Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

The Origins of Christianity, part 16

by Revilo P. Oliver


IN MY highly condensed summary of the Zoroastrian religion, I have assumed that when Zoroaster tells us there is only one supreme god of good, he means what he says, and that when he gave to that god an unprecedented name, Ahura Mazda, he coined that name for his deity to show that his god differed from all gods previously known.

Ahura Mazda, therefore, is his invention. It goes without saying that Zoroaster’s theopoeic imagination would have been influenced by what he knew of the gods in vogue in his time, and that if some of those gods had traits which suited his ethical purposes, those particular traits would reappear in the god whom he fashioned, to the exclusion, of course, of traits of which he disapproved. Very limited similarities can therefore be discovered, but Zoroaster refers to his god only by the name Ahura Mazda, and common sense tells us that he devised a new name for his god precisely because he wanted to show that his god was fundamentally different from all others.

My conclusion, however, differs substantially from what you may find in references to Zoroaster that are based on the work of some very recent scholars, who read into what Zoroaster said (so far as this can be determined from the gathas) elements of the old Iranian religion as they have reconstructed it, largely on the basis of the Sanskrit Vedas, a few references in the Avesta, and the lucubrations of the Pahlavi theologians, of whom the earliest must be many centuries later. I feel obliged, therefore, to defend my position as briefly and perspicuously as I can.

The two major works of modern erudition are:

Marijan Molé, Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l’Iran ancien: le problème zoroastrien et la tradition mazdéenne (Paris, 1963 = Annales du Musée Guimet, Bibliothèque d’études, t. 69). Dr. Molé is primarily concerned with the late Pahlavi writings, from which he quotes copiously and from which he tries to reconstruct, “à la lumière de la phénoménologie religieuse moderne,” not the actual creed of Zoroaster so much as “l’image que se font les mazdéens de leur Prophète,” using texts of which the earliest cannot be earlier than the Seventh Century (A.D.) This is a very learned and valuable work, but may be misleading, if one does not bear in mind how much time and how many vicissitudes of history intervened between those writings and the presumed date of our text of the Avesta, which itself includes and expounds the gathas, which are very considerably earlier and which are the only texts that can be supposed to report some approximation of what Zoroaster actually said. That the late writings in Pahlavi preserve vestiges of the early theology may be granted, but how far they are separated from Zoroaster and from the time of the Persian Empire may be judged from the fact that the name of Ahura Mazda has been corrupted to Ormazd (Ohrmazd, Ormuzd, Ormizd, etc.) while the name of Angra Mainyu has been corrupted to Ahraman/Ahriman or Enak Me¯nok.

Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I (Leiden, 1975 = Handbuch der Orientalistik, I. Abteilung, VIII. Band, I. Abschnitt, Leiferang 2, Heft 2A). The very learned lady’s work will be completed in four volumes, but only the first, which deals with the time of Zoroaster, need concern us. Her work is the most thorough treatment of the subject known to me, and forms part of what is likely to be the standard reference encyclopaedia for many decades. Some of her interpretations differ widely from those given by Dr. Molé, but fortunately these are matters of detail which we need not discuss here. The crucial questions are, one, the identity of Ahura Mazda; two, the significance of ahura; and, three, Zoroaster’s conception of certain Indo-Iranian gods.

1. We are told, on the basis of some similarities and much theory, that Zoroaster’s god was really Varima, one of the numerous gods mentioned in the the hymns of the two early Vedas,(1) and we are even given a linguistic reconstruction of what Varuna’s name would have been in Avestan, if he had ever been mentioned in the Avesta. The identification is based on two considerations: Varuna is one of the several gods who are given the title asura in the Vedas (a point that we shall discuss below), and some aspects of Varuna, as he is depicted in the Vedas, resemble attributes of Zoroaster’s god.

