November 24 will be the 18th anniversary of the death of Freddie Mercury. Among very many other things, Mercury is probably the world’s most famous Zoroastrian. The beautiful drawing of Freddie to the right, by the way, was done by Julie Popowicz.
Zoroastrianism is often proclaimed to be the world’s first monotheistic religion. However, Mary Boyce, one of the leading 20th century scholars of Zoroastrianism, wrote in her On Mithra’s Part in Zoroastrianism that when one compares what is known about the polytheistic religion of the Iranians before Zoroaster, with what is known about Zoroastrianism itself, “the two are remarkably and disconcertingly similar, as if the second were a natural development from the first without any break in continuity.” Professor Boyce also wrote in her book-length study Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices that the earliest forms of Zoroastrianism included the worship of not only the “the six great Beings” but also “other beneficent divinities, which are the beneficent gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon.” [p. 55] In fact, Zoroaster himself called upon “Mazda and the other Ahuras.” [p. 61]
But despite Boyce’s consistent critique of what she called “the established academic dogma of the prophet’s [that is, Zoroaster’s] rigid monotheism”, when she died in 2006 an obituary (written by one of her students!) begins with the sentence:
The perspective of Mary Boyce, who has died aged 85, on Zoroastrianism, the world’s first monotheistic religion, was transformed by a year of fieldwork in 1966 among orthodox Zoroastrians in remote villages around the desert city of Yazd in central Iran.
But in the very next sentence, we are told that “What she discovered there led her to question many scholarly assumptions about the prophet Zoroaster and his followers.”!!!! One might never guess (in fact, how could one guess from what has just been said) that among these “scholarly assumptions” is the assertion that Zoroastrianism is a religion with one and only one God, in other words, precisely the kind of thinking that is intentionally perpetuated in the act of trumpeting Zoroastrianism as “the world’s first monotheistic religion”!!! It’s true that Boyce accepted, with strong and strongly worded reservations, the term “monotheism” as applicable to Zoroastrianism, while never tiring of criticizing those who misapplied anachronistic (and as will be shown below, not merely Christianizing but Protestantizing) interpretations to Zoroastrianism under the guise of “monotheism”.
Boyce always emphasized the simple fact that Zoroastrians have always recognized and worshipped multiple Deities. For example, according to Boyce, King Darius (who reigned from 522 to 486 BC) would “call upon ‘the other gods who are’ and upon ‘all the gods'” although Darius “only invoked Ahuramazda by name.” Artaxerxes II, who reigned from 404 to 358 BC, however, invoked the divine triad Ahuramazda, Anahita and Mithra — each by name, and from that time on all three Ahuras, along with Verethraghna, the Yazata (“one worthy of veneration”) of Victory “became the chief objects of popular devotion also.” And as Boyce’s choice of words implies, these four Deities were not the only “objects of popular devotion.” [p. 56 of Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices]
Many other Yazatas, in addition to that of Victory, were also revered in Zoroastrian Persia. Each of the twelve months had its own Yazata, and the same is true for each of the thirty days of each month. There was also a Yazata specifically for Prayer, named Sraosha (also known at the Yazata of Obedience). This Yazata gained in prominence during the Achaemenid period, but was already “beloved by Zoroaster himself. The prophet names him several times in the Gathas, and once (Y 33.5) calls him ‘greatest of all’, presumably as guardian of the means — prayer — through which man can approach God.” [p. 74]
The following three excerpts are all from Boyce’s monumental A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period:
From the days of ancient Greece Zoroaster’s own name had been familiar to the learned as that of a fabled Eastern sage; and when the Avesta came at last [in the 18th century] into [western] scholar’s hands, they sought eagerly in it for teachings which would justify this fame. At the time European men of letters acknowledged the twofold authority of Christianity and Reason, that of the former being as yet unchallenged by scientific advance; and Zoroaster’s faith, since it had been propounded by one of the great teachers of mankind, was expected to be of a kind which a rational Christian could approve. There was dismay when its scriptures showed it to be be on the contrary in many respects remote and strange. For one thing, it was a faith which acknowledged, under God, many lesser divine beings, who were reverenced with a wealth of complex rituals and observances. Christianity and acquaintance with Greek mythology had combined to create in Europe a conviction that polytheism belonged to the childlike past of the human race, having been superseded for all advanced peoples by monotheism. Protestant Christianity, moreover (in which faith most Western interpreters of Zoroastrianism were reared), had no high regard for ritualism, even in the worship of a single God. To accept Zoroastrianism as it was, and to try to understand Zoroaster’s teachings with the help of the living tradition, proved accordingly too much for the West; and a solution to the resulting dilemma was eventually found. in the middle of the 19th century, by the brilliant philologist Martin Haug. By painstaking study he isolated the Gathas (a group of seventeen ancient hymns) as the only part of the Avesta which could be regarded as the direct utterance of Zoroaster.; and he then proceeded, in all sincerity, to interpret these archaic and very difficult texts (concerning whose translation no two scholars to this day agree) independently from the actual beliefs and practices of Zoroaster’s followers, whose forbears, he thought, must have early corrupted their prophets teachings. Struggling as a pioneer with these baffling hymns, Haug managed to understand Zoroaster to have preached a strict monotheism — stricter even than that of the Hebrew prophets — rejecting while he did so all the rituals of sacrifice and worship, apart from prayer. He assumed, that is, that the prophet of ancient Iran had been the bearer of a rational and ethical theism, which was so remote from the concepts and customs of his own people that, though they brought themselves to accept his teachings, they could not long live with their austerity, but soon distorted them, relapsing more or less into their former beliefs and ways.
