Zoroastrianism 101

by Vicki Garlock on January 7, 2014

Zoroastrian Temple

Faravahar symbol from the Zoroastrian Temple in Yazd
Wikimedia Commons: Alireza Javaheri

Today, Jan. 6th, is the official date of Epiphany. In Western Christianity, it is primarily a commemoration of the wise men’s visit to the baby Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (but see my blog post, Epiphany Around the World, dated Saturday, Jan. 4th). Although the NRSV Bible uses the phrase “wise men of the East” to describe the travelers, the original Greek word translates more directly to the word “magi” in English. And the word “magi” has long referred to “followers of Zoroaster.”

When I mention to people that the “wise men from the East” may have practiced Zoroastrianism, they sort of scrunch up their eyes and say something like, “Hmmm…I don’t really know too much about that.” I don’t really know too much about it either, but we have to start somewhere. Here’s my attempt at a brief introduction to Zoroastrianism and some musings on whether or not the wise men were really Zoroastrian after all.

Zoroastrianism is an ancient monotheistic religion that arose in Persia (now Iran) in the midst of polytheism. The founding principles were put forth by the prophet Zoroaster, who is credited with writing the original liturgical texts and hymns. Zoroastrianism still exists today, with around 150,000 followers in communities around the world. The largest group of adherents (about 70,000) can be found in India, with many Zoroastrians also living in Iran (about 25,000, although that number might be less than accurate). Those outside the Middle East and Southern Asia tend to live in England, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. It is estimated that about 11,000 Zoroastrians live in the U.S.

Zoroastriaism is known for particular religious beliefs recorded in the Avesta, a collection of texts that includes the Yasna and the Gathas:

  • There is one God, Ahura Mazda, who is wise, transcendent, and supreme. Ahura’s creation reflects the truth, order, and benevolence from which it is derived.
  • Ahura Mazda is opposed by Angra Mainyu, a spirit who represents all that is destructive, chaotic, and evil.
  • Free will gives humans the opportunity to choose good thoughts, good words, and good deeds over their negative counterparts as part of the ongoing struggle between light and darkness.
  • Eventually, goodness will triumph over evil, time will end, a savior figure will revive the dead, and everyone will be reunited with Ahura Mazda in a state of total bliss.

It has not been lost on religious scholars that this ancient religion has many commonalities with other major world faiths. It is monotheistic, like the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), although some have suggested that the presence of Angra Mainyu makes it somewhat dualistic. The cosmic struggle between good and evil and the savior figure who revives the dead at the end of time both sound rather Christian. And, it was based on ancient texts written in a language (Old Avestan) that shared many features with the Sanskrit language used to pen the Vedas.

Despite the similarities, it’s been difficult to sort out which religion was influencing which religion at which time. This is partly due to poor record-keeping by ancient humans. Based on linguistic analysis, the earliest date assigned to the Avesta is about 1800 BCE, but Zoroastrianism doesn’t really show up in recorded history until about 550 BCE. It is interesting that this was around the time that several Old Testament books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were probably being completed. The Zoroastrian year also includes six holidays that correspond to the six seasons. Western calendars generally revolve around four seasons, but Hindu calendars also share a six-season format. Historically, Zoroastrianism existed prior to Christianity and Islam. Geographically, it coexisted with both Islam and Hinduism. With all the travel, trade, and conquests occurring in the world, there were plenty of opportunities for mingling and merging. In fact, given the nature of humans, it would be surprising if all these religious and philosophical forces didn’t influence one another.

How all this relates to the Biblical “wise men” is equally uncertain. It’s not even clear that the wise men were Zoroastrian, which is how this entire post started. When Zoroastrianism began to show up in the written record, it was the 6th century BCE, and it was the ancient Greeks doing the recording. The word “magi” seems to have been used in a number of ways. It could refer to a tribe of people descended from ancient Persia. It could refer to members of a priestly caste. And, as the word “magi” morphed into the word “magic,” it could refer to people who used either trickery or the occult to influence the natural world. But it’s not clear that all these definitions applied to a singular group of people. This is probably why various historians and scholars have suggested that Jesus’ visitors may have been Zoroastrians from Persia, sages from India, or priests from Greek-occupied Babylon. And if I had been a common person back then, would I have been able to tell the difference between them?

Or, maybe the story of the wise men visit didn’t really happen at all. Some scholars have suggested that the story stemmed from Iranian legends, maybe imported to Christianity by Zoroastrian converts. Others have suggested that the story was influenced by Tiridates’ visit to Nero in 66 CE, a few years before the Gospel of Matthew was probably written. According to Roman history, Tiridates I, King of Armenia and a Zoroastrian priest, visited Nero in Rome. Shortly after his arrival, Tiridates, along with his vast entourage, approached Nero’s throne. Tiridates then knelt before the Emperor and exalted him as a god.

In the end, we probably don’t know much more about who the wise men might have been, but maybe we know a teeny bit more about Zoroastrianism. By the way, the next holiday is Bahman on January 16. It honors Vohu Manah, the Amesha Spenta who represents the creation of the animals. But I’ll have to delve into that one in another post.

A couple of on-line, English translations of the Avesta:

The Sacred Texts of Zoroastriansim (I find this site easier to navigate)

The Avesta

There are also several You Tube videos where portions of the Avesta are recited. I don’t know how good the translation is, but I enjoy the series called From Zoroastrian’s Sacred Avesta. It is recited in Persian with subtitles in English (and over 15 other languages). This link can get you started.

From Zoroastrian’s Sacred Avesta

Interested in reading more about the holidays?

This year’s Zoroastrian calendar

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