroyed
temples or altars to deities of the nobility. Darius, who owed his
throne to the support of some noblemen, could not help favouring their
cult, although he adopted Auramazda as a means of unifying his empire.
Xerxes, successor to Darius, mentioned in one of his inscriptions how
at a certain (unnamed) place he substituted the worship of Auramazda for
that of the daivas, which does not mean he opposed the daeva cult as
such, as a true Zoroastrian would have done, but only that he eradicated
somewhere—probably in Babylon—the cult of deities alien to the religion
of the ahuras. It points to a change of attitude, compared with Cyrus’
tolerance of alien religions, such as the Babylonian or the Jewish
From Artaxerxes II (404–359/358) onward, the inscriptions mention,
besides Auramazda, Mithra and the goddess Anahita (Anahit), which proves
only a change of emphasis, not the appearance of new deities.
History » The Arsacid period
In consequence of Alexander’s conquest, the Iranian religion was almost
totally submerged by the wave of Hellenism. At Susa, for instance, which
had been one of the capital cities of the Achaemenids but where the
religion of Auramazda was not indigenous, the coinage of the Seleucid
and Arsacid periods does not represent a single Iranian deity.
Then the Iranian religion gradually emerged again. In Commagene in
the middle of the 1st century bc, gods bear combinations of Greek and
Iranian names: Zeus Oromazdes, Apollo Mithra, Helios Hermes, Artagnes
Herakles Ares. The first proof of the use of a Zoroastrian calendar,
implying the official recognition of Zoroastrianism, is found some 40
years earlier at Nisa (near modern Ashkhabad in Soviet Turkmenistan). By
then some form of orthodoxy must have been established in which
Auramazda and the entities (powers surrounding him) adjoin other gods
such as Mithra, the Sun, and the Moon.
In Persis (modern Fars), from the beginning of the Christian Era to
the advent of the Sāsānians (early 3rd century ad), any allusion to the
fire cult disappears. The coins seem to indicate, in not showing the
fire altar, that the prince had lost interest in the Iranian religion.
History » The Sāsānian period
With Ardashīr, the future founder of the Sāsānian dynasty, the situation
was different; and this may suggest that his religious zeal—as a
hereditary priest of Staxr (Istaxr)—may have helped him seize power in
his native province, even before he started attacking his Arsacid
suzerain, Artabanus V.
Two persons are recorded, in different sources, as helping to
establish Zoroastrianism under the first Sāsānians: Kartēr and Tansar.
Whereas Kartēr is known through contemporary inscriptions, most of which
were written by himself, Tansar (or Tosar) is only remembered in later
books. The latter tell us that Tansar, an ehrpat, or theologian,
undertook the task, under Ardashīr’s command, of collecting the sacred
texts and fixing the canon. Kartēr, who was already active under
Ardashīr I but more so under Shāpūr and his successors, recounted his
brilliant career, which reflects the birth of a hierarchy. He was still
an ehrpat under Shāpūr, as he restored the “Mazdean religion . . . in
the land of non-Iran reached by the horses and men of the king of
kings.” Under Hormizd he was made “magupat of Ormazd,” a term apparently
created for him and meaning “chief of the Magians of Auramazda.” Under
Bahrām I (ad 273–276), Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, who had enjoyed
a degree of tolerance under the two preceding kings, was sacrificed to
the interests of Zoroastrianism and died in prison. Bahrām II named
Kartēr “Saviour of the Soul of Bahrām,” elevated him to the rank of the
“grandees of the realm,” and gave him the additional titles of “judge of
the empire,” “master of rites,” and “ruler of the fire of
Anahit-Ardashīr at Staxr and of Anahit the Dame.” Promoted to the apex
of his career, Kartēr persecuted “Jews, Buddhists, Brahmins, Nasoreans
[Judeo-Christians?], Christians, Maktaks [Mandeans, Manichaeans?], and
Zandīks [Mazdean heretics].” Narses (293–302), who began his struggle
for power when Bahrām II was still on the throne, seems to have
recovered the title of chief of the Staxr temple that his predecessor
and adversary had surrendered to Kartēr. Under Shāpūr II, the high
priest Aturpāt, at a council summoned to fix the text of the Avesta,
proved the truth of his doctrine by submitting to the ordeal of molten
metal poured on his breast and was victorious over all kinds of
sectarians and heretics.
Under Bahrām V (420–438), presumably, the title magupatān magupat
(chief magus of the chief magi) was created. Under Qobād (or Kavādh;
488–496 and 498/499–531), Iran traversed its gravest social and
religious crisis under the impact of Mazdak. This reformer, whose
doctrines were partly inspired by those of Mani, was granted an
interview by Qobād—as Shāpūr I had received Mani a long time before, but
with a more decisive success. Perhaps the King hoped that by abolishing
property and the family he would reign over a docile mass. The
Mazdakites favoured the abolition of all social inequalities, chiefly of
private property, the main cause of all hatred. Everything was to be
held in common, including women. These views directly threatened the
rich as well as the Mazdean clergy, who soon understood this. Qobād was
dethroned and replaced by his brother Jāmāsp. After two years in exile,
Qobād recovered his throne, but he had been cured of his egalitarian
views and decided to liquidate the Mazdakites.
Khosrow I continued the work of his father, Qobād, and thus the
Mazdakite upheaval made way for a strong state and an established
Mazdean Church. The religious books give Khosrow the unique title of
Anōsharvan, “with the immortal soul,” probably for having crushed
Mazdakism and for enabling the “good religion” to triumph.
Khosrow II (590/591–628) married a Christian woman and may have been
a Christian himself. He was superstitious and dabbled in astrology.
History » Post-Islāmic Iranian Zoroastrianism
Islām won a decisive victory at al-Qādisīyah in 635 over the armies of
Yazdegerd III, the last Sāsānid. Islām, in principle, tolerated the
ancient religion, but conversions by persuasion or force were massive in
many provinces. Zoroastrianism fomented rebellion and brought
persecutions upon itself. There were pockets of survival, notably in
Persis, the ancient centre of the Achaemenian and Sāsānian empires.
Books were produced to save the essentials of the religion from a
threatened disaster. The disaster did occur but exactly why and how is
not known. Zoroastrians, called Gabars by the Muslims, survived in Iran
as a persecuted minority in small enclaves at Yazd and Kerman.
History » The Parsis in India
From the 10th century onward, groups of Zoroastrians emigrated to India,
where they found asylum in Gujarāt. Their connection with their
coreligionists in Iran seems to have been almost totally broken until
the end of the 15th century. Reestablished in 1477, the connection was
kept up chiefly in the form of an exchange of letters until 1768. Under
British rule, the Parsis, who previously had been humble agriculturists,
started to enrich themselves through commerce, then through industry.
They became a most prosperous and “modern” community, centred in Bombay.
Formerly they had adopted the language (Gujarati) and the dress of their
Hindu milieu. Later they adopted British customs, British dress, the
education of girls, and the abolition of child marriage. In their
enterprises as well as in their charities they followed the example of
the West. From the 19th century on, they were able to help their less
favoured brethren in Iran, either through gifts or through intervention
with the government.
They also adapted themselves to their Indian culture by minimizing
what was repugnant to the Hindus, namely, blood sacrifice; and they
surrendered to some extent to the vogue of astrology and to theosophy.
On the other hand, ever since they were attacked by Christian
missionaries for their dualism, they have been emphasizing the
monotheistic aspect of their doctrine.
