theology originated in a pastoral region south of the Aral Sea, where
Indo-Iranian tribes had settled during the Bronze Age (4000-1300 BC).
Little is known about its development over the next 500 years, except
that it spread towards the west, into Choresmia, Parthia and Media. The
Magi, hereditary priests of the Medians, adapted Zarathushtra’s
teachings into their religion. When the Medes overpowered the Assyrian
Empire in 708 BC, the Magis gained further power. The Achaemenians, who
originated from southern Iran, then overthrew the Medians, from whom
they adopted Zarathushtrian beliefs, but now traces of other
Indo-European and Elemite religion entered into the liturgy. The
multi-ethnic nature of the Empire, which now included Persians, Jews,
Greeks, Egyptians and Indics resulted in further syncretism, while
allowing the different religious beliefs to develop independently.
Alexander tried to
create a Eurasian empire, with the splendor of the Persian courts. His
successors in Syria and Persia, the Seleucids, did not patronize the
Magis, who became ritual priests to earn a living. After only 75 years,
the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia gained the upper hand. The Parthians
were Hellenized Zoroastrians who ruled Iran for the next 400 years.
They had to deal with the expansionist designs of Roman generals and the
arrival of Christianity. Now the Zoroastrian divinities influenced the
Roman soldiers. The Romans and the Jews then introduced some of the
Persian concepts into early Christian doctrines. The Parthians, seeing
the benefits of the organized Christian church, began the task of
collecting the fragmented Zoroastrian scriptures and literature; which
provided the platform for the Sassanian theocracy that followed.
Indo-Europeans were pastoral nomads who
had domesticated the horse and the dog. Most linguists and
archaeologists agree that they were an intrusive culture from the
northern steppes, and that they eventually overpowered and assimilated
with the native populations of most of the Balkans, Greece, Anatolia and
the Iranian plateau during the late Bronze Age and overthrew the
Dravidian culture of India during the Iron Age, about 3000 years ago.
The settlers in Iran and India form a distinct group called the
Indo-Iranians, who had lived together for millennia and developed a
distinct religion and culture, and called themselves Arya or Aryans.
The Aryan settlers
grew crops and herded cattle in the fertile regions south of the
Caspian. The docile cow and ox and the herds of sheep provided all
their needs. Camels, horses and dogs also figured prominently in their
culture. Their pre-history is found in the Yashts, known to most of the
world through the Shahnameh. Discovery of fire, metallurgy and animal
husbandry were attributed to the earliest Persian kings of the
Peshdadian dynasty. They conquered the spirit-worshipers of Hyrcania (Mazandaran).
Their heroes were strong and brave and constantly at war with hordes of
uncivilized nomads from Central Asia, the Turanians.
seafaring culture developed in the Greek islands. Their immortal gods
and goddesses had human characteristics, and needed sacrifices from the
humans . Since humans were mortal, the only way they could attain
immortality was through: “kleos aphtithon”, or imperishable fame
and glory, achieved through heroic deeds. In the Vedas it is called “srvas
akshitam”. This term has cognates in most Indo-European cultures
such as the Nordic sagas and Irish adventure stories. Homer’s Iliad and
Odyssey, set in 15th Century BC Greece and Anatolia, depict a
highly developed culture of warfare, plunder, and sacrificial offerings.
evidence of Indo-Iranian religion is to be found not in India or Iran,
but in Northern Syria. The royal documents of the Mitanni, written on
clay tablets around 15th century BC, commemorated their
victory over the “black-haired people”, the Hittites. The tablets
include the names of major Indic deities – Mitra, Aruna (Varuna), and
Indra; and a vocabulary of horsemanship and charioteering . Egyptian
tomb paintings of that period show the Mitanni to be pure Nordics, whose
descendants remain today as Persian-speaking Nordic Kurds . Records
of Indo-European speakers in Europe other than Greece are dated much
later, partly because writing came later in Europe.
