welcome to zoroastrianism! I’m not an expert by any means but i’m a history major fuckshit and that tag was begging to get used so fucking deal with it shitbirds
all praise be to the bearded aryan
what the fuck is this thread?
despite its proliferation and status as the dominant religion of greater persia for over a thousand years, zoroastrianism is one of the most poorly understood religions in the world. while many of its practices are well known because of its remnant communities, its origins are the subject of much contention. dates vary wildly as to when it began to be practiced as a religion, and only approximations exist as to when zoroaster lived. the relative mystery about zoroastrianism’s roots seems to foreshadow the curious haste with which its practice diminished. in only three centuries, what was once the dominant religion of an entire region was but a small minority ostracized by the rest of the community. because so few remain today (the latest counts at under 200,000 worldwide), many know little about the religion.
I. setting the stage
though historians believe he lived between the 1700-1500 BCE, the eponymous prophet zoroaster and the following of his teachings did not enter recorded history for more than a thousand years following his death. this lack of information on zoroaster is due to the lack of writings from that time period, as precious little survived the persian transition from the stone to the bronze age. one of the first historical accounts of zoroastrian practices dates to 440 BCE in the writings of herodotus, who makes reference to it having existed for centuries prior to his narrative.
it’s important to mark the distinction between those who followed the beliefs of zoroaster, and those who practiced zoroastrianism as a religion in our modern sense of the term (as a lifestyle). the former is the broader belief in the values and religion espoused by zoroaster, which were a complete break from the animistic and polytheistic beliefs that exited at the time, the latter is the belief in the singular god that zoroaster spoke of. It was somewhat “narrower” in that it had a well-established and defined set of beliefs, dogmas, and traditions. It is impossible to know when this progression was made, as there are no surviving writings from this time.
zoroaster’s teachings were strongly egalitarian, and were thus viewed as upsetting the social order. the tribal leaders discouraged it, and zoroaster moved into another tribe to preach his beliefs to a new set of people. it was here where zoroaster converted hutaosa and her husband vishtaspa, influential regional leaders who helped him gain legitimacy amongst the people. this led to conflict between his new tribe and the tribes that rejected him, and in these battles his protectors were victorious. this exile, ironically, was the beginning of zoroastrianism’s spread.
II. thus spoke zarathustra
zoroaster preached of a single Uncreated Creator, named Ahura Mazda (lit. “Wise Lord”), of a dualistic universe in which the path one followed in life was the determining factor for whether one lives out their afterlife in eternal bliss or eternal pain. It also included admiration of the wonders of the physical world. Evergreen trees were seen as symbols of immortality, and pomegranates as symbols of creation because of their numerous seeds. Perhaps the most well known aspect of Zoroastrian worship is their reverence for the elements, particularly of fire. It is important to note that Zoroastrians did not worship the fire itself: the fire served as a focal point for prayer, and historians tell us that later Zoroastrians viewed this ritual as being no different from Christians focusing on a cross or Muslims facing the qibla in the mosque, as all of these are ways to direct one’s prayer to God.
He introduced the concept of a divine judgment, in which after death Ahura Mazda would confront each individual’s soul. One would be judged on the morality of his or her actions throughout life, weighing the good against the bad. Those deemed good would be sent to Paradise to await the Final Judgment of mankind, while those deemed bad would be sent to a sort of purgatory devoid of all emotion. Perhaps his biggest contribution to religion and philosophy was the introduction of the concept of free will — this was essential to everything else he preached, as without free will the judgment of one’s acts would be inherently unjust, and marked a huge advance in theistic beliefs. Here’s a laundry list of other beliefs:
- There is one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, the one uncreated Creator to whom all worship is ultimately directed.
Ahura Mazda’s creation—evident as asha, truth and order—is the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict.
- Active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism.
- Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over evil Angra Mainyu / Ahriman, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. In the final renovation, all of creation—even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to “darkness”—will be reunited in Ahura Mazda returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time a savior-figure [Saoshyant] will bring about a final renovation of the world (frashokereti), and in which the dead will be revived.