Beliefs and mythology » Sources
Only the hymns, or Gāthās, are attributable to Zoroaster. They are
written in various metres and in a dialect different from the rest of
the Avesta, except for seven chapters, chiefly in prose, that appear to
have been composed shortly after the prophet’s demise. All these texts
are embedded in the Yasna, which is one of the main divisions of the
Avesta and is recited by the priests during the ceremony of the same
name, meaning “sacrifice.” The Visp-rat (“All the Judges”) is a Yasna
augmented here and there by additional invocations and offerings to the
ratus (lords) of the different classes of beings. The Vidēvdāt, or
Vendidad (“Law Rejecting the Daevas”), consists of two introductory
sections recounting how the law was given to man, followed by 18
sections of rules. The Siroza enumerates the deities presiding over the
30 days of the month. The Yashts (hymns) are each addressed to one of 21
deities such as Mithra, Anahita, or Verethraghna. The Hadhoxt Nask
(“Section Containing Sayings”) describes the fate of the soul after
death. The Khūrda Avesta, or Small Avesta, is made up of minor texts.
The Avesta is, therefore, a collection of texts compiled in
successive stages until it was completed under the Sāsānians. It was
then about four times larger than what has survived. A summary of its 21
books, or Nasks (of which only one is preserved as such in the
Vidēvdāt), is given in one of the main treatises written during the
brief Zoroastrian renascence under Islām in the 9th century; the
Dēnkart, the “Acts of the Religion.” It is written in Pahlavi, the
language of the Sāsānians.
Other works in Pahlavi include, besides a translation and commentary
on the Avesta, the Bundahishn (“Primal Creation”), a cosmology. Most
Pahlavi books are anonymous, such as Mēnōk-i Khrat (“Spirit of Wisdom”),
a lucid summary of a doctrine based on reason, and the Book of Artāy
Virāf, which describes Virāf’s descent into the netherworld as well as
heaven and hell and the pleasures and pains awaiting the virtuous and
the wicked. There are also a few signed works, such as those of the two
brothers Zātspram and Mānushchihr, or Mardān-Farrukh’s Shkand-Gumānīk
Vichār (“Final Dispelling of Doubts”), an apology of the Mazdean
religion directed against Manichaeism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islām.
Finally, there are Zoroastrian books written in Persian, either in
verse or in prose. The latter include the correspondence exchanged
between Zoroastrians of Iran and India and the treatise entitled
ʾOlemā-ye Islām (“The Doctors of Islām”), with decidedly Zurvanite
Beliefs and mythology » God
Zoroaster’s silence on Mithra is not easy to interpret. Since this god
was closely associated with Varuṇa in India and with Varuṇa’s likely
substitute in Iran, Zoroaster can hardly have ignored one-half of this
divine pair without a definite purpose. Otherwise, it might be presumed
that Mithra was included in the formula “Mazdā and the [other] ahuras”;
however, Mithra is called in the Later Avesta (non-Gāthic) an ahura; so
is Apām Napāt, a fire or brightness in the waters, corresponding to the
Vedic Apām Napāt. As for Verethraghna (the entity or spirit of victory),
it seems that since he took over the function of Indra, who was a daeva,
he could not be called an ahura; but in order to mark his belonging to
the world of ahuras he was called ahuradāta, “created by an ahura.”
It is in the framework of the religion of the ahuras, hostile to the
cult of the daevas, that Zoroaster’s message should be understood. He
emphasized the central importance of his god, the wise Ahura, by
portraying him with an escort of entities, the powers of all the other
gods, in an array against the forces of evil.
The moral dualism expressed in the opposition Asha–Druj
(truth–falsehood) goes back at least to Indo-Iranian times, for the Veda
knows it too, as ṛta-druh, although the contrast is not as sharply
defined as in the Avesta. Between these two principles, the Twin Spirits
made an ominous choice, the Bounteous One becoming in thoughts, words,
and deeds a partisan of Asha, ashavan, while the other became dregvant,
partisan of the Druj. After them it was the daevas’ turn; they all chose
wrongly. Ever since, the daevas have tried to corrupt man’s choice also.
To the army of the ashavans, headed by the Bounteous Spirit, was
counterposed the host of the dregvants, under the Destructive Spirit,
Angra Mainyu. Each combatant faced his exact counterpart: the Good Mind
opposing the Bad Mind and Aramaiti being countered by Taromaiti.
In this battle, the whole material universe is, through the entities,
potentially enrolled, the Bounteous Spirit being the patron of man, Asha
of fire, the Good Mind of the Ox, the Dominion of the metals, Aramaiti
of the earth, Integrity and Immortality of the waters and plants.
Moreover, since the entities are at once divine and human (because both
the spiritual and material qualities of man partake of divine), everyone
faithful to the wise Ahura can commune with him.
After Zoroaster, considerable changes occurred in the theology he had
professed. The entities were reduced to mere deities, which were even
separated into male and female. Never again were their names used to
designate human faculties. This is probably a consequence of the
resurgence of the ancient gods.
It is not known to what extent Zoroaster’s system was meant to be
exclusively the cult of Ahura Mazdā. In the Later Avesta all the gods he
had ignored emerged again, such as Mithra, Airyaman (whom he had
replaced by Sraosha), Anahita, Apām Napāt, Verethraghna, and Vayu. This
vast pantheon, still nominally headed by Ahura Mazdā, is similar to the
compromise that Darius, according to the interpretation cited above,
made between the cult of Auramazda and that of the gods of the nobility.
Not only did Zoroaster’s theology thus lose its exclusive position,
but an internal change also modified its equilibrium and even threatened
its very essence. The Bounteous Spirit was almost completely reabsorbed
into Ahura Mazdā. Whereas in a Yasht the two Spirits fought each other,
in the Vidēvdāt Ahura Mazdā and the Destructive Spirit opposed each
other by creating, respectively, the good and the bad things. This
profoundly affected Zoroaster’s system, for Ahura Mazdā could no longer
be the father of the Twin Spirits; he now faced, on equal terms so to
speak, a sort of antigod. This alteration probably dates back at least
to the 4th century bc, for Aristotle said in the Peri philosophias (“On
Philosophy”) that the Magi preached the existence of two principles,
Oromasdes and Areimanios.
Beliefs and mythology » Cosmogony
In the cosmogony as expounded in the Bundahishn, Ormazd (Ahura Mazdā)
and Ahriman are separated by the void. They seem to have existed from
all eternity, when Ahriman’s invidious attack initiates the whole
process of creation. The question of their origin is ignored, but it was
implied, ever since Ormazd had taken the place of his Bounteous Spirit
in the struggle against the Destructive Spirit. Since Ahura Mazdā could
no longer be the father of the two adversaries, the question of their
origin was inevitable.
A solution was provided by Zurvanism; it is Zurvān (Time) who is the
father of Ormazd and Ahriman. But this solution upset the very essence
of Mazdaism and was therefore condemned as heretical. Zurvanism was
widely accepted, however, perhaps even prevalent, in Sāsānian times.
Traces of it are found in Mazdean orthodoxy, some features of which
cannot otherwise be explained.
In Mazdean orthodoxy, when Ormazd created the material world, he
first produced from Infinite Light a form of fire, out of which all
things were to be born. This form of fire is “bright, white, round, and
visible from afar.” Gayōmart, the Primal Man, was also conceived as
spherical, in the image of the sky. Mānushchihr writes that “Ormazd, the
lord of all things, produced from Infinite Light a form of fire whose
name was that of Ormazd and whose light was that of fire.” This phrase
can be accounted for only as a clumsy adaptation of a Zurvanite text
that must have said, in effect, that Zurvān created Ormazd.
