See also a page about The Zarathushtrian Assembly, a group that encourages conversion to Zoroastrianism, and a page that presents the counterargument against conversion offered by conservative Zoroastrians.

    I. Group Profile

    1. Name: Zoroastrianism, named after the prophet Zoroaster. The proper name of the prophet is Zarathushtra; "Zoroaster" and "Zoroastrianism" are the Greek versions of the names. I have chosen to use for the religion itself the term more familiar to westerners, "Zoroastrianism," while referring to Zarathusthra by his original name.

    2. Founder: The prophet Zarathushtra, of the Spitama family (Boyce, 19).

    3. Date of Birth: There is considerable debate as to when Zarathushtra lived. Religious sources put the date between 6000 to 600 BCE, while scholarly sources narrow the range considerably. According to Boyce, elements of Zarathushtra's writings place him between 1700 and 1500 BCE (Boyce, 18). Herzfeld disagrees, saying historical sources place him in the 6th century BCE (Herzfeld, 30).

    4. Birth Place: Zarathushtra was born somewhere along the Oxus river, in (modern-day Iran) Persia.

    5. Year Founded: This, of course, depends on when Zarathushtra lived. According to tradition, Zarathushtra's initial revelation came at the age of 30 (Boyce, 19). It is certain that the religion experienced wide growth in the 6th century BCE, a great time of change in the region (Boyce, 39-40).

    6. History: While drawing water at age 30, Zarathushtra had a shining vision. A being calling itself Vohu Manah ("Good Purpose") appeared to him and took him into the presence of Ahura Mazda. Zarathushtra then received a revelation that Ahura Mazda was the single, eternal, and moral creator god.

      His preaching to his own people rejected, Zarathushtra joined a different tribe. He and his message won the favor of the prince, Vishtaspa, who was able to aggressively defend the growing new religion, its converts, and their territory (Boyce, 30-31).

      The conditions of Zarathushtra's death are uncertain, and the exact means by which the religion institutionalized unknown. However, the faith found widespread support in the tumultuous 6th century BCE during which tribes conquered and displaced one another (Boyce, 39-40). The faith became well established under the Achaemenian empire and remained so under following empires (except for the conquest of Alexander of Macedonia) up until the end of Sasanian rule in the 7th century AD. It was in fact highly institutionalized, with a special class of priests (known as magi), many temples, and established rituals (Boyce, 65-66).

      Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century, conversion to Islam was forced or highly encouraged, and Zoroastrianism sharply declined (Boyce, 147). As a result of the foreign invasion, an important split in the Zoroastrian world occurred. While some Zoroastrians chose to stay in Persia, others chose to leave for the western shores of India. Here, they became known as the Parsis, or Parsees, and formed tight-knit communities; they were largely tolerated as a distinct ethnic minority in India. Furthermore, history repeated itself in 1979, when after the Iranian Revolution many more Zoroastrians left Iran (Ramazani, 23).

      The modern age has found Zoroastrians of both Iranian and Parsi descent in all parts of the world. Britain, Canada, and the United States all boast notable numbers of Zoroastrians.

    7. Sacred or Revered Texts: The Avesta is the traditional and holy canon of scriptures. It consists of many parts, containing poetry, prayers, rules of law and ritual, mythology, and pre-Zoroastrian religious tradition. One significant portion of the Avesta is the Gathas, hymns written by Zarathushtra himself to Ahura Mazda. The Avesta was probably transmitted orally until the 9th century CE (Malandra, 27-31).

    8. Cult or Sect:
    9. Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.

    10. Size of Group: At most, there are 200,000 Zoroastrians worldwide; 15,000 of whom live in North America (Melton, 837). However, their numbers are in decline, and Rashna Writer lists their numbers at under 150,000 (Writer, 245).

    II. Beliefs of the Group

      The main belief is in a single God named Ahura Mazda, or Ohrmazd. Ahura Mazda is good, holy, supreme, and the creator of all things. But Zoroastrianism also identifies an active force of evil in the world -- a powerful spirit by the name of Angra Mainyu, or Ohriman. Within this system of opposing good and evil forces, humans must choose one side or the other. However, in the end, Ahura Mazda will triumph over evil. The idea of a conflict is so distinctive that some people consider Zoroastrianism to be a dualistic religion. This assertion seems incorrect -- after all, Ahura Mazda wins in the end, and is greater, and receives worship. Thus while there is a definite dualistic tendency in the religion, Zoroastrianism is basically monotheistic (Jackson, 26-35). Also, as explained in the above section, Zoroastrians believe in the authority of the Avesta and the authority of Zarathushtra as the prophet of Ahura Mazda.

      Zoroastrian beliefs are reflected in their actions. As "the good religion," as it is called, Zoroastrianism demands that followers practice a threefold path incorporating good thoughts, good words, and good deeds (Jackson, 194). Virtues include justice, self-reliance, compassion, charity, service, and civic virtue (Masani, 77-88). Unlike many other religions, however, there is no ascetic aspect of Zoroastrianism. Fasting, celibacy, and monasticism are all absent. Marriage is considered a virtue, and physical cleanliness is valued highly. This system of values is due in part to the idea that a healthy body will aid a healthy soul -- in Zoroastrianism the body and soul are closely linked (Masani, 70).

      Rituals take place in temples, or "lawful places;" priests play a central role. Rituals include prayer and the consecration of certain types of food. Animal sacrifice once played a role, but is not practiced today (Jackson, 194-198). Fire is also an integral part of Zoroastrian worship; it symbolizes Truth. Furthermore, Zoroastrians believe that fire is the Holy Spirit of Ahura Mazda, and that they can worship Ahura Mazda through the fire. However, Zoroastrians do not worship the fire itself; calling them "fire-worshippers" is incorrect (Writer, 62).

      Whether Zoroastrianism is older than Judaism is uncertain. Nevertheless, it has had an undeniable impact upon Western religious belief. Examples include a tangible, active force for evil (Angra Mainyu, or Satan); a judgment of souls after death; and afterlives in heaven and hell. None of these ideas are present in original Judaism. It is possible that the Jews heard them at the end of the Babylonian Exile, under the Persian emperor Cyrus (Zaehner, 20-21). Also, according to Nesta Ramazani, "Islamic institutions such as waqf (religious endowments) and madreseh (a theological school attached to a mosque) have their roots in Zoroastrian traditions" (Ramazani, 21).

      Difficult questions involving Zoroastrians worldwide include the role of the priesthood, the inclusion of ritual in everyday life, and raising children in an increasingly secular world. Perhaps the most divisive issue, however, involves questions of mixed marriages, proselytization, and conversion (Writer, 213-222). Traditional Zoroastrians believe that religion and ethnicity are inseparable; that one must be born into the faith, and that one must marry within the faith. More liberal Zoroastrians believe that conversion is legitimate and should even be encouraged; they see it as a means of adjusting to the modern world, and believe that their message is intended for all humanity. The issue is complex, and I have two additional websites, each discussing a separate angle of the problem, listed below.

    III. Links to Zorostrian Web Sites

      Avesta - Zoroastrian Archives
      This is a large site with links to the Zoroastrian sacred writings, in both Avestan and English. There is a focus on both ancient and more recent religious texts, as well as additional texts and commentary. The site also has information on ceremonies, beliefs, the calendar, and more.

      Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance - Zoroastrianism
      OCRT strives for an evenhanded treatment of religions and controversial issues. Their page on Zoroastrianism is brief and concise, and offers an excellent summary of the main features of Zoroastrianism.

      Avesta - Frequently Asked Questions
      A sub-site of the main Avesta page, this site contains a brief FAQ and several links to other Zoroastrianism websites. It also contains a section of interpretations of the Avesta upon a variety of issues.

      Avesta - Zoroastrian Glossary
      Another sub-site of the main Avesta page, this site has a short glossary of names and terms necessary for the study of Zoroastrianism.

      Zoroastrianism - by Hannah M.G. Shapero
      Hannah M.G. Shapero is an artist with an interest in Zoroastrianism. Her page contains excellent links that answer a variety of questions: "Do Zoroastrians really worship fire?" "Were the Three Magi of the Christmas story really Zoroastrian?" "Is Zoroastrianism a dualistic faith?" Her answers provide information on the practice of Zoroastrianism and address common misconceptions.

      Zoroastrianism Page
      Vispi Homi Bulsara has a Zoroastrian site with many links. Of special note is a page with a variety of images relevant to Zoroastrianism. The site also contains links to homepages of other Zoroastrians.

      This site is a previous page on Zoroastrianism was created for the New Religious Movements website.

    IV. Bibliography

      Boyce, Mary. 1979.
      Zoroastrians. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

      Duchesne-Guillemin, J. 1958.
      The Western Response to Zoroaster. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

      Herzfeld, Ernst. 1947.
      Zoroaster and his World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

      Jackson, William A. V. 1965.
      Zoroastrian Studies. New York: AMS Press, Inc.

      Masani, Rustom. 1968.
      Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life. New York: The MacMillan Co.

      Melton, J. Gordon. 1996.
      Encyclopedia of American Religions. Detroit: Gale Research.

      Mistree, Khojeste P. 1982.
      Zoroastrianism: an Ethnic Perspective. Bombay: Good Impressions.

      Ramazani, Nesta. 1997.
      "Fire in the Temple: The Zoroastrians." Pardis. Spring: Vol. 1, Issue 2.

      Writer, Rashna. 1994.
      Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

      Zaehner, R.C. 1961.
      The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

      For further information on Zoroastrianism, I recommend in particular Boyce, who provides a brief yet concise history of Zoroastrianism, and Writer, whose book paints an excellent picture of Zoroastrians struggling within the modern world.

    Created by Brian Wells
    For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
    Fall Term, 1997
    University of Virginia
    Last modified: 07/26/01