Religions Of Iran: Zoroastrianism
Author: Foot Moore, George
Date: 1913
 

The ethics of Zoroastrianism bear the distinct impress of its fundamental
religious conceptions. The good life is an unceasing conflict against evil
within and without. Virtue, like purity, is a defeat of the demons. Morals
have therefore a strenuous and militant quality. There is no place for saints
who flee from the world; the saint is he who overcomes the evil in the world.
Character lies not in overt act alone, but in the inner springs of conduct;
"good thoughts, good words, good deeds," is the ever-recurring formula.

Among the virtues of the Mazdayasnian, truth has the foremost place: the
devil is a liar, and the father of lies. In the Gathas, as we have seen, the
Lie (Druj) is the comprehensive name for the demon host and its head, and the
world of the Lie is hell. It may well be that the false religion of the
Daevas is here chiefly in mind, but in later times, when this phase of the
conflict was past, the words bore a more general sense. The Greeks expatiate
upon the value the Persians set on truth and the stress laid on this virtue in
the education of well-born youths. They abhor falsehood above everything,
Herodotus says, and next to that, making debts, for that leads to lying and
fraud. A special form of this virtue is good faith in keeping promises and
agreements. Mithra is the guardian and vindicator of oaths and covenants; the
man who breaks his solemn word is a "Mithraliar," and incurs the honest god's
deadly wrath. "The miscreant who lies to Mithra brings death on a whole
country, he harms the good world as much as a hundred malefactors could do.
Never break an agreement, O Spitama, neither one that you make with a wicked
man nor with an upright man of your own religion; for an agreement holds with
both wicked and upright." ^2 Perjury is as bad as a hundred heresies - an
extraordinary triumph of ethics over orthodoxy!

[Footnote 2: Mithra Yasht, 1.]

Justice and equity - righteousness in the widest sense in dealing with
fellow men - has its ideal and presiding genius in Asha, personified Right.
The unjust judge is denounced in the Gathas; it is related of Cambyses that he
flayed a corrupt judge, and, for an effective reminder, covered with his skin
the chair on which his son was seated to succeed him. ^1 Justice, next to
truth, was inculcated in the education of princes and noble youth.

[Footnote 1: Herodotus, V, 25; cf. VII, 194.]

What we should regard as moral offences in the relations of the sexes
fall chiefly, from the Zoroastrian point of view, into the class of impurity,
which, however, we do well to remember, is not merely physiological but moral.
Paederasty and bestiality, unnatural vices, are crimes punished by death; the
offender caught flagrante delicto may be killed on the spot by any man without
trial. They are also mortal sins for which there is no repentance or
expiation; hell is the inevitable punishment in the other world. Such a
sinner is wholly demonic in this life, and hereafter becomes one of the
invisible demons. The prostitute is a dire affliction of gods and men, a
human fiend, whose look dries up the waters and withers the plants; such
creatures should be killed sooner than vipers or wolves. Abortion is treated
as homicide.

Since all barren land belongs to the devil, reclamation of such land by
irrigation or by the draining of marshes is a meritorious work; he who makes
two blades of grass grow where one grew before is not only a benefactor of his
kind but a faithful servant of God.

Who most makes glad the earth? He who plants the most grain, grass, and
fruit trees, who brings water to a field where there is none and draws it off
where there is too much. . . . How is the Mazdaean religion nourished? By
zealously sowing grain. He who sows grain sows good; he makes the religion of
Mazda progress, he nourishes the religion of Mazda as much as a hundred men's
feet could do, a thousand women's breasts, ten thousand formulas of the
liturgy. When grain was created the devils jumped, when it grew they lost
heart, when the joints appeared they wept, when the ear was formed they fled
away. In the house where grain perishes the demons abide, but when grain
comes up in abundance it is like hot iron in their mouths. ^2

[Footnote 2: Vendidad, III, 23 ff.]

When the cock, before daybreak, calls men to arise and say their morning
prayers, the long-armed Bushyansta, the lazy devil, assails them: "Sleep on,
poor man! it is not time yet," but he who at cock-crowing first gets up will
be the first in paradise. Compassion and benevolence are also strongly
commended in the Avesta; in the Ahuna Vairya, one of the most sacred formulas
of the religion, which we may call an ethical confession of faith, charity is
declared to be the foundation of the Kingdom of God. Ahura Mazda appointed
Zarathushtra "a shepherd to the poor."

Morals are in the later Avesta part of a sacred law, and that law
includes in the same categories and under the same sanctions much that is not
intrinsically moral at all, or to which religion gives fictitious moral
values. This is one of the universal evils of nomistic religions: ritual
correctness, ceremonial purity, sacerdotal casuistry are raised to the dignity
of moral obligations, with the effect of confusing the fundamental difference
between them. The dog, especially the shepherd dog, is a very useful animal
in a pastoral society, and it is not strange that killing or maltreating him
should be a grave offence against the law; but the penalties in this world and
the next which the Vendidad attaches to these offences make a dog's life more
sacred than a man's. The hedgehog is a great destroyer of the creatures of
the evil spirit; a man who kills one shall abide in hell for nine generations
unless he expiates his offence on earth by thousands of stripes with the
horsewhip. Still more sacred is the otter, probably because it is supposed to
destroy noxious water vermin; a whole chapter is devoted to the expiation of
the enormous crime of killing one, beginning with ten thousand strokes of the
horsewhip. If nothing is more important in morals than a just sense of
proportion, not much can be said for the Vendidad. It is fair to observe,
however, that such extravagances have the air of priestly fantasias, like some
of the incredible programmes of sacrifice in the Brahmanas, rather than of
serious chapters of legislation.

The legal spirit appears also in the system of penances by which offences
are expiated. The commonest of these penances is horse-whipping, and the
scale runs from five stripes up to ten thousand. The flagellation was
doubtless supposed to drive out the demons, a frequent motive of this pious
exercise. A large class of more serious sins are expiated by two hundred
stripes; so, for example, if a man give another a blow of which he dies, for
the first offence the penalty is ninety stripes, for the second, two hundred.
Wilful murder is rated at eight hundred; nocturnal emission ^1 (i.e.,
intercourse with a succubus) at two thousand. The scale runs into such high
numbers that the beating must either have been symbolical or commuted for a
fine paid to the priests.

[Footnote 1: Cf. Lev. 15, 16; 22, 4.]

Other penances were the providing of materials for worship - a thousand
loads of choice wood for the sacred fire, a thousand bundles of twigs
(Baresman), a thousand libations of Haoma, for example. Works useful to the
community, especially the digging of irrigation canals and the construction of
bridges, are also prescribed in expiation of sins. The killing of noxious or
demonic animals is another mode - serpents, tortoises, frogs, ants, worms, and
the like, by thousands. Here, again, the priests probably had, at least in
later times, a tariff of commutation for money, but a system in which every
offence has its fixed price, whether in stripes or in fines, cannot be
regarded as favourable to morality. Not all sins, however, can be thus
compounded for: there are inexpiable sins, such as the inhumation of the body
of a man or a dog by a Zoroastrian who knows that it is forbidden by his
religion, the polluting of water or fire by putting a dead body into the pure
elements, eating the flesh of a dead man or dog, unnatural vice, and so on.
It is to be noted that if a heathen who has committed a deadly sin embraces
the Mazdaean faith, repenting of his fault and purposing never to sin thus
again, the religion removes all his former sins, however heinous, precisely
like Christian baptism. As in all religions which derive their authority from
a prophetic revelation and have formulated the content of revelation in dogma,
apostasy and heresy are the greatest of sins, for they are the rejection or
perversion of the truth of God.

The hereafter loomed large in Zoroastrianism from the outset. The
approaching crisis, the great judgment day when all the powers of evil (the
Lie, Druj) shall be delivered into the hands of Righteousness (Asha), their
whole army beaten down and shattered, when the ordeal of molten metal divides
between the servants of God and the worshippers of the demons, is one of the
ruling ideas in the Gathas. The prophet knows but two kinds of men, those who
are for him and those who are against him, on the side of truth and right or
opposed to them, allies of God or of the devil. To these contradictory
characters correspond their diverse destinies. The Zoroastrian heaven and
hell are not conceived of primarily as spheres of retribution, but as the
places of God and of the devil, and every man, as he has chosen to serve the
one or the other, goes to his own place; it is this that gives them their
distinctive character. On the other hand, as the line of moral cleavage is
run through the natural world, and even the kingdoms of plants and animals are
divided between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the very hardening of the
dualism made the final and complete triumph of good over evil in every sphere
a more vital article of faith. As has already been observed, these two
aspects of the doctrine, the individual retribution and the ultimate
annihilation of all evil, are in the Gathas embraced in one great act of
judgment. Time introduced perspective into the Persian eschatology as it did
into that of the early Christians. The soul goes to its reward or punishment
immediately at death; when the appointed time is fulfilled and the end of the
age is come, the body will be raised from the dead and the last judgment will
be held.

