When we think about Iran and its religion the first thing that will come to our minds is going to be, probably, Islam. Although that’s a reasonable reaction, being the country currently a Theocratic Islamic Republic, Iran is actually the birthplace of one of the oldest religions of the world that is still active: Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism takes its name from Zoroaster or Zarathustra, the Iranian prophet whose teachings of the religious traditions of the religion helped its development and expansion. There is no scholarly consensus about when he was born, but there are evidences pointing at somewhere between the 1st and the 2nd millennium BCE (3,000 or 4,000 years ago). Other scholars, however, put him way later, on the 6th century BCE, as a contemporary of Cyrus the Great and Darius I. On top of that we are not even sure if he was just one man or a series of prophets and masters, being the Zoroaster we know one of them. In any case, his main contribution to Zoroastrianism was the creation of what became the core of Zoroastrian thinking and liturgy. He, according to the legend, created the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism.
The origin of Zoroastrianism goes back to the religion practiced in Central Asia around the 2nd millennium BCE. At that point the are was populated by various tribes closely related to the Indo-Aryans. This people later settled on the Indian subcontinent and created the Sanskrit language, very influential in all Asia and Europe. Indo-Aryans lately adopted Hinduism as its religion, but at that time they have many aspects in common with the Central Asian tribes, like the worshiping of the Sun-god Mitra -for Indians- or Mithra -for Iranians-. Between Indians Mitra was divided in three different gods (Mitra, Aryaman and Varuna) during the Vedic period, where Indians had Vedism or ancient Hindusm as its main religion. Between Iranians, however, the god kept undivided, and later became a lesser god, sent from the supreme God Ahura Mazda. For centuries followers of Mazdeism tried to eradicate the worshiping of Mithra, although both coexisted during the achaemenid dynasties.
I think it’s important to point out that the worshiping of Ahura Mazda is not the same as Zoroastrianism, even if they share the same god. A good example of a similar case in the western culture is the Judaism, Islam and Christianity, three different religions with the same god. In Persia another example is Darius I (5th century BCE). We don’t know if he was a Zoroastrian, but we know for sure that he worshiped Ahura Mazda.
The Zoroastrianism tradition is very interesting. It is a monotheist religion with Ahura Mazda as the almighty supreme creator (though not omnipotent), and it also has a Good-Evil duality. Chaos is represented by Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the “Destructive Principle”, while the benevolence is represented through Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu, the “Bounteous Principle” of the act of creation, the presence of Ahura Mazda in all mankind. The religion encourages the commitment to good deeds to keep away chaos. After all, its three principal tenets are Humata, Hukhta and Huvarshta, meaning Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.
Praying must be done always in front of some form fire, which is consider, like the water, a primordial element. For that reason all temples must have a fire always active that must never be extinguished. In fact, the fire temple of Yazd Astash Behram, in the city of Yazd has a fire goblet that, according to the legend, it’s been active since the 5th century! Another important believe is the way of treating their dead. Zoroastrians practice a form of burial called sky burial, where the corpses are left exposed to the elements and the animals. They were placed on the Towers of Silence, where the vultures eat them.
One of the most interesting things about this religion, in my opinion, is the immense influence it had all over Asia and Europe. The roots of the religion, shared with Vedism and Hinduism had a strong influence in both religions (as a quick example, Asura in Sanskrit means demon). That influence also reaches Buddhism, specially all the symbolism of the light, thanks to the expansion of the religion through the Silk Road.
Going in the opposite direction, the Sun-god Mithra was worshiped by Romans, specially Roman soldiers, to the point where even the emperor Hadrian tried to promote it between the years 100 and 150, with the objective of making the main religion of the empire. Some scholars claim that, if it wasn’t for the adoption and popularity of Christianity by later emperors Europe could easily be worshiping Mithra today. Speaking about Christianity, the expansion of Mithraism influenced can also be seen in many Christian traditions, specially in the similarities between Jesus and Mithra. They were both born in the 25th of December, they were both born from a virgin and in both redemption is a very important theme. This makes a lot of sense when you consider how early Christians tend to adapt pagan dates, concepts and even gods to the Christian canon, to make the transition of converted territories easier.
Judaism was also heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism. In the earlier forms of Judaism Yahweh was a lesser god from the Canaanite pantheon, where El was the supreme god. When Persia overthrew Babylon the Judahites had a big cultura exchange withe the Persians for centuries. Is at this time where Judaism changed to a monotheist religion, which is not seen as a coincidence by most historians. Of course this would also propagate to Christianity and Islam. In Christianity specifically another shared aspect is the importance of duality in both religions. The concept of heaven and hell were also borrow from Zoroastrianism, as well as the idea of two opposite divine entities. Even the angelology and demonology of Abrahamic religions were influence by Zoroastrian believes.
As a final curiosity, and another proof of its influence, are their priests. This are known as magus or magi, and its the origin of the words “magic” and “magician”. In the Gospel of Matthew the Three Wise Men, the magi that visited the infant Jesus following a shooting star are actually Persian priests.
Today the religion is still practiced in Iran and some areas of India. In my trip through Iran I was able to find some of its followers, specially in the eastern part of the country, in provinces like Yazd. One of the highlights was the visit to the Towers of Silence of Yazd, or the village of Chak Chak, where the fire temple of Pir-e Sabz is located, the Holy pilgrimage site of Zoroastrians, what meet once a year there. It’s, of course, a minor religion, since after the conquest of the Sassanian Empire by the Arabas in the 7th century the Islam quickly spread. Islam became dominant specially in the big cities, but Zoroastrianism survived in the more rural areas.
I think it’s a fascinating religion with a lot of influence in all major religions of the World. And it’s one of the oldest ones! Some people claim that is the oldest one still active, with Hinduism as its main competitor. It’s hard to tell since the point where religions are born is very blurry. As a final curiosity, Freddie Mercury, famous lead singer of Queen, was from Parsi origin (which is how Persian descendants living in India are called). He, like the rest of his family, was Zoroastrian!
If you want to know more about the history of Iran have a look at the post about Persepolis.