It is the polytheistic Indo-Iranian culture of warfare, plunder aznd
animal sacrifice that Zarathushtra condemned. The Gathas are set in a
pastoral society around the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, north of the Hindu
Kush, where the Aryan tribes had settled for centuries. The prosperous
kingdom of Bactria lay to the south, on the ancient Silk Road.
Zarathushtra’s teachings resonated with the settled culture of cattle
breeding, agriculture, and respect for nature. Through good thinking,
one can attain an understanding of Asha, the way the Wise God Ahura
Mazda intended His Creation to develop.
influence resulted in the relegation of the Indo-Aryan pantheon of Devas
to the role of demons, or Daivas, who were destroying the
beautiful Creation of Ahura Mazda. It is probable that during this
period, the chariot-riding Aryan warriors entered the Indus valley and
displaced the indigenous Dravidians. Their heroic deeds inspired epics
such as the Mahabharata that extol war and tribal loyalty as Dharma, a
religious duty. The Ramayana, on the other hand, depicts the eternal
struggle between good and evil in a culture that values truth,
righteousness and peaceful living in harmony with nature.
Power in religion
lay with those who had secular power: i.e., the tribal leader or the
king. To the Indo-Europeans, the founder of a royal family was supposed
to have descended from a god or goddess. Zarathushtra’s message implied
that the king need not be a god, but he should be god-like, that is,
righteous and worthy of the absolute power that he commanded.
Zarathushtra’s followers interpreted this to mean that king’s power and
glory, khwarr, was entrusted to him by Ahura Mazda.
In the next 500 years, Mazda-worship
spread westwards into Choresmia, Parthia and Media. As the political
sphere of influence of the Indo-Iranian tribes began to shift to the
west, the kingly glory shifted to the Median kings. The Assyrians had
kept Media under control for many centuries, but the Medes finally
overthrew the Assyrian Empire in 708 BC .
priests of the Medes belonged to the Magha tribe, known as the Magi by
the Greeks. They gradually took over the role of the Athravans (Athornans)
and developed many of the Yashts and rituals, combining Zarathushtrian
concepts with Aryan and pre-Aryan mythology and ritual. The Videvdat
(Vandidad) was developed from the essential elements of the anti-demonic
culture of the pre-Aryan Elamites, although it was written down much
later. The Elamites had established an empire in southwestern Iran
before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. Elam had prospered through
trade with Babylonia, Assyria, Mesopotamia and India. Elamite language
is curiously similar to the Indo-Dravidian languages .
written in prose form in Gathic dialect, was probably composed during
this period. It contains no direct reference to Zarathushtra. The
religion is simply called the Mazda-Yasna faith. The seven
attributes of Ahura Mazda have now become Archangels, who are to be
worshipped along with Ahura Mazda and His righteous creations.
Cyrus Pangborn calls
Zarathushtra’s religion based on the Gathas as ‘Zarathushtrianism’,
while he calls the religion after it spread to the western regions of
Iran and developed further by the Magi as ‘Zoroastrianism’ .
The Persian tribes in Pars, south of Media, called themselves Parsas or
Parsiks . They were tributary subjects of the Medes. The head of
the ruling house of the Parsas was Hakhamanish. Kourosh (Cyrus II), a
great-grandson of Hakhamanish (Achaemenes), wrested power from the
Median king Astyages when the Median king’s disgruntled general defected
to Cyrus in 558 BC. This single act made Cyrus the master of all the
Persian lands, while his father and grandfather were still alive.
Cyrus’s mother was
the daughter of Astyages. She must have imparted Zarathushtra’s
definitions of justice, righteousness and good rulership to young
Cyrus. By 539 BC, he had added Babylonia, Armenia, Lydia and Ionia to
his empire. Cyrus claimed that due to his conquests and benevolent
rule, the Khwarr now belonged to the house of Achaemenes. Cyrus
became “Great King, ruler of all the Persian lands”.