After death - so runs the simplest story in the Hadokht Yasht - the soul
of the righteous lingers three days and nights near the head of the body,
reciting the hymns that begins, "Good comes to him who does good to another;
may Mazda, the Almighty, give him his gifts," in bliss as great as the whole
world of the living contains. At daybreak on the fourth day a perfumed breeze
comes wafted to him as it were from the south, and with it comes to him a
beautiful maiden, who, at his question, declares herself his own religion,
fair with his virtues and pious observances. Through the three forecourts of
good thoughts, good words, good deeds, the soul passes into the endless light,
into the company of the good and the presence of Ahura Mazda. Other texts add
more details. Sraosha and other good angels conduct the soul to the Cinvat
bridge, protecting it from the assaults of demons by the way. There Mithra,
Sraosha, and Rashnu sit in judgment. Rashnu weighs a man's merits and
demerits in the true balance, which does not deviate from justice by a hair's
breadth and shows no partiality, but deals alike with the mightiest monarch
and the meanest of mankind. Religion goes into the scale, it is needless to
say, as well as morality; the good Zoroastrian profession of faith and the
penitent confession of sins weigh heavily on the side of salvation, and the
funeral mass which the friends of the departed cause to be celebrated is
another good work put to his credit. Then he must make essay of the bridge
itself, which stretches from the peak of Mount Daitya to the summit of the
Elburz, spanning the abyss of hell. For the good it is nine spear-lengths, or
even a parasang, wide, and he passes with ease to the heavenly mansions on the
other side; the wicked finds it narrow as a razor-blade, and pitches headlong
into the gulf below.

Beyond the bridge, the soul which has happily crossed it comes first to
the limbo where those in whom good works and evil were evenly balanced abide
till the day of the resurrection, suffering no other pain than the climatic
changes of heat and cold. Then follow the three regions of good thoughts,
good words, and good deeds, that is, according to the Persian notion of the
celestial spheres, the sphere of the stars, of the moon, and of the sun,
respectively. The older writings do not seem to have any permanent occupants
of these regions; they are successive forecourts of the highest heaven. In
the journey of Arda Viraf, however, he sees in them souls who on earth "made
no prayers, recited no Gathas, contracted no consanguineous marriages," but
through other good works came thither; in the highest are such as "in the
world exercised good sovereignity, rulership, and chieftainship," as if they
were limbos for good heathen.

The "infinite light," or "light eternal," is the abode of Ahura Mazda
with the archangels and the spirits of the just. When the soul arrives there,
the pious dead throng around the newcomer inquiring, "How art thou come from
the material world to the world of spirit, from the perishing world to that
which perishes not?" but Ahura Mazda bids them not recall to the spirit the
distressful journey, and commands that angels' food, butter made in the height
of spring, be set before the traveller, ^1 and that he be given a richly
adorned throne. "Forever and everlasting they remain in all glory with the
angels of the spiritual existences eternally."

[Footnote 1: The spiritual world is, therefore, not without its creature
comforts.]

Very different is the lot of the wicked. His soul lingers about the body
in great perturbation for three days, murmuring the words of the Gatha, "To
what land shall I turn, O Ahura Mazda, whither direct my prayer?" and
suffering all of distress that the world holds. The fourth morning, a cold
blast, as out of the demonic north, smites him, laden with foul stench. A
demon lassoes the soul with his evil noose and drags him to the bridge, where
Rashnu with his balances detects all his wickedness. His evil ways confront
him embodied in a hideous witch, whose ugliness is the expression of his
character. Hell has its vestibules, evil thoughts, evil words, evil deeds,
through which the damned sinner arrives in the "infinite darkness," where the
wicked dead surround him, the demons mock him, and Angra Mainyu bids bring him
loathsome and poisonous food. "And until the resurrection he must be in hell
in much misery and torments of many kinds."

The book of Arda Viraf narrates how that pious man's soul was conducted
by Sraosha through heaven and hell and safely reinstalled in his body to tell
the tale, an Iranian parallel to Plato's Er the Pamphylian, Enoch, the
Apocalypse of Peter, and the mediaeval Christian vision literature, and a rude
forerunner of Dante. The Persian author's imagination does not succeed in
giving much variety to heaven: golden thrones, fine carpets, rich cushions,
gorgeous raiment, fragrant perfumes, and over all the glorious light, exhaust
his resources. Hell is, as usual, much more vividly depicted. Its darkness
is so dense that, though the souls are crowded thick together, each imagines
himself alone, and when three days have passed he thinks the nine thousand
years must be over and the hour of release at hand. Further on his way
through the Zoroastrian inferno, the voyager sees men and women subjected to
all manner of ingenious tortures, often retaliatory, as when the man who
talked at the dinner-table and said no grace over meat, but greedily devoured
his water and vegetables, is tormented by hunger and thirst, crying ever, "I
shall die"; or the tradesman who gave short measure, and watered his wine and
put dust in his grain, and sold his adulterated foodstuffs at high prices, has
to spend the millenniums of his sojourn in hell measuring dust and ashes in a
bushel and getting nothing else to eat; or, again, a woman is condemned to
lick a hot stove with her tongue because she answered back snappishly to her
husband. The catalogue of sins is long and repetitious, and the writer's
ingenuity in devising tortures runs out before he is through. Last of all,
Arda Viraf sees the fiend himself, who taunts the sufferers: "Why did ye ever
eat the bread of Ahura Mazda and do my work, and thought not of your own
creator but did my will?" Returning then to heaven, he is dismissed by Ahura
Mazda with a parting injunction: "Say to the Mazdayasnians, 'There is only one
way of piety, the way of the primitive religion; the other ways are no ways.
Take ye that one way which is piety, and turn not from it in prosperity nor in
adversity . . . and practise good thoughts and good words and good deeds . . .
and keep the proper law, but abstain from the improper. And know ye this,
that cattle are dust, and gold and silver are dust, and the body of man is
dust; he alone mingles not with the dust who in the world praises
righteousness and performs duties and good works.'"

The bliss of souls in heaven and their torments in hell are not the final
state of mankind. When the appointed time comes, Shaoshyant, the Saviour,
will appear, and the dead the dead will be raised, beginning with Gayomard,
the archetypal man, and Mashya and Mashoi, the first pair of human beings.
All, righteous and wicked, will rise in the places where they died, the bones
being demanded back from the earth, the blood from the water, the hair from
the plants, and the life from the fire, to which they have respectively been
delivered, so that the body is reconstituted of its original materials. ^1 The
risen dead will be assembled in one place and will know one another; the deeds
of all will be manifest, so that the wicked man will be as conspicuous as a
white sheep among black ones. ^2 The wicked will reproach his pious friend for
not turning him from the evil of his ways. Then the righteous and the wicked
will be separated, the former going to heaven, while the latter are cast into
hell, there to be punished in the body for three days, certain monsters of
iniquity being subjected to exemplary sufferings. When this is over, the fire
will melt the metal in the mountains till it flows like a river, and in its
stream all are made pure. To the righteous it will be like walking in warm
milk, to the wicked it will be molten metal. Father and son, brother and
friend, will inquire: "Where hast thou been these many years, and what was the
judgment on thy soul? Wast thou of the righteous or the wicked?" All men
become of one speech, and loudly praise Ahura Mazda and the archangels.
Shaoshyant then sacrifices the ox Hadhayos, and of his fat and of the white
Haoma is prepared the ambrosia (Hush) which is given to all men, the food of
immortality. Adults are restored as men and women of forty; children as
youths of fifteen. Each man has his own wife and knows his own offspring; the
life is like that of this world, but there is no begetting of children.

[Footnote 1: This is Christian doctrine also. Cf. Athenagoras, De
resurrectione, cc. 3 ff.]

[Footnote 2: Black being the more common colour in a mixed flock.]

Finally, Ahura Mazda seizes the Evil Spirit, and each of the archangelic
Amesha Spentas lays hold of his antagonist among the arch-fiends, Sraosha
grappling with Aeshma. The devil, Ahriman, flees back into gloom and darkness
by the passage by which he first invaded the upper world; hell itself is
purified by the molten metal, and is reclaimed for the enlargement of the
world. Thus by God's will the restitution of all things is accomplished, and
the world is immortal for ever and aye. The mountains, which were created by
the evil one, are levelled, even the summit which served as abutment for the
Cinvat bridge; the earth becomes an even plain, never again buried in ice.

The Zoroastrian dogmatic chronology ^1 counts twelve thousand years from
the beginning of the spiritual creation to the renovation of the world, in
four ages of three millenniums each. The revelation to Zoroaster and the
founding of the true religion fall at the beginning of the last age, the
appearance of Shaoshyant at its close. As in the preceding age each
millennium has its salient figure, so the millenniums which lie between
Zoroaster's appearance and the end are to have their heroes, bearing the
significant names Increaser of Good and Increaser of Prayer, in the Bundahish,
Hushedar and Hushedar-mah, who restore the good religion and deliver its
oppressed people. Both these and the final deliverer, Shoshans (Shaoshyant),
are sons of Zoroaster, conceived in a miraculous way of his seed.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 384.]