- In Zoroastrian tradition the malevolent is represented by Angra Mainyu (also referred to as “Ahriman”), the “Destructive Principle”, while the benevolent is represented through Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu, the instrument or “Bounteous Principle” of the act of creation. It is through Spenta Mainyu that transcendental Ahura Mazda is immanent in humankind, and through which the Creator interacts with the world. According to Zoroastrian cosmology, in articulating the Ahuna Vairya formula Ahura Mazda made His ultimate triumph evident to Angra Mainyu.
- As expressions and aspects of Creation, Ahura Mazda emanated the Amesha Spentas (“Bounteous Immortals”), that are each the hypostasis and representative of one aspect of that Creation. These Amesha Spenta are in turn assisted by a league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each “Worthy of Worship” and each again a hypostasis of a moral or physical aspect of creation.
- Water and fire: In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, adar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principle act of worship constitutes a “strengthening of the waters” (see Ab-Zohr). Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.
- Proselytizing and conversion: While the Parsees in India have traditionally been opposed to proselytizing, probably for historical reasons, and even considered it a crime where the culprit may face expulsion, Iranian Zoroastrians have never been opposed to conversion and the practice has even been endorsed by the Council of Mobeds of Tehran. While the Iranian authorities do not permit proselytizing within Iran, Iranian Zoroastrians in exile have actively encouraged missionary activities, with The Zarathushtrian Assembly in Los Angeles and the International Zoroastrian Centre in Paris as two prominent centres. Iranian-American politician Trita Parsi and Swedish artist and philosopher Alexander Bard are two of the most well-known modern converts.
- Inter-faith marriages: As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith, but this is not a requirement of the religion itself. Rather it is a creation of those in India. Some members of the Indian Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality, and may be a remnant of an old Indian legal definition (since overruled) of ‘Parsi’. This issue is a matter of great debate within the Parsi community, but with the increasingly global nature of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, such opinions are less vociferous than they were previously.
- Life, death and reincarnation: In Zoroastrian tradition, life is a temporary state in which a mortal is expected to actively participate in the continuing battle between truth and falsehood. Prior to being born, the soul (urvan) of an individual is still united with its fravashi, of which there are as very many, and which have existed since Mazda created the universe. During life, the fravashi acts as a guardian and protector. On the fourth day after death, the soul is reunited with its fravashi, and in which the experiences of life in the material world are collected for the continuing battle in the spiritual world. In general, Zoroastrianism does not have a notion of reincarnation, at least not until the final renovation of the world.
- Disposal of the dead: In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay, i.e. of druj. Consequently, scripture enjoins the “safe” disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the “good” creation. These injunctions are the doctrinal basis of the fast-fading traditional practice of ritual exposure, most commonly identified with the so-called “Towers of Silence” for which there is no standard technical term in either scripture or tradition. The practice of ritual exposure is only practised by Zoroastrian communities of the Indian subcontinent, where it is not illegal, but where alternative disposal methods are desperately sought after diclofenac poisoning has led to the virtual extinction of scavenger birds. Other Zoroastrian communities either cremate their dead, or bury them in graves that are cased with lime mortar.
III. The Monotheists Begin to Mingle
As previously mentioned, the dates of early Zoroastrian practice are nebulous. In the context of Judaism it becomes difficult to know exactly how much of an impact it had, because the history of early Judaism is similarly unclear. What is known is that Zoroaster gave his teachings before any compilation of Judaic writings existed, and was likely the first to preach a sort of monotheism. If one accepts that the early writings discussing Zoroaster’s beliefs are indeed accurate to what he said while he was alive, rather than co-opted at the time of the writing, then Zoroastrianism had a heavy role in the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
This assumption leads directly to the largest problem in discussing ancient Zoroastrianism: Because it was an oral tradition for nearly two thousand years, there is no written documentation of its tenants until the compilation of its liturgical materials in the 2nd Century CE, into what is known as the Avesta. Things became more corrupted during attempts to preserve the Avesta; the oldest surviving documents are from the 12th Century CE, and even these were copies based on Pahlavi translations from the 11th Century CE. This means that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had plenty of time to exert influence back onto Zoroastrianism, making it incredibly difficult to know which traditions and beliefs were inspired by prior Zoroastrian belief and which came about with the later religions and were co-opted. An example is the practice of prayer five times a day, practiced by both Muslims and Zoroastrians. The Avesta teaches this as an important ritual, but it is entirely possible that it was taken from Islam in the 5th century.
IV. A Super Condensed Shitty History of Persia Because You Need Context
While the beliefs and their origins are difficult to ascertain, the historical context of Zoroastrianism’s proliferation becomes much clearer with the rise of the Achaemenid Era in the 5th century BC. The primary cause of this was the adoption of Aramaic as the language of the kingdom following Cyrus II (aka Cyrus the Great)’s taking of Mesopotamia allowed for historical accounts to be kept, and enough have been preserved to provide a good view of what happened.
Zoroastrianism was widespread in Persia at the time, but did not become the official state religion until Artaxerxes I became king of the Persian Empire in 465 BCE. This lasted only about 150 years, as in 330 BCE Alexander the Great defeated Darius III, and in the next five years took over Persia and took away the privileged status of the Zoroastrian faith. Alexander himself is much maligned in Persian history; during his conquest of Persia, upper-class members of society such as teachers and lawyers were slaughtered. Troops under his command raided sanctuaries and temples, killing many priests who attempted to defend their places of worship. However, Alexander’s rule only lasted seven years because of his sudden death in 323 BCE. The fallout of this was a clusterfuck of massive proportions as former generals, family members, and politicians of his empire double and triple-crossed each other, but by 311 BCE his former general Seleucus had taken control of most Persian lands.
Zoroastrians were not as severely persecuted under Seleucid rule as they had been during Alexander’s conquests. The killing of priests and sacking of temples was halted, but Zoroastrianism was not reinstated as the official religion of the state.
It did not take long for the Seleucids to be challenged; in 305 BCE, incursions by the Arsacids began to take territory from the Seleucids from their easternmost regions (modern-day India). By 141 BCE, the Arsacids were the dominant power in Persia, and by 87 had replaced the Seleucids entirely. While religion was not actively promoted by the state at this time, Zoroastrianism was practiced by nearly all in the empire and grew in influence.
The rise of the Sassanid Dynasty marked an explosion in Persian power and in Zoroastrian authority. Under Sassanid rule, the first books of Zoroastrian belief (that would later be compiled into the Avesta) were written, helping to create a standardized system in belief; prior to this, practices varied wildly by region. This also had a great impact following the Islamic conquest of Persia. Because Zoroastrians were now “people of the book,” they were given rights and privileges not granted to conquered pagan and polytheistic societies. The Sassanids heavily promoted Zoroastrianism for many of the same reasons as Constantine’s pimping of Christianity: it allowed them to consolidate their power and gain a sense of legitimacy from their subjects very rapidly. The Sassanids established a centralized Zoroastrian orthodoxy, and declared themselves as kings with a divine right to rule.
During this time, the Sassanids were the only power that could rival the Roman Empire (the Carthaginians had been wiped out centuries before), and were particularly strong under the rule of Shapur II. Fearing the growth of Roman power and attempted expansions into their territory, Shapur II heavily persecuted Christians within the Persian Empire. Jews, however, were not seen as a threat to his power and were allowed to live in freedom. Shapur also directed a series of campaigns against Rome, winning a small amount of new territory. His immediate successors were a series of weak and forgettable leaders who accomplished little during their reigns. The next great leader of the Sassanids was Yazdegerd I, who came to power in 399 CE and brought back tolerance for minority religious sects.
The Sassanids continued to prosper into the early 7th century, but there were signs that foreshadowed their impending demise: Zoroastrianism, while practiced by a supermajority of the empire’s citizens, was beginning to collapse under its own weight. Because it was so old, by this point it had amassed vast collections of holy writings and doctrines. Many of these were severely outdated, and thus ignored by the people. The situation that developed was similar to pre-Reformation Europe, with the religion being used by members of the priesthood as a way of instituting new taxes and amassing greater wealth, and a growing cynicism towards its tenants because of these corrupt clergymen. Many became priests out of desire for money instead of any spiritual reason, which fostered a resentment in the common people towards the clergy, and left them wishing for something to change.
