Zoroastrianism – How This Ancient Iranian Religion Changed the West

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We are often told that “The West is the product of Judeo-Christian values”. And while it’s true that these two out of the three Abrahamic religions have been a part of Western history for a significant period of time, we often ignore what came before them as well as what shaped them.

We are also often told that Judaism was the first monotheistic religion in the world. That’s technically correct but not quite. Suffice it to say that this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Enter Zoroastrianism, an Iranian religion that’s thousands of years old, which shaped the ancient world and has influenced the West more than you might suspect.

What is Zoroastrianism?

The Zoroastrian religion is based upon the teachings of the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra, also known as Zartosht in Persian, and Zoroaster in Greek. Scholars believe that he lived some 1,500 to 1,000 years BCE (before the Common Era) or 3,000 to 3,500 years ago.

When Zarathustra was born, the predominant religion in Persia was the ancient polytheistic Irano-Aryan religion. That religion was the Persian counterpart of the Indo-Aryan religion in India that later became Hinduism.

However, the prophet Zarathustra spoke against this polytheistic religion and spread the idea that there is only one god – Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom (Ahura meaning Lord and Mazda meaning Wisdom). It took several centuries after Zarathustra’s death for Zoroastrianism to become a fully shaped religion, which is why it’s often said that Zoroastrianism “began” in the 6th century BCE.

But What Exactly Did Zoroastrianism Teach?

Faravahar Zoroastrianism
Farvahar symbolism meaning
The Farvahar, the main symbol of Zoroastrianism, is layered with meaning.

In addition to being monotheistic, Zoroastrianism contained several elements you may recognize from some other religions today. These include:

  • The concepts of Heaven and Hell as they can be seen in the Abrahamic religions, specifically Christianity and Islam. There are heavens and hells in other ancient religions as well, but they usually have their own unique twists.
  • The very word “Paradise” comes from the ancient Persian language, Avestan, stemming from the word pairidaeza.
  • The idea that people had “Free Will”, that destiny wasn’t fully pre-written, and that their lives weren’t just in the hands of the Fates or other such supernatural beings.
  • Angels and demons, as they are usually described in the Abrahamic religions.
  • The idea of a final Revelation of the world.
  • The concept of a “Judgement Day” before the end of the world when God would come and judge his people.
  • The idea of Satan, or Ahriman, in Zoroastrianism, who went against God.

It must be said that not all of these and the other ideas of Zoroastrianism came directly from Zarathustra. As with any other old and wide-spread religion, many of these concepts came from later authors and prophets who continued and evolved his teachings. Nevertheless, all of those are a part of Zoroastrianism and came before their near-identical counterparts in later monotheistic religions such as the Abrahamic religions.

At the center of Zoroastrianism is the idea that the whole world is the stage of a grand battle between two forces. On one side, there is the God Ahura Mazda and the forces of Light and Goodness, often identified as “the Holy Spirit” or Spenta Manyu – an aspect of God himself. On the other side, there is Angra Mainyu/Ahriman and the forces of Darkness and Evil.

As in the Abrahamic religions, Zoroastrianism believes that God will inevitably prevail and will defeat the Darkness on Judgement Day. What’s more, the Zoroastrian God has also given man the freedom of will to choose a side through his actions.

One key difference, however, is that in Zoroastrianism it’s said that even the sinners and those in hell will eventually enjoy the blessings of heaven. Hell is not an eternal punishment but a temporary punishment for their transgressions before they are allowed to join God’s Kingdom.

How Were the Abrahamic Religions Influenced by Zoroastrianism?

Most scholars agree that the first and main point of contact was between Zoroastrianism and the ancient Jewish people in Babylon. The latter had just been liberated by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE and were starting to interact with many of the followers of Zarathustra. It’s believed that those interactions had started even before the conquest.

As a result, many of the concepts of Zoroastrianism started making their way through Jewish society and beliefs. That’s when the concept of Satan or Beelzebub appeared in Jewish thought, as it wasn’t a part of the older Hebrew writings.

