Tenets and History

I. Introduction

Zoroastrianism, religion founded in ancient Persia by the prophet Zoroaster. The doctrines preached by Zoroaster are preserved in his metrical Gathas (psalms), which form part of the sacred scripture known as the Avesta.

II. Tenets

The basic tenets of the Gathas consist of a monotheistic worship of Ahura Mazda (the “Lord Wisdom”) and an ethical dualism opposing Truth (Asha) and Lie, which permeate the entire universe. All that is good derives from, and is supported by, Ahura Mazda’s emanations: Spenta Mainyu (the “Holy Spirit” or “Incremental Spirit,” a creative force) and his six assisting entities, Good Mind, Truth, Power, Devotion, Health, and Life. All evil is caused by the “twin” of Spenta Mainyu, who is Angra Mainyu (the “Fiendish Spirit”; Persian. Ahriman), and by his assistants. Angra Mainyu is evil by choice, having allied himself with Lie, whereas Spenta Mainyu has chosen Truth. So too, human beings must choose. Upon death each person’s soul will be judged at the Bridge of Discrimination; the follower of Truth will cross and be led to paradise, and the adherents of Lie will fall into hell. All evil will eventually be eliminated on earth in an ordeal of fire and molten metal.

III. The Gathas and the Seven Chapters

The structural complexity of the Gathic scheme has best been explained by the assumption that Zoroaster amalgamated two religious systems. The first is outlined in the Gathas and is most probably Zoroaster’s own; this is the monotheistic worship of Wisdom and his emanations (including Asha). The second, describing a cult worshiping a Lord (Ahura) who is custodian of Asha, is actually attested to in a portion of the Avesta, the Liturgy of the Seven Chapters, composed after Zoroaster’s death in his own dialect. Zoroaster’s teaching is praised and revered in the later section; its religious outlook, however, in part amalgamating earlier beliefs in Persia, is quite different from that of the Gathas. In the Seven Chapters, the emanations occur in the company of other sacred abstractions; Ahura has the epithet “possessing Asha,” but Lie and Angra Mainyu are not mentioned. Many natural objects and mythical creatures, as well as ancestor spirits, are worshiped, and the very figure of Ahura Mazda resembles not so much Zoroaster’s deity as the god Varuna (sometimes called the Asura, “Lord”) of the most ancient Indian religious compositions, the Rig-Veda. See Veda.

The ancestors of the Persians (that is, the Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European peoples) and the invaders of northern India were of the same stock, and it may be assumed that they worshiped a number of similar deities. The Ahura of the Seven Chapters has wives, called Ahuranis, who, like Varuna’s Varunanis, are rain clouds and waters. Ahura is possessor of Asha, as Varuna is custodian of Rta (“Truth” or “cosmic order” = Asha = Old Persian. Arta). The sun is the “eye” of both deities, and the name of Ahura is at times joined to that of the god Mithra. In the Veda, the names of Mithra and Varuna are similarly joined. The Seven Chapters also revere Haoma (Vedic, Soma), a divinized plant yielding an intoxicating juice (perhaps the “filth of intoxication” against which Zoroaster warned). The worship of ancestors and nature spirits and other deities (for example, the fire god, called Agni by the Hindus) likewise have Vedic correspondences. See also Hinduism.

IV. The Yasna and the Vendidad

The Gathas and the Seven Chapters form part of the larger liturgy called the Yasna, the remainder of which is composed in another, closely related, dialect. This material further illustrates the incorporation of the Aryan polytheistic paganism into Zoroastrianism, as do the linguistically similar Yashts, which are hymns to individual deities. Among these deities is Anahita, a fertility and river goddess probably borrowed (as was, perhaps, the custom of incestuous marriages) from the non-Aryan Elamites. The latest part of the Avesta, the Vendidad or Videvdat, was composed after the Greek conquest of Persia in the 4th century BC, and is mainly a codification of ritual and law, somewhat similar in tone to the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. It reflects those customs attributed by the Greek historian Herodotus to the Magi, a priestly caste of Median origin. These customs include exposure of corpses, protection of dogs, and the gleeful slaughter of crawling animals. The Avesta was composed in eastern Persia, as may be judged from its language and place-names.

V. Recognition and History

Probably the first Persian king to recognize the religion proposed by Zoroaster was Darius I. His inscriptions are full of the praises of Ahura Mazda; he stresses rationality and seems to regard Lie as a world force. His son, Xerxes I, was also a worshiper of Ahura Mazda, but he probably had less of an understanding of the details of Zoroaster’s religion. Most striking is his conception that Arta will be attained in the afterlife, which view reflects the old Aryan idea that Rta has a location beyond the earth. Artaxerxes I (reigned 465-425 BC) was also a Mazda worshiper, but probably approved of a synthesis, under Magian direction, of Zoroaster’s teachings with the older polytheism; this development is reflected in the syncretism of the Yashts. Artaxerxes II (reigned 409-358 BC) venerated Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Anahita; in his reign the first Persian temples were probably built. Under the rule of the Greek Seleucids (312-64BC) and Parthian Arsacids (250? BC-AD 224), cults of foreign gods flourished along with Zoroastrianism. The new Persian dynasty of the Sassanids (AD 224-651) established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Persia. In the Sassanid theology, Ahriman was opposed to Ohrmuzd (Ahura Mazda), not to Spenta Mainyu. This theology had already appeared in the Magian system of the 4th century BC, according to Greek historians. Certain Sassanid theologians taught that Ohrmuzd and Ahriman were the twin sons of Infinite Time (Zervan), but this doctrine was eventually rejected.

Persia was gradually converted to Islam after its conquest by the Arabs in the 7th century. Zoroastrianism survived, however, in small communities of Gabars (a derogatory term coined by the Arabs) in the mountainous regions of Yezd and Kerman. About 18,000 still live in Iran. Zoroastrians, called Parsis (literally, Persians), are numerous and prosperous in India, chiefly in the vicinity of Bombay (now Mumbai). They still recite the Avestan liturgy and tend the sacred fires, but today they prepare a nonintoxicant “haoma,” and few still follow the Magian doctrine of placing corpses on raised edifices (the so-called towers of silence) to be the prey of vultures.