Zoroastrianism and other religious beliefs  of ancient Persia .





Illustration of Zoroaster worshiping fire and the Sun .

From: Historia religionis veterum Persarum  1700

Thomas Hyde ( 1636 - 1703 )

Zoroaster or Magi priest at the fire altar . The sun

 represents cosmic fire with Ahura Mazda above .



The ancient Persians and Medes were originally polytheists. They

worshipped numerous gods associated with natural phenomena such as Mao or Mah, the Moon God, Vato or Vayu, the Wind God and Atar, the Fire God . Their religious practices included, animal sacrifice, a reverence for fire and the drinking of a natural intoxicant made from the juice of the haoma plant.

On Wings of Fire (1986) . is a 1986 English-language Indian film directed by Cyrus Bharucha and starring Zubin Mehta, Paul Shelley, Saeed Jaffrey, Amrish Puri, with Nigel Terry as Zarathustra and Derek Jacobi as the narrator. It is the first and only film to cover the philosophy and history of Zoroastrianism in a scholarly and dramatic way.[3] The film was premiered at Mumbai's Sterling Cinema in June 1986,and was released in the United States in 2001.


Zoroastrian was a state religion of Achaemenid Empire, Parthian and Sassanid Empires . After the Arab invasion, many believers in

Zoroastrianism fled to India and became known as the Parsi (Parsee). The Adar is the sacred fire of the Zoroastrians. The fire symbolizes purity, the essence of life, and the presence of God. In the Zoroastrian creation story, fire is the last creation, but brings life to all that came before it.  A sacred fire is kept burning continuously in Zoroastrian temples, and Zoroastrians must pray only in the presence of a fire. The Adar is the origin of the idea of an “eternal flame.” The sacred flame in Yazd Atash Behram temple, built 470 A.D., at Yazd Iran has reportedly burned continuously for 1.500 years. Some biblical scholars have suggest that the story of Moses and the burning bush may have its origins in Zoroastrian mythology.



 The fire temple of Yazd is located in central Iran. It’s a place of worship for the Zoroastrians. They believe fire is an element of purity and life. The main building of the fire temple is situated in the middle of a large green garden surrounded by pine and cedar trees. In ancient Iran, as well as a place for worshiping, a fire temple served as a court, an educational center and a health clinic. It had a section for judgment, a part to educate children and a section to treat the sick.

Under Zoroastrianism, earlier Persian gods were not totally replaced. These deities were relegated to the status of demons or daevas which were in opposition to the ahuras.


Coin of Shapur of the Sassanid Empire showing

a fire altar inscribed with " fire of Shapur ."


 Zoroaster documentary by the BBC

Zoroastrianism  also called Mazdaism and Magianism, is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra in Avestan) and was formerly among the world's largest religions. It was probably founded some time before the 6th century BCE in the eastern part of ancient Greater Iran.


Zoroastrianism is the religion and philosophy based on the teachings ascribed to the prophet Zoroaster   or



Zarathustra  around 720-541 B.C. in what is now Central Asia . While still a young man he began having conversations with Ahura Mazda  from whom he received revelations  .

 When he was 30, he began his ministry, but for 10 years he had only one disciple, his cousin. His progress began when he converted to his doctrine a local ruler, Vashtaspa and disciples increased rapidly . He was killed in the holy wars that devolved with unbelievers.  



 Iran - People of the Flames Zoroastrians


 In Search of Zarathustra:

Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World's

First Prophet

 Paul Kriwaczek



 Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices

 This book, now re-issued with a new introduction by Mary

Boyce, is the first attempt to trace the continuous history

of the faith from the time it was preached by Zoroaster down

to the present day-a span of about 3,500 years .


Zoroaster in the court of Vashtaspa


Zoroaster inherited two fundamental principles from his Aryan

ancestry :

(1) There is law in Nature.

(2) There is conflict in Nature.

His reforms were aimed at religious beliefs but also social habits

such as persuading the tribes of Persia to become farmers and give up the nomadic existence with its brigandage and war .


Zoroaster urging reform


Agricultural life meant sharing of water for the communal good . The originality of Zoroastrianism was in its rejection of the myriad gods of the age and its concentration on the spirit of good.


The ideal life is represented to be that of the farmer with wife,

children, and cattle, who works hard to cultivate the land and secures a rich return. The dog, as man's protector and guard, is referred to as self-clothed and self-shod, watchful, wakeful, and sharp-toothed, born to take his food from man and to watch over man's goods . In return, to kill a dog was a crime heinous as that of homicide. On the other hand, the ants that steal the corn, lizards, frogs, serpents, and flies were held to be accursed.


The doctrine of the resurrection was first preached by Zoroaster, who taught that man would receive reward or punishment after death. The good would be welcomed by Ahura as honoured guests, but the wicked would fall into the Abode of Lie ', to become the slaves of Ahriman. The influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, Christianity and Islam is considerable, and there is no doubt that its influence taught the Persians to adopt ideals higher than any then known in the world .


symbol of Ahura-Mazda


The sole god was Ahura-Mazda ("Wise Lord") . In eternal struggle

with Ahura-Mazda, is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. The evil spirits, called devas, were the instruments of Ahriman, the source of all evil in the world. The mythological system was based on the ancient Persian worship of the ahuras, good deities eternally at war with the evil daevas.


