Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ancient Persian Religion

I. Before Zoroaster.

1. Early Aryan Religion:

There are clear indications in the Avesta that the religion of the Medes and Persians before Zoroaster's time agreed in most respects with that of the Indian Aryans, and in a less degree with the beliefs of the Aryans in general. All the Aryan tribes in very ancient times showed great respect for the dead, though they carefully distinguished them from the gods (compare Rig-Veda X, 56, 4). The latter were principally the powers of Nature, the wind, fire, water, the sky, the sun, the earth, and a host of personifications. The procreative powers in Nature, animate and inanimate, seeming to be the source of animal and vegetable life, received adoration, which ultimately led to unspeakable corruption. Herodotus tells us that the Persians in his time worshipped the sun, moon, sky, earth, fire, wind and water (i.131). Offerings to the gods were laid on a mass of pomegranate twigs (baresman; Sanskrit, barhis), and the flesh of victims was boiled, not burnt. Libations of haoma-juice were poured out, just as in India the soma was the drink of both gods and their worshippers.

2. Avesta and Rig-Veda:

A comparison between the spiritual beings mentioned in the Avesta and those spoken of in the Rig-Veda is most instructive in two ways. It shows that the original religion of the Iranians and of the Indian Aryans agreed very closely; and it also enables us to realize the immensity of the reformation wrought by Zoroaster. Many of the names of supernatural beings are practically the same; e.g. Indra (Indra, Andra), Mitra (Mithra), Aryaman (Airyaman), Asura (Ahura), Apam Napat (Apam Napat), Tvashtri (? Tishtrya), Rama (Raman), Vayu (Vayu), Vata (Vata). So are many words of religious import, as Soma (Haoma), Mantra (Mathra), Hotra (Zaotar). The Yama of India is the Yima of Persia, and the father of the one is Vivasvat and that of the other Vivanhat, which is the same word with dialectic change. The Holy River of the Avesta, Aredhvi Sura, the Unstained (Anahita), is represented by the Sarasvati, the Ganga (Ganges) and other sacred streams worshipped in India. In Persia Atar (or Fire) is a son of Ahura Mazda (Yasna LXIV, 46-53), as Agni (equals Ignis) is of Tvashtri in the Rig-Veda. Armaiti is Ahura Mazda's daughter, as Saranyu in the Rig-Veda is the daughter of Tvashtri, the "Creator." The use of gomez (bovis urina) for purification is common to both India and Persia. Though the soma-plant is not now the same as the haoma, the words are the same, and no doubt they at one time denoted one and the same plant. Many of the myths of the Avesta have a great resemblance to those of the Rig-Veda. This comparison might be extended almost indefinitely.

In another respect also there is an important agreement between the two. Though some 33 deities are adored in the Vedic Hymns, yet, in spite of polytheism and low ideas of the divine, traces of something higher may be found. Varuna, for instance, represents a very-lofty conception. In the closest connection with him stands Asura, who is a being of great eminence, and whose sons are the gods, especially the Adityas.

3. The Creator:

Tvashtri again is creator of heaven and earth and of all beings, though his worship was ultimately in Vedic times displaced by that of Indra. It is clear then that the Indian Aryans were worshippers of the Creator and that they knew something of Him long before they sank into polytheism. In the Avesta and in the Persian cuneiform inscriptions alike, Ahura Mazda occupies much the same position as Varuna, Asura (the same word as Ahura), or Tvashtri in the Rig-Veda, or rather in the ancient belief of which traces are retained in the latter work. Hence, as the Avesta teaches, Zoroaster was not for the first time preaching the existence of Ahura Mazda, but he was rather endeavoring to recall his people to the belief of their ancestors, the doctrine which Ahura Mazda had taught Yima in primeval time in his first revelation (Vendidad II, 1-16,42). The great truth of the existence of the Creator, testified to by tradition, reason and conscience, undoubtedly contributed largely to Zoroaster's success, just as a similar proclamation of the God Most High (Allah ta`ala'), worshipped by their ancestors, helped the thoughtful among the Arabs in later years to accept Muhammad's teaching. The consciousness in each case that the doctrine was not new but very ancient, materially helped men to believe it true.

II. Zoroastrianism.

1. Leading Principle:

The reformation wrought by Zoroaster was a great one. He recognized--as Euripides in Greece did later--that "if the gods do aught shameful, they are not gods." Hence, he perceived that many of the deities worshipped in Iran were unworthy of adoration, being evil in character, hostile to all good and therefore to the "All-Wise" Spirit (Ahura Mazda) and to men. Hence, his system of dualism, dividing all beings, spiritual or material, into two classes, the creatures of Ahura Mazda and those of the "Destroying Mind" (Anro Mainyus). So many of the popular deities were evil that Zoroaster used the word daeva (the same as deva, deus, and Aramaic di) to denote henceforth an evil spirit, just as Christianity turned the Greek daimones and daimonia (words used in a good sense in classical authors) into "demons." Instead of this now degraded word daeva, he employed baga (Old Persian; Av. bagha, Vedic bhaga, "distribution," "natron" "lord") for "God."

2. Not Monotheistic:

But, it must be remembered that Zoroaster did not teach monotheism. Darius says that "Auramazda and the other gods that there are" brought him aid (Beh. Inscr., IV, 60-63), and both he and Xerxes speak of Auramazda as "the greatest of the gods." So, even in the first Gatha, Zoroaster himself invokes Asha, Vohu-Mano, maiti, Sraosha, and even Geus-urvan ("the Soul of the Bull"), as well as Ahura Mazda.

(1) Darius and Xerxes.

Darius mentions the "clan-gods," but does not name any of them. He and Xerxes ascribe the creation of heaven and earth to Auramazda, and say that the latter, "Who made this earth, who made yon sky, who made man, who made happiness for man," has appointed each of them king. It is "by the grace of Auramazda" (vashna Auramazdaha) that Darius conquers his enemies. But both Artaxerxes Mnemon and Artaxerxes Ochus couple Mithra and Anahata (Anahita) with Auramazda (Ahura Mazda) in praying for the protection of the empire.

(2) Ahura Mazda.

In the Avesta, Ahura Mazda is one of the seven Amesha spentas or "Bountiful Immortals." He is the father of one of them, Spentas Armaiti, who is also his spouse. He is primus inter pares among them, their chief, but by no means the only god. Monotheism is distinctly taught in later Zoroastrian works, for instance, in the Zaratusht-Namah, composed 1278 AD, but it is due to Christian and Islamic influence.

3. Objects of Worship:

The modern Zoroastrian view, clearly stated in the Dasatir i Asmani and elsewhere, that all the good creatures of Ormazd (Ahura Mazda) are entitled to adoration, undoubtedly rests upon the Avesta. There we find, in the first place, the Amesha Spentas, who occupy in regard to Mazda the same position as do the Vedic Adityas toward Varuna, though not one of the Adityas is identical with any of the Amesha Spentas.

The names of these are:

(1) Ahura Mazda (otherwise called Spento Mainyus or "Bountiful Mind");

(2) Vohu Mano ("Good Mind");

(3) Asha Vahista ("Best Righteousness");

(4) Khshathra Vairya ("Excellent Ruler");

(5) Spenta Amaiti ("Bounteous Piety");

(6) Haurvatat ("Health");

(7) Ameretat ("Immortality").

Each has a special province:

thus Armaiti is the general spirit of earth and presides over its fruitfulness. She is the troness of virtuos matrons. Khshathra is the guardian of metals. Vohu Mano guards sheep and cattle and introduces to Ahura Mada the spirits of the just. Next in rank come the Yazatas ("Worshipful Ones"), of whom there are a large number. Three of them, Mithra, Rashnu and Sraosha, preside at the judgment of the dead on the 4th day from death. Rashnu holds the scales in which a man's deeds are weighed. Sraosha guards the soul during the first three nights after death. Airyaman Ishya ("the longed-for comrade") is the protector of mankind, the bestower of peace and happiness. On one occasion (Vend., Farg. XXII, 23-29) Ahura Mazda sends his messenger Nairyo Sanha ("male instructor") to ask his aid against overwhelming odds. Riman Hvastra, the bosom friend of Mithra, presides over the atmosphere and also gives its taste to food. Mithra is the genius of truth, possessed of 1,000 ears, and riding in a single-wheeled chariot (the sun), while darting golden darts and driving fiery steeds. Tishtrya, identified with the dog-star Sirius, sends rain and is by Ahura Mazda endowed with his own power and dignity (Yasht VIII, 52). This is true of Mithra also (Yasht X, 1) Atar ("Fire"), Vayu ("Air"), Vata ("Wind"), Verethraghna ("Mars"), Saoka ("Prosperity"), Aratat (genius of Justice), Vizista ("Lightning"), Fradatfshu (the guardian of cattle), Berejya (genius of grain), Cista and Daena ("Knowledge" and "Religion"), who are others of the Yazatas. All these are entitled to worship at the hands of the true adorer of Mazda (Mazdayasna, opposed to Daevayasna, or worshipper of the demons).

