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Zoroastrian History

ZoroastrianZoroastrian Persia has filled the greatest number of pages in the ancient history of the East, and has made a name that will live as long as time endures. The mighty empires of the ancient Persians covered a vast portion of Ahura Mazda's earth and included nearly all civilized nations. Two thousand five hundred years and more before the present day Zarathushtra, the prophet of Persia, preached his excellent religion which has so greatly enriched the religious thought of the world, and, according to the consensus of opinion of Biblical scholars, has influenced, in their making, three of the great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism.

BC 550330 BCPersian / Achaemenid
BC 330247 BCMacedon
BC 247224 ADParthian / Arsacids
Mithraism and Manichaeism, offshoots of Zoroastrianism, penetrated into European territory, and have left evidences of their influence in the ruins of temples and in sacred literature. The civilizations of the East and the West met in Persia for the first time in history under the Parsi kings of the Achaemenian dynasty. Zoroastrian Persia played the part of intermediary between East and West for several centuries, and her people enjoyed an importance quite unique in the world's history, from about 500 BC to the seventh century AD, when their vast empire vanished.

Cyrus I [r 640 600 BC] was the first to introduce the art of writing into Persia, and it is impossible to refer any book back to a period of greater antiquity than that of the Achaemenians. It is possible that the written draft of the words of the founder of the religion was made for the first time when Darius thwarted the attempt of the Magian Gaumata to introduce Median habits and the Median religion among the Persians. From what is known about the ancient Persian religion, this Abashta (presuming the reading to be correct), which contained the theogony recited by the priests during sacrifice, as related by Herodotus, and which is mentioned by other writers of antiquity, was not the same Avesta of to-day. In the inscriptions, together with Ahura Mazda the supreme, there appear still other gods, or baga (Slavonic bog), a term which occurs only in very late passages of the Avesta.

Zarathustra was one of the great teachers of the East and the founder of what was the national religion of the PersoIranian people from the time of the Achaemenids to the close of the Sasanian period. Zarathustra sought to ally himself with powerful families for the sake of the support they would bring the cause. The name of the king Vishtaspa is always associated with the prophet as that of his royal patron; other influential friends are also mentioned in the Gathas. At this ruler's Court he first converted the two sons of the Vizier and then the Queen. There was a formal disputation between the Prophet and the wise men, during the course of which they tried to overcome him by their magic; but Zoroaster triumphed and gained the King himself as a fervid convert to the new religion.

Vistasp, the Gustasp of Firdausi's epic, may possibly be identified with Hystaspes / Cambyses II [r. 530-522 BC], father of Darius [r. 522-486 BC]. But dating Zarathustra from 628 BC to 551 BC would preclude this association, and suggest rather that Vishtaspa was Cambyses I [r. 600-559 BC], father of Cyrus II, the Great [r. 559-530 BC]. Others would place the birth of Zarathustra at about 660 BC, and his death about 583 BC, which would also be consistent with the association of Vishtaspa with Cambyses I.

Since Cyrus in all probability, and Darius without doubt, already professed the religion of Zoroaster (Zarathrushtra), the chief god of which was called Ahura Mazda, then the Magian, or Mede, must have been hostile to this religion of the Achaemenidae. But the Avesta, the sacred book of the Persians, such as it is today, was composed in Media; accordingly there must be presupposed essential differences between the Median forms and that held by the ancient Persian Zoroastrians. One of them, the rejection of temples by the Medes, who had only fire-altars, and the existence of temples among the Persians. Another difference between the two forms of religion is shown in the treatment of the dead: the Persians covered dead bodies with wax, and laid them in tombs hewn in the rocks; the Medes, like their neighbors the Caspians, and their kin the Zirehgeran in the neighborhood of Derbent, and to a certain extent also the Parthians, gave their dead to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey.

The Achaemenians [BC 550-330] were worshippers of Ahura Mazda, but they did not use their secular power for the advancement of any church, as was the case later with the Sassanians. As early as in the period of the Achaemenians, in the fourth century BC, the good spirit seems to have become identified with Ahum Mazda, and the Dualism of the Medes to have coalesced with the Monotheism of the Persians; yet in the time of the Sassanians, speculation about the twofold division of the universe caused the rise of many sects. It was eight centuries later before the belief of the Medes, which Gaumata proposed to introduce, gained the ascendancy; and it was then that the A vesta as we possess it was accepted under the Sassanids as the sacred book of the state religion. The Median sect preserved numerous elements which had been component parts of the old SusoMedian faith, and had l>ecome blended with that of the Aryan Arizanti of Media, while the Persians had preserved in much of its primitive simplicity the teaching of Zoroaster, which had been brought from the East, and was an outgrowth of the old nature worship of the Aryans.

