The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Book 2. How Persia Created Judaism
Zoroastrian Influences on Judaism and Christianity (Part III)
Maga, The Magian Fellowship
The word for Magus (“magu”) was never used by Zoroaster and is said not to occur in any part of the Avesta. The Vedic word “maghá” is a gift, suggesting a conception like the Christian idea of the “gift” of the Holy Spirit. “Maga” was Zoroaster’s message or gospel. Those who accepted it were “Magavan”, (sometimes considered “Magu”) those with authority (Yt 12:1). The two words—“Maga and Magavan”—are mentioned eight times in the Gathas (Maga: Songs 2:11, 11:14, 16:11, 16:16, 17.7 (twice), and Magavan: 6:7, 16:15). Zoroaster calls his Maga as “maz, great” in two Gathic stanzas—2:11 and 11:14. Anyone who has converted is a “magavan”, and as Zoroaster’s invented religion is egalitarian, every “magavan”, regardless of race, sex, or social status, is the same.
The priesthood were the Magi, a class rather than a profession, just as the Brahmins were a caste and the Jewish priesthood were a caste. The Achaemenid king was therefore the top Magus, though he was crowned by the Magian High Priest, just as the Queen of the United Kingdom is the head of the Anglican church but is crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Though, scholars consider the Magi to have have been the priestly class of the Medes, Zoroastrians say they were founded by Zoroaster. The Sanskrit adjective which yields “magi” is used mostly in honour of Indira, the Rig Vedic god of clouds and rains, who brought riches to the Vedic Aryans by driving away drought.
In the beginning, Zoroaster prays to God to lead him to expand his newly founded Fellowship. Later, he is joined by king Hystaspes and his sagacious team, and the work to promote the “Great Fellowship” gains momentum. Zoroaster’s “best wishes” come true when he watches the Fellowship grow far and wide.
So, Zoroastrian priests became important in the Iranian diaspora. Magi accompanied the army everywhere it went to bring it fortune by making appropriate sacrifices, or ministering to officers and men, and when ex-soldiers were settled on the land, some priests with their families settled too. Other priests are likely to have come out with the peasant farmers, and more exalted ones with the nobility. Originally they were known collectively in eastern Mediterranean lands as magousaioi, a Greco-Semitic plural for Persian “magu” (Mage, priest), but it came to be used for Persian colonists generally, showing that, to outsiders, all Iranians were Zoroastrians, and the ethnic and religious names were used for each other. Priests themselves then were called by the Greek magoi.
Besides priests who ministered to lay families in the traditional way, there were temple priests. Zoroastrian sanctuaries in Asia Minor are documented, the oldest according to tradition being at Zela in Pontic Cappadocia, founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great himself or his generals. According to the Iranian custom of worshipping in high places, the sanctuary was established on a hill, banked up yet higher and encircled by a wall (the Jerusalem temple is on a hill and encircled by a wall). Later this hill bore one of the imposing temples to Anahita, by which the presence of Persians is strikingly attested in Asia Minor. Other jobs Magi had were as seers, interpreting dreams, as teachers and as curators of royal tombs.
The Good Religion was remarkably hierarchical in its arrangement of living units—effectively military. Units began with the home in which lived the family, and worked upwards through settlements and districts in which lived communities, to lands and the world in which lived fellowships and the Great Fellowship of All. Five levels united humanity. Notionally, no race, no colour, and no profession divided the people into upper to lower castes. Only good and better thoughts, words and deeds in serving humanity and promoting the world give anyone recognition.
After the Gathic period, the “Maz Maga”, the Great Fellowship of Zoroaster reverted to the primitive caste system of the Aryans—the priests, the warriors who enjoyed the fruits, and a third caste of labourers and producers.
Fire was probably always an element of the Zoroastrian ceremony. It was the “son of Ahura Mazda”, a conscious living entity of divine glory, a holy warrior against evil, the giver of health, the bestower of boons. Ahura Mazda (GY 43-9) commands Zoroaster who declares he would pay homage of his offering “unto Thy Fire”. Images of fire altars are found on seals with turrets at the corners, reminiscent of altars with horns described in the bible.
