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Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion that may have originated as early as 4,000 years ago. Zoroastrianism now has an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 worshipers worldwide, and is practiced today as a minority religion in parts of Iran and India.


The prophet Zoroaster (Zarathrustra in ancient Persian) is regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism, which is arguably the world’s oldest monotheistic faith.

Most of what is known about Zoroaster comes from the Avesta—a collection of Zoroastrian religious scriptures. It’s unclear exactly when Zoroaster may have lived.

Some scholars believe he was a contemporary of Cyrus the Great, a king of the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C., though most linguistic and archaeological evidence points to an earlier date—sometime between 1500 and 1200 B.C.

Zoroaster is thought to have been born in what is now northeastern Iran or southwestern Afghanistan. He may have lived in a tribe that followed an ancient religion with many gods (polytheism). This religion was likely similar to early forms of Hinduism.

According to Zoroastrian tradition, Zoroaster had a divine vision of a supreme being while partaking in a pagan purification rite at age 30. Zoroaster began teaching followers to worship a single god called Ahura Mazda.

In the 1990s, Russian archaeologists at Gonur Tepe, a Bronze Age site in Turkmenistan, discovered the remains of what they believed to be an early Zoroastrian fire temple. The temple dates to the second millennium B.C., making it the earliest known site associated with Zoroastrianism.

Persian Empire

Zoroastrianism shaped one of the ancient world’s largest empires—the mighty Persia Empire. It was the state religion of three major Persian dynasties.

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, was a devout Zoroastrian. By most accounts, Cyrus was a tolerant ruler who allowed his non-Iranian subjects to practice their own religions. He ruled by the Zoroastrian law of asha (truth and righteousness) but didn’t impose Zoroastrianism on the people of Persia’s conquered territories.

The beliefs of Zoroastrianism were spread across Asia via the Silk Road, a network of trading routes that spread from China to the Middle East and into Europe.

Some scholars say that tenets of Zoroastrianism helped to shape the major Abrahamic religions—including Judaism, Christianity and Islam—through the influence of the Persian Empire.

Zoroastrian concepts, including the idea of a single god, heaven, hell and a day of judgment, may have been first introduced to the Jewish community of Babylonia, where people from the Kingdom of Judea had been living in captivity for decades.

When Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., he liberated the Babylonian Jews. Many returned home to Jerusalem, where their descendants helped to create the Hebrew Bible.

Over the next millennia, Zoroastrianism would dominate two subsequent Persian dynasties—the Parthian and Sassanian Empires—until the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century A.D.

Muslim Conquest

The Muslim conquest of Persia between 633 and 651 A.D. led to the fall of the Sassanian Persian Empire and the decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran.

The Arab invaders charged Zoroastrians living in the Persia extra taxes for retaining their religious practices and implemented laws to make life difficult for them. Over time, most Iranian Zoroastrians converted to Islam.

Parsi Religion

Parsi are followers of Zoroastrianism in India. According to Parsi tradition, a group of Iranian Zoroastrians emigrated from Persia to escape religious persecution by the Muslim majority after the Arab conquest.

Experts speculate that the group sailed across the Arabian Sea and landed in Gujarat, a state in western India, sometime between 785 and 936 A.D.

The Parsi are an ethnic minority in India and Pakistan. Today there are about 60,000 Parsi in India and 1,400 in Pakistan.

Zoroastrian Symbols

The Faravahar is an ancient symbol of the Zoroastrian faith. It depicts a bearded man with one hand reaching forward. He stands above a pair of wings that are outstretched from a circle representing eternity.

Fire is another important symbol of Zoroastrianism, as it represents light, warmth and has purifying powers. Some Zoroastrians also recognize the evergreen cypress tree as a symbol of eternal life.

Zoroastrian Beliefs

Fire—along with water—are seen as symbols of purity in Zoroastrian religion.

Zoroastrian places of worship are sometimes called fire temples. Each fire temple contains an altar with an eternal flame that burns continuously and is never extinguished.

According to legend, three ancient Zoroastrian fire temples, known as the great fires, were said to have come directly from the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, at the beginning of time. Archaeologists have searched for these places, though it's unclear whether the great fires ever existed or were purely mythical.

Zoroastrians gave their dead “sky burials.” They built circular, flat-topped towers called dakhmas, or towers of silence. There corpses were exposed to the elements—and local vultures—until the bones were picked clean and bleached. Then they were collected and placed in lime pits called ossuaries.

Dakhmas have been illegal in Iran since the 1970s. Many Zoroastrians today bury their dead beneath concrete slabs, though some Parsi in India still practice sky burials. A dakhma remains in operation near Mumbai, India, for example.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Many Europeans became familiar with Zoroastrian founder Zarathustra through the nineteenth century novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

In it, Nietzsche follows the prophet Zarathustra on his travels. Some have called the work “ironic,” since Nietzsche was an avowed atheist.