Darius frequently in his inscriptions mentions Ahura Mazda as the supreme god of the Persians, and ascribes to him all the successes of his life, especially the bestowal of sovereignty upon his house, the victory over his enemies, and the punishment of evil-doers. He lays the greatest stress on his abhorrence of falsehood (I)ruj, the German Trug), which calls forth rebellions, and is the source of all evil. As Ahura Mazda is a being peculiar to the religion of Zoroaster, and not in any way, like Zeus, a divinity common to the Indo-European nations, it is a sufficient proof that Darius was an adherent of the Zoroastrian doctrine. As regards Cyrus and Cambyses, there is no direct proof in this respect; but as the behavior of both kings toward the gods and religions of the non-Aryan peoples was precisely the same as that of Darius, — namely, the utmost toleration toward those who held a different faith, even to the extent of paying homage to strange gods, — it may bee safe to assume that all these Iranian monarchs were animated by the spirit of a religion superior to those of other ancient peoples. The latter almost always connected with the results of their military successes the idea of a victory of their own God over the gods of the vanquished, and they overthrew or carried off their images. This ancient Persian religion further differentiates itself in this regard from the later Zoroastrian belief, which at the time of the Sassanids was characterized by great intolerance.

The chain of evidence is so often broken, and the lost links are so many, that it is often difficult to trace the evolution of cultural thought step by step. There is a notable example in the five centuries intervening between the overthrow of the Achaemenians and the rise of the Sasanian power, which have left so meagre remains that Firdausi, who composed his immortal Iranian epic, Shah Namah, in the seventh century, AD, that is about four centuries after the collapse of the last Zoroastrian Empire, dismissed them in less than five pages.

Alexander and his soldiers are credited with great harm done to the Iranian religion: by killing the priests (the magi), by destroying and dispersing the holy scriptures, and by damaging and destroying holy places and temples. The indigenous literary tradition, which has preserved most of these stories, can of course not be trusted to have preserved actual records of what happened, as all historical events recorded in this tradition were recast in traditional literary forms. The Greek historians, on the other hand, were probably not particularly interested in transmitting horror stories about Alexander and his troops, even if they had committed crimes against the clergy, etc., so they cannot be trusted either. Finally, the archeological record provides little information about what actually happened.

The Parthian dynasty established its control over Iran with Mitridates I’s (ca. 171-138) conquest of Seleucia on theTigris in 141, and this control was expanded and consolidated under Mitridates II (ca. 123-87). Both kings were no doubt Zoroastrians and regarded Mithra as their protective deity. The Zoroastrian priesthood endured rule by the foreign Parthians, and they had suffered from a prevalence of religions that were not Persian in origin.

The principal characteristic of the Sassanian period [AD 224-661] is the introduction of the strict doctrine of Zoroaster into all parts of the kingdom. The Zoroastrian priesthood was pleased under the rule of the first Sassanid, Ardashir, for Ardashir wished to ally himself with Zorastrianism. Ardashir announced that religion and kingship were brothers, and he said that his rule was the will of God. The Zoroastrian priesthood felt empowered, and they looked forward to converting non-Zoroastrians who lived within Ardashir's empire.

Ardashir had a Zoroastrian priest, Tansar, collect sacred texts of the Avesta -- the Zoroastrian Bible -- some of which is said to have been destroyed during the conquest of Alexander the Great. In the Avesta were songs, hymns, legends, prayers, prescriptions for rituals, and formulas for cleansing one's body and soul. And Tansar put Zoroastrian law into the Avesta, from which Ardashir drew his laws.

Zoroastrian priests inherited their positions -- their special skills and learning passed from father to son. They operated Persia's courts, and they controlled Persia's schools. The priesthood performed the rituals that were a frequent part of the lives of the common people, including ceremonies of purification at the births of children, rituals at weddings, deaths and many other occasions. They received fees for every service performed, at the home of a believer or in their temple. And from those who confessed their sins they received payment in the form of fines -- as a substitute for corporal punishment -- the fines fixed according to the sin.

The zeal of the Zoroastrian priests is in accordance with the strict precepts of the later Zoroastrian religion, which Sapor II. authoritatively introduced as the religion of the state. Mani's attempt to found a new religion on the basis of the faith of Zoroaster was one of the predisposing causes to this action; for the solid organization of a state religion must render nugatory any such attempts to introduce doctrines dangerous to the state. According to the proclamation of Chosroes Nushirvan, the Avesta, in its present shape, was published as a canonical book under the Parthian Vologeses I, whose brother was a Magian; likewise Ardashir, in conjunction with the priest Tosar, or Tansar, is commemorated as a restorer of the pure faith; since by his victory the Greek culture affected by the Parthians was put aside.

