This religion is so ancient and unique, and it deserves to be discussed. It’s generally considered to be the origin for hell, and many concepts of later Judaism & Christianity. This post is not directed at an audience. If you want to learn more you should do some internet searches on Ahura Mazda (the good God), and Angra Manyu (the destructive spirit.)
Here I will simply informally archive some of my basic research, and share my enthusiasm for learning about one of the first surviving religions.
But first take a look at this map
Then tell me (and keep a straight face)
that Judaism was not influenced by the religions of the Ancient Persian empire.
(Remember also that most of the books in the bible were composed after the occupation, and Babylon occupied Jerusalem before that!)
It’s interesting how the cult of Mithras spread throughout the Middle East from Persia.
Mithras is interesting because its either one of the arch-angels of Ahura Mazda (God), or his manifestation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the faith already influenced its neighbors apart from that deity though.
The Philosophical Origin of Good vs Evil (Duality)
Zoroastrianism sprung from an older religion that had a collection of polytheistic gods. It became nearly monotheistic when their prophet Zarathrusta told people to stop wasting time on the ritualistic ceremonies, and focus instead on doing the will of the benevolent spirit and opposing evil. He preached following truth (which was good), and opposing “lie” (since falsehood is evil.
Ahura Mazda = literally translates as “light + wisdom. Like a lightbulb going off in your head!
Angra Mainyu = literally translates as “evil mentality.”
His preaching may have began as more of a philosophy, but in time, people recast the older Gods as manifestations of this benevolent spirit (Ahura Mazda), or devas (demons) of the devil (angra mainyu).
>One of his reforms was to get rid of the ritualistic sacrifice of animals.
>He wanted to stop unnecessary violence towards other tribes.
>He also wanted people to stop intoxicating themselves with drugs that gave visions and prophecy.
>He originally believed in marrying outsiders to bring them into the faith.
Unfortunately, in the centuries after his death people gradually reverted to the older rituals they used to follow, as the religion continued to evolve.
An Ancient, half-remembered religion
I feel a sense of loss that so much of its history, legends and texts have been destroyed by violence. Fire veneration in under the open sky makes so natural to me. It is such a primitive thing, a seemingly supernatural force. Perhaps fire temples were originally practical places where members of a community light a fire that had burnt out.
Zoroastrianism comes from an even earlier polytheistic religion, making some of its traditions pretty mind blowingly old. It then went on to impact all of the local religions, including the big 3 and Hinduism. One of my professors claimed the Apocalypse/End of the World is an Aryan concept that gradually spread and became popular in the west, and also certain branches of Buddhism. Linguisticians do refer to European languages as coming from an Indo-European branch, and it would be something if all major religions could trace part of their roots to ancient India.
By the way, when I say Aryan I am talking about the ancient ethnic group. Because there are common words accross the Indo-European languages, it is thought many of the sky Gods (Zeus or Indra) also could have derived from a proto-deity.
In addition to my internet research, I’ve been doing some book reading. Zarathrusta was was a reformer of an older polytheistic religion who introduced the ideas of truth/good always being at war with “lie” (or evil.) His reforms included discouraging animal sacrifice (humans should treat cows responsibly), and discouraging the use of old rituals (focus your thoughts on worship of good instead), and discouraging intoxication by drugs. After his death people came to take up the old rituals anyway.
I have here an “Introduction to Zoroastrianism” by Jenny Rose, although I do not think I will be motivated to read through it, since to get the most of it would require time, note taking and a glossary. Even so, it’s nice to see that that the sophistication of this religion and its history of interpretations can easily match that of the Abrahamic religions. I’m pretty sure an understanding of this religion is necessary to truly understand the evolution of the Abrahamic religions or religions of India. It’s strong evidence of syncetism across all of those religions.
The fascinating bit is that Zoroastrianism vanished from world consciousness for nearly a thousand years until Europeans encountered the followers in the 17th century in India. It’s certainly a belief every Atheist should know something about when a christian tries tries to convert them with appeals to antiquity.
For more general information you can read:
World Religions: Zoroastrian
Here is a post by a convert in America who believes the 3 magi that followed a star and ventured to meet Jesus were Zoroastrians spreading the gospel. (Remember that the magi were a tribe in western Iran! Also remember that the Magi tribe was associated with astronomy!)
They have a wedding where they whirl an egg around a groom’s head three times and then throw it on the ground to destroy any evil directed at them. The bride and groom wrap their right hands in thread and a shroud wraps around them while they face east. This seals their unity, and they make a game of seeing who can throw rice on the other first when its over.
Zoroastrians must carry bodies on a metal table because wood could be polluted by the body. Their burial is unique. Originally they practiced sky-burial (putting the bodies on the tops of towers of silence for the vultures to come and dispose of them, so as to not dirty the Earth with an impure corpse. They would then treat the bones with lime, and wash them into the ocean after passing them through layers of charcoal. They believe in not polluting the Earth or the sea (or the air, but there is nothing they could do about that in the old days.) Compared to Christians, they sound like natural environmentalists.
Unfortunately, Muslims started stealing the corpses in Iran for dissection, and the vulture population declined by 99.9 percent in India, so they had to give up the practice, and now bury their bodies in pits lined with concrete and rocks so the impure bodies will not touch the Earth and desecrate it.)
The Zoroastrians have their own version of the lord’s prayer which they recite every time they put on a cord that they wrap around their waists to remind themselves of their responsibility to God. The prayer is basically to serve God, and oppose evil.
Zoroastrians also use many of the same symbols Christians use, including the sheep symbolism for protecting innocence/followers. They also have a complicated initialization ceremony that happens to include ablutation, in addition to looking East towards the rising sun. I see it as a cross between baptism by water, and a rite of confirmation, which must take place before the age of 15 (to make it harder for evil to lead one astray.)
Relationship to Greek Philosophy
Relationship to Greek conceptions of the afterlife
Myth of Er (Plato’s Republic)
Relationship to Buddhism
There are also hints it influenced Buddhism, which I might investigate further. In early Zoroastrianism the universe slid from evil to good, and back again in a cycle of renewal. Zoroaster was probably born before Buddha, and there are many similarities between these figures.
But to be honest I’m not that excited in Buddhism. Hinduism is much more interesting than anything that Buddhism has touched, including the religions of Japan.