Persia—Religion 1. Zarathustra and his faith 2. The “Off-shoots”: a) Mithraism b) Manichaeism 1.

Zoroaster and his faith --well, as I mentioned towards the beginning of the last class, the Persians were extremely important in terms of their contributions to the religious life of the ancient world --in fact, many of the religious ideas that circulated in the theologies of various Near Eastern, Mediterranean (and even modern Western) religions ultimately have as their source the spiritual ideas of the Iranian people --and, I think, the Persian contributions to the theology of subsequent religions is one of the most enduring and intrinsically fascinating parts of ancient Iranian culture --so, I think that we should probably spend some time talking about it --in the first place, it should be noted that the dominant religious system of the Persians (i.e., the one I’m going to describe in a moment) is ancient --in fact, it was already highly developed when Cyrus, Cambyses and Darius began their conquests in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE --scholars think that its roots can be traced back into the 15th century BCE (i.e., more than 3500 years ago), when the Iranians were still tending their flocks in the steppe country of central Asia --and perhaps it was the very antiquity of the Iranian religion that proved so appealing, so persuasive, to those whom the Persians conquered --indeed, in the words of one historian “So strong was its appeal, and so ripe were the conditions for its acceptance, that it spread quickly throughout most of western Asia” --and, wherever the Persian religion went, it turned the doctrines of other faiths completely inside out --wherever it went, it triumphed over, or displaced religious beliefs that had been held for ages --so, what was the Persian religion all about? a) Zarathustra --well, even though its roots can be traced back into the remote past, the real founder of the Persian religious system was a cattle-herder and prophet named Zoroaster (the Greek form) or Zarathustra (the Persian form), who probably lived around 600 BCE --apparently, the name translates as “the yellow (or old) camel” --while we might not think of this as the most distinguished of names, it was nevertheless intended to convey ideas of wisdom and preciousness (old age was respected; camels were expensive)


--anyway, Zarathustra is the primary founder of the Zoroastrian religion, a faith that can also be called Mazdaism (for reasons that will become clear a bit later) --unfortunately, not much is known about Zarathustra’s life --what we do know comes to us largely from the holy books of the Zoroastrian religion; these are called: the Avesta , a collection of poetry, biographical material and ethical teachings --the Avesta contains a collection of poems called the Gathas which appear to be the most ancient texts of the Zoroastrian world --from these books (and from later Greek sources), it appears that Zarathustra grew up in a rural area, perhaps in what is now the northeastern part of modern Iran (i.e., perhaps in what is now Azerbaijan) --apparently, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, as a young man, Zarathustra was kicked out, or expelled, from his original home, and was forced to wander around for a number of years with a small group of followers --one of the Gathas from this period records Zarathustra’s lamentable situation; in it, he says: To what land should I turn? Where should I go? …Neither the community I follow pleases me, nor do the wrongful rulers of the land... I know... that I am powerless. I have but a few cattle and…a few men --finally, however, Zarathustra found an ally in the king of Bactria, a small territory in what is now modern Afghanistan --his quick wit, his prophetic abilities and a pronounced gift for poetry quickly won over the royal family, and it appears that Zarathustra became a sort of “court prophet” to the Bactrian king --he lived in the royal compound, got married and had a number of children --for the remainder of his life, he served the king: he preached, he prophesied, he wrote the Avesta and he entertained the Bactrian nobles with inspired poetry readings --all in all, it was quite a comfortable life --we don’t know when or how he died, though there is a later tradition that Zarathustra was killed by a foreign enemy while praying in a Zoroastrian sanctuary (temple) --however, because this story appeared so late (i.e., many centuries after his death), historians and religious scholars can’t be sure of the authenticity of the tale b) Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism) --but what did Zarathustra believe, and how did his teachings come to have such a profound influence on other religions of the ancient world? --well, let’s deal with the first question first and then move on to the second


--it appears that Zarathustra was entirely convinced that he was an intermediary (or prophet) between humanity and the one true god, a deity known to the Persians as Ahura Mazda (which means “Wise Lord”) --Zarathustra taught that Ahura Mazda was the only god worthy of worship --indeed, Ahura Mazda was the creator of heaven and earth, he was the sovereign law giver, he was the centre of nature, he was the judge of the entire world --he represented goodness, and justice and light --and, as might befit the Lord of Creation, Ahura Mazda was surrounded by six angelic beings, or entities, which Persians called the “Beneficent Immortals” --these were Ahura Mazda’s winged messengers: they praised him, they intervened for him in earthly affairs, they did his bidding whenever they were asked --in many respects, they look very much like the “choirs of angels” that surrounded the Christian god in Medieval and early modern European depictions --well, if Ahura Mazda was the embodiment of light and goodness, then at the other end of the spectrum we have Ahriman, a being of infinite evil --like the Christian devil, Ahriman was once a being of light who freely chose to be separated from the great god Ahura Mazda --also like the Christian Satan, Ahriman is surrounded by a large group of demonic followers, and in fact, these followers are referred to in ancient Persian as daevas (i.e., the ultimate source of the English word “devil”) --so, on the one side you have Ahura Mazda who embodies the principles of light, truth and righteousness, and on the other side you have Ahriman, who presides over a realm of darkness and evil --well, according to Zoroastrian doctrine, from the beginning of time these two divine presences have been locked in a desperate, titanic battle for supremacy of the universe and for the souls of all humankind --though Zoroastrians believe that the two are evenly matched, they also believe that Ahura Mazda’s triumph is foreordained, that he will ultimately defeat Ahriman and his demonic army --they maintain that on the last great day, Ahura Mazda will cast Ahriman into a fiery abyss as the dead are raised up from their graves and judged according to their earthly deeds --the righteous will enter a divine pleasure garden, a celestial paradayadam (remember? This is the Persian word for a garden/ the source of our word “paradise”) --the wicked, of course, will be sent along with Ahriman to the flames of hell --however, evil people will ultimately be redeemed, because in the Zoroastrian worldview, the torments of hell do not last for ever --this whole scenario is what we call a dualistic worldview --what do I mean by “dualism” in this context? --well, all of the other religions that existed up until that time maintained that the gods were capable of both good and evil


--that is, most ancient people thought that the gods acted more or less like human beings, so, depending how a god such as Ishtar or Isis was feeling, it could be generous, kindly or angry --it depended entirely on the situation and the mood of the particular god --the Zoroastrians, however, were the first to maintain that divine personalities were incapable of acting in a manner that was contrary to their essential nature --so, Ahura Mazda, being essentially good, could only be good --Ahriman, being entirely evil, could only act evil --it was intrinsic to who they were --this made Zoroastrianism unique amongst religions of the ancient world, and in fact, historians believe that even Judaism adopted many of its early beliefs from this ancient Persian religious system --for example, until the ancient Hebrews encountered Zoroastrians on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates during their Babylonian exile, Judaism had little tradition of messianism --that is, ancient Jews don’t appear to have believed that they were waiting for the emergence of a messiah --instead the Hebrew religion acquired this idea from a Zoroastrian concept called the saoshyant --the saoshyant was a figure in the Gathas who helped Ahura Mazda defeat the forces of evil; it’s believed that this concept appealed to many of the Jews who were living in Mesopotamia during the exile, and that they soon came to apply it to their religion --even the Jewish idea of hell was probably influenced by Zoroastrian notions --indeed, it seems that before contact with the followers of Zarathustra, Hebrews believed that hell was a dull, wind-swept place called Sheol (very much like the Greek concept of Hades), it was only after contact with the Zoroastrians that they adopted the more familiar idea of a burning, fiery pit of hell --there are a number of other examples of this kind of “cross-pollination” as well --well, religious scholars maintain that the dualism inherent in the Zoroastrian faith also made it one of the first moral or ethical religions of the human past --indeed, even though it presented a cosmic view in which everyone is saved in the end, it also put a tremendous emphasis on ethical, upright behaviour --this was so that morally righteous people will not have to spend even a moment in the horrible pit of hell --thus, Ahura Mazda (and his prophet Zarathustra) commanded that people should be truthful, that they should love and help people to the best of their abilities, that they should befriend the poor and that they should practice hospitality --so, in the religious texts of the Zoroastrians, we see some of the first instances of moral ideas that would eventually become quite common later on --for example, according to the Avesta, “whosoever shall give meat to one of the faithful, he shall go to Paradise”