But Cyrus was also
an astute politician and leader. Herodotus  calls him a wise and
thoughtful ruler. When the Persian army was advancing towards Lydia, its
king, Croesus, consulted the oracle at the temple of Apollo, who sent
him the reply: “You will rule Lydia for a long time, but you will be
killed when an ass sits on the throne of Persia”. When he was captured
and ordered to be burnt alive by Cyrus, Croesus is reputed to have
prayed to Apollo, reminding him of the many sacrifices he had given in
his honor. Soon, a rain shower appeared out of nowhere and extinguished
the flames. When Cyrus heard about this, he ordered Croesus to be
brought before him, spared his life, and made him the governor of
Lydia. After this experience, Cyrus repeatedly claimed the support and
blessings of the local gods and actively participated in their
propitiation rites. When he entered Babylon, he declared: “The great
gods have delivered all the lands into my hand with the blessings of
Marduk.” He allowed all the temples to the local gods that had been
destroyed by the Assyrians to be rebuilt and freed all, including the
Jews, who had been held in bondage by the Assyrians. He supported the
priests of all beliefs. The Magi must certainly have received his
support and began to spread the religion throughout the Persian Empire.
Cyrus died in 530
during a campaign against the Sakas of the north. Cambyses, his elder
son, declared himself King of Babylon, Ruler of Lands. He followed his
father’s footsteps by giving obeisance to Marduk. He conquered Egypt in
525, and assumed the Egyptian royal titles of Pharaoh, king of Upper and
Lower Egypt, son of Re, etc. He is said to have prostrated himself in
front of the statue of Isis .
Meanwhile, the Magi
were not happy about the religious laxity of the ruling Persians. They
destroyed many of the temples that Cyrus and Cambyses had helped to
rebuild. A Magus named Gaumata usurped control over Media with support
from the nobles. To gain support of the people, he declared himself to
be Cyrus’s son Bardiya, and exempted the Medians from taxes for four
Darius the Great
Darius was the son of Vistaspa, Cyrus’s uncle, descended from another
Achaemenian line. When Cambyses died, Darius killed Gaumata with the
help of six noblemen who knew that Bardiya was an imposter. He was
declared as the legitimate successor to the Achaemenian throne in 521,
at the age of 29.
As soon as the news
of Gaumata’s impersonation and death became public, there arose a
rampage against all Magi to exact revenge for the harsh treatment they
had received from them. Greek historians have recorded this event,
Darius has left
detailed accounts of his battles and victories on rock inscriptions at
Behistun in Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. Darius’s inscriptions
clearly say that he was a follower of Ahura Mazda and a recipient of
Ahura Mazda’s divine benevolence. Ahura Mazda is described as the
greatest of gods, but not the only God; and there is no reference to
Zarathushtra or the Magi. He rebuilt Susa, the old Elemite capital, and
made it his capital.
Darius was a great
administrator and greatly increased the prosperity of the Persians. He
built roads for commerce, introduced standard weights and measures,
coinage, and a very efficient communication system through the Royal
Road. His court was a model of royal might and splendor. He met his
subjects and foreign delegations through a curtain so he could see them,
but they could not . During Darius’s reign, the Persians were highly
respected and feared throughout the civilized world. But his ambition
to conquer mainland Greece was thwarted when his army was repelled by
the Greeks at Marathon (490 BC).
To retaliate for
this insult, Darius’s son Xerxes I sacked Athens in 480 BC; but the
Persians were routed again in a decisive naval battle at Salamis. One
of the noteworthy events of this battle was that the only Persian ship
that escaped was commanded by a woman admiral. Xerxes, watching the
scene from a nearby hilltop, remarked: “Today, my men have become like
women, and a woman has acted like a man”.
Xerxes was deeply
religious and was always accompanied by an entourage of Magis, who
carried a burning fire and invoked the blessings of Verethraghana for
his victory. HeH refused to allow
his army to cross any river on foot or horseback to prevent pollution of
the waters. While returning from Salamis, Xerxes ordered the execution
of King Croesus and captured his fabulous gold mines. Herodotus
(484-425 BC) writes that the “Persians have no images of gods, no
temples, and no alters. Unlike the Greeks, they did not believe that
the gods have the same ‘nature’ as men. The most disgraceful thing for
a Persian is to tell a lie.”
Mithra and Anahita
Artaxerxes I officially placed Mithra (Meher)
next in honor to Ahura Mazda himself. The pre-Zarathushtrian Meher
Yasht was revived, which was later rewritten in Pahalavi during Parthian
Artaxerxses II (405
BC) was especially devoted to Ardvi Sur Anahita, generally described as
Artemis by the Greeks. He erected statues for her in Babylon, Susa,
Sardis and Bactra. Avan Ardvi Sur Yasht describes her as riding a
chariot of four white steeds – the wind, the rain, the cloud and the
sleet. She helps men by bringing waters to their fields and women by
causing them to bear safely. She obeys Ahura Mazda and hates the Daevas
In his book, the
Magian, now lost, Aristotle traces the beginnings of true philosophy to
the Magi and the Babylonians. He states that the Magi believe in two
principles: the good spirit, who is Zeus or Oromazdes, and the evil
spirit, Hades or Ariemainus. Theopompus describes Persian eschatology
thus: for 3000 years one of the gods rules the other; then for 3000
years more they fight each other. In the end, Hades is defeated; men
are happy, need no food, and cast no shadow.
By now, the Persians
and Greeks had been in direct contact for over 100 years. Greek
mercenaries were employed by the thousands by the Persian rulers. The
Greek notion of descent of the heroes from Gods is exemplified by Plato
(390 BC), who wrote that the Persian monarchs were descendants of
Achaemenes, son of Perseus, son of Zeus; and that Zoroaster was the son
The Persians held the balance of power in
the incessant wars between Greek states, and the Achaemenians were now
masters of the whole known world. The Satraps were more or less
autonomous so long as they collected taxes and paid tributes to the King
of Kings. The splendor of the Persian court was viewed as synonymous
with the splendor of the heavenly kingdom.
Meanwhile, Philip of
Macedon had developed a new war maneuver called the phalanx. Each foot
soldier had 16 ft long spears, which allowed them to reach over the
horse and chariot to wound or kill the enemy. He succeeded in uniting
the Greek city-states by promising to free Persian-occupied Ionia. But
Philip was murdered by a disgruntled soldier (or slave) at his
daughter’s wedding in 336.
Alexander, son of
Philip, claimed that Philip was murdered by agents of Darius. He led
the Greeks initially to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from
Persian rule. After the battle of Granicus, the Persian Satrap of Ionia
surrendered to Alexander.
Alexander next faced
Darius III in Syria. Alexander’s infantry had bronze breastplates. The
Persians preferred the lighter shields made of wicker, which were
effective against arrows, but could not protect the soldiers from the 16
foot spears. Darius’s forces were mostly peasants and Greek
mercenaries. When Alexander managed to come face to face with Darius’s
chariot, Darius fled along with 10,000 Greek mercenaries. Most of
Darius’s family was captured and sent to Macedonia as war booty. All
the Greeks in Darius’s army were captured and executed by Alexander for
fighting against their own countrymen.
The Persians were
expert marksmen who could shoot arrows towards the rear while fleeing on
horseback. This ability, called the Median maneuver, gave them great
advantage when fighting in the open field. Darius therefore ordered a
large area to be leveled to prepare to meet Alexander again. This area
was called Gau Gamela. Alexander met Darius at Gau Gamela in 331 BC and
gained the upper hand by leading his cavalry through a gap between
Darius’s two battalions. Once again, Darius fled, but was then murdered
in a dispute with his generals. Alexander pursued the fleeing generals
and buried Darius with great fanfare, which gave him legitimacy to
assume the Persian throne.
victory over the powerful Persians elevated him to the status of a demi-god.
