A Zoroastrian Educational Institute



HomeArticlesAuthorsBook ReviewCommunityLibraryProminentsRegisterStoreArticle SubmissionAbout Us




Events that Shaped Early Zarathushti Religion [i]


















Zarathushtra’s theology originated in a pastoral region south of the Aral Sea, where Indo-Iranian tribes had settled during the Bronze Age (4000-1300 BC).  Little is known about its development over the next 500 years, except that it spread towards the west, into Choresmia, Parthia and Media.  The Magi, hereditary priests of the Medians, adapted Zarathushtra’s teachings into their religion.  When the Medes overpowered the Assyrian Empire in 708 BC, the Magis gained further power.  The Achaemenians, who originated from southern Iran, then overthrew the Medians, from whom they adopted Zarathushtrian beliefs, but now traces of other Indo-European and Elemite religion entered into the liturgy.  The multi-ethnic nature of the Empire, which now included Persians, Jews, Greeks, Egyptians and Indics resulted in further syncretism, while allowing the different religious beliefs to develop independently. 

Alexander tried to create a Eurasian empire, with the splendor of the Persian courts.  His successors in Syria and Persia, the Seleucids, did not patronize the Magis, who became ritual priests to earn a living.  After only 75 years, the Arsacid dynasty of Parthia gained the upper hand.  The Parthians were Hellenized Zoroastrians who ruled Iran for the next 400 years.  They had to deal with the expansionist designs of Roman generals and the arrival of Christianity.  Now the Zoroastrian divinities influenced the Roman soldiers.  The Romans and the Jews then introduced some of the Persian concepts into early Christian doctrines. The Parthians, seeing the benefits of the organized Christian church, began the task of collecting the fragmented Zoroastrian scriptures and literature; which provided the platform for the Sassanian theocracy that followed.

Indo-European Religion
Indo-Europeans were pastoral nomads who had domesticated the horse and the dog.  Most linguists and archaeologists agree that they were an intrusive culture from the northern steppes, and that they eventually overpowered and assimilated with the native populations of most of the Balkans, Greece, Anatolia and the Iranian plateau during the late Bronze Age and overthrew the Dravidian culture of India during the Iron Age, about 3000 years ago.  The settlers in Iran and India form a distinct group called the Indo-Iranians, who had lived together for millennia and developed a distinct religion and culture, and called themselves Arya or Aryans.

The Aryan settlers grew crops and herded cattle in the fertile regions south of the Caspian.  The docile cow and ox and the herds of sheep provided all their needs.  Camels, horses and dogs also figured prominently in their culture.  Their pre-history is found in the Yashts, known to most of the world through the Shahnameh.  Discovery of fire, metallurgy and animal husbandry were attributed to the earliest Persian kings of the Peshdadian dynasty.  They conquered the spirit-worshipers of Hyrcania (Mazandaran).  Their heroes were strong and brave and constantly at war with hordes of uncivilized nomads from Central Asia, the Turanians. 

Meanwhile, a seafaring culture developed in the Greek islands.  Their immortal gods and goddesses had human characteristics, and needed sacrifices from the humans [4].  Since humans were mortal, the only way they could attain immortality was through: “kleos aphtithon”, or imperishable fame and glory, achieved through heroic deeds.  In the Vedas it is called “srvas akshitam”.  This term has cognates in most Indo-European cultures such as the Nordic sagas and Irish adventure stories.  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, set in 15th Century BC Greece and Anatolia, depict a highly developed culture of warfare, plunder, and sacrificial offerings.

Earliest written evidence of Indo-Iranian religion is to be found not in India or Iran, but in Northern Syria.  The royal documents of the Mitanni, written on clay tablets around 15th century BC, commemorated their victory over the “black-haired people”, the Hittites.  The tablets include the names of major Indic deities – Mitra, Aruna (Varuna), and Indra; and a vocabulary of horsemanship and charioteering [2].  Egyptian tomb paintings of that period show the Mitanni to be pure Nordics, whose descendants remain today as Persian-speaking Nordic Kurds [5].  Records of Indo-European speakers in Europe other than Greece are dated much later, partly because writing came later in Europe.

