Light­ing Faith

The way of Ex­plore the rich his­tory of Zoroas­tri­an­ism – the world’s first monothe­is­tic faith

Asian Geographic - - Heritage -

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

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