Zoroaster, Changes in Persian Ideas and King Darius

Religions of the Ancient Near East: Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the revealed world religions

In what respects did contact with the teachings of Zarathustra (Zoroaster) bring about changes in Persian ideas about religion and the gods?  How are these documented in the inscriptions of King Darius?

“Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed world religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly or indirectly, than any other single faith”  Mary Boyce.

By examining the inscriptions of King Darius, this essay will show the polytheistic beliefs of Persia were changed to qualified monotheism; the fundamental antagonism between Truth (Asha) and the Lie (druj or drug) of the Rig Veda remained, and the great cosmic struggle with the demand for continual moral endeavors confronted each individual believer.  However, Darius’s inscriptions do not necessarily show the extent to which the teachings of Zoroaster affected the king, personally.

The Rig-Veda was developed orally when the Stone Age was giving way to the Bronze Age of chariot warfare (1700-1500 BCE).  At this time, the Aryan people moved south off the steppes and across an advanced civilization in central Asia.  Turning southeast, they conquered India before turning southwest onto the plateau of Iran (1000 BCE).  The religious society into which Zoroaster was born was similar to that of the Rig-Veda in India.

There is debate among scholars whether Zoroaster lived during this formative period (1700- 1500 BCE) or during the reign of Darius (500 BCE), based on a late Persian tradition. The earlier dating is preferred.  In the Rig-Veda two classes of deity are distinguished, the ‘asuras’and the ‘deavas’, the former being more remote from and the letter being closer to human beings.  The greatest of the asuras is Varina, the protector of Truth, who is the guardian of the moral law; whereas, the greatest of the daevas (the deva of the Sanskrit scriptures of Hinduism) is Indra, the war god of the Aryans, who is the personification of victorious might.  Indra is not at all concerned with Moral Order.

Zoroaster built upon these foundations of the ancient Rig-Veda, the sacred text of the Aryan people.  Although essentially polytheistic, the fundamental antagonism between the moral law and might –is-right, along with Truth (Asha) and the Lie (druj or drug) was already in the Rig-Veda.  Along with this dualism, Zoroaster also promulgated grand concepts of the one Creator and the great cosmic struggle with the demand for continual moral endeavors.

The followers of the Lie, in Zoroaster’s day, were predatory, marauding tribal society, which destroyed both cattle and people, a menace to any settled ordered society.  Their behavior was related to their belief system: their gods were like them, evil incarnate and to be treated as such. The daevas and their followers chose evil and those who follow the evil are favored by the daevas.

Zoroaster dethrones the daevas.  However, Zoroaster does not see the followers of the Lie as incorrigible; they are free to choose the Good.  ‘Between the two (the good and the bad original spirits) the well doers (or wise) have rightly chosen, but not so the evildoers. (Yasna 30: 3).  The goal of Zoroaster therefore, was to see the conversion of the ‘evil doers’.

The doctrine of Zoroaster does not start from any abstract principle, but rather, the prophet thrusts the fundamental antagonism of Truth and Lie right into the forefront of his religious teaching.  He considered the daevas to be no gods at all but rather maleficent powers that refused to do the will of the monotheistic God he worshipped, the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda.  Although monotheistic, Ahura Mazda is the head of a pantheon of ahuras, ‘lords’, thus teaching a form of qualified monotheism.  Zoroaster has an intellectual vision of God’s goodness. He starts with the concrete situation as he finds it in Eastern Iran, amongst his own Iranian (Aryan) people: pastoralist, settled agricultural community devoted to tilling the soil and the raising of cattle.

Zoroaster taught that people have a choice ‘listen with your ears to the best things, reflect with a clear mind, man by man, each for his own self, upon the two choices for decision, ready in full awareness to declare yourselves before the great retribution’. [1].  Those who follow the Lie are like the daevas, who have afflicted humankind: ‘Thus they chose the Worst Thought, then rushed into fury, with which they have afflicted the world of mortals’. [2].

