The way of Explore the rich history of Zoroastrianism – the world’s first monotheistic faith
and Eve, if they existed, would have known God in the wonder of the natural world, the earth, the air, and water. Jesus Christ was not a Christian, but a Jew, and he knew better than anyone that God is multifaceted. Although Jewish scholars and theologians name Abraham as the first Jew because he rejected idolatry and recognised one god, the concept of monotheism – which passed from Jews to Christians, and then to Muslims, too – was not something new. Abraham just happened to be the man who made it famous, and whom popular history has recorded as the originator, the first believer.
But before Abraham, and what we know as the three Abrahamic faiths, there were already those who worshipped one god: the Zoroastrians, or Parsis, as many of the modernday adherents of the religion are known. A small community, who traditionally marry amongst themselves and have no doctrinal requirement to proselytise, their history and the tenets of their faith are poorly understood by outsiders. But the impact of their ideas over the past 3,000 years has been nothing short of revolutionary. Zoroastrianism transformed the dominant belief systems from the polytheistic worship of gods representing natural phenomenon, and Mother Earth figures representing fertility and harvest, to the conceptualisation and worship of a single, male god.
The prehistoric roots of Zoroastrianism are to be found in northern Iran, and what is now Azerbaijan, in the early second millennium BC. The faiths of Indo-iranian peoples at this time typically focused on cosmic mythology, and groups of deities embodying (for example) water and rivers, the sun,
The prehistoric roots of Zoroastrianism are to be found in northern Iran, and what is now Azerbaijan, in the early second millennium BC
commonplace across the ancient world, but Zoroaster and his followers changed their focus. Zoroaster’s single most important theological concept is that of dualism: that two opposites co-exist.
The creator god is Ahura Mazda, the lord or spirit of wisdom. He alone should be invoked and worshipped, because he is the highest power of all, and it is he who sustains the world. The name Ahura Mazda was attributed to an ancient Iranian spirit prior to the birth of Zoroaster, but it was Zoroaster who proclaimed him to be an “uncreated spirit”. This placed him as present before the beginning of the world, positioning Ahura Mazda as the ultimate creator of all things.
This revelation was revealed to Zoroaster in a vision. At the age of 30, Zoroaster was led into the presence of Ahura Mazda, taught the cardinal principles of Zoroastrianism, and thenceforth felt that he was divinely appointed to preach what he had learned. Ahura Mazda was designated the supreme being, or God. But in a dualistic universe, Ahura Mazda must, of course, have an opposite, and that is Angra Mainyu, a destructive spirit akin to the devil, or a demon. Angra Mainyu is not Ahura Mazda’s equal – how could he be? – but nevertheless, he and his hostile force of daevas (evil spirits) attempt to distract humankind from the path of righteousness.
waves of migration to South and Central Asia. This movement of people, and their faith, meant that the core concepts of Zoroastrianism were widely heard, discussed, and gained credibility, especially in the commercial and intellectual centres of the time.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all conceived, born, and developed in their early years in the same intellectual and cultural sphere: the Middle East. Zoroastrianism had already sown its seeds in this fertile ground, and these bore fruit as these Abrahamic faiths flourished, propagating Zoroastrianism’s most crucial ideas. But this was not the only way in which these faiths would entwine with their forefather.
In the Christmas story, you’ll recall that three wise men came from the east – probably from Persia – to visit the infant Jesus. They’re often referred to as the magi. The term “magi” has been used since at least the 6th century BC to denote Zoroastrian priests. They were known in the ancient world for their study of astrology, and they believed that the appearance of certain stars heralded the birth of rulers. What is more, the earliest surviving depiction of the magi, a 6th century AD mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, shows three pale-skinned men wearing distinctive red Phrygian caps, and pointed shoes. These items were the traditional garb of the Zoroastrian priests, suggesting that the artisans who made the mosaic accepted that identity.
Today, the Zoroastrian population has dispersed, and many of their temples lie in ruin, their places of worship and their theology replaced by those of newer faiths. But with monotheists now numbering an estimated 55 percent of the world’s population, their beliefs directly descended from those of Zoroaster, the significance of its impact is incontestable. ag
The term “magi” has been used since at least the 6th century BC to denote Zoroastrian priests