Ancient History & Civilisation


Man as a battlefield—The Undying Fire—Hell, Purgatory and Paradise—The cult of Mithra—The Magi—The Parsees

By picturing the world as the scene of a struggle between good and evil, the Zoroastrians established in the popular imagination a powerful supernatural stimulus and sanction for morals. The soul of man, like the universe, was represented as a battleground of beneficent and maleficent spirits; every man was a warrior, whether he liked it or not, in the army of either the Lord or the Devil; every act or omission advanced the cause of Ahura-Mazda or of Ahriman. It was an ethic even more admirable than the theology—if men must have supernatural supports for their morality; it gave to the common life a dignity and significance grander than any that could come to it from a world-view that locked upon man (in medieval phrase) as a helpless worm or (in modern terms) as a mechanical automaton. Human beings were not, to Zarathustra’s thinking, mere pawns in this cosmic war; they had free will, since Ahura-Mazda wished them to be personalities in their own right; they might freely choose whether they would follow the Light or the Lie. For Ahriman was the Living Lie, and every liar was his servant.

Out of this general conception emerged a detailed but simple code of morals, centered about the Golden Rule. “That nature alone is good which shall not do unto another whatever is not good unto its own self.”*75 Man’s duty, says the Avesta, is three-fold: “To make him who is an enemy a friend; to make him who is wicked righteous; and to make him who is ignorant learned.”76 The greatest virtue is piety; second only to that is honor and honesty in action and speech. Interest was not to be charged to Persians, but loans were to be looked upon as almost sacred.77 The worst sin of all (in the Avestan as in the Mosaic code) is unbelief. We may judge from the severe punishments with which it was honored that scepticism existed among the Persians; death was to be visited upon the apostate without delay.78 The generosity and kindliness enjoined by the Master did not apply, in practice, to infidels—i.e., foreigners; these were inferior species of men, whom Ahura-Mazda had deluded into loving their own countries only in order that they should not invade Persia. The Persians, says Herodotus, “esteem themselves to be far the most excellent of men in every respect”; they believe that other nations approach to excellence according to their geographical proximity to Persia, “but that they are the worst who live farthest from them.”79 The words have a contemporary ring, and a universal application.

Piety being the greatest virtue, the first duty of life was the worship of God with purification, sacrifice and prayer. Zoroastrian Persia tolerated neither temples nor idols; altars were erected on hill-tops, in palaces, or in the center of the city, and fires were kindled upon them in honor of Ahura-Mazda or some lesser divinity. Fire itself was worshiped as a god, Atar, the very son of the Lord of Light. Every family centered round the hearth; to keep the home fire burning, never to let it be extinguished, was part of the ritual of faith. And the Undying Fire of the skies, the Sun, was adored as the highest and most characteristic embodiment of Ahura-Mazda or Mithra, quite as Ikhnaton had worshiped it in Egypt. “The morning Sun,” said the Scriptures, “must be reverenced till mid-day, and that of mid-day must be reverenced till the afternoon, and that of the afternoon must be reverenced till evening. . . . While men reverence not the Sun, the good works which they do that day are not their own.”80 To the sun, to fire, to Ahura-Mazda, sacrifice was offered of flowers, bread, fruit, perfumes, oxen, sheep, camels, horses, asses and stags; anciently, as elsewhere, human victims had been offered too.81 The gods received only the odor; the edible portions were kept for the priests and the worshipers, for as the Magi explained, the gods required only the soul of the victim.82 Though the Master abominated it, and there is no mention of it in theAvesta, the old Aryan offering of the intoxicating haoma juice to the gods continued far into Zoroastrian days; the priest drank part of the sacred fluid, and divided the remainder among the faithful in holy communion.83 When people were too poor to offer such tasty sacrifices they made up for it by adulatory prayer. Ahura-Mazda, like Yahveh, liked to sip his praise, and made for the pious an imposing list of his accomplishments, which became a favorite Persian litany.84

Given a life of piety and truth, the Persian might face death unafraid: this, after all, is one of the secret purposes of religion. Astivihad, the god of death, finds every one, no matter where; he is the confident seeker

from whom not one of mortal men can escape. Not those who go down deep, like Afrasyab the Turk, who made himself an iron palace under the earth, a thousand times the height of a man, with a hundred columns; in that palace he made the stars, the moon and the sun go round, making the light of day; in that palace he did everything at his pleasure, and he lived the happiest life: with all his strength and witchcraft he could not escape from Astivihad. . . . Nor he who dug this wide, round earth, with extremities that lie afar, like Dahak, who went from the east to the west searching for immortality and did not find it: with all his strength and power he could not escape from Astivihad. . . . To every one comes the unseen, deceiving Astivihad, who accepts neither compliments nor bribes, who is no respecter of persons, and ruthlessly makes men perish.85

And yet—for it is in the nature of religion to threaten and terrify as well as to console—the Persian could not look upon death unafraid unless he had been a faithful warrior in Ahura-Mazda’s cause. Beyond that most awful of all mysteries lay a hell and a purgatory as well as a paradise. All dead souls would have to pass over a Sifting Bridge: the good soul would come, on the other side, to the “Abode of Song,” where it would be welcomed by a “young maiden radiant and strong, with well-developed bust,” and would live in happiness with Ahura-Mazda to the end of time; but the wicked soul, failing to get across, would fall into as deep a level of hell as was adjusted to its degree of wickedness.86 This hell was no mere Hades to which, as in earlier religions, all the dead descended, whether good or bad; it was an abyss of darkness and terror in which condemned souls suffered torments to the end of the world.87 If a man’s virtues outweighed his sins he would endure the cleansing of a temporary punishment; if he had sinned much but had done good works, he would suffer for only twelve thousand years, and then would rise into heaven.88 Already, the good Zoroastrians tell us, the divine consummation of history approaches: the birth of Zarathustra began the last world-epoch of three thousand years; after three prophets of his seed have, at intervals, carried his doctrine throughout the world, the Last Judgment will be pronounced, the Kingdom of Ahura-Mazda will come, and Ahriman and all the forces of evil will be utterly destroyed. Then all good souls will begin life anew in a world without evil, darkness or pain.89 “The dead shall rise, life shall return to the bodies, and they shall breathe again; . . . the whole physical world shall become free from old age and death, from corruption and decay, forever and ever.”90

Here again, as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, we hear the threat of that awful Last Judgment which seems to have passed from Persian to Jewish eschatology in the days of the Persian ascendancy in Palestine. It was an admirable formula for frightening children into obeying their parents; and since one function of religion is to ease the difficult and necessary task of disciplining the young by the old, we must grant to the Zoroastrian priests a fine professional skill in the brewing of theology. All in all it was a splendid religion, less warlike and bloody, less idolatrous and superstitious, than the other religions of its time; and it did not deserve to die so soon.

For a while, under Darius I, it became the spiritual expression of a nation at its height. But humanity loves poetry more than logic, and without a myth the people perish. Underneath the official worship of Ahura-Mazda the cult of Mithra and Anaita—god of the sun and goddess ofvegetation and fertility, generation and sex—continued to find devotees; and in the days of Artaxerxes II their names began to appear again in the royal inscriptions. Thereafter Mithra grew powerfully in favor and Ahura-Mazda faded away until, in the first centuries of our era, the cult of Mithra as a divine youth of beautiful countenance—with a radiant halo over his head as a symbol of his ancient identity with the sun—spread throughout the Roman Empire, and shared in giving Christmas to Christianity.* Zarathustra, had he been immortal, would have been scandalized to find statues of Anaita, the Persian Aphrodite, set up in many cities of the empire within a few centuries after his death.91 And surely it would not have pleased him to find so many pages of his revelation devoted to magic formulas for healing, divination and sorcery.92 After his death the old priesthood of “Wise Men” or Magi conquered him as priesthoods conquer in the end every vigorous rebel or heretic—by adopting and absorbing him into their theology; they numbered him among the Magi and forgot him.93 By an austere and monogamous life, by a thousand precise observances of sacred ritual and ceremonial cleanliness, by abstention from flesh food, and by a simple and unpretentious dress, the Magi acquired, even among the Greeks, a high reputation for wisdom, and among their own people an almost boundless influence. The Persian kings themselves became their pupils, and took no step of consequence without consulting them. The higher ranks among them were sages, the lower were diviners and sorcerers, readers of stars and interpreters of dreams;94 the very word magic is taken from their name. Year by year the Zoroastrian elements in Persian religion faded away; they were revived for a time under the Sassanid Dynasty (226-651 A.D.), but were finally eliminated by the Moslem and Tatar invasions of Persia. Zoroastrianism survives today only among small communities in the province of Fars, and among the ninety thousand Parsees of India. These devotedly preserve and study the ancient scriptures, worship fire, earth, water and air as sacred, and expose their dead in “Towers of Silence” to birds of prey lest burning or burial should defile the holy elements. They are a people of excellent morals and character, a living tribute to the civilizing effect of Zarathustra’s doctrine upon mankind.

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