zoroaster, the first creator of the moral world we live in -- 2/19/19

Today's selection -- from A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy. Zoroaster was a Persian philosopher and reformer whom scholars believe lived between 1500 or 1000 BC.  Known as the "prophet who laughed," it is said that when he was born laughing. Though named after him, Zoroastrianism may have been an amalgamation of several religious traditions, and is likely the foundation for the current view of religious morality in which we live:

"It seems plausible that Zoroaster's religious revelation arose in the con­text of the changes, new demands, and new influences associated with ... migration, including the self-questioning of a culture faced with new neigh­bors and unfamiliar pressures. ...

"Zoroaster [may] not [have] invent[ed] a religion from nothing. Instead, he reformed and simplified pre-existing religious practices (against some resistance from traditional priests), infusing them with a much more sophisticated philosophical theology and a greater em­phasis on morality and justice. ...

"At the center of Zoroaster's theology was the opposition between Ahura Mazda, the creator-god of truth and light, and Ahriman, the embodiment of lies, darkness, and evil.  This dualism became a persistent theme in Iranian thought for centuries. Modern Zoroastrianism is much more strongly monotheistic, and to make this distinction more explicit many scholars refer to the religion in this early stage as Mazdaism. ...

Ahura Mazda relief in Persepolis

"Part of the creation myth in Zoroastrianism holds that after all was created good by Ahura Mazda, the evil spirit Ahriman (accompanied by six evil spirits matching the six Immortals) assaulted creation, murdering the first man, killing the sacred bull Vohu Manu, and polluting the pure elements of water and fire. ..

"The name Ahura Mazda means Lord of Wisdom, or Wise Lord. The dualism went a long way toward resolving the problem of evil that presents such difficulties for the monotheistic religions (the origin of evil in the world was Ahriman, against whom Ahura Mazda struggled for supremacy) and at least initially permitted a strong attachment to the ideas of free will (arising out of the necessity of human beings choosing between good and evil), goodness emerging in good actions, judgment after death, and heaven and hell. ...

"There are a number of contradictions between the later practice of Zoroastrianism, as it has come down to us in the written scriptures, and the apparent norms of the Mazdaean religion at this earliest stage. ... But the concepts of heaven and hell, of free human choice between good and evil, of divine judgment, of angels, of a single creator-god -- all appear to have been genuine early features of the religion, and all were hugely influential for religions that originated later. Mazdaism was the first religion -- in this part of the world, at least -- to move beyond cult and totemism to address moral and philo­sophical problems with its theology, emphasizing personal choice and re­sponsibility. In that limited sense, Nietzsche was right -- Zoroaster was the first creator of the moral world we live in."

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Michael Axworthy


A History of Iran 


Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group


Copyright 2008 by Michael Axworthy


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