The Indo-Iranian people believed in many gods, some of them personiﬁcations of natural phenomena, and others symbolizing social, military, and economic functions, as well as abstract concepts and moral values. These gods wielded great power both over natural events and man’s destiny.
The Iranian pantheon is a direct descendant of the Indo-Iranian pantheon and consists basically of two groups of gods, one the Ahuras and the other the Daevas. These originally controlled the social matters and forces of nature, respectively, but then they were metamorphosed into two opposing groups of good and evil gods. This happened in both the Indian and Iranian societies, with the difference that the Ahuras in Iran became the good deities, while the Daevas sank to the rank of mere demons, a process that worked oppositely among the Indians. Gods were worshipped through sacriﬁcial rituals and prayer to ensure their favor and gain their protection.
Unlike that of India, the mythology of Iran seems to have undergone a rapid change from polytheism to duality, or even an early version of monotheism, ending at last in a new religion, called Mazdaism (after the supreme god Ahuramazda/Ormozd) of Zoroastrianism (after its prophet Zoroaster).
Creation of the World
In Zoroastrianism, the Iranian pantheon is dominated by Ahuramazda (The Wise Lord), the creator of the world. In his omniscience, he recognized the existence of Angra Mainyu/Ahriman (The Hostile Spirit), the evil power, and Ahuramazda’s uncreated opponent, and foresaw his attack. Although Ahuramazda knew that the ﬁnal victory would be his, he nevertheless prepared for the defense of his realm. In doing this, Ahuramazda ﬁrst created the cosmos: the six Amesha Spentas (Beneﬁcent Immortals/Archangels), demigods (former’ beneﬁcent gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon), and the astral bodies all in a spiritual state.
The world remained in this state for 3,000 years. Ahriman, having risen from his abyss of total darkness, caught sight of the Light and the luminous nature of Ahuramazda’s world. He rushed to invade it, but opposed by Ahuramazda’s valor and fortitude, he had to retreat. There he “miscreated” many Daevas (Demons) and other demonic counterparts to each of Ahuramazda’s creations, including arch-ﬁends against each Amesha Spenta.
First Ahuramazda offered peace to Ahriman, but Ahriman refused it. In the words of the Gathas (Zoroaster’s hymns incorporated in the Avesta, the Holy Book of Zoroastrianism), this was the choice between (life and not life). Then Ahuramazda suggested 9,000 years as a limit for the duration of the battle, and Ahriman agreed to this covenant. At that moment, Ahuramazda revealed to his opponent the outcome of the battle, and having recited the most sacred Zoroastrian Ahuna Vairya prayer, he made Ahriman lie in a stupor for 3,000 years. During these years, Ahuramazda founded the universe in seven stages, in the following order: the sky, water, earth, plants, animals, man, and ﬁre. The sky was conceived as a round, hard vault, which encircled the earth and was made of bright, precious stone (Rock crystal).
Water ﬁlled the lower part of the Sphere of the sky and passed beneath the earth. The earth itself was created in three stages: ‘its hardcore, its soft crust of soil, and three the layer in between. Mountains grew from the earth like trees with “roots” underground, and the greatest of them was Hara (apparently Alborz in northern Iran). When the ﬁrst rain fell, the earth broke into seven pieces (countries), with Xvaniratha in the center, equal in size to all the other countries put together. In Xvaniratha lay Airyanam Vaejah, the kingdom of the Aryans, the best of all places, and the seat of all major phenomena and world events.
Airyanam Vaejah is described as having a winter of ten months’ duration and a summer-only two months long. In the middle of Airyanam Vaejah stood a lofty mountain which was the dwelling of Mehr (Mithra) the ancient Indo-Iranian god of sun and light that had retained his importance in Zoroastrianism. (Although the religion of Zoroaster was a rebellion against the preexistent the polytheistic religion, some of the old deities from the mythological era were allowed readmission.)
The mountain where Mithra lived is often identiﬁed with Damavand, the highest Iranian peak, and in the national tradition, the scene of several mythical and legendary events. After the fourth stage of creation, which produced plants, animal life was created, originating in the primeval bull. The sixth stage of creation brought forth Gayomaratan/Kiumars, primeval man. Often considered the seventh creation, ﬁre is also believed to have existed eternally. Having derived from the Endless Light, Ahuramazda’s abode, it is believed to anticipate the other creations. At this stage, Ahuramazda made the sun, the moon, and the stars, and assigned each creature the role it was to play during the battle. It was in the material world that the combat with the forces of evil was to take place.
