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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Changes in Zarathushtra's Teachings

During the Parthian & Sasanian Periods


By Rashna Ghadially



Asho Zarathushtra (artist impression - Oil Painting by Shapour Suren-Pahlav)

(Click to enlarge)

My presentation will focus on the changes in our Zarthusti religion and how its fundamental concepts in the Gathas delivered by Asho Zarthust in the form of the"Basic Reflective Principles" digressed further from the original message during the Parthian and Sasanian dynasties.

To set the stage, I will first briefly recapture the salient changes that occurred during the reign of the Achaemenian dynasty over Persia.

The oral tradition of Avesta scriptures still continued. The name of the prophet Zarthust was non-existent in the memoirs of the Achaemenian rulers. However, the name Ahura Mazda appears. The Fravashi -- the Immortal Divine Spirit of Human was incorporated in the religion; sacred places of worship were built; at first there were man made images which were later replaced by a consecrated Fire. Fire temples,"Atasgah" were installed for devotional purposes for the use of royalty. The most reverend fire Vehram or later known as Behram was introduced. Different categories of fires evolved -- the lesser revered ones were labeled Atash-e- Aderan and Atash Dadgah.

The Gathic religion additionally was diluted by pre-Zarthust Indo-Iranian thoughts as well as Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Asiatic influences. Among them, the one which had a lasting impact was Zurvanism, a Zarthustrian heresy in Iran in the 5th century B.C. Zurvanism altered the interpretation of the Ethical and Cosmic Dualism as elaborated by Zarthost. The concept of Twin Mentalities, the Good and Evil Mind were reduced to a struggle between Ahura Mazda and the evil creating force Anghra Mainyu. Non-Avestan divinities such as the image cults of Anahita, Tiri, and Mitra were blended in the faith. A fundamental change occurred when the sole creator Ahura Mazda as presented in the Gathas was replaced by triad of Ahura Mazda, Anahita and Mitra. In short, the Gathic religion went through essential mutation in the Achaemenian era.

The question which I will attempt to answer in the following is: Were the Parthians and the Sassanians Zarthustis?

I have organized my talk not by the period rather by the various significant influences over the religion which occurred during the Parthian and Sassanian rule of Persia.

Zurvanism, is a heresy that contaminated the core of the Gathic faith. Let me briefly trace Zurvanism in Zarthusti history. Zurvanism originated in the later part of the Achaemenian dynasty and changed the interpretation of the Ethical and Cosmic Dualism as presented in the Gathas by the prophet, Asho Zarthust. Zurvan, was believed to be the God of Time in Phoenician Tradition in 7 and 6 century B.C. It can be assumed that the Magi priests in their pursuit to understand the Ethical dualism elaborated in the Gathas and searching for an innovative expression of divinity to generate Twin mentalities found it fitting to ascribe the role of the creator to the early God of time Zurvan. The reflective principle of 'way of thinking' (For those on Club-Z as I would prefer to call it intelligent thinking or critical thinking) or as Mainyu and the choice by the humans between the righteous and the evil mentality was at this point in time, anthromorphised into the Good and Evil Spirit emerging from the common force "Zurvan."

The principle of Choice as explained in the Gathas between the two ways of thinking with an unequivocal emphasis on the truth and the righteous and the evil way of lifestyle and progressive thinking SPENTA MAINYU was entirely misinterpreted through the Zurvanic thoughts. During the Achaemenian era, Zurvanites created the concept of Ahura Mazda, the creator, and Anghra Mainyu (evil spirit) and ascribed the task of all Good Creation to Ahura Mazda. This in turn created the duality of two Gods: Good and Evil and escalating the greatness of the uncreated Lord of Wisdom -- Ahura Mazda and elevating the evil spirit, Anghra Mainyu.

It is hard to tell if Zurvanism was resisted by the Parthian rulers or this heresy flourished during their reign.

During the Sasanian era, Zurvanism flourished as the term Zurvan was used for supreme God and was accepted by the clergies of the time including Kirder. The name of the prophet Zarthust is non-existent in the inscriptions of the Sasanian Kings or those of Kirder.