Zoroastrianism in Western Culture

British musician Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the rock band Queen, was of Parsi descent. Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, practiced Zoroastrianism. Mercury died of complications from AIDS in 1991, and his London funeral was performed by a Zoroastrian priest.

Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda served as the namesake for Japanese automaker Mazda Motor Corporation. The company hoped that an association with the “God of Light” would “brighten the image” of their first vehicles.

American novelist George R.R. Martin, creator of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which was later adapted into the H.B.O. series Game of Thrones, developed the legend of Azor Ahai from Zoroastrianism.

In it, a warrior demigod, Azor Ahai, defeats darkness with the help of the deity R’hllor, a fire god which Martin may have modeled after Ahura Mazda.


Zoroaster; BBC.
The Genetic Legacy of Zoroastrianism in Iran and India: Insights into Population Structure, Gene Flow, and Selection; The American Journal of Human Genetics.
The ancient Persian god that may be at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’; The Washington Post.
Mazda-Go 3-wheeled trucks (1931~); Mazda.
The Last of the Zoroastrians. TIME.
Zoroastrianism: Zorostudies.

Zoroastrianism - HISTORY

Zoroastrianism, the dominant pre-Islamic religious tradition of the Iranian peoples, was founded by the prophetic reformer Zoroaster in the 6th or 7th century BCE (if not earlier). The religion survived into the 20th century in isolated areas of Iran, and is also practiced in parts of India (particularly Bombay) by descendants of Iranian immigrants known as Parsis. For this reason, the religion as practiced in India is alternatively known as Parsiism.

Zoroaster (also known as Zarathushtra) was a priest who sought to reform aspects of the pre-Islamic pantheistic religion practiced in his community. Some of the practices he disapproved of included the sacrifice of animals (particularly bulls), as well as the ritualized consumption of the intoxicating beverage haoma. At the age of 30, Zoroaster experienced a vision in which the supremacy of the god of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, was revealed to him. The rest of the pantheon of deities was reduced to the status of demons and lesser spiritual creatures, with Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, posited as the incarnation of evil standing in contrast to the goodness and light of Ahura Mazda. This dualism is often regarded as having been influential in the formulation of Jewish theology, and through Judaism, that of Christianity.

Zoroastrianism spread throughout Iranian lands, into Central Asia along trade routes, and further into East Asia. The Seleucids, Parthians, and Sassanians all practiced the faith. But as Richard C. Foltz has noted, Zoroaster's doctrine was not codified until sometime in the third century CE, under the Sassanians. 1 Our historical understanding of the tradition is thus more accurately described as Sassanian Zoroastrianism, and we should assume that the religion had evolved, perhaps very significantly, in the millennium since the time of its founder.

Small temples dating to the pre-Islamic era have been found throughout Iran, and surviving records describe the installation of sculpture in Zoroastrian places of worship. None of these icons have survived, but since some ancient Iranian coins often include Greek-inspired imagery (particularly Parthian and Seleucid examples), it is conceivable that Zoroastrian temple sculpture of these periods may also have reflected a Hellenistic influence, perhaps similar to that found in Kushan-era Gandhara. The only Zoroastrian art still extant is found in coins, particularly those minted by Sassanian rulers. These coins regularly depict a fire altar flanked by two attendants, who may represent elite members of the Zoroastrian priesthood known as magi.

Historical commentary recorded by Hui-li and other Buddhist contemporaries of the seventh century often misinterpreted the religion (perhaps willfully) as focused upon the worship of fire. While fire is an important element in Zoroastrianism, it is not considered a deity in its own right. Rather, along with light, fire serves as an agent of purification and a symbol of the supreme deity. Three specific fires are named by Zoroastrian tradition and came to carry special cultic significance these were the flames of Farnbag, Gushnasp, and Burzen-Mihr. The Farnbag fire was associated with the priesthood, and was first kept in Khwarezm. According to tradition it was transported a number of times since the sixth century BC, until it was moved to a permanent seat in the sanctuary of Kariyan in Fars (this location has not been identified). The Gushnasp fire was originally kept in Media as the fire of the magi, but in later centuries it became a symbol of monarchy. The fire altar on royal Sassanian coins included in this exhibit may depict the Gushnasp flame. The last fire, the Burzen-Mihr, was associated with the peasantry, and was ranked lower than the others. Localized "branch" fires of these main three were maintained in temples, royal palaces and in villages. 2

It is possible that Zoroastrianism was carried by Iranian traders into East China as early as the sixth century BCE, and there may even be reason to believe that magi served in the court of the Western Zhou dynasty prior to the eighth century BCE. 3 Some of the earliest firm evidence of Zoroastrian presence in China is found in the so-called "Ancient Letters," dated to around 313 CE and found near Lou-lan, demonstrate the presence of Sogdian Zoroastrianism in Xinjiang by the early fourth century.

(1) Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 28.

(3) Victor Mair, "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Magus, and English 'Magician,'" Early China 15 (1990), pp. 27-47.

What is Zoroastrianism?

Between 628 and 551 B.C. in the ancient Persian world, Zoroastrianism or Mazdeism appears, a religion that will create the moral basis between good and evil. Its name comes from the prophet "Zoroaster" or "Zarathustra" and its supreme identity is "Aura Mazada" or "Ormuz" ("the wise lord"), which is why it is also known as Mazdeism. This millenary form of belief will have a significant impact on all the later religions of the western world and part of India, taking from it key elements such as justice, truth, order, immortality, serenity, adequate thought, among others.

Zoroastrianism is one of the first religions that presents the internal struggle of man between the forces of good and evil, of knowledge against ignorance, life after death and frequent prayers to live with rectitude, taking care that the heart is given to Aura Mazda and that thought is not inclined towards evil.

History [ edit | edit source ]

Early history of Zoroastrianism [ edit | edit source ]

As accounts of religious life in ancient Persia are limited and conflicting, it is difficult to describe ancient Zoroastrianism in detail. However, it is clear that the original teachings of Zarathushtra were modified significantly by the prophet's disciples, which eventually lead to an acceptance of the very polytheism and ritualism that Zarathushtra had originally opposed. The Avesta, the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, illustrates the fact that post-Zarathushtra Zoroastrianism incorporated older beliefs and traditions from earlier Iranian religions, while simultaneously synthesizing the new ideas Zarathrustra developed in the Gathas. Some of these "archaic survivals" (to use the term of the English anthropologist E.B. Tylor) include such elements as animal sacrifice and the ritual of haoma, which was introduced by Avestan priests and the western priestly tribe known as the Magi.

It was at this point in their history (between the eighth and early seventh centuries B.C.E.) that the Zoroastrian pantheon was more definitively codified, especially concerning their good and evil deities. Most of the violent and aggressive elements of Indo-Aryan tradition were done away with or else relegated to the class of daivas (evil spirits). In this way, the Zoroastrian Persians clearly parted ways from their Indic bretheren, as the new cosmology portrayed the classic Indo-Iranian gods and rituals as evil and demonic.

Expansion of Zoroastrianism [ edit | edit source ]

The itinerant western priests (the Magi) ensured the transmission of Zoroaster's teachings (and their Avestan modifications) during the Achaemenid Empire (559–330 B.C.E.). Further, their travels through this largely peaceful kingdom provided an opportunity for Zoroastrian beliefs to enter dialogue with other Near Eastern traditions. During this period, the Zoroastrian tendency to synthesize deities and ceremonies continued, which created some eclecticism within the tradition. However, this eclecticism proved to be necessary, as it created a pliability within the official religion of the Achaemenid Empire, allowing it to accommodate the varied religio-cultural systems within its control.

At this time, the original formulation of Zoroaster was modified by the Magi. While Ahura Mazda reigned supreme in Zoroaster's original, monotheistic type of formulation, the Magi no longer considered Ahura Mazda to be the sole transcendent principle, now bringing in polytheistic elements. This variation also led to the formation of the cult of Zurvanism perhaps during the second half of the Achaemenian period, an absolute dualism that regarded Angra Mainyu ("Evil Spirit") as an uncreated, eternal cosmological power in opposition to Ahura Mazda. Of course, Zoroaster had his own version of relative dualism, by speaking of "the two primal Spirits" under Ahura Mazda as "the Better and the Bad, in thought and word and action"[2] but, according to the Zurvanist reinterpretaion, the two primal Spirits are Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu as the two sons of the time-god Zurvan in opposition to each other from eternity.

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, and it was prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus (especially modern-day Azerbaijan).

During the Seleucian period (330–150 B.C.E.), many Zoroastrian ideas began to spread outside the Iranian world (namely among Judeo-Christians and Buddhists). Also, the Seleucian era was characterized by the great influence Greek culture bore upon the Zoroastrian tradition. In the subsequent period, under the Parthians (150 B.C.E.–226 C.E.) these influences were rejected, largely due to resentment over the break in the tradition that occured when Alexander the Great overtook the Achaemenid Empire in 330 B.C.E. According to later traditions, many Zoroastrian sacred texts were lost in this invasion. It was also during the Parthian period that Mithraism, a Zoroastrian-derived faith focused on the Aryan god of the sun, Mitra, began to become popular within the Roman Empire.

During the reign of the Sassanid Empire (226–651 C.E.), the Zoroastrian tradition was reorganized and reformulated, as priests codified and canonized various aspects of the tradition that had survived the breaks caused by the Hellenistic influences. During this period, Zoroastrianism became less universalistic and more localized within Iran, justifying the position of the crown, clergy, and warriors at the top of the state hierarchy (Many scholars consider this strict hierarchization of society to be a remnant of the caste system, which the Zoroastrian Persians inherited from the Aryan predecessors.), and also maintaining nationalistic sentiment among the entirety of the Iranian people. A number of Zoroastrian mythological figures and dynasties became implicated in worldly progress toward frashokereti (an eschatological cleansing), mostly because of their place in Iranian history rather than their religious significance. Zoroastrians aggressively promoted their religion, often building new temples immediately upon capturing Roman territory. During the Sassanian period, the Zurvanist cult of absolute dualism enjoyed adherence from the kings, and the prophet Mani (c.216-274 C.E.) combined this Zurvanist dualism with Christianity to form Manichaeism. But, when the monotheistic religion of Islam arose, Zurvanism dramatically declined and the Zoroastrians returned to the pre-Zurvanist and original beliefs of Zoroaster.

Freddie Mercury was intensely proud of his Persian Zoroastrian heritage

It wasn’t only in Western art and literature that Zoroastrianism made its mark indeed, the ancient faith also made a number of musical appearances on the European stage.

In addition to the priestly character Sarastro, the libretto of Mozart’s The Magic Flute is laden with Zoroastrian themes, such as light versus darkness, trials by fire and water, and the pursuit of wisdom and goodness above all else. And the late Farrokh Bulsara – aka Freddie Mercury – was intensely proud of his Persian Zoroastrian heritage. “I’ll always walk around like a Persian popinjay,” he once remarked in an interview, “and no one’s gonna stop me, honey!” Likewise, his sister Kashmira Cooke in a 2014 interview reflected on the role of Zoroastrianism in the family. “We as a family were very proud of being Zoroastrian,” she said. “I think what [Freddie’s] Zoroastrian faith gave him was to work hard, to persevere, and to follow your dreams.”

Ice and fire

When it comes to music, though, perhaps no single example best reflects the influence of Zoroastrianism’s legacy than Richard Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which famously provided the booming backbone to much of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The score owes its inspiration to Nietzsche’s magnum opus of the same name, which follows a prophet named Zarathustra, although many of the ideas Nietzsche proposes are, in fact, anti-Zoroastrian. The German philosopher rejects the dichotomy of good and evil so characteristic of Zoroastrianism – and, as an avowed atheist, he had no use for monotheism at all.

Raphael’s The School of Athens, finished in 1511, includes a figure, seen in this detail from the larger work, many historians think is Zoroaster, holding a globe (Credit: Alamy)

Freddie Mercury and Zadig & Voltaire aside, there are other overt examples of Zoroastrianism’s impact on contemporary popular culture in the West. Ahura Mazda served as the namesake for the Mazda car company, as well as the inspiration for the legend of Azor Ahai – a demigod who triumphs over darkness – in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, as many of its fans discovered last year. As well, one could well argue that the cosmic battle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force in Star Wars has, quite ostensibly, Zoroastrianism written all over it.

Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of Queen, drew inspiration from the Zoroastrian faith of his Persian family (Credit: Alamy)

For all its contributions to Western thought, religion and culture, relatively little is known about the world’s first monotheistic faith and its Iranian founder. In the mainstream, and to many US and European politicians, Iran is assumed to be the polar opposite of everything the free world stands for and champions. Iran’s many other legacies and influences aside, the all but forgotten religion of Zoroastrianism just might provide the key to understanding how similar ‘we’ are to ‘them’.

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Avesta, the Zoroastrian Religious Text

The sacred texts of Zorastrianism are called The Avesta. The original Avesta is believed to have been largely destroyed when Alexander the Great attacked Persia. The remaining texts were gathered and compiled between the 3 rd and 7 th centuries C.E. The Avesta contains multiple sections, each of which is further subdivided.

  • The Yasna and Visperad sections include hymns, songs, and prayers used during worship services.
  • The Vendidad describes evil spirits and their various manifestations and explains how to combat them.
  • The Yashts include 21 hymns of praise.
  • The Siroza invokes 30 divinities which rule over the different days of the Zoroastrian months.
  • The Nyayeshes and Gahs include prayers to the Sun and Mithra, the Moon, the Waters, and Fire.
  • The Afrinagans are blessings to recite at different seasonal feasts and holidays and in honor of the dead.

Zoroastrian Beliefs And Concepts

Print of Zoroastrian priests , 19 th Century, the British Museum

Zoroastrianism revolves around the idea of living through “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds”. The dichotomy of good and evil was a strong narrative. Living by the order and purity of Ahura Mazda, through one’s actions and words was considered a good life. Core concepts like “asha”, or truth, faced their opposites such as “druj”, or falsehood. Individuals had free will to choose their path.

As creations of Ahura Mazda, humans were seen as holding some essence of the divine. By following the path of truth and righteousness, humans could become closer to Ahura Mazda. To do so, people were encouraged to be honest and truthful, charitable, compassionate, and to be moderate in their behavior and diet.

Purity was also a strong concept in Zoroastrian belief. The elements created by Ahura Mazda, like water and fire, were seen as pure and should never be tainted. Zoroastrians saw nature as something to be respected and treated with love. They took great pains not to contaminate rivers or the soil, especially in regards to dealing with the body after death. Many animals were seen as sacred, especially dogs, due to their role in funeral rites.

