After reading Paula R. Hartz’s excellent introduction to Zoroastrianism, I found myself hungry for more, so I bumped up In Search Of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek from a lower position on The 300. Kriwaczek is a good story-teller, and the book is a grab-bag of historical information inspired by his travels in the Middle East and beyond. Perhaps less than half the book is actually directly about Zoroastrianism, but I didn’t mind, so entertainingly was it told.
One of the stories Kriwaczek tells concerns the shared ancestry of the Mideast’s Ancient Iranians and the Asian subcontinent’s Ancient Indians. Both peoples descended from the Aryans of the area near the Caucasus region of Russia. I can’t help but notice how similar is the sound between Aryan and Iran, and wonder if the words are directly related?
The oldest holy books of Ancient Iran’s homegrown Zoroastrian religion were written in Gathic Persian (remember: today’s Iran is located on much of what was once the Persian Empire, and many Iranians lay claim to Persian ancestry). It is believed that at least some of the Zoroastrian scriptures written in Gathic Persian were composed by Zoroastrianism’s founder, Zarathustra, himself (Zoroaster is the name the Greeks gave to the same person).
According to Kriwaczek, Gathic Persian and Vedic Sanskrit (the language the Ancient Indians used to write their own earliest holy books, the Vedas) are so closely related that they are “little more than the dialects of one tongue.”
Due to how similar Gathic is to the Sanskrit of around 1200 BC or so, historians surmise that Zarathustra composed his hymns and founded his religion not long after that. We can imagine him trying to convert a people already possessing a long-established system of religious beliefs.
Zarathustra’s people would have been worshiping the ancient Aryan gods of Earth (Zam), Moon (Mah), War (Indra), and Sun (Mithra), along with spirits and daemons, of course.
It is also a good bet that the people of Zarathustra’s place and time were fire-worshipers. Zarathustra himself preached only two primal forces, The Good and The Lie, with The Good being the dominant, more fundamental, and ultimately victorious force. Many people interpret early Zoroastrianism as monotheistic since the god of The Good, Ahura Mazda, was considered the one, true creator.
Not only did Zarathustra not condone the worshiping of multiple gods, he also disliked rituals– thus fire-worship ceremonies would have have been doubly discouraged. But he never fully succeeded in stamping out (ahem!) fire-worship, or rituals, or the belief in multiple gods (or godlike) entities.
In fact, Mithra becomes a very important deity to Zarathustrians over time. Indeed, Mithra appears to have been an important god across a wide swath of the globe in Ancient times. Some believe it is a manifestation of the same god who turns up in Ancient Rome as Mithras (with an “s” now), The Unconquerable Sun.” The religion of The Unconquerable Sun was on the rise just before Christianity took over in Rome, and some believe that, if not for the rise of Christianity, the religion of The Unconquerable Sun would have become a major world religion.
One common belief of historians concerning the tenacity of ritual in Zoroastrianism is that– not only do people just like ritual for various reasons (think of Christmastime!)– but there was in existence even before the birth of Zarathustra a priestly caste among his people. These priests were known as “Magi,” and they would have probably fought hard to keep their relevance, power, and prestige against this upstart religion that claimed to need no sacrifices or ceremonies.
In the end, a compromise of sorts was reached between the Magi and the practioners of Zoroastrianism, with the Magi taking-on the role of ritual specialists and religious leaders– including performing ceremonies obviously tied to the old fire-worship.
Eh… Bureaucrats. Whatcha gonna do?