Elamite art of Zurvan giving birth to

Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman


In the ancient Persian God of eternity,Zuvan or Zurvan, the father of

Ahurah-Mazda and Ahriman in Indo-Iranian mythology. He was the chief Persian deity before the advent of Zoroastrianism. A god of time and space, Zurvan was depicted as a winged, lion headed deity encircled by a serpent representing the motion of the sun.


Zurvan, God of Time


Zurvanism was a branch of Zoroastrianism had the divinity Zurvan as the source of all things, both of the good force, Ahura Mazda and the negative force, Ahriman. Unlike Mazdean Zoroastrianism, Zurvanism considered Ahura Mazda not the transcendental Creator, but one of two equal-but-opposite divinities under the supremacy of Zurvan. Zurvanism enjoyed royal sanction during the Sassanid Empire . Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire in the 7th century, Zoroastrianism was gradually supplanted by Islam .


Unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where Satan is a lesser

creation, Zoroastrianism believes that the universe is made of equal parts of good and evil .Exercising ones free will decides if one will stand with Ahura-Mazda or Ahriman.Zoroaster maintained there was life after death for those who choose the right and good actions .This dualistic struggle between good and

evil is present in every aspect of human life . The ultimate fate of each person depends on how a person acts in the earthly

battleground of good and evil .He preached the virtues of honesty

and charity for the betterment of society .He prophesied that, in the fullness of time, evil would be utterly destroyed by Ahura-Mazda .




The scripture of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta. In the temples where Zorostrianism is praticed there is a room where a holy fire burns . Each follower of the faith also has a sacred fire in his house .



 Excerpts from The Avesta

From: Library of the World's Best Literature , Ancient and Modern volume 3 .


By Charles Dudley Warner . 1893 .


Audio book produced by Librivox.org



The Persian Book of Kings

 Composed more than a thousand years ago, this national epic of Persia, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings ,tells the story of Iran from the first "lord of the world," Kayumars, through the seventh-century Arab/Islamic conquest of the Sassanid dynasty. One of the longest epic poems in

the world .



 Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

 Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the epic poem the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the 'Book of Kings', which has been at the heart of Persian culture for the past thousand years. Charles Melville Professor of Persian History at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge



The Creator was described as "the whole circle of the heavens," "the most steadfast among the gods," for "he clothes himself with the solid vault of the firmament as his raiment," "the most beautiful, the most intelligent, he whose members are most harmoniously proportioned; his body was the light and the sovereign glory, the sun and the moon were his eyes." The theologians had gradually spiritualised the conception of this deity without absolutely disconnecting him from the material universe .


He remained under ordinary circumstances invisible to mortal eyes, and he could conceal his identity even from the highest gods, but he occasionally manifested himself in human form. He borrowed in such case from Assyria the symbol of Assur, and the sculptors depict him with the upper part of his body rising above that winged disk which is carved in a hovering attitude on the pediments of Assyrian monuments or stelæ .


In later days he was portrayed under the form of a king of imposing stature and majestic mien, who revealed himself from time to time to the princes of Iran. From Darius I onwards, the god Ahuramazda or its representation began to be pictured above the Persian Kings on seals

and reliefs .




The spirit of the Zendavesta is wholly averse to idolatry, and we may fully accept the statement of Herodotus that images of the gods were entirely unknown to the Persians. Still, they did not deny themselves a certain use of symbolic representations of their deities, nor did they even scruple to adopt from idolatrous nations the forms of their religious symbolism. The winged circle, with or without the addition of a human figure, which was in Assyria the emblem of the chief Assyrian deity, Asshur, became with the Persians the ordinary representation of the Supreme God, Ormazd, and, as such, was placed in most conspicuous positions on their rock tombs and on their buildings.


Ahura-Mazda ( right ) King Ardair I ( Left )




He was named Ahurô-mazdâo or Ahura-mazdâ, the omniscient lord,Spento-mainyus, the spirit of good, Mainyus-spenishtô the most beneficent of spirits. Ahura is derived from Ahu = Lord: Mazdâo can be analysed into the component parts, maz = great, and dâo = he who knows. At first the two terms were

interchangeable, and even in the Gâthas the form Mazda Ahura is employed much more often than the form Ahura Mazda. In the Achsemenian inscriptions, Auramazdâ is only found as a

single word, except in an inscription of Xerxes, where the

two terms are in one passage separated and declined Aurahya

mazdâha. The form Ormuzd, Ormazd, usually employed by

Europeans, is that assumed by the name in modern Persian.

These two names are given to him more especially in

connection with his antagonism to Angrômainyus.


Himself uncreated, he is the creator of all things, but he is assisted in the administration of the universe by legions of beings, who are all subject to him.  Darius styles Ahura-mazdâ, mathishta bagânâm, the  greatest of the gods, and Xerxes invokes the protection of  Ahura-mazdâ along with that of the gods. The classical  writers also mention gods alongside of Ahura-mazdâ as recognised not only among the Achæmenian Persians, but also among the Parthians. Darmesteter considers that the earliest Achæmenids worshipped Ahura-mazdâ alone, "placing the other gods together in a subordinate and anonymous group: May Ahura-mazdâ and the other gods protect me.


Darius styles Ahura-mazdâ, mathishta bagânâm, the

greatest of the gods, and Xerxes invokes the protection of

Ahura-mazdâ along with that of the gods. The classical

writers also mention gods alongside of Ahura-mazdâ as

recognised not only among the Achæmenian Persians, but also

among the Parthians. Darmesteter considers that the earliest

Achæmenids worshipped Ahura-mazdâ alone, "placing the other gods together in a subordinate and anonymous group: May

Ahura-mazdâ and the other gods protect me."



Evil  'destructive spirit'  Ahriman or Angrô-mainyus



Darius the Great battling the spirit of Evil, Ahriman


In opposition to the god of light, they necessarily formed the idea of a god of darkness, the god of the underworld, who presides over death, Angrô-mainyus or Ahriman.  The two opposing principles reigned at first, each in his own domain, as rivals, but not as irreconcilable adversaries: they were considered

as in fixed opposition to each other, and as having coexisted for ages without coming into actual conflict, separated as they were by the intervening void.


As long as the principle of good was content to remain shut up

inactive in his barren glory, the principle of evil slumbered

unconscious in a darkness that knew no beginning; but when at last "the spirit who giveth increase" Spentô-mainyus determined to manifest himself, the first throes of his vivifying activity roused from inertia the spirit of destruction and of pain, Angrô-mainyus. The heaven was not yet in existence, nor the waters, nor the earth, nor ox, nor fire, nor man, nor demons, nor brute beasts, nor any living thing, when the evil spirit hurled himself upon the light to quench it for ever, but Ahura-mazdâ had already called forth the ministers of his will Amêsha-spentas, Yazatas, Fravashis and he recited the prayer of twenty-one words in which all the elements of morality are summed up, the Ahuna-vairya: "The will of the Lord is the rule of

good. Let the gifts of Vohu-manô be bestowed on the works

accomplished, at this moment, for Mazda. He makes Ahura to reign, he who protects the poor." The effect of this prayer was irresistible: "When Ahura had pronounced the first part of the formula, Zânak Mînoî, the spirit of destruction, bowed himself with terror; at the second part he fell upon his knees; and at the third and last he felt himself powerless to hurt the creatures of Ahura-mazdâ."


The strife, kindled at the beginning of time between the two gods, has gone on ever since with alternations of success and defeat; each in turn has the victory for a regular period of three thousand years; but when these periods are ended, at the expiration of twelve thousand years, evil will be finally and for ever defeated. While awaiting this blessed fullness of time, as Spentô-mainyus shows himself in all that is good and beautiful, in light, virtue, and justice, so Angrô-mainyus is to be perceived in all that is hateful and ugly, in darkness, sin, and crime. Against the six Amesha-spentas he sets in array six spirits of equal power Akem-manô, evil thought; Andra, the devouring fire, who introduces discontent and sin wherever he penetrates; Sauru, the flaming arrow of death, who inspires bloodthirsty tyrants, who incites men to theft and murder; Nâongaithya, arrogance and pride; Tauru, thirst; and Zairi, hunger.*


The most common representatives of the Evil Powers of the

mythology were lions, winged or unwinged, and monsters of several different descriptions. At Persepolis the lions which the king stabs or strangles are of the natural shape .




Amongst archaeologists dealing with ancient Middle Eastern cultures, any mythological spirit lesser than a god is often referred to as a genie, especially when describing stone reliefs or other forms of art. This practice draws on the original meaning of the term genie for simply a spirit of any sort


 A Bad Genii


 Winged Bull, a good genii


The winged human-headed bulls,however, which the Persians adopted from the Assyrians, with very slight modifications, were also, it is probable, regarded as emblems of some god or good genius. They would scarcely otherwise have been represented on Persian cylinders as upholding the emblem of Ormazd in the same way that human-headed bulls uphold the similar emblem of Asshur on Assyrian cylinders. Their position, too, at Persepolis, where they kept watch over the entrance to the palace, accords with the notion that they represented guardian spirits, objects of the favorable regard of the

Persians .

 Lamassu (winged human-headed bulls possibly lamassu or shedu) from the citadel of Sargon II, Dur Sharrukin (now Khorsabad, Iraq), Neo-Assyrian, c. 720-705 B.C.E., gypseous alabaster, 4.20 x 4.36 x 0.97 m, excavated by P.-E. Botta 1843-44 (Musée du Louvre) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker IN THE NEWS: Irreplaceable Lamassu sculpture, Assyrian architecture and whole archaeological sites have recently been destroyed by militants that control large areas of Iraq and Syria. This tragedy cannot be undone and is an attack on our shared history and cultural heritage. To learn more: February 27, 2015 New York Times article .



Druja or Succubus


The female demons, the Bruges, the Incubi (Yâtus), the Succubi

(Pairîka) A Middle Eastern version of the succubus known as "um al duwayce" (أٌم الدويس) portrays this succubus as a beautiful, alluringly scented woman who wanders the desert on the hooves of a donkey. While other forms of the succubus participate in sexual intercourse to collect semen and become impregnated, this particular succubus is instead a judge of character and exacts revenge on those who commit adultery. She attempts to lure these men to have intercourse with her, at which time sharp razors within her vagina slice off the partner's penis, leaving him in agonizing pain. Having rendered the man helpless, she turns into her true form and proceeds to eat him alive, the Peris of our fairy tales, mingled familiarly with mankind before the time of the prophet, and contracted with them fruitful alliances, but Zoroaster broke up their ranks, and prohibited them from becoming incarnate in any form but that of beasts; their hatred, however, is still unquenched, and their power will only be effectually overthrown at the consummation of time. It is a matter of uncertainty whether the Medes already admitted the possibility of a fresh revelation, preparing the latest generations of mankind for the advent of the reign of good. The traditions enshrined in the sacred books of Iran announce the coming of three prophets, sons of Zoroaster Ukhshyatereta, Ukhshyatnemô, and Saoshyant who shall bring about universal salvation .






