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2.2.2 Persian Mysteries

Zoroaster or Zarathustra

The origins of Zoroastrianism are not well known. The earliest known written document on this subject, the Gathas, records the words of Zoroaster but it does not help us much about the history of that religion. Zoroaster claims that a supernatural being, the Supreme Deity, which he names as Ahura Mazda, “The Wise Lord, the All-knowing, and the All-seeing”, revealed his doctrine to him. Who Ahura Mazda was is not known. Some scholars believe that he was Varuna, the Vedic god of the heavens in the Indo-Iranian tradition. However here he was one god among others, whereas Zoroaster made him the creator of the universe. Moreover Zoroaster eliminated Mithra, a great god in the same Indo-Iranian tradition and closely associated with Varuna.
Zoroaster sees the world as a battleground between two co-existent conflicting spirits or principles:

– The true and good and creative spirit
– The false and evil or destructive spirit

This struggle between good and evil obliged every individual to make a choice between good and evil. For Zoroaster, man’s duty and eternal destiny required that he put himself, in thought and deeds, on the side of good and against evil. The Destructive, or Evil Spirit, he identified in the “Angra Mainyu” or “the Druj” (the Lie) and their followers as “the Drvants”. Those could only expect a grim ordeal after death following a post-mortem judgement by Asha, the personification of right and truth, the “Cinvato paratu”, the “Bridge of the Separator”. Zoroaster was against killing oxen and eating their flesh. This is very similar to the Hinduism taboo about killing cows, and against the Mithraism ceremony of the slaying of the Cosmic Bull. Zoroaster taught his religion in the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids. Both the great kings Darius and his son, Xerxes, were his followers and both worshipped Ahura Mazda. However, their faith included some concepts closer to the Magi, such as the ritual veneration of fire and the exposure of the dead to be devoured by vultures, a custom characteristic of late Zoroastrianism. Moreover Mithra was also worshipped together with Ahura Mazda in this same late period. The Persians twice invaded Greece, but they took their revenge when Alexander of Macedonia overthrew the Achaemenian Empire in 330 BC. Zoroastrianism left little trace in Persia during the Greek dynasty of the Seleucids (312/65 BC) or under the Iranian government under the Parthians (250 BC/226 AD). Restoration of Zoroastrianism came in 226 AD with the founding of the Sassanian dynasty. The dualistic religion became more radical as Ahura Mazda, who first was described as the creator of both the Good and Evil principles, was now described as Ohrmazd and identified with “Spenta Mainyu”, the good principle. The evil spirit was identified with Ahriman. As a result there were now two divinities described as coexistent from the origin and of same level. There was no more certain ground for hope that Good would finally triumph over Evil.

Time, together with Space, had been deified in Iran about the 4th century BC (or even before) and it was regarded as the source of good and evil, or light and darkness. A temporary myth tried to explain this dualism. According to it, Zurvan had two sons, Ohrmazd and Ahriman. Ohrmazd was radiant with light and created all that was beautiful and good while Ahriman was dark and repulsive and created all that was ugly and evil. This myth reduced Ahura Mazda to a product of Zurvan. It was accepted for some time during the 3d century AD but the orthodox view prevailed again later on.

By that time Zoroastrianism declined, being in competition with Christianity and Manicheism, and Islam finally replaced it in Iran as the Muslims overthrew the Sassanians in 652 AD. Zoroastrianism did not become a world religion but influenced the Jews and the Christians. Its influence can also be seen in Hermetic, Gnostic and Manichean doctrines as well as in Mithraism.

Zarathustra, the Magi and Mithra
Zarathustra’s influence in Iran was very limited but his teachings are still important. He was a Magus, a word meaning a person who takes part in the gifts (maga) that is the religious teachings of Ahura Mazda. Magu initially meant a Mazda worshipper, and Zarathustra is one of the most important. It was to him that the All-Wise revealed his teaching, after the prophet talked to the god on a burning mountain. Zarathustra was a priest and singer poet who became a prophet and a reformer.
Gradually the word Magus came to mean priest and the Magi were the wise men of the Persian court where they had great influence. The common people who had to be present to all sacrifices respected them. With the extension of the Persian Empire the Magi were dispersed throughout Asia Minor where they came in contact with the Chaldeans and with the Greek culture. These Hellenised Magi must have founded the cult of Mithra as a Sun-God in Asia Minor. Their priesthood passed from father to son. The Magi settled into Asia Minor for many centuries, at least until the first century AD.
The pirates of Cilicia knew the mysteries of Mithra since the first century BC and, at that time, people outside the secret sects worshipped Mithra. The transformation of these observances into a regular cult occurred probably in the last two centuries BC, under the influence of the Magi.

As told in the New Testament, Jesus descended on earth in a human body as the Redeemer and Messiah and, at his birth, the Magi, guided by a star, greeted and worshipped him.
Certain groups of Jews were interested in Zarathustra and put him on the same level as Ezekiel and the Magi taught the Jewish faith. The Christians knew that Zarathustra was not a Jew, but they recognised him as a prophet who served God by proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, that is Jesus. In the Persian Avesta he is the Saushyant who will appear at the end of time when the realm of Truth and Good will triumph over Evil with his help. According to the bahman yasht, a hymn of the Avesta, Mithra is the main adversary of these evil powers.