Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, of which numbers are in decline. Otherwise known as Mazadayasna by those who follow it, the roots of Zoroastrianism date back as far as the Second Millennium BC and served as the state religion of Persia and other Iranian Empires for more than a millennium.
The Origins of Zoroastrianism
The religion is named after its founder, Zoroaster (or Zarathushtra) who lived sometime in ancient Iran (the exact date is currently contested). Born under a Polytheistic religion, Zoroaster received a vision of Vohu Manah (roughly understood as the God of Good) who took him on a journey to the Amesha Spenta, a cohort of divine entities and the Lord of Being and Wisdom known as Ahura Mazda – the highest Deity in Zoroastrianism.
And thus, Zoroastrianism was born. Zoroaster condemned the worship of multiple Gods, politically opened the wedge between Iranian and Indian Aryans in Ancient Iran, and historically introduced the world to one of the first monotheistic faiths.
The Birth of Good and Evil
From Zoroastrianism, the concept of a singular God made its way into the Big Three Religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. And whilst the Zoroastrianism did its best to spread the concept of a singular God of Good and Wisdom throughout early civilization, another concept spread along with it – Evil.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Alexandre-Louis Leloir, 1865.
Whilst they are not worshipped by the major religions, Evil and spirits that represent Evil were certainly considered as deities in Zoroastrianism and are still to this day in the Big Three religions in the form of Demons, Jinns, and Dybukks.
As in the major religions of today, Zoroastrianism is primarily concerned with the battle between Good and Evil, whereby spirits and forces from both sides do their best to influence humanity and manifest in the material world via the actions of mortal beings. Evil and the accompanying concept of Temptation, play a vital role in Death and the formation of the Afterlife.
The battle between Good and Evil brings to light that most Monotheistic faiths are religions of Duality. The influence of dualistic monotheism is evident in the development of Heaven and Hell where reside the Gods of Light and Darkness, who meddle in the lives of men until all is destroyed in the days of Final Judgement.
The Afterlife and the Evolution of Paradise
There is some evidence to suggest that these themes made their way into Judaism and later religions that stem from Judaic teachings, upon the liberation of the Jews by Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great
. Shortly after and during this time, deities such as the Beelzebub emerged, a figure that later became Satan of Christianity and Sheytan of Islam.
Gods of Good and Evil often rely on agents to interact with humanity to do their bidding. When asked to think of an agent of the Gods, images of feathered Angels or Demons with Bat-like wings often come to mind. But where did these images come from? What is the link between flight and divinity?
Peri Banu and Price Ahmed, Edmund Dulac 1882
Peri, (or Pari) are beautiful winged women of Persian mythology. They could be likened to Angels of Christianity, except for their origin.
Initially barred from entering heaven until proper penance was paid, the Peri represent spirits that drift between worlds. Whist initially being described as spirits of mischief, once introduced to Islam and incorporated into Turkish and Armenian mythology, Peri became benevolent sprits that stood in opposition to Jinns, Divs, and other spirits of Darkness.
From thereon, Peri became the guide of humanity. Religious texts speak of Peri in both psychological and physical terms, describing instances of humans being abducted by Peri to attend Divine social events, or Peri appearing in dreams to deliver messages of importance.
Even marriage was deemed possible between humans and Peri. In one legend, the Queen of Sheba is believed to be the product of such a union. However, due to the natural darkness that resides in all men, it is written that the relationship between Peri and Humanity is doomed to fail.
The images of human and bird hybrids, or birds sympathetic to humans, are not at all uncommon in ancient mythology.
A further example is Simurgh – an ancient Bird of Persian, modern Iranian and Kurdish Folklore that spread across most of the Eastern Roman Empire with the Persians.
The Flight of Simurgh c.1590 Sadruddin Aga Khan Collection
Simurgh is often depicted as a bird with the head of a Man or Lion – however, the Bird is considered a Goddess, mother figure, and healer. Similar to the Peri, she is a messenger who travels between heaven and earth, offering divine guidance to those who are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of her majesty.
Simurgh is known to adopt human men, and considering her role as the Great Mother, there are no reports of her giving birth to anything other than herself. Simurgh is the precursor to the Phoenix – a bird of fire that respawns from its ashes. She is the sum of all knowledge, having seen the destruction and rebirth of the world many times over.
Other interpretations of Spirits of Paradise appear in later Islamic texts in the form of the Houri, beautiful women who accompany the dead to the Afterlife. The Houri are also reminiscent of the Valkyrie, ancient Norse spirits described as beautiful women who accompany those who died in battle to Valhalla. The Valkyrie are depicted either with wings or riding the backs of winged-horses.
Although Houri do not have wings, upon death a human spirit receives one Houri as a reward for every day of fasting or a good deed done in life. With the Houri, we see the evolution of reward giving and the promise that deeds done in life will be rewarded – or punished – in the afterlife and that good fortune is a gift from the heavens.
The Huma, a Divine Bird of Sufi and Diwan mythology and ‘Bird of Paradise’ in Ottoman Legend, bestows gifts on those deemed worthy and can foretell or bestow Kingship. This is possibly an early example of the belief in the Divine Right of Kings.
Mosaic detail of the Huma Bird at the Nadir Divan-begi Madrasa in Bukhara, Uzbekistan Taken by RK
The Huma is androgynous, having both male and female attributes. Again, the underlying theme of duality resurfaces, and we are presented with a symbolic creature that embodies masculine and feminine harmonies that reproduces by itself, further representing the cycle of rebirth.
Representations of Bird and Human hybrids are symbolic of the forces of Good and Evil and other dualities in nature, that for every action there is a reaction and this process is an essential element of creation itself. This, I believe, is the message of Zoroastrianism and the religions that have followed. The wings of the Angels, Peri, and other winged creatures represent the Flight of the Soul, the Loftiness of Spirit and the Human Mind, in contrast with the physical world, materialism, and nature, as represented by human features, sympathies, and unions. The symbology speaks of a human spirit that is not born good or bad, but is shaped by the choices it makes over a lifetime (or many lifetimes, according to Buddhists).
The Huma, Phoenix, and Simurgh not only represent the cycle of life and death but also the Duality of masculine and feminine energies. Nature cannot exist without these reproductive elements. Therefore, Birds of Paradise are the link between life and death and serve as a reminder that every ending is a new beginning, and with every failure, new knowledge is born. These are archetypes as old as time.
The Zoroastrian representations of bird-like creatures have developed to appeal to the inner nature of humanity. Personal choice is central to the Zoroastrian text, as one has to earn their place in paradise, and personal responsibility for one’s actions could not exist without some basic concept of free-will. Zoroastrianism recognized that both Good and Evil are central to human nature, and now, as was then, we are vulnerable to external forces that challenge us to choose between the two.