The most powerful among Ahura-Mazdâs ministers were originally

nature-gods, such as the sun, the moon, the earth, the winds, and the waters. The sunny plains of Persia and Media afforded abundant witnesses of their power, as did the snow-clad peaks, the deep gorges through which rushed roaring torrents, and the mountain ranges of Ararat or Taurus, where the force of the subterranean fires was manifested by so many startling exhibitions of spontaneous conflagration. The same spiritualising tendency which had already considerably modified the essential concept of Ahura-mazdâ, affected also that of the inferior deities, and tended to tone down in them the grosser traits of their character. It had already placed at their head six genii of a superior order, six ever-active energies, who, after assisting their master at the creation of the universe, now presided under his guidance over the kingdoms and forces of nature.









Sometimes Ahura-mazdâ is himself included among the

Amesha-spentas, thus bringing their number up to seven; sometimes his place is taken by a certain Sraôsha (obedience to the law), the first who offered sacrifice and recited the prayers of the ritual.


Subordinate to these great spirits were the Yazatas, scattered by

thousands over creation, presiding over the machinery of nature and maintaining it in working order. Most of them received no special names, but many exercised wide authority, and several were accredited by the people with an influence not less than that of the greater deities themselves.


Such Were the regent of the stars, Tishtrya, the bull with golden

horns, Sirius, the sparkling one; Mâo, the moon-god; the wind, Vâto; the atmosphere, Vayu, the strongest of the strong, the warrior with golden armour, who gathers the storm and hurls it against the demon; Atar, fire under its principal forms, divine fire, sacred fire, and earthly fire; Vere-thraghna, the author of war and giver of victory; Aurva-taspa, the son of the waters, the lightning born among the clouds; and lastly, the spirit of the dawn, the watchful Mithra, "who, first of the celestial Yazatas, soars above Mount Hara,* before the immortal sun with his swift steeds, who, first in golden splendour, passes over the beautiful mountains and casts his glance benign on the dwellings of the Aryans.







Imagery of Mithras

Mithras was an old-Iranian god of light, contracts and friendship. He also maintains the cosmic order. Sometimes mentioned as the son of Ahura Mazda, he assists him in his struggle against the forces of evil, represented by Angra Mainyu. Mithra was a charming youth of beautiful countenance, his head

surrounded with a radiant halo. Later, Mithras became the favorite god or soldiers in the Roman legions .


Cult of Mithras Explained

Mithraism was a phase of Zoroastnanism which spread over the

Roman world in the second century. The partisans of Mithra

worshipped the sun whom they looked upon as the great advocate of Light. They held the human soul to be a part of God, and maintained that the observance of a mysterious cult could bring about the soul's union with God. Their doctrine of the soul, its ascent towards God by torturing the body and finally passing through the sphere of Aether and becoming pure fire, offers some resemblance with views entertained by some schools of Persian Sufism .

 Comparative Mythology: Jesus, Mithras and Osiris

The nymph Anâhita was adored under the form of one of the

incarnations of the Babylonian goddess Mylitta, a youthful and

slender female, with well-developed breasts and broad hips,

sometimes represented clothed in furs and sometimes nude. Like the foreign goddess to whom she was assimilated, she was the dispenser of fertility and of love; the heroes of antiquity, and even Ahura-mazdâ himself, had vied with one another in their worship of her, and she had lavished her favours freely on all.





Depiction of a Fravashi


The Fravashis is the guardian spirit of an individual .

The less important Yazatas were hardly to be distinguished from the innumerable multitude of Fravashis. The Fravasliis are the divine types of all intelligent beings. They were originally brought into being by Ahura-mazdâ as a distinct species from the human, but they had allowed themselves to be entangled in matter, and to be fettered in the bodies of men, in order to hasten the final destruction of the demons and the advent of the reign of good.*


Once incarnate, a Fravasliis devotes himself to the well-being of the mortal with whom he is associated; and when once more released from the flesh, he continues the struggle against evil with an energy whose efficacy is proportionate to the virtue and purity displayed in life by the mortal to whom he has been temporarily joined. The last six days of the year are dedicated to the Fravashis. They leave their heavenly abodes at this time to visit the spots which were their earthly dwelling-places, and they wander through the villages inquiring, "Who wishes to hire us? Who will offer us a sacrifice? Who will make us their own, welcome us, and receive us with plenteous offerings of food and raiment, with a prayer which bestows sanctity on him who offers it?" And if they find a man to hearken to their request, they bless him: "May his house be blessed with herds of oxen and troops of men, a swift horse and a strongly built chariot, a

man who knoweth how to pray to God, a chieftain in the council who may ever offer us sacrifices with a hand filled with food and raiment, with a prayer which bestows sanctity on him who offers it!" Ahura-mazdâ created the universe, not by the work of his hands, but by the magic of his word, and he desired to create it entirely free from defects. His creation, however, can only exist by the free play and equilibrium of opposing forces, to which he gives activity: the incompatibility of tendency displayed by these forces, and their alternations of growth and decay, inspired the Iranians with the idea that they were the result of two contradictory principles, the one beneficent and good, the other adverse to everything emanating from the former.*


Fire Altars




 Fire alters at Naqsh-e Rostam

Worship at fire altar


The religious observances enjoined on the members of the priestly caste were innumerable and minute. Ahura-mazdâ and his colleagues had not, as was the fashion among the Assyrians and Egyptians, either temples or tabernacles, and though they were represented sometimes under human or animal forms, and even in some cases on bas-reliefs, yet no one ever ventured to set up in their sanctuaries those so-called animated or prophetic statues to which the majority of the nations had rendered or were rendering their solicitous homage. Altars, however, were erected on the tops of hills, in palaces, or in the centre of cities, on which fires were kindled in honour of the inferior deities or of the supreme god himself.