The old Avesta of Vishtaspa, of which a copy, written in gold ink on vellum, is said to have been destroyed by Alexander the Great, was again brought into shape by the priests; that is to say, the priests took the ancient fragments that had come down from the time of the Achaemenians, and the religious writings that had been composed during the five hundred years since Alexander, and composed a new work in the archaic language, which was preserved in all its purity as the exclusive possession of the Median priests. This work, which corresponded to the necessities of new circumstances, and met the requirements of the priests, contained a collection of liturgical and legislative books; and as it was surrounded by the halo of divine revelation, it was especially suitable for the organization of a state religion. Even imder the Parthians the Magians had a hierarchy and secular possessions, and, as we have seen, were represented in the conduct of the government. To this time are referred the Buddhistic variants on the legends of Zoroaster, and the name of Gautama, or Buddha, occurring in the Avesta.

The so-called Zend script, in which the present Avesta is written, was derived from the Pahlavi, and first came into use in the sixth century AD, or after the time of the official introduction of the Avesta. It has for its foundation the latest development of the Pahlavi, and must have drawn upon the Greek alphabet, or upon the Armenian, which was derived from the Greek in the fifth century, for the new method of expressing vowel sounds. The translation into Pahlavi must also date from this period; and the manuscripts containing this version by the side of the original Avestau are invaluable for textual criticism and interpretation.

The translation was a necessity, because the original was composed not so much in an earlier dialect as in a language spoken outside of Persis, that is to say, the Median; for had this sacred language been only an earlier form of the Sassanian Persian, there would have been as little need of a translation into the vernacular as the Russians have of a translation of their Bible from the ecclesiastical Slavonic.

The opportunity of translating the language of the Avesta naturally involved the possibility that in the time of the Sassanians additions were newly composed in this ancient tongue. That this was the case, and that the Book of the Laws, the Vendidad, especially, was at that time rewritten in the interest of the priests, are proved by many details: for instance, the presence of Aramaic words, even of a Greek word (ereths in the Yasna); the attack upon celibacy, which Mani and the Christians regarded as meritorious; the acceptance of Gnostic teachings, that of the Heavenly Wisdom for example; the allusions to dissenting or false Athravans or priests, which refers to sects which, like apostates (Ashemaogha), are conceivable only in an ecclesiastically organized religion; so likewise are the extraordinary stress and wealth of elaboration expended upon the precepts of religion and religious morals; the impossibility of saving the soul without the intervention of the priests; and the metamorphosis of heroic legends into a history of the champions of the faith.

There can be little doubt that the Avesta anciently consisted of many more books than we have at present. Various traditions speak of their number (twenty-one) and contents, and the efforts made to preserve them. Alexander the Great burnt the palace at Persepolis, which contained one of the two then existing complete copies of these books, and the other was said to have been taken away by the Greeks. The attempts of the Sassanian kings of Persia to collect and preserve the Zoroastrian books were rendered futile by the destroying fury of the Mohammedans, and those who refused to adopt the faith of the conquerors emigrated to India, and settled chiefly on western shores. They preserved some portions of the Avesta, together with translations, commentaries, and original works in the Pahlavi language and character, which prevailed in Persia from the third to the tenth. In these Pahlavi texts are texts, much of the middle period of Mazdaism, with a strange mixture of old and new materials. The views now held by Parsi scholars are that some of those religious books, which the Parsis considered canonical, were not so ; that with the exception of a certain portion, the Gathas, they were not the words of Zarthusht or his contemporary disciples and coadjutors,—that before Zarthusht's time the religion was almost a polytheism. Zarthusht made a complete revolution—preached the worship of the one great supreme God, as the beginning and end of the holy religion; and that God alone was the creator and giver and all-in-all of everything. He threw aside the earlier gods or spirits. The present Parsi scholars maintain that the other books are later compilations by priests ; that after the death of Zarthusht the priests rehabilitated, though in subordinate positions, the earlier spirits, which were considered as presiding over fire, water, earth, and all the great creations of nature; and established the ritual and ceremonies as thought desirable or profitable to themselves, as has happened with other religions,—that all the invocations to the various spirits for aid were not a part of the religion as Zarthusht established it; and that the Parsis should return to the original spirituality, simplicity, and purity of their religion.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:17 ZULU