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Zoroastrianism (zôˌrōăsˈtrēənĭzəm), religion founded by Zoroaster, but with many later accretions.


Zoroastrianism's scriptures are the Avesta or the Zend Avesta [Pahlavi avesta=law, zend=commentary]. The Avesta consists of fragmentary and much-corrupted texts; it is written in old Iranian, a language similar to Vedic Sanskrit. The major sections of the Avesta are four—the Yasna, a liturgical work that includes the Gathas (“songs”), probably the oldest part of the Avesta and perhaps in part written by Zoroaster himself; the Vispered, a supplement to the Yasna; the Yashts, hymns of praise, including the Khurda (“little”) Avesta; and the Videvdat, a detailed code of ritual purification, often erroneously called the Vendidad. Other sources of information on Zoroastrianism are Achaemenid inscriptions, the writings of Herodotus, Strabo, and Plutarch, and the commentaries on the Avesta written (6th cent. A.D.) in Pahlavi, a Persian dialect used as a priestly language, under the Sassanids.

Origins and Beliefs

In its origins Zoroastrianism appears to have been the religious expression of the peaceful, sedentary communities of N Iran as opposed to the animistic polytheism of their enemies, the nomadic horsemen. Zoroaster consistently contrasts these two peoples as the People of Righteousness (asha) and the People of the Lie (druj). The religion was concerned with increasing the harvest and with protecting and treating kindly the domestic animals whose labors accomplished the production of food.

Gradually certain practices that Zoroaster appears to have deplored, such as the use of haoma (a narcotic intoxicant) in prayer and the sacrifice of bulls in connection with the cult of the god Mithra (a lesser god in Zoroastrianism), became features of the religion. It is not surprising, however, that former customs should be thus revived, because Zoroaster appears to have incorporated in his religion the old Persian pantheon, although very much refined. Instead of tolerating the worship of all the deities, however, he divided them into those who were beneficent and truthful and those whose malevolence and falseness made them abhorrent.

Heading the good spirits was Ahura Mazdah (also Ormazd or Ormuzd) [sovereign knowledge], in primitive Zoroastrianism the only god. Six attendant deities, the Amesha Spentas, surround him. These abstract representations, formerly the personal aspects of Ahura Mazdah, are Vohu Manah [good thought], Asha Vahista [highest righteousness], Khshathra Vairya [divine kingdom], Spenta Armaiti [pious devotion], Haurvatat [salvation], and Ameretat [immortality]. In time the Amesha Spentas became archangelic in character and less abstract. Opposing the good ahuras were the evil spirits, the daevas or divs, led by Ahriman. The war between these two supernatural hosts is the subject matter of the fully developed cosmogony and eschatology of Zoroastrianism.

The entire history of the universe, past, present, and future, the religion teaches, is divided into four periods, each of 3,000 years. In the first period there was no matter; the second preceded the coming of Zoroaster; and in the third his faith is propagated. The struggle between good and evil rages during the first nine millennia, and humans help Ahura Mazdah or Ahriman according to whether their conduct is good or evil. Each person after death crosses the Chinvato Peretav [bridge of the separator], which spans hell. If he is reprobate, the bridge narrows and he tumbles to perdition, but if he is worthy of salvation he finds a wide road to the realm of light. In the fourth period of the universe a savior, Saoshyant, will appear, the dead will rise for their final reward or punishment, and good will reign eternally.

Zoroastrianism should be regarded as quasi-dualistic, rather than (as sometimes described) wholly dualistic, since it predicts the ultimate triumph of Ahura Mazdah. This god may be represented in the form of the pure natural substances that he has created, notably fire but also water and earth. The special veneration shown to fire and its use in religious ceremonies has led to the erroneous belief that the Zoroastrians were fire worshipers. The care taken to avoid contaminating these natural substances led to great elaboration of the purification ritual.


The religion's priests, successors to the pre-Zoroastrian Magi, acquired great power by their command of the techniques of purification. The priests also had great influence on the government in the first period of Zoroastrianism, that under the Achaemenids, when it was for a time the state religion. Alexander's conquest of Persia and the collapse of the Achaemenids destroyed the privileged position of Zoroastrianism. Little is known of the religion for the next 500 years, except that an offshoot, Mithraism (stemming from the worship of Mithra), was taking hold farther west. Zoroastrianism reemerged (c.A.D. 226) under Ardashir I, who established the Sassanid dynasty and fostered a general revival of Achaemenian culture. For four centuries Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sassanids, and it successfully met the challenge of nascent Christianity and, later, of heretical Manichaeism. In the mid-7th cent. Persia fell to Islam, and Zoroastrianism largely disappeared. The Parsis of India, centered on Mumbai, probably form the largest group of modern Zoroastrians, who are estimated to number between 124,000 and 190,000. Estimates of the number of persons (concentrated in Yazd, Tehran, and Kerman) who practice the religion in Iran today vary widely. Zoroastrianism affected Judaism (particularly during the time of the Captivity) and, through Gnosticism, Christianity.


