Religion of ancient Persia based on the teachings of the prophet Zarasthustra (Zoroaster in Greek). Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Western angelologies and Demonologies.
Zarathustra may have been born as early as 650 B.C.E. Historical documentation of his life is fragmentary, and documents attributed to him have been dated hundreds of years apart. It may never be known for certain whether the original prophet or one of the followers composed the Gathas, songs or odes of the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, and the Avesta, the religion’s central doctrines and creation myth.
Zoroastrianism shares common ground with Hinduism and borrows some of its deities but differs from it in significant ways. Its cosmology is dualistic, and the conflict between the forces of good and evil is played out on a hierarchical scale of spiritual and material spheres. Some Hindu demigods named in the Yashts, a document similar to the song cycle of the earliest Indo-Aryans, the Rig-Veda, are turned into Angels. As Zoroastrianism was reformed, the gods and demigods called DAEVAs (devas) in the Veda were Demonized, and the class of deity called ahura by Iranians and asura by the Indians were eliminated.
The exception is Ahura Mazda (later called Ohrmazd), who was elevated to the status of the one true God from whom all other divinities proceed. Evil is a separate principle and substance standing against the good God and threatening to destroy him. Against the God stands Angra Mainyu (in Hinduism, Aryaman), later Ahriman, the Destructive Spirit. The duration of this conflict is limited; Ohrmazd will defeat Ahriman. God needs humans’ help in his battle with the “Lie,” as the principle of evil is frequently called in the ancient documents. Evil is not identified with matter. The material world is the handiwork of God, a weapon fashioned by the Deity with which to smite the Evil One. The world is the trap God sets for the Devil, and, in the end, Ohrmazd will deal Ahriman the death blow.
According to the Bundahishn, or Book of the Primal Creation, the two antagonists had always existed in time, but when Ohrmazd first chants the Ahunvar (True Speech), the key prayer of Zoroastrianism, it reveals to Ahriman that his annihilation is certain. Assaulted by this truth, Ahriman falls unconscious for 3,000 years. Ohrmazd creates the universe, the two worlds (spiritual and material), as a weapon with which to defeat Ahriman. An unorthodox text called the Zurvan indicates that early creation myths varied or were altered, for in the Zervanite version, Ahriman creates first the Lying Word (the exact opposite of the Ahunvar) and then Akoman, the Evil Mind, which he could not do if he were unconscious. The human soul is a spiritual being called fravashi or fravahr, a concept that encompasses not only individual human souls and guardian angels, but also local genii, the intelligences of places.
Both human body and its fravashi are creatures of Ohrmazd and his wife/daughter Spandarmat, the Earth. The soul preexists the human body but is not eternally preexistent as in many Eastern religions. Humankind belongs to Ohrmazd and will return to him. The first Primal Man mates with Ahriman’s “Demon Whore.” Each individual is free to choose good or evil, but evil is an unnatural act. Life on Earth is a battle between Ohrmazd and his attendant Powers, on one hand, and Ahriman and his Demonic hordes, on the other. For Zarasthustra, it was a very real battle, since daeva worshippers were still adherents of the traditional religion; he identified these with all that is evil.
Forces of Good
Ohrmazd is helped by the six amarahspands (or Amesha Spenta), the Bounteous Immortals, who are comparable to archangels and serve as Ohrmazd’s ministers. After Ohrmazd adopts Man, each of the amarahspands adopts one of the material creations. Their names are personifications of abstract concepts or virtues:
• Vahuman: Good Thought, Good Mind
• Artvahisht: Best Righteousness, Truth
• Shahrevar: Choice Kingdom, Material Sovereignty
• Spandarmat: Bounteous Right-Mindedness, Wisdom in Piety; also identified with Earth
• Hurdat: Health, Wholeness, Salvation
• Amurdat: Life, Immortality
Beneath the ahmarahspands are the yazatas (adorable beings), who are legion and are divided into heavenly (spiritual) and earthly (material) subcategories. Ohrmazd himself leads the spiritual Yazatas, and Zarasthustra the material Yazatas. They have assignments, as do the celestial intelligences and the DaimonES of water, air, fire, and earth.
Forces of Evil
Ahriman is served by a host of Demons, most of which are personified vices, such as concupiscence, anger, sloth, and heresy. There are six Archdemons, who oppose the amarahspands and try to destroy their good work. According to the Bundahishn, they are assisted by “furies in great multitude,” who are “Demons of ruin, pain, and growing old, producers of vexation and vile, revivers of grief, the progeny of gloom, and vileness, who are many, very numerous, and very notorious.”
