Major religions, like Christianity and Islam, have been popular since ancient times, but what religion was popular before these belief systems developed? This lesson explores the beliefs of Zoroastrians, one of the earliest forms of organized religion.
Zoroastrianism: Definition, Beliefs and History
Have you ever wondered when popular religions started to develop? In ancient times, the modern country of Iran was known as Persia. The Persian Empire stretched over much land from the Aegean Sea to the Aral Sea and to the south past Jerusalem. Although Islam is currently the most prominent religion of this region, its predecessor, Zoroastrianism, became the foundation for the organization of major religions, including Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
Who Was Zoroaster
So who was Zoroaster? Zarathustra, better known as Zoroaster (the Greek version of his name), was a prophet from Persia. He believed that he had visions of a god whom he called Ahura Mazda.Ahura Mazda, according to the prophet, was the creator of all things good. He was the true god who should be worshiped. The worship of one god is called monotheism. Zoroaster’s monotheistic tendencies were a new movement from the polytheistic religion previously known in Persia. Zoroastrianism is also dualistic, meaning it focuses on a twofold nature of the world (good and evil or heaven and hell, for example).
Zoroaster believed that the universe was constantly under the conflict between good and evil.Zoroaster probably lived around the sixth century BCE, after which his teachings were followed by the majority of the Persian Empire. Its popularity died out after 637 CE, when Persia was invaded by the Muslims.
Now that you know about Zoroaster, we can learn a little more about his beliefs. In Zoroaster’s vision, he went to heaven and spoke to Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda explained that he had a rival named Angra Mainyu, who was an evil being.This is a good example of the religion’s dualistic belief pattern.
Zoroaster was told to encourage humanity to choose between good and evil, between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. Although Zoroastrianism isn’t completely monotheistic because it recognizes more than one god, it does attempt to consolidate the worship of people under one most powerful god.Zoroaster taught that each person had the freedom to choose good or evil in the choices he or she makes. For example, choosing to tell the truth rather than to tell a lie indicates a person has chosen good over evil. The prophet also taught that there was an eternal afterlife, and the choices made by each person determined his or her destiny in this afterlife.
If a person’s good choices and deeds outweighed the bad, he or she would go to heaven. If a person made more bad decisions or did evil deeds, that person would go to one of the several levels of hell, depending on his or her degree of evilness.Also within his religion, Zoroaster taught the existence of angels, demons and saviors, ideas that can also be found in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Zoroastrians use the Avesta as their sacred text. The Avesta contains hymns, rituals and spells against demons.
Later Influence of Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism was so popular it influenced a lot of other religions. In the second and third centuries CE, the cult of Mithras became a popular religion among Romans, especially Roman soldiers.
The cult was a secretive, ritualistic religion in which little record is known. Initiates were not allowed to record information regarding its beliefs, so documentation comes from outside sources. Mithras was a god known in the polytheistic religion that existed in Persia before the spread of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster, however, incorporated Mithras as a lesser god or possibly an angel figure under Ahura Mazda. Mithras may have ruled over the Earth, while Ahura Mazda ruled over all creation.Organized religion developed further from Mithraism within its structure of levels, each requiring initiation. Cult members – who were all men – also practiced secret rituals of worship.
The hierarchical nature that developed in Mithraism is similar to that seen in other major religions like Christianity and Islam. Other possible influences from Mithraism and Zoroastrianism include the ideas of angels, demons, saviors, purification, ritualistic ceremonies and the use of sacred texts. However, within this time span, many mystery cult religions existed. The degree to which each religion influenced major Western religions cannot be known for sure.
Although Zoroastrianism’s popularity declined, it still exists in modern times.
Today’s Zoroastrians practice purification (the ritualistic and symbolic ridding of evil within a person) and penance (an act of reparation to compensate for bad decisions or sins). The Avesta is still used as a sacred text. Zoroastrians also celebrate six seasonal festivals and practice rituals in their worship.
Zoroastrianism is unique in its ideas of monotheism and dualism. These notions remained popular in varying forms within many systems of belief, some of which have evolved but are still practiced today. Zoroaster wanted his beliefs spread to everyone.
By understanding the ancient beliefs of Zoroastrians, we can better understand the development of other organized religions.
Once this video is complete, you should be able to:
- Explain what Zoroastrianism is and how it laid the foundation for Islam, Christianity and Judaism
- Describe the beliefs of Zoroaster and the dualistic nature of Zoroastrianism
- Understand how Zoroastrianism influenced the cult of Mithras
- Examine the practices of modern-day Zoroastrians