The Zoroastrian religion then, has its roots in the same very distant past as the Rig-Veda does, to Indo-European times.  One of these doctrines was a better afterlife for all who chose Truth.  The old Ahuric religion consigned all lesser mortals to a subterranean life after death.  Zoroaster offered resurrection and the hope of heaven, not only to the ‘princes, warriors and priests who served the gods’ as proto-Indo Iranians had [3], but to the ‘lowly persons – herdsmen, and women and children, indeed, ‘Whoever, whether man or woman, Mazda Ahura … and all those whom I shall join in glorifying such as you, with all those I shall cross over the Bridge of the Arbiter’. [4].  Other doctrines, such as final judgment were introduced, for example, ‘he shall be the first there at the retributions by (molten) metal (at the final judgment) (Yasna 30:7).  ‘But their own soul and their own conscience shall torment them when they reach the Bridge of the Arbiter forever to become the guests in the House of Deceit’ [5].

The Persians of Archenemies times were notable in worshipping the triad of deities Ahura Mazda, the goddess Anahita, and Mithra (fire), all Yazatas (divine beings worthy of worship), who were to be the principal divinities in the Avesta (the oldest work in Persian religious literature), in having the Magi as their priests.  The prophet Zoroaster vehemently opposed the Magi’s practices.  These practices included animal sacrifice where intermingled with the cult of the Haoma plant, both Magi practices.  The Haoma rite centered on the juice of the plant as the elixir of immortality and ‘from whom death flees’. The worshippers of the daevas slaughtered cattle in vast quantities, ‘the fury generated by the deceitful’. [6].  It is not clear whether the prophet is appealing on behalf of the faithful community or cattle in the care of their pastor in the following lament, ‘the cruelty of fury and violence, of wantonness and brutality, holds me in bondage.  I have no other pastor but you’. [7].

Because Zoroaster opposed the daevas, ‘‘I confess myself a worshipper of Mazda, a follower of Zarathushtra, a hater of daevas[8], would have experienced considerable persecution from the Magi priests and other rulers, along with the usual skepticism that accompanies a familiar person who claims a divine and unique revelation.  The reading below shows something of the agony of mind that the Prophet was in concerning the surrounding culture he lived in.  ‘To what land shall I flee? Where go for refuge?  I am excluded from my family and my clan; the community I am with does not satisfy me, neither do the deceitful rulers of the country … I know why I am powerless, Mazda: because my cattle are few and I have few men. [9].

The Avestan religion began and developed in Eastern Iranian lands.  For its development in the West, the inscriptions of the Archenemies kings and the Greeks are its main source, particularly Herodotus.  The inscriptions of King Darius tell the fuller story of the spread of the Prophet’s teachings.  It is obvious from the inscription on the Rock face at Bisitun, that the king is writing to a people who had a consciousness of good and evil, of monotheism, heightened awareness of selves in the universe and of ethical standards and of justice.

Found high up on a rock face on the highway between Teheran (in Iran, Ancient Persia) and Baghdad (In Iraq, Ancient Babylon) the inscriptions of Darius fulfill at least two of the four main terms to define the religion.  These four terms are, ‘holding to the doctrine of Ahura’; ‘opposed to the daevas;  ‘followers of Zoroaster’; and ‘worshipper of Mazda’.  The last term became standardized as the official designation of the religion. [10].  The Bisitun Inscriptions, written in Old Persian, Babylonian (Akkadian) and Elamite, along with the confession of the Zoroastrian religion, records the rebellions Darius put down when he came to power; they also reveal the extent of unrest the kingdom was in as regards Archenemies rule.  We have no way of knowing from the inscriptions whether Darius was opposed to the daevas, seen as they do not mention them.  Nor can we be sure that the king was a disciple of Zoroaster.

However Darius certainly went to great lengths to show the readers at this linguistic and cultural crossroad that he was opposed to the Lie, Wickedness, Disorder and those who followed the Lie; that he was the authoritative ruler on earth in the things of good government and peace, just as Zoroaster was in the spiritual and Ahura Mazda in the heavenly realm.  Indeed, it could be said that Darius used the ‘state’ religion to justify his imperialism.  The dualism between Truth and Lie of Zoroaster’s teachings are also prominent in Darius’ inscriptions.

Darius constantly emphasizes the opposition that exists between Truth and Lie.  He shows he is a worshipper of Ahura Mazda in the opening lines of both the inscriptions at Bisitun rock and the Susa statue, found near the palace of Darius in Susa, Persia.  These two are both written in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian, and both show that the great king Darius agrees with Zoroaster concerning Ahura Mazda, the Creator God, ‘Ahura Mazda is a great God, who created the earth below, who created the sky above, who created happiness for humankind, who made Darius king. [11].