These Messianic expectations, which are found in the Fravardin Yasht as
well as in the Bundahish, are worked up in a remarkable apocalypse, the
so-called Bahman Yasht, in which are revealed to Zoroaster the successive
periods of history (four or seven) down to the close of his millennium, the
iron age when the myriad demons with dishevelled hair of the race of Aeshma
(Wrath) invade Iran from the east, and leather-belted Turks and Arabs and
Christians make a reign of terror. In this dark time, Hushedar will be born,
and, with gods and heroes on his side, will destroy the heathen hordes and
their demon allies in a veritable Armageddon.

Zoroastrianism is frequently described as a dualism. To the Gathas, as
we have seen, the term is in any strict sense inapplicable; and for the
religion of Achaemenian times it is not without significance that Aristotle,
^1 though acquainted with the two principles, the good and the evil daimones,
Oromasdes and Areimanios, yet in the Metaphysics classes the Magi with
philosophers like Empedocles and Anaxagoras who made the supremely good the
first principle and ground of being. The name dualism might seem more
appropriate to the doctrine of later writings, such as the Bundahish, which
make Ahriman the creator, not only of the demons, but of all that is bad in
the natural world, from the wandering planets to the noisome insects. To
Moslem controversialists, for whom creation was one of the chief attributes of
deity, a creative devil was plainly an evil god; but this is only the logic of
opponents, not Zoroastrian teaching or fair implication from it. The
Bundahish itself contrasts in the strongest way the omniscience of Ahura Mazda
with the limitations of the evil spirit's knowledge either of the present or
of the future. It was through ignorance of the event that he accepted the
conditions of the nine thousand years' conflict proposed by Ahura Mazda. He
has no power to destroy the creatures of God or permanently to deprive God of
them by drawing them to his side. However in the present age evil may seem to
prevail, the outcome is certain: the works of the devil shall be destroyed,
and he himself shall be for ever banished from the universe; the earth will be
renewed, and hell itself purged by fire; men whom the evil spirit has seduced
from their allegiance to God, after receiving the just retribution of their
evil deeds, will be purified and restored to the eternal life of holiness, and
all evil will be for ever done away. The triumph of God is in this respect
more complete than in Christianity, which leaves hell, with the devil and his
angels and the wicked in torment for ever, an unconquered realm of evil.

[Footnote 1: According to Diogenes Laertius.]

The "dualism" of Zoroastrianism, as has been said above, is an attempt to
account for the evil of the present world, physical as well as moral, upon the
premises of an ethical theism which cannot admit that God is the author of any
kind of evil. But because God is almighty as well as perfectly good, it can
as little admit that evil, even in hell, is a permanent factor in the
universe. The Zoroastrian theologians were concerned with the solution of the
ethical problem rather than with the remoter problems which their solution
raised. The evil spirit appears on the scene like a diabolus ex machina;
whether he was eternal they do not seem to have asked, nor would they probably
have been much disturbed if their logic had carried them to that conclusion,
for since they did not define God metaphysically as the infinite and the
eternal, but as the good, an eternal devil would not thereby become God.
Acquaintance with Greek philosophy or Christian polemics ultimately raised
this question, however, and a school of Zoroastrian thinkers posited as the
unitary first principle, Space or Time, from which were separated a good god
and an evil demon. ^1 The one undivided nature being thus divided, these form
the dual system of higher powers, one headed by Ormazd, the other by Ahriman.
Theodore of Mopsuestia reports that Zervan (Time), whom he calls also Tyche,
was the origin of all things, and that, in the act of making a libation to
produce Ormazd, by some error in the rite, he produced both Ormazd and Satan.
Shahrastani, in his History of Doctrines, describes a sect of Zervanites who
held that Ahriman was born of a doubt in the mind of the great Zervan. This
theory seems to be controverted in the Selections of Zad Sparam, I, 24, where
it is declared that Ahura Mazda produced the "creature Zervan" (Time). There
is no reason to think that the Zervanite metaphysics ever had any religious
significance.

[Footnote 1: Damascius, ed. Kopp, p. 384.]

s even named in the Gathas.]

[Footnote 1: I Cor. 10, 20.]

 

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