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Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism is known as one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions. It was once the official religion of Sassanid Persia and played an important role in Achaemenid times.

The prophet Zarathushtra, commonly known in the West as Zoroaster, the Greek version of his name, came to reform ancient Aryan / Indo-Iranian religious practices (some of which were parallel to the Vedic religion of ancient northern India). According to internal and external histories, Zoroaster lived in Iran / Persia no earlier than 1700 BCE and no later than 600 BCE (although Plato believed that Zoroaster lived some 6000 years previous to himself). The modern Persian form of the prophet's name is Zartosht (زرتشت).

Although Zoroastrianism has a dualistic undertone, with a series of seven entities (similar in function and status to angels) that are good and constructive and another seven that are evil and destructive, the faith is strictly monotheistic.

Zoroastrianism is called Mazdayasna "Worship of Wisdom" by its followers after the ancient name for God, Ahura Mazda, "The ahura (divinity) Wisdom". A modern Persian form is Behdin "Good Religion/Law" (see below for the role of daena Law). Zoroastrians may call themselves Zartoshti "Zoroastrians", Mazdayasni "Wisdom-Worshippers" and Behdini "Followers of the Good Religion".

Table of contents

Principal Beliefs

Ahura Mazda is the beginning and the end, the creator of everything which can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth. Zoroastrian morality is summed up in the simple phrase, "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds". Daena (modern Farsi din) is the eternal Law, whose order was revealed to humanity through the Mathra-Spenta "Holy Words". Daena has been used to mean religion, faith, law, even as a translation for the Buddhist term Dharma: it is the correct order of the universe, which humanity naturally must follow through the Kusti "Holy Path" in order to be a Behdini "Follower of the Proper/Good Religion".

Central to Zoroastrianism is the emphasis on moral choice, and of life as a battle-ground between moral and immoral forces, represented by Ahura Mazda and his antithesis, the Satanic Angra Mainyu. This opposition may have emerged from the Indo-Iranian distinction between two forms of spiritual beings, ahuras and daevas. In Zoroastrianism, daevas are portrayed as demonic and destructive while ahuras help to uphold the moral law.

Additionally, there are some 20 abstract terms that are regarded as emanations or aspects of Ahura Mazda. In later Avestan literature, they are personified as an archangel retinue of The Wise Lord. Some historians believe that these archangels were reabsorbtions of pre-Zoroastrian deities, daevas. There are seven that are mentioned more often than the rest. These are: Vohu Mano (Good Mind), Asha (Truth), Khshatra (Good Dominion), Armaiti (Piety), Haurvatat (Perfection), and Ameretat (Immortality).

Religious tolerance was evident throughout the Zoroastrian period of Persian History; Zoroastrian rulers allowed all religions and peoples to coexist.

Specific Zoroastrian Concepts

Zoroastrianism teaches many of the concepts found in the major Abrahamic faiths, such as Heaven, Hell, Day of judgement, the concept of Satan, the prophecy and the coming of the Messiah and the extensive teaching of Angels and Evil spirits. According to the Gathas humans are free and responsible beings. Predestination is rejected in Zoroastrian teaching. Humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in and in the way they act to one another. Nothing in the Heavens and Earth has the power to force a being to do evil. Reward, punishment, happiness and grief all depend on how the individual lives his life. Good befalls the people that do righteous deeds. Those that do Evil have themselves to blame for their evil-doing. Humans possess a great power. They can improve their way of living and the living conditions of others. This power is called Charitas. After death, the person must walk through the Path to Judgement or Chinvat Peretum to bear responsibility for his actions when he was alive.

The Prophet Zoroaster acknowledged devotion to no other god besides Ahura Mazda. The concept of Dualism plays a role when speaking of the Spenta Mainyu ("Holy Spirit") and the Angra Mainyu ("Evil Spirit"). These two have an eternal battle at the end of which the Holy Spirit will prevail by the power of Ahura Mazda. Metaphysical dualism is rejected in modern orthodox traditions and beliefs when it comes to worship. The belief that Good prevails over Evil and God's supremacy over all is similar to that of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in which Satan is in no way the equal of the Abrahamic God and is a creation of God.

Mardanfarrokh, a Zoroastrian theologian in the 9th century CE, posited, "If God is perfect in goodness and wisdom, then ignorance and evil cannot come from Him. If they could come from Him, He would not be perfect; and if He were not perfect, He should not be praised as God and perfectly good..." (117-123 from For students and novices Complete Pazand and Sanskrit texts published by H.J. Jamasp-Asana and E.W. West; pioneer English translation by E.W. West, SBE. XXIV; transcribed Pazand text with French translation by P.J. de Menasce. From Textual sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism by Mary Boyce. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1984.)