The six Archdemons are the following:
• Akoman, the Evil Mind, foments vile thoughts and discord and opposes the amesha spenta, or good spirit of Vahuman, who opposes Vahuman
• ANDRA, the Slayer, who opposes Artvahisht
• Naoghatya, rules arrogance, presumption, disobedience, insubordination, and contempt and opposes Spandarmat, an amesha spenta, or good spirit
• Saru, the Tyrant, opposes the good spirit (amesha spenta) of Shahrevar and oversees misgovernment, anarchy, and drunkenness
• TARU, Evil Hunger, opposes Hurdat
• ZARIKA, Evil Thirst, opposes Amurdat
Numerous other Demons populate the mythology. Among them are the following:
• Akatasa, who shapes evil and is “the fiend of inquisitiveness” and meddling
• Anaxsti, who sows discord
• Apaosa, who fights the rain god Trishtya and always loses in the end and rides a black bald horse
• Araiti, who encourages stinginess
• Arast (Araska), who spreads falsehood and lies, malice, envy, and jealousy
• Asrusti, who incites disobedience
• Ayasi, who governs the Evil Eye
• Daiwi daeva, who encourages lying
• Driwi daeva, who rules beggary
• Freftar, who orchestrates deceit and seduction
• Kasvi daeva, who rules spite
• Mahmi, who tried to convince the creator god Ohrmazd that if he had sex with his mother, the Sun would be born, and if he had sex with his sister, the Moon would be born
• Paitisa daeva, who governs counteraction and opposition and is “the most devilish of Demons,” personifying the power of Ahriman to ruin the world
• Pus, who rules miserliness and hoarding
• Shetaspih, who personifies Christianity
• Spazga, who foments slander, calumny, backbiting, and gossip
• Spenjargak, who raises storms
• Vareno, who incites lust and illicit sex
• Vatya daeva, who battles good winds to create storms
• Vaya, “the merciless one,” who plagues the souls of the dead when they arrive at the Chinvat Bridge to the underworld and tries to interfere with their passage
• Vizares, who struggles with the souls of the dead for three days and nights after their passing, binds them, drags them off to torment, and sits at the gates of Hell
• Vyambura daeva, who vampirizes the living
• Xru, who foments murder
• Zamaka, who rules the evils of winter
• Zaurvan, who rules old age, decrepitude, and wasting away
Zoroastrianism in Practice
There are four major arms of Zoroastrianism: the teachings of Zarathustra; the teachings of Mazdaism, which made Ahriman creator and leader of the daevas; the teachings of Zeravanism; and the teaching of the Magi. The Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century scattered Zoroastrian sects and caused a decline in the religion. Many Zoroastrians emigrated east to India, where they are called Parsis. In present times, there are fewer than half a million followers, most of whom live in and around Bombay, India.
Zoroastrians consider their role in this world as to cooperate with nature and to lead a virtuous life; they oppose all forms of asceticism and monasticism. Their duty is to marry and rear children, for human life on Earth is a sheer necessity if Ahriman is to be defeated. Agriculture is honored for making the earth fruitful, strong, and abundant in order to resist the Enemy, who is the author of disease and death. There is a rigid dogmatism preserving the purity of the body, the care of useful animals, agricultural practice, and strict ritual observance. Celibacy is both unnatural and wicked.
On the moral plane, all the emphasis is on righteousness or truth and on good works, for deeds are the sole criterion by which one is judged after parting this life on the “Bridge of the Requiter,” the bridge of Rashn the Righteous, who impartially weighs each soul’s good and evil deeds. If there is a preponderance of good, the soul proceeds to heaven, but if of evil, it is dragged off to Hell. If good and evil deeds are exactly equal, the soul goes to the “place of the mixed,” where it experiences mild correction, and the only pains suffered are those of heat and cold. Zoroastrian hell is like the Christian purgatory in that the punishment is only temporary. The final purgation from sin takes place at the Last Judgment at the end of time. The stain left by sin is purged from all souls, and from this all without exception emerge spotless. None is punished eternally for sins committed in time. Sin is viewed as perversity; it is a failure to recognize who is your friend and who is your enemy. Ohrmazd is one’s friend and Ahriman is the enemy, from whom all evil and suffering proceed. Unlike the Western God, Ohrmazd does not permit evil, for such would give him characteristics of Ahriman. Monotheists have been deceived in this way, and this represents a genuine triumph for Ahriman, for besides being the Destroyer, he is the Deceiver, the Liar, and his deception takes the form of persuading people that evil proceeds from God. But his triumph is short-lived, for in the end all human souls, reunited with their bodies, return to Ohrmazd, who is their creator and father.
Further Reading :
- Dhalla, Maneckji Nusservanji. History of Zoroastrianism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938. Reprint, Brooklyn, N.Y.: AMS Press, 1977.
- Jackson, A. V. Williams. Zoroastrian Studies. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2003
- Zaehner, R. C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. New York: Putnam, 1961.