Excavations of ruins of some fire temples in Iran show they predate the Achaemenian dynasty. The three towers in Fars are the ruins of fire-temples, they are Zindan-i-Suleiman, at Pasargard, Ka’ba-i-Zardusht at Naqsh-i-Rustem, and the tower of Nurabad. The Zindan was built by Cyrus, the Great. This Zindan-i-Suleiman, the enclosed Fire-Temple was destroyed by Gaumata the Magian pretender and rebuilt by Darius. Masudi has alluded that Ka’ba-i-Zardusht was a fire temple.
Fire priests may have taken over the Good Religion without understanding it properly and institutionalized it into what we have today as the “Traditional” Zoroastrianism. The fire priests do not mention the Gathic “Magavans” and the Zoroastrian “Maz Maga”. The two terms are found in the Later Avesta only twice in doubtful interpretations.
Yet the fires were not only for sacrifice. Prof Mary Boyce explains the Yasna Haptanhaiti, which can be attributed with all reasonable certainty to Zoroaster, is a fixed liturgy for the service. The Zaotar or officiating priest and the Raaspi or the responding priest are both present, confirming that this Yasna is a ritual. It is composed in mantric language, many words of which, forty-three in all, almost one to each verse, are now unknown in meaning, suggesting an esoteric or technical language of worship. The celebrants refer to themselves as “mantrans” implying the rhythmic spiritually created by the chanting. The rite takes place in the presence of fire, as the celebrant confirms who says:
In community with this Fire here, we first approach Thee, Mazda Ahura,
suggesting the fire had a mediating role. In the west, the professional priests of the Median “nation” were clever enough to retain their caste (or “tribe” in the word of Herodotus), and at the same time call themselves “Magu”, their pronunciation of “Magava”. Then “Magu” was Grecized into “Magos” and its plural “Magi”. The word “magic” derived from “Magu” shows how highly learned and advanced the Magi were perceived in their knowledge and crafts. Non-Iranians thought they were “sorcerers”.
All the priests of the Babylonian and Assyrian creeds were granted the name “Magi” when their sects were Mazdayasnaized. Spooner has shown that the Zoroastrian Magi were important also in India and their practices are reflected in the Mahabharata. The unadulterated religion of Zoroaster did not last long enough even under the Persian kings, and the Persian empire also did not last long enough to complete Cyrus and Darius’s project of creating a true universal religion.
Initiation of Zoroastrians
Zoroastrians must be properly initiated by ordained priests into the religious community. In the ancient times this occurred at the age of fifteen, the ancient Iranian age of maturity to become responsible for his or her religious, moral and communal life. For Jews it is 13. This initiation rite has been practiced since the the earliest years of the faith.
The candidate wears a sacred white undershirt, and a sacred girdle. Almighty God, Ahura Mazda, made the sacred girdle studded with stars and put it around the earth. The stars that surround the earth are the original Kusti that Aryans wear, placed there by Ahura to guide the world first in the good religion. Aryans, children of Ahura, follow the order of the cosmos when they place their sacred Kusti around the waist as the most ancient commandment of God.
King Yima Kshaeta or Jamshid is said to have introduced the sacred girdle, centuries before Zoroaster. The ceremony seems to be based on the ancient Indo-Iranian custom of investing only the male members of society with the sacred girdle as a sign of their membership within the community. Jews wear a fringed or tasselled garment, but some called it a girdle. Hindus wear a sacred cord that passes over their right shoulder and under their left arm, showing its Iranian origins, but tasselled cords are visible on pictures from Assyria.
Parsi Zoroastrians call this Navote or “Being New Born”. Zoroastrian initiation symbolizes a spiritual rebirth or a second birth. It is a grievous sin for an initiated Zoroastrian to “scamble around naked” meaning not to wear the girdle (Kusti) and undershirt (Sudreh), but, after their initiations, Zoroastrians must ritually untie and tie the sacred girdle every time they pray or prepare themselves for the holy.
This ritual of Padyab-Kustig is performed before a Zoroastrian can engage in any religious activity including praying, approaching the sacred fires, before and after attending funeral ceremonies and eating, to ensure the purity of his body and soul. All Zoroastrians wash on entering a fire-temple, to ensure that every religious act they perform is done in the state of purity of body and soul. These rituals are the origin of the purity rituals of Judaism.