Under the Sasanians, in Zurvanism the supreme God, Zurvan instead of Ahura Mazda had been accepted by the Zarthusti clergies of the time of Kirder. This heresy went through further changes and thus Zurvan was believed to be the father of the twins, Ohrmazd (formerly Ahura Mazda -- the Lord of Wisdom) and Ahriman (formerly the evil spirit); the sun, moon and stars (humata, hukta, havarashta) as the children of Ormuzd and Ahriman was the Satan. In other words, the good and evil minds were transformed first to the good and evil spirits and finally to two beings -- the "God," Lord of Greatness and "Ahriman," the Devil, the evil one.

Manicheanism was another heresy which arose during the Sasanian era in Zarthustism. Mani was a self-acclaimed prophet of Parthian descent from Babylon. Mani preached leading of a life of asceticism and celibacy which was heavily influenced by the Gnostic tradition from Judeo-Christianity theology. The religion of Mani did include Zarthustrian concepts of full and progressive life of achieving perfection in this temporal world. Mani's thinking was received by Shahpur I, however, adoption of Zurvan as the supreme God by Mani and changing the names of the yazatas that had by now been deeply entrenched in the Gathic Zarthustrian religion earned for the Manicheans a role of zandiks. The high priest, Herbad Kirder who rose to the power succeeded in passing a death sentence for the prophet Mani around 275 AC this ending this heresy.

Mazdakite movement
The Zarthusti clergy and the church during the Sassanian time is believed to have been affluent and it was around 487 CE that the Mazdakite, a communist movement gained momentum. Mazdak another self-claimed prophet following the footsteps of Mani preached and propagated the doctrine of ascetic and moral life. However, woman were seen as inferior and were held as belongings of their nearest male relative which was gross deviation from the equality of man and woman preached in the Gathas. The Zazdakite, "communists" went a step further and proclaimed the doctrine of community of property including women and at the time gained popular support from the poorer sector of the community. Although this movement was at first looked favourably by the Sassanians, the opposition from Zarthusti clerics and nobles ensured the end of the Mazdakite heresy through proclamation of death sentence for the prophet.

Image cults
The early Sassanians forbade the a) use of images, b) statues were removed and c) sacred fires installed. The cult of images and statues introduced during Achaemanian dynasty and the Hellenic domination were responded with aggressive iconoclasm. The images were banned from religious places of worship although iconography of the anthromorphised divinities of the Parthian era in the Sasanian carvings remained unchanged.

During the Parthian era the Egyptian and Mesopotamian symbols were replaced by Hellenic anthropomorphic depictions. Yazatas appeared in the guise of Greek God Zeus, Apollo and Nike representing Ahura Mazda, Mitra and Ashi figure of Herakles Kallinkos was depicted as the yazata of victory, Verethraghana.

Fire Temples
The Greek writers Strabo and Pausanius have described the presence of Fire Temples in the Parthian times. Vassal kings were allowed to establish their own dynastic fires

The three sacred fires -- Adur Frang, Adur Gushnasp and Adur Burzin-Mehr were installed around this time. It is important to note that the Gathic concept of fire, its relation to the purity and righteousness and the concept of Asha by this time are all but overshadowed by pomp and power of the observances of the Royal Fires.

In the Sasanian era all the dynastic fires of the vasssal king were extinguished and their temples burnt. Only one central fire burnt in Iran. King Ardashir is credited for the establishment of the Atash-Vehram (Atash-Behram) the Verethraghna fires of victory in Pars. The inscriptions of Kirder a head priest who lived through four Sasanian monarchs speak of another fire Atash-i-Aduran a common local fire (the equivalent of an agiari fire today) "the little fire in an appointed place."

Priesthood The title for the Zarthusti clergy by now had gone through marked changes. The Aethrapid - a teacher of the Gathas and Athravan the fire priests of the early Avestan age was almost forgotten. In Parthian times the ecclesiastic authority resided with the Erbad or Herbad (Ervad today). The term Magput or Magbad derived from Magpuati was also prevalent for the chief priest of Fire Temples. The Zarthusti religion had undergone profound transfiguration and turned into a multicultural Faith heavily influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian and Medain beliefs.

When Ardashir Papak established a new empire and thus founded the Sassanian dynasty he made Zarthustism a state religion. This move rejoiced the priesthood. The head priest Tansar was determined to centralize the authority of the church abolishing tolerance of the different temples and priests which had evolved under the Parthain era.

