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I recently read an interesting little book by British scholar Mary Boyce entitled Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices . The PDF is available online for free here . The book traces the remarkable history of the Zoroastrian religion and its living community over 3500 years: the reconstructed polytheistic religion of the Aryans (an ancient word connoting nobility and righteousness, which functionally and literally also means "Iranian"); the apparent spread of the Zoroastrian reforms/faith during unrecorded centuries; the Zoroastrian heyday of the Achaemenid empire; Alexander's conquest and subsequent Greek rule; the later Iranian dynasties; the Islamic conquest; reduction into remnant Parsi and Irani communities under centuries of Islamic rule; discovery by Western scholarship; the situation of the modern day Zoroastrian diaspora. It's a whirlwind tour of a lot of territory.

I would like to sketch out some of the tenets of Zoroastrianism for purposes of comparison with those of Christianity.

The sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, called the Avesta, were compiled over centuries in different stages of the Aryan/Iranian language. The oldest parts of the Avesta, which are composed in an ancient Aryan language aptly known as Avestan, are attributed to Zoroaster himself. The archaic nature of Avestan, along with other evidence, suggest an antiquity long preceding the earliest historical mentions (in 6th c BC Greek) of Zoroaster. The Avesta was orally transmitted by Zoroastrian priests for as long as two millennia, Alexander's invasion causing some hardships. It was finally written down shortly prior to the Islamic conquest of Iran. Unfortunately, much of the Avesta was lost during the trauma of Islam's conquest, but the core texts survived.

Zoroaster was an Aryan priest, prophet and religious reformer who received divine revelations at age 30, probably around 1500 BC. His theology singled out a particular deity named Ahura Mazda ("Lord Wisdom"), and identified that deity as the uniquely uncreated, venerable, omnibenevolent and omniscient -- but not quite omnipotent -- creator of the universe and sustainer of asha ("righteousness, order"). Opposed to Ahura Mazda and seemingly equal in power is an evil, ignorant, antagonistic being named Angra Mainyu ("Destructive Spirit"). Zoroaster retained a number of gods in the ancient Aryan pantheon as high amesha spentas ("holy immortals") and the lower yazatas ("venerable beings"), which can be regarded as angel-like beings. The rest of the pantheon was demoted to daevas, false gods unworthy of veneration which eventually came to be regarded as demon-like agents of Angra Mainyu.

Zoroastrian cosmology holds that, in both the spiritual world and the material world, there is something of an ongoing battle being waged between the forces of good and light and the forces of evil and darkness. Creation is essentially good, but it has been corrupted by the evil ones who brought forth into creation all forms of sin, suffering and death. Human beings are thought to be born with libertarian free will and can choose to join the battle either on the good side or on the bad side.

Thus, Zoroastrianism distinguishes itself from the older paganism by making moral consciousness a foundational part of life -- indeed, of the cosmos -- and by making human choices instrumental in the fate of the universe. In voluntarily joining with Ahura Mazda and resisting Angra Mainyu, humans provide genuine assistance to the cause of asha and materially help the forces of good to defeat the forces of evil. "Asha" refers both to the order of the physical universe and to moral righteousness, the good way things are supposed to be at all levels of the cosmos. Asha is advanced through corporate worship of, and private prayers to, Ahura Mazda, and by individuals practicing "good thoughts, good words and good deeds". Two moral practices especially expected of Zoroastrians in ordinary life is the telling of truth and the keeping of oaths. These noble values seem to be direct continuations of ancient Aryan culture in the central Asian steppe. The really notable distinction here, though, is this concept of "good thought". In order to advance asha, works are alone not enough, but proper thought (i.e. mentality, spirit) is also required. This contrasts starkly with the mindless legalism of primitive Judaism much in the same way Jesus' later teachings do.

Zoroastrian eschatology for the individual human entails a judgement day for the soul after physical death. One's good thoughts, words and deeds are placed in a scale and weighed against one's evil ones. Depending which way the scales tip, a soul enters the gates of paradise (a word that comes to English via Greek straight from the Avesta), or drops into the abyss of hell. In these places the souls will remain until the final battle between good and evil. At the time of this final battle, evil will seemingly have overrun the world, but a savior will be born to lead the good to triumph over evil. Angra Mainyu, the daevas, and the last vestiges of evil will be annihilated; evil humans will suffer a second (spiritual) death. The world will be restored to its original, uncorrupted state and the bodies of good humans will be resurrected and live in eternal perfect bliss with Ahura Mazda.


Good summary. I've seen the cosmic dualism of Zoroastrianism compared to Manichaeanism, but unlike that religion, evil is not identified with matter -- does that seem accurate?

The short answer is that Zoroastrianism very definitely does not equate evil with matter or good with spirit. It advocates active (good) living in the material world, goes so far as to denounce monasticism, and foretells of the literal bodily resurrection of good humans and a ultimate renewing of the physical world after the end times. This is in stark contrast with gnostic dualism and with that of its Manichaean offshoot.

However, there is in fact a historical connection between these dualisms. What I summarized above is close to what is usually presented as the original Zorostrian doctrine, and close to what Zoroaster himself probably taught. However, during the time of Achaemenids (the empire crushed by Alexander), there arose among professional Zoroastrian theologians a speculative, variant strain of thought called Zurvanism -- Mary Boyce calls this variant a "heresy" of Zoroastrianism. According to this variant, there is a god prior to both Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu named Zurvan -- the name literally means "time". Zurvan is the truly uncreated god, but unlike Ahura Mazda he is morally neutral, indifferent, and distant from human affairs. He begat the twins Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu who brought about creation in the way already described, one god introducing good and one introducing evil. As you might begin to see, this theology is a stepping stone towards gnostism. With a little adjusting, Zurvan starts looking similar to the gnostic One/monad/superior god, while the Ahura Mazda / Angra Mainyu combo starts looking like the Demiurge. The next step is to collapse Ahura Mazda into Zurvan and posit that Angra Mainyu is the sole Demiurge who created matter. This step is possibly one of the roots of gnosticism.

Ahura Mazda is still a good and venerable god in Zurvanism, but Boyce argues that Zurvan thing was a needless theological complication which harmed the original simplicity and elegance of Zoroastrianism and provided a breech in Zoroastrianism for Christian and later Muslim proselytizers to exploit, and therefore contributed to Zoroastrianism's ultimate decline.

Here are a few strange practices of the Zoroastrians: These are just a few things that stand out for me; this is not intended to be a balanced portrayal of the entire Zoroastrian way of life, which it certainly is not.

  • The element of fire, which gives light and warmth, is considered to be a sacred icon of Ahura Mazda, and prayers to Ahura Mazda are generally made in the presence of fire. In the early days, the ordinary hearth fire which was already burning in households was probably used for this purpose. By the Achaemenid period, these fires were burning in dedicated fire temples where they were tended by a class of professional priests. These sacred temple fires exist to the modern day, and some are claimed to be hundreds of years old. The painstaking care with which fire is handled has drawn the accusation of fire-worship from outsiders, which is considered pejorative to Zoroastrians. It is noteworthy though that Zoroastrian priests do wear veils over the mouth to avoid contaminating temple fires, and fire in general is evidently subject to complex regulations regarding its use. Theologically, however, fire is not an idol, but rather an iconic aid for worship.
  • There is a strong emphasis on ritual purity and cleanliness permeating Zoroastrian life. The element of water is considering a purifying agent and all water is subject to various regulations regarding its use. There is an elaborate, special purity rite that lasts about two weeks involving isolation from the world (except for the administrating priest), and cleansing by water and cow urine. This rite is vaguely similar in significance to baptism in Christianity, except that it can be repeated several times in a lifetime as the need arises (especially by priests for whom maintaining ritual cleanliness is vital).
  • Zoroastrians respect dogs as beneficent animals. They are incorporated in funereal rites to help keep watch over the dead, because it is thought that they ward off malevolent spirits. After the conquest, some Muslims would try to taunt and demoralize Zoroastrians by treating dogs with cruelty, which apparently vexed Zoroastrians greatly.
  • Ants, frogs, snakes and certain other animals are considered to be among Angra Mainyu's evil counter-creations. Zoroastrians make a point of destroying and removing these things when they can. Evidently Zoroastrians are not much of Gaia-worshippers.
  • Because Zoroastrians consider corpses to be utterly unclean, they do not cremate them in fire, which as noted is considered sacred or at least a sacred icon. As the element of earth is likewise considered to be sacred, they do not bury corpses either. Instead, corpses are disposed by exposure in places in which the bones will be picked clean by birds, dogs, and other animals. This practice is called "sky burial". Until recently, there used to be large towers dedicated for this purpose, on the flat tops of which corpses were placed and eaten by birds. After being picked clean, the bones are collected and placed in ossuaries.
  • Zoroastrians, at least in olden days, considered "next-of-kin" marriage to be meritorious. Frankly this is incestuous marriage between brother and sister, father and daughter, or mother and son. Apparently this was quite commonly practiced and respected among royal families and other social strata, both in the Achaemenid period and later centuries.
Lord Scales

As a Roman Catholic who is somewhat aware of Zoroastrianism may I ask this: what are the Zoroastrian beliefs of Jesus Christ?


One of the greatest aspects of this religion is that it isn't convert friendly, so you basically have to be born into it.

Lord Scales

From what I understand it's only the conservative Parsis who resist conversion.
Although modern Zoroastrians acknowledge truth in all religions where it appears, obviously Jesus Christ is foreign to the Zoroastrian faith, and presumably not recognized as a son of God; from the Christian point of view, the Zoroastrian understanding of God is essentially unitarian, not trinitarian. Nevertheless, Zoroastrianism has an elaborate eschatological tradition with strong resemblances to Christianity, and a belief in a miraculous savior i.e. "Saoshyant" who will lead humanity in the defeat of evil at the end of time. In the book linked above, Boyce reconstructs the earliest eschatology in pre-Achaemenid times:

By Achaemenid times, eschatology and theology developed as follows:
To summarize, Zoroastrian beliefs in one good God, an evil Adversary, individual judgment after death, an afterlife with a heaven and hell, a miraculously born savior, a final battle culminating in the ultimate defeat of evil, the end of time, a kingdom of God, bodily resurrection of the righteous, and annihilation of the wicked, all predate parallels in Christianity by hundreds of years.
Modern Zoroastrians turn away not only would-be converts, but even children of mixed marriages, which are ironically not discouraged. This weird combination of religious membership-exclusiveness and tolerance of exogamy is a significant threat to the continued existence of the remnant Parsi and Irani communities.

In theory, Zoroaster was a prophet of a universal God. The Iranian tribes were originally entrenched polytheists, so there had to be a period of proselytizing in prehistoric times. Presumably, conversion was welcomed or at least accepted in those times when Zoroastrianism was a state religion. Ultimately, however, Zoroastrian religious institutions and practices never took root far outside Iranian areas, with the exception of the Caucasus. In the centuries after the Arab conquest, the besieged and gradually dwindling Zoroastrian community increasingly withdrew into itself, eventually evolving into a firmly closed ethno-religious community.
Lord Scales
Isn't there going to be a series of these Zoroastrian saviors, three I believe, culminating in a final one?