Zoroastrianism: the oldest of the revealed world religions


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.

The four main terms to define the religion.

These four terms are, ‘holding to the doctrine of Ahura’; ‘opposed to the daevas;  ‘followers of Zorasteraster’; and ‘worshipper of Mazdah’

“One is the path of truth, the paths of others are no paths” f/n 17

This essay will show in what respects contact with the teachings of the Prophet Zoroaster, brought about changes in Persian ideas about religion and the gods.  To accomplish this the Ancient Persian religion will be compared with the Inscriptians of King Darius.  However these Inscriptions do not necessarily show the extent to which the teachings of the Prophet affected Darius.

Contrary to ancient Persian beliefs Zoroaster promogulated grand concepts of the one Creator, dulaism, and the great cosmic struggle, with the demand for continual moral endeavours.  In contrast to these, the ancient Rig-Veda was essentially polytheistic.  The Rig-Veda was the sacred text of the Aryan people, developed orally when the stone age was giving way to the bronze age of chariot warfare (1700-1500 BCE).  Originally, the Aryan people moved south off the steppes and across an advanced civilization in central Asia.  Turning south east they conquored India before turning south west onto the plateau of Iran.

The religious society into which Zoroaster was born was similar to that of the Rig-Veda in India.  There is debate among scholars whether Zoraster lived during this formative period or during the reign of Darius (600 BCE).  In the Rig-Veda two classes of diety 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 asuuras  is Varina, the protector of Truth, who is the guardian of the moral law; whereas, the greatest of the daevas is Indra, the war god of the Aryans, who is the personification of victorious might and who is not at all concerned with Moral Order.

This fundamental antagonism, therefore, was already in the Rig-Veda, as were Truth (Asha) and the Lie (druj). Zoroaster does not start from any abstract principle.  Zoroaster thrust this fundamentasl antagonism right into the forefront of his religious teaching.  He considered the daevas to be no gods at all but rather malificient powers who refused to do the will of the monotheistic God he worshipped, the Wise Lord, Asura Mazda ‘.

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

Zoroaster dethrones the daevas.  However Zoroaster does not see the followers of the Lie as incorrigable; they are free to choose the Good.  Therefore, the goal of Zoroaster is to see their conversion, ‘between these two (the good and the bad original spirits) the welldoers (or wise) have rightly chosen, but not so the evil doers. (Yasna 30: 3).

Zoroaster has an intellectual vision of God’s goodness.  He starts with the concerete situaltion 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 decission, ready in full awareness tpo declare yourselves before the great retribution’ (Yasna 30 Doc 103).  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’ (Yasna 30:6).  The Prophet shows no compromise and no mercy to the followers of the Lie.

The Zorasterian religion also has its roots in this same very distant past as the Rig-Veda does, to Indo-European times.  In its own right Zoroastrianism was the state religion of three great Iranian empires, which flourished almost continually from the sixth century BC to the seventh century CE, and dominated much of the Near and Middle East.  Iran’s power and wealth lent it immense prestige.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam and in the East, northern Buddhism, as well as a host of Gnostic faiths, all adopted some of its leading doctrines.  One of these was the afterlife.  The old Ahuric religion consigned all lesser mortals to a subterranian life after death.  Zorasteraster offered resurrection and the hope of heaven, not only to the ‘princes, warriors and priests who served the gods’ as propo-Indo Iranians had, (Boyce p 14) 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’ (Yasna 46: 10, Doc 104).

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 judgement) (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’ (Yasna 46:11 doc 104).

The Iranian people who settled in the West, the Medes and Persians, on the Eastern side of the Zagros mountains, were the first Iranians to enter recorded history (900 BCE).  These tribes sustained contact over several hundred years, partly as neighbours, partly as subjects, with neighbouring ancient urban civilizations.  Media and Persia occur repeatedly in Assyrian records of military expeditions onto the Iranian plateau. They were surrounded by Northern Assyria, Urartu, South Elam and Babylon.  The Medes and the Babylonians conquered the Assyrian empire (614-612) then subjected the Persians who had by this time made themselves rulers of the kingdom of Anshan, in the south-west of Iran.  The Medes ruled for sixty years.

In the period when the Medes conquered the Persians, Zorasterastrian missionaries and political marraiges between the royal Medes and Persians meant the Medes court being infiltrated by the teachings of Zorasterstrian.  The Medes provided priests, the Magi, for both themselves and the Persian tribes.  In 549 the Persians, led by Cyrus the Great, of the Archemenian family, a son in law of the reigning Median king, rebelled and defeated the Medes and founded the first Persian Empire.