Zarathushtra’s Reforms
It is the polytheistic Indo-Iranian culture of warfare, plunder aznd animal sacrifice that Zarathushtra condemned.  The Gathas are set in a pastoral society around the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, north of the Hindu Kush, where the Aryan tribes had settled for centuries.  The prosperous kingdom of Bactria lay to the south, on the ancient Silk Road.  Zarathushtra’s teachings resonated with the settled culture of cattle breeding, agriculture, and respect for nature.  Through good thinking, one can attain an understanding of Asha, the way the Wise God Ahura Mazda intended His Creation to develop. 

Zarathushtra’s influence resulted in the relegation of the Indo-Aryan pantheon of Devas to the role of demons, or Daivas, who were destroying the beautiful Creation of Ahura Mazda.  It is probable that during this period, the chariot-riding Aryan warriors entered the Indus valley and displaced the indigenous Dravidians.  Their heroic deeds inspired epics such as the Mahabharata that extol war and tribal loyalty as Dharma, a religious duty.  The Ramayana, on the other hand, depicts the eternal struggle between good and evil in a culture that values truth, righteousness and peaceful living in harmony with nature.

Power in religion lay with those who had secular power: i.e., the tribal leader or the king.  To the Indo-Europeans, the founder of a royal family was supposed to have descended from a god or goddess.  Zarathushtra’s message implied that the king need not be a god, but he should be god-like, that is, righteous and worthy of the absolute power that he commanded.  Zarathushtra’s followers interpreted this to mean that king’s power and glory, khwarr, was entrusted to him by Ahura Mazda.

The Medes
In the next 500 years, Mazda-worship spread westwards into Choresmia, Parthia and Media.  As the political sphere of influence of the Indo-Iranian tribes began to shift to the west, the kingly glory shifted to the Median kings.  The Assyrians had kept Media under control for many centuries, but the Medes finally overthrew the Assyrian Empire in 708 BC [8]. 

The hereditary priests of the Medes belonged to the Magha tribe, known as the Magi by the Greeks.  They gradually took over the role of the Athravans (Athornans) and developed many of the Yashts and rituals, combining Zarathushtrian concepts with Aryan and pre-Aryan mythology and ritual.  The Videvdat (Vandidad) was developed from the essential elements of the anti-demonic culture of the pre-Aryan Elamites, although it was written down much later.  The Elamites had established an empire in southwestern Iran before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans.  Elam had prospered through trade with Babylonia, Assyria, Mesopotamia and India.  Elamite language is curiously similar to the Indo-Dravidian languages [3]. 

Yasna Haptanghahiti, written in prose form in Gathic dialect, was probably composed during this period.  It contains no direct reference to Zarathushtra.   The religion is simply called the Mazda-Yasna faith.  The seven attributes of Ahura Mazda have now become Archangels, who are to be worshipped along with Ahura Mazda and His righteous creations.

Cyrus Pangborn calls Zarathushtra’s religion based on the Gathas as ‘Zarathushtrianism’, while he calls the religion after it spread to the western regions of Iran and developed further by the Magi as ‘Zoroastrianism’ [9].

Achaemenid Religion
The Persian tribes in Pars, south of Media, called themselves Parsas or Parsiks [6].  They were tributary subjects of the Medes.  The head of the ruling house of the Parsas was Hakhamanish.  Kourosh (Cyrus II), a great-grandson of Hakhamanish (Achaemenes), wrested power from the Median king Astyages when the Median king’s disgruntled general defected to Cyrus in 558 BC.  This single act made Cyrus the master of all the Persian lands, while his father and grandfather were still alive.

Cyrus’s mother was the daughter of Astyages.  She must have imparted Zarathushtra’s definitions of justice, righteousness and good rulership to young Cyrus.   By 539 BC, he had added Babylonia, Armenia, Lydia and Ionia to his empire.  Cyrus claimed that due to his conquests and benevolent rule, the Khwarr now belonged to the house of Achaemenes.  Cyrus became “Great King, ruler of all the Persian lands”.

But Cyrus was also an astute politician and leader.  Herodotus [3] calls him a wise and thoughtful ruler. When the Persian army was advancing towards Lydia, its king, Croesus, consulted the oracle at the temple of Apollo, who sent him the reply: “You will rule Lydia for a long time, but you will be killed when an ass sits on the throne of Persia”.  When he was captured and ordered to be burnt alive by Cyrus, Croesus is reputed to have prayed to Apollo, reminding him of the many sacrifices he had given in his honor.  Soon, a rain shower appeared out of nowhere and extinguished the flames.  When Cyrus heard about this, he ordered Croesus to be brought before him, spared his life, and made him the governor of Lydia.  After this experience, Cyrus repeatedly claimed the support and blessings of the local gods and actively participated in their propitiation rites.  When he entered Babylon, he declared: “The great gods have delivered all the lands into my hand with the blessings of Marduk.”  He allowed all the temples to the local gods that had been destroyed by the Assyrians to be rebuilt and freed all, including the Jews, who had been held in bondage by the Assyrians.  He supported the priests of all beliefs.  The Magi must certainly have received his support and began to spread the religion throughout the Persian Empire.

Cyrus died in 530 during a campaign against the Sakas of the north.  Cambyses, his elder son, declared himself King of Babylon, Ruler of Lands.  He followed his father’s footsteps by giving obeisance to Marduk.  He conquered Egypt in 525, and assumed the Egyptian royal titles of Pharaoh, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, son of Re, etc.  He is said to have prostrated himself in front of the statue of Isis [3]. 

Meanwhile, the Magi were not happy about the religious laxity of the ruling Persians.   They destroyed many of the temples that Cyrus and Cambyses had helped to rebuild.  A Magus named Gaumata usurped control over Media with support from the nobles.  To gain support of the people, he declared himself to be Cyrus’s son Bardiya, and exempted the Medians from taxes for four years.

Darius the Great
Darius was the son of Vistaspa, Cyrus’s uncle, descended from another Achaemenian line.  When Cambyses died, Darius killed Gaumata with the help of six noblemen who knew that Bardiya was an imposter.  He was declared as the legitimate successor to the Achaemenian throne in 521, at the age of 29.

As soon as the news of Gaumata’s impersonation and death became public, there arose a rampage against all Magi to exact revenge for the harsh treatment they had received from them. Greek historians have recorded this event, called Magophony.

Darius has left detailed accounts of his battles and victories on rock inscriptions at Behistun in Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian.  Darius’s inscriptions clearly say that he was a follower of Ahura Mazda and a recipient of Ahura Mazda’s divine benevolence.  Ahura Mazda is described as the greatest of gods, but not the only God; and there is no reference to Zarathushtra or the Magi.  He rebuilt Susa, the old Elemite capital, and made it his capital. 

Darius was a great administrator and greatly increased the prosperity of the Persians.  He built roads for commerce, introduced standard weights and measures, coinage, and a very efficient communication system through the Royal Road.  His court was a model of royal might and splendor.  He met his subjects and foreign delegations through a curtain so he could see them, but they could not [5].  During Darius’s reign, the Persians were highly respected and feared throughout the civilized world.  But his ambition to conquer mainland Greece was thwarted when his army was repelled by the Greeks at Marathon (490 BC).

To retaliate for this insult, Darius’s son Xerxes I sacked Athens in 480 BC; but the Persians were routed again in a decisive naval battle at Salamis.  One of the noteworthy events of this battle was that the only Persian ship that escaped was commanded by a woman admiral.  Xerxes, watching the scene from a nearby hilltop, remarked: “Today, my men have become like women, and a woman has acted like a man”. 

Xerxes was deeply religious and was always accompanied by an entourage of Magis, who carried a burning fire and invoked the blessings of Verethraghana for his victory.  HeH refused to allow his army to cross any river on foot or horseback to prevent pollution of the waters.  While returning from Salamis, Xerxes ordered the execution of King Croesus and captured his fabulous gold mines.  Herodotus (484-425 BC) writes that the “Persians have no images of gods, no temples, and no alters.  Unlike the Greeks, they did not believe that the gods have the same ‘nature’ as men.  The most disgraceful thing for a Persian is to tell a lie.”

Mithra and Anahita
Artaxerxes I officially placed Mithra (Meher) next in honor to Ahura Mazda himself.  The pre-Zarathushtrian Meher Yasht was revived, which was later rewritten in Pahalavi during Parthian times [5].  

Artaxerxses II (405 BC) was especially devoted to Ardvi Sur Anahita, generally described as Artemis by the Greeks.  He erected statues for her in Babylon, Susa, Sardis and Bactra.  Avan Ardvi Sur Yasht describes her as riding a chariot of four white steeds – the wind, the rain, the cloud and the sleet.  She helps men by bringing waters to their fields and women by causing them to bear safely.  She obeys Ahura Mazda and hates the Daevas [5].

In his book, the Magian, now lost, Aristotle traces the beginnings of true philosophy to the Magi and the Babylonians.  He states that the Magi believe in two principles: the good spirit, who is Zeus or Oromazdes, and the evil spirit, Hades or Ariemainus.  Theopompus describes Persian eschatology thus: for 3000 years one of the gods rules the other; then for 3000 years more they fight each other.  In the end, Hades is defeated; men are happy, need no food, and cast no shadow. 

By now, the Persians and Greeks had been in direct contact for over 100 years.  Greek mercenaries were employed by the thousands by the Persian rulers.  The Greek notion of descent of the heroes from Gods is exemplified by Plato (390 BC), who wrote that the Persian monarchs were descendants of Achaemenes, son of Perseus, son of Zeus; and that Zoroaster was the son of Oromazdes. 

The Persians held the balance of power in the incessant wars between Greek states, and the Achaemenians were now masters of the whole known world.  The Satraps were more or less autonomous so long as they collected taxes and paid tributes to the King of Kings.  The splendor of the Persian court was viewed as synonymous with the splendor of the heavenly kingdom.

Meanwhile, Philip of Macedon had developed a new war maneuver called the phalanx.  Each foot soldier had 16 ft long spears, which allowed them to reach over the horse and chariot to wound or kill the enemy.  He succeeded in uniting the Greek city-states by promising to free Persian-occupied Ionia.  But Philip was murdered by a disgruntled soldier (or slave) at his daughter’s wedding in 336. 

Alexander, son of Philip, claimed that Philip was murdered by agents of Darius.  He led the Greeks initially to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule.  After the battle of Granicus, the Persian Satrap of Ionia surrendered to Alexander. 

Alexander next faced Darius III in Syria.  Alexander’s infantry had bronze breastplates.  The Persians preferred the lighter shields made of wicker, which were effective against arrows, but could not protect the soldiers from the 16 foot spears.  Darius’s forces were mostly peasants and Greek mercenaries.  When Alexander managed to come face to face with Darius’s chariot, Darius fled along with 10,000 Greek mercenaries.  Most of Darius’s family was captured and sent to Macedonia as war booty.  All the Greeks in Darius’s army were captured and executed by Alexander for fighting against their own countrymen.

The Persians were expert marksmen who could shoot arrows towards the rear while fleeing on horseback.  This ability, called the Median maneuver, gave them great advantage when fighting in the open field.  Darius therefore ordered a large area to be leveled to prepare to meet Alexander again.  This area was called Gau Gamela.  Alexander met Darius at Gau Gamela in 331 BC and gained the upper hand by leading his cavalry through a gap between Darius’s two battalions.  Once again, Darius fled, but was then murdered in a dispute with his generals.  Alexander pursued the fleeing generals and buried Darius with great fanfare, which gave him legitimacy to assume the Persian throne.  

Alexander’s easy victory over the powerful Persians elevated him to the status of a demi-god.  He considered himself to be the reincarnation of Achilles, the victorious hero of the Trojan War.  Immediately, Alexander set out on a long odyssey to assert Greek power over the Persian lands to the east.  He took his army across the Hindu Kush to Sogdiana, where he married the beautiful princess Roxanna [10].  Then he turned south into Afghanistan and crossed over into Hindustan to confront King Porus (Purushottam) in Punjab.  He used his long spear to unseat Porus from his elephant, but spared his life.  Finally, he was seriously wounded when he led his soldiers over the walls of the fortified city of Pattala.  He was treated for his wounds by the Indians, but his soldiers revolted.  They had been fighting for six years and wanted to go home.  He agreed, but insisted on returning via the inhospitable desert of Baluchistan and into Pars.  They entered Persepolis in 330 BC, which was burned to signify his victory over the Persians.

Greek historians claim that Alexander wanted to establish unity between the Greek and Persian cultures.  He is said to have ordered 5000 Greek soldiers to take Persian wives.  In 323 BC, he established himself in Babylon and dressed and feasted as a Persian monarch.  His soldiers disliked this and accused him of becoming soft and decadent like the Persians.  During one of these feasts, he died unexpectedly either by poisoning or a fever.  He was just 32, and left no heirs to the throne.

Greek Legacy
Alexander’s generals did not share his notion of uniting Greek and Persian cultures.  It took them 12 years to divide up the conquered empire among themselves.  Ptolemy took Egypt.  Another General went back to Macedonia.  Selucus got Syria and Persia.

Meanwhile, Zoroastrian beliefs about existence after death had permeated Semitic belief, which extended the doctrine to the possibility of true immortality.  Satan became the Devil.  The doctrine of resurrection and the last judgment entered Judaism.  And through the Jews, Zoroastrian doctrine entered Christian theology.

The Magi did not receive support from the Seleucids, and the study of Avesta suffered.  Many of the surviving written scriptures were lost since they were not replaced by the scribes.  The priests made their living by reciting prayers on behalf of the behdins.  Religion now became pure rituals for propitiating divinities and warding off pollution and the demons.

While the Seleucids were busy fighting the Romans and Jewish armies in Mesopotamia, Mehrdad (Mithradates), a Parthian prince of the Ashkani (Arsacid) tribe, established himself as the ruler of Pars province.

Parthian Revival
Farhad II (Phraates), son of Mehrdad, defeated the Seleucid king Demetrius in129 BC and established the Parthians as the rulers of all Persia.  Sun, moon and stars had a strong influence on early Parthian religion before they had accepted Zarathushtrianism.  The king was the ceremonial head of religion, but the religious duties were left to the Magi.  The first Parthian kings were fluent in Greek; but when the Romans came to power, Greek was replaced by Latin for trade purposes.  The Cilician pirates took over the cult of Mithra, and from them, Mithra dominated Roman armies and became a rival to the oriental Christ.

Blash I (Valkash), crowned in 51 AD, was deeply religious.  At the advent of Christianity the Jews had begun to codify their laws.  The gospel of Christ in Aramaic and

Greek was difficult to counter with Magian rituals in poorly understood languages.  Valkash ordered the re-assembly and transcription of Zarathushti scriptures.  But his successors were less interested in religion, and the task continued intermittently until the dynasty ended in 224 AD. 

This was the state of Zarathushti religion when Ardeshir Papak defeated the last Parthian king Ardavan V (Artabanus) in hand-to-hand battle.  Over the next 300 years, Zarathushtis received the protection and encouragement of the State and Persia became a theocracy. 


  1. ‘The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots’, Revised and edited by Calvert Watkins, 2nd Edition, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

  2. ‘In Search of the Indo-Europeans, Language, Archaeology and Myth’, J.P. Mallory, Thames & Hudson, 2003.

  3. ‘The History of Herodotus’, Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-chief, William Benton, Publisher, 1952.

  4. ‘The Iliad of Homer and The Odyssey’, Rendered into English Prose by Samuel Butler, William Benton, Publisher, 1952

  5. ‘History of the Persian Empire’, A.T. Olmstead, University of Chicago Press, 1948.

  6. ‘Military History of the Parsiks’, Robert Bamban, KGS, 1998.

  7. ‘Greece and the Hellenistic World’, John Boardman et al, The Oxford History of the Classic World, Oxford University Press, 1988.

  8. ‘History of Zoroastrianism’, Dhalla

  9. ‘The Zoroastrian Religion’, Cyrus Pangborn.

  10.  Greece and the Hellenistic World, Oxford History of the Classical World.


[i] This paper was presented at the 6th World Zarathushti Congress on June 29, 2005, in London, UK, and was forwarded to vohuman.org by the author in August 2005 to be posted.  The article was posted on vohuman.org on November 23, 2005.