Ancient History & Civilisation


The coming of the Prophet—Persian religion before Zarathustra—The Bible of Persia—Ahura-Mazda—The good and the evil spirits—Their struggle for the possession of the world

Persian legend tells how, many hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, a great prophet appeared in Airyana-vaejo, the ancient “home of the Aryans.” His people called him Zarathustra; but the Greeks, who could never bear the orthography of the “barbarians” patiently, called him Zoroastres. His conception was divine: his guardian angel entered into an haoma plant, and passed with its juice into the body of a priest as the latter offered divine sacrifice; at the same time a ray of heaven’s glory entered the bosom of a maid of noble lineage. The priest espoused the maid, the imprisoned angel mingled with the imprisoned ray, and Zarathustra began to be.53 He laughed aloud on the very day of his birth, and the evil spirits that gather around every life fled from him in tumult and terror.54 Out of his great love for wisdom and righteousness he withdrew from the society of men, and chose to live in a mountain wilderness on cheese and the fruits of the soil. The Devil tempted him, but to no avail. His breast was pierced with a sword, and his entrails were filled with molten lead; he did not complain, but clung to his faith in Ahura-Mazda—the Lord of Light—as supreme god. Ahura-Mazda appeared to him and gave into his hands the Avesta, or Book of Knowledge and Wisdom, and bade him preach it to mankind. For a long time all the world ridiculed and persecuted him; but at last a high prince of Iran—Vishtaspa or Hystaspes—heard him gladly, and promised to spread the new faith among his people. Thus was the Zoroastrian religion born. Zarathustra himself lived to a very old age, was consumed in a flash of lightning, and ascended into heaven.55

We cannot tell how much of his story is true; perhaps some Josiah discovered him. The Greeks accepted him as historical, and honored him with an antiquity of 5500 years before their time;56 Berosus the Babylonian brought him down to 2000 B.C.;57 modern historians, when they believe in his existence, assign him to any century between the tenth and the sixth before Christ.*58 When he appeared, among the ancestors of the Medes and the Persians, he found his people worshiping animals,59 ancestors,60 the earth and the sun, in a religion having many elements and deities in common with the Hindus of the Vedic age. The chief divinities of this pre-Zoroastrian faith were Mithra, god of the sun, Anaita, goddess of fertility and the earth, and Haoma the bull-god who, dying, rose again, and gave mankind his blood as a drink that would confer immortality; him the early Iranians worshiped by drinking the intoxicating juice of the haoma herb found on their mountain slopes.61 Zarathustra was shocked at these primitive deities and this Dionysian ritual; he rebelled against the “Magi” or priests who prayed and sacrificed to them; and with all the bravery of his contemporaries Amos and Isaiah he announced to the world one God—here Ahura-Mazda, the Lord of Light and Heaven, of whom all other gods were but manifestations and qualities. Perhaps Darius I, who accepted the new doctrine, saw in it a faith that would both inspire his people and strengthen his government. From the moment of his accession he declared war upon the old cults and the Magian priesthood, and made Zoroastrianism the religion of the state.

The Bible of the new faith was the collection of books in which the disciples of the Master had gathered his sayings and his prayers. Later followers called these books Avesta; by the error of a modern scholar they are known to the Occidental world as the Zend-Avesta. The contemporary non-Persian reader is terrified to find that the substantial volumes that survive, though much shorter than our Bible, are but a small fraction of the revelation vouchsafed to Zarathustra by his god. What remains is, to the foreign and provincial observer, a confused mass of prayers, songs, legends, prescriptions, ritual and morals, brightened now and then by noble language, fervent devotion, ethical elevation, or lyric piety. Like our Old Testament it is a highly eclectic composition. The student discovers here and there the gods, the ideas, sometimes the very words and phrases of the Rig-veda—to such an extent that some Indian scholars consider the Avesta to have been inspired not by Ahura-Mazda but by the Vedas65 at other times one comes upon passages of ancient Babylonian provenance, such as the creation of the world in six periods (the heavens, the waters, the earth, plants, animals, man,) the descent of all men from two first parents, the establishment of an earthly paradise,66 the discontent of the Creator with his creation, and his resolve to destroy all but a remnant of it by a flood.67 But the specifically Iranian elements suffice abundantly to characterize the whole: the world is conceived in dualistic terms as the stage of a conflict, lasting twelve thousand years, between the god Ahura-Mazda and the devil Ahriman; purity and honesty are the greatest of the virtues, and will lead to everlasting life; the dead must not be buried or burned, as by the obscene Greeks or Hindus, but must be thrown to the dogs or to birds of prey.68

