So far in my overview of Zoroastrianism (as gleamed from the book, Zoroastrianism by Paula R. Hartz) I’ve covered… its ethical system of “Heroic Hedonism,” its incalculable influence, and its mythology. Today I want to briefly write some about the religion’s rituals.
One of the most noticeable features of Zoroastrianism is that fire is sacred. Some of their temples of have fires which have been burning continuously for hundreds of years. Their consecrated fires contain fires from sixteen different sources. One of these fires must come from lightning, which is seen as fire sent straight from the supreme deity of Goodness and Light, Ahura Mazda.
Similar to Moslems, Zoroastrians divide their day into five periods; at the end of each period a good Zoroastrian will pause to recite the appropriate prayer from their holy book, the Avesta.
As far as iconic art, there were actually no portraits of Zarathustra (the founder of Zoroastrianism) until the 1700s. It was then that a follower claimed to have been visited by Zarathustra (known as Zoroaster in Greek) in a dream. The man painted Zarathustra as he remembered him from the dream, and since that time, this has been the way Zarathustra’s been represented ever since: almost always as a bearded man gazing upward, with one hand raised.
When it comes to holy rituals, priests of early Zoroastrianism would imbibe the juices of the Haoma plant mixed with milk in order to obtain visions. We’re not certain today which species of plant the Haoma was.
In the Avesta –among the hymns (17 of which are said to have been composed by Zarathustra, himself), the priestly codes, the prayers, and the teachings of Zoroastrianism– is also the story of how, thousands of years ago, the early Iranians, an Aryan people, came down out of Southern Russia in search of grazing lands and settled the Iranian plateau.
Also listed in the Avesta are “the 72 Names Of Ahura Mazda” which include: The Sustainer, The Maintainer, The Creator, and The Nourisher.
Attached to Avesta are commentaries that not only reflect upon the text of the Avesta, but also give clues as to what earlier versions of the Avesta may have contained. Scholars believe that large portions of the Avesta have been lost over the centuries. The Avesta plus commentaries is known as the Zend Avesta, or sometimes, Zand Avesta.
Because the few remaining practitioners of Zoroastrianism have become dispersed (the greatest number of Zoroastrians now actually living in India, and known as the Parsis), there are not one but three Zoroastrian calendars, meaning that their Holy Days fall at different times of the year depending on which calendar a group is using. Zoroastrians have seven great festivals, the greatest of which is Navruz, which celebrates fire and Truth. The other six festivals are linked in some way the agricultural cycle and are known as the Gahambars.
There is also a movable ceremony known as Jashan, that can be used anytime of the year to commemorate weddings, housewarmings, or other times of gratitude and happiness.
In times past, some ceremonies of Zoroastrianism called for imbibing bull’s urine. Yep. Now-days they often substitute pomegranate juice. Consecreted bull urine is known as Nirang, and also as Gomez. Unconcencrated bull urine is called Taro.
In Zoroastrianism, which teaches that human beings have free will, a ceremony known as Navjote is held when a child becomes old enough to begin taking responsibility for his or her own actions. The age for this ceremony varies from group to group, ranging from the age of 15 in Iran to as early as seven or nine for the Parsis.
All Zoroastrians are to wear at nearly all times a ceremonial thread around their body called the Kusti. Special knots on the thread are tied and untied during certain prayers. One time for saying a prayer is actually after using the bathroom.
One very noticeable part of traditional Zoroastrianism is the Dakhma, or the Tower Of Silence. This is a building constructed without a roof to which the dead are taken to be devoured by vultures. Since early Zoroastrians viewed death as the most unclean thing imaginable, they didn’t really like the idea of burying bodies (perhaps polluting the earth or the water supply); also, possibly because fire was considered so holy, they didn’t want to go the funeral pyre route either. So, running out of options, the Dakhma was created. Inside a Dakhma, males corpses are separated from female ones, and bodies of children from those of adults.
I find the Tower of Silence thing especially interesting because I’m sure the whole concept strikes many modern people as gross, but it seemed the smartest, cleanest, holiest thing to do in the minds of Zoroastrians, coming from where they were spiritually. Today, Zoroastrians are having a harder time maintaining the Dakhma tradition– not only due to social pressure or modern public safety codes, but because there’s a bit of vulture shortage in some areas. That’s probably a big reason that Zoroastrians today work to maintain vulture populations and are big supporters of vulture breeding initiatives.
One other interesting part of the death ritual in traditional Zoroastrianism is that a dog is brought to the dead body to look upon the face of the corpse. This is said to be done to verify death and also to drive away evil spirits.
Other posts by Hammering Shield on Zoroastrianism: