Zoroastrian Mythology In One Handy Lesson

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For my third entry on Zoroastrianism, I want today to very briefly and insufficiently characterize the major facets of the MYTHOLOGY of the ancient religion.

Zoroastrianism was founded by the Persian Zarathustra (known to the Greeks as Zoroaster) sometime in the past.  I say “sometime in the past” because the dates put forward for his birth range so widely as to be meaningless:  anywhere from 8,000 years ago (unlikely) to as recent as 2,500 years ago (still a long time back, but more likely).  It is all but certain he was a real person and that he lived in what was then northeast Persian and what is today Iran near the border of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.  By tradition (which is really about all we have to work with here), Zarathustra was born on the banks of the Daraja River.

He is considered by some to be the world’s First Prophet— as in he INVENTED the concept.  Similar to Mohammed over a thousand years later, Zarathustra originally faced only frustration when it came to gaining adherents to his new religion, and some of the psalms he is said to have written, the Gatha portion of the Avesta, attest to his despair:

“To what land shall I flee?  Where bend my steps?  I am thrust out from family and tribe,” he writes in the Ushtavaiti Gatha.

Just seventeen Gathas (hymns or psalms) composed by Zarathustra himself remain to us today, but scholars believe there were more, perhaps many more.

The holy book of Zoroastrianism is known as the Avesta.  When people refer to the Zend Avesta, they simply mean the Avesta plus the later commentary added during the Sassanian Dynasty of Persian (226 BC to 651 AD [and yes, I prefer to put the AD after the number where it just makes sense]).

The Gathas of the Avesta were, of course, divinely inspired, and Zarathustra received a total of seven visions from the Amesha Spentas (“Beneficent Immortals,” or sometimes rendered as ArchAngels).

Ahura Mazda is the name Zarathustra gives the supreme god of his religion.  Ahura Mazda is a god of Goodness and Light, and fire is his main symbol.  Combating Ahura Mazda is his arch-nemesis, “The Lie,” called Angra Maiyu or Ahriman.

As I think I mentioned in a previous post, every human is born with a Fravahi, which is somewhat like a Guardian Spirit, which helps a person distinguish Right from Wrong.  However, since humans have Free Will according to Zoroastrian thought, whether they CHOOSE Right is entirely up to each person.

I find the Fravashi interesting, for– though they are distinguished as something different from conscience– they operate in the same domain: a psychic region that is mysterious and profound to me, for –though we can tell ourselves that all our ideas of Right and Wrong are learned from our society– when it comes to the really big moral decisions (like murder or theft), I find it intriguing that most humans all over the world and from every religious background agree on what is “the right thing to do.”

Originally, Ahura Mazda created only a spiritual world, known as Menog.  However, the Fravashis pleaded that Ahura Mazda give the world physicality so that they would not be mired forever in a state of inaction.  Ahura Mazda warned them that if he created a material world, Evil and Death would enter into Creation, but he relented and altered Menog so that it became Getig, the physical world we know and love today.

The Amesha Spentas, or Beneficent Immortals, were originally envisioned by Zarathustra as qualities or attributes of the supreme god Ahura Mazda, but over time Zoroastrians began imagining these ideas in bodily forms; therefore they sorta became like ArchAngels or Lesser Deities.

For example, Kshathra Vairya is the spirit of Strength and Dominion, but can also be interpreted as the positive trait of natural leadership which can be cultivated by humans inside themselves.

Other attributes-turned-deities include, but are certainly not limited to:  Conscience, Victory, Wind, Rain, et cetera– as well as a few local geographical features, like mountains or rivers.  Also, a plant that is sacred to Zoroastrians is the Haoma Plant, and it, too, is personified as a deity or spirit.

Like any religion worth its parchment, Zoroastrianism was not above co-opting older religions into its own belief system.  One of the really ancient gods (from pre-Zarathustra days) is Mithra, and he is absorbed into Zoroastrianism as the deity of Heavenly Light.

Some say that Good and Evil existed even before the beginning of the material world, but others contend that Good and Evil only exist in the human heart, and are absent from the rest of Creation– which I find a very cool concept to consider.

The End Of The World in Zoroastrianism is more correctly called The Renewal Of The World; this is the time when the dead will rise and even the wicked will be purified and all will live in harmony.

Before that blessed event can occur, however, there must of course be fought the culminating battle of Good versus Evil.  The Good Forces will be led by three Saviors known as the Sashoyant.  During or just after the battle, the world will be destroyed by fire, and according to Zoroastrian scholar Paula R. Hartz (who is my Sherpa in this area), “molten metal will cover the Earth like water.  The Righteous will wade through, but the unrighteous will be consumed by it.”

Originally, the Saoshyant was a term that applied only to the followers of Zarathustra– back when they all thought (as zealot prophets and their early disciples tend to do) that the end of the world was at hand.  When that didn’t happen, the term Saoshyant switched over to the messianic interpretation it has today.

Concerning the mythology of Souls and Death and the Afterlife:  first off, yes each person does possess an eternal, individual soul in Zoroastrianism.  Secondly, all that a person thinks, says, and does over a lifetime becomes part of one’s soul.  I cannot doubt but this is true.

At dawn the third day after death, the Soul will meet three judges:  Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu.  The Soul will then pass to the Chinvat Bridge, where it will meet its Daena, or personal guide.  The Daena represents the conscience of the deceased person.  If the person has been good, the Daena will be beautiful and sweet breezes will caress the Soul as it crosses the Chinvat.  But if the person has been evil, it will be led by an ugly, foul-smelling hag.  The Chinvat Bridge also has the singular quality of remaining broad and easy to cross for good people, but of narrowing to a knife’s edge for baddies.  Once the Chinvat grows narrow enough, the unfaithful will fall off and plummet into Hell below.

I was hoping I could do one post on both Zoroastrian Mythology and Ritual, but it looks like I’ve ran out of time for discussing rituals.  Hopefully I can do that in the next post– a short one this time (fingers crossed!)

Other posts by Hammering Shield on Zoroastrianism:

Zoroastrianism:  Little Religion, Big Influence

Zoroastrianism:  Heroic Hedonism

Zoroastrian Ritual

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