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