The Mazdean quaternity can hardly be explained except as an
adaptation of the Zurvanite one. The latter is attested in several texts
citing, besides Zurvān, three other names given as those of separate
gods but that must be hypostases (essences) of the first one, also
called in Manichaeism the god with four faces. Among the various forms
under which the Zurvanite quaternity manifested itself, the one
associating Zurvān with Light, Power, and Wisdom seems to be the origin
of the Mazdean quaternity. Ormazd, in the Bundahishn, has three other
names, namely Time, Space, and Religion. To obtain this quaternity, it
was sufficient to replace Zurvān by Time, Light by Space, Wisdom by
Religion, and Power by Ormazd and to put the latter at the end of the
The Mazdean quaternity is reflected in the calendar at Nisa in 90 bc.
The Zurvanite speculation that preceded it probably dates back to the
first centuries of the Arsacid period and thus was born in the wake of
Hellenism and in connection with the spread of astrology.
Beliefs and mythology » Cosmology
In order to vanquish Ahriman, Ormazd created the world as a battlefield.
He knew that this fight would be limited in time—it would last 9,000
years—and he offered Ahriman a pact to that effect. After they had
created their respective material creations, Ahriman’s first attack was
defeated by Ormazd with the help of the Ahuna Vairya prayer (the most
sacred Zoroastrian prayer), and he lay prostrate for another period of
3,000 years, the second in a total of four. He was then stirred up by
the prostitute (Primal Woman) and went back to the attack, this time in
the material universe. He killed the Primal Bull, whose marrow gave
birth to the plants and whose semen was collected and purified in the
moon, whence it would produce the useful animals. Ahriman then killed
Gayōmart, the Primal Man, whose body produced the metals and whose semen
was preserved and purified in the sun. A part of it would produce the
rhubarb from which the first human couple would be born.
The first human couple were perverted by Ahriman, and it is only with
the advent of Zoroaster, after 3,000 years, that Ahriman’s supremacy
came to an end. Ormazd and Ahriman then fight on equal terms until
Ormazd, at the end of the last 3,000 years, finally will triumph.
Beliefs and mythology » Concepts of man
The idea of man as a microcosm, already illustrated in the cosmogony, is
further developed in the Bundahishn .
As a result of the aggressor’s attack, man is mortal. But he does not
die altogether. There are five immortal parts in him: ahu (“life”),
daēnā (“religion”), baodah (“knowledge”), urvan (“soul”), and fravashi
(“preexistent souls”). The latter term seems literally to mean
“preeminent hero.” The conception that caused this term to be applied to
the “manes” (spirits) or pitarah of Iran is that of a defensive,
protective power that continues to emanate from a chief even after
death. This originally aristocratic notion seems to have been vulgarized
in the same way as, in Greece, any dead person came to be considered a
hero, or, in Egypt, an Osiris. Zoroaster ignored the fravashi, but he
was familiar with the daēnā. The latter term meant “religion” in both
its objective and subjective senses.
Indian and Iranian beliefs in the afterlife have many features in
common, probably dating back to the Indo-Iranian period: a feminine
encounter, a bridge with dogs watching it, a heavenly journey. In the
ancient Indian texts, the Upaniṣads, the soul is welcomed in heaven by
500 apsaras (cloud maidens). In Iran the soul meets his own religion
(daēnā) in the form of a beautiful damsel if he has lived justly;
otherwise, he meets a hideous hag.
Either before this encounter or after, according to the various
texts, the soul must cross a bridge. This, with the young girl and the
gods, is attested in India in the Yajurveda and the Upaniṣads. In the
Gāthās it is called the Bridge of the Requiter. It leads the good souls
to paradise, but the bad ones fall into hell.
The soul has also to undergo a judgment; it appears before Mithra and
his two companions, Sraosha and Rashnu. Finally it ascends through
successive stages representing respectively his good thoughts (the
stars), good words (the moon), and good deeds (the sun) to the paradise
(of infinite lights). In the Veda it is said only that the sojourn of
the good deed is beyond the path of the sun. In paradise the soul is led
by Vohu Manah, the Good Mind, to the golden throneof Ormazd.
