Monday, April 16, 2012

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds

Zoroastrian temple near Persepolis
By Heidi Noroozy
The first time my husband and I visited the central Iranian city of Esfahan, our explorations of the city took us to the outskirts, where a Zoroastrian fire temple perches high atop a hill. The structure today is in ruins, not much more than crumbling walls the same color as the yellowish rocky cliff at their base. While there are much better preserved fire temples elsewhere in Iran, this one got me interested in Iran’s Zoroastrian past. Over the years, on subsequent trips, I’ve noticed more influences, from fire and water symbolism to architecture. From epic Persian poetry (such as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh) to holidays that date back to Zoroastrian times. If you’ve been following my contributions to this blog, you’ve probably also observed some of the ways in which Zoroastrianism continues to influence Persian culture.

The religion is over three thousand years old and follows the teachings of Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra or Zartoshti, as he’s called in Farsi). Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, Zoroaster probably lived sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC. He recorded his teachings in a series of poems—the Hymns of Zoroaster—which form the most sacred part of the Zoroastrian scripture (the Avesta).

Zoroastrianism was one of the first faiths to believe in a single deity rather than a pantheon of gods and also the concepts of heaven and hell. This duality is expressed in the ongoing battle between Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord) and Ahriman (the Destructive Spirit), an internal struggle within each human aimed at banishing evil through “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

Haft seen
Zoroastrians see fire and water as purifying elements, and these symbols are still common in everyday Iranian life, even if much of the original meaning has been lost. Among these symbols are the mirror and candlesticks that Iranians place in their haft seen arrangements during the Persian New Year. The mirror reflects the candle’s flame like firelight across the surface of a reflecting pool.

The use of rosewater in ceremonies and sprinkled around the house during the spring cleaning ritual called khooneh tekooneh (shaking the house) was also handed down from Zoroastrian times. Iranians still use rosewater to clean Islamic shrines and wash the graves of deceased loved ones.

A number of Iranian holidays are rooted in Zoroastrian traditions. The most important of these celebrations is Eid-e Norooz, or Persian New Year, which takes place on the spring equinox and is kicked off by a Zoroastrian fire festival (Chahar Shanbeh Souri). Another is Shabeh Yalda, the winter solstice, with rituals that reflect the struggle between light and dark, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. And Tiregan is a Zoroastrian-based midsummer festival that celebrates the rain.

Zoroastrian society of ancient Persia has also left its stamp on Iran’s present-day Islamic Republic. The ancient Zoroastrians had a hierarchical class system, including a high-ranking, hereditary priesthood whose members were known as the magi. The Bible refers to the magi as the three wise men who brought gifts to Jesus at his birth. This priestly class can be seen today in Iran’s clerics (the mullahs and ayatollahs). While these religious ranks are not hereditary anymore, no other Islamic society has anything quite like them.

Farohar image on a plate
Zoroastrianism’s influence extends beyond Persian culture to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The faith of the ancient Persians introduced concepts such as the Kingdom of God (which Zoroaster called “the chosen government”), five daily prayers (Islam), and resurrection. The early Zoroastrians believed that the soul dwells in the material world for three days after death before rising to the spirit realm, which is reflected in Jesus’s resurrection after his crucifixion.

One of the best known Zoroastrian symbols is the farohar or faravahar, a figure with the wings and tail of a bird and the body of a man. It represents a fravashi (guardian angel) and first appeared on royal inscriptions. I have one in the form of a gold pendant with the farohar encircled by a decorative ring. Modern Zoroastrians interpret the farohar as representing one’s purpose in life—to think good thoughts, speak good words, and do good deeds. Not a bad purpose for any of us to have.


  1. I love these posts Heidi!! When I read of the ancient world I yearn for a TARDIS, I would love to have seen and experienced first hand Zoroastrian society and religion!!

  2. I agree with Geets! I learn so much here with every new post.

    Thanks Heidi!

  3. Thanks, Sangeeta and Beth. I'm with you on the Tardis, Sangeeta. Would love to go back and see what life was like when Persia was Zoroastrian.

  4. So many things to think about here, Heidi. I love the concept of the "farohar." How do you pronounce that (so I can spout off knowledgeably about it at my next cocktail party)? ;) I could really use a little charm on my bracelet to remind me of that concept.

    And the were they actually Zoroastrians? If Ahura Mazda was the Wise Lord and his priests, the wise men, were magi, what are the chances that the three wise men were Zoroastrians? Didn't they visit from somewhere far away? I think we need a post on the interconnection of Persia and the Holy Land from back then, no? I think this week's topic is sparking a lot of new ones, huh?

  5. Supriya, it's pronounced just like it's spelled: far-oh-HAR.

    I'm no authority on this, but one interpretation of the three wise men is that they were Zoroastrian priests (magi) who came to honor the birth of Jesus. They are also referred to as kings, of course, but maybe that's a reference to their high status. Zoroastrian society was structured into classes, and the priests were near the top. I'm just guessing here - I'll leave it up to the Biblical scholars to work it out. :)