If we talk about Iran and religion, the first thing most people think about is Islam. This makes a lot of sense, of course, since Iran is famously a Theocratic Islamic Republic. However, not many people are aware that Iran is also the birthplace of one of the world’s oldest religions that is still active: Zoroastrianism.
How active? Well, Freddie Mercury, the famous lead singer of Queen, was Zoroastrian!
If you are wondering what in the world Zoroastrianism is, like I was not that long ago, let me help you. But first, let’s talk about Zarathustra.
Who is Zarathustra
Zoroastrianism takes its name from Zoroaster or Zarathustra. If that name rings a bell, it’s probably due to Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Or maybe you might know the musical piece of the same name by Richard Strauss, famously used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the Zarathustra we are interested in is actually a man,
Zarathustra or Zoroaster was an Iranian prophet from the ancient era. There is no scholarly consensus about when he was born, but there is evidence pointing at somewhere between the 1st and the 2nd millennium BCE (3,000 or 4,000 years ago). Other experts believe he might have been born as late as the 6th century BCE. Which would mean he would have been alive at the same time as the great kings of Persia, like Cyrus the Great and Darius I.
In general, we don’t know much about him, at least not from reliable sources. We know that he was probably responsible for spreading the teachings of Zoroastrianism. We also know he was important for its development and expansion. However, we don’t know if he was a man or a series of prophets and masters. Zarathustra could have been just one of many.
Zarathustra’s greatest contribution to Zoroastrianism was the creation of the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism. The core of the religion’s thinking and liturgy. At least according to the legend. As it happens with most ancient history, it’s hard to separate the myths from reality.
Origins of Zoroastrianism
To understand where Zoroastrianism comes from, we need to go way back.
The origin of Zoroastrianism goes back to the religion practised in Central Asia around the 2nd millennium BCE. We don’t know the name of that religion. At that point in time, the area was populated by various tribes closely related to the Indo-Aryans. The Indo-Aryans were an ethnolinguistic group of people that eventually spread all over Europe, the Middle East and South Asia, including India and Iran.
Well, these people later settled on the Indian subcontinent and created the Sanskrit language, very influential in all of Asia and Europe. The Indo-Aryans that moved to South Asia eventually adopted Hinduism as their religion. However, early Hinduism had a lot in common with that Central Asian religion. For example, they both worshipped the Sun-God Mitra.
In India, Mitra eventually evolved into three different gods (Mitra, Aryaman and Varuna) during the Vedic Period. It’s called like that because it was the time where Indians adopted early Hinduism as their religion, also called Vedism.
In Iran, however, Mitra remained as a single god: Mithra. With time, Mithra became a lesser god from their pantheon, and a new god called Ahura Mazda became the Supreme God.
Zoroastrianism and Ahura Mazda
Mithra didn’t suddenly disappear in Iran. Even though Ahura Mazda’s popularity eventually displaced Mithra, both of them coexisted for centuries. Although as it always happens with religions, followers of Ahura Mazda or Mazdeism eventually tried to eradicate the worshipping of Mithra. By all means.
Religious wars aside, what matters is that, eventually, that original Central Asian religion morphed into the worshipping of Ahura Mazda during the Achaemenid dynasties in Persia. This was the germ of Zoroastrianism. Why? Because in Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is the supreme creator.
Before we continue, I think it’s important to point out that the worshipping of Ahura Mazda is not the same as Zoroastrianism. Yes, they both share the same god, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same religion. If you want a modern equivalent in western culture, think about the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are three different religions, yet they share the same god.
For example, in Persia, king Darius I (5th century BCE) worshipped Ahura Mazda. However, we don’t know if he was a Zoroastrian or not.
Traditions of Zoroastrianism
I personally find the Zoroastrianism tradition and theology fascinating.
Zoroastrianism is a monotheist religion with Ahura Mazda as the almighty supreme creator. He is not omnipotent but shares a few similarities with the modern Abrahamic god.
In Zoroastrianism, there is also a Good-Evil duality. Chaos is represented by Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the “Destructive Principle”. On the other hand, Ahura Mazda represents benevolence. This is also called Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu, the “Bounteous Principle” of the act of creation, and the presence of Ahura Mazda in all humankind.
Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds
Committing good deeds and keeping chaos away is fundamental for Zoroastrians. This is clear when you examine the three principal tenets of the religion: Humata, Hukhta and Huvarshta, commonly translated as Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.
Rituals of Zoroastrianism
Fire is vital for Zoroastrianism. Both fire and water are primordial elements. And all temples have a fire always active that must never be extinguished. In fact, the fire temple of Yazd Astash Behram, in the city of Yazd has a fire goblet that, according to the legend, has been active since the 5th century! Believers should always pray in front of some form of fire. This is one of the most famous aspects of this religion.
Another reason why Zoroastrianism is famous is the way of treating their dead. Traditionally, followers practice a form of burial called sky burial. Corpses are left exposed to the elements and the animals. Traditionally they were placed on top of constructions called the Towers of Silence, where vultures will eat the dead.