Hell also has, symmetrically, four levels. And there is, for the
souls whose good actions exactly balance their evil ones, an
Beliefs and mythology » Eschatology
Zoroaster used to invoke saviours who, like the dawns of new days, would
come to the world. He hoped himself to be one of them. After his death,
the belief in coming saviours developed. Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) was
expected to return, if not personally, at least in the form of his three
sons who would be born, at intervals of a thousand years, from his
semen. The last of these saviours, Astvat-ereta, or justice incarnate,
was also simply called the Saviour (Saoshyans).
Only in the Pahlavi books is this theme systematically developed. It
is dominated by the idea of a final return to the initial state of
things. The first human couple had at first fed on water, then on
plants, on milk, and at last on meat. The people in the last millennia
will, at the advent of the three successive saviours, abstain in the
reverse order from meat, milk, and plants to keep finally only water.
The primeval combatants also have their counterparts at the end of time.
The dragon that was killed in order to liberate the imprisoned waters
will appear again at the resurrection to be killed by another hero. In
the last great struggle, the host of good and the host of evil will vie
with each other, and each soldier of Ormazd will defeat and kill his own
special adversary. This will restore the state of peace that had
prevailed initially. The wicked will then submit to an ordeal of molten
metal and fire. Fire and Airyaman will cause the metals of the mountains
to melt and to flow down as a river of fire. The whole of resuscitated
mankind must traverse it; it will burn only the wicked, whereas to the
just it will be as sweet as warm milk. The suffering of the wicked will
last only three days, however, after which all mankind will enjoy much
happiness. On the flattened earth (for the metal will fill in all the
valleys), men and women, henceforth shadowless since they are sinless,
will taste the bliss of family life. Hell will be sealed forever, and
Ahriman will be either powerless or annihilated.
Practices and institutions » Cultic places
Although Herodotus wrote that the Persians had no temples, some have
been found, in the shape of terraces or towers or square rooms.
Chahārtāq s (sacred buildings with four gates or doors) are scattered
over most of Iran. Permanent altars exist from the Sāsānian period and
are depicted on coins with a burning fire.
The Farnbag, Gushnasp, and Burzen-Mihr fires were connected,
respectively, with the priests, the warriors, and the farmers. The
Farnbag fire was at first in Khwārezm, until in the 6th century bc,
according to tradition, Vishtāspa, Zoroaster’s protector, transported it
to Kabulistan; then Khosrow in the 6th century ad transported it to the
ancient sanctuary of Kariyan in Fars. The latter, however, has not yet
been identified. The Gushnasp fire, located at Shiz, was the ancient
fire of the Magi (in Media), but it came to be the symbol of the
monarchic and religious unity. The Burzen-Mihr fire never ranked as high
as the other two because the peasants, unlike the kings and the clergy,
never possessed any sovereignty. Besides these individual designations,
the fires were classified according to two categories: the Adurān,
village fires; and the Varhrān, provincial and royal fires.
Practices and institutions » Priesthood
The Magians, though not originally Zoroastrian, apparently became
acquainted with the prophet’s teachings not later than the 4th century
bc. They had the monopoly on religion at the Achaemenian court. The term
magus was still used in the Arsacid period. Thereafter, under the
Sāsānians, a hierarchy developed, with the creation of the magupat, or
chief of magi, and of its superlative magupatān magupat (coined on the
model of shāhanshāh, “king of kings”). The ehrpat, originally a
religious teacher, was especially entrusted with the care of the fire.
The modern equivalent of the word, herbad or ervad, designates a priest
of the lower degree, who in the more important ceremonies only acts as
the assistant priest. Above him is the mobed. Ranked above all of these
functionaries is the dastūr, a kind of bishop, who directs and
administers one or more important temples. Priesthood is hereditary, but
all priests have to go through one or more ceremonies of investiture
over and above those practiced by all the faithful.