While Ahriman lay prostrate, several of his demons tried to awake him, but only Jeh, the arch-whore, succeeded at the end of 3,000 years in rousing him from the spell. At noon, on the ﬁrst day of the ﬁrst month (day Ormozd of the month of Farvardin), Ahriman invaded Ahuramazda’s world, wreaking havoc in every direction. He killed the bull, but the bull’s seed resulted in the emergence of all the species of beneﬁcent animals.
Kiumars also perished as a result of Ahriman’s onslaught but gave rise to a rhubarb plant that developed into Mashya and Mashyana, the ﬁrst human couple. Ahriman also darkened the sky, spoiled the taste of water, let loose noxious creatures over the earth, withered plants, and mingled smoke with ﬁre. After ninety days of ferocious ﬁghting, the demons were thrown back into hell. They had had, nevertheless, time enough to corrupt the world, bringing it to its present “mixed state”.
The next stage of the world’s history also lasted three millennia. The ﬁrst millennium saw the rise of the Pishdadian kings, the second was entirely taken up by the tyrannical rule of Zahak, and the third was largely given over to the reign of the Kianians and the Iranian-Turanian wars; the advent of Zoroaster heralded its close.
The ﬁnal phase of the world’s history is likewise divided into three millennia, at the end of which future sons of Zoroaster will appear as Messiahs to ensure the defeat of the enemies. They are to be born of the Prophet’s seed, which is preserved in the Frazdan Lake (identiﬁed with Lake Hamun in Sistan).
At the appointed time, destined maidens will bathe in the lake, receive the seed, and give birth to the successive Saviors. The last one, Astvat-Ereta (Justice Incarnate), also simply called Sosyant (The Savior), will appear at the end of the third millennium to bring about the renovation of everything in existence. Meantime heaven and hell exist, with an individual judgment to decide the fate of each soul at death.
Departed souls cross the Chinvat Bridge, and are questioned by divinities to see whether they are worthy of entering paradise, a sunlit place Where all imaginable delights are possible, or whether they have to fall off the bridge and end in the subterranean kingdom of hell. Sosyant will resurrect the dead, and every person will view his good or evil deeds.
Zoroastrians do not call this the end of the world. They name it “renovation” because it is from this time that all goodwill succeed. The wicked will go through an ordeal by ﬁre so that their sins will be burnt. Then Sosyant and his helpers will prepare the beverage of immortality, and each soul will drink of it and become immortal. Ahriman will retreat into his dark abyss, and the forces of evil will be either powerless or annihilated. Various myths about the creation of the world and the nature of the universe had existed in Iran since heathen antiquity. Zoroaster seems only to have traced the diverse phenomena to a single origin, thus making intelligible the chaotic world.
Zoroaster probably did not try to create a new religion, rather, he saw himself as a reformer, recreating an “original” religion. Zoroaster offered humans a purpose in life (defeating the forces of evil) and a reasoned explanation for their sorrow and hardship. He preached that all these were brought on people by the Hostile Spirit and that helping the forces of goodness and accepting the will of an all-powerful creator would eradicate the evil, and therefore, human suffering. Zoroaster’s investing of Ahuramazda with greater power than before, and his particular vision of the role played by man, gave the old beliefs new perspective and coloring.
In Zoroastrianism, the universe is pictured as a battleﬁeld of good and evil, Rta (rightness) and Druj- (wrongness). Like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Zoroastrian religion assigns to man an honorable place in the community of creatures, but it goes even beyond the other doctrines by making man a relatively free and active agent in the scheme of the universe. Every man is free to choose either Ahuramazda or Ahriman, but his fate depends on this choice. The followers of Ahuramazda earn immortality, while the followers of Ahriman are condemned by their consciences and are doomed to death.
Divine attributes are found in every human being, who must work together with God to defeat evil and bring the world to perfection. This can be achieved by good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Soil, ﬁre, air, and water are not to be polluted belief that constitutes what is perhaps the ﬁrst ecological convention of the world. Fire is particularly revered no-Zoroastrian, for example, ever smokes. The doctrines of the Savior and the resurrection of the dead seem to be later additions to the Zoroastrian teaching. These tenets deeply influenced the later religious developments in the area Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions.