The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Old Iranian Religion and Zoroastrian Reforms
By Dr Oric Basirov
Paper 3 - 3rd November1998
Lecture Two we discussed the establishment of the Median Empire, and also
briefly mentioned Persians. These two great Western Iranian imperial dynasties
who later became Zoroastrians, represented peoples whose languages were very
different from the Avestan. These people, before their conversion in the West to
the eastern faith, worshipped the old pre-Zoroastrian gods. Their westerly
migration, therefore, must have taken place before the spread of Zoroastrianism
in eastern Iran.
lecture should logically chart the westward expansion of the faith by filling
the gap between the time and place of the prophet and the establishment of his
faith in western Iran. There is, however, no valid archaeological and
documentary evidence to bridge this gap. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the
religion was born in the East, and did spread to the West. This process is,
therefore, examined by highlighting, first the main aspects of the Old Iranian
religion, secondly the principal elements of the Zoroastrian reforms, and
finally the first signs of the appearance of these reforms in western Iran. We
shall now briefly examine the first two elements of this process.
THE MAIN ASPECTS OF THE OLD IRANIAN RELIGION
strong parallelism between the old religion of Iran and those of other
Indo-European peoples, such as Indians, Greeks and Germans, indicates a common
origin in the distant millennia. Any close scrutiny and comparison, however, is
only possible with the religion of the ancient Indians. Indeed such are the
similarities between these two cultures that they are assumed to derive from a
single sub-division called Indo-Iranian.
The closely-knit pantheons of India and Iran share several principal gods, some of whom embodying the unprecedented concept of "abstract deities”. Each pantheon, moreover, possessed three Ahuras (Sanskrit Asura), meaning "Lord". The first two Iranian Ahuras were Mithra, and *Vouruna who may have become the Iranian Apem Napet. The first two Indian Asuras are Mitra, and Varuna who is also associated with the Indian Apem Napet. The third Lord was Ahura Mazdah, "The Wise Lord" in Iran, and Asura *Medhe in India. Not all these Ahuric (Asuric) gods were supreme deities. Indeed, some like the Iranian Apm Nap~t and Indian *Medhe seem very obscure, who hardly merit a mention in the surviving literature. The Iranian Mithra and the Indian Varuna, however, were regarded as chief deities. The only other high ranking gods were the Daevas (modern divs) represented by Inder in Iran, and the Devas (modern devs) represented by Indra and his followers in India (The term "Daeva/Daiva", meaning "heavenly one" may have originally described gods in general). The two pantheons also shared many other gods, some of which are summarised as follows:
first two Lords in both traditions are so closely linked that they are called by
Sanskrit grammarians a DVANDVA, i.e., a pair. This means that they usually
function together, and are commonly invoked as Mitravaruna in India, and were
probably addressed as *Mithra-Apem Napet by the ancient Iranians.
Daevas/Devas stood for war, conquest, military power, killing and devastation.
The first two Ahuras/Asuras, on the other hand, were the joint guardians of
contract, covenant, oath, and above all, the Cosmic Order, called "ÎTA"
in India and "ASHA" in Iran (NP Arda). The Ahuras/Asuras moreover,
were bound by law unlike other Indo-Iranian gods who did as they pleased. It
seems that this Ahuric Doctrine (ahura tkasha) had been a dominant element in
the old Iranian religion in both East and West.
and Ashi (Āti) in both traditions stood respectively for friendship and
fertility. Verethraδna, meaning "overcoming resistance" was the
god of victory in Iran, while Vetrahan, in India, meaning "dragon
slayer" is an epithet of Indra. Baga, meaning "dispenser" in
Iran, was the deity of gifts; he later became associated with *Vouruna (Apem
Napet). In India, however, (also in Slavonic languages) it is a generic term for
god. Several old Iranian deities are also linked with a divine fire & water
concept called "xvarenah".
old Iranian religion, indeed any pre-Zoroastrian faith throughout the world,
acted as the guiding principle for keeping the world going as it was. The world
was considered to be static, and people were fascinated with what it was and how
it was. It was the great Iranian prophet who changed all this. He saw the world
as dynamic not static, and he dismissed the notion of "how the world
was", in favour of "how it ought to be".
THE PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS OF THE ZOROASTRIAN REFORMS
Dualism of the new pantheon and pandemonium
An abstract phenomenon, called by the prophet "Angra Mainyu"
(hostile spirit) became omnipotent in the Iranian pandemonium. Hence, he was
given the supreme power over everything evil.
the Daevas were removed, once and for all, from the Iranian
pantheon, and placed in the pandemonium (Ever since, all Iranian languages, even
the modern ones, have been the only members of the Indo-European group where the
Daevas mean devils rather than gods). They were second only to the Angra Mainyu,
but far above all other demons.