Zoroastrianism History and Beliefs

· Their theology has had a great impact on Judaism, Christianity and other later religions, in the beliefs surrounding God and Satan, the soul, heaven and hell, saviour, resurrection, final judgment, etc.
· It is one of the oldest religions still in existence,
· It may have been the first monotheistic religion.
· The religion was founded by Zoroaster
· Scholars aren’t sure when Zoroaster was born but they believe it was between 1700 and 600 B.C.E.
· Much of what is known about Zoroaster is based on legend, because many historical records are unreliable
· He lived in Persia which is modern day Iran
· He preached monotheism in a land that followed a polytheistic religion.
· Zoroaster preached that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. Ahura means “Lord,” and Mazda means “Wise,” so Zoroastrians call God the “Wise Lord.”
· Ahura Mazda’s main rival is Angra Mainyu, this rivalry represents the battle between good and evil in all of us.
· He was attacked for his teaching, but finally won the support of the king.
· Zoroastrianism became the state religion of various Persian empires, until the 7th Century C.E.

Sacred Text
· The Zoroastrian holy book is called the Avesta
· This includes the original words of their founder Zoroaster, preserved in a series of five hymns, called the Gathas.

· Fire is a very important symbol in Zoroastrianism. It represents God and helps Zoroastrians focus when they are praying.
· Zoroastrianism does not teach or believe in reincarnation or karma.
· Zoroastrians believe that after life on earth, the human soul is judged by God as to whether it did more good or evil in its life.
· Zoroastrians are dedicated to a three-fold path, as shown in their motto: “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”

· There are approximately 140,000 Zoroastrians in the world
· There are approximately 12,000 Zoroastrians in North America
· There are approximately 4,000 Zoroastrians in Ontario.
· In Ontario, the main community gathering place is the Darbe Meher at Bayview Ave. and Steeles Ave. in Toronto.

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What is Zoroastrianism?

Zoroastrianism was one of the most important religions in the ancient Near East and is still practiced by over 100,000 people around the world but it also happens to be one of the more misunderstood religions in history. Originating in ancient Persia probably in the middle of the second millennium BC, Zoroastrianism gradually spread through the words of its prophet, Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, before becoming the primary religion of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires. The religion became known as Zoroastrianism and as is the case with so many other religions, it evolved over time and adapted to the circumstances of its environment.

An examination of the ancient sources reveals that when the Achaemenid kings began worshipping Ahuramazda, the primary Zoroastrian god, the religion they followed was far different than what it later became. The Parthians refined many of the Achaemenids’ theological ideas and then the Sasanians codified the rituals and myths, essentially turning an obscure Indo-European cult into a true revealed religion. After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the seventh century, Zoroastrianism waned, but many of its strictest followers left for India where they were allowed to worship Ahuramazda openly.

Who was Zarathustra?

In order to understand the development of Zoroastrianism, one has to start at the beginning with the religion’s prophet, Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism shares a commonality with the Abrahamic religions as well as Buddhism and Sikhism in that they are all revealed religions. In the case of Zoroastrianism, the prophet who received the word of god was a Persian named Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as it is sometimes spelled in the West. Zarathustra’s life is largely a mystery, as there are no non-Zoroastrian texts that offer any insight into his birthplace or even when he lived.

Most modern scholars believe that Zarathustra lived between 1400 and 1200 BC, [1] although the Sasanian sources claimed that he lived much later, only 258 years before Alexander the Great, [2] which would have been some time just before the Achaemenids created their empire around 600 BC.

Zarathustra’s background is not as important as what he believed and preached as he traveled throughout Persia. Contrary to common belief, Zoroastrianism is not nor ever has been a monotheistic religion. Zarathustra and all of his subsequent followers believed in an Iranian triad that was heavily influenced and related to the Vedic religion of ancient India. Ahuramazda is the god at the head of the triad, which included Varuna and Mithra. [3] Ahuramazda was/is the god primarily worshipped by Zoroastrians, although Mithra and numerous angels/demi-gods also play a role. Mithra would later be adopted by the Romans and become one of their more popular gods.

What is Zoroastrian Theology?

At the center of Zoroastrian theology is the belief in asha, which can best be translated as a combination of righteousness, truth, and order. Zoroastrians are mindful of asha in everything they do, ritual or otherwise, and strive to avoid its opposite concept, drug, or “the lie.” [4] As Zoroastrians carry on their daily lives with the idea of asha in mind, pious believers have also carried out a number of notable rituals for centuries.

Sacred fires have been an important component in Zoroastrianism almost since its inception and are believed to come from its primordial Indo-European origins. As in the Vedic religion where the deities often had constructive and destructive qualities simultaneously, the Zoroastrian reverence of fire is an extension of this idea. Zoroastrians view fires as representative of purity, asha, and as such they must never be contaminated. The Zoroastrian reverence for fire led to the establishment of sacred fires and fire temples, some of which still exist. [5] Throughout history outsiders have consistently misunderstood the Zoroastrian reverence for fire as worship of fire, although Zoroastrian texts are adamant that fires are only representative of Ahuramazda power.

