[An interesting article. However, I take issue with calling it the “World’s Oldest Religion”. The Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian religions date back thousands of years BC. – TMR]
We’re willing to bet that even if you’ve heard of Zoroastrianism, you can’t name any Zoroastrian beliefs. The philosophy of the Zoroastrian religion predates Christianity by a few centuries, and even though it’s always good to be early, in the case of religion and philosophy, older beliefs tend to get buried as time moves on and stronger religions take hold. The history of Zoroastrianism is steeped in the duality of eastern philosophy and the roots of modern western belief, and despite its texts sometimes having the feel of a Dungeons and Dragons handbook, the teachings of Zoroastrianism encompass some interesting and positive beliefs.
So what do Zoroastrians believe? And what is Zoroastrianism? In this collection of information about one of the world’s oldest religions, we’ll examine their concept of death, the way their priests work, and how the religion has changed over the last few centuries. If you’ve never heard of Zoroastrianism and you’d like to know what they get up to, or if you just want to brush up on your sixth-century theology, keep reading and try to keep an open mind.
They Believe in the Dualism of Good and Evil
Most modern religions are based on the concept of good vs. evil, but Zoroastrians believe that one can’t exist without the other, both cosmically and morally.
Zoroastrians believe that the universe is locked in an ongoing battle between good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu). Ahura Mazda is the force of creation, and Angra Mainyu is the force of destruction that seeks to thwart Ahura Mazda’s creation. From this dynamic comes all that is good and bad in life.
Individual humans, too, exist as a mixture of good and evil. Humans have free will in Zoroastrianism, and they can choose either good (asha) or evil (druj). Divisions like happy or sad, pure or impure, come from the choices humans make to either support good or evil. Humans are expected to do their part in the battle between good and evil, also represented as the battle between order and chaos.
But They Also Believe in Just One God
Despite believing in a cosmic duality, Zoroasters only believe in one god named Ahura Mazda (which means “Wise Lord”), and like most gods, he is omnipresent and all-knowing. (Or, more properly, they are omnipresent, since Ahura Mazda has both male and female attributes.)
In essence, Zoroastrians believe that even though the world has a dual nature now – caught between good and evil – eventually good will win out once and for all, and the world will be one unified paradise. This combination between dualism and monotheism is considered to be unique to the Zoroastrian religion.
Aside from Ahura Mazda, Zoroasters also believe in the existence of six Amesha Spentas, or Holy Immortals, who are akin to what Christians call archangels. Each Amesha Spenta stands for a different positive attribute: good mind and good purpose, truth and righteousness, holy devotion, power and just rule, health, and long life.
Everyone Has Their Own Personal Guardian Spirit
Before humans are born, Zoroastrians believe, every individual soul (urvan) is paired with its own guardian spirit (fravashi). At birth, your soul goes off into the world, but your guardian spirit continues to act as a protector, somewhat like the notion of a guardian angel.
On the fourth day after death, your soul is reunited again with its guardian spirit. Your soul communicates all of its accumulated life experiences to the guardian spirit from the time you spent in the world, and this information is used in the ongoing battle of good vs. evil.
Death Is the Embodiment of Evil
According to the Zoroastian belief system, once the final breath has left the body, it becomes impure. Keeping with the theme of duality, while life (and everything in it) is thought to be the work of God, death is considered to be the embodiment of evil.
After death, bodies are washed in unconsecrated bull urine and laid out for viewing. Afterwards the bodies are traditionally placed in Towers of Silence to be picked clean by buzzards – although in America, bodies tend to be cremated or buried instead.
Homosexuality Is Akin to Demon Worship
In the Avesta, the most sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism, a passage reads, “The man that lies with mankind as man lies with womankind, or as woman lies with mankind, is a man that is a Daeva [demon]; this man is a worshipper of the Daevas, a male paramour of the Daevas.”
Aside from that verse, there’s also a myth about an evil spirit who takes part in self-sodomy, causing an “explosion of evil power” that creates a bunch of lesser demons.
Some scholars of religion argue that Zoroastrians are so opposed to male homosexuality because the religion does not accept converts. The only way to be a Zoroastrian is to have a Zoroastrian mother and father – hence, to keep the religion alive, they have to pressure adherents into having children.
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One Famous Zoroastrian Was a Killer Queen
That’s right, Queen’s very own Freddie Mercury was born into a practicing Zoroastrian family. Even though it’s debatable whether Mercury kept up with his faith throughout his life, his funeral service was orchestrated by a Zoroastrian priest and his body was cremated shortly afterwards.
Your Spirit Has a Nervous Breakdown Before Going to Heaven
According to Zoroastrian belief, after the spirit leaves the body, it hangs around for a few days and freaks out because of the stress of the crushing separation anxiety that comes from death. Then, led by the angel Daena, the spirit is brought to the Bridge of Judgment (the Chinavat or Chinawad Bridge), where its good and bad deeds are reviewed. If things work out, the spirit ascends to Heaven; if not, it’s sent to Hell.
Zoroastrians Avoid Eating Cows (And Things That Look Like Cows)
Some of the original teachings of Zoroastrianism are all about what foods you can and can’t put into your body. The fundamentals of their philosophy involve the tender care of the earth, animals, pets and livestock, and there’s a specific list of which animals you should treat like your neighbor.
Not only does the religion shy away from animal sacrifices, but it notes that you should shy away from eating cows and cow-like animals (from yak to reindeer). There is some debate other whether or not the ancient Zoroastrians were vegetarians, but many today choose to practice vegetarianism.