Under Persia’s Achaemenid dynasty, before Darius, temples had appeared for the first time. Related to the Aryans who had invaded India, or a least having a language closely related to the Aryans, the Persians had gods similar to those found in the sacred Hindu Vedas. Among the Persians were a people called Medes, and a priesthood called the Magi had come to dominate the Medes religion. The major god of the Medes was Zurvan, a god of time and destiny. Another god of the Persians was Mazda, whom Darius adopted in an effort to unify his empire. And in western Persia the god Mithra and goddess Anahita were also worshiped.
The Persians buried their dead above ground, their faith holding that a corpse defiled the earth. As a religious people they saw virtue in modest eating, in having only one meal a day and nothing to drink but water. They valued cleanliness and associated a lack of cleanliness with the devil and his diseases. Severe penalties were given to those thought to have spread disease by their uncleanness. And concern with the evils of the Devil led to stern laws against what the Persians saw as sinful sexuality, including masturbation, promiscuity and prostitution.
Etiquette was important to the Persians. Persians holding superior positions in society offered their cheeks to be kissed by those of a lower status, while equals embraced each other and kissed on the lips. The Persians thought it unbecoming to eat or drink anything in the street, or to spit, and like the Japanese today they thought it rude to blow one’s nose around others. And in this age of travel and contacts among people, Persians were described by others as a hospitable, generous, warm hearted, open and honest in speech.
In keeping with their concern for others, Persian punishments for crimes were severe. The punishment for manslaughter was ninety strokes with a horsewhip. Capital crimes included treason, rape, sodomy, cremating or burying the dead, murder, accidentally sitting on the king’s throne, invading the king’s privacy or approaching one of his concubines. Death was administered by poisoning, stabbing, crucifixion, hanging, stoning, burying one up to his head, smothering one in hot ashes, crushing one’s head between huge stones or other methods of serving Mazda in his battle against the Devil.
According to legend, Zoroastrianism had origins in a prophet named Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, who appeared sometime after the Persians had arrived in Iran. It was said that when Zarathustra was born his laugh scattered the evil spirits that had been hanging around him as they did around all people. Legend claims that Zarathustra grew up with a love of wisdom and righteousness. It was said that when he was thirty he immersed himself in water during a spring religious festival and when he emerged in a state of purity he had a vision of a shining being who introduced himself as Good Purpose. According to the legend, Good Purpose took Zarathustra up a mountain to the great god, Mazda. And Zarathustra came down off the mountain with a message that he wished to preach to all humanity.
Legend describes Zarathustra as having had a vision of Mazda as all wise and the source of all justice and goodness, from which all other divine supporters of goodness emanated. Zarathustra perceived wickedness and cruelty as residing in Mazda’s adversary: the Devil. Here, according to Zarathustra, was the answer to why righteous people suffered.
According to Zarathustra, when Mazda and the Devil first met, Mazda created life and the Devil created its opposite: death. Thereafter, according to Zarathustra, a struggle took place between Mazda and the Devil. Zarathustra described Mazda’s goodness and creation of life as the force of light, and he described the Devil as the ruler of darkness, including the world of hell under the earth. Zarathustra described the Devil as the leader of all the evil spirits that hovered in the air, tempting people to commit crime and sin. He described the Devil as creating not only darkness but winter, ants, locusts, vermin, serpents, sin, sodomy, menstruation and the other plagues of life that had ruined the paradise into which Mazda had placed the first humans.
According to Zarathustra, people in the great battle between Mazda and the Devil were responsible for choosing between right and wrong. Zarathustra called people to a rigid discipline to support Mazda’s goodness. And he claimed that in this struggle between right and wrong, every man, woman and child had a guardian angel that was under Mazda’s leadership — an angel that helped them achieve virtue.
According to legend, people ridiculed Zarathustra and persecuted him. But then a king was converted to Zarathustra’s teachings, and the religion of Zarathustra spread. When this might have happened is unknown, for none of the Persian kings mentioned Zoroaster in their inscriptions nor mentioned supernatural beings that were unique to Zoroastrianism, and the early Zoroastrians left no records. Long after Zarathustra, Zoroastrians priests declared writing unfit for Zarathustra’s holy words, but the Zoroastrian priesthood did leave a legend of Zarathustra’s death. Zarathustra, they said, was consumed by a flash of lightning.
Zoroastrians did not see evil as inherent in nature or inherent in the human body. They saw nature as good because of the power of their god Mazda, whom they thought stronger than the Devil and omnipotent except for the temporary battle he was facing with the Devil. Zoroastrians were optimistic, believing that Mazda’s triumph was assured. They believed that the birth of Zarathustra had been the beginning of a final epoch that was to last three thousand years — ending perhaps around the year CE 2000. They believed that Mazda’s message would be carried throughout the world, that those who followed the Devil’s lies would dwell in darkness and misery, that the final epoch would end with the pronouncement of a Last Judgment and the utter destruction of the Devil and all his forces of evil. They believed that with this ending would come a great resurrection of all good souls and that all good people (the followers of Truth) would cross the bridge into Mazda’s kingdom, free of decay, old age and death.