By : Kaufmann Kohler A. V. W. Jackson
Extracted from The Jewish Encyclodpeia.com
The religion of ancient Persia as founded by Zoroaster; one of the world's great faiths that bears the closest resemblance to Judaism and Christianity. According to the tradition in the Parsee books, Zoroaster was born in 660 B.C. and died in 583; but many scholars claim that he must have flourished at a much earlier time. All investigators, however, are agreed that his teachings were generally in force throughout Iran before the time of the Jewish Captivity. His name in its ancient form in the Avesta is "Zarathustra," and in later Persian, "Zardusht"; the form "Zoroaster," which is now common, has been adopted from the Greek and Latin "Zoroastres." The native country of the prophet is now believed to have been Media, in western Iran, and there are reasons for claiming that his birthplace was in the province of Atropatene, the modern Azerbaijan; but much of his ministry, or rather most of his prophetic career, was passed in eastern Iran, especially in the region of Bactria, where he won a powerful patron for his religion. This defender of the faith was a king named Vishtaspa, or Gushtasp, a name identical with that of Hystaspes, the father of Darius, although the two personages are not to be confounded, as has sometimes been done.
Zoroaster was originally a Magian priest, but he appears to have reformed or purified the creed of the Magi. His religious teachings are preserved in the Avesta. The character of the Persian religion before Zoroaster's time is not known, but a comparison with that of India shows that it must have had much in common with the early religion of the Hindus. It may be presumed that it was a modified nature-worship, with polytheistic features and some traces of demonistic beliefs. Herodotus ("Hist." i. 131 et seq.) states that the Persians from the earliest times worshiped the sun, moon, stars, and earth, and the waters and wind, and he intimates in precise words that they had borrowed certain religious elements from the Assyrians. One or two superstitious practises which he describes, such as the propitiation of the powers of evil (ib. iii. 35, vii. 114), show survivals of demoniacal rites, against which Zoroaster so strongly inveighed; and the account which he gives of the Magian ceremonies is quite in accordance with Zoroastrianism.
One of the characteristic features of Zoroastrianism is the doctrine of dualism, recognizing the powers of good and evil as two personified principles at war with each other. Ahuramazda, or Ormuzd ("the Wise Lord"), leads the forces of good; Angra-Mainyu, or Ahriman ("the Spiritual Enemy"), heads the hosts of evil. Bands of angels and archangels follow the divine leader, while troops of demons and archfiends hasten after the evil lord. The archangels are six in number and are called by the general name Amesha Spentas ("Immortal Holy Ones"); they are personifications of virtues and abstract ideas, and are named Vohu Manah ("Good Mind"), Asha Vahishta ("Perfect Righteousness"), Khshathra Vairya ("Wished-for Kingdom"), Spenta Armaiti (a feminine personification of harmony and the earth), Haurvatat ("Health," "Salvation"), and Ameretat ("Immortality"). The angels and lesser divine beings are termed Yazatas ("Worshipful Ones") and are very numerous, although twenty-one of them are more prominent than the rest; these include divine embodiments of the sun, moon, stars, fire, earth, water and air, the spirits of the righteous (called "fravashis"), and also several abstract concepts, like victory, religion, kingly glory, and the divinity known as Mithra, an incarnation of light and truth. The rabble of hell, led by Ahriman, is ill organized, and the chief archfiend, after Ahriman himself, is the demon Aeshma (Dæva), a name which is thought to be found in the Book of Tobit as Asmodeus, although this view is not accepted by some. In addition to the six archfiends there is a legion of minor fiends and demons ("dæva," "druj").
The conflict between the opposing kingdoms of light and darkness forms the history of the world, which lasts for 12,000 years and is divided into four great eons. The first 3,000 years is the period of spiritual existence. Ormuzd knows of Ahriman's coexistence, and creates the world first in a spiritual state before giving it a material form, the "fravashis" being the models of the future types of things. Ahriman is ignorant of his great rival's existence, but on discovering this he counter-creates the hosts of demons and fiends. In the second 3,000 years, while Ahriman and his host have been confounded by Ormuzd, the latter creates the world in its material form, and the world is then invaded by Ahriman. The third 3,000 years is the period of conflict between the rival powers and the struggle for the soul of man, until Zoroaster comes into the world. His birth inaugurates a new era, and the fourth and last 3,000 years begins. These final millennial eras are presided over by Zoroaster himself and his three posthumous sons, who are to be born in future ages in an ideal manner, the last being the Messiah called Saoshyant ("Savior," "Benefactor"; lit. "he who will benefit and save the world"). In its general bearings this dualistic scheme of the universe is theologically monotheistic in so far as it postulates the final predominance ofOrmuzd; and it is optimistic in its philosophy, inasmuch as it looks for a complete regeneration of the world.
In all this struggle man is the important figure; for the ultimate triumph of right depends upon him. He is a free agent according to Zoroaster ("Yasna," xxx. 20, xxxi. 11), but he must ever be on his guard against the misguidance of evil. The purpose of Zoroaster's coming into the world and the aim of his teaching are to guide man to choose aright, to lead him in the path of righteousness, in order that the world may attain to ultimate perfection. This perfection will come with the establishment of the Good Kingdom (Avesta, "Vohu Khshathra"), the Wished-for Kingdom (Avesta, "Khshathra Vairya"), or the Kingdom of Desire (Avesta, "Khshathra Ishtoish"). When this shall come to pass the world will become regenerate (Avesta, "Ahum Frashem Kar"; or "Frashokereti"); a final battle between the powers of good and evil will take place; Ahriman and his hosts will be routed; and good shall reign supreme ("Yasht," xix. 89-93; Bundahis, xxx. 1-33). The advent of the Messiah (Saoshyant) will be accompanied by the resurrection of the dead and the general judgment of the world, which thenceforth will be free from evil and free from harm.
The motto of the Zoroastrian religion is "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds" (Avesta, "Humata, hukhta, hvarshta"). Man in his daily life is enjoined to preserve purity of body and soul alike. He is to exercise scrupulous care in keeping the elements earth, fire, and water free from defilement of any kind. Truth-speaking and honest dealing are made the basis of every action; kindliness and generosity are virtues to be cultivated; and agriculture and cattle-raising are prescribed as religious duties. Marriage within the community of the faithful, even to wedlock with blood relatives, is lauded; and according to the Avesta ("Vendidad," iv. 47), "he who has a wife is to be accounted far above him who has none; and he who has children is far above the childless man."
In disposing of the dead, it is unlawful to burn or bury the body or to throw it into water, as any of these modes of disposal would defile one of the sacred elements; the dead must therefore be exposed in high places to be devoured by birds and dogs, a custom which is still observed by the Parsees and Gabars in their "Towers of Silence."
In religious matters the priesthood was supreme in authority, and the sacerdotal order was hereditary. The Mobeds and Herbeds were the Levites and Kohanim of Zoroastrianism. The name for priest, "athaurvan," in the Avesta corresponds to "atharvan" in India; the Magi were a sacerdotal tribe of Median origin. In acts of worship (Avesta, "Yasna") animal sacrifices were sometimes offered, especially in more ancient times, but these immolations were subordinate and gave place more and more to offerings of praise and thanks-giving accompanied by oblations of consecrated milk, bread, and water. The performance of these rites was attended by the recitation of long litanies, especially in connection with the preparation of the sacred drink "haoma," made from a plant resembling the Indian "soma," from which an exhilarating juice was extracted. It has been thought that the twigs (Avesta, "baresman"; modern Persian, "barsom") employed by the Zoroastrian priests in their ritual are alluded to as the "branch" held to the nose by the sun-worshipers in the vision of Ezekiel (viii. 16-17); and the consecrated cake (Avesta, "draonah"; modern Persian, "darun") has been compared with the Hebrew showbread.
The points of resemblance between Zoroastrianism and Judaism, and hence also between the former and Christianity, are many and striking. Ahuramazda, the supreme lord of Iran, omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal, endowed with creative power, which he exercises especially through the medium of his Spenta Mainyu ("Holy Spirit"), and governing the universe through the instrumentality of angels and archangels, presents the nearest parallel to Yhwh that is found in antiquity. But Ormuzd's power is hampered by his adversary, Ahriman, whose dominion, however, like Satan's, shall be destroyed at the end of the world. Zoroastrianism and Judaism present a number of resemblances to each other in their general systems of angelology and demonology, points of similarity which have been especially emphasized by the Jewish rabbinical scholars Schorr and Kohut and the Christian theologian Stave.
There are striking parallels between the two faiths and Christianity in their eschatological teachings-the doctrines of a regenerate world, a perfect kingdom, the coming of a Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting. Both Zoroastrianism and Judaism are revealed religions: in the one Ahuramazda imparts his revelation and pronounces his commandments to Zarathustra on "the Mountain of the Two Holy Communing Ones"; in the other Yhwh holds a similar communion with Moses on Sinai. The Magian laws of purification, moreover, more particularly those practised to remove pollution incurred through contact with dead or unclean matter, are given in the Avestan Vendïdad quite as elaborately as in the Levitical code, with which the Zoroastrian book has been compared..
The two religions agree in certain respects with regard to their cosmological ideas. The six days of Creation in Genesis find a parallel in the six periods of Creation described in the Zoroastrian scriptures. Mankind, according to each religion, is descended from a single couple, and Mashya (man) and Mashyana are the Iranian Adam (man) and Eve. In the Bible a deluge destroys all people except a single righteous individual and his family; in the Avesta a winter depopulates the earth except in the Vara ("enclosure") of the blessed Yima. In each case the earth is peopled anew with the best two of every kind, and is afterward divided into three realms. The three sons of Yima's successor Thraetaona, named Erij (Avesta, "Airya"), Selm (Avesta, "Sairima"), and Tur (Avesta, "Tura"), are the inheritors in the Persian account; Shem, Ham, and Japheth, in the Semiticstory. Likenesses in minor matters, in certain details of ceremony and ritual, ideas of uncleanness, and the like, are to be noted, as well as parallels between Zoroaster and Moses as sacred lawgivers; and many of these resemblances are treated in the works referred to at the end of this article.
It is difficult to account for these analogies. It is known, of course, as a historic fact that the Jews and the Persians came in contact with each other at an early period in antiquity and remained in more or less close relation throughout their history. Most scholars, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, are of the opinion that Judaism was strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism in views relating to angelology and demonology, and probably also in the doctrine of the resurrection, as well as in eschatological ideas in general, and also that the monotheistic conception of Yhwh may have been quickened and strengthened by being opposed to the dualism or quasi-monotheism of the Persians.
But, on the other hand, the late James Darmesteter advocated exactly the opposite view, maintaining that early Persian thought was strongly influenced by Jewish ideas. He insisted that the Avesta, as we have it, is of late origin and is much tinctured by foreign elements, especially those derived from Judaism, and also those taken from Neoplatonism through the writings of Philo Judæus. These views, put forward shortly before the French scholar's death in 1894, have been violently combated by specialists since that time, and can not be said to have met with decided favor on any side. At the present time it is impossible to settle the question; the truth lies probably somewhere between the radical extremes, and it is possible that when knowledge of the Assyrian and Babylonian religion is more precise in certain details, additional light may be thrown on the problem of the source of these analogies, and may show the likelihood of a common influence at work upon both the Persian and Jewish cults.
Special works on Zoroaster and the religion: Jackson, Zoroaster the Prophet of Ancient Iran, New York, 1899;
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