The god of Zarathustra was first of all “the whole circle of the heavens” themselves. Ahura-Mazda “clothes himself with the solid vault of the firmament as his raiment; . . . his body is the light and the sovereign glory; the sun and the moon are his eyes.” In later days, when the religion passed from prophets to politicians, the great deity was pictured as a gigantic king of imposing majesty. As creator and ruler of the world he was assisted by a legion of lesser divinities, originally pictured as forms and powers of nature—fire and water, sun and moon, wind and rain; but it was the achievement of Zarathustra that he conceived his god as supreme over all things, in terms as noble as the Book of Job:

This I ask thee, tell me truly, O Ahura-Mazda: Who determined the paths of suns and stars—who is it by whom the moon waxes and wanes? . . . Who, from below, sustained the earth and the firmament from falling—who sustained the waters and plants—who yoked swiftness with the winds and the clouds—who, Ahura-Mazda, called forth the Good Mind?69

This “Good Mind” meant not any human mind, but a divine wisdom, almost a Logos,* used by Ahura-Mazda as an intermediate agency of creation. Zarathustra had interpreted Ahura-Mazda as having seven aspects or qualities: Light, Good Mind, Right, Dominion, Piety, Well-being, and Immortality. His followers, habituated to polytheism, interpreted these attributes as persons (called by them amesha spenta, or immortal holy ones) who, under the leadership of Ahura-Mazda, created and managed the world; in this way the majestic monotheism of the founder became—as in the case of Christianity—the polytheism of the people. In addition to these holy spirits were the guardian angels, of which Persian theology supplied one for every man, woman and child. But just as these angels and the immortal holy ones helped men to virtue, so, according to the pious Persian (influenced, presumably, by Babylonian demonology), seven dævas, or evil spirits, hovered in the air, always tempting men to crime and sin, and forever engaged in a war upon Ahura-Mazda and every form of righteousness. The leader of these devils was Angro-Mainyus or Ahriman, Prince of Darkness and ruler of the nether world, prototype of that busy Satan whom the Jews appear to have adopted from Persia and bequeathed to Christianity. It was Ahriman, for example, who had created serpents, vermin, locusts, ants, winter, darkness, crime, sin, sodomy, menstruation, and the other plagues of life; and it was these inventions of the Devil that had ruined the Paradise in which Ahura-Mazda had placed the first progenitors of the human race.71 Zarathustra seems to have regarded these evil spirits as spurious deities, popular and superstitious incarnations of the abstract forces that resist the progress of man. His followers, however, found it easier to think of them as living beings, and personified them in such abundance that in after times the devils of Persian theology were numbered in millions.72

As this system of belief came from Zarathustra it bordered upon monotheism. Even with the intrusion of Ahriman and the evil spirits it remained as monotheistic as Christianity was to be with its Satan, its devils and its angels; indeed, one hears, in early Christian theology, as many echoes of Persian dualism as of Hebrew Puritanism or Greek philosophy. The Zoroastrian conception of God might have satisfied as particular a spirit as Matthew Arnold: Ahura-Mazda was the sum-total of all those forces in the world that make for righteousness; and morality lay in cooperation with those forces. Furthermore there was in this dualism a certain justice to the contradictoriness and perversity of things, which monotheism never provided; and though the Zoroastrian theologians, after the manner of Hindu mystics and Scholastic philosophers, sometimes argued that evil was unreal,73 they offered, in effect, a theology well adapted to dramatize for the average mind the moral issues of life. The last act of the play, they promised, would be—for the just man—a happy ending: after four epochs of three thousand years each, in which Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman would alternately predominate, the forces of evil would be finally destroyed; right would triumph everywhere, and evil would forever cease to be. Then all good men would join Ahura-Mazda in Paradise, and the wicked would fall into a gulf of outer darkness, where they would feed on poison eternally.74

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