At this time the Persians were already Zorastianists.  However, they still held onto their past, such as the old gods and the priests who officiated, the Magi.  Zaehner claims ‘there are probably no two problems in Zorasterian studies more vexed than that of the religion of the Archemenian kings, the Avestian religion of Zoroaster and that of the part played by the Magi in the development of Zoroasterism’ (p 154).  The Avestian religion began and developed in Eastern Iranian lands.  For its development in the West the inscriptions of the Archemenian kings and the Greeks are its main source, particularly Herodotus.

However, Herodotus’ Magi, for example, is typical of later Zoroasterism, in particular, the slaying of noxious beasts, the exposure of the dead and incestuous marraiges, all typical of the later stratagum of the Avestas and not the original doctrine belonging to Zoroaster himself.  Zaehner suggests the Magi were an hereditary class entrusted with the supervision of the national religion, whatever form it might take asnd wherever it might be practised in the Empire.  As a consequence of this there are various interpretations placed upon the noun, Magi..  For Zoroaster, the term magus  simply meant God’s ‘gift’ of the Good Religion to the Prophet.

The Persians of Archaemenid 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, in having the Magi as their priests. The prophet Zorasteraster vehemently opposed the Magi’s practises.  Following the Prophet’s death, the followers of Zorasteraster tolerated the reintroduction of the older gods, in the great hymn to Mithra, from the Avesta, into the Prophet’s strictly monotheistic creed in the role of created spirits.  Here, the great hymn to Mithra shows the reintroduction of worship of this triad of dieties‘I will worship Mithra (the Indi-Iranian god),with libations,… with haoma mixed with milk’ (Yasna 10: 6);  ‘ and the stars, and the moon, and the sun.  At the strewed baresman we worship Mithra, ruler of all lands’ (:145).  Fire, the son pf Ahura Mazda (:3).

Zoroaster also fervently denounced animal sacrifice where intermingled with the cult of the Haoma plant, both Magi practises.  The rite centred around the juice of the plant as the elixir of immortality and ‘from whom death flees’. Zoroaster did not object to the Haoma rite as such, but to the daeva – worshippers’ method of performing it.  Their drunkenness probably disgusted him because it would have seemed to him sacrilige against the plant-god which was a sacrimental centre of the cult. (p 87 Zaehner).  Zaehner claims that Zorasteraster only condemns its consumption when combined with a bull sacrifice in which the plant appears to be burnt (p 86).

Overall the teachings of Zoraster show a respect for the earth, particularly water, which is to be kept pure, as Good Health is associated with it.  He sees Ahura Mazdah as the friend of animals as well as the rest of his creation.  It is not clear whether the prophet is appealing on behalf of the faithful community or cattle in the care of their pastor in Yasna 29:1 ‘ The cruelty of fury and violence, of wontonness and brutality, holds me in bondage.  I have no other pastor but you’. The worshippers of the daevas, on the other hand, slaughtered cattle in vast quantities, ‘the fury generated by the deceitful’ (Yasna 30: 2).    Zaehner says they raided ‘in ill considered manner, impulsively, and at any time they felt a sharp urge to do so’.  The reading shows something of the agony of mind that the Prophet was in concerning the surrounding culture he lived in when he composed the following lines.  ‘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 (Yasna 46: 1-2, Doc 104)

Because Zoroaster opposed the daevas  ‘‘I confess myself a worshipper of Mazda, a follower of Zarathushtra, a hater of daevas’ …,(Yasna 10), would have experienced considerable persecution from the Magi, along with the usual scepticism that accompanies a familiar person who claims a divine and unique revelation.  Nevertheless after the fall of the Archemenids it was the Magi who rescued and put the religion back on its feet, so to speak, albeit changed.  Until he left his tribe and encountered a queen, Hutaosa, willing to believe, along with her husband, Vishtaspa, the prophet struggled with fruitlessness, bringing with him only one convert, his cousin.  However, the Inscriptions of King Darius tell the fuller story of the spread of the Prophet’s teachings.

It is obvious from King Darius’s Inscriptiaon 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 on the highway between Teheran (in Iran, Ancient Persia) and Baghdad (In Iraq, Ancient Babylon) the inscriptionsof Darius fulfill at least two of the the four main terms to define the religion.  These four terms are, ‘holding to the doctrine of Ahura’; ‘opposed to the daevas;  ‘followers of Zorasteraster’; and ‘worshipper of Mazdah’.  The last term became standardised as the official designation of the religion (Zaehner p 154).