Two altars were usually set up together, and they are thus found

here and there among the ruins, as at Nakhsh-î-Kustem, the

necropolis of Persepolis, where a pair of such altars exist; these are cut, each out of a single block, in a rocky mass which rises some thirteen feet above the level of the surrounding plain. They are of cubic form and squat appearance, looking like towers flanked at the four corners by supporting columns which are connected by circular arches; above a narrow moulding rises a crest of somewhat triangular projections; the hearth is hollowed out on the summit of each altar.*


     * According to Perrot and Chipiez, "it is not impossible

     that these altars were older than the great buildings of

     Persepolis, and that they were erected for the old Persian

     town which Darius raised to the position of capital."



At Meshed-î-Murgâb, on the site of the ancient Pasargadas, the altars have disappeared, but the basements on which they were erected are still visible, as also the flight of eight steps by which they were approached. Those altars on which burned, a perpetual fire were not left exposed to the open air: they would have run too great a risk of contracting impurities, such as dust borne by the wind, flights of birds, dew, rain, or snow. They were enclosed in slight structures, well protected by walls, and attaining in some cases considerable dimensions, or in pavilion-shaped edifices of stone adorned with columns. The sacrificial rites were of long duration, and frequent, and were rendered very complex by interminable manual acts, ceremonial gestures, and incantations.


In cases where the altar was not devoted to maintaining a perpetual fire, it was kindled when necessary with small twigs previously barked and purified, and was subsequently fed with precious woods, preferably cypress or laurel;* care was taken not to quicken the flame by blowing, for the human breath would have desecrated the fire by merely passing over it; death was the punishment for any one who voluntarily committed such a heinous sacrilege. The recognised offering consisted of flowers, bread, fruit, and perfumes, but these were often accompanied, as in all ancient religions, by a bloody sacrifice; the sacrifice of a horse was considered the most efficacious, but an ox, a cow, a sheep, a camel, an ass, or a stag was frequently offered: in certain circumstances, especially when it was desired to

conciliate the favour of the god of the underworld, a human victim, probably as a survival of very ancient rites was preferred.*


Most modern writers deny the authenticity of Herodotus' account,

because a sacrifice of this kind is opposed to the spirit of the Magian religion, which is undoubtedly the case, as far as the latest form of the religion is concerned; but the testimony of Herodotus is so plain that the fact itself must be considered as indisputable. We may note that the passage refers to the foundation of a city; and if we remember how persistent was the custom of human sacrifice among ancient races at the foundation of buildings, we shall be led to the conclusion that the ceremony described by the Greek historian was a survival of a very ancient usage, which had not yet fallen entirely into desuetude at the Achæmenian epoch.


The king, whose royal position made him the representative of

Ahura-mazdâ on earth, was, in fact, a high priest, and was himself able to officiate at the altar, but no one else could dispense with the mediation of the Magi. The worshippers proceeded in solemn procession to the spot where the ceremony was to take place, and there the priest, wearing the tiara on his head, recited an invocation in a slow and mysterious voice, and implored the blessings of heaven

on the king and nation. He then slaughtered the victim by a blow on the head, and divided it into portions, which he gave back to the offerer without reserving any of them, for Ahura-mazdâ required nothing but the soul; in certain cases, the victim was entirely consumed by fire, but more frequently nothing but a little of the fat and some of the entrails were taken to feed and maintain the flame, and sometimes even this was omitted.* Sacrifices were of frequent occurrence. Without mentioning the extraordinary occasions on which

a king would have a thousand bulls slain at one time,

** the Achæmenian kings killed each day a thousand bullocks, asses, and stags: sacrifice under such circumstances was another name for butchery, the object of which was to furnish the court with a sufficient supply of pure meat.


The number 1000 seems to have had some ritualistic significance, for it often recurs in the penances imposed on the faithful as expiation for their sins: thus it was enjoined to slay 1000 serpents, 1000 frogs, 1000 ants who steal the grain, 1000 head of small cattle, 1000 swift horses, 1000 camels, 1000 brown oxen.


The officiating priest covered his mouth with the bands which fell

from his mitre, to prevent the god from being polluted by his breath; he held in his hand the baresman, or sacred bunch of tamarisk, and prepared the mysterious liquor from the haoma plant.* He was accustomed each morning to celebrate divine service before the sacred fire, not to speak of the periodic festivals in which he shared the offices with all the members of his tribe, such as the feast of Mithra, the feast of the Fravashis,** the feast commemorating the rout of Angrô-mainyus, the feast of the Saksea, during which the slaves were masters of the house.


     * The drink mentioned by the author of the De Iside, which

     was extracted from the plant Omômi, and which the Magi

     offered to the god of the underworld, is certainly the

     haoma. The rite mentioned by the Greek author, which appears to be an incantation against Ahriman, required, it seems, a potion in which the blood of a wolf was a necessary ingredient: this questionable draught was then carried to a place where the sun's rays never shone, and was there sprinkled on the ground as a libation.


     ** Menander speaks of this festival as conducted in his own

     times, and tells us that it was called Eurdigan; modern

     authorities usually admit that it goes back to the times of

     the Achæmenids or even beyond.


     *** Agathias says that every worshipper of Ahura-mazdâ is

     enjoined to kill the greatest possible number of animals

     created by Angrô-mainyus, and bring to the Magi the fruits

     of his hunting. Herodotus had already spoken of this

     destruction of life as one of the duties incumbent on every

     Persian, and this gives probability to the view of modern

     writers that the festival went back to the Achæmenian epoch.


     **** The festival of the Sakoa is mentioned by Ctesias. It

     was also a Babylonian festival, and most modern authorities

     conclude from this double use of the name that the festival

     was borrowed from the Babylonians by the Persians, but this

     point is not so certain as it is made out to be, and at any

     rate the borrowing must have taken place very early, for the

     festival was already well established in the Achæmenian



The Magi


A Magian Priest


The Magi were originally a tribe of ancient Persia . Prior to the

absorption of the Medes into the Persian Empire in 550 BC they were responsible for religious and funerary practices. Later became a hereditary priestly class and accepted the Zoroastrian religion, not without changing the original message of its founder, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), to what is today known as Zurvanism, which would become the predominant form of Zoroastrianism during the Sassanid Empire . In the Median Empire the Magi exerted great influence on

the last Median king Astyages as religious priests and interpreters of dreams.Their power was curtailed by Cyrus the Great and by Cyrus' son Cambyses II. The Magi revolted against Cambyses and set up a rival claimant to the throne, one of their own, who took the name of Smerdis. Smerdis and his forces were defeated by the Persians under Darius I. The Magi continued to exist in unified Persia, but their

influence was limited after this and other political setbacks, and it was not until the Sassanid Empire that they would again achieve prominence. The 3 Wise Men were Magian priests and the word Magi it is the origin of the words magic and magician.


All the Magi were not necessarily devoted to the priesthood; but

those only became apt in the execution of their functions who had been dedicated to them from infancy, and who, having received the necessary instruction, were duly consecrated. These adepts were divided into several classes, of which three at least were never confounded in their functions?the sorcerers, the interpreters of dreams, and the most venerated sages?and from these three classes were chosen the ruling body of the order and its supreme head. Their rule of life was strict and austere, and was encumbered with a thousand observances indispensable to the preservation of perfect purity in their persons, their altars, their victims, and their sacrificial vessels and implements. The Magi of highest rank abstained from every form of living thing as food, and the rest only partook of meat under certain restrictions.

Their dress was unpretentious, they wore no jewels, and observed strict fidelity to the marriage vow;* and the

virtues with which they were accredited obtained for them, from very early times, unbounded influence over the minds of the common people as well as over those of the nobles: the king himself boasted of being their pupil, and took no serious step in state affairs without consulting Ahura-mazdâ or the other gods by their mediation. The classical writers maintain that the Magi often cloaked monstrous vices under their apparent strictness, and it is possible that this was the case in later days, but even then moral depravity was probably rather the exception than the rule among them .

*** the majority of

the Magi faithfully observed the rules of honest living and ceremonial purity enjoined on them in the books handed down by their ancestors.


There is reason to believe that the Magi were all-powerful among the Medes, and that the reign of Astyages was virtually the reign of the priestly caste; but all the Iranian states did not submit so patiently to their authority, and the Persians at last proved openly refractory. Their kings, lords of Susa as well as of Pasargadse, wielded all the resources of Elam, and their military power must have equaled, if it did not already surpass, that of their suzerain lords. Their tribes, less devoted to the manner of living of the Assyrians and Chaldæans, had preserved a vigor and power of endurance which the Medes no longer possessed; and they needed but an ambitious and capable leader, to rise rapidly from the rank of subjects to that of rulers of

Iran, and to become in a short time masters of Asia. Such a chief

they found in Cyrus,* son of Cambyses; but although no more

illustrious name than his occurs in the list of the founders of mighty empires, the history of no other has suffered more disfigurement from the imagination of his own subjects or from the rancour of the nations he had conquered.


Basic beliefs

 1. There is one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, the one uncreated Creator and to whom all worship is ultimately


 2. Ahura Mazda's creation - evident as asha, truth and order - is

    the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including

 humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict (see #3


 3. Active participation in life through good thoughts, good words

    and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep

    the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element

    in Zoroaster's concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism.

 4. Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end . In the final renovation, all of creation - even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to "darkness" - will be (re)united in God.

 5. In Zoroastrian tradition, the malevolent is represented by Angra Mainyu, the "Destructive Principle", while the benevolent is

    represented through Ahura Mazda's Spenta Mainyu, the instrument or "Bounteous Principle" of the act of creation. It is through Spenta Mainyu that Ahura Mazda is immanent in

    humankind, and through which the Creator interacts with the

    world. According to Zoroastrian cosmology, in articulating the

    Ahuna Vairya formula, Ahura Mazda made his ultimate triumph

    evident to Angra Mainyu.

 6. As expressions and aspects of Creation, Ahura Mazda emanated six "sparks", the Amesha Spentas, "Bounteous Immortals" that are each the hypostasis and representative of one aspect of that Creation. These Amesha Spenta are in turn assisted by a league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each "Worthy of Worship" and each again a hypostasis of a moral or physical aspect of



 The Zoroastrians were devout believers in the immortality of the

soul and a conscious future existence. They taught that immediately after death the souls of men, both good and bad, proceeded together along an appointed path to "the bridge of the gatherer" (chinvatperetu). This was a narrow road conducting to heaven or paradise, over which the souls of the pious alone could pass, while the wicked fell from it into the gulf below, where they found themselves in the place of punishment. The good soul was assisted across the bridge by the angel Serosh ."the happy, well-formed, swift, tall Serosh" who met the weary wayfarer and sustained his steps as he effected the difficult passage. The prayers of his friends in this world were of much avail to the deceased, and greatly, helped him on his journey. As he entered, the archangel Vohu-mano or Bahman rose from his throne and greeted him with the words, "How happy art thou

who hast come here to us from the mortality to the immortality!"

Then the pious soul went joyfully onward to Ahura-mazda, to the

immortal saints, to the golden throne, to Paradise. As for the wicked, when they fell into the gulf, they found themselves in outer darkness, in the kingdom of Angro-mainyus, where they were forced to remain and to feed upon poisoned banquets.


When the Iranic nations, cramped for space in the countries east and south of the Caspian, began to push themselves further to the west, and then to the south, they were brought into contact with various Scythic tribes inhabiting the mountain regions of Armenia, Azerbijan, Kurdistan, and Luristan, whose religion appears to have been Magism. It was here, in these elevated tracts, where the mountains almost seem to reach the skies, that the most venerated and ancient of the fire-temples were established, some of which remain, seemingly in their primitive condition, at the present day. Here tradition placed the original seat of the fire-worship; and from hence many taught that Zoroaster, whom they regarded as the founder of

Magism, had sprung. Magism was, essentially, the worship of the

elements, the recognition of fire, air, earth, and water as the only

proper objects of human reverence. The Magi held no personal gods, and therefore naturally rejected temples, shrines, and images, as tending to encourage the notion that gods existed of a like nature with man, i.e., possessing personality?living and intelligent beings. Theirs was a nature worship, but a nature worship of a very peculiar kind.

They did not place gods over the different parts of nature, like the Greeks; they did not even personify the powers of nature, like the Hindus; they paid their devotion to the actual material things themselves. Fire, as the most subtle and ethereal principle, and again as the most powerful agent, attracted their highest regards; and on their fire-altars the sacred flame, generally said to have been kindled from heaven, was kept burning uninterruptedly from year to year and from age to age by bands of priests, whose special duty it was to see that the sacred spark was never extinguished. To defile the altar by blowing the flame with one's breath was a capital offence; and to burn a corpse was regarded as an act equally odious. When victims were offered to fire, nothing but a small portion of the fat was consumed in the flame. Next to fire, water was reverenced. Sacrifice was offered to rivers, lakes, and fountains, the victim being brought near to them and then slain, while great care was taken that no drop of their blood should touch the water and pollute it. No refuse was allowed to be cast into a river, nor was it even lawful to wash one's hands in one. Reverence for earth was shown by sacrifice, and by abstention from the usual mode of burying the dead.


The Magian religion was of a highly sacerdotal type. No worshipper could perform any religious act except by the intervention of a priest, or Magus, who stood between him andthe divinity as a Mediator. The

Magus prepared the victim and slew it, chanted the mystic strain

which gave the sacrifice all its force, poured on the ground the

propitiatory libation of oil, milk, and honey, held the bundle of thin tamarisk twigs the Zendic barsom (baregma) the employment of which was essential to every sacrificial ceremony. The Magi were a priest-caste, apparently holding their office by hereditary succession.

They claimed to possess, not only a sacred and mediatorial character, but also supernatural prophetic powers. They explained omens, expounded dreams, and by means of a certain mysterious

manipulation of the barsom, or bundle of twigs, arrived at a

knowledge of future events, which they communicated to the pious inquirer.


With such pretensions it was natural that the caste should assume a lofty air, a stately dress, and an entourage of ceremonial magnificence. Clad in white robes, and bearing Upon their heads tall felt caps, with long lappets at the sides, which concealed the jaw and even the lips, each with his barsom in his hand, they marched in procession to their pynetheia, or fire altars, and standing around them performed for an hour at a time their magical incantations. The credulous multitude, impressed by sights of this kind, and imposed on by the claims to supernatural power which the Magi advanced, paid them a willing homage; the kings and chiefs consulted them; and when the Arian tribes, pressing westward, came into contact with the races professing the Magian religion, they found a sacerdotal

caste all-powerful in most of the Scythic nations.


The original spirit of Zoroastrianism was fierce and exclusive. The

early Iranians looked with contempt and hatred on the creed of their Indian brethren; they abhorred idolatry; and were disinclined to tolerate any religion except that which they had themselves worked out. But with the lapse of ages this spirit became softened. Polytheistic creeds are far less jealous than monotheism; and the development of Zoroastrianism had been in a polytheistic direction. By the time that the Zoroastrians were brought into contact with Magism, the first fervor of their religious zeal had abated, and they were in that intermediate condition of religious faith which at once impresses and is impressed, acts upon other systems, and allows itself to be acted upon in return.

