The Religion of the Persian Empire

Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persian ruling family during the time of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes.  It was the religious perspective in which Xerxes would have been coming from when he was getting to know Esther.  As we will see in many ways, their religions were very similar.  Could that had made it easier for the two of them to relate to each other and even perhaps easier for a possible conversion of Xerxes to Judaism.  It was not until the time of Xerxes’ son, Artaxerxes, that it became the official religion of the Persian Empire.

  • Zoroaster was the prophet who brought this religion to Persia.  However, it is not clear when he lived.    Dates are given from 1600 B.C. to 500’s B.C. –  this is a large range.  Most scholars put it at about 1000 B.C. – the time of David. 

  • Their god is Ahura Mazda (meaning Wise Lord), who is:

      • Omniscient (knows everything)

      • Omnipotent (all powerful)

      • Omnipresent (is everywhere)

      • Impossible for humans to conceive

      • Unchanging

      • The Creator of life

      • The Source of all goodness and happiness

    • Does this sound familiar?  In many ways the god of Zoroastrianism sounds a lot like the one true God.

  • Zoroaster’s Vision

    • At the age of thirty, Zoroaster had a divine vision while bathing in a river during a pagan purification rite. On the bank of the river he saw a ‘Shining Being’ made of light who revealed himself as Vohu Manah (‘Good Mind’).  Vohu Manah led Zoroaster to the presence of Ahura Mazda (God) and five other radiant beings, which are called the Amesha Spentas (Holy Immortals). This was the first of a number of visions in which Zoroaster saw Ahura Mazda and his Amesha Spentas; during each vision he asked many questions. The answers given to Zoroaster are the foundations of Zoroastrian religion.

  • It is said that Zoroaster tried to convert his neighbors, in northeastern Iran, but they would not convert.  He then went on a pilgrimage going west (interesting to remember is the fact that if he went west he may very well have come into the land of Israel) and when he came back he found a king (if during the 500’s this may have been Cyrus’ family) that was willing to convert to his faith.

  • What is very interesting about Zoroaster going on pilgrimage is that from many aspects of Zoroastrianism it would almost seem a sure thing that he came into contact with Judaism given their many similarities.  However, liberal scholars like to turn it into Judaism and therefore Christianity borrowing from Zoroastrianism.  They like to claim that Zoroastrianism is the oldest of all the monotheistic religions.

  • Beliefs

      • Ahura Mazda has an adversary called Angra Mainyu (meaning ‘destructive spirit’).   Angra Mainyu is the originator of death and all that is evil in the world.  Ahura Mazda, who is perfect, abides in Heaven, whereas Angra Mainyu dwells in the depths of Hell. When a person dies they will go to Heaven or Hell depending on their deeds during their lifetime.

      • Amesha Spentas translates as ‘Holy Immortals’. Just as light rays are emanated from the sun but are not the sun, so the Amesha Spentas are emanated by God but are not God. These emanations are seen as the divine attributes of God. They helped God fashion the world and each is associated with a particular aspect of creation.  Western scholars have likened the Amesha Spentas to the Archangels in Christianity. This is not strictly correct as they also represent spiritual attainments, in other words, each Amesha Spentas brought one closer to Ahura Mazda as they attained to that Amesha Spentas’ attribute. Zoroastrians believe that man can know God through his Divine Attributes.

      • The six Amesha Spentas are:

        • Vohu Manah – Good mind and good purpose.

        • Asha Vahishta – Truth and righteousness.

        • Spenta Ameraiti – Holy devotion, serenity and loving kindness.

        • Khashathra Vairya – Power and just rule.

        • Hauravatat – Wholeness and health.

        • Ameretat – Long life and immortality.

      • Dualism in Zoroastrianism is the existence of, yet complete separation of, good and evil. This is recognized in two interconnecting ways:

        • Cosmically (opposing forces within the universe)

        • Morally (opposing forces within the mind)

Cosmic dualism

Cosmic dualism refers to the ongoing battle between Good (Ahura Mazda) and Evil (Angra Mainyu) within the universe.

It is important to understand that Angra Mainyu is not God‘s equal opposite, rather that Angra Mainyu is the destructive energy that opposes God’s creative energy. This creative energy is called Spenta Mainyu. God created a pure world through his creative energy, which Angra Mainyu continues to attack, making it impure. Aging, sickness, famine, natural disasters, death and so on are attributed to this.

With cosmic dualism we have life and death, day and night, good and evil. One cannot be understood without the other. Life is a mixture of these two opposing forces.

Moral dualism

Moral dualism refers to the opposition of good and evil in the mind of mankind. God’s gift to man was free will; therefore man has the choice to follow the path of Evil (druj – deceit) or the path of Righteousness (asha – truth). The path of Evil leads to misery and ultimately Hell. The path of Righteousness leads to peace and everlasting happiness in Heaven.

As with cosmic dualism, we have the polarity of happiness and sadness, truth and deception and so on but with an emphasis on choice. This choice is crucial as it determines whether we are the helper of Ahura Mazda or the helper of Angra Mainyu. When all of mankind chooses the former over the latter, evil will finally be defeated and Paradise on earth will be realized.

In practice, modern Zoroastrianism has a positive outlook. It teaches that Mankind is ultimately good and that this goodness will finally triumph over evil. This could be seen as a retrenchment from the faith’s original purity of dualism

Important Practices:

  • Sacred Fire –  They believe that the elements are pure and that fire represents God’s light or wisdom

  • Purification – Clean and Unclean – Sacred Bathing

  • Coming of age and the Naojote

  • Marriage

  • Festivals

  • Fatherhood – We read in Herodotus:  “Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly excellence to be the father of many sons. Every year, the king sends rich gifts to the man, who can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength.”

  • Death – The dead were placed in open towers so that there flesh could be eaten by the vultures or decayed by the elements and then their bones are placed in boxes.(Jews would do the same thing with the bones of their dead.)

Scriptures –  The Avesta can be roughly split into two main sections:

  • The Avesta is the oldest and core part of the scriptures, which contains the Gathas. The Gathas are seventeen hymns thought to be composed by Zoroaster himself.

  • The Younger Avesta – commentaries to the older Avesta scriptures written in later years. It also contains myths, stories and details of ritual observances.

Much of this information is from: