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6.6: Zoroastrianism

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    72216
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    Learning Objective

    • Explain Zoroastrianism and its impact on Persian culture

    Key Points

    • Zoroastrianism is ascribed to the teachings of Zoroaster, an Iranian prophet, who worshiped Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), as its Supreme Being.
    • Leading characteristics, such as messianism, heaven and hell, and free will are said to have influenced other religious systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam.
    • Zoroastrianism served as the state religion of the pre-Islamic Iranian empires from c. 600 BCE to 650 CE, but saw a steep decline after the Muslim conquest of Persia.
    • The religion states that active participation in life through good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay.

    Terms

    eschatological

    A part of theology concerned with the final events of history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity, often referred to as the “end times.”

    Sassanids

    The last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam.

    Gnosticism

    A modern term categorizing a collection of ancient religions whose adherents shunned the material world— which they viewed as created by the demiurge—and embraced the spiritual world.

    messianism

    The belief in a messiah, who acts as a savior, redeemer or liberator of a group of people.

    Overview and Theology

    Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It ascribed to the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), and exalted their deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), as its Supreme Being. Leading characteristics, such as messianism, heaven and hell, and free will are said to have influenced other religious systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam. With possible roots dating back to the second millennium BCE, Zoroastrianism enters recorded history in the 5th-century BCE. It served as the state religion of the pre-Islamic Iranian empires from around 600 BCE to 650 CE. Zoroastrianism was suppressed from the 7th century onwards, following the Muslim conquest of Persia. Recent estimates place the current number of Zoroastrians at around 2.6 million, with most living in India and Iran.

    The most important texts of the religion are those of the Avesta, which includes the writings of Zoroaster, known as the Gathas and the Yasna. The Gathas are enigmatic poems that define the religion’s precepts, while the Yasna is the scripture. The full name by which Zoroaster addressed the deity is: Ahura, The Lord Creator, and Mazda, Supremely Wise. He proclaimed that there is only one God, the singularly creative and sustaining force of the Universe. He also stated that human beings are given a right of choice, and because of cause and effect are also responsible for the consequences of their choices. The contesting force to Ahura Mazda was called Angra Mainyu, or angry spirit. Post-Zoroastrian scripture introduced the concept of Ahriman, the Devil, which was effectively a personification of Angra Mainyu.

    In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, azar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principle act of worship constitutes a “strengthening of the waters.” Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.

    The religion states that active participation in life through good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism. Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over the evil Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. In the final renovation, all of creation—even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to “darkness”—will be reunited in Ahura Mazda, returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time, a savior-figure (a Saoshyant) will bring about a final renovation of the world (frashokereti), in which the dead will be revived.

    image
    Zoroastrian Priest. Painted clay and alabaster head of a Zoroastrian priest wearing a distinctive Bactrian-style headdress, Takhti-Sangin, Tajikistan, Greco-Bactrian kingdom, 3rd-2nd century BCE.

    History

    The roots of Zoroastrianism are thought to have emerged from a common prehistoric Indo-Iranian religious system dating back to the early 2nd millennium BCE. The prophet Zoroaster himself, though traditionally dated to the 6th century BCE, is thought by many modern historians to have been a reformer of the polytheistic Iranian religion who lived in the 10th century BCE. Zoroastrianism as a religion was not firmly established until several centuries later. Zoroastrianism enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BCE. Herodotus’ The Histories (completed c. 440 BCE) includes a description of Greater Iranian society with what may be recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead.

    The Histories is a primary source of information on the early period of the Achaemenid era (648-330 BCE), in particular with respect to the role of the Magi. According to Herodotus i.101, the Magi were the sixth tribe of the Medians (until the unification of the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great, all Iranians were referred to as “Mede” or “Mada” by the peoples of the Ancient World). The Magi appear to have been the priestly caste of the Mesopotamian-influenced branch of Zoroastrianism today known as Zurvanism, and they wielded considerable influence at the courts of the Median emperors.

    Darius I, and later Achaemenid emperors, acknowledged their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions (as attested to several times in the Behistun inscription), and appear to have continued the model of coexistence with other religions. Whether Darius was a follower of Zoroaster has not been conclusively established, since devotion to Ahura Mazda was (at the time) not necessarily an indication of an adherence to Zoroaster’s teaching. A number of the Zoroastrian texts that today are part of the greater compendium of the Avesta have been attributed to that period.

    The religion would be professed many centuries following the demise of the Achaemenids in mainland Persia and the core regions of the former Achaemenid Empire—most notably Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Caucasus. In the Cappadocian kingdom (whose territory was formerly an Achaemenid possession), Persian colonists who were cut off from their co-religionists in Iran proper continued to practice the Zoroastrianism of their forefathers. There, Strabo, observing in the first century BCE, records that these “fire kindlers” possessed many “holy places of the Persian Gods,” as well as fire temples. Strabo furthermore relates, that they were “noteworthy enclosures; and in their midst there is an altar, on which there is a large quantity of ashes and where the magi keep the fire ever burning.” Throughout, and after, the Hellenistic periods in the aforementioned regions, the religion would be strongly revived.

    As late as the Parthian period, a form of Zoroastrianism was without a doubt the dominant religion in the Armenian lands. The Sassanids aggressively promoted the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism, often building fire temples in captured territories to promote the religion. During the period of their centuries long suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sassanids made attempts to promote Zoroastrianism there with considerable successes. It was also prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus (especially modern-day Azerbaijan).

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