Another Zoroastrian ritual that has been misunderstood throughout history is the practice of corpse exposure. Zoroastrians believe that evil is omnipresent in the world and that once a person dies the corpse needs to be destroyed so that the soul will not be infected with evil. [6] The practice has generally involved priests bringing the body to a “Tower of Silence” where it was/is exposed and left to be eaten by dogs and vultures. The priest would then gather then bones and place them in an ossuary. The earliest recorded observation of this practice was made by the fifth century BC Greek historian, Herodotus. He wrote:

“There is another practice, however, concerning the burial of the dead, which is not spoken of openly and is something of a mystery: it is that a male Persian is never buried until the body ahs been torn by a bird or dog.” [7]

It should be pointed out that the practice is not confined to men and that traditionally male and female Zoroastrians have been given this funerary rite. [8]

Where the Achaemenid Persians Zoroastrians (559-330 BC)?

There is a debate among modern scholars concerning whether or not the Achaemenid Persians can be considered true Zoroastrians. Some refuse to classify them as such, [9] while others believe they were, or were at least proto-Zoroastrians. [10] Based on the historical evidence, there is evidence to support either argument.

In terms of burial rituals, the Achaemenid kings were interred in tombs, which is clearly not in keeping with the Zoroastrian ritual of corpse exposure, [11] although later Persian dynasties that were considered true Zoroastrians also interred their kings. Other scholars have also pointed out that Cyrus and Cambyses preferred Mithra to Ahuramazda, [12] but Darius I “the Great” (ruled 525-486 BC) invoked Ahuramazda’s named in nearly everyone of his royal inscriptions. An inscription from the capital city of Persepolis relates the importance of Ahuramazda in terms of truth/asha.

“Saith Darius the King: May Ahuramazda bear me aid, with the gods of the royal house and may Ahuramazda protect this country from a (hostile) army, from famine, from the Lie! Upon this country may there not come an army, nor famine, nor the Lie this I pray as a boon from Ahuramazda together with the gods of the royal house. This boon may Ahuramazda together with the gods of the royal house give to me!” [13]

Even if one does not consider the Achaemenids to have been true Zoroastrians, they certainly laid the groundwork for what would become the dominant religion in Persia for nearly 1,000 years.

Zoroastrianism As the Religion of Persia

Zoroastrianism suffered a setback after Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army conquered Persia in 330 BC. Less than 100 years later, though, the Parthians (247 BC-AD 224) came to power in Persia and initiated a dynasty that patronized Zoroastrianism as the state religion. The Parthians preserved the oral hymns and verses that would later comprise the holy book of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta, as well as the exegesis texts known as the Zand. [14]

The oldest documented fire temples are also dated to the Parthians. The rituals of tending the sacred fires, which are still practiced today, were established in the Parthian period and the three greatest fires of Zoroastrianism – Adur Burzen-Mihr, Adur Farnbag, and Adur Gushnasp – were all installed under Parthian kings. But the Parthians continued the very non-Zoroastrian Achaemenid tradition of interring their dead, although non-noble Zoroastrians did practice ritual exposure during this period. [15] The Parthians were clearly Zoroastrians, but their successors, the Sasanians (AD 224-651) codified the rituals and myths of Zoroastrianism, putting it on par with the other established religions of the period.

By the time the Sasanians came to power, Zoroastrianism was well-established not just in Persia, but throughout central Asia. The Sasanians saw the need to codify the Avesta in writing and to make sure that the people were following the rituals properly. High priests were appointed to oversee that the proper rituals were being carried out across the somewhat decentralized empire, especially the proper maintenance of the sacred fires. The high-priest Tansar, who served under Ardashir I (ruled 224-240), wrote letters to the regional governors and kinglets to make sure they were following the rules. In one letter, Tansar explains how Ardashir destroyed unauthorized fire temples while protecting the sacred fires.

“The truth is that after Darius (III) each of the ‘kings of the peoples’ [i.e. the Parthians’ vassal kings] built his own [dynastic] fire temple. This was pure innovation, introduced by them without the authority of king of old. The King of kings has razed the temples, and confiscated the endowments, and had the fires carried back to their places of origin. . . In the space of fourteen years. . . he thus brought it about that he made water flow in every desert and established towns and crated groups of villages.” [16]

Ardashir’s reformation also involved removing all icons from the fire temples and reducing the number of regnal fires to one. The king then installed several smaller, non-regnal fires to demonstrate his piety and support for the priesthood. [17]

The final and perhaps most important step the Sasanians took in the evolution of Zoroastrianism was to finally put the oral verses of the Avesta into writing. This process took place during the fifth or sixth centuries and totaled twenty-one books, including the following: gathas (songs), yashts (hymns to Mithra and other lesser gods), and the Vendidad (laws). Copies of the original Avesta, which were compiled in the Avestan language, were all destroyed in the Arab, Mongol, and Turkish invasions of Persia in the Middle Ages, but the Middle Persian, or Pahlavi, Zand of the Sasanians survived. [18] Since the only extant version of the Avesta is the Zand of the Sasanians, it is often called the Zand or Zend-Avesta.