Influence of Zoroastrianism
One of the most interesting things about this religion, in my opinion, is the immense influence it had all over Asia and Europe.
The Cult of Mithra
If you remember the origins, Zoroastrianism shares a lot of roots with Vedism and Hinduism. After all, they all come from the same Central Asian religion. Well, it’s only natural that there were strong influences among them. As a quick example, Asura in Sanskrit means demon!
Thanks to the Silk Road, Zoroastrianism also influenced Buddhism, especially all symbolism regarding light.
If we move towards Europe, Zoroastrianism and the original Central Asian religion also had a notable influence.
For example, the Sun-god Mithra was worshipped by the Romans and especially Roman soldiers. It was so popular that the emperor Hadrian tried to promote the cult of Mithra as the main religion of the empire between the years 100 and 150.
Mithraism was well-established in ancient Rome. Many scholars think that it was on its way to becoming the predominant European religion if it wasn’t for the sudden popularity and adoption of a new young religion: Christianity. With Roman emperors becoming Christian, the cult of Mithra slowly became irrelevant and died out. It’s funny to think that with only a few minor changes in history, Mithraism could be one of the main religions today.
Zoroastrianism and Christianity
Speaking about Christianity, many Christian traditions were also influenced by Mithraism, and there are many similarities between Jesus and Mithra. They were both born on December the 25th, they were both born from a virgin, and in both cases, redemption is an important theme.
However, these similarities are not entirely surprising. Many religions of the time shared some of these properties, so it’s unclear what influenced what. On top of that, early Christians had a tendency to adapt dates, concepts and even gods from other religions and cults to the Christian canon. This made the transition of converter territories much easier.
The influence of Zoroastrianism on Christianity doesn’t end there. Why? Because Judaism was also heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism and Judaism
In the earlier forms of Judaism, Yahweh was a lesser god from the Canaanite pantheon, where El was the supreme god. When Persia conquered Babylon, the Judahites had an enormous cultural exchange with the Persians that lasted for centuries.
While Judahites and Persians lived together, Judaism changed a lot. Crucially, this is the time where it became a monotheistic religion. And historians don’t believe it was a coincidence. There are many reasons to think this was due to the influence of Zoroastrianism. And it’s not the only one!
Other ideas borrowed from Zoroastrianism were the concept of heaven and hell and the idea of two opposite divine entities. Zoroastrian beliefs influenced even the angelology and demonology of Abrahamic religions.
And, of course, all the influences on Judaism eventually propagated to Christianity and Islam.
Zoroastrianism and the Magi
And now, a final influence that I find particularly interesting. The Zoroastrian priests were known as “magus” or “magi”. This is the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Three Wise Men, Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, famously follow a shooting star to bring presents to Jesus.
These Three Wise Men were Persian magi, Zoroastrian priests!
I find this very interesting because I’m Spanish. And in Spain, traditionally we don’t get our Christmas presents from Santa. We get our gifts from the Three Wise Men on January the 5th. Also, we don’t call them Wise Men; we call them “Reyes Magos” or “magical kings”. If you are a bit suspicious about that “Magos” word, you would be correct because that word also derives from “magus”, the name of the Zoroastrian priests.
I don’t know about you, but I find it funny to think that a Central Asian religion from millennia ago is so alive today in something as mundane as my Christmas presents as a kid.
As you probably know, Zoroastrianism is no longer part of the mainstream nowadays. However, the religion still has a few followers!
There are Zoroastrian followers in Iran and some areas of India. On my trip through Iran, I was able to talk to some of them, especially in the eastern part of the country, in provinces like Yazd.
One of the highlights of my visit to Yazd was the visit to the Towers of Silence. This is where they used to throw the dead bodies to give them a sky burial.
Another unforgettable place was Chak Chak. This small village is the Holy Pilgrimage site of Zoroastrians. Inside, you can find the Pir-e Sabz fire temple. Here, Zoroastrian followers meet once a year. There, I also got to see some of the copies of the Avesta, the sacred text of Zoroastrianism.
Of course, it’s only a minor religion in Iran. Ever since the Arabs conquered the Sassanid Empire, Islam took over the region and quickly spread over the area. However, while Islam took hold in big cities, Zoroastrianism survived in the rural areas, still to this day.
During the Arab conquest and the following centuries, many Zoroastrians fled the region and settled in what is India today. These people that still practise the religion are called Parsi.
Do you remember how I mentioned at the beginning that Freddie Mercury was Zoroastrian? Well, he was a Parsi! And like the rest of his family, he followed the teachings of this ancient religion.
I hope you enjoyed this quick dip into such a fascinating religion. I personally find Zoroastrianism very interesting. It had such a massive influence on all major religions, and it’s so old! Some people claim it is the oldest religion still active, although Hinduism is another good candidate.
If you found this interesting, feel free to keep researching or consider a trip to Iran! It’s a country with a rich history and culture. And if you are like me and find history fascinating, you might want to read some of these:
- War of the Bucket, or how a bucket killed 2000 people
- Jiayuguan Fort – The Western End of the Great Wall
Until your next adventure!
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