"oral tradition"
In Zarthusti history the message of the Gathas was orally passed down from generation to generation hopefully not just father to son but mothers to daughters too..for centuries till the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties.

According to Dhalla, "the early Sasanian writers seem seldom to have been free from the theological predispositions." The Avesta was considered the word of Ormazd and it was necessary to keep the divine word living among the people that the original language now unintelligible to the poor should be rendered into the existing vernacular. The work of translating the Avestan texts, already begun by the Zarthuti priests during the latter part of the Parthian period, continued with increased zeal, and celebrate commentaries were added to explain the difficulties of the original texts. The author of Dinkard informs us that when King Artakshir the founder of the last Zarthusti Empire had the collection and compilation of the scattered religious texts completed under the supervision of his illustrious Dastur Tansar. When Avesta became extinct as the language of common intercourse, the sacred works written in it, were, as we have seen rendered into Pahalvi. This explanatory Pahalvi version of the original Avestan text is called Zand. Not enough is known whether any of the Zand itself was written in the Parthin period. Boyce proposes a theory that the influence of Christians and Manichaean made Zoroastrian priests put serious efforts to write their holy scriptures.

The Vendidad a text was written almost 2000 years after the prophet Zarthust's death. A Parthian monarch Valakhsh decreed to preserve all the surviving Avesta and its Zand commentaries of Zarthustrian religion. It was sometime in this era, a period of aggressive domination by Median magis that the often disputed text of Vendidad - the Book of "Law against Demons" is believed to have been composed. It is therefore clear that many of the concepts such as those of Duality and Eschatology are highly anthromorphised and rigorous codes of purification using Nirang and Gaomez have been mandated in contrast to the rest of the Avesta. This is also the only text which speaks of the "Temples of Fires" in stark contrast to the Gathas, and its legend of Yima demonstrates a strong slant of Macedonian and Mesopotamian influence. The author of the Vendidad was unknown (may be an ancestor of P. Havewala :) just a joke for those on the Z-alias and Club-Z) reasonable composition that it was compiled by a Median Magi who adopted the faith rather than an athravan who inherited the religion.


Religious observances were incorporated in the practice of the religion by all such as 'taking the vaj.' This practice involved saying Avesta mantras before engaging in a variety of daily activities, such as eating, sleeping and bathing, as well as before various religious rites.


Purity rules/laws
The purity laws were observed by both the royalty as well as commoners. Evidence of such practices is present during the later Sasanian period. According to Boyce, the Sasanians had many foreign women among their queens and concubines including Jews, Christians, Indians and pagan Turks and there seem to have been no evidence of objection to these women practicing their own faith. However, they probably had to observe the Zarthusti purity laws to avoid the kings own purity.

History suggests that Staota Yasna - a portion of the present day 72 chapters of Yasna - may have been expanded during this epoch to include some of the younger avestan liturgy such as the Haoma Yasht.

In conclusion the Zarthusti church "organized religion" was strengthened tremendously during the Sassanian dynasty. However, the Gathic faith conveyed by Asho Zarthust weakened. The core of the religion underwent radical change that the Twin Mentalities of the Good Mind and Evil the Evil Mind were replaced by Ormuzd the "Good Son" and Ahriman "Satan or Evil." The equality between women an men as mentioned in the Gathas was challenged by the heresies of the Parthain and Sassanian era, thus, lowering the social status of women in the religion.

We return to the question which was asked in the beginning: Were the Sassanians and Parthians Zarthustis? We can ask ourselves if our belief and concept of Ormuzd and Ahreman are different from those of the Sassanians? If they are not different and we call ourselves Zarthustis then the Sassanians and Parthians should also be called Zarthustis. If we believe that the Gathas are the true message of the prophet and any divergence from that message is non- Zarthusti then we cannot call the Sassanians and Parthians Zarthustis. I leave the decision up to you.



Dhalla, Maneck. N. Zoroastrian Theology. New York 1914.

Dhalla, Maneck. N. Zoroastrian Civilization. New York 1922.

Gnoli, Gherardo. Zoroaster's Time and Homeland. A Study on the Origins of Mazdeism and the Related Problems, Instituto Universitario Orientale Seminario Distudi Asiatici Series Minor VII. Naples 1980.


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