The Basics of Zoroastrianism

Origins, Beliefs, and Customs

Faravahar symbol on the top of the Zoroastrian temple, Iran
Faravahar symbol on the top of the Zoroastrian temple, Iran.

Konstantin_Novakovic/iStock/Getty Images 

Zoroastrianism is arguably the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. It centers on the words of the prophet Zarathushtra, called Zoroaster by the ancient Greeks, and focuses worship upon Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. It also acknowledges two competing principles representing good and evil: Spenta Mainyu (“Bounteous Spirit”) and Angra Mainyu (“Destructive Spirit”). Humans are intimately involved in this struggle, holding off chaos and destruction through active goodness.

Origins of Zoroastrianism

The prophet Zarathushtra—later referred to by the Greeks as Zoroaster—founded Zoroastrianism about 3500 years ago. According to texts from the period, Zoroaster may have been born in 628 B.C., in Rhages, Iran, and may have died on or near 551 B.C. These dates, however, are very rough; some researchers believe he may have lived as much as a millennium earlier or later.

Indo-Iranian religion in Zarathushtra’s time was polytheistic (meaning that people worshipped multiple gods). While details are scarce, Zoroaster probably elevated an already existing deity into the role of supreme creator, thus creating the world’s first monotheistic religion (a religion worshipping one creator). Zoroastrianism therefore has some similarities with ancient Vedic beliefs; for example, the ahura and daevas (agents of order and chaos) in Zoroastrianism compare to the asuras and devas who compete for power in Vedic religion.

Zoroastrianism expanded to become one of the most important religions in the ancient world. From 600 B.C. to 650 C.E. it was the official religion of Persia (ancient Iran). Today, there are only about 190,000 Zoroastrians around the world.

Zoroastrian Customs

While there are Zoroastrians temples and many events during which believers worship together, most Zoroastrian worship takes place in the home. Worship focuses on the central ethical values of Good Words, Good Thoughts, and Good Deeds. Many Zoroastrians pray several times a day, always facing a source of fire or light. Though it is not required, some practitioners wear a knotted cord called a kusti; the kusti is knotted three times to symbolize the three Zoroastrian values. 

Zoroastrian temples keep a fire burning at all times to represent Ahura Mazda’s eternal power. Fire is also recognized as a powerful purifier and is respected for that reason. The holiest temple fires take up to a year to consecrate, and many have been burning for years or even centuries. Visitors to fire temples bring an offering of wood, which is placed in the fire by a masked priest. The mask prevents the fire from being desecrated by his breath. The visitor is then anointed with ash from the fire.

The Zoroastrian coming-of-age ceremony is called The Navjote, or Sedreh-Pushi. Children between the ages of 7 and 12 participate in ritual washing and perform rituals on their own for the first time. 

Zoroastrian weddings include a marriage contract and celebrations which can last as long as seven days. Married female relatives hold a white scarf over the couple’s heads while cones of sugar are rubbed together to sweeten the marriage. The ends of the scarf are later sewn together to symbolize the unity of the married couple.

Zoroastrian Beliefs

Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian Supreme Creator, is the only god worshiped, although the existence of lesser spiritual beings is also recognized. The overriding ethical principle of Zoroastrianism is Humata, Hukhta, Huveshta: “to think good, to speak good, to act good.” This is the divine expectation of humans, and only through goodness will chaos be kept at bay. A person’s goodness determines their ultimate fate after death.

Zoroastrians believe that when a person dies, the soul is divinely judged. The good souls move on to the “best of existences,” while the wicked are punished in torment. As the end of the world approaches, the dead will be resurrected into new bodies. The world will burn but only the wicked will suffer any pain. The fires will purify creation and purge wickedness. Angra Mainyu will either be destroyed or made powerless, and everyone will live in paradise except perhaps the extremely wicked, which some sources believe will continue to suffer endlessly.

It's important to note that, because Zoroastrianism is so ancient, beliefs and rituals have changed over time. While Zoroastrianism is considered to be a monotheistic religion, there were times in history where the faith might be characterized as duotheistic or polytheistic.

Avesta, the Zoroastrian Religious Text

The sacred texts of Zorastrianism are called The Avesta. The original Avesta is believed to have been largely destroyed when Alexander the Great attacked Persia. The remaining texts were gathered and compiled between the 3rd and 7th centuries C.E. The Avesta contains multiple sections, each of which is further subdivided.

  • The Yasna and Visperad sections include hymns, songs, and prayers used during worship services.
  • The Vendidad describes evil spirits and their various manifestations and explains how to combat them.
  • The Yashts include 21 hymns of praise.
  • The Siroza invokes 30 divinities which rule over the different days of the Zoroastrian months. 
  • The Nyayeshes and Gahs include prayers to the Sun and Mithra, the Moon, the Waters, and Fire.  
  • The Afrinagans are blessings to recite at different seasonal feasts and holidays and in honor of the dead. 

Zoroastrian Holidays and Celebrations

Different Zoroastrian communities recognize different calendars for holidays. For example, while Nowruz is the Zoroastrian New Year, Iranians celebrate it on the vernal equinox while Indian Parsis celebrate it in August. Both groups celebrate Zoroaster’s birth on Khodad Sal six days after Nowruz. Iranians mark Zoroaster’s death on Zarathust No Diso around December 26 while Parsis celebrate it in May.

Other celebrations include the Gahambar feasts, which are held over five days six times a year as seasonal celebrations.

Each month is attributed to an aspect of nature, as is every day of the month. Gan festivals are held whenever the day and month are both associated with the same aspect, such as fire, water, etc. Examples of these include Tirgan (celebrating water), Mehrgan (celebrating Mithra or the harvest) and Adargan (celebrating fire).