Practices and institutions » Ceremonies
All young Parsis must be initiated when they reach the age of seven (in
India) or 10 (in Persia). They receive the shirt (sadre) and the girdle
(kusti), which they are to wear their whole life.
There are three types of purification, in order of increasing
importance: the padyab, or ablution; the nahn, or bath; and the
bareshnum, a complicated ritual performed at special places with the
participation of a dog—whose left ear is touched by the candidate and
whose gaze puts the evil spirits to flight—and lasting several days.
Penance entails reciting the patet, the firm resolve not to sin
again, and the confession of sins to a dastūr or to an ordinary priest
if a dastūr is not obtainable.
The chief ceremony, the Yasna, essentially a sacrifice of haoma (the
sacred liquor), is celebrated before the sacred fire with recitation of
large parts of the Avesta. There also are offerings of bread and milk
and, formerly, of meat or animal fat.
The sacred fire must be kept burning continually and has to be fed at
least five times a day. Prayers also are recited five times a day. The
founding of a new fire involves a very elaborate ceremony. There are
also rites for purification and for regeneration of a fire.
Practices and institutions » Burial rites
After death, a dog is brought before the corpse; it should preferably be
a “four-eyed” dog (i.e., it should have a spot above each eye, as this
is said to increase the efficacy of its look). The rite is repeated five
times a day. After the first one, fire is brought into the room where it
is kept burning until three days after the removal of the corpse to the
Tower of Silence. The removal must be done during the daytime.
The interior of the Tower of Silence is built in three concentric
circles, one each for men, women, and children. The corpses are exposed
there naked. The vultures do not take long—an hour or two at the most—to
strip the flesh off the bones, and these, dried by the sun, are later
swept into the central well. Formerly the bones were kept in an ossuary,
the astodān, to preserve them from rain and animals. The morning of the
fourth day is marked by the most solemn observance in the death ritual,
for it is then that the departed soul reaches the next world and appears
before the deities who are to pass judgment over it.
Practices and institutions » Festivals
Festivals, in which worship is an essential part, are characteristic
aspects of Zoroastrianism, a faith that enjoins on man the pleasant duty
of being happy. The principal festivals in the Parsi year are the six
seasonal festivals, Gahānbārs, and the days in memory of the dead at
year’s end. Also, each day of the month and each of the 12 months of the
year is dedicated to a deity. The day named after the month is the great
feast day of that particular deity.
The New Year festival, Nōrūz, is the most joyous and beautiful of
Zoroastrian feasts, a spring festival in honour of Rapithwin, the
personification of noonday and summer. The festival to Mithra, or
Mehragān, was traditionally an autumn one, as honoured as the spring
feast of Nōrūz.
Practices and institutions » Ethics
The precepts of Mazdean ethics focus upon the maintenance of life and
the fight against evil. In order to maintain life one must earn one’s
living by means of cattle raising and agriculture, and one must
procreate. To fight against evil is to combat the demons and whatever
beings, men or animals, belong to them. The two points of view seem to
coincide, considering that the forces of evil are the forces of death:
good is opposed to evil as light is to darkness, as life is to nonlife.
The life precepts can be transposed into fight precepts; for instance,
eating and drinking are interpreted by Zātspram as a struggle against
the she-demon Āz, “Concupiscence.” The two points of view, however, are
also contradictory: how can man fight the forces of evil without
suppressing certain lives, such as baleful animals? The second viewpoint
prevails: Iran ignores, even in theory, the universal respect of life
that is preached by Buddhism or that justifies the vegetarian diet of
Social reasons (e.g., the desire to maintain family privileges)
apparently explain the development of consanguineous marriage, an acute
form of endogamy.
Future life should be determined by the balance of the good and evil
deeds, words, and thoughts of the whole life. This principle, however,
is tempered to allow for human weakness. All faults do not have to be
registered or weighed forever on the scales. There are two means of
effacing them: confession and the transfer of supererogatory merits (the
equivalent of the Roman Catholic “Treasury of Merits” of Christ and the
saints). The latter is the justification for the prayers and ceremonies
for the departed.