4. Anro Mainyus and His Creatures:

In opposition to the creatures of Ahura Mazda are those of Anro Mainyus, who is the source of all moral and material evil. The first chapter of the Vendidad tells how he created something bad in opposition to everything good made by Ahura Mazda.

A demon is the adversary of each Amesha Spenta:

Aka Mano ("Evil Mind") that of Vohu Mano, and so in order: Indra (or Andra, "demon of untruthfulness"), Saurva ("evil government") Nonhaithya ("discontent"), Tauru ("who poisons water") and Zairi ("poison"), being antagonistic to the other Bountiful Immortals. Aeshma-Daeva ("Demon of Wrath")--the Asmodeus of Tobit 3:8--is the special foe of Sraosha, the genius of obedience. Apaosha, demon of drought, is the enemy of Tishtrya. Buiti (or Buidhi) teaches men to worship idols, and also causes death. Bushyasta is the demon of sloth. Vidhatus or Astuvidhstus causes death by destroying the body. Other evil beings, Drujes, Pairikas, Jainis, Yatus, are so numerous in the later parts of the Avesta that a pious Zoroastrian must have lived in continual dread of their assaults. He had even to conceal the parings of his nails, lest they should be used as darts to his injury by these his spiritual foes.

5. Production versus Destruction:

Holiness does not enter into Zoroaster's conception of the divine nature. This is a point to which attention has not yet been properly directed, though its importance can hardly be exaggerated. The epithet Spenta, often applied to Ahura Mazda and mistranslated "Holy," is by the Zoroastrians themselves in Pahlavi rendered afzunik, i.e. "that causes increase." Its (?) span or spen equals (Sanskrit) svi, "to swell," "to grow," "to increase." The opposite to this is the term anro (angro, from (?) angh; compare German eng, "narrow") to the Evil Spirit, and denoting "narrowing," "decreasing," "destroying." Hence, as the Destroyer, he is styled pourumahrka, "full of death."


Ahura Mazda and his assistants promote life, fertility in man, beast and plant, agriculture, increase; while Ahro Mainyus and his creatures cause destruction and death. Atar ("Fire"), also styled Apam Napat ("Offspring of the Waters"), is the vital flame and the male energy in the world; Aredhvi Sura Anahita is the female. As a river the latter flows from Mt. Hukairya, a peak in the Elburz Range (Yasna LXIV), into the Caspian Sea (Vourukasha) in the midst of which grows the tree Hvapa ("well watered") which bears the seeds of all plants. Anahita means "'undefiled," but it is applied to purity of water (to defile any of the four "elements" was, for later Zoroastrians, a grievous sin) and not to any moral purity in the goddess. Her association with Mithra was close, even in Herodotus time, for he falls into the mistake of saying (i.131) that the Persians called Aphrodite Mithra, when he should have said Anaitis (Anahita). Though god of truth and righteousness Mithra is not associated with moral purity (chastity). On the contrary, he was said to fertilize the earth with his rays, as sun-god, and Anahita as goddess of fruitfulness represented the female principle in conjunction with him. The vileness which led to the identification of Anahita with the Babylonian Mylitta was doubtless of later date than Zoroaster's time, yet there was little or nothing in Zoroastrianism to check it. Something similar asserts itself in Armenia, as well as in Iran, and in fact in all Nature-worship everywhere. Associated with this was the form of incest known as next-of-kin marriage (Av. Hvaetva-datha, Pahl. Khvetukdas), which permitted and encouraged marriages between brothers and sisters.

6. Contest between Ormazd and Ahriman:

According to later Zoroastrian belief, the contest between Ormazd (Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman (Anro Mainyus), after continuing for 9,000 years, is to be decided in favor of the former only through his possessing foreknowledge and Ahriman's lacking it (Bund., I). Both came into existence independently in limitless time (Av. Zrvana Akarana; Vend., Farg. XIX, 13; Pahl. Daman i Akandrakhom-and, Bund., I), which, personified in the Vendidad, is called "Self-created," and is there by Ahura Mazda's command invoked by Zoroaster in conjunction with Vayu, the Air, the Winds, "the bountiful, beauteous daughter of Ahura Mazda" (Armaiti), the Earth, and other objects of worship (loc. cit.). No creature of Ahriman is to be worshipped; hence, Indra, though in later Vedic times rising in India to a leading position in the Pantheon, is in the Avesta accounted a fiend, the very impersonation of the Lie which the Avesta so firmly denounces and which Darius mentions as the cause of all the rebellions, which produced so much bloodshed in his time. No virtue was valued so highly as truth in ancient Iran, as Herodotus agrees with the Avesta in testifying.

