The obscure religion that shaped the West

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Zoroastrianism might be called the obscure religion that shaped the West:

It is generally believed by scholars that the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra (known in Persian as Zartosht and Greek as Zoroaster) lived sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC. Prior to Zarathustra, the ancient Persians worshipped the deities of the old Irano-Aryan religion, a counterpart to the Indo-Aryan religion that would come to be known as Hinduism. Zarathustra, however, condemned this practice, and preached that God alone – Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom – should be worshipped. In doing so, he not only contributed to the great divide between the Iranian and Indian Aryans, but arguably introduced to mankind its first monotheistic faith.

The idea of a single god was not the only essentially Zoroastrian tenet to find its way into other major faiths, most notably the ‘big three’: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The concepts of Heaven and Hell, Judgment Day and the final revelation of the world, and angels and demons all originated in the teachings of Zarathustra, as well as the later canon of Zoroastrian literature they inspired. Even the idea of Satan is a fundamentally Zoroastrian one; in fact, the entire faith of Zoroastrianism is predicated on the struggle between God and the forces of goodness and light (represented by the Holy Spirit, Spenta Manyu) and Ahriman, who presides over the forces of darkness and evil. While man has to choose to which side he belongs, the religion teaches that ultimately, God will prevail, and even those condemned to hellfire will enjoy the blessings of Paradise (an Old Persian word).

How did Zoroastrian ideas find their way into the Abrahamic faiths and elsewhere? According to scholars, many of these concepts were introduced to the Jews of Babylon upon being liberated by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great. They trickled into mainstream Jewish thought, and figures like Beelzebub emerged. And after Persia’s conquests of Greek lands during the heyday of the Achaemenid Empire, Greek philosophy took a different course. The Greeks had previously believed humans had little agency, and that their fates were at the mercy of their many gods, whom often acted according to whim and fancy. After their acquaintance with Iranian religion and philosophy, however, they began to feel more as if they were the masters of their destinies, and that their decisions were in their own hands.


  1. Crosbie says:

    It is not “generally believed by scholars” that he lived before 1000 B.C. See for example The Date of Zoroaster. The question is very much open. And the whole article hinges on this. If he lived in the 6th century B.C., there is every reason to think the influence went from Abraham to Zoroaster, not the other way round.

  2. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    If Zoroastrianism is an obscure religion, then differential calculus is an obscure branch of mathematics.

    Zoroastrianism only seems obscure to people who have trouble noticing the obvious, or to people who have been maliciously stultified by a hostile brainwashing system.

  3. Handle says:

    IIRC, the handshake greeting that is considered to be characteristically Western has its Origins in gnostic and/or zoroastrian theology

  4. Isegoria says:

    Some form of handshake has existed roughly forever, but it only became a common greeting a few hundred years ago, I found:

    The handshake has existed in some form or another for thousands of years, but its origins are somewhat murky. One popular theory is that the gesture began as a way of conveying peaceful intentions. By extending their empty right hands, strangers could show that they were not holding weapons and bore no ill will toward one another. Some even suggest that the up-and-down motion of the handshake was supposed to dislodge any knives or daggers that might be hidden up a sleeve. Yet another explanation is that the handshake was a symbol of good faith when making an oath or promise. When they clasped hands, people showed that their word was a sacred bond. “An agreement can be expressed quickly and clearly in words,” the historian Walter Burkert once explained, “but is only made effective by a ritual gesture: open, weaponless hands stretched out toward one another, grasping each other in a mutual handshake.”

    One of the earliest depictions of a handshake is found in a ninth century B.C. relief, which shows the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III pressing the flesh with a Babylonian ruler to seal an alliance. The epic poet Homer described handshakes several times in his “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” most often in relation to pledges and displays of trust. The gesture was also a recurring motif in the fourth and fifth century B.C. Greek funerary art. Gravestones would often depict the deceased person shaking hands with a member of their family, signifying either a final farewell or the eternal bond between the living and the dead. In ancient Rome, meanwhile, the handshake was often used as a symbol of friendship and loyalty. Pairs of clasped hands even appeared on Roman coins.

    While the handshake had several meanings in the ancient world, its use as an everyday greeting is a more recent phenomenon. Some historians believe it was popularized by the 17th century Quakers, who viewed a simple handclasp as a more egalitarian alternative to bowing or tipping a hat. The greeting later became commonplace, and by the 1800s, etiquette manuals often included guidelines for the proper handshaking technique. As is often suggested today, the Victorian shake was supposed to be firm but not overly strong. One 1877 guide counseled its readers that, “a gentleman who rudely presses the hand offered him in salutation, or too violently shakes it, ought never to have an opportunity to repeat his offense.”

    No mention of Gnostics or Zoroastrians. Or Masons. Hmm… This may go deeper than I’d expected.

  5. Adar says:

    The military salute too. Two knights approaching one another with face shields down. One would lift the shield to show the other man his face. That meant no harm meant.

  6. Handle says:

    See page 223 of Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion.

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