So, by the time of the writing of the New Testament (7 centuries later during the 1st century AD), the concepts created in Zoroastrianism were already overwhelmingly popular and easily adapted into the New Testament.

Judaism vs. Zoroastrianism – Which Was Older?

You might be wondering: Isn’t Judaism older than Zoroastrianism and therefore – the oldest monotheistic religion?

Yes and no.

Judaism is technically considered the oldest monotheistic religion in the world as the earliest Hebrew scriptures date back to as far as 4,000 BCE or ~6,000 years ago. This is several millennia older than Zoroastrianism.

However, early Judaism wasn’t monotheistic. The earliest beliefs of the Israelites were categorically polytheistic. It took thousands of years for those beliefs to eventually become more henotheistic (henotheism being the worship of one god among a pantheon of other real gods), then monolatristic (monolatry being the worship of one god against a pantheon of other real but “evil” gods worshipped by other societies).

It wasn’t until the 6th-7th century that Judaism started becoming monotheistic and the Israelites began to believe in their one true God and viewing other gods as not ‘real’ gods.

Because of this evolution of Judaism, it can be considered the “oldest monotheistic religion”, because it is monotheistic today and it is older than Zoroastrianism. However, on the other hand, Zoroastrianism was monotheistic from the start, before Judaism became monotheistic, and therefore can be said to be the “first monotheistic religion”.

Impact of Zoroastrianism on European Societies

One lesser-known interaction between Zoroastrianism and European cultures occurred in Greece. As the conquest of the Persian Empire eventually reached the Balkans and Greece, the concept of Free Will made its way there too. For reference, the first comprehensive and militaristic contact between the two societies was in 507 BCE but there were minor non-militaristic contacts and trade before that as well.

Regardless, the reason this matters is because, prior to their interactions with the Persian Empire and Zoroastrianism, the ancient Greeks didn’t really believe in Free Will. According to the ancient Greco-Roman religions, everyone’s fate had already been written and people had little actual agency. Instead, they just played the parts they were given by the Fates and that was that.

However, there is a noticeable shift toward the concept of Free Will in Greek philosophy after the two societies began increasingly interacting.

Granted, when talking about Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, the question of “Free Will” is still vehemently debated, as these religions also believe that the future has already been written. As a result, opponents claim that the idea of “Free Will in Christianity” or in the other Abrahamic religions is an oxymoron (contradictory).

But, putting that debate aside, it’s widely accepted that Zoroastrianism was the religion that introduced the concept of Free Will into Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, and the West as a whole. 

Is Zoroastrianism Practiced Today?

It is but it’s both a small and a declining religion. Most estimates put the total number of Zoroastrian worshippers around the world around 110,000 and 120,000 people. The vast majority of them live in Iran, India, and North America.

How Zoroastrianism Influenced the Modern World and The West

Statue of Freddie Mercury
Statue of Freddie Mercury – a proud Zoroastrian

Zoroastrianism shaped the Abrahamic religions most people in the West worship today, and the Greco-Roman culture and philosophy which we hold as “the basis” of Western society. However, the influence of this religion can be seen in myriad other works of art, philosophies, and writings.

Even after the rise of Islam in the Middle East and Asia during the 7th century BCE and the eventual conquest over most Zoroastrian societies, this ancient religion has continued to leave its mark. Here are just a few famous examples:

