The chief religion of the ancient Achaemenid Persians and later the Sassanian Persians, a faith based on the teachings of the ancient Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). There is some debate among modern scholars, however, over which Persians practiced the faith. Some experts think that only the kings, royal families, nobles, priests, and a few other upper-class individuals openly practiced it; whereas others argue that Zoroastrianism was more widespread among ordinary Persians. It is also possible that different versions of the Zoroastrian faith existed. Perhaps the king, nobles, and priests practiced an orthodox, or strict and conservative, version, while ordinary folk followed a less strict version. Until more reliable evidence comes to light, Zoroastrianism as practiced by the ancient Persians will remain somewhat mysterious.
   What is certain is that during the centuries they controlled Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East, the Achaemenid Persians did not attempt to impose the Zoroastrian faith on their subject peoples. Thus, many Persian subjects in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Palestine, Egypt, and elsewhere continued to worship their traditional gods. A number of Persian monarchs did destroy some local temples in subject lands; but these acts were usually meant to punish a city or region for disloyalty or some other offense rather than to suppress the local religion.
   Zoroastrian Gods Some of the earlier inhabitants of Iran had worshipped a number of sky gods known as daevas, among them Ahura-Mazda ("the Wise Lord"). It was the prophet Zoroaster, who may have lived in the mid-to-late second millennium b.c., who elevated Ahura-Mazda to the status of chief god of the faith he founded. (The Greeks identified Ahura-Mazda with their own chief god, Zeus.)
   According to legend and some basic Zoroastrian sacred writings, Ahura-Mazda revealed to Zoroaster several truths about life and the world. Among these, which became central tenets of the new faith, was that an eternal struggle between good and evil was ongoing. The combatants in this mighty contest were sometimes described as "the Truth" (Asa) and "the Lie" (Drug). in the struggle, Ahura-Mazda was the champion of truth and goodness; he was assisted by six sacred, immortal beings, the Amesha Spentas. Meanwhile, evil was propagated by a dark being or force called Ahriman. Ahriman's main followers were the old daevas, now designated as destructive demons.
   Beliefs and Practices In the Zoroastrian faith, human worshippers were expected to follow and support Ahura-Mazda, reject Ahriman and his lies, give aid to the poor and helpless, and revere a sacred fire that was meant never to be extinguished. In general, worshippers were supposed to have good thoughts (known to the faithful as Humata), say good words (Hukhta), and practice good deeds (Huvarshta). Those who followed these rules were seen as decent and upright and called ashavans. People who ignored or violated the rules were viewed as corrupt and were referred to as drugvans.The drugvans were supposedly condemned to spend all of eternity in a hell-like abode called the Place of Worst Existence.
   As is the case in all religions, the basic beliefs of Zoroastrianism were accompanied by numerous rituals and customs. Although all the details of these practices have not survived, scholars have been able to piece together the basics of some of them. Some rituals dealt not only with sacred fire but also with the proper treatment of water. J.M. Cook, a leading expert on ancient Persia, elaborates:
   The [Zoroastrian] Persians were especially concerned with purity. Fire and water must not be defiled. It was forbidden to wash in a river, and nicety and privacy were observed in the performance of bodily functions [such as urinating and spitting]. . . . Fire being divine, burning of the dead would be pollution. Bodies were waxed before interment [burial]. . . . Sacrifices were made without fire .. . and other accompaniments that the Greeks were accustomed to. (The Persian Empire, p. 154)
   Thus, instead of using fire burning on an altar, leading Zoroastrian priests, called Magi, sacrificed animals to Ahura-Mazda in a unique way, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus. Just before a sacrifice began, Herodotus writes, a man sticks a spray of leaves, usually myrtle leaves, into his headdress, takes his victim [the sacrificial animal] to some open place and invokes [calls upon] the deity. . . . The actual worshiper is not permitted to pray for any personal or private blessing, but only for the king and the general good of the community. . . . When he has cut up the animal and cooked it, he makes a little heap of the softest green-stuff he can find, preferably clover, and lays all the meat upon it. This done, a Magus [the singular of Magi] ... utters an incantation [magic spell] over it. . . . Then, after a short interval, the worshiper removes the flesh and does what he pleases with it. (Histories 1.133)
   It appears that among the other religious customs practiced by the Magi and other strict Zoroastrians was the slaying of certain kinds of animals. They viewed cattle and dogs as worthy beasts and preached good treatment of them. By contrast, they saw certain other creatures, particularly "crawling things," as evil followers of Ahriman and the Lie and advocated killing them. According to Herodotus:
   The Magi are quite different from the Egyptian priests and indeed from any other sort of person. The Egyptian priests make it an article of religion to kill no living creature except for sacrifice, but the Magi not only kill ... with their own hands, but make a special point of doing so. [The animals they destroy include] ants [and] snakes. (Histories 1.142)
   Historical Legacy The Zoroastrian faith did not die out long ago, as did the majority of ancient religions. Although the numbers of its adherents declined over time, today about .25 million people still follow a somewhat modernized version of the faith. Most of these people live in the Middle East, but a few reside in Europe, including roughly 4,000 in Britain.
   Ancient Zoroastrianism has also had some interesting, usually subtle effects on modern Western culture. Notable was the use of the founder of the faith, under his alternate name of Zarathustra, by the important nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (NEE-chee). In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche creates a somewhat fictionalized version of the prophet; in the book, the author makes Zarathustra actually reject the concepts of ultimate good and evil and acknowledge the death of God. Not long after the book was published, the great German composer Richard Strauss composed an orchestral piece based on it. And in 1967, famed film director Stanley Kubrick used the dramatic opening section of Strauss's music in his landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which incorporates a number of Nietzsche's ideas about humanity.
   This progression of certain religious and cultural ideas through the courses of many civilizations over the span of several millennia is enlightening for observers of ancient Mesopotamia and of history in general. It is an excellent illustration of how many of the ideas and customs that were native to the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia survived the ravages of time and human destruction; over time, they mutated as circumstances dictated and became intricately interwoven into the fabric of modern societies whose existence Zoroaster, Sargon, Hammurabi, Cyrus, and Alexander could never have dreamed of.
   See also: Herodotus; Magi; Persian Empire

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

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