The Susa Statue Inscriptions repeats the above inscription, and sees the entire king’s good qualities, both physical and moral, coming from the bounteous hand of Mazda.  Darius is a worshipper of Ahura Mazda, and believes in the afterlife, a teaching of Zoroaster, ‘Whoever worships Ahura Mazda, divine blessings shall be upon him, while alive and when dead’. Bounteous supply of both material and spiritual gifts are in the hand of God, ‘He is bounteous to the needy by his teaching’. [12].

According to the Bisitun Inscriptions, ‘Lying’ meant much the same for Darius as it did for the Prophet: nine kings whom Darius defeated are accused of having lied [13].  Rebels against the established order are accused of being deceitful, ‘Deceit made them rebellious, so that these men deceived the people’. [14].  The rebels lie in that they claim to be kings, when in fact they are no such things: Ahura Mazda does not originate evil.

The Prophet in the same way, prays on behalf of the believers, ‘to these people, Ahura grant strength and the Rule of Truth, and also of Good Thought, through which comfort and peace may come about.  I have indeed recognized, Mazda, that you are the first provider of these things. [15].  Mazda, like Darius, manifests justice in that he is the servant of bounteous Ahura Mazda, the source of all good things.

There is no evidence that Darius was a confessed disciple of Zoroaster: he does not mention him by name in any of the royal inscriptions.  Nevertheless, the God of the Akhaemenes household was Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord.  These inscriptions, albeit for political purposes, nevertheless show that the monarch worshipped the prophet’s monotheistic God.  Darius, according to his inscriptions, adhered to primitive Zoroastrianism.   However, Darius, like Zoroaster ‘between these two (spirits), not even the gods (daeva, Sanskrit deva) chose correctly’, [16] also recognized the existence of other gods‘.  Darius confesses, ‘Ahuramazda brought me help, and the other gods that there are’. [17].

Darius sees himself as holding the kingdom given him by the will of the God on trust for him, “by the will of Ahuramazda I am king [18]; I hold this Empire. [19].  Zoroaster held this same sense of destiny: ‘this one here has been found by me (Good Thought’s reply) to be the only one who has heeded our teaching, namely Zarathushtra Spitama.  He desires, Mazda, for us and for Truth, to sound forth hymns of praise’. [20].

Darius acknowledges that Ahura Mazda, ‘he brought me help’. [21].  Darius holds to the same diagnosis of evil as being the manifestation of the Lie as does the Prophet: rebellion against the king amounts to rebellion against God.  Rulers are divinely appointed; it is their responsibility to hold all wrongdoing in check: ‘You who shall be king hereafter, guard yourself carefully against Deceit; the evil force opposed against Ahuramazda; the man who is deceitful, punish him severely’.  [22].

God had made Darius king and his it was to see that peace reigned in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet.  Darius says, ‘to the people I restored the pastures and the herds, the household slaves and the houses … I established the people in their places, Persia and Media and other provinces, as before. I brought back what had been taken away. [23].  To restore peace all usurpers, therefore, must be eradicated.

Darius was well aware of the danger to royal rulers of rebel usurpers: the Achaemenid’s line of kings sprang from Cyrus the usurper.  Darius himself is called a usurper, [24] coming to power as he did when he joined the conspirators, and killed the Magi usurper to the Akhaemenes throne.  Herodotus claims that Darius, belying his future reliance upon his inscriptions to testify to his moral stance, said that there are ‘many occasions when words are useless, and only deeds will make a man’s meaning plain’. [25].

On the same occasion, Herodotus (p.183:72) has Darius denying Truth, where he reasons thus: ‘if a lie is necessary, why not speak it?  We are all after the same thing, whether we lie or speak the truth: our own advantage’.  Men lie when they think to profit by deception, and tell the truth for the same reason – to get something they want, and to be the better trusted for their honesty.  It is only two roads to the same goal’.  The inscriptions themselves confirm that ‘there are things misleading in his [Darius’s] account of his rise to power’. [26] .  It also must be remembered that the report is being given among a people who set great store by telling the truth.

Two other inscriptions of Darius, the Suez Canal Inscriptions of Egypt, and the introductory note, written in Persian, Elamite and Akkadian and the Susa Statue Inscriptions both repeat the same confession of Zoroaster’s God by Darius.  ‘Ahurumazda is a great god, who created the earth below, who created the sky above, who created humankind, who created happiness for humankind, who made Darius king. [27].  However, the same Susa Statue Inscription, written in hieroglyphic Egyptian, reveals another side of Darius’s belief system.