The Prophet

Since the Prophet Zoroaster is a prehistoric figure, relatively little is known about him. Taking a moderate estimate of his lifetime, of before or around 1000 BCE, he lived in a period of warfare when there was a great need for a more intellectual and less ritual-based religious culture. Following him in this would be Jeremiah, Pythagoras in Greece, Buddha and Mahavira in India, Lao Tze and Confucius in China. The prophet lived among semi-nomads who survived off livestock and relied on animal husbandry. They actively travelled in Persia (Iran) and in places we know today as Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

According to tradition, Zoroaster was the son of Pourushaspa' and Dugdhova. Since birth he was seen as special. Pliny the Elder relates that the prophet was born smiling. His head shook uncontrollably to the point where he would slip out of the hands of his parents, a sign of future wisdom. Before he was six years old he was appointed a wise teacher who would take care of him; little is known about the relation between teacher and student. Many attempts were supposed to have been made to kill the child by enemies who recognised his significance.

According to these narrations, when Zoroaster became seven years old, he was the target of an assassination plot in which men tried to poison him with black magic. As Zoroaster turned fifteen, he gained understanding and determination, and it was then when he chose the Kusti, meaning he voluntarily submitted himself to religion. When Zoroaster turned twenty years of age he left his guardians house and, according to Chrysostomus, spent seven years on a mountain in a cave. During these seven years Zoroaster devoted himself to meditation and religious understanding.

Zoroaster's meditations

It was at this time he struggled with the problems concerning the relations of man and cosmos and came to the conclusion that the following Gathas state:

This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura - whether at the beginning of the Best Existence the recompenses shall bring blessedness to him that meets with them. Surely he, O Right, the holy one, who watches in his spirit the transgression of all, if himself the benefactor of all that lives, O Mazda. (44.2)
This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura. Who upholds the earth beneath and the firmament from falling? Who the waters and the plants? Who yoked swiftness to winds and clouds? Who is, O Mazda, creator of Good Thought? (44.4)
This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura. What artist made light and darkness? What artist made sleep and waking? Who made morning, noon, and night, that call the understanding man to his duty? (44.5)

Zoroaster's preaching

After his seven year meditation and devotion to worship he was enlightened with spiritual knowledge and felt the time was ripe to teach the masses about the righteousness and guidance of Ahura Mazda, at this point the teaching of Zoroaster as a Prophet began. We see Zoroaster in a society which is corrupt and repressive and where the pre-Zoroastrian priests rule with an iron fist through theocracy. The people craved for change:

Which savior will free us from the old (conservative understanding of) scripture, Who with the wisdom, simplicity (of teaching), who with the enlightenment?

Zoroaster proceeded by preaching:

I will speak of that which (he), the Holiest declared to me as the word that is best for mortals to obey; while he said: "they who for my sake render him obedience, shall all attain unto Welfare and Immortality by the actions of the Good Spirit [Spenta Mainyu -JHP]" - (he) Mazda Ahura. (45.5)

Struggle to establish his ideas

It becomes clear that Zoroaster had accomplished the complete devotion to Ahura Mazda, His first attempt at reaching the masses was no success, those who heard him ridiculed him by saying: "How can this worthless being save us?". Eventually his family and servants distanced themselves from him, evil powers plotted to silence him, His open revelation brought many enemies who were eager to see his downfall. Nothing however stopped Zoroaster and his determination. The first and favorite convert to Zoroastrianism became his nephew. He was then imprisoned and mysteriously escaped. After escaping from prison he cured the horse of King Vishtaspa. It was then when the very same King that put him in prison converted to the faith along with his wife. After the conversion of the king many in the kingdom followed. Due to repression in the early stages the first group of converts were a defiant military group in order to defend themselves but Zoroastrianism spread at such an incredibly fast pace that soon this was no longer needed.

When the Vizier of the King converted, he gave his daughter Hvogvi to be the wife of Zoroaster and they were married. Jamaspa, brother of king Frashaoshtra, was a devout follower of Zoroaster. This wise advisor and cherisher of the kings riches, gave Zoroaster his daughter. Upon the demise of Zoroaster, Jamaspa was appointed successor. Later, it was Jamaspa who wrote the Gathas and encouraged conversions among Persians, including Hindus and Greeks.

Holy Book

The Holy Book of Zoroastrianism is called the Zend Avesta. The Zend is the commentary on the teaching and the Avesta is the original teaching in the Holy book. Only a portion of the Avesta, known as the Gathas The Hymns) are attributed to the Prophet Zoroaster himself. The Avesta was composed orally, and learned from memory for centuries until it was finally written down in Sasanian Times.

Before the invasion of Alexander and the Islamic conquest of Iran there were a total of 21 Books followed by Zoroastrians called Nasks. Only one of these Nasks remains complete, called the Vendidad. The traditional explanation for the loss of most of the Nasks is Alexanderian persecution the faith. This explanation is questioned by some historians. The 21 Nasks did not only contain religious literature but also included works on Medicine, Astronomy, Botany and Philosophy. In any case, complete copies of most writings from that time period are fairly rare.

Besides the Avesta, there are Yashts are smaller books for Prayer, often to a specific being. Other books included are the Afringan, Nyayish, Gah and Sirozah which partially contain some scriptures of the lost 14th and 21st Nasks (Lost books). Other teachings are the Yasna which means sacrifice and contains prayers for sacrificial rituals; the Visperad is a collection of doctrines that are used for exorcism and religious law. The Visperad also includes cosmological, historical and eschatological material.


