GUEST POST: The Roots of Zoroastrianism, part 1

Zarathushtra, the Vedas, and Indo-Iranian Religion

I’m very happy to have another guest piece to bring you all today. In this piece, L. C. Nielsen takes us through the ancient roots of Zoroastrianism in the Proto-Indo-European peoples and in contrast to India’s ancient Vedic religion. The Vedas and Zarathusthra’s Gathas seem to be working from a common religious vocabulary but they take that shared heritage in very different directions. This is the first of what should be a two-parter covering Zoroastrianism’s origins. Enjoy!

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by L. C. Nielsen

The story of the Indo-Iranians begins in Central Asia around 2000 BC. More precisely, it begins along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in what is today Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan, along which a group of pastoralists were migrating. They, or perhaps their elites, referred to themselves as Ariya—that is, Aryans. Today, we call them the Proto-Indo-Iranians. Part of this group would migrate toward the southeast, encountering the urbanized peoples of what we call the Bactria-Margiana Complex in Northern Afghanistan and eventually the Indus Valley Civilization. We refer to this migrating group as the Indic peoples (or Indo-Aryans). The part of the group that, for the time being, remained in the northern part of Central Asia, are known to us as the Iranian peoples. This split was complete by around 1800 BC.

These peoples had no writing, and would not for many centuries to come. Yet their cultural practices and thoughts are not entirely lost to us. For they had strong oral traditions, hymns and mantras regarded as sacred and integral to their religious practices, and a clerical caste tasked with preserving them. The oldest surviving Indo-Iranian traditions are found in the Rgveda (or Rigveda), still sacred to Hindus today. These are composed in Old Indic, the most archaic known dialect of Sanskrit. The more archaic layers of these hymns constitute books 2-7 of the Rgveda, accounting for about a third of the text, or roughly 4000 lines. These reflect the beliefs of what is called Vedic society in the centuries surrounding 1500 BC, although they must have been transmitted orally until at least the 2nd-3rd century BC. While belonging to the Indic branch of the Indo-Iranian societies, they form part of a context necessary to comprehend the roots of Iranian culture.

Hypothesized movement of Proto-Indo-European peoples from 4000 (pink) to 1000 (orange) BC (Dbachmann via Wikimedia Commons)

Indo-Iranian religious beliefs were a branch of what is called Indo-European religion. As such, they were related to the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons no doubt familiar to the reader. Ultimately, these branches all go back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) society originating in the Pontic-Caspian steppe (Eastern Ukraine, southern Russia) around 4000 BC. The end of PIE society can be dated to about 2500 BC, with the split between Greek, Armenian, and Indo-Iranian groups. Some important reconstructed core principles of PIE religion can be briefly summarized as follows:

  • Being human was synonymous with being mortal and dwelling on the earth; the gods, by contrast, were immortal and dwelled in the heavens. Among animals, cattle and horses were of paramount importance. It is often thought that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were among the first to domesticate the horse.

  • The divine reflected social order. In particular, it is thought that an idealized tripartite social order existed—clerics/rulers, warriors, and pastoralists. These were probably not rigid heritable "castes" as we might imagine them today. “Warriors," for example, may simply have originated as an idealization of unmarried young men.

  • Proto-Indo-European society was decidedly patriarchal, using the literal sense of patriarchy meaning "rule by the father". The masculine "generative force" is a central theme of Indo-European myth, and coupled with veneration of the central deity, "Father Sky" (PIE: *Dyeus Phter, the root of Zeus, Jupiter, and the Latin deus). An illustrative example of this motif is found in the 8th-century BC Theogony of Hesiod, where the emasculation of Ouranos ("Heaven") to prevent him from impregnating Gaia ("Earth") is a central event.

  • A second representation of masculinity was found in a serpent-slaying, club-wielding strongman god of storms. The most obvious reflection of this deity is the Norse Thor; another example is Herakles, though storms are the domain of Zeus in Greek myth.

There are many other recurring motifs to consider, but these will do for now. With this in mind, we should consider how they were reflected in the aforementioned Vedic religion. In the Rgveda, two celestial deities are of primary cosmological importance: Varuna and Indra. Both names are of uncertain etymology—Varuna may be connected to the Greek Ouranos, but this is not provable for linguistic reasons. Their claims to lordship are staked out as follows in Rv. 4.42, which celebrates their union Indra-Varuna:

Varuna: Lordship certainly belongs to me, I, the eternal sovereign, as all the Immortals acknowledge ... I make the dripping waters rise, by Rta, I uphold the sky. By Rta, I am the one who rules in accordance with Rta.

Indra: Men who drive swiftly, drawn by noble steeds, summon me when the battle turns against them. For I provoke strife—I, the mighty Indra! I whirl up the dust, my strength is overwhelming. No divine power can constrain me, the invincible one. When lauds and draughts of Soma have inebriated me, both the unbounded regions grow frightened.

Their roles are complementary and dynamic. Another hymn, Rv. 7.23, celebrates how Indra, riding his chariot full of plunder, separated the heavens and earth and released the "cosmic waters" through his brute strength as he defeated the serpent Vrtra ("the obstacle"). Conversely, Varuna, as described above, sustains this separation. The transgressive Indra can escape any fetters; Varuna (Rv. 7:86) binds transgressors with divine fetters. Varuna is described as an Asura (probably cognate with Aesir, ultimately from a root meaning "to beget"—a possible translation would therefore be "lord" or "patriarch"), while Indra is a Deva (from a root meaning "to Shine", cognate with Dyeus, the daylit sky). Varuna's role as the maintainer of the cosmic principle Rta is of chief importance to us. Rta has no exact translation in the English language (common approximations are "Law" or "Righteousness"). But as we saw above, Rta pertains not only to human society, but also to the laws of nature (the flow of rivers, motions of heavenly bodies, suspension of the sky). Therefore, a preferable if unwieldy translation would be the natural order of things, in nature and society alike.

It is in relationship to this Vedic cosmology that Iranian religion is best explored. The most ancient surviving source for Iranian religion is the Gathas, the seventeen hymns traditionally attributed to Zarathushtra (or Zoroaster, the name used by some ancient Greek authors), totalling about 3000 words. They are composed in a now-liturgical language called Avestan after the name of the collected Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta. It is not the direct ancestor of any surviving Iranian language, and is too old to belong in either the West Iranian (e.g. Persian, Parthian, Kurdish) or East Iranian (e.g. Pashto, Sogdian, Ossetian) language groups.

Image of Zarathushtra/Zoroaster in a Zoroastrian temple in the Iranian city of Taft (A. Davey via Wikimedia Commons)

Owing to the Gathas' internal stylistic and thematic consistency, and their dissimilarity to other material, it is generally accepted by scholars that Zarathushtra was a real person, a cleric who lived in Central Asia (perhaps in today's Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan) and composed these verses around 1300 BC (plus/minus a few centuries). They were probably only written down in the early centuries AD. The dialect of the Gathas is highly mutually intelligible with the Old Indic of the Rgveda. The hymns are all addressed to the benevolent creator-deity Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord" (Ahura is cognate with Indic Asura). Seemingly set in a pastoral society in turmoil, they denounce cattle-theft, violence, and destructiveness, associating these with the worship of daevas (cognate with Indic deva). The daeva appear as martial, amoral entities who do not distinguish between good and evil.

Indo-Iranian migration patterns (OpenStreetMap contributors)

The Gathas are part of a traditional liturgy (yasna) that developed over the first millennium BC. Important parts of this liturgy such as the Zoroastrian creed (Yasna 12) reinforce the overarching message of the Gathas, including phrases such as "I will never again raid a Mazda-worshipping settlement" and "the Mazda-worshipping faith that puts down the weapon and calls off the attack". In addition to Mazda, worship is primarily directed at six abstract divinities: Asha (the Avestan equivalent of Rta), Vohu Manah (Good Thought), Armaiti (Devotion), Khshathra (Dominion), Haurvatat (Health), and Ameretat (Immortality). They give a glimpse of eschatology, anticipating the arrival of “those who bring benefit” (saoshyant) who, empowered by these divinities, will judge and punish evildoers. In the afterlife, all will be made to pass the bridge of reckoning, but only those whose good thoughts, good words, and good deeds outweigh their evil will be able to pass it without falling off.

The Gathas do not name any of the daeva, but one later Avestan tradition (the Vendidad) names Indra as one of the arch-daeva and the nemesis of Asha. There is no entirely agreed upon explanation for why daeva acquired a negative connotation in Iranian culture, or whether it was an innovation of Zarathushtra. However, because the strongman Indra is depicted as the leader of Daevas in Indic tradition, a great cattle-thief, chariot warrior, and plunderer, it is commonly suggested that Zarathusthra lived in a pastoral society threatened and sundered by bronze-age warfare, leading to a rejection of the "martial virtues" of Indra and his associates.

There is no exact equivalent to Ahura Mazda in Vedic religion, but Varuna probably comes the closest. But the emphasis on Mazda's benevolence and his role as creator of the material and spiritual worlds lacks a Vedic equivalent. Generally, there is a very clear contrast between Zoroastrian and Vedic tradition in that Zoroastrian tradition is moralizing and dualistic, presenting opposites of Good and Evil. Conversely, Vedic tradition tends to present opposite qualities as part of a complementary dynamic.

This, then, is the basis from which the Zoroastrian religion derives. In part 2, we will explore the ancient Avestan tradition in more detail.

L. C. Nielsen is an amateur scholar of Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic Iran. He is a regular contributor to the subreddit AskHistorians under the username "lcnielsen". When he's not immersing himself in thet latest publications on ancient Iran, he pursues a Ph.D. in Physics at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.