For example, the Susa Statue Inscription incorporates Darius into the framework of the royal theology of Heliopolis, as son of Atum-Rey, ‘The good god, who rejoices in Truth (Ma’at), chosen by Atum the Lord of On (Heliopolis) to be the master of all that is encompassed by the Aton (sun-disk), because he recognizes him as his son and his agent’.  The inscription also acknowledges the goddess Neith as giving Darius ‘the bow she wields, to overthrow all his enemies, doing as she had done for the benefit of her son Rey, at the first time, (the beginning of time), so that he is strong to repulse those who rebel against him, to subdue those who rebel against him in the Two Lands’. [28].

It is possible that Darius was as his predecessor, Cyrus, who showed religious tolerance to those he ruled over to continue worshipping their gods in their own way.  For example, the Jews proclaimed Cyrus a Messiah because he not only allowed them, during their exile in Babylon, their own monotheistic belief in Yahweh, but also made it possible for them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple there.  ‘Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus … that thou mayest know that I, the Lord which call thee by thy name … though thou hast not known me. [29].

In conclusion, we see that Zoroaster drastically changed the ancient Persian ideas about religion and the gods, from polytheism to qualified monotheism, from worship of the daevas to worship of Ahura Mazda.  The people were confronted with choice between Truth and Lie, with the consequences of divine reward and punishment.  The inscriptions of Darius show that he held to the doctrines of Zoroaster and that he was a worshipper of Ahura Mazda.  However, as has been shown, there is no proof that Darius was a disciple of Zoroaster or that he opposed the daevas

[1] Zoroaster, Yasna 30:2, Doc 103, reproduced in RELS 202, Study Resources, Religions of the Ancient Near East, UNE 2002, Armidale, p. 137.

[2] Ibid. Yasna 30:6, p. 137.

[3] Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their religious beliefs and practices, London, 1979, p. 14.

[4], Zoroaster, Yasna 46: 10.  Doc 104, RELS 202, p. 139.

[5] ibid., Yasna 46:11, p. 139.

[6] Zoroaster, Yasna 30: 2.  op. cit. p. 137.

[7] Zoroaster, Yasna 29:1 Doc 102, RELS 202, p. 135.

[8], Zoroaster, Yasna 10, Hymn to Mithra, Doc 106, RELS 202, p. 140.

[9] Zoroaster, Yasna 46: 2, op. cit. p. 138.

[10] R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, London, 1961, p. 154.

[11] Darius the Great, The Suez Canal Inscriptions, Doc 109: 1 & Doc 110: 1.  RELS 202, pp. 146-7.

[12] Zoroaster, Yasna 30: 7, op. cit. p. 137.

[13], Darius the Great, The Bisitun Rock Inscription, Doc 108: 52: 19, pp. 144-5. RELS 202.

[14] ibid.  Doc 108: 54. p. 145.

[15] Zoroaster, Yasna 29: 10, Doc 102, op. cit., p. 136.

[16] ibid.  Yasna 30:6.  p. 137.

[17] Darius the Great, Doc 108:62, op. cit. p.145.

[18] ibid.  Doc 108:5, p. 143.

[19]ibid.  Doc 108;9, p. 143.

[20] Zoroaster, Yasna 29:8, Doc 102, op. cit., p. 136.

[21] Darius the Great, op. cit., Doc 108: 31, p. 144.

[22] Darius the Great, op. cit., Doc 108: 55, p. 145.

[23] Darius the Great, op. cit., Doc 108: 14, p. 143.

[24] A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, Chicago, 1948, p. 107-118.

[25] Herodotus, The Histories, Book 111, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin, London, 1996, p. 183: 72.

[26] J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire, London, 1983, p. 52.

[27] Darius the Great, The Suez Canal Inscriptions, Doc 109:2 & The Susa Statue Inscriptions Doc 110:1, RELS 202, p. 146-7.

[28] ibid. Darius the Great, Doc 110:2, p. 147.

[29] Isa 45:1&5.


Boyce, M.  Zoroastrians.  Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London, 1979,

Cook, J.M.  The Persian Empire, London, 1983.

Herodotus.  The Histories, translated by Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin, London, 1996.

Olmstead, A. T.  History of the Persian Empire, Chicago, 1948.

RELS 202, Religions of the Ancient Near East, University of New England, Armidale, 2002.

Zachner, R.C.  The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, London, 1961.