7. Ethics:

Avestic morality encourages the destruction of all hurtful things, as being of Anro Mainyus' creation, and the propagation of everything good. Hence, agriculture is especially commended, together with the rearing of cattle and sheep. Somewhat later the whole duty of man was said to consist in good thoughts, good words, good deeds. Fierce opposition to every other religion was enjoined as a religious duty, and, under the Sasanides especially, this led to fearful and repeated persecutions of Christians throughout the empire.

8. Sacred Thread:

The Sacred Thread (Av. Aiwyonhana; Skt. Upavitam, etc., now by the Parsis styled the Kushti) plays as important a part in Zoroastrianism as in Hinduism. So do charms, mathras (Sanskrit, mantras), consisting in repetitions of the verses of the Avesta. The latter is even adored.

9. Early Traditions:

The first thing created by Ahura Mazda was a Bull, which may represent the earth, and reminds us of the Cow Audhumla in the Edda (Gylfaginning VI). This was killed Traditions by Anro Mainyus (in a later version, by Mithra). His spirit (Geus Urvan) went to heaven and became the guardian of cattle. The first man was Gaya-maretan ("Mortal Life"); hence, the phrase Haca Gayat Marethnat a Saosh-yantat, "from Gaya-maretan (Gayomard), Kayomarth) to Saoshyant" (Yasna XXVI, 10; Yasht XIII, 145), means "from the beginning to the end of the world." From the Airyanem Vaejo ("Aryan germ"), the first home of the Iranians, men were compelled to migrate because Anro Mainyus so altered the climate that the winter became ten months long and the summer only two. Yima Khshaeta ("Yima the Brilliant," Persian, Jamshid), son of Vivanhat, though he twice refused Ahura Mazda's commission to guard his creatures, and though by three lies he lost the "Royal Light" (Chvareno Kavaem) which he originally possessed, was yet directed to prepare a very extensive enclosure (Vara), in which he preserved "the seeds of sheep and cattle, of men, of dogs, of birds, and of red, glowing fires" from some terribly severe winters which came upon the earth (Vendidad II; Yasht XIX). The Bundihishnih tale of a flood differs from this, preserving an independent narrative. Ahura Mazda's law was preached to men within Yima's enclosure.

10. The Earth:

The earth consists of seven divisions, called Karshvares (compare the Sanskrit dvipas). Only one of these, Chvaniratha, is inhabited by men; the others are separated from it by impassable abysses. Sun, moon, and stars revolve round Mt. Taera, a peak in the Elburz Mountains (Demavend?). A later legend says that the Elburz Range surrounds the earth.

11. Heaven and Hell:

Each god and man possesses a fravashi, which has been compared to a guardian spirit and seems to differ from the soul (urvan). After judgment by Mithra, Rashnu and Sraosha, the souls of the dead must cross the Chinvat-bridge ("Bridge of the Judge"), which is guarded by two dogs and is narrow and difficult for the unjust, but wide and easy for the just. The righteous man then advances through three Paradises, those of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Works (Humata, Hukhta, Hvarsta:

Yasht XVI; Arta Viraf Namak, VII IX), until, led by Sraosha, Atar, and Vohu Mano, he finally reaches Ahura Mazda's abode of light and glory, Garo-nmana (in Gathas, Garo-demana; Pahl. Garotman), where Ahura Mazda himself receives him with the words: "Greeting to thee; well hast thou come; from that mortal world hast thou come to this pure, bright place" (A. V. Namak, XI, 8, 9). But the soul of the wicked man, passing through regions of Evil Thoughts, Evil Words and Evil Deeds, finally reaches a dark and gloomy Hell (Duzhanh). In later times it was believed that those not yet fit for heaven waited in Misvana Gatus, an intermediate place where the extra merits of the just were stored up for the benefit of the less fortunate (Vend., Farg. XIX). A later name was Hamistakan. But De Harlez is of the opinion that this idea was borrowed from medieval Christianity.

12. Interment:

In primeval times the Persians buried or burned their dead. Zoroastrianism may have introduced the dakhma (Vendidad, passim) or Tower of Silence, on which bodies are exposed to be eaten by vultures. Those of which the ruins have been discovered at Al Hibbah are very ancient. But in Herodotus' time it was usual, after permitting the flesh to be devoured by dogs and birds, to cover the bones with wax and bury them (Herodotus i.140). This was done to prevent them from coming in contact with and so polluting the earth. The custom of burial is proved by the tombs of the Achemenian kings near Persepolis, and that of Cyrus, a stone chamber raised high above the ground, at Pasargadae.

