Clas 3305 Lec 9 Persia and Zoroastrianism


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Clas 3305 Lec 9 Persia and Zoroastrianism


Cyrus Cylinder

Persian Empire


Indo-European Migration
(from ca. 4000 to 1000 BCE)
(one theory)
The Indo-Europeans had many languages

The Indo-Europeans had many names:

as Illyrians and Greeks,
they entered Greece

as Slavs, Germans and

Celts, they pushed across

as Kassites, they overran


as Aryans, they came down

thru Pakistan to India
A new empire..
The Medes are Indo-Europeans

They are young and vigorous when the ancient empires are old and tired

Medes passed down to the Persians:
their language and alphabet (36 letters)

their writing materials (pen and parchment)

their architectural ingenuity (particularly use of the column)

their social structure (patriarchy and polygamy)

And, perhaps most importantly.

their sacred scripture (the Zend-Avesta)

their religion (Zoroastrianism)



Persian Empire.

Cyrus (550-531 BCE)

Cambyses (528-522 BCE)

Darius (521-486 BCE)


Persian Empire:

Absolute hereditary authority (king rules with divine assistance - but isn't divine)

System of satraps - (royal governors) and secretaries (spies)

Efficiently organized system of taxation

Introduction of coinage throughout the empire (from Lydia)

Complex system of roads (and pony express) for commercial and military use


Alexander the Great



Aryan Religion Before Zarathustra:

Nature gods..
"God's house," cannot be made by human beings with mud and stone, it is the soul and heart of them.
Animal sacrifice

Sacred fire carried

the smell to the gods


Ritual Intoxication

Intoxicating drink

made from wild rue

and supposed to

allow communication

with God
(soma in India)

Death Rituals.
Chief Divinities (Mithra, Anaita, Hoama)
Somewhere between 1000 and 600 BCE, things changed in Persia.
They changed because of the coming of the Prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster to the Greeks)
The Prophet Zarathustra
Zarathustra Persian name

Zoroaster Greek name

Prophet of Ahura Mazda
Controversial dating:
6000 or 600 BCE ?

Art from the 18th "C.


Divine Birth shrouded in


Born to a virgin girl of noble lineage

Withdrew from the society of men

Tempted by the devil (Ahriman)

Interviewed by archangels

Presented with the Avesta (Divine Book) by Ahura Mazda himself



To what land am I to fly?

I am estranged from my family and my tribe.

Neither the villages nor the wicked governors of the land are favourable to me.

How can I, O Lord, assure myself thy good will?

Ethical Monotheism

Zarathustra both religious reformer and social activist


In the same way that religion forged a people in ancient Palestine which then became a political entity,

so Zoroastrianism forged a people in the Iranian Plateau, which then became a political entity (Islam came much later)
Both are monotheistic creeds with a strong moral foundation
Both gods embody moral virtues

Both require ethical behaviour from adherents


The three tenets of Zoroastrianism:

Good Thoughts

Good Words

Good Deeds


Zoroastrian Monotheism
Ahura-Mazda was the one god -- Lord of Light and Heaven

(all other gods merely manifestations and qualities)


Other divinities .

daewas (Latin Deus -- divinity, deity)

perhaps also root of devil

Zoroastrian symbol

called the Faravahar


The Faravahar.


The Rock of Behistun.
(Persian Rosetta

Henry Rawlinson

The Greeks revered Zoroaster
as a philosopher
Zoroastrian Dualism.

God and Anti-God

Ahura-Mazda is eternal light, goodness,

order, virtue and truth

Ahriman is eternal darkness, chaos,

wickedness and falsehood

Other Names for God and Anti-God
Spenta-Mainyu another name for Ahura-Mazda

Angra-Mainyu and Shaitin other names for Ahriman (Satan to the later Christians)

Sometimes considered two aspects of one being - eternal co-creators of the world

Now the two primal spirits, who revealed themselves in vision as Twins, are the Better and the Bad in thought and word and action. And between these two the wise ones choose aright, the foolish not so. And when these twain Spirits came together in the beginning, they established Life and Not-Life, and that at the last the Worst Existence (Hell) shall be to the followers of the Lie, but the Best Thought (Paradise) to him that follows Right. Of these twain Spirits he that followed the Lie chose doing the worst things; the holiest Spirit chose Right.


Battle between Good and Evil

Each time we choose the right over the wrong, we help to expand god's realm and diminish the devil's - and thus influence the final battle at the end of time.
Tolstoy said that the purpose of religion is to give life a meaning which death could not destroy.
Free Will.
Zoroastrians have a profound belief in free will
With every thought, every action, every word, we choose one side or the other
Final Judgment.
Eschatology: the conception of last things
Ahriman and his minions will mount a final assault on Ahura-Mazda

The natural order will be disrupted

A fierce winter will come over the world

A terrible monster, Dahak, will be let loose

to wreak havoc on the world

Then a virgin will come and bathe in a lake in which the seed of Zoroaster has been miraculously preserved

She will give birth to Saoshyant, the Saviour

The Saviour will raise all the dead for the final judgement and purification



The world will be made perfect -- all who

ever lived will live forever


Return of Pre-Zoroastrian Deities.

Temples and images of the gods reintroduced

Veneration of other deities besides Ahura-Mazda allowed (even encouraged)

Aryan nature gods also made small comeback -- called Holy Immortal Ones

Yazatas (angels)


Mithra (god of war

and god of light)

(old Aryan deity

who watched over


worshipped as a

warrior-god, fighting

the powers of


Mithra worshipped as sun

Christ worshipped as son
Temple of Anahita
Zoroaster's own teaching believed preserved in the Gathas -- 17 hymns included in the Avesta -- the holy book

From the Gathas

For whom have you created me? Who formed me?

Fury, violence, cruelty and tyranny bear me down.

I have no other shepherds but you: procure for me good pastures.

(that familiar ANE

shepherd image)

The disciples of the Prophet

gathered his words and
sayings in the Gathas

Later called Avesta

Later still, Zend-Avesta

Traces of Babylonian influence.

creation of the world in six periods

1. the heavens,

2. the waters,

3. the earth,

4. plants,

5. animals,

6. man

Babylonian influence.

the descent of all men from two first parents

the establishment of an earthly paradise

the discontent of the Creator with his creation

and his resolve to destroy all but a remnant by a flood.


Specifically Iranian elements:

world conceived in dualistic terms as the stage of a conflict, lasting 12,000 years, between the god Ahura-Mazda and the devil Ahriman

purity and honesty are the greatest of the virtues

virtue will lead to everlasting life

the dead must not be buried or burned

dead must be thrown to the dogs or to birds of prey


While many early religions exerted influence over the religions of the Old and New testaments, Zoroastrianism, which far predates Christianity, is the only one still practiced today

Satan -- Ahriman

demons (and lesser deities) -- daewa

personal guardian angels

coming of the Saviour

doctrines of resurrection and final judgment

earthly existence of god's kingdom

first religion to teach universality

salvation open to all who accept teaching


Ahura - Mazda (the thinking god)

profoundly new element in ancient religion
"recognition of reason as the law of the universe"
-- something another Indo-European people were about to achieve in Greece -- the basis of our western heritage."

To read for next week.

First four chapters of Genesis
Make notes about the two versions of the creation story



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