Ahuras and he rest of the old pantheon were maintained, but Ahura Mazdah
became the supreme deity with unlimited (define) power over everything good.
Seven other abstract deities, the "Amesha Spentas" (bounteous
immortals), were now added to the old pantheon; these are the famous heptad, the
most important divinities after the Wise Lord.
The doctrine of the good and evil</B>
The first member of the heptad, the Spenta Mainyu (bounteous spirit),
became the alter ego of Ahura Mazdah.
He single handedly created the man.
The other six were chosen to replace the now demonised Daevas.
They took some of the old gods from the pantheon as helpers (hamkers),
and fashioned the rest of the good creations under the direction of the Wise
list of the Zoroastrian heptad, their good creations and some of their hamkars
are as follows:
C) The cosmic duel and the dynamic theory
A universal battle was then ensued between Ahura Mazdah and the Angra
Mainyu lasting for another 3000 years. This period is called Gumezishn, the
The Angra Mainyu attacked and wreaked havoc with all the good creations.
He killed the man, slew the cattle, polluted the fire with smoke and darkened
the sun, pierced the sky, made the earth uneven, polluted the water with brine,
and withered the plants.
After the attack the living creatures began to multiply, grow and die;
the sun started to rotate, creating day and night and different seasons; the
water evaporated, the clouds were formed and it rained for the first time. In
other word, the old static world became an active one.
This state of affair gave rise to the dynamic theory, i.e., the process
of universal destruction and renovation, and cosmic extinction and resurrection.
This theory is attested in other Indo-European cultures, the closest one being
the Germanic Götterdämmerung.
Nonetheless, the credit for being the first thinker to present it as a
philosophical doctrine must undoubtedly go to the great Iranian prophet.
D) The principle of morality
concept of dualism and dynamic theory are closely linked with (or even gave rise
to) his most far-reaching doctrine, which has shaped the faith of mankind ever
since. In order to appreciate the significance of this awesome statement one
needn't go any further than looking up the word "morality" in a modern
dictionary, any where in the world. There, one would find that the definition
given for this word is a virtual quotation from the divine revelation of a
prehistoric Iranian. It is also significant to remember that not only was
Zoroaster non-literate, but his message was not reduced to writing for at lest
2000 years after his time. The principle of morality concerns only the man, and
is formulated as follows:
During the Gumezishn, when dualism and the dynamic upheaval is the order
of the day, only the man is given the freedom to chose between the good and
Moreover, the Wise Lord cannot succeed in his cosmic duel with the Angra
Mainyu unless he is helped by the mortals (Mard).
If man is righteous through good deeds, words, and thoughts, then the
Wise Lord will vanquish the Angra Mainyu.
However, if man is wicked, then the Angra mainyu will succeed.
There is, therefore, no predestination. The man is the master of his own
destiny (Luther), and the only instrument to ensure the ultimate victory of good
over evil. This will destroy, once and for all, the pandemonium and, therefore,
everything evil; it will bring about the end of time; the dynamic world would
become once more an everlasting static one.
This glorious moment is called by the prophet " Frashe-Kerei"
E) Zoroastrian eschatology
being a practical seer, gave man an irresistible encouragement to chose the path
of righteousness. The Gumezishn was going to last for 3000 years, and no body
was going to live that long to see the eventual outcome of the cosmic duel.
Then, why should they suppress their desire and not yield to temptation when, to
put it mildly, there is nothing in it for them.
solved this problem by yet another one of his master-strokes, a set of laws
governing death and hereafter, again the first ever in any religion. This highly
original concept seems less ethical than his principle of morality, as it
impairs the noble virtue of the "Superiority of the Individual
Conscience" (Luther). Nonetheless, it too has shaped all our spiritual
existence, and left a profound and indelible impression on our lives. The three
popular Semitic religions of the west, for example, have adopted the Zoroastrian
eschatology, principal points of which are as follows:
During the Gumezishn, there will be an individual Day of Judgment for the
When a man dies, his soul will undergo this trial at the Bridge of
Separation, (Pul-i Chinvat) where his good and bad deeds will be weighed.
The righteous will spend the rest of the Gumezishn in a novel place
The wicked will do that in another novel place called hell.
Whenever the good and the bad deeds are equal, the soul shall be
suspended in a state of limbo.
At the Frashe-Krereti (see above, D6), a Messianic Saviour, called by the
prophet "Saoshyant", will usher in his principle of cosmic
resurrection (see above, C4). This would also apply to all the dead, who
regardless of their deeds, will rise and live happily ever after.
Boyce, "Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism", Manchester
University Press, 1984.
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