When we think about the Sassanid Persian Empire, we often visualize it as a mighty enemy of ancient Rome, but don’t contemplate its own unique entity. In this article, we will examine some of this identity by discussing the history of its official religion, Zoroastrianism. This ancient religion is still practiced in areas of Iran and India, as well as by members of the diaspora in countries such as the United States, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s smallest religions, with some sources estimating that there are now only around 150.000 followers worldwide.

Zoroastrians worship one God, Ahura Mazda, the “Wise Lord”,  and believe he created the universe. In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda has an adversary called Ahreman, the Evil Spirit, the Anti-God. There is a hierarchic structure within Zoroastrianism. Under Ahura Mazda are the six Holy Immortals, which are emanated by God but are not God. These emanations are seen as the divine attributes of Ahura Mazda. Each is associated with a particular aspect of creation. For example, Asha is associated with fire, a vital element of Zoroastrian rituals. Beneath the Holy Immortals are the Venerables, such as Mithra and Daena, who help the Holy Immortals. Finally, the Fravashi or “preexistent souls” are guardian spirits, with each being having a Fravashi. Even Ahura Mazda himself is believed to have one.

Zoroastrianism is characterized by the dualism of Good and Evil. Man can choose the path of Evil or the path of Righteousness. The first leads to hell, the latter to happiness in Heaven.

The main source of Zorastrianism is the Avesta, a collection of texts compiled in successive stages. Within the Avesta are the Mantras, very ancient sacred formulas often recited during rituals. Within the Mantras are the five Gathas, five religious hymns which are attributed to Zarathustra. They are written in a dialect different from the rest of the Avesta.

The founder of Zoroastrianism is considered to be Zarathustra, Zoroaster in Greek, an obscure historical figure who is believed to have extracted elements of his “new religion” from ancient Iranian Pagan cults.

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Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran. Credit to Nick Taylor.

The famous “Towers of Silence”, commonly found in India and Iran, are built as places in which the dead bodies of Zoroastrian followers are laid out exposed to the sun and left to be eaten by animals. Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies are impure, and that contaminating natural elements such as earth, air, fire and water with corpses is a sacrilege to the Holy Immortal linked to that element. Modern Zoroastrians however often opt for cremation.

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