Iranians worshipped normally in the open air or before the hearth fire. The Assyrians never recorded any plunder from Median or Persian temples. Seasonal celebrations when people gathered for the festivities were held on high places and by springs of water.
Today, the Zoroastrian prays five times a day towards a fire, the sun, a hearth or even a lamp or candle. The practice was taken over by the Moslems. The main prayer is the Ahunvar, part of which says:
To Mazda Ahura is the kingdom whom they have established as the pastor for the Poor.
The Persian word translated as “the Poor”, according to K Barr, means “the true follower of the creed of the prophet, the meek and pious man who stands finally on the side of God”. Barr’s choice of descriptive words is remarkable, echoing the gospels and the dead Sea Scrolls. More remarkable is that in Sogdiana, a country in the east of Iran close to the place of origina of Zoroastrianism, the same word means “disciple”. It suggests that “the poor” of the gospels, as most scholars know, are “the Poor” of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Ebionim of the early Church Fathers, Jewish disciples of Jesus, not poverty stricken people in general.
All acts of worship were accompanied by offerings, under the protection of Mithras, the god of covenants. Offerings were milk, pure water, plant juice, wheat cakes, fruit, vegetables, butter, eggs, domestic animals and fowl. Wine was a lesser offering. Some modern Zoroastrians claim Zoroaster abolished animal sacrifice, but there are many allusions in Zoroastrianism to sacrifice so Zoroaster was not against it. In India the cow was sacred and the Parsees could not make their favourite sacrifice any more, but they made all the lesser ones until the 20th century AD when they abandoned sacrifice all together.
It is general practice in all Zoroastrian ceremonies to create fragrance to delight the divine beings and spirits.
Herodotus described the Persians sacrificing animals, depicted in the Mithraea as oxen and implemented also by the Yehudim “returners” from exile as sheep, although the “Slavonic Enoch” remarkably refers to cattle in its passages about sacrifice rather than sheep, suggesting a Zoroastrian, not a Jewish source. Even the Ox-soul is mentioned:
He who herds badly the soul of cattle is lawless toward his own soul, but he who brings a sacrifice of pure cattle, it is a healing, he heals his own soul.
The first man and the primeval ox were killed by the Evil Spirit, but out of their death came the whole of Ahura Mazda’s good creation, because Mazda always succeeds in outwitting the Evil One. In one version of the Persian myth, the fall of man from immortality occurred because the primeval man was lured by the Evil One into killing the primeval ox and eating its flesh without the permission of Ahuramazda. At the End of Time, Mithras would rightfully slay the ox to return immortality to the righteous ones of fallen humanity. Plainly, the myth is a justification of the sacrifice of oxen. The pictures of Mithras killing a bull in the Roman Mithraic religion might represent Mithras as saviour bringing forth goodness out of evil in the world at the End of Time.
Ancient Iranian religious tradition, involved the sacrifice of oxen, and the consumption of intoxicating drinks (haoma), leading like Dionysianism to orgies. Zoroaster did seem to condemn some form or forms of intoxication, but poppy eating in that part of the world, or even simply drunkenness might have been the target. Persians were not noted for drinking until Islamic times. Possibly Zoroaster actually banned the old style Iranian rituals accompanied by orgiastic and intoxicating rites. In other words, the use of sacrifice or haoma drinking to precede or accomapany orgies was banned, but not if used to show respect to Ahuramazda’s Good Creation. Such a reform is reminiscent of the reform of Dionysianism to Orphism—was Orphism once a form of Mazdayasnaism? The old haoma sacrifice apparently became a symbolic offering when the original intoxicating brew was replaced with an unfermented drink. The similarity with the Essenes’ attitude to wine is striking. Zoroaster retained the ancient cult of fire as symbolic of purity and righteousness.
As in the Jewish ritual, a sacrificed animal had to be despatched according to meticulous custom and swiftly. In ancient times the animal had to be conscious when the death blow was struck, but Strabo records that the magi of Armenia concussed the animal first, and the same practice appears in the Dinkard.
The offerings were made in a flat open space and simply laid out on grass—relics of nomadic days. After the ceremony, the grass, having been sanctified, could be burnt in the fire. The priest also graped a sheaf of the sacred grass while reciting, and this sheaf became a symbol of holy office as the baresman, later a bunch of twigs serving a similar purpose to the Christian bishop’s crook. The Zoroastrian “Baresman” might appear in Ezekiel: “Lo, they put the branch to their nose”.
Fire always had a portion of the sacrifices, the fat to feed it. In Indian ritual the flame was fed the omentum, the fatty part of the entrails. Strabo confirms that the Persians did the same. The fire rituals began with domestic hearth fires. A man kindled a fire when he set up home to start a family and kept it burning from then on until he dies when it was allowed to die with him. This was the practice of nomads who had to carry their fires with them as they roamed.
It is unlikely that the followers of the prophet would adopt a practice, the offering of haoma, condemned by him, so quickly after his death. There is no apparent hiatus in the offering rites of the haoma, so its absence in the “Gathas” might be simply due to loss of the relevant passages. Zoroaster in the Avesta is described offering his own worship with the haoma plant. It seems unlikely too that an animal sacrifice should remain when the plant sacrifice, so to speak, was abandoned. The haoma ceremony drew attention to plant life, and made the worshipper concentrate on the Good Creation with benefits for the sacrificer, who could only make offerings with good intent.
The ancient Iranians had little cakes (draona) covered with small pieces of holy meat (myazda) consecrated in the name of a god or some dead person, and distributed among the worshippers.
The priest had to be in a state of utter ritual purity, and only those in a morally and ritually fit state were allowed to partake of the consecrated offerings. In the rules of the worship of Anahita, which probably reflected general rules of exclusion, no one who was a leper, blind or deaf, or physically deformed, as well as anyone mad, cowardly, spiteful or untruthful could participate (Y 5:92-3).
Busy priests had to be in a state of perpetual purity, and for that reason they took to living apart from the community to avoid contamination, and prepared their own food. There sounds to be a basis here for the Jewish claim that “Pharisee” means “separated”, and not what looks obvious, that it means Parsee (Farsee, Persian). The Essenes actually did separate themselves from the common herd. The Zoroastrian priests were so particular about these matters that they avoided contact with each other, again sounding Essene where higher ranks would avoid contact with lower ranks. Furthermore, the Zoroastrian priests would not share a common table cloth. If a magus had to hand something to an unclean person, they would put it down, withdraw three paces and then invite the other to retrieve it, showing that uncleanliness was equivalent to being a corpse. This was particularly true of a “Juddin(!)” the Persian word for someone of another faith.
The Zoroastrian scriptures enumerate a number of laws, to which a Zoroastrian should adhere, and vices from which he should guard himself. Here are just some of them that strike a chord with Jewish practice. Zoroastrians must ensure:
The basis of the Zoroastrian purity laws is the battle between Good and Evil. Among living things of the Good Creation, it was wrong to kill any immature animal or plant, no sapling, lamb or calf may be killed. Nor might they be maltreated. A dog is clean except, of course, when dead. Any sacrificial animal remains pure once sanctified. But any animal deemed to be of the Evil Creation had to be killed, and magi carried a stick with a leather loop for catching and killing flies, scorpions and snakes.
Metals are of the sky and had to be kept shining. The earth had to be kept clean. Water had to be kept pure, and nothing ritually unclean could be put in it. No excrement, blood or corpses could be put into a stream, river or well. Water had to be used by drawing it from the well or stream first. Even then any article to be cleaned first had to be washed in cow’s urine, then just rinsed off with the drawn water. The cow was, of course, traditionally considered a clean animal by the Aryans, and eventually became sacred to Indians.
Using fire to burn rubbish is a disgrace to Zoroastrians. Even when cooking, care had to be taken not to spill impurity on to the flame, and a man who burns carrion can be summarily killed, just like the man in the scriptures who violates the sabbath.
From the very instant when breath left the body, the corpse was unclean, for she demon of corruption, Nasush, the Nasu Druj or “Corpse Fiend”, settles on the body as soon as it dies seeking to corrupt the mourners. The holier the person was, the more corrupting their corpse is. In daily life this demon, to whom much of the antidemonic law refers, was feared more than the Evil Spirit and his other demons. The fear was that, despite precautions, the Corpse Fiend would envelop the living with her corruption, infection, and pollution. Even hair and nail pairings are dead matter and therefore unclean.
Only by the most rigid observance of the prescribed ritual was there safety. The corpse must not pollute holy earth or water. Dessication purifies, and a dead body could lay on stone or sand. Undertakers or anyone who had to move dead bodies could never do it alone but always in pairs linked by a cord. Because the earth is sacred the “Towers of Silence” were introduced for disposing of the dead. Corpses were exposed, carefully tied down by the feet and hair, on the highest points of land where they could be devoured by dogs and vultures. Only when the bones had been thus freed from all dead and dangerous soft matter could they be collected in an ossuary with holes to permit the dead man still to look upon the sun.
Yet, hundreds of Median graves have been found from the eighth century showing that they were not using the “Towers of Silence” which probably came from the east with the spread of Zoroastrianism. Even in the time of Herodotus the Persian nobility had not uniformly accepted exposure of their corpses. The poor had no other choice, and had to gather up the scattered dry bones and bury them in clean sand. Dry waste matter such as bones could be buried. Not until the time of the monarch, Artaxerxes II, was exposure definitely accepted among senior Zoroastrianism nobility. Plutarch records that the generals of the seditious brother of Artaxerxes, Cyrus the Younger, were put to death and their “bodies torn by dogs and birds”, as if it were ignominious still, but he might not have understood the custom.
All three Zoroastrian dynasties were embalmed and laid in tombs. Wealthy Iranians preferred to lay their embalmed bodies in rock tombs. Stone, according to the Zoroastrian purity laws, is impermeable and so it was acceptable to put the bodies of kings in stone tombs where they could pollute none of the four elements. In tombs like Cyrus’s, there are six tiers of stone protecting the earth, seven levels in total, including ground level. The colonists or “returners” in Judaea were the ruling class and were wealthy, and they adopted the practice of wealthy Persians—they put their dead in rock tombs until they had dessicated, then gathered up the bones and put them in ossuaries.
Until the second century AD, a stone vessel industry around Jerusalem made stone vessels for observant Jews to keep the laws of purity strictly, since according to rabbinic halakha, stone vessels always stay pure. About two hundred stone vessels used for storage and measurement were found at Qumran.
The Zoroastrian purity laws permitted people to be 30 or more paces from a corpse without being polluted by the demon of corruption. “Solomon’s Prison” is a stone built funerary tower in the palace at Pasargadae. It has a solid stone base with 29 steps to the entrance where the bodies were laid, and anyone on the ground at the base of the tower was 30 paces from the nearest body. Thus it could be in the palace precinct without anyone having to worry about pollution, but, to be on the safe side, it was also enclosed.
Any thing extruding from the body is impure, including spit, blood, breath and semen. If a priest inadvertantly ejaculated during the period of his initiation, he was considered unworthy of it and was forbidden from being a priest for life. A magus was an hereditary priest but was not obliged to follow the profession of his father. So, magi could be found by choice or perforce in other lines of work, some menial, doubtless because some had proved themselves unworthy. A priest even with a cut could not undertake rituals. A woman in her period is grossly impure. Such things were considered less than the perfection of the ideal physical state created by Ahuramazda.
Because breath was pollution, a magus wore a mask over his nose, to shield any sanctified objects and even the flame from his own impurity, though he had cleansed himself immaculately. Zoroastrians would not drink from a common cup, or eat from a common plate, nor would they speak when eating, reminding us of the Essene practice. A pure person touching someone impure is polluted, but if both were ritually pure, their purity is strengthened. They were not generally willing to believe that others were pure unless they had seen them purified, so priests remained separated in practice.
Menstruating women had to spend a week in a dark room so that even their gaze could not pollute the world. She had to wear old but clean clothes and eat from special plates. In her dark room, she could do nothing domestic except sow or patch—respect for the Good Creation kept Zoroastrians thrifty, and they were reluctant to throw away anything that could be repaired or ritually cleansed (again reminiscent of the Essenes)—but whatever she thus repaired had to be thoroughly purified afterwards. Not surprisingly the menopause was a liberation for Iranian women, but after the years of obligatory separation during their periods, they usually became devoutly ritually pure by choice when menstruation ceased. And curiously, their sacrifice was regarded with respect because it was their role in fighting the Evil Creation.