Zoroastrianism was the favored religion of the two great dynasties of ancient Persia, the Achaemenids and Sassanids. However, because we have virtually no contemporary Persian written sources from these periods, it is difficult to describe the nature of ancient Zoroastrianism in much detail.

Herodotus's description of Persian religion includes some recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead and divination. The Achaemenid kings acknowledge their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions; however, they also participated in local religious rituals in Babylon and Egypt, and helped the Jews to return to Canaan, so apparently no attempt was made to enforce religious orthodoxy on their subjects. According to later traditions, many of the Zoroastrian sacred texts were lost when Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis and overthrew the Achaemenids in the 320s BCE. The status of Zoroastrianism under the Seleucids and Parthians is unclear; however, it is widely believed that the Three Wise Men said to have come from the Parthian empire bearing gifts for Jesus of Nazareth were Zoroastrian Magi. It was also during the Parthian period that Mithraism, a Zoroastrian-derived faith particularly focused on the Aryan god of the sun, Mithra, began to become popular within the Roman Empire. The Mithra cult reached the peak of its popularity in the second and third centuries AD, and was particularly popular in the Roman army.

When the Sassanid dynasty came into power in Iran in 228 CE, they aggressively promoted their Zoroastrian religion. Many historians believe that the Sassanids were primarily opposed to the Catholic (Orthodox) Christian church because of its ties to the Roman Empire, and thus during this time the Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and even sometimes favored by the Sassanids. During periods when the Sassanids captured provinces held by the Romans, they often built fire temples there. Also during the Sassanid era, the belief that Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were the two sons of the time-god Zurvan became popular.

A form of Zoroastrianism was apparently also the chief religion of pre-Christian Armenia, or at least was prominent there. During periods of Sassanid suzernity over Armenia, the Persians made attempts to promote the religion there as well.

By the 6th century, Zoroastrianism had spread to northern China via the Silk Road, gaining official status in a number of Chinese states. Zoroastrian temples still remained in Kaifeng and Zhenjiang as late as the 1130s, but by the 13th century the religion had faded from prominence in China.

In the 7th century, the Sassanid dynasty was conquered by Muslim Arabs. Zoroastrianism, which was once dominant in a region stretching from Anatolia to Persian Gulf and Central Asia, did not have a powerful foreign champion as Christianity did in the Byzantine Empire, and so steadily lost influence and adherents in Iran under Muslim rule.

In the 8th century, Iranian Zoroastrians had fled to India in large numbers, where they were offered refuge by Jadav Rana, a Hindu king of Sanjan (the modern-day province of Gujarat) on condition that they abstain from missionary activities and marry only in their community. Although these strictures are centuries old, Parsis of the 21st century still do not accept converts and are endogamous (though see below for further discussion). The Parsis of India speak a dialect of Gujarati.

Zoroastrians in Iran are still persecuted by that nation's theocratic rulers. Even today, however, one can find Zoroastrian communities living and practicing their faith there, such as in the province of Yazd.

The earliest English references ( to Zoroaster and the Zoroastrian religion occur in the writings of the encyclopaedist Sir Thomas Browne.

Historical importance

Zoroastrianism is uniquely important in the history of religion because of its formative links to both Western Abrahamic and Eastern Dharmic religious traditions.

Zoroaster's writings suggest a metaphysical dualism, but devotional monotheism, requiring adherence to Ahura Mazda. Most modern scholars believe that Zoroastrianism had a large influence on Judaism, Manichaeism, and Christianity because of Persia's connections to the oman Empir and because of its earlier control over Israel under rulers such as Cyrus II the Great, Darius the Great and Xerxes I. Mithraism also developed from Zoroastrianism.

The timing of Zoroaster's life is significant for understanding the development of Judeo-Christian beliefs. Should it be before 1300 BCE (prior to Akhenaten) then Zoroaster would be the earliest monotheist known in any religion. Even a later date could make Zoroaster a template for Biblical figures who introduce monotheism over henotheism. More specifically, Zoroastrianism has been proposed as the source of some of the most important post-Torah aspects of Judaic religious thinking, which emerged after the Babylonian captivity, from which Jews were liberated by Cyrus the Great. This is a view put forward by King and Moore, who wrote in The Gnostics and Their Remains (1887) that "it was from this very creed of Zoroaster that the Jews derived all the angelology of their religion... the belief in a future state; of rewards and punishments, ...the soul's immortality, and the Last Judgment - all of them essential parts of the Zoroastrian scheme." However, more recently R.C. Zaehner wrote that "we cannot say with any certainty whether the Jews borrowed from Zoroastrianism or the Zoroastrians from the Jews or whether either in fact borrowed from each other."

Because Zoroastrianism is thought to have emerged from a common Indo-Iranian culture that preceded Vedic Hinduism, scholars also use evidence from Zoroastrian texts to reconstruct the unreformed earlier stage of Indo-Iranian beliefs, and therefore to identify the culture that evolved into the Vedic religion. This has also informed attempts to characterise the original Proto-Indo-European religion (e.g. the god Dyeus who became Jupiter, Sabazios, Zeus, and Tyr).


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