The Bisitun Inscriptions, written in Old Persian, Babylonian (Akkadian)  and Elamite, along with the confession of the Zoroasterian 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 Archemeniad 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 Zoraster.

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 authorititive ruler on earth in the things of good government and peace, just as Zoroaster was in the spriritual realm and Ahura Mazda in the heavenly realm.  The dualism between Truth and Lie of Zorasteraster’s teachings are also prominent in Darius’ inscriptions.

Darius constantly emphasisis 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 Zorasteraster concerning Ahura Mazda, the Creator God, ‘Auramazda 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 (Doc 109:1 & Doc 110: 1).

The Susa Statue Inscriptions repeats the above inscription, and also sees all the 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 Auramazda, 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’ (Yasna 30: 7).

According to the inscriptions, ‘Lying’ meant much the same for Darius as it did for the Prophet: nine kings whom Darius defeated, are accused of having lied (Doc 108, The Bisitun Inscription: 52 (1) – (9).  Rebels against the established order are accused of being deceitful, ‘Deceit made them rebellious, so that these men deceived the people” (54).   The rebels lie in that they claim to be kings, when in fact they are no such thing.  Ahura Mazdah 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 recognised, Mazda, that you are the first provider of these things (Yasna 30:10).  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.  Nevertheless, the God of the Akhaemenes household was Ahura Mazdah, the Wise Lord, spelt in one word in Darius’ inscriptions.  These inscriptions, albeit for political purposes, nevertheless show that the monarch worshipped the prophet’s monotheistic God.  Darius, according to his innscriptions. adhered to primitive Zorasterianism.   However, Darius, like Zorasteraster ‘between these two (spirits), not even the gods (daeva) chose correctly’ (yasna 30:6), also recognised the existence of other gods‘.  Darius confesses, Aharamazdah brought me help, and the other gods that there are’ (Doc 108:62, Darius the Great: The Bisitun Rock Inscription).

Darius sees himself as holding the kingdom given him by the will of the God on trust for him,  “by the will of Ahura Mazdah I am king (Doc 108:5); I hold this Empire (Doc 108 The Bisitun Rock Inscription). Such was Ahura Mazdah’s will; he chose Darius, a man out of the whole earth and made him king of the whole earth.  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 Spitaama.  He desires, Mazda, for us and for Truth, to sound forth hymns of praise, … (Yasna 29:8, Doc 102).

Darius acknowledges that Ahuramazda, ‘he brought me help’ (Doc 108: 31).  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 Ahura Mazdah; the man who is deceitful, punish him severely (108 :55).

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 (Doc 108: 14).  All usurpers therefore must be eradicated.

Darius was well aware of the danger to rulers of rebel usurpers; the Akhaemenes line of kings sprang from Cyrus the usurper.  Darius himself came to power when he joined the conspiritors, and killed the Magi usurper to the Akhaemenes throne.  Herodotus claims Darius, belying his future reliance upon the inscriptions to testify to his moral stance, claims that the future king said that there are ‘many occassions when words are useless, and only deeds will make a man’s meaning plain’ (Herodotus, Book Three page 183: 72).

On the same occasion, Herodotus has Darius denying Truth, where he is involving himself in situational ethics and 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’.

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 Zoaster’s God by Darius’, ‘Arumazda 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 (Doc 109:2 & Doc 110:1).

However, the same Susa Statue Inscription, written in hieroglyphic Egyptian, reveals another side of Darius’ belief system.  For example, the same 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 recognises him as his son and his agent’.  The inscription also acknowledges the goddess Neith as giving him ‘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’ (Doc 110:2).

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 Cyrus was proclaimed a Messiah by the Jews because he not only allowed them, during their exile in Babylon, their own monotheistic belief in Yehwah, but 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  (Isa 45:1&5).

In conclusion, we see that the ancient Persian beliefs were drastically changed by Zoroaster. The inscriptions of Darius show that he was a worshipper of Ahura Mazda , but there is no proof that he was a disciple of Zoroaster and his teachings concerning the he four main terms to define the religion. These four terms are, ‘holding to the doctrine of Ahura’; ‘opposed to the daevas;  ‘followers of Zorasteraster’; and ‘worshipper of Mazdah’