The Faravahar, one of the symbol of Zoroastrianism
The Faravahar, one of the symbol of Zoroastrianism

Western European scholars have traditionally referred to ancient Iranian religion after the acknowledged founding figure of the political formulation of that religion, Zarathushtra. The term Zoroastrianism was derived from his name. Today the faith is better known by the name of its devotees, the Parsis.

In the ancient Persian Empire there was no general designation for their religion. Moreover, even when centralized authority was pursued and Zoroastrianism was adopted throughout the realm, the religion remained locally distinct throughout the ancient empires, each region having its own variation on the general scheme.

The Avesta, the holy text, was first committed to writing in the sixth century c.e. Both religious tradition and linguistic evidence points to an ancient oral transmission. The oldest texts are the Gathas, assigned a date of roughly 1000 b.c.e. on linguistic grounds; whether they can seriously be ascribed to Zarathushtra is unknown. Little is known about Zarathushtra.

Some scholars doubt the existence of a historical figure at all. Dates proposed for his life extend from the sixth millennium b.c.e. to 569 b.c.e. Scholars place his life in the range of c. 1200–600 b.c.e. He lived in eastern Iran, was from a priestly family, and was well trained in ritual observance.

He reduced the Iranian pantheon to the single deity Ahura Mazda and defined religious life in terms of proper behavior in the pursuit of truth. Observance of purity and avoidance of pollution were central concerns. Fire became the symbol of truth, light, and order; as such it was protected from pollution.

The history of ancient Zoroastrianism can be divided into four stages. First, in the formative period, a conflation of religious traditions took place with two predominating. One was the Indo-Iranian mythology reflected in the Rig-Veda of India that shows a division of the divine realm into deities and demons, though good and evil are reversed in Iran.

Ahura Mazda (right) presents Ardashir I (left) with the ring of kingship.
Ahura Mazda (right) presents Ardashir I (left) with the ring of kingship.

Creation stories, purity rites, and sacrifices are shared by these traditions. The second major influence on early Zoroastrianism was the religious tradition of Babylonia and Assyria, especially the centrality of the king and the relationship between the ruler and the major deity.

In the second, or Achaemenid period, equated with the Persian Empire c. 559–336 b.c.e., the ruling elite accepted Ahura Mazda as their patron deity and as their contact with the divine realm. They were responsible for spreading the faith from eastern Iran throughout the empire.

The establishment of fire towers to house flames symbolizing the pure thought and deeds of the faithful were instigated. The humane administration of Cyrus II may have stemmed from the ethics of Zoroastrianism.

Third, during the era of Hellenization, which extended from Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire well into the restored Parthian Empire, c. 336 b.c.e.–224 c.e., Greek rulers and classical thought impinged on Iranian religion.

By tradition it is during this period that the Avesta was standardized as an oral ritual text. Most of what is known of early Zoroastrianism is derived from contemporary Greek and Roman writers of this time, and they held Zarathushtra in godlike esteem.

Finally, the Sassanid Empire, c. 224–632 c.e., codified, centralized, and nationalized Zoroastrianism as the state religion. Priests became major political players, and the Avesta was first committed to writing. This period ended with the Islamic invasions. Zoroastrianism made such an impression on Muhammad and his followers that they were guaranteed protection along with the Jews and Christians.

Central tenets of ancient Zoroastrianism included the cosmic battle between asha (truth) and druj (lie) represented by the deities Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, respectively (Angra Mainyu is the same as Ahriman, or Satan, in the biblical tradition). Time was divided into eternal time, in which dwells Ahura Mazda, and temporal time, which is an aspect of creation.

Space also consists of the invisible, which contains the ordering principles, and the visible, which is the material world. The Amesha Spentas (Beneficent Immortals) and a host of lesser divine beings aid Ahura Mazda in the fight with Angra Mainyu’s demons.

This essentially dualistic vision of the cosmos would eventually end with the victory of asha and the establishment of a perfect future world into which the righteous would be resurrected in their youthful bodies. A notion of a savior figure (saoshyant) as redeemer of the world arose with this idea.

The body and soul of every individual would meet after death on a bridge spanning earth and heaven. For those whose lives were on the side of truth, the bridge was a wide thoroughfare to heavenly rewards; for those whose lives were a lie, the bridge was too narrow to sustain them and they fell into a pit.

Little is recorded of the delights of heaven, but the punishments of the pit were extensively described. In the Sassanid period corpses were laid out on structures designed to keep bodies from pollution until birds consumed the earthly body. Three major priesthoods existed. Zaotar performed sacrifices.

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence atop a steep hill near Yazd
Zoroastrian Towers of Silence atop a steep hill near Yazd

Mathran composed hymns, until the Avesta was standardized. Magi became the primary priests of the Parthian period and were recorded by classical writers as adept at interpreting signs and dreams as well as being prophets. Other groups of priests are also attested, though women were not allowed into any priesthood.

The faithful were expected to sacrifice to Ahura Mazda through pure thoughts, words, and deeds. Prayers were to be said five times a day, though the central ritual of reciting the Avesta from memory was the duty of two priests selected to represent all Zoroastrians.