He considered himself to be the reincarnation of Achilles, the
victorious hero of the Trojan War. Immediately, Alexander set out on a
long odyssey to assert Greek power over the Persian lands to the east.
He took his army across the Hindu Kush to Sogdiana, where he married the
beautiful princess Roxanna . Then he turned south into Afghanistan
and crossed over into Hindustan to confront King Porus (Purushottam) in
Punjab. He used his long spear to unseat Porus from his elephant, but
spared his life. Finally, he was seriously wounded when he led his
soldiers over the walls of the fortified city of Pattala. He was
treated for his wounds by the Indians, but his soldiers revolted. They
had been fighting for six years and wanted to go home. He agreed, but
insisted on returning via the inhospitable desert of Baluchistan and
into Pars. They entered Persepolis in 330 BC, which was burned to
signify his victory over the Persians.
claim that Alexander wanted to establish unity between the Greek and
Persian cultures. He is said to have ordered 5000 Greek soldiers to
take Persian wives. In 323 BC, he established himself in Babylon and
dressed and feasted as a Persian monarch. His soldiers disliked this
and accused him of becoming soft and decadent like the Persians. During
one of these feasts, he died unexpectedly either by poisoning or a
fever. He was just 32, and left no heirs to the throne.
Alexander’s generals did not share his
notion of uniting Greek and Persian cultures. It took them 12 years to
divide up the conquered empire among themselves. Ptolemy took Egypt.
Another General went back to Macedonia. Selucus got Syria and Persia.
Zoroastrian beliefs about existence after death had permeated Semitic
belief, which extended the doctrine to the possibility of true
immortality. Satan became the Devil. The doctrine of resurrection and
the last judgment entered Judaism. And through the Jews, Zoroastrian
doctrine entered Christian theology.
The Magi did not
receive support from the Seleucids, and the study of Avesta suffered.
Many of the surviving written scriptures were lost since they were not
replaced by the scribes. The priests made their living by reciting
prayers on behalf of the behdins. Religion now became pure
rituals for propitiating divinities and warding off pollution and the
While the Seleucids
were busy fighting the Romans and Jewish armies in Mesopotamia, Mehrdad
(Mithradates), a Parthian prince of the Ashkani (Arsacid) tribe,
established himself as the ruler of Pars province.
Farhad II (Phraates), son of Mehrdad, defeated the Seleucid king
Demetrius in129 BC and established the Parthians as the rulers of all
Persia. Sun, moon and stars had a strong influence on early Parthian
religion before they had accepted Zarathushtrianism. The king was the
ceremonial head of religion, but the religious duties were left to the
Magi. The first Parthian kings were fluent in Greek; but when the
Romans came to power, Greek was replaced by Latin for trade purposes.
The Cilician pirates took over the cult of Mithra, and from them, Mithra
dominated Roman armies and became a rival to the oriental Christ.
Blash I (Valkash),
crowned in 51 AD, was deeply religious. At the advent of Christianity
the Jews had begun to codify their laws. The gospel of Christ in
Greek was difficult
to counter with Magian rituals in poorly understood languages. Valkash
ordered the re-assembly and transcription of Zarathushti scriptures.
But his successors were less interested in religion, and the task
continued intermittently until the dynasty ended in 224 AD.
This was the
state of Zarathushti religion when Ardeshir Papak defeated the last
Parthian king Ardavan V (Artabanus) in hand-to-hand battle. Over
the next 300 years, Zarathushtis received the protection and
encouragement of the State and Persia became a theocracy.
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‘The History of Herodotus’, Great Books
of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-chief,
William Benton, Publisher, 1952.
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Olmstead, University of Chicago Press, 1948.
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Robert Bamban, KGS, 1998.
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Boardman et al, The Oxford History of the Classic World, Oxford
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This paper was presented at the 6th World Zarathushti
Congress on June 29, 2005, in London, UK, and was forwarded to
vohuman.org by the author in August 2005 to be posted. The
article was posted on vohuman.org on November 23, 2005.