There is no Zoroastrian art. Be it in the Achaemenid, Arsacid, or
Sāsānian period, Iranian art was predominantly royal. Only one god is
represented during the first period: Auramazda, as a winged disk
hovering above the king. It is known, however, that Artaxerxes II
introduced statues of Anahita into her temples, after the Greek fashion.
In the Arsacid period, Greek models also served for the representations
of Iranian gods ordered by the kings on reliefs or coins. In the
Sāsānian period, deities were represented only in the giving of the
royal investiture, as is the case with Ormazd and Anahita at Naqsh-e
Rostam, or Ormazd and Mithra at Taq-e Bostan. The frequency of the
bullman in Achaemenid and Sāsānid iconography may be due to the
obviously royal character of this personage: on seals he wears a crown,
and the Pahlavi text calls him Gopatshāh, “King of Gopat.”
Relation to other religions
The debt of Israel to its Eastern neighbours in religious matters is
easy to demonstrate on a few precise points of minor importance but less
so in other more important points, such as dualism, angelology, and
Isaiah 40–48 offers striking parallels with the Gāthā 44:3–5, as has
been shown by Morton Smith. Besides the common procedure of rhetorical
questions, there is the notion of a god who has created the world and,
notably, light and darkness. The very idea of a creator god may be
common to all of the western part of the Semitic world. But the notion
that God created light and darkness appears in both prophets. It is true
that Zoroaster associates light and darkness only to waking and sleep
and that no Iranian text says that God created good and evil.
Nevertheless, the juxtaposition, in Isaiah, of light–darkness with
good–evil sounds remarkably Iranian.
After the exile, the traditional hope in a messiah-king of the House
of David who would reestablish Israel as an independent nation and make
it triumph over all enemies gave way gradually to a concept at once more
universal and more moral. The salvation of Israel was still essential,
but it had to come about in the framework of a general renewal; the
appearance of a saviour would mean the end of this world and the birth
of a new creation; his judgment of Israel would become a general
judgment, dividing mankind into good and evil. This new concept, at once
universal and ethical, recalls Iran so strongly that many scholars
attribute it to the influence of that country. John R. Hinnells has seen
this influence especially in the saviour’s defeat of the demons, his
gathering of men for the judgment scene, his raising of the dead, and
his administration of the judgment. The occasion of this influence,
according to Hinnells, may be found in the contacts between the Jews and
the Parthians that were initiated in the 2nd century bc but that reached
a climax in the middle of the 1st century bc.
Although Pythagoras cannot have been a pupil of Zoroaster, there are
striking similarities of doctrine between Iran and Greece. Anaximander’s
world picture corresponds to that of the Avesta. Heracleitus seems to
have been impressed, in Ephesus, by the practices of the Magi, if not by
their theory on the fiery nature of the soul. This would account for the
emergence, in 5th-century Greece, of the belief in the heavenly fate of
The search for an Iranian background to Gnosticism must be placed in
a new perspective if the recent view that Gnosticism is really a
Christian heresy is accepted.
Zoroastrianism is not the purely ethical religion it may at first seem.
In practice, despite the doctrine of free choice, a Zoroastrian is so
constantly involved in a meticulous struggle against the contamination
of death and the thousand causes of defilement, and against the threat,
even in his sleep, of ever-present demons, that he does not often
believe that he is leading his life freely and morally.
Apart from this attitude, the belief in the power of destiny
sometimes culminates in fatalism. The latter is easily associated with
Zurvanism, itself sometimes tainted with materialism. In the Mēnōk-i
Khrat, it is stated that “though one be armed with the valour and
strength of wisdom and knowledge, yet it is not possible to strive
against fate.” On the whole, however, as R.C. Zaehner notes, “the
theological premises” of Zoroastrianism “are based on an essentially
moralistic view of life.”