November 1971

“Zoroastrianism,” Ensign, Nov. 1971, 32


Alma the younger, full of zeal for the good way of life as he had received it, wished that he might convert all the world. But knowing that he could not cry with the voice of an angel to all the world himself, he said he took comfort in knowing that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have. …” (Alma 29:8).

It appears that the Lord may have granted unto the ancient nation of Iran a portion of his word that he saw fit that they should have. The man to whom and through whom the word seems to have come to the people of Iran is commonly called in English Zoroaster; from older Iranian sources it was pronounced more like Zarathustra. The first is most common, the latter is probably most correct.

The exact birthplace of this man is not really known, for the traditions about him do not agree, and the sources that would have made it definite were probably all destroyed 2300 years ago. Tradition, however, seems to point to western Iran, where his greatest influence lay in that ancient land between the Tigris and the Indus.

As to this time, there are three major traditions, ranging all the way from 6000 B.C. to 600 B.C. The consensus favors the evidence from the early medieval Persian book the Bundahishn, which ascribes his lifetime to the period 660–583 B.C. Coincidentally, this period has special interest for several other religions, for at that time Jeremiah was at work in Jerusalem; Ezekiel was teaching in exile in Babylon, next to nascent Iran; and Lehi within that period left Jerusalem and settled a new land of promise.

As is known from Persian records of Achaemenian times—from the fall of Babylon and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and on down to the time of Alexander the Great—Zoroastrianism was the faith of many great kings of Persia. Artaxerxes Longimanus is known to have been an ardent follower of “the holy faith which is of all things best,” so called in the ancient psalmlike Gathas. The first Darius was a pious worshiper of Ahura Mazda, the “all-wise Lord” of whom Zoroaster taught. Though Cyrus is not mentioned by name among the Mazdayasnians or worshipers of Mazda, it is possible that his reign was mentioned in the legends of the valiant son of King Vishtaspa, the first royal patron of Zoroaster.

Primary source books concerning Zoroaster were lost mostly through the vicissitudes of war after the golden days of the Achaemenians. It is said that the soldiers of Alexander, in the mad zeal of their conquest, put the torch to the magnificent royal establishments at Persepolis, the libraries of major religious works, and perhaps the writings of Zarathustra himself. It is believed that some books that escaped destruction were taken to Greece, for there are scores of references to Zoroaster and his teachings in classical Greek and Roman literature from the sixth century B.C. onward.

The chief sources of Zarathustra’s divinely revealed teachings (Avesta) and of commentaries on them (Zend) are found among the sacred books of a remnant of ancient Persians, the Parsis of India. These sacred books and others like them became known to western scholars only after their discovery by westerners in the eighteenth century and their subsequent translation into western languages.

Remnants of the copies of the oldest literature are called Yasna, meaning “worship-material.” Of this type there are five ancient collections of psalms, called the Gathas in a dialect of ancient Persian akin to the language of the old Achaemenian inscription. These psalms are believed by the Parsis to have been part of the revelations written by Zarathustra himself. Important for their doctrine, they contain slight reference to things biographical or historical.

Additionally there was once a much larger collection of some twenty-one sections, or Nasks, comprising a whole body of religious and scientific information that was alluded to in later works. Greek classicists believed that Zoroaster spoke on medicine, astronomy, agriculture, botany, philosophy, and many other matters. The remaining portion of this ancient literature found among the Parsis includes prayers mostly, as well as miscellaneous instructions.

In the later or Avestan dialect of Persian, there are additional liturgical materials, prayers, and instructions for ceremonies and sacrifices. And still later versions of ritual are found in the Visparad, the twelve Yashts, and several shorter texts. The civil, religious, and criminal codes are contained in the Vendidad, meaning that it “is given against demons.”

After the destruction of much of the original Zoroastrian literature, no religious works were produced during Alexander’s time through the Seleucid period and during the five centuries of the Parthian rule over Iran. A revival of Iranian rule and religion was achieved by the heroic Sassanian dynasty (about A.D. 224), when much of the Zend, or commentary literature, appeared in the Persian language and script that is now called Pahlavi. The Pahlavi is interspersed with the older Avestan, or revelation-type material, although some Pahlavi translations of earlier works were lost. With the Mohammedan conquest, all other religious writings were destroyed. Zoroastrian minorities who would not convert to Islam finally fled to India to find sanctuary with the descendants of their ancient Indo-Iranian relatives. Periodically they sent for instructions from other remnants of the Mazda worshipers in Iran and eventually became the preservers of what little information is extant concerning Zoroaster and his religion.

While little is known about Zoroaster’s birth, childhood, and early life, a few gossamer pictures may be loosely woven from the warp and woof of tradition and myth. Unfortunately, the later the literature, the more miraculous and spectacular the tales reported as true traditions become. Pahlavi accounts, for instance, written perhaps a thousand years after Zoroaster’s life, tell of marvelous predictions of his advent and of miraculous omens heralding his birth. Miraculous phenomena are said to have infused divine glory into the body of his mother-to-be at the time of her own birth, then remained with her until all the divinely appointed components of the body of the embryo child were assembled and combined with his spirit and the holy child Zarathustra became a living soul. The same sources tell of the evil forces that sought to prevent his birth and later sought to take his life, but the older Gathas includes none of this.

There is some genealogical information in the Pahlavi texts about the Spitama family to which Zoroaster belonged, but the origins of this matter are barely hinted at in the ancient Gathas. However, Avestan accounts do sustain the later literature, which claims Zoroaster was married and left some descendants. The later sources anticipate ultimately that Messiah-like Saoshyants, or benefactors, are to be born in his line.

Mythlike tales indicate that in his youth Zoroaster did exemplary compassionate deeds for fellowmen and for animals, including some miraculous deeds; and there are quite persistent references to certain “years of solitude” during his late youth and preparatory years of early maturity. Whether this information was historically based or symbolically adduced may never be known.

In any case, it is said that in his thirtieth year Zarathustra was ready for the call that came to him to become a messenger for the lord of wisdom, Ahura Mazda, for he had long yearned and prayed to come into the aura of the divine sanctifying presence in order that he might gain wisdom and holiness.

Yasna 34 reveals that Zarathustra sought to know the right ways of the Vohu Manah or the good mind and that he successfully made his approach through Vohu Manah and was then further prepared for a spiritual vision and interview with the lord of wisdom by Sraosha, whose name means humility, meekness, submissiveness to divine authority.

He reported that he was vouchsafed the vision and that he did converse with Ahura Mazda and was informed first about the great truths of justice, mercy, and righteousness. He learned the virtues of the all-important trilogy of good thoughts, words, and deeds. He also learned about their counterparts in evil thoughts, words, and deeds and of the retribution due their indulgence. He learned of God’s purpose in providing earth life for man: through God-given intelligence and freedom of choice, and with the help of the spiritual guides divinely provided, man is to learn to choose the good and eschew the evil. Thus the essence of Zoroastrianism—“The Religion of the Good Life”—had begun to be established.

In the ensuing ten years, Zarathustra became acquainted with the six sublime attributes of Ahura Mazda that he felt are preeminent above all other virtues: (1) Vohu Manah, the good mind; (2) Asha Vahishta, the perfection of orderliness; (3) Khshathra Vairya, absolute power; (4) Spenta Armaiti, divine devotion, holy love; (5) Haurvatat, the perfection of wholeness; (6) Ameretat, immortality and eternity.

These grand principles, and much other preparatory information, made him eager to teach the good life to others. But those same ten years were filled with discouragement and disappointment as he sought to make converts. He was opposed not only by the priestly hierarchy of the older religious systems, the Kavis and Karpans, but also by the Angra Mainyu, or the evil spirit himself. By him Zarathustra was tempted to abandon his prophetic vocation. Resisting that persuasion, he was urgently supplicated to not destroy Angra Mainyu’s creatures, such things of nature as afflict and torment men. But Zarathustra would not yield to any temptations, for he had learned that man must actively fight evil and actively do good always, in order that the time shall come when all evil shall be vanquished and the world be renovated and renewed.

During this decade of misery and rejection, he could turn only to the Allwise for comfort and sustenance:

“To what land shall I turn, whither shall I go?

Forsaken by kinsmen and nobles am I;

Neither do my people like me

Nor do the wicked rulers of the land.

How then shall I please Thee, Mazda Ahura?

This know, Mazda, wherefore I fail,

Few are my flocks, and few my followers.

In grief I cry to thee, Ahura; behold it.

Help me even as friend unto friend;

Show me through righteousness the riches of the Good Mind.”

(Yasna 46:1–2. Dr. M. N. Dhalla’s translation.)

He had made only one convert during those trying years—his own cousin and constant beloved disciple, Maidhyoi-maonha. But then he presented his story to a noble king, the princely Vishtaspa. Later literature tells dramatic tales of the struggle and the wonders that helped him break through to this royal convert. However it was done, King Vishtaspa became a heroic defender of the faith and made it possible for Zoroastrianism to be spread throughout his kingdom and into other kingdoms.

Detailed history of this phase of Zoroaster’s life is also lacking, but it is evident that for the ensuing fifteen years conversions proceeded rapidly. Zealous disciples carried the teachings across boundaries, and interested investigators from other lands came to learn. Personal dialogues with Zoroaster himself are credited with the conversion of such notable characters as a prince from India, a Brahman prince, a priest of the “old religion,” and even some of the recalcitrant Turanians. It is said that the word spread eventually to Greece and far beyond and that Zarathustra’s monotheistic theology with its attendant benevolent teachings became known as “The Religion of the Good Life.”

There are brief but bloody tales of the rise of international opposition to the further spread of the worship of Mazda and its attendant uprooting of old entrenched religious systems, and there are heroic tales of the vanquishment of such opposition by the noble Vishtaspa and his sons and associates. It is said that Zoroaster was slain in this period while officiating in worship at the symbolic fire altar of Ahura Mazda. But the invaders were overcome, and then Zoroastrianism was firmly established. That it flourished until the coming of Alexander is historically accepted, and that Alexander disrupted the indigenous culture and destroyed a precious library of the works of Zarathustra and his successors is also fairly well attested, though there are sources that insist that the erudite Alexander would not have burned a library but that such a deed must have been done by wildly exultant soldiers. Alexander the Great is consistently termed “the accursed Alexander” by most of the Pahlavi and Pazend writers of all later Zoroastrian literatures.

It was five hundred years later (A.D. 226) that a resurgent Iranian dynasty was finally established that restored native rule and revived Zoroastrianism as the national religion. It fostered the recovery of the remnants of the old sacred writings and the creation of new commentaries and translations mentioned in the previous section. This revival period, during the rule of the Sassanian dynasty, lasted until the Mohammedan conquests four hundred years later in the A.D. 600s. Then destruction of sacred writings again occurred, and it was only due to the escape of forefathers of the Parsis to India to find sanctuary with their ancient relatives there that anything of Zoroastrianism or its scriptures survived.

It is believed that for a thousand years thereafter the Indian Parsis gathered what they could of the sacred writings. Revival of interest in them and retrenchment in religious practices and beliefs to something nearer to those of the ancients have taken place in modern times with the advent of the researches into Avesta and Zend by western scholars and the resultant renascence of Parsis scholars.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were not more than 90,000 Parsis in India and only one tenth that many in Persia. Against the backdrop of its historical prevalence in the empires of antiquity and its influence from India to Greece, the present adherents to Mazdayasnian ways and ethics are very meager. During its “dark ages” there had naturally been a departure from the ancient practices and beliefs, but with the dawn of both western and eastern scholarly interest in the remnant scriptures of that faith, there has been a restoration and resuscitation. There are some 130,000 worshipers of Mazda among the Parsis today, and scattered votaries of “The Wise Lord” elsewhere in the world.

There is a major division today among the Parsis, but only in the method of calculating the calendrical system. Those who insist on the rectitude of the old year of 365 days (the necessary intercalary day every fourth year having been omitted for the past 1,270 years since the fall of the Sassanian Dynasty) find themselves now nearly eleven months out of synchronization with the true solar year. The other group consists of those who have begun to correct the calendar by intercalations and have as a result a different set of festival and commemorative days in the year from their tradition-bound neighbors. This difference does not prevent free association of members of the two groups with each other. Intermarriage, observation of the same religious practices, and practice of the same ethics prevail. There are also some minor differences in certain ritual pronunciations.

Classical Zoroastrianism was monotheistic. The Gathas (which, it will be recalled, are the oldest literary sources) indicate that Spitama Zarathustra’s theology embraced only the purest mono-theistic belief in one god, the Lord of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda. To him were addressed all supplications and for him were all praises sung in the ancient psalms. It may well be that basic concepts of such a god go back far before Zarathustra’s time.

The sacred fires that symbolized the light and beneficence of Mazda, and the priests who tended them, undoubtedly antedated Zarathustra himself. His contribution was to perceive that all virtue originates and maintains by virtue of the one God.

Unfortunately, the early pure theology of the Gathas and the older Avesta was further polluted, as reflected in the Pahlavi commentaries, and the six cardinal qualities or virtues of Ahura Mazda came also to be conceived as personified, deified beings.

Happily, the basic cosmology and ethics of the Zoroastrian system remained relatively pure throughout the ages. Ahura Mazda was always considered the creator of all things; he only created the spiritual-invisible first, and afterward the corporeal. The earth was always believed to have been created for man’s use and enjoyment and for his development. By his inborn intelligence man is meant to learn to choose and think good thoughts, choose and say good words, choose and do good deeds. He must resist the evil counterparts of all three, of course, but merely to resist the evil is not enough, for he must also produce the good. Thus only may he work out his salvation and live in the ideal afterworld. There is, according to Zoroastrian theology, no salvation given man by virtue of anyone who vicariously earns it for him. But he may be aided in choosing the good by hearkening to his Fravashi—the super spirit premortally assigned to accompany him and communicate with his own indwelling soul during life. But only if he chooses and practices the good will either his soul or his guardian spirit (Fravashi) live happily ever after. The purpose and plan of life are thus inextricably tied to the ethics of life; the good life has eternal ramifications as well as present rewards.

Anyone who knows the religion and philosophy of life of Judaism or of Christianity recognizes numerous similarities between them and the Zoroastrian religion; and anyone who knows the restored gospel of Jesus Christ sees even more concepts in common. Doubtless some of the similarities between the historic religious systems may be attributed to borrowings; on the other hand, is it not possible that there may be some ideas and concepts that are similar because they both have come from the revelations of God?

One rather striking concept presented in common by both the Avesta and the Old Testament may be seen in the names given God’s adversary. (See Isa. 14:12.) The name Daeva denoted a “brightly shining one” etymologically, but in Zoroastrianism it connoted later an adversary of Mazda; in Hebrew the name Heilel ben-Shakhar, which etymologically denotes a “shining son of dawn,” connotes in Isaiah the adversary who set himself up in competition with and opposition to God and was cast down to hell. The name is rendered through the Latin for “light bearer” into English as “Lucifer.” The fact that daeva and devil sound suspiciously similar may seem more superficially important than inherently significant, for devil is etymologically supposed to have been derived from the Greek diabolos.

Another area of comparable concepts is seen in the parallels in the creation accounts. Already it has been noted that the Avesta tells of the creation of the spiritual-invisible first and the corporeal-visible second. A hint of this is seen in Genesis 2:4–5 [Gen. 2:4–5], but it is plainly taught in Moses 3:4–5 and factually implied by Abraham 3:22–28 [Abr. 3:22–28]. Jesus also alluded to his life and state with the Father “before the world was.” (John 17:5.)

There are many similar facets in the Gathas comparable to those of the Bible and the Book of Mormon in the doctrines of the immortality of the soul; the divided spirit world (for the righteous and unrighteous) after death; the resurrection first of the just and later of the unjust; the afterlife retribution for both good and evil deeds to compensate for earth-life inequities; and the celestial joy of all deserving souls in the presence of God. According to Yasna 31:17–11 and 43:5, it was Ahura Mazda’s purpose and desire that he bring to pass by his might, wisdom, and goodness the joy and happiness of mankind by giving them intelligence, freedom of choice, and guidance in a world of beauty, yet of contrasts, that man might enjoy ultimately an exalted and noble life in eternity.

It is of interest to Latter-day Saints that Pahlavi literature teaches that husbands and wives will live together, united with their children, in the next world. It is expected, however, that there will be no further begetting of children there.

The fact that there should be and are parallels in Zoroastrianism with other religions brings us back to the words of Alma with which this discussion began: “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.” [Alma 29:8]

Much of the truth and significance of ancient revelations from other than the Judeo-Christian prophets would not be appreciated so readily if it were not for the modern restoration of the gospel as promulgated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Through the perspective of the gospel, it is possible to see why revelations may have been sent to such men as Zoroaster and why some of his teachings would resemble those of our prophets. In fact, it may have been the Magi of Zoroastrianism who perceived by some manner of revelation from the heavens that a miracle child was born in Judea to be a king and who came to worship him.

  • Dr. Rasmussen, chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, serves as high councilor in BYU Fourth Stake. He has been a serious student of Hebrew and the Jewish people for many years.

Persian God Zurvan flanked by figures representing ages of life, is depicted on silver plaque.

Winged disc is symbol of Ahura Mazda, god of ancient Iran.

Persian pottery is from early third century.

Zoroaster, from a Persian rock sculpture