Childbirth is so unclean that it requires 40 days of purification. That might seem surprising since human beings were part of Ahuramazda’s Good Creation, but no childbirth would have been needed at all if it had not been for the machinations of the Evil spirit, so birth was unclean and the copious flow of amniotic fluid and after birth proved what an unclean affair it was. Should a child be born dead, the pollution was all the worse and purification was even longer.
Ritual cleanliness was essential for all ceremonies and foreigners had to be excluded because they were impure. This led to the belief that the rituals were secret. No bodily impurity meant no blemish or deformity, so a priest had to be examined naked before being accepted as a priest. In Judaism, sacrificial animals could not be blemished in any way, so it seems likely that the sacrificing priest was equally restricted, and the Christian idea was that Jesus did not have his legs broken by the Roman soldiers because he had to be a perfect (unblemished) sacrifice to atone for the whole of humanity.
Should anyone become impure, they had to be ritually purified. While the Avesta was recited, the polluted person had to drink ox urine containing a pinch of ash from a sacred fire, then they had to wash in ox or cow’s urine followed by a dowsing in pure water. An impure person contaminates any water they touch automatically, so they could not enter water or drink it, even despite the previous washing in cow’s urine, because some small part might have been left uncleansed. That is why whoever was purified had to be dowsed rather than bathing.
Curiously, the ritual for making cleansing water, in Numbers 19, involves the burning of an unblemished red heifer, the ashes of which were kept to make the “water of impurity, for the removal of sin”. When someone is polluted from a dead body, the water had to be sprinkled over him. Despite the differences from Zoroastrian practice, the association of the purification ritual with a cow and poured water seems remarkable in a society where sheep were normally the sacrificial animal of choice. The Israelites that come out of Egypt are herdsmen like the Iranians not shepherds. The Mishnah (the Jewish Oral Law) states that part of the ashes were kept in a jar at the entrance of the Temple Court. The Mishnah adds that nine, at most, red heifers were sacrificed from the time of Moses until the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, so the ashes lasted a long time, though since Moses was Ezra, it is not as long as it seems at first—about 500 years.
While observing all these laws, the Zoroastrian must guard, among others, against the vices of:
Parsis have been dubbed the “Jews of India”, supposedly for their business acumen—they dominated the commercial life of Victorian Bombay. But who knows that this title does not go deeper into history? Parsis are the “Jews of India” in terms of intellectual as well as commercial achievements, and perhaps for their religion too. Zoroastrianism enjoined equality between the sexes—an imperative which sharply distinguishes it form other eastern religions. Parsi women tended to be as well educated as Parsi men.
Parsis are renowned for their honesty and their philanthropy—“Parsi, thy name is Charity”—and they have always enjoyed a high moral standing in India. Parsi charity, like Jewish charity, begins at home, and the Zoroastrian religion has always encouraged mutual assistance, but that does not mean they never felt any calling to be the “light of the world”. Critics say Zoroastrians were not interested in proselytising and modern Parsis are still not. Jews have not been interested in proselytisiong for centuries but at one time they were interested in it, and one of them in particular was so good at it that he created Christianity.
The Gathas are the foundation of the religion of Zoroaster, venerated since ancient times as shown from the fact that three entire volumes of the original 21 Nasks were devoted to explaining them. Yet the Gathas have been described as full of a vision that Ahura Mazda’s revelations were for all mankind. We can read:
Now I will speak of the word which the most holy Ahura Mazda has told me as the best for all mankind to hear… (GY 45:5)
What was the Prophet’s point in saying that Ahuras Mazda’s word was for “all mankind”, if he had no desire to set up a universal religion? The philosophy of Zoroaster is unarguably the philosophy of a universal religion. Can we believe that the Persian kings who read this and believed that Ahuramazda was guiding their every step would not consider this of any importance.
Prof A V W Jackson of Columbia long ago told us that the Gathas suggested conversion and the tradition is that Zoroaster sent out missionaries. Nor is there a single passage that prohibits the propagation of the religion to others or bars the acceptance of non-Zoroastrians into the religion.
Speak O Wise One with the words of Your mouth for us to know, by the means of which I might convert all the living. (GY 31:3)
The Prophet offers himself as Ahura Mazda’s instrument, to enlighten all the living about the principles of divine justice, the fight against evil thoughts and deeds, and the choice to follow the path of righteousness. To fight against evil is the great task before mankind. Are we to suppose that the great kings did not believe this?
Modern Zoroastrians, opposed to missionary work and keen to establish this as the prophet’s own view, declare that the conversion was only from the path of Evil to the path of Good. Zoroastrian fundamentalists today argue that it does not imply religious conversion. But to any reasonable person it is hard to see how it cannot, if the revelation of Ahuramazda to Zoroaster is the original and purest revelation. These same modern exclusive Zoroastrians must not be allowed to mislead us when it comes to considering the view of the Persians, who were keen to spread the principles of a universal religion even though they were not concerned about the detailed ritual practices or names that were used in different places.
O Mazda, give us the moral courage that we, Your devotees, may spread far and wide Your holy word. (GY 28:7.)
Every devotee of Ahura Mazda, whether king or commoner, prayed to spread His eternal Message of Truth as far and wide as possible, so that the wicked (GY 28:5) may be overpowered (GY 28:6).
While I have power and strength, I shall teach men to seek Asha. (GY 28:4.)
All men should be taught to seek Righteousness.
The satisfaction which Thou shalt give to both factions through Thy pure fire and molten metal O Wise One, is to be given as a sign among living beings, in order to destroy the deceitful and to save the truthful. (GY 51:9)
Every human being will receive signs or signals from Ahuramazda to show whether he is treading the path of Truth or has gone astray on the path of Untruth.
Evil fate is in store for the Untruthful, while Illumination is for him who clings to Truth. (GY 51:8)
Listen with your ears to the best things. Reflect with a clear mind upon the two choices of decision. Being aware, to declare yourselves to Him before the final judgment. (GY 30:2)
Zoroaster gives the “crux of his teaching”—to enjoin all men to choose wisely between the two choices of decision, between Truth and Untruth, Right and Wrong, the Two Spirits of Good and Evil.
Now, in the beginning were these Two Spirits… these Two show themselves as Good and Bad… and of these Two the Wise rightly do choose, but not so the Unwise. (GY 30:3)
In these Gathas, Zoroaster does not refer only to the people to whom he addressed himself but to “all people”. He spoke of “what is best for mankind”, and of “living beings”. Ahuramazda’s message was to be spread “far and wide”, so that all can be brought back to the path of Truth.
The freedom of choice that runs throughout the Zarathushtrian scriptures is the moral choice between good and evil, between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood, between righteousness and unrighteousness.
Zoroastrianism provides a whole catalogue of commandments, laws, maxims, prescriptions, proscriptions, rules and regulations, as guides to making the right choices.
Professor Mary Boyce can write:
Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed credal religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith… Today external forces have reduced the Zoroastrians themselves to tiny scattered minorities, living mostly in Iran and India; but beliefs first taught by their prophet are still subscribed to by other peoples throughout the world.
And Duncan Greenlees can add:
Zarathushtra’s mission has completed its task; what he had to give the world has been received by other religions and is now either universally accepted or is being adequately preached by them.
How would it have been possible for this to be true unless some form of evangelism happened? Of course it did, and on a grand and state institutionalsized scale.
Some Final Thoughts
In 527 AD, the Church labelled Zarathushtra as the Father of dualism and of all oriental heresies. The Roman Christian Church rejected all rival doctrines of the dualism inherited from Zoroastrianism, and so cut off its roots in the Persian religion. It also shut the neo-Platonist schools because they had the same roots. Now, Zoroaster is scarcely known although all the main patriarchal religions are indebted to him. Fighting French Catharism, it called Zoroaster the great Evil.
When the French king, Philippe le Bel, persecuted the Knights Templar, Zoroaster was again declared the most dreadful Evil on earth. Protestant Churches at the Reformation took the same line as the Catholics, or did not care.