See M. N. Dhalla, Zoroastrian Theology (1914, repr. 1972) and History of Zoroastrianism (1938, repr. 1963); R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961); M. Boyce, Zoroastrians (1986); M. Farhang, The Zoroastrian Tradition (1988). The Manual of Discipline in the Dead Sea Scrolls is believed to reflect Zoroastrian influence. See also bibliography under Zoroaster.

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“The Resurrection of Zoroaster,” drawing by Austin Osman Spare, 1905. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

About five centuries before the Common Era, the world's first true monotheistic religion began. Cyrus the Great (c. 585-c. 529 BCE) was king of Persia when Zoroaster (c. 628-c. 551 BCE)—Zarathustra, as he was later called by the Greeks—began to preach that a battle between good and evil, between the High God Ahura Mazda and the evil Ahriman (see Ahura Mazda/Ahriman), was being carried out on Earth. Ahriman had been lured into Earth's realm so he could be weakened and eventually destroyed at the end of time. History, viewed for perhaps the first time in a straightforward, linear fashion, was going to come to an end. After the destruction of Ahriman, the earth would be recycled and purified. Humans would be rewarded with paradise, an ideal heavenly realm with a divine court abiding over the blessed. Hell was awaiting the wicked. It was not eternal, but its fires would purify evildoers, just as they would purify the earth.

Just before that final day, Zoroaster would return (see Mithraism). A virgin, impregnated with Zoroaster's own seed—which had been preserved in a mountain lake identified as Lake Hamun—would conceive him. Until then, every thousand years a prophet would appear until the final restoration of the world. This final restoration, it was foretold, would occur three thousand years in the future, or about the year 2500 CE.

It is hard to overestimate the influence Zoroastrianism has had upon the world. The Jews first experienced it during the Babylonian captivity (see Babylonian Captivity). When they returned to their homeland, their religion had completely changed. That meant that Christianity and Islam were affected as well. The result was monotheism, the belief that transformed Western civilization.

Before the Babylonian captivity, Jewish religion was full of references to "other Gods." After they returned, there were none. Now there was only one God. The "gods" of other nations were merely idols, figments of the human imagination. The Dead Sea Scrolls (see Dead Sea Scrolls) are full of references to the "battle between light and dark," the Zoroastrian dualism so alive and well in our culture today. (So prevalent is dualism in our society that even the news media promise to tell us "both sides of the story," as if there were only two sides to present.)

Zoroastrian priests were called Magi. From them we get the word "magic." Magi were among the first to formally institutionalize the idea of astrology (see Astrology). They studied the skies for signs and portents. From their Ziggurat towers, they would nightly scan the stars and constellations. The biblical Gospel of Matthew has some of them journeying to Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus, following a star that signified to them that "the King of the Jews" had been born.

At this point, a basic question must be posed. There is no doubt about Zoroastrian religion and its influence. But what about Zoroaster? Did he ever really live, or is he a character of mythology? Estimates of when he was born vary from the sixth century BCE all the way back to some six thousand years ago. But aside from his legacy we have no proof. One is certainly tempted, though, to think that such a legacy is proof in itself that he must have existed. Perhaps not with all the frills, bells, and whistles that accompany his legend. But where there is so much smoke, there must have been at least a small fire, and probably a big one, for Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Persia.

The religion still exists, even though Persia fell to Islamic invaders who reduced Zoroastrianism to a very small minority sect by 651 CE. As monotheists, they were "officially" respected by Muslims. But in practice they were ridiculed, labeled with the derogatory term gabars, or "unbelievers."

There have been Zoroastrian revivals over the years. The latest occurred between 1941 and 1979. But again Islam put it down. With the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, Muslims ended another Zoroastrian era.

Some believers migrated to India to escape persecution. Here they were known as Parsis, "Persians." Today the Parsis of India make up the bulk of the world's practicing Zoroastrians.

Although the Zoroastrians are few in number, their religion has had a tremendous impact, and the final vision of Zoroaster holds promise for the whole human race. Zoroaster believed good will triumph. These are words of his final prayer:

And then may we be those who transfigure this world. O Mazda (and you other) Lords, be present to me with support and truth.


O nce upon a time, villagers gathered to select a new shaman. A young woman, representing a new generation, had been selected to lead them into spiritual discoveries of benefit to all the people. It was an important day, and extensive preparations had been made. The young woman had undergone a thorough training. She had read and studied. She had learned myths from the old ones and could repeat them without a single mistake. She could weave together entertaining stories that made the whole village think more clearly about the important things of life—the things of the spirit. All that was needed now was the final ceremony that would bring together all she had learned. She was ready.

Or was she?

The elders summoned her to the village square, placed a blindfold over her eyes, and told her to stand before an ancient rock that bore an enigmatic message. Her blindfold was removed and the young woman was told she had only a short period of time to read the inscription. "Tell us its secret," the elders said, "and you will be worthy to lead us into new discoveries of the spirit."

Secure in all her training, she began. The villagers waited. The silence stretched on and on. And in the end, she couldn't do it. With anger and frustration she finally announced that the message carved in stone, inspired by an ancient wisdom, could not be translated. It was indecipherable.

The villagers were despondent. But it was even worse for the young woman. She retreated into herself, wondering why she had come up short. Where had she failed? Her training had been extensive. She had studied and learned about everything she could. Her active and fertile mind had probed and probed, seeking out answers to spiritual questions pondered by the elders. She thought she had learned all they had to offer. Now she was all alone.

The days of frustration stretched into weeks. A year passed. A F T E RW O R D

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a religion widespread in ancient times and the early Middle Ages in Middle Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and several other countries of the Near and Middle East and at present among the Parsis in India and the Gabars in Iran.

The religion is named after the prophet Zoroaster (in Iranian, Zaratushtra), who lived before the mid-sixth century B.C.; its scripture is the Avesta. Characteristic of Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic tendency, expressed in the belief in a supreme, or sole, god Ahura Mazda, after whom Zoroastrianism is also called Mazdaism, as well as a dualism pitting against one another the two eternal principles of good and evil, the struggle between which constitutes the world process. The daivas (later daevas, “demons”), naturalistic divinities of the older Indo-Iranian religion, who remained gods in India and among certain Iranian tribes, belong to the forces of evil and are distinguished from the asuras (“rulers”; in Iranian, ahuras}, gods with particular power over the moral order. Fire, seen as the incarnation of divine justice, orarta, plays the chief role in Zoroastrian ritual. At the head of the forces of good stand Ahura Mazda (later Ormazd) and his spirit, Spenta Mainyu (the Holy Spirit); at the lr ad of the forces of evil stands the hostile spirit of destruction Angra Mainyu (later Ahriman), in later periods considered an evil god and direct opponent of Ahura Mazda.

Mazdaism developed during the epoch of the ris * of states and fought the cult of the daevas, which was connected with the old priesthood and the tribal elite. According to Zoroastrianism, the goal of the world process, the victory of good over evil, is achieved by the development of events in this world, in which man plays a special role, endowed as he is with freedom of choice (which is affirmed in the Gathas, the most ancient part of the Avesta). He can take either side in the battle of good against evil, but the collective efforts of the adherents of the true faith will lead to the final victory of the forces of good. Man’s obligations to the good principle, as well as the means of his individual salvation, are not so much rituals and prayers as the manner of life prescribed by Zoroastrianism. The basic weapons in the struggle against evil are “good thoughts,” “good words,” and “good deeds.” Particular attention is paid also to the enhancement of a laudable material life, from shepherding and agriculture to the capitalist enterprise of present-day Parsis. Also stressed is the issue of progeny to increase the number of fighters for the good principle. Zoroastrianism has always eschewed asceticism.

Zoroastrianism was finally made a state religion under the Sassanians. After the Arab conquest, the religion continued for three or four centuries to play a significant role in Iran and neighboring countries; it was at that time that many Zoroastrian theological works were written in the Middle Persian language, including the Denkart (ninth century), an all-encompassing encyclopedia of the religion. As Islam spread, many Zoroastrians emigrated to India; the Parsis are their descendants. During the epoch of competition with Christianity and later with Islam, there was a tendency for the Zoroastrians to de-emphasize the role of the Evil Spirit; the Parsis recognize in fact only the god Ormazd, and Ahriman is considered basically a symbol of the negative tendencies in man.


Kent, R. G. Old Persian, 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn., 1953.
Pahlavi Texts, vols. 1–5. Translated by E. W. West. London, 1890–97. (In Sacred Books of the East, vols. 5, 18, 24, 37, 47.)


Struve, V. V. “Rodina Zoroastrizma.” Sovetskoe vostokovedenie, 1948, vol. 5, pp. 5–34.
Abaev, V. I. “Skifskii byt i reforma Zoroastra.” Archiv orientální, 1956, vol. 24, no. 1.
Istoriia tadzhikskogo naroda, vol. 1. Moscow, 1963.
Widengren, G. Die Religionen Irans. Stuttgart, 1965 (Contains bibliography.)
Duchesne-Guillemin, J. La Religion de l’Iran ancien. Paris, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


, Zoroastrism
the dualistic religion founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster in the late 7th or early 6th centuries bc and set forth in the sacred writings of the Zend-Avesta. It is based on the concept of a continuous struggle between Ormazd (or Ahura Mazda), the god of creation, light, and goodness, and his arch enemy, Ahriman, the spirit of evil and darkness, and it includes a highly developed ethical code
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005