The result which supervened upon contact with Magism seems to have been a fusion, an absorption into Zoroastrianism of all the chief points of the Magian belief, and all the more remarkable of the Magian religious usages. This absorption appears to have taken place in Media. It was there that the Arian tribes first associated with themselves, and formally adopted into their body, the priest-caste of the Magi, which thenceforth was recognized as one of the six Median tribes. It is there that Magi are first found acting in the capacity of Arian priests. According to all the accounts which have come down to us, they soon acquired a predominating influence, which they no doubt used to impress their own religious doctrines more and more upon the nation at large, and to thrust into the background, so far as they dared, the peculiar features of the old Arian belief. It is not necessary to suppose that the Medes ever apostatized altogether from the worship of Ormazd, or formally surrendered their Dualistic faith. But, practically, the Magian doctrines and the Magian usages?elemental worship, divination with the sacred rods, dream expounding, incantations at the fire-altars, sacrifices whereat a Magus officiated?seem to have prevailed; the new predominated over the old; backed by the power of an organized hierarchy, Magism over-laid the primitive Arian creed, and, as time went on, tended more and more to become the real religion of the nation.


The custom of divining by means of a number of rods appears to have been purely Magian. There is no trace of it in the Gathas, in the Yagna haptanhaiti, or in the older portions of the Vendidad. It was a Scythic practice; and probably the best extant account of it is that which Herodotus gives of the mode wherein it was managed by the Scyths of Europe. "Scythia," he says, "has an abundance of soothsayers, who foretell the future by means of a number of willow wands. A large bundle of these rods is brought and laid on the ground. The soothsayer unties the bundle, and places each wand by itself, at the same time uttering his prophecy: then, while he is still speaking, he gathers the rods together again, and makes them up once more into a bundle." A divine power seems to have been regarded as resting in the wands; and they were supposed to be "consulted" on the matter in hand, both severally and collectively. The bundle of wands thus imbued with supernatural wisdom became naturally part of the regular priestly costume, and was carried by the

Magi on all occasions of ceremony. The wands were of different

lengths; and the number of wands in the bundle varied.

Sometimes there were three, sometimes five, sometimes as many as seven or nine; but in every case, as it would seem, an odd number. When the Medes, on establishing a wide-spread Empire, chiefly over races by whom Magism had been long professed, allowed the creed of their subjects to corrupt their own belief, accepted the Magi for their priests, and formed the mixed religious system of which an account has been given in the second volume of this work, the Persians in their wilder country, less exposed to corrupting influences, maintained their original faith in undiminished purity, and continued faithful to their primitive traditions. The political dependence of their country upon Media during the period of the Median sway made no difference in this respect; for the Medes were tolerant, and did not seek to interfere with the creed of their subjects. The simple

Zoroastrian belief and worship, overlaid by Magism in the now

luxurious Media, found a refuge in the rugged Persian uplands, among the hardy shepherds and cultivators of that unattractive region, was professed by the early Achaemenian princes, and generally acquiesced in by the people.

The main feature of the religion daring this first period was the

acknowledgment and the worship of a single supreme God?"the Lord God of Heaven?"the giver (i.e. maker) of heaven and earth"?the disposer of thrones, the dispenser of happiness. The foremost place in inscriptions and decrees was assigned, almost universally, to the great god, Ormazd." Every king, of whom we have an inscription more than two lines in length, speaks of Ormazd as his upholder; and the early monarchs mention by name no other god. All rule "by the grace of Ormazd." From Ormazd come victory, conquest, safety, prosperity, blessings of every kind. The "law of Ormazd" is the rule of life. The protection of Ormazd is the one priceless blessing for which prayer is perpetually offered.


While, however, Ormazd holds this exalted and unapproachable

position, there is still an acknowledgment made, in a general way, of "other gods." Ormazd is "the greatest of the gods" (mathista baganam). It is a usual prayer to ask for the protection of Ormazd, together with that of these lesser powers (hada bagaibish). Sometimes the phrase is varied, and the petition is for the special protection of a certain class of Deities, the Dii familiares or "deities who guard the house."


The worship of Mithra, or the Sun, does not appear in the inscriptions until the reign of Artaxerxes Mnemon, the victor of Cunaxa. It is, however, impossible to doubt that it was a portion of the Persian religion, at least as early as the date of Herodotus. Probably it belongs, in a certain sense, to primitive Zoroastrianism, but was kept in the background during the early period, when a less materialistic worship prevailed than suited the temper of later times.

 Persian worship, in these early times, was doubtless that enjoined by the Zendavesta, comprising prayer and thanksgiving to Ormazd and the good spirits of his creation, the recitation of Gathas or hymns, the performance of sacrifice, and participation in the Soma ceremony. Worship seems to have taken place in temples, which are mentioned (according to the belief of most cuneiform scholars) in the Behistun



With respect to the altars upon which sacrifice was offered, we are not left wholly without evidence. The Persian monarchs of the early period, including Darius Hystaspis, represented themselves on their tombs in the act of worship. Before them, at the distance of a few feet, stands an altar, elevated on three steps, and crowned with the sacrificial fire. Its form is square, and its only ornaments are a sunken squared recess, and a strongly projecting cornice at top. The height of the altar, including the steps, was apparently about four

and a half feet.





 Darius III Codomannus


Achaemenid Art