  • Dante Alighieri’s famous Divine Comedy, which describes a journey to Hell, is believed to have been influenced by the ancient Book of Arda Viraf. Written centuries earlier by a Zoroastrian author, it describes a cosmic traveler’s journey to Heaven and Hell. The similarities between the two works of art are striking. However, we can only speculate whether the similarities are a coincidence or if Dante had read or heard of the Book of Arda Viraf before writing his Divine Comedy.
Zoroaster in alchemy book
Zoroaster (Zarathustra) depicted in a German alchemy manuscript. Public Domain.
  • Alchemy in Europe often seemed outright enamored with Zarathustra. There are many European Christian alchemists and authors who featured images of Zarathustra in their works. The ancient prophet was widely regarded as not just a philosopher but also an astrologer and “a master of magic”. This was especially common after the Renaissance.
  • Voltaire was also inspired by Zoroastrianism as is evident by his novella The Book of Fate and its main character named Zadig. It’s the tale of a Zoroastrian Persian hero who faces a long series of trials and challenges before he weds a Babylonian princess. While not at all historically accurate, both The Book of Fate and many of Voltaire’s other works are indisputably affected by his interest in ancient Iranian philosophy as was the case with many other leaders of the Enlightenment in Europe. Voltaire was even known under the nickname Sa’di in his inner circle. You may also know that Zadig & Voltaire is the name of a popular fashion brand today.
  • Goethe’s West-East Divan is another famous example of Zoroastrian influence. It’s explicitly dedicated to the legendary Persian poet Hafez and features a chapter themed after Zoroastrianism.
  • Richard Strauss’ concerto for orchestra Thus Spoke Zarathustra is very clearly inspired by Zoroastrianism. What’s more, it was also inspired by Nietzsche’s tone poem of the same name – Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Strauss’ concerto then went on to become a big part of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ironically, many of Nietzsche’s ideas in the tone poem and purposefully anti-Zoroastrian but the fact that this ancient religion went on to inspire a long of European philosophers, composers, and modern Sci-Fi directors is indeed remarkable.
  • Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the famous rock band Queen, was of Zoroastrian heritage. He was born in Zanzibar to Parsi-Indian parents and was originally named Farrokh Bulsara. He famously said in an interview I’ll always walk around like a Persian popinjay and no one’s gonna stop me, honey! His sister Kashmira Cooke later said in 2014 , “We as a family were very proud of being Zoroastrian. I think what [Freddie’s] Zoroastrian faith gave him was to work hard, to persevere, and to follow your dreams”.
  • Another curious factoid is that the automobile brand Mazda’s name comes directly from the name of the Zoroastrian Lord of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda.
  • George RR Martin’s famous fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, later adapted into the HBO TV show Game of Thrones, includes the popular legendary hero Azor Ahai. The author has said that he was inspired by Ahura Mazda, as Azor Ahai is also portrayed as a Demigod of Light destined to triumph over Darkness.
  • George Lucas’ Star Wars is also full of Light and Dark motifs who the franchise’s creator has said were inspired by Zoroastrianism. Star Wars, as a whole, is notorious for pulling inspiration from dozens of Eastern and Far Eastern philosophies and teachings.

FAQs About Zoroastrianism

Where did Zoroastrianism begin and spread?

Zoroastrianism began in ancient Iran and spread through the region via trade routes into Central and East Asia.

Where do Zoroastrians worship?

Followers of Zoroastrianism worship in temples, where the altars hold a flame that is kept burning eternally. These are also called fire temples.

What came before Zoroastrianism?

The ancient Iranian religion, also known as Iranian paganism, was practiced before the advent of Zoroastrianism. Many of the deities, including the main god Ahura Mazda, would become integral to the new religion.

What are symbols of Zoroastrianism?

The main symbols are the farvahar and fire.

What is the main saying/motto of Zoroastrianism?

Because Zoroastrians believe in free will, they emphasize the importance of choosing the right path. As such, the saying good thoughts, good words, good deeds holds the most important concept of the religion.

What caused the decline of Zoroastrianism in Persia?

When the Arabs conquered Iran, they effectively ended the Sasanian Empire. This led to the decline of the Zoroastrian religion, and many began to convert to Islam. Zoroastrians were persecuted under Muslim rule and many were forced to convert due to the abuse and discrimination they faced.

Wrapping Up

People in the West often view Iran and the Middle East as an entirely different culture and an almost “alien” part of the world. But the fact of the matter is that Middle Eastern philosophy and teachings not only predate most of their European counterparts but have also inspired them to a substantial degree.

As possibly the world’s first major monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism impacted the great monotheistic religions that were to follow as well as Western philosophical thought. In this way, it’s influence can be felt in almost every facet of Western thought.

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