13. Worship:

Zoroastrianism permits no idol-worship and no temples, fire-altars only being used. These were served by Atharvans or fire-priests, who fed the fire with costly wood and poured into it libations of haomajuice, taking care to cover their mouths with a cloth (paiti-dhana) to keep the sacred fire from being polluted by their breath. Sacrifices were often offered on the tops of the highest mountains under the open sky (Herodotus i.132; Xen. Cyrop. viii).

14. The Magi:

The Magi doubtless owed their monopoly of priestly functions to their being Zoroaster's own tribe. They are not mentioned as priests in the Persian cuneiform inscriptions. Only once does the word. "Magus" occur in the Avesta, and then in composition (Moghu-tbish, a Magus-hater, Yasna LXV, 7). It is not necessary to trace to Babylonian influence the decay of Zoroastrianism and its degradation in late Achemenian times. This was at least in large measure due to a revival of the ideas and practices forbidden by Zoroaster, which reassert themselves in some parts of the Avesta, and which afterward gave rise to Mithraism.

15. Eschatology:

The Avesta states that, 1,000 years after Zoroaster's death, a prophet named Ukhshyat-ereta will arise from his seed to restore his religion. After another 1,000 years another, Ukhshyat-nemanh, will appear for the same purpose. The end of the world will come 1,000 years later. Then a third prophet, Saoshyant, will be born, and will usher in the Restoration (frasho-kereti) of the world to its primitive happiness and freedom from the evil creatures of Anro Mainyus. This process will be completed in 57 years, during which 6 other prophets will perform in the other 6 Karshvares the work which will here be accomplished by Saoshyant. But mention of this Restoration occurs only in very late parts of the Avesta (e.g. Vend., Farg. XVIII, 51). It does not mean Resurrection, as De Harlez has shown. Later still, something of the kind was believed, and in the Bundihishnih (chapter v) and the Patet (section 28) we have the word ristakhiz (from Av. irista, "departed," and chvis,"to rise"), which does mean "rising of the dead." But it can hardly be doubted that the doctrine is due to Hebrew and Christian influence, especially when we consider the late and uncertain date of the books in which the idea occurs.

16. Hebrew and Christian Influence:

Israelites settled in Media in large numbers in or about 730-728 BC under Sargon (2 Kings 17:6), long before Zoroaster's birth. It is possible that his reformation may have owed much therefore to Hebrew influence.


The idea of virgin birth has been asserted to occur in Zoroastrianism, both with reference to Zoroaster himself and to the last three great prophets of whom mention has been made. This is an error. The Avesta and all later Zoroastrian books speak of Zoroaster's birth as quite natural, his father being Pourushaspa. Nor is virgin birth referred to in the case of Saoshyant and the rest.

17. No Virgin Birth:

(Mater cuiusque ex iis, sese in lacu quodam lavans, Zoroastris semine illic reposito grayida facta filium pariet:

Vend., Farg. XIX, 4-6; Yasht XIII, 128, 142; Bund., XXXII, 8, 9.) Virginity is not highly esteemed in the Avesta, though fornication is condemned.


Geldner's edition of text of Avesta; De Harlez, Avesta; Achemenian Inscriptions; Sacred Books of the East, volumes IV, XXIII, XXXI; Grassmann, Worterbuch zum Rig Veda; Haug and West, Arta Viraf Namak; Spiegel, Einleitung in die trad. Schriften der Parsen; Eranische Altertumskunde; Darmesteter, Etudes iraniennes; Haug, Essays on .... Religion of Parsis; De Harlez, Manuel du Pehlavi; Cook, Origins of Religion and Language.

W. St. Clair Tisdall



Akshay Dave said...

The information you have posted here is really interesting and very informative. It was really interesting reading through all of those.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the help! im writing a paper on this.:)

Anonymous said...

Well you teached me a few new things about my ancient religion, although I think alot of ideas and thoughts have come from Pagan and astrologically or stars, How the sun is Re Born on the Winter Solis and things.I believe
many prophets were False and Lied,
ie Mohammed, and others, and that Jesus was a prophet but not the son of God. Thanks. Fillhip Lips. on Youtube.. fyi

Pierce said...

I was reading some articles about Cialis Online, and I ran into your blog, your post is amazing, there are many ancient cultures still to be found, specially under the oceans.