--in fact, Zarathustra commanded that his followers should meet an ethical standard that was very much like later Christian attitudes --and throughout the Zoroastrian texts there are admonitions against: pride, anger, adultery, lust, laziness and a host of other behaviors --Zarathustra ordered that his followers couldn’t accumulate wealth and that they couldn’t lend money at interest --there’s even an early version of the Golden Rule --according to the Avesta, “One shall not do unto another whatever is not good for one’s own self” --well, this is the essential form of the Zoroastrian religion --it was practiced widely throughout western Asia from ca. 1500 BCE to ca. 650 CE --around that time (650 CE), it was supplanted by the Islamic faith, which, as you know, came to dominate the entire region --nevertheless, the religion did survive, and even today, there are probably about 200,000 followers of Ahura Mazda worldwide --most of them were kicked out of Iran during Islamic Revolution of the 1980s --they now live in India, where they are referred to as the Parsees 2. The “Off-Shoots” --well, the religion of Zarathustra couldn’t remain untouched for very long --just as Zoroastrianism had affected other faiths wherever it traveled, so too was the Persian religion influenced by a number of outside forces --for example, as Zoroastrianism traveled throughout Iran, it began to incorporate a number of primitive superstitions and magical ideas; indeed, it was largely during this period that the great priesthoods of the magi (or magush) began to flourish --and, as the years passed, a number of alien faiths in Mesopotamia and other places began to make additional modifications so that before long, there was a proliferation of many different Zoroastrian sects and cults a) Mithraism --the oldest of these cults is a system called Mithraism, which ultimately became one of the most widespread and influential religious sects of the ancient world --it is called “Mithraism” after its chief god, Mithras (or Mitra, in Persian) --originally, Mithras was one of Ahura Mazda’s chief lieutenants, one of his helpers in the cosmic battle against the forces of evil --he was a sort of angelic figure (who intervened between humanity and Ahura Mazda), but ultimately became a kind of miracle worker and redeemer --and around 400 BCE, a number of Persians and Mesopotamians began worshipping Mithras in his own right --according to the most ancient stories concerning Mithras, he was the son of Ahura Mazda and was born on December 25 to his virgin mother (in a cave)


--because he was born in a cave, the name petra or Peter, became especially important to his cult following, and it was said that just like the Christian Peter, Mithras held the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” --soon after his birth, three Iranian priests, or magi, brought gifts to him and his mother --as he grew up, he led an exemplary life and performed many miracles and healings --for example, it was said that Mithras raised the dead, healed the sick, made the blind see, and he cast out devils --according to the stories that have been left to us, Mithras also called on a band of 12 followers, these followers were so loyal to him, that on the night before he returned to heaven, they shared a final dinner with him --as well, he insisted that his followers be purified by baptism and that they should participate in a type of sacrament in which bread and wine were especially prominent --well, Mithraism clearly shared a number of superficial similarities with the story of Jesus, and it’s interesting to note, that this offshoot of Zoroastrianism entered the Mediterranean world about 2 centuries before Christianity --it became popular amongst Romans by about the 1st century BCE, and drew its converts from the lower classes of Roman society as well as from the military, foreigners and slaves --ultimately, it rose to become one of the most important religions of the Roman world, and was a direct competitor with Christianity for the attentions of the Roman people --by the end of the 3rd century CE, however, its strength waned considerably --modern scholars have suggested that Mithraism’s exclusion of women probably accounted for its precipitous decline, especially when other faiths such as Christianity were actively seeking female participation --well, as I say, it’s not hard to see the superficial resemblance between Christianity and Mithraism --however, this doesn’t mean that the two religions were identical or that one was an offshoot of the other --nevertheless, it probably means that Christianity, as the younger of the two religions, probably borrowed a number of its externals from Mithraism, while at the same time preserving its own sense of philosophical integrity and distinctness Manichaeism --while Manichaeism as an independent religious system has all but died out in the modern age, during its Silk Road heyday it was one of the fastest growing and most influential religions around --even today, we can see the residue of Manichaean theology and Manichaean ideas in many religions, most notably Christianity, Islam and Buddhism --so, let me tell you a little about the Manichaean faith


--as your textbook notes, the Manichaean religion was first preached by the Persian prophet whom tradition calls Mani --however, the name Mani is not a personal name --instead, like the name “Christ” which means “the Anointed One” or the name “Buddha” which means “the Enlightened One,” the name “Mani” is a title of respect, and it probably means something akin to “the King of Light” or even “the Illustrious” --in fact, we don’t know what Mani’s given name was, though he apparently was descended from a wealthy family whose roots straddled the territory between Babylon and Persia (i.e., the modern border between Iran and Iraq) --his dates are approximately 216-276 of the Common Era --anyway, as a boy, Mani was a follower of Zoroastrianism --however, Mani also came under the spell of other faiths, other philosophies: --the camel-pullers, the silk merchants and the copper traders whom Mani no doubt encountered as a young man, brought with them news and stories of the outside world --these nameless wayfarers, or others under their influence, no doubt told Mani about the hanged carpenter of the Roman world, or about the young prince of northern India who rejected all worldly attainments and instead became a wandering ascetic --thus, at a very early age, Mani was deeply influenced by Christianity (which was entering Persia from the west) and Buddhism (which was entering Persia from the east) --before long, Mani began to view the three faiths as part of a world system: he regarded Zoroaster as the prophet of Persia, he regarded Buddha as the prophet of India and he regarded Jesus as the prophet of the Mediterranean world --however, Mani also began to think that he was the only one who saw a connection between the three religions --increasingly, therefore, he began to see the need for a single prophet of all humanity, one who would bring together the three great faiths of the Silk Road and unite them in a syncretic blend that reflected the needs of an increasingly cosmopolitan world --and of course, increasingly, he began to view himself as that prophet --as Mani himself once declared: “Just as Buddha once came to India, and Zoroaster came to Persia, and Jesus came to the lands of the West, so there comes in the present time, this prophecy through me, the Mani, the prophet of the land of Babylonia", --he began to call himself the "Apostle of the true God” and to preach his faith throughout his homeland and beyond --the faith he preached was actually quite simple, even elegant --like Zoroastrianism, it was a dualist religion --that is, Mani and his followers viewed the world as the site of a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, light and dark --in fact, according to the Manichaean system, the created world came into existence quite by accident: it’s the product of the titanic battle between unseen forces --the only reason that we can see light and shadow mingled together in this world, is that light and shadow are currently in a contest in the next world to see which will ultimately dominate the cosmos


--importantly, Mani associated light with the idea of spiritual awareness and darkness with the material world: Light = Goodness = Spiritual Awareness Dark = Evil = Material World --thus, he urged his followers to reject mundane, or worldly, pleasures, which he believed weighed down the soul and entangled it in the snare of matter --instead, he said, humans should strive to rise up towards the light --towards this end, Mani promoted a highly ascetical lifestyle --he encouraged his followers to abstain from meat and dairy, that they should eat vegetables sparingly, they should not marry or engage in sexual intercourse --in addition to this he prescribed prayers and vigils, fasting and a strict moral code --the faithful were divided into two groups: 1) the elect, 2) the hearers --the first group is hardcore, the second is devout, but less rigorous --if they lived according to the precepts of Mani’s faith, both groups looked forward eternal salvation, life after death and union with the forces of light --from the beginning, Manichaeism was a zealous missionary religion --Mani himself traveled throughout the Near and Middle East preaching his gospel and trying to convert people to his faith --he traveled east and west along the Silk Road, he dispatched apostles along the route and he corresponded widely with followers of his new religion --in fact, he is supposed to have been a great painter, and at Bamiyan (the same place which housed the giant Buddhas), there are several wall paintings (i.e., frescoes) that are attributed to him—so he appears to have traveled as far as northern Afghanistan --by the time of his martyrdom in 276, he left a flourishing church: one with its own services, liturgies and rituals --after his death, Mani’s followers continued to preach the religion --in fact, Manichaeism spread with extraordinary rapidity throughout both the east and west. --so, for example, we know that it reached Egypt by ca. 250 CE, and that it was flourishing at Rome by 280 --in fact, by 300 CE, there were several Manichaean monasteries in Rome and throughout the cities of the western Empire --a Christian writer, named Hilary of Poitiers, was so concerned about the spread of Manichaeism in southern France that, in the middle of the 4th century CE, he wrote several letters and essays condemning it --of course, the most famous follower of Manichaeism in the west was St. Augustine of Hippo (who I’m going to be telling you about in the lecture on Christianity) --Augustine was probably the most important Christian thinker between the time of St. Paul and that of Martin Luther --yet, for more than ten years before his conversion to the Christian faith, Augustine was a follower of Mani’s religion


--he details his experiences with the Persian religion throughout the pages of the Confessions, his most famous work --Manichaeism also found a purchase in the east --traveling along the Silk Road, Mani’s religion found its way to northern India, western China and even Tibet --in fact, it became the dominant religion of Tibet until the 13th century, when it was supplanted, or replaced, by Buddhism --in its heyday, Manichaean monasteries and churches could be found throughout the farflung reaches of eastern Asia: at Chang’an, Luoyang and all the major cities of medieval China and India