THE RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND TO ZOROASTRIANISM

THE RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND TO ZOROASTRIANISM (BY MARY BOYCE):

1)The means of reconstructing the Old Iranian religion :
Zarathushtra has often been called a religious reformer, but he was so only in
the sense that this is true of the other great founders of world religions, i.e. he
evidently accepted much of the faith into which he was born, but transformed it
through a new teaching. The Old Iranian faith can be reconstructed partly
from comparison with closely related Vedic texts, and the Brahmanic tradition
of India, partly through what clearly seem to be pre-Zoroastrian elements
surviving in Zarathushtra’s own revelation, or revived subsequently by his
followers.

2) The physical and social background
The beliefs and observances of the Old Iranian and Vedic religions were
evidently shaped by the physical and social background shared by the Indo-
Iranian peoples. From perhaps 5000 to about 2000 B.C. they formed a single
group, a branch of the Indo-European family of nations; and their homeland
appears to have been the south Russian steppes, east of the Volga, where they
lived as pastoralists, herding their cattle on foot. They moved presumably over
hereditary tribal grazing grounds (such as the Airyanem Vaejah, MP. Eranvej,
Tranian Expanse’, of Zoroastrian tradition), from spring to autumn, wintering in river valleys or near the forests and mountains which bordered the plains.
They lived close to their animals (a traditional Avestan term for the community
is pasu-vira ‘cattle-(and)-men’); and their society seems to have been divided
into two main groups, priests and warrior herdsmen. Training for the
priesthood began between five and seven, and maturity was reached at fifteen
years of age, when all males (to judge by Brahmanic usage) were invested with a
sacred cord as an act of initiation into the adult community.

3)The Old Iranian gods
The vastness of the steppes encouraged the Indo-Iranians to conceive their
gods as cosmic, not local, divinities; and they apprehended a universal principle
of what ought to be, Av. ‘asha’, Skt. ‘rta’, variously translated as ‘order,
righteousness, truth’. This principle should govern everything, from the
workings of nature to human laws and all human conduct. It was guarded, they
held, by a great triad of ethical divinities, the Lords, Av. ‘Ahura’, Skt. ‘Asura’.
The greatest of them, known to the Iranians as Ahura Mazda, ‘Lord of
Wisdom’, was conceived, it seems, as the divine counterpart of the wise high
priest, who wielded authority in the tribe through his learning and sacral
powers. In the Rigveda he is reverenced, it appears, simply as ‘the Asura’.
Below him were the lesser Ahuras, Varuna and Mithra (Vedic Mitra),
guardians respectively of the oath and covenant, who came therefore to
hypostatise truth and loyalty and were active in doing his will. These two
divinities seem divine counterparts of those tribal chieftains who were
‘ashavan’, ‘possessing asha’, i.e. just, upholders of the laws. Varuna as lord of
the truly spoken word was venerated particularly as a creator-god. His name
was not uttered in the known Iranian tradition, in which he is invoked only by
cult epithets. Another powerful god, Indra, was worshipped as the divine
counterpart of the warrior, an amoral being, invoked for strength, courage, and
success in battle. The Indo-Iranians also venerated ‘nature’ and ‘cult’ gods.
They thought of the divine beings as generally benevolent, attributing evil
mainly to earth-bound devils, sorcerers and the like.

4) Worship in the Old Iranian religion :
As wandering pastoralists the Indo-Iranians had no temples, and worshipped
mainly in the open, without altars or images. They uttered hymns of praise and
thanksgiving, and prayers, while making sacrifice and food offerings. An
important rite, enacted during the Yasna, consisted of expressing the juice of an
intoxicant (Av. haoma, Skt. soma), which, when consecrated, was offered to the
gods and drunk ritually by the worshippers. Daily offerings were made to the
hearth fire and sources of pure water; and priestly offerings to fire and water
also formed part of the Yasna rituals.

5) Ancestor worship and beliefs about the hereafter :
Cult of the ancestors was important, and was based on caring for the souls (Av. urvan) of the departed by offerings of consecrated food and clothing, to
benefit them in the underworld kingdom of the dead, thought to be ruled over
by Yima (Skt. Yama), the first king to reign on earth and the first man to die.
His kingdom was reached by perilous ways which led to the ‘Chinvat Crossing’,
possibly a ford over an underground river, guarded by supernatural dogs.
There seems also to have been a hero cult, in which the souls of the mighty dead
were venerated as ‘fravashis’, powerful supernatural beings able to protect
their descendants if duly worshipped. While the Indo-Iranians were still one
people, a belief evolved that some fortunate souls were able to ascend after
death to join the gods in Paradise, the ‘House of Song’, there to enjoy perpetual
bliss. With this belief was linked the concept of resurrection of the body, which
was thought, it seems, to be recreated from the dry bones a year or so after
death, after which the re-embodied spirit could again experience all the
pleasures of earthly existence. As the hope of Paradise grew more general the
‘Chinvat Crossing’ came to be thought of as a bridge between earth and heaven.
If the soul succeeded in passing over this a beautiful girl appeared to lead it
upward to the gods.

6) Cosmogonical and cosmological ideas :
1. The Indo-Iranians had a common stock of ideas about the physical world,
which Iranian priestly thinkers continued to develop, reaching ultimately a
severely simple analysis of the physical world which probably owed much to the
bareness of the flat landscape around them. Their speculations can be
reconstructed as follows (cf. 1.5). The gods had created the world in seven
stages; first the ‘sky’ of stone, as a huge round shell to enclose all else; second, in
the lower half of this shell, water; third, earth, resting on the water like a great
flat dish; then at the centre of the earth a single plant, and near it the Uniquelycreated
Bull, and Man, called Gayo-maretan, ‘Mortal Life’; and, seventh, fire,
both visible and also an unseen, vital force which gave warmth and life to the
cosmos. The sun, part of the creation of fire, stood still overhead, and all was
motionless and unchanging. Then the gods made a triple sacrifice: they crushed
the plant, and slew the bull and man. From this beneficent sacrifice more plants,
animals and men came into existence. The cycle of being was thus set in motion,
with death followed by new life; and the sun began to move across the sky and to
regulate the seasons in accordance with ‘asha’.
2. These natural processes, it seems, were regarded as unending, so long as
men did their part by offering regularly the same triple sacrifice, and by
sanctifying through the daily yasna the seven creations, each of which was
represented there: earth in the ritual precinct; water and fire in vessels; the
stone of the sky in the pestle and mortar for the ‘haoma’ pressing; plants in the
haoma and ‘baresman’ (grasses strewn beneath the sacrifice); cattle, i.e. useful
animals in general, in the sacrificial beast or its products (butter and milk); and
man in the officiating priest.
3. Together with this systematic analysis, linked to the yasna, more ancient concepts survived: of high Hara (cf. Skt. Meru), a mountain peak in the centre
of the earth, around which the sun was thought to circle, disappearing at night;
of mighty Aredvi, a river which pours down from Hara into the sea Vourukasha
and so supplies all the waters of the world; and of the Tree of All Seeds, which
grows in Vourukasha. Each year its seeds are scattered over the earth with the
rain. The earth itself was held to be divided into seven regions (Av. karshvar),
separated by waters, or by great forests and mountains. Man lives in the central
region, called Khvaniratha.

7) Social and religious developments before the time of the prophet
Even after the Indo-Iranian peoples drifted apart, developing separate
languages and identities, they maintained much of their common religious
tradition, evolved by countless generations of Stone Age pastoralists, and
tenaciously upheld by their hereditary priesthoods. Circa 1700 B.C. the steppedwellers
began to learn the use of bronze and to develop a new economy, in
which the horse-drawn war chariot came to play a large part. ‘Rathaeshtars’,
literally ‘chariot-standers’, began to form a new and dominant group in Iranian
society: they abandoned the traditional task of helping to herd the tribe’s cattle,
and sought wealth and fame for themselves by fighting and raiding in the
service of warrior chiefs. This was the Iranian Heroic Age, fragments of whose
epic poetry survive, much recast, in the Shahname (see 1.1.2.3); and like all
Heroic Ages it had its adverse side for the people at large, bringing bloodshed
and lawlessness. The warrior heroes are likely to have directed their worship to
the amoral Indra, rather than to the ethical Ahuras (cf. 1.2.3); but after they
had become the dominant group in society the priest-poets in time made all the
great gods chariot riders, and even gave Mithra a mace of bronze (cf. 2.1.1.67,96).

source :
textual sources for the study of zoroastrianism

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