Today is the winter solstice; in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and the longest night. Many religions celebrate the winter solstice, including one which is seldom spoken of despite its long and honourable history: Zoroastrianism.
Although ostensibly monotheistic, Zoroastrianism has a dualistic nature, recognising six intangible beings (akin to angels) accompanied by the supreme being Ahura Mazda as a heptad representing all that is good and constructive, and a second heptad of evil or destructive spirits which are equal in power but in strict opposition to Ahura Mazda's posse. Zoroastrians therefore believe in equal and opposing powers - a marked difference from most monotheistic religions, in which God, Yahweh or Allah is undeniably the big dog.
Fire has great symbolic meaning in the religion, as it represents the energy of the Creator. Fire and the sun are seen as enduring, radiant, pure and life sustaining, and Zoroastrians pray in front of some form of fire or light source. But it would be wrong to say that Zoroastrians worship fire - rather, fire is used as a point of focus - in the same way that Christians use a wooden cross as a point of focus in their worship of God.
There is much argument as to when Zarathustra lived, and in the absence of clear evidence I have chosen to place my trust in Dr. Ali Akbar Jafarey, whose essay on the ethics and culture of Zoroastrianism was one of the inspirations for this post. He believes that Zarathustra lived some 3,770 years ago (other sources place him only 1,000 or 600 years ago) which would make the religion one of the oldest on the planet.
Indeed, one of the key significances of Zoroastrianism is that it has been implicated in having influence on both the Western Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the Eastern dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism). That means that it has potentially influenced the top six organised religions practiced today.
Zarathustra saw the universe as devoid of evil, being a pure creation of God (Ahura Mazda), and an orderly harmonious system. Good and evil, rather than being manifest, are confined to the human mind. To quote Dr. Jafarey:
"Man thinks and thinks constantly. His thoughts are good or bad, beneficial or harmful. When translated in speech or action, they yield the result - good or bad."
Although Zarathustra is said to have trained the first missionaries, there are no reports of force, insistence, threats or pressure being applied. Teaching was provided without obligation or charge. Furthermore, during the one thousand years of Zoroastrian supremacy there are absolutely no report of religious wars. In fact, religious wars between nations of differing religions are only about 1,500 years old - this is in stark contrast to many anti-religious opinions which believe that war is a natural consequence of religion. The evidence is staunchly to the contrary.
The golden age of Zoroastrianism was during the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. Cyrus united the volatile nations of Africa, Europe and Asia into a comparatively peaceful alliance, devoid of enslavement or tyranny. This included the liberation of the Jews from what is known as the Babylonian captivity (when the Jewish people were exiled from their homeland by Nebuchadnezzar) - a period of time in which Zoroastrianism is believed to have had influence on Jewish philosophy. Indeed, monotheism may (arguably) have been a Zoroastrian influence: the first monotheistic declaration in the Old Testament is in Isiah 45: 5-7, which dates to the reign of the Persian Kings.
Nations captured by the Persian Empire were provided a new social order in which freedom of worship, equality and tolerance were instilled as values, and the captive nations eventually freed once they had given up their warring tendencies. This era was remarkably civilised, and some of the many notable features include transcontinental road networks, extensive travel and trade (which strengthens links between nations), the earliest instance of a "pony express" postal service, standardised weights and measures and the introduction of coins - both of which facilitated fair and equitable commerce.
This era is very rarely referenced - perhaps because of our fascination with conflict as a cornerstone of history (a matter not assisted by the fact that historical records tend to focus on the military, rather than the cultural). Some 26 nations pooled their skills, and during the 220 years of the Achaemenian era there was great advancement of knowledge, the early blooming of science, and the beginning of Greek philosophy. It all came to a crashing end with the destruction of the Empire by Alexander the Great. After this, the world split into the Roman Empire in the West and the Parthian Empire in the East. We don't hear much about the Parthians: they were also Zoroastrians, and therefore showed tolerance towards all other nations and religions. We always hear less of such things.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Zoroastrianism is a dead religion, but there are still small but thriving Zoroastrian communities in Iran, Pakistan, India and in the major cities of the English speaking world. Indeed, Rock Opera genius and closet homosexual Freddie Mercury was a Parsi Zoroastrian, and his family gave him a traditional Zoroastrian funeral after his death in 1991: his body was placed in a high building known as the Tower of Silence, where it was devoured by vultures.
Before 2002, it was hard to estimate the number of Zoroastrians in the world, and it was presumed that there were fewer than a quarter million practitioners. This was because followers of the religion in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were heavily persecuted as a religious minority. However, since the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and the subsequent invasions of Islamic countries by a US-led military coalition, Zoroastrians have become less reticent about identifying themselves: there are now believed to be between 2 and 3.5 million practicing Zoroastrians.
There seems to be a growing respect for this ancient and honourable religion among contemporary Muslims and the general public. I would conjecture, perhaps unfairly, that as Muslims in the Middle East become increasingly perturbed by the presence of foreign troops in their holy land, they become more willing to honour other native religions to the region - although one could equally argue that Western influences in the region has increased tolerance.
An examination of the principles of modern Zoroastrianism is heartening. There is equality of gender (men and women are equal in all matters); nature is central to the practice of the religion and thus cleanliness of the environment is paramount; hard work and charity are encouraged; the oppression of human beings and cruelty to animals is condemned; equality of all humans regardless of race or religion and respect for everything on Earth are central to the religion.
Enlightened, peaceful, respectful, influential and spiritual, Zoroastrianism may not be one of the top ten religions by the number of its practitioners, but it is a remarkable faith with a long and distinguished history of peace and tolerance.
Happy Solstice to one and all!