Only when some learned men began to read the Avesta did a little about Zoroastrianism begin to creep into the west. Montesquieu (1689-1755), author of the Spirit of Laws, described Zoroaster as a legislator, as did the French translator of the Avesta, Anquetil Duperron (1771). Before the idea of Plato, in his Republic, to have statesmen who are philosophers, Zoroaster taught the importance of having wise sovereigns to govern rightly (GY 28:7, 31:22, 44:9, 46:8, 48:5, 48:11 and 53:2). The good prince adopted and applied the religion of Zoroaster, and in return could expect favour from Ahuramazda. The good king is liberal and feeds the poor, as was Vishtasp, the protector of Zoroaster.
Aristotle united the Greek philosophy with the oriental religious Systems, as that of the Magians, under the denomination of wisdom (sophia) which is quoted by him as the metaphysical knowledge of the highest principles of theology.
A long time before Plato and Aristotle, Zarathushtra had united God with wisdom and into the nature of the Wise Lord (Ahuramazda) and Good Thought (Vohuman). For Aristotle, to seek the highest principles required divine wisdom known as theosophia and involved every aspect of the philosopher’s life. In the Zoroastrian Gathas, knowledge is to transform the disciple, not merely for its own sake.
In Florence during the 15th century AD, Gemistus Plethon, a Byzantine philosopher, saw the connection of Plato with Zoroaster and the patriarchal religions and hoped to unite them into a philosophy of Zoroaster’s wisdom through Pythagoras, Plato and the neo-Platonic school. Later, Cardinal Bessarion wrote that as Plato was considered the continuation of Zoroaster 19 centuries before, so Gemistus Plethon was the continuation of them both, but Gemistus Plethon’s works were considered sacrilegious.
Zoroaster showed that human laws will no more be dictated by anthropomorphic gods through ritualistic superstitions, but described a universal ethic, based on the worship of Truth (Arta) and on the new pre-eminence of wisdom (Ahuramazda) seen by him as a perfect archetype above humanity.
Zoroaster looked for a personal deep transformation of man, not compelled but from a profound personal ethical choice, to build a deeper and wider selection of ever better thoughts, words, and deeds.
Later religions founded on Zoroastrianism—Magianism, Judaism, Christianitty, Islam—diluted the original message because it was easier to stick to familiar rites, mechanically repeated to please God, than to follow the difficult way of Zoroaster.
The ethic of the Gatha is minimally ritualistic. The only sacrifice required is that of good deeds. Only through our thoughts, words and deeds do we prepare our after-life destiny. Our daena or welcoming spirit becomes ugly or beautiful according to our life deeds.
The Greek tradition was of Zoroaster being vegetarian. Herodotus and Xenophon (Cyropedia) testify that the daily food of Persians was bread, cress and water. Porphyry confirms that among the Magi eating of meat was sternly controlled:
The highest class and the wisest do not eat meat nor kill any living being and abstain as well from sex. (De Abstinentia IV 16)
Sotio and Clement of Alexandria corroborate and extend the same restriction to all the Magi:
They dress in white clothes, sleep on straw and feed on vegetables, cheese and black bread.
In Sassanian times eating beef and mutton on certain days was prohibited. Denkart and Bundahishn predict that human beings will become vegetarians before feeding only on water, itself preceding the spiritual food of the last times (Dk 7; Bdh 30). It suggests that Zoroaster might have condemned the sacrifice of oxen, but it was such a popular tradition among the Aryan religion of the kavi and the karapan that it was never stopped.
Abstinence of cattle meat goes with the expansion of agriculture which is blessed in the Avesta where the best blessing of Ahura Mazda is a good crop, especially of wheat and barley, and nowhere do we find cattle-breeding praised. Zoroastrians saw the Arab and Turkish people as Zarathushtra saw the Turanians because of their herds destroying the fields, gardens and irrigation canals.
The Greeks were amazed to notice how the Persians were attached to telling the truth and avoiding lies. Now, lying and hypocrisy are permanent sins in our modern world: in business, advertising, politics.
Voltaire wrote that the best expression of morality he had ever known stands in this Zoroastrian precept of the Saddar. “When you are not sure if an action is right or wrong, just abstain from doing it”.
In a final thought, Professor Paul DuBreuil concludes that Zarathushtra’s wish was to see the whole universe following the law of Ahuramazda.
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)