“Good thoughts, good words, good deeds” - the overriding tenet of the Zoroastrian faith.
Zoroaster in Greece, Zarathustra in Persia and Zarthosht in India, he was at any rate a religious reformer of ancient central and western Asia and is believed in some circles to have been the world’s first prophet. Thought to have lived in the north-east of the region around the sixth or fifth centuries BC, there is ongoing speculation which could pin his date of birth closer to 1200 BC, with the style of his writing used as evidence (some sources even claim his birth to have been in the 6000s BC). The third of five sons to a petty nobleman named Purushasa and his wife Dughdova, he became a priest during the early part of his life and was reputed for exhibiting great compassion.
Zoroaster was a figure who found himself cloaked in myth by the tribes he converted, each of which created its own mythology and claimed his descent from them: it was said that his birth had been foretold at the beginning of time, that he burst out laughing the moment he was born and the universe rejoiced with him, in addition to numerous miracles and feats. Zoroaster’s claim to enlightenment runs thusly: Drujs (demons) attempted to slay him when he was a child, but he was protected by Ahura Mazda/Ormazd, the principle of cosmic good. The Amesha Spentas (‘Holy’ or ‘Bounteous’ Immortals, depending upon translation) gifted him with numerous insights at the age of thirty. So armed, he was able to defeat the temptations offered by Angra Mainyu/Ahriman, the principle of cosmic evil. It is known that he faced some troubled in sowing his message amongst the myriad rulers of the region, although his opinion prevailed at a debate with priests of Mithras and he won the ears of many rulers. He was eventually murdered during prayer at the age of 77, probably in Bactria (modern Afghanistan).
Zoroaster had denounced the hitherto-prevalent worship of ancient gods (who were largely concerned with fertility and other matters of survival), preaching unity of purpose and conversion to a new religion based on adherence to concepts of good and evil. His faith could be described as monotheistic (as Zurvan Akarana - ‘Infinite Time’ - was the transcendent entity said to have given rise to the manifestations of both evil and good), although the emphasis on dualism slowly asserted itself. One Zoroastrian tradition states that Zurvan Akarana promised authority to his firstborn, leading Angra Mainyu to tear his way from the womb and sow an era of chaos which lasted several thousand years. Zoroastrianism dictated that there would be three eras the world would experience: creation (sometimes divided into two separate eras), dualism (the period of upheaval, the current era) and the final triumph of good (whereby Angra Mainyu would be defeated and even those consigned to hell would be released). The first thousand years of the latter era will supposedly see the forces of evil assault the world with renewed vigour. This myth can be interpreted as an explanation of history as being the battleground of divine forces. Interestingly, it was said after Zoroaster’s death that a Saoshyant (Saviour) would be born of a virgin of Zoroaster’s line, in order to dispense final judgement.
One moral issue with the dual nature of Zoroastrian worship was the question of Ahura Mazda’s omnipotence; if this was so, so the reasoning went, then he must have created (and therefore endorsed) evil. The retention of an inexplicable being like Zurvan Akarana (who was reputed to have created Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu in order to create universal conflict) circumvented this problem by placing the question beyond the reach of mortal thought or explanation. Zurvan Akarana himself is believed to have been one of the ancient deities whose ilk was shunned by the reformist religion and who paradoxically became known as a primal principle, beyond morality.
The Avesta (containing the Gathas - as much as one quarter of Zoroaster’s work, preserved in five hymns) is the Zoroastrian holy book. The addition (several centuries later, during Sassanian times) of the remaining parts (which deal with ritual and practice, where the former simply endorse veneration of God and stress individual moral choice), has split the faith into factions which dispute the question of whether these later additions were based on the same inspiration. The segments were added during a period of internal crisis - the decline of Zoroastrian faith and the waning of Sassanian Persia seemed to many an indication that either God had deserted them or that the religion’s teachings were false.
Ancient texts are usually vague about rituals, so most evidence comes from the assumption of modern Zoroastrianism’s adherence to ancient customs and from the Indian writer, Parsis. Prayer was strongly emphasised, but for different reasons than the communicative purposes of many other faiths - instead, the words themselves were believed to have power when spoken by a holy man, whereas printed words are themselves mute, or dead. The words are believed to passively evoke the presence of the forces they refer to, rather than specifically sending requests or summons. Sacrifice conducted with utter devotion was considered one of the holiest acts an individual could perform as it was seen to strengthen Ahura Mazda and proportionally weaken Angra Mainyu; this tradition was derived from long-standing Indian practices. Initiation into the faith took place at puberty and involved bathing, the drinking of gomez (cow’s urine, thought to be a purifying substance), the donning of sacred garments and priestly blessings. Symbolism was a factor in Zoroastrian rituals. All ceremonies took place before a fire (personified as the god Atar), which was a symbol of God (through links to purification) rather than an object of veneration in itself.
Zoroastrianism was the state religion of various Persian empires (and in various forms) until the 7th century CE/AD, with brief interruptions during Greek and Roman conquests of Achaemenid and Parthian territories, respectively. During the former, Alexander the Great burned Persepolis after a drunken revel in order to broadcast his successes, although some records (in Persian, Babylonian and Elamite) inscribed upon ruins survive. In modern times, Zoroastrianism is a small religion with 140,000 members (incepted into the faith via heredity, a practice now widely disputed). Its importance, though, far outweighs its current level of authority as it is credited with setting traditions which future religions birthed in the region (most notably Christianity, Islam and Judaism) followed, such as the emphasis on dualistic concepts of good and evil, the tradition of prophecy, the concept of miracles and the judgement of the soul. Muslim aggression towards Persia in 650 AD saw the widespread migration of Zoroastrians to India, where most now reside.
, John Hinnells
The World of Ancient Times
, Carl Roebuck
Archaeology: the Definitive Guide, various authors
The Encyclopaedia of Eastern Mythology, Rachel Storm