Did Zoroastrianism extend Outside of Persia?

The Arab conquest of Persia not only brought an end to the Sasanian Dynasty, but also to Zoroastrianism’s religious hegemony over the land. The new Muslim rulers “allowed” the Zoroastrians to continue their religion if they paid the onerous jizya tax. The alternatives were to convert to Islam, become a martyr, or flee to new lands. [19]

Many Zoroastrians converted to the new religion, while others fled to remote areas of Iran where they paid the tax and were tolerated and allowed to continue their religion until the present. A large group organized in 917, though, and left for the region of Gujarat, India. There they faced some of the same problems as in Iran, but their Hindu neighbors were generally tolerant of their religion. The Zoroastrians of India eventually became known as Parsis, forming a tightknit community that still exists in the region to this day.


Of all the world’s major religions of the past and present, few have a more interesting history than Zoroastrianism. Arising from obscurity in ancient Iran, the religion was spread through the mouth of a prophet named Zarathustra. Eventually, over the course of 1,000 years, the religion that became known as Zoroastrianism was patronized by powerful dynasties that eventually made it their state religion. But just as Zoroastrianism was reaching its peak in terms of number of followers and intellectual maturity, it was nearly wiped out at the hands of invaders. In a testament to the tenacity of its followers, Zoroastrianism found a new home and continues to have adherents today.

Before Christianity, Judaism and Islam, There Was Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is the world's oldest surviving monotheistic religion and, many scholars think, the original source of religious conceptions of heaven, hell, Satan and Judgment Day in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet many people outside of Iran or India have never even heard of Zoroastrianism or think it's an ancient faith that died out with the arrival of these better-known religions.

Today, there are fewer than 140,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, but Zoroastrianism is very much a living religion. Its adherents worship a single, all-powerful and unknowable God called Ahura Mazda, the source of all creation and all goodness in the universe. But there is also opposition, a powerful force of evil that is the source of all lies and death. The purpose of life, according to Zoroastrianism, is to actively choose the good in thought, word and deed.

Who Was Zarathushtra?

The founder of Zoroastrianism is a mysterious prophetic figure known as Zarathushtra (or Zoroaster in Greek). Very little is known about Zarathushtra outside of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the earliest of which are believed to have been written by the man himself. Scholars of Zoroastrianism have struggled to pin down the century or even the millennium in which he may have lived.

"The closest thing to a scholarly consensus about the time when Zarathushtra lived is the late second millennium (1,000 to 2,000) B.C.E.," says Benedikt Peschl, a doctoral student in Indo-Iranian languages and Zoroastrianism at SOAS University of London. "He would have lived somewhere in Central Asia near modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan."

In the Gathas, a collection of ancient hymns composed by Zarathushtra, the prophet broke with the existing polytheistic religions of Central Asia and established the single divine authority of Ahura Mazda. In those early Zoroastrian texts, Zarathushtra received answers through prayer and inspiration, while later writings described colorful tales of Zarathushtra ascending to heaven to speak directly with God.

K. E. Eduljee is a lifelong Zoroastrian living in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of the impressive Zoroastrian Heritage website. When Eduljee gives presentations about Zoroastrianism, he simply describes Zarathushtra as "the founder of the faith."

"Zarathushtra was just a human being, not God manifested as human," says Eduljee. "He was a wise soul."

Outside of Zoroastrianism, the name Zarathushtra is best known from Friedrich Nietzsche's novel "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (using an alternate spelling), in which the existential German philosopher put his own words and thoughts in the mouth of the ancient prophet. Inspired by Nietzsche, the 19th-century composer Richard Strauss wrote the epic piece of orchestral music also called "Thus SpakeZarathustra" later featured in the wild opening scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

What Zoroastrians Believe: Monotheism and Dualism

Central to the Zoroastrian belief system is the idea that Ahura Mazda, the supreme being of goodness and light, is opposed by Angra Mainyu, a powerful (but not equally powerful) spirit of darkness and evil. The embodiment of this evil spirit is Ahriman, the equivalent of Satan or the Devil.

To Zoroastrians, all of reality is shaped by these dueling forces of light and dark, and every human being is free to choose their own path. The most righteous path is described by the "Zoroastrian Creed," which reads, "On three noble ideals be ever intent: The good thought well thought. The good word well spoken. The good deed well done."

Eduljee says that Zoroastrianism emphasizes action over belief. There's an ethical imperative to lead a good life and treat others with kindness rather than a theological imperative to profess a certain set of beliefs. And it's the actions you take in life, both good and bad, that determine your fate in the afterlife.