V. In Which the Muslims Fuck Persian Shit Up, or The Beginning of the Fall
For the Arabs, the timing could not have been better. In 632 CE, Yazdegerd III had just taken power as a child and inheriting these numerous problems. By this time, the Muslim Arabs were already a formidable military force under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid and had taken control of much of the Middle East, and were expanding to the east.
Despite a much larger military force, the Persians suffered a series of defeats to the Arabs. In 633, a force of 18,000 Arabs defeated a 70,000 man Persian army at Walaja, marking the beginning of the end for the Sassanids. In 638 Caliph Umar had been fighting for a long ass time and was starting to get sick of war, despite his conquests (most of Mesopotamia at this point), and stated “I wish there were a mountain of fire between us and the Persians, so that neither could they get to us, nor we to them.” Persians, however, were pissed at the Arabs, and Yazdgerd III decided it’d be a good idea to start massing a big army again to fight. This was a mistake. From wikipedia:
[…]Yazdegerd III was unable to raise another army and became a hunted fugitive. He fled to Central Asia, to the court of the Khan of Farghana, and from there went to China. Nevertheless, Yazdegerd III kept intruding in Persia, using his influence over the nobles and chiefs, and thus remained a motivating force behind the Persian rebellion. During Caliph Uthman’s reign, Yadegerd III came back to Bactria and Khurasan rebelled against the Caliphate. Abdullah ibn Aamir crushed the rebellion and defeated Yazdegerd’s forces. He fled from one district to another until a local miller killed him for his purse at Merv in 651. For decades to come, this was the easternmost limit of complete Muslim rule.
By 656, Yazdegerd III was in exile and the Arabs had conquered all of the former Sassanid Empire. It’s a long ass story and if you want to read more about it check out some books on arab conquests or islamic expansion.
Conversion to Islam followed rapidly in the wake of this conquest. Zoroastrians were treated as “dhimmi,” or “people of the book,” and were thus given three options by their conquerors: pay tribute, convert to Islam, or be killed: Persians lobbied heavily for the first two options. The official policy of the new Arab-ruled state was to force payment of a tribute through the imposition of taxes such as the jizya. Because the Sassanid taxes were abolished under the new rule, the common people did not notice a significant increase in taxes paid, and were not particularly hostile towards their new rulers.
Although few were forced to convert to Islam from Zoroastrianism, within 300 years Zoroastrianism was only a small minority religion in an almost entirely Muslim state. It is worth noting that a large number of these converts, for the first few generations, were Muslim in name only. Because of imposed social pressures by Muslim rulers, many claimed to convert but did not practice. This dwindled with future generations, as they were exposed to Islam from an early age; the only children raised as Zoroastrians following the Arab conquest were by “true believer” parents and grandparents who were likely priests under the Sassanids.
By the 10th century, policies were instituted that made the practice of Islam a requirement to hold government positions, dealing another large blow to the remaining Zoroastrians (as well as the Christians and Jews). Most of the early converts were those in relatively urban areas, because of greater contact with the new Arab settlers, and because of the more immediate benefits of joining the Islamic social class. In time, it spread throughout the rural areas of the country, and today there are only 22,000 Zoroastrians remaining in Iran.
VI. So Why Do I Still Hear About It or Care?
Despite being almost completely phased out of practice 1500 years ago, Zoroastrianism still has a large cultural influence in Iran. The mythologies of the Avesta are seen as an important part of Persian history and culture, not unlike the Greeks embracing of their ancient religion as part of their modern culture. The Iranian government has seen it appropriate to protect old Zoroastrian sites, such as the Anjomani Fire Temple, as important sites of Iran’s cultural history. One of the main reasons for this is that they view Zoroastrianism as the spiritual predecessor to Islam, a monotheistic religion emerging in a time full of paganistic beliefs.
e: fuck it i’m not taking all the caps out i gave up ike 1/6 the way through