One consequence of this simplification of Zoroaster’s message was that it delayed recognition of his vital part in shaping those Messianic and eschatological doctrines which were to have so great an influence on later Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In seeking to exalt the prophet’s stature, Haug in fact diminished his role in the history of human thought. His thesis proved, however, a potent factor in the development of Zoroastrian studies, and even in that of modern Zoroastrianism. In Europe it was adopted by a number of leading scholars, who were happy to be enabled thus to view Zoroaster in a way acceptable to their own time and culture; and in India, where Haug expounded it in person in the 1860’s, it was warmly welcomed by one groups of Zoroastrians themselves. This was composed of Parsis who had received a Western education in Bombay, and who found in Haug’s theories a swift and radical solution to a problem that had been tormenting them, namely how to reconcile the elaborate doctrines and usages of their venerable faith with 19th century scientific thought, and to maintain its dignity against the assaults of Protestant Christian missionaries. They gave ardent support to the idea thus presented to them that Zoroaster had not been a dualist — a doctrinal position abhorrent to the proselytizing Christians — but had taught a very simple faith, free from all ritualism and subtleties of dogma. Hence to become his true disciples they had only to reform the existing religion on this basis, making it once more a creed to which any thinking man who was not an atheist could readily adhere.
These reformists, setting vigorously about their task, expressed themselves mostly in English, and so it was their voices which were chiefly heard in the West, where by a circular process they were welcomed as confirming scholarly interpretations of their ancient faith. Within their own community they met, however, with strenuous opposition from those, both learned and simple, who were not so ready to abandon the beliefs and customs of their forefathers for a religion newly defined at a European desk.
[from the Forward]
In his Gathas Zoroaster invokes, as well as Ahura Mazda and the seven Bounteous Immortals, the “other Ahuras” (who can only be Mitrha and Vouruna Apam Napat). He also refers by name to a number of the lesser yazatas: Sraosa, Asi, Geus, Tasan, Geus Urvan, Tusnamaiti, Iza — beings who win mention in his hymns, it seems, because of their close association with the rituals of sacrifice and worship. It is clearly implied in the prophet’s words what is stated in the tradition, that all these beings were part of the creation of Ahura Mazda, brought into being to help him oppose the forces of evil and owing him utter loyalty and obedience. This is the monotheism of Iran, preached by Zoroaster and maintained in the face of all adversity by his followers down to the 19th century AD: that in the beginning Ahura Mazda alone existed as a being worthy of worship, the solitary yazata, wholly wise, just and good. He is the only uncreated God, and is himself the first cause of all else that is good, whether divine or earthly, sentient or insentient — for after bringing into being his divine helpers he proceeded, through them, to fashion the world and all that is good in it, as a further means of confounding evil and bringing it in the end to nothingness.
… [T]hat the prophet himself venerated all these beings as individuals, together with Ahura Mazda, has the unwavering support of the whole Zoroastrian tradition down to the 19th century, as well as that of a minority of Western scholars. With respect to the alternate theory (that to Zoroaster they were merely ‘aspects’ of God) it has been justly said: ‘the fervor of piety has nothing to do with such … subtle distinctions, but addresses itself to divine Beings, whose beauty is felt here as fascinating and whose power is recognized as effective’. [Henry Corbin, Eranos-Jahrbuch XXII, 1953, 101] That attributes of a great god, having been isolated, should then be invoked and worshipped as independent divinities was already a characteristic of pagan Iranian religion, as we have already seen strikingly in the case of the lesser Ahura, Mithra: for around him, the Lord Loyalty, are grouped “Justice”, “Judgin”, “Valour” and “Obedience” (Arstat, Rasnu, Hamvereti, Sraosa); and close though these beings are to him, each has his or her own separate life, and all receive worship and offerings to secure their individual favors. Nor are these divinities less “abstract” than those of Zoroaster’s own revelation. Reverence for deities who personified “abstractions” appear a dominant feature of Indo-Iranian worship, as does also the linking of such “abstract” personifications with concrete phenomena — Loyalty with fire and sun, Troth with water. The mould in fact was already old in which Zoroaster cast his new doctrines.
[i hate to blow my own conch-shell, but how many places on teh internets are you gonna find somebody writing about freddie mercury and henry corbin in the same post? not that freaking many, that’s how many.]