It is true that in one hymn of the Rigveda (4.42), Varuna and Indra define their respective spheres of authority, and the former represents himself as the deity of law and order, of what is morally right, and so resembles Ahura Mazda, while Indra, a god whom Zoroaster particularly reprobated and denounced by name, says that he is the patron of the aristocracy that delights in war and poetry. It must be noted, however, that the two gods appear in the hymn as friendly colleagues in the pantheon, and there is no hint of rivalry between the two, neither showing the slightest disposition to trespass on the other’s divine territory. Varuna does boast that he is the greatest of the asuras (whatever he may mean by that) and his will (i.e., law and order) is obeyed by other gods, which no more proves his supremacy than Zeus’s notoriously numerous affairs with mortal women prove that Aphrodite, who inspires the sexual desires of gods as well as of men, is supreme on Olympus, where Zeus, Poseidon, and all the other gods who indulge in erotic and amatory adventures obviously obey her will when they do so. Varuna says no more than that the gods, who have an orderly society of their own, thus accept the social principle he represents.

Some aspects of Varuna do appeal to the religiosity that was formed by Zoroastrianism and its derivatives. Moderns are apt to be unduly impressed by the “spirituality” of such hymns as Atharvaveda 4.16, in which Varuna is credited with knowing every man’s inmost thoughts and also with maintaining (unnecessarily?) an army of invisible spirits who, like Hesiod’s thirty thousand agents of Zeus, report on all the actions of men; and Rigveda 5.85, in which the worshipper begs Varuna to forgive his sins, if ever he sinned against a “loving man” (i.e., a man’s ’best’ friend, with whom he has an especially close and intimate relationship; there is no implication of homosexuality) or wronged a brother, friend, comrade, neighbor, or even stranger. Christians like to think such ideas were wonderful discoveries made by their deity many centuries later, and are usually perplexed or angry when they find that Jesus was a late-comer in the field of moral exhortation.

Very well, but let us not forget to balance such traits against others that were also attributed to Varuna. Take, for example, a hymn in the Atharvaveda (3.25) by a man who wants the gods to make a woman love him so that he can take her away from her parents and home. He very reasonably asks Kama (the god of sexual love) to inspire her with a burning desire for his embraces, but then he asks Varuna and Mitra to brainwash her, so that she can think of nothing else and will have no will of her own and thus cannot refuse to elope with him. Can we imagine a Zoroastrian’s asking Ahura Mazda to help him seduce a woman? If not, then Ahura Mazda is a fundamentally different god.

2. Zoroaster called his good god Ahura Mazda, and the second of these words means ‘illustrious, bright’ (and was consequently used a few decades ago in the United States to designate an improved kind of electric-light bulb), and ‘bright’ always suggests ‘wise’ when applied to persons. The new god was ‘the brilliant ahura,’ and an ahura is a great supernatural power, i.e. a god. Avestan ahura is obviously a dialectical form corresponding to the Sanskrit asura, which is applied in the Vedas to some of the gods honored in them.

Now the generic word for ‘god’ in Sanskrit is deva, which becomes daeva in Avestan, and Zoroaster, by his drastic and epochal Überwertung, transformed all the devas into evil beings, the servants of Angra Mainya, so that in his language daeva means ‘devil,’ a foul fiend whose worship must be suppressed.(2) He vehemently denounces veneration and even respect shown to such agents of pure evil, and while he singles out for special obloquy Indra, who was the equivalent of Odin for the Aryans of India, he certainly includes in his irate reprobation all the other devas of whom he knew and, by implication, all the gods of whom he had never heard. Recent scholars have argued, however, that while Zoroaster damns all the devas, he makes an exception for the gods who are called asuras in the Vedas, since he calls his own god an asura.

The generic word for ‘god,’ deva, seems originally to have meant ‘shining one, bright being,’ presumably with special reference to the bright sky, while asura seems to mean ‘lord’, although its derivation is uncertain.(3) So the question is: In the old hymns of the Vedas (and hence in Zoroaster’s understanding) was asura a word that designated a kind of being different from a deva or was it simply an epithet like adityá, which was applied to various gods without implying that they were a special class of being?

Although asura seems most frequently applied to three gods in the old Vedic hymns, Dyáus, Váruna, and Mitrá, it cannot be shown that any generic distinction is intended. There is certainly no indication of antagonism or rivalry. I have already mentioned the hymn in which Varuna and Indra as friendly colleagues define their specialities in the celestial faculty. The gods who are called asura are included in the visve devah (‘all-gods,’ i.e., the pantheon). And in the hymns, the gods who are often called asura are worshipped by the same rites and by the same priests as the other gods. Of the three gods to whom the term is commonly applied, Dyaus becomes the Greek Zeus but fades out of the Indian pantheon in later times; Mitra likewise fades out, but appears in the later Zoroastrian cult as Mithra; but Varuna continues to be worshipped as one of the Thirty-Three Gods and is assigned jurisdiction over the ocean (he is the Hindu equivalent of Neptune) and is the Regent of the West (i.e., one of the four Lokapalas, the gods who preside over the four cardinal points of the compass and foreign lands that lie in the indicated direction).

Obviously Zoroaster intended asura to mean something radically different from deva when he applied it to his god, but having decided to call the latter ‘brilliant,’ he needed a noun that would take the place of deva and his choice was limited. I can think of only two available alternatives. The Sanskrit aditya, ‘heavenly being’, would have suggested the vague Vedic myth of a goddess, Aditi, who was their mother, and if Zoroaster’s god was to have existed from all time, he couldn’t have parents. The word bhaga (Avestan bagha, Old Persian baga) seems originally to have meant ‘giver of gifts, bestower of good fortune,’ and was, like the English ‘lord,’ a term applicable to both human and supernatural beings. It does mean ‘god’ in Old Persian and so was applied to Ahura Mazda, but Zoroaster would probably have had a different sense of the word’s connotation; it occurs very frequently in the Rigveda (e.g., 3.62.11) as an epithet of the god Savitr, who, whether or not he is to be identified with Indra, was presumably a deva in Zoroaster’s opinion, and the word also occurs at least once (10.85.36) as the name of a god who evidently presides over marriages to assure the prosperity of the wedded couple, thus providing another connotation Zoroaster would have wished to avoid. So far as I can see now, asura, meaning something like ‘lord,’ a word not associated with any one earlier god and not connected with any attribution of genealogical descent, was about the only word connoting divinity that Zoroaster had at his disposal.

What causes the trouble, of course, is that in post-Vedic Sanskrit the word asura does become the generic name of a race of supernatural beings who are the enemies of the Indian gods, although it must be carefully noted that the gods who are called asura in the early Vedas never appear among the asuras of the later myths. It is hard to say how asura acquired this different meaning.(4) I have toyed with the idea that Zoroaster really caused it, that what we find in India was the reaction of the Hindu Brahmins to his attack on their devas as evil beings and his attempt to supplant them with an asura of his own creation. We all know how holy men react to a threat to their business, and the reaction would have been violent even among the common people, if the early Zoroastrians were as active in trying to promote godliness with swords as their traditions suggest or even if the Hindus were pestered by missionaries.

In the later Hindu theology, it is an axiom that the Asuras are the enemies of the gods, just as the numerous races of demons are the enemies of mortal men. Most of these demons, who are chiefly conspicuous in the literature because the Aryan heroes slay so many thousands of them, obviously represent the alien races of aborigines whom the Aryans encountered in India when they invaded that sub-continent or later.(5) One could accordingly think of the Asuras as foreign gods, although that does not necessarily follow. I think it worthy of note that the Asuras are anti-gods, not devils, and they retain their dignity in the best Sanskrit literature, a cultural amalgam in which distinctively Aryan elements long survived, so that they are treated with the respect that our race accords to valiant enemies.(6) But I see no reason for reading into the very early hymns of the Vedas, and hence into Zoroaster’s consciousness, a meaning of the word that is attested only much later. I therefore reject the views of many contemporary scholars.

For what interest it may have, I add the conjecture that the transformation of the concept of asura may have been facilitated by a kind of religious evolution that is of some interest in itself. The Vedic gods became commonplace and, so to speak, were becoming worn out, since even pious votaries must eventually have come to suspect that they importuned in vain deities who could not answer their prayers. As the Brahmins consolidated their lucrative monopoly of religion, they subordinated the old pantheon, often called the “Thirty-Three Gods,” to the newer and greater divinity of a Trinity, Brahman, Visnu, and Siva. And, oddly enough, the Brahmins shared some of Zoroaster’s animus, for they particularly exerted themselves to denigrate Indra, who had been the Aryan god par excellence, and reduce him to the status of a second-class god, who, while retaining a limited jurisdiction in his own heavenly principality, sins and is punished for his sins by a superior power. The professional venders of Salvation vented on Indra their venomous hatred of the Aryan aristocracy – an animosity that may also have been racial, as we surmised earlier.

Indra was left in possession of his own special heaven, Svarga, which is the highest paradise accessible to those who have not become “pure mind.” It is the Hindu Valhalla, to which Indra welcomes the souls of warriors who have died in battle, and it is also a heaven worth attaining, for it abounds in all luxuries and sensuous delights, from magic trees (kalpapadapa, etc.) that produce whatever is asked of them to the radiantly beautiful Apsarasas, who are the courtesans of heaven. But poor Indra was reduced to an almost comic figure, for he was taught that even a god of his rank must respect the sanctity of holy men. There is, for example, an Hindu analogue to the well-known story of Zeus and Alcmene: Indra impersonated Gautama, a great sage, and thus seduced Ahalya, the sage’s wife, but Gautama, a holy man who had acquired great spiritual power by his piety, cursed the amorous god, whose body was accordingly covered with one thousand miniature representations of the female sexual organs, and the disgraced god had to hide in shame until the holy man was finally persuaded to relent and change the stigmata to eyes. Indra, who had once been the Aryans’ pater hominum deorumque, even became guilty of the most horrible, abominable, and almost unspeakable of all sins: he accidentally killed a Brahmin! He fled in terror to the end of the Earth and hid among the lotus blossoms that float on the waters of the abyss, and he remained in hiding, trembling, until Brhaspati, the Priest of the Gods, by sacrificing many celestial horses in the asvamedha rite and performing many other powerful liturgies and invultuations, finally cleansed the terrified god of his awful crime. In India, the clergy entrenched themselves in power even more ingeniously than their counterparts in the West.

3. We are told that Ahura Mazda was not Zoroaster’s only god, because he “must” have admitted the worship of certain gods supposedly favored by his contemporaries, since they (e.g., Mithra) turn up in the pantheon of later Zoroastrian sects. Now I think it would have been odd indeed if Zoroaster not only forgot to mention the favored deities, but invented the six Ameša Spentas as the immediate subordinates of Ahura Mazda and the only ones he mentions. There is no mention of Mithra in any gatha or other text that could conceivably go back to the time of Zoroaster, who very frequently mentions his six great archangels. Miss Boyce tries to read Mithra into two words (mazda ahurañho) in a line that could be ancient. The grammatical relationship of the two words is puzzling and the text is probably defective or corrupt. But however that may be, if you had a text that constantly invokes Yahweh and constantly appeals to Gabriel, Michael, Ithuriel, Raphael, and other archangels, but never mentions Jesus, would you believe that when the author wrote “god & co.” in one line, he intended thereby to express his veneration of Jesus? As for the common argument that Zoroaster must have permitted the worship of Mithra because he does not specifically forbid it – well, I shall not be so unkind as to comment.

I cannot think the question important. If Zoroaster did, perchance, accord grace to a few of the supposed Iranian gods, he made them subordinate to the six great archangels. Miss Boyce admits (p. 192) that “the core of Zoroaster’s new teachings” was his claim that “in the beginning… there was only one good God… namely Ahura Mazda,” who created the six archangels to help him in the war against Angra Mainya. It would follow, therefore, that any Iranian gods that Zoroaster may have exempted from his general damnation of all other gods were created by Ahura Mazda (or the archangels) as spirits (yazatas) subordinate to the six and therefore subordinate in a second degree to the supreme god.

Miss Boyce admits (p. 255) that Angra Mainyu, the supreme god of evil, is entirely Zoroaster’s invention, and that he made all the Vedic devas into devils (Avestan daevas), the creations and servants of his one supreme god of evil. If Zoroaster permitted a few Iranian gods to serve his good god, that does not alter in the least his great and enