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Zoroastrianism and the Popular Cults

The bulk of the people of Western Iran at the time of Herodotus would not seem to have been greatly influenced by any recognizable form of Zoroastrianism and only a portion of the Magi would seem to have adhered to the new cult. Moreover, when the new Zoroastrian calendar was introduced by Artaxerxes I, the form of Zoroastrianism adopted was the 'catholic' Zoroastrianism of the later Avesta, and even after Xerxes had proscribed the worship of the daevas, it would seem that the people were allowed the widest latitude of cult and were no doubt free to carry on traditional forms of worship so long as they did not invoke the daevas by name. Zoroastrianism by this time must have become fully polytheistic, and Artaxerxes II was only following the popular trend when he associated Mithra and Anahita with the Wise Lord. There must, however, have been a party within the Zoroastrian community which regarded the strict dualism between Truth and the Lie, the Holy Spirit and the Destructive Spirit, as being the essence of the Prophet's message. Otherwise the re-emergence of this strictly dualist form of Zoroastrianism some six centuries after the collapse of the Achaemenian Empire could not be readily explained. There must have been a zealous minority that busied itself with defining what they considered the Prophet's true message to be; there must have been an 'orthodox' party within the 'Church'. This minority, concerned now with theology no less than with ritual, would be found among the Magi, and it is, in fact, to the Magi that Aristotle and other early Greek writers attribute the fully dualist doctrine of two independent principles -Oromasdes and Areimanios. Further, the founder of the Magian order was now said to be Zoroaster himself. The fall of the Achaemenian Empire, however, must have been disastrous for the Zoroastrian religion, and the fact that the Magi were able to retain as much if it as they did and restore it in a form that was not too strikingly different from the Prophet's original message after the lapse of some 600 years proves their devotion to his memory. It is, indeed, true to say that the Zoroastrian orthodoxy of the Sassanian period is nearer to the spirit of Zoroaster than is the thinly disguised polytheism of the Yashts. Mithra and Anahita were to make great conquests in non-Iranian lands, but in the reformed Zoroastrianism which was inaugurated in the second Persian Empire, their wings were severly clipped, and they were never again allowed to usurp a position of near-equality with the Wise Lord. They became, again, as they had originally been for the Prophet, largely irrelevant figures, archangels at best, but not comparable in any way to the Creator. As the 'gods' receded into the background, the dualism between Creator and Destroyer, the Wise Lord and the Destructive Spirit, Ohrmazd and Ahriman as they came to be called, became ever more sharply emphasized, and this was in the spirit of the Prophet himself, not of his epigones who so radically altered his religion during the Achaemenian period.

According to one of the Pahlavi books the fall of the Achaemenids resulted in a dearth of properly qualified religious teachers, and heresy of every kind was rife. This would account for the great variety of views attributed to the Magi by the Greek and Latin sources. There was no longer any Xerxes to punish those who continued to worship the daevas, and though a minority might cling to their own orthodoxy, the civil power was for long not in Iranian hands, and even the Parthians seem to have cared little for the Prophet's faith.

The Religion Described by Strabo

Of the classical accounts of the Iranian religion after Herodotus, Strabo's is the most important because it shows how Iranian religion in general was approximating more and more to the type of Zoroastrianism we know from the Avesta and the Pahlavi books. It is true that Strabo distinguishes separate fire and water sacrifices among the Magians, but this is not surprising, for the Yasna as we have it today would seem to be composed of one main sacrifice which must originally have included the slaying of a sacrificial bull as well as the ritual immolation of the Haoma, and of a subsidiary rite which follows the recitation of the Gathas and which is mainly concerned with the propitiation of the waters. Both the sacrifices described by Strabo reflect genuine Zoroastrian practices. He describes how only dry wood may be used, how the fire may only be fanned, not blown upon, and how anyone impious enough to defile the fire with dead matter or dung was put to death. All this is consonant with the extreme care Zoroastrians have always taken not to defile their most sacred element, and Parsee priests to this day wear a cloth over the nose and mouth to prevent them blowing on the fire. Again, in the water sacrifice the Magi are said to have held a bundle of rods, a practice among the Zoroastrians that still survives. In Cappadocia, where the Magi were numerous, he notes other peculiarities which tally nicely with genuine Zoroastrian practice. The Magian priests are called pyraithoi, 'fire-priests', an exact translation of the Avestan athaurvan. Moreover, they did not kill the sacrificial victim with a knife but by striking it with a log of wood on the forehead -a custom that we meet with again in the Pahlavi books. Sacrifices are no longer celebrated in the open air as they were in Herodotus' time, but in a fire-temple 'in the middle of which is an altar with a great deal of ashes on it; there the Magi guard a fire which is never allowed to go out. They enter these [temples] by day and chant for almost an hour in front of the fire, holding a bundle of rods, wearing felt head-gear which falls down on both sides so that the cheek-pieces cover the lips'. All this might be said of the present-day Zoroastrianism and it is strange that Strabo should report this rite as taking place in Cappadocia rather than in Persis.

Declin and Fall of 'Catholic' Zoroastrianism

In the first part of this book we have attempted to give an account of Zoroastrianism as it developed before and during the Achaemenian period, and we have seen that the Prophet's message became increasingly adulterated, probably as a result of political pressures. Yet, however much Darius' religious opinions may have approximated to those of the Prophet, and however zealous Xerxes may have been in his suppression of the cult of the daevas, neither is remembered in the later Zoroastrian tradition, nor, for that matter, is Artaxerxes I who introduced a Zoroastrian calendar. This can surely only mean that the Zoroastrian reformers of the early Sassanian period did not look back on the Achaemenian dynasty with any favour: indeed, they did not so much as remember the names of the ancient kings, and speak only of 'Darius, son of Darius', by whom they presumably mean Darius III who allegedly 'commanded that two copies of all the Avesta and Zand should be written even as Zoroaster had received them from Ohrmazd, and that one should be preserved in the Royal Treasury and one in the National Archives'. This total ignorance of the greatest Empire it has fallen to the lot of an imperial race to rule displayed by the theologians of the later Empire can only mean that the 'orthodox' never regarded the Achaemenian period as being a particularly glorious one for the Zoroastrian religion. It must have been regarded as a period of laxness and compromise in which the message of the Prophet had become obscured, and the Good Religion had come to terms with much that was not good. Thus while King Vishtaspa who befriended the Prophet and all his other associates are remembered, the far greater glories of the house of Achaemenians are totally forgotten. If they were Zoroastrians, then their Zoroastrianism was not of a kind that appealed to their successors. The antipathy of the later Zoroastrians towards the polytheism of the Yashts in which the Wise Lord suffers the humiliation of having to worship other gods and is incapable of preserving his own handiwork without the all-powerful aid of the external souls of men, is illustrated by the fact that no Pahlavi translation of the Yashts survives. This excessive aggrandisement of created spirits was not regarded as being consonant with the majesty of God, and the Yashts -with the notable exception of those addressed to Sraosha and Haoma -were quietly allowed to fall into disuse. During the period of the later Avesta, Zoroastrianism, the only prophetic religion ever produced by the Aryan race, very nearly lapsed right back into being a nature religion pure and simple, and was only revived in something approaching its original form by the royal protection of a self-consciously Persian dynasty, which sought to impose unity on its racially heterogeneous Empire through religious uniformity.

Of all the great religions of the world Zoroastrianism was the least well served. Zoroaster himself has every right to the title he claimed: he was a prophet and his claim to be such deserves to be taken as seriously as is that of Moses or Muhammad; but his successors never fully understood his message, nor had they a living and authentic tradition to guide them. During the Achaemenian period and after, they seem to have indulged in a liberalism and an indifferentism that was wholly at variance with the Prophet's spirit while, in the Sassanian period, they went to the other extreme and tried to impose a strict orthodoxy which few could tolerate. Moreover, they interpreted the Prophet's message so dualistically that their God was made to appear very much less than all-powerful and all-wise. Reasonable as so absolute a dualism might appear from a purely intellectual point of view, it had neither the appeal of a real monotheism nor had it any mystical element with which to nourish its inner life.

The Gathas of Zoroaster, despite our relative ignorance of the language in which they are written and despite the difficulty of the Prophet's own thought, do make an impact: they have a direct and urgent message to convey: they are spiritually alive. The later Avesta, and particularly the Yashts, has its moment of freshness and beauty, but it neither fascinates nor awes, while the Videvdat, the latest production of the Avestan age, shows so spiritual life at all, only a futile legalistic dualism which, if it had ever been put into practice, would have tried the patience of even the most credulous. The productions of the Sassanian and post-Sassanian age are little better: they neither inspire nor please. One is tempted to say that all that was vital in Zoroaster's message passed into Christianity through the Jewish exiles, whereas all that was less than essential was codified and pigeon-holded by the Sassanian theologians so that it died of sheer inanition.

In the long run the fall of the Sassanian dynasty had a far more lasting effect on Iran's destinies than did the fall of the far greater house of Achaemenians, for it not only smashed Zoroastrianism as a national power, but also destroyed it as a cultural influence: for the Muhammadan conquest resulted in the re-emergence from the ruins of defeat of a culture not at all Zoroastrian but wholly Muslim in content, which was to make Iran for the first time a cultural as well as a political power of the first magnitude. Islam did not succeed in Iran simply because it was the religion of the conqueror; it succeeded because Zoroastrianism, in its reformed as much as in its catholic form, had been tried and found wanting. All this does not detract on whit from the stature of the Iranian Prophet himself, who remains one of the greatest religious geniuses of all time. It merely shows how political vicissitudes can strangle the life out of even a great religion with a vital message for man, and turn it into something wholly different from what the founder had intended. Also it must be said that Zoroastrianism lacked what all other religions have had -a living and continuous tradition. When the religion was revived under the Sassanians, it must have become lamentably apparent to the reformers that they could, in fact, make nothing of their own sacred texts and had to rely, very much more than the modern scholar has to do, on mere guesswork. It is impossible to revive a religion once the well-springs of the original revelation have been allowed to dry up, and once the sacred language itself has become so sacred that it is no longer understood even by those who set themselves up as its official interpreters.

Abstracted from : The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, R.C. Zaehner, New York, 1961

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