"Every single thought, word and deed is written on your soul," says Eduljee. "It's an ancient concept of karma. If you've given out pain and suffering to others, you're going to receive that for all eternity and there's no way of getting around it."

Zoroastrianism's Influence on Judaism and Christianity

Zoroastrianism flourished in the ancient world and had a strong influence on Jewish thinkers and writers. Peschl says that after the Babylonian exile, when the Jews were temporarily expelled from Palestine, many chose to remain in Babylonian Empire, where they exchanged religious ideas with Zoroastrians.

Later, during a time known as the "intertestamental period" (the period between the dates covered in the Old and New Testaments in the Bible, roughly the third and second centuries B.C.E.), Zoroastrian-style dualism showed up in apocryphal Jewish literature.

"That's the period when certain elements of Zoroastrianism entered into Judaism," says Peschl, "including the increased importance of the Devil figure and the idea of a Final Judgment."

In Zoroastrianism, the soul departs the body four days after death, at which point it crosses the Chinvat Bridge or Bridge of Judgment. Good souls are greeted by a beautiful maiden and ushered into heaven, while evil souls are captured by an old hag and dragged down to hell. Our word "paradise" is derived from the Old Iranian word pairi-daeza, which roughly translates to "celestial garden."

Zoroastrian Holidays, Rituals and Symbols

The traditional Zoroastrian calendar allots 30 days to each month with an extra five or six days tacked on at the end of the year to make up the difference. Every month starts with the first day of the first week and Zoroastrian holidays fall on the same dates every year.

One of the biggest and most widely celebrated Zoroastrian holidays is Nowruz, the New Year's festival held on the first day of spring. (It's celebrated by people of Iranian descent, even if they belong to other faiths beside Zoroastrianism.) Eduljee says that growing up, the preparation for Nowruz started a month before New Year with a good spring cleaning.

"The whole concept is that you're starting life afresh, cleaning the soul and cleaning the house," says Eduljee. "If there are old quarrels, you're supposed to settle them."

During Nowruz, every house lays out a festive spread complete with fruit, sweets and long-stemmed white flowers called tuberoses. Then gifts are exchanged, especially new clothes for the New Year.

While Zoroastrians don't have "churches" with regularly scheduled times for worship, larger communities support one or more temples in which Zoroastrian priests or "magi" conduct ritual prayers in the ancient Avestan language during special days of the year. Otherwise, members pray individually.

Fire is the most sacred element to Zoroastrians and figures prominently in temple rituals like the Yasna. An eternal flame is kept alight in Zoroastrian temples 24 hours a day. According to the Shahnameh or "Book of Kings," one of Zarathushtra's first teachings was about the transformative power of fire.

Other sacred elements include water, air and earth. For this reason, Zoroastrians traditionally buried their dead in special towers (later called "Towers of Silence") where the corpses would be left to be eaten by birds of prey — that way not polluting the air, earth, fire or water. The bones would be bleached by the sun and then placed in a pit. Currently this is only practiced in India, as in most parts of the world this would be illegal or considered inappropriate. Modern Zoroastrians may bury their dead in graves protected by concrete or stone.

The most visible symbol of Zoroastrianism is the Farohar or Faravahar, what looks like a large winged eagle with the body and head of a bearded man. This image is famously carved into the ruins at Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Zoroastrian Achaemenid Empire in Iran, and now graces Zoroastrian temples and gravesites.

The Rise, Fall and Future of Zoroastrianism

Peschl says that Zoroastrianism reached the peak of its power and political influence during the Sasanian Dynasty (224-651 C.E.) of Iran, the last Zoroastrian empire to rule Iran before the arrival of Islam. The Sasanians ruled from the Black Sea in the West down through the Persian Gulf and all the way East into India.

"Zoroastrianism lost its political power within a very short period as a consequence of the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century," says Peschl. "Right from the beginning, there was a strong incentive for Zoroastrians in Iran to convert to Islam."

Those who didn't convert faced terrible persecution in Iran, says Eduljee, which is why many Zoroastrians chose to migrate to India starting over 1,300 years ago. In India, Zoroastrians became known as Parsees, a word derived from the same root as Persians. Eduljee himself was born in India to a Parsee father and a mother whose great-grandparents migrated from Iran to India more recently.

The Parsee community in India still boasts the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Parsees live in India, mostly in upper-class enclaves around Mumbai, although their numbers are shrinking. Traditionally, Zoroastrians have not converted people to their faith. However, recently, they have begun to accept those who choose to become Zoroastrians through their own choice. Low birth rates are, however, taking a toll.

Eduljee, whose Vancouver Zoroastrian community is about 1,000 people strong, admits that he's "very concerned" about the future of Zoroastrianism, although he believes "we might just survive."

The Japanese automaker Mazda chose its name in part as a reference to Ahura Mazda, God in Zoroastrianism, and also the name of the company's second president, Jujiro Matsuda.

Watch the video: Εισαγωγή στον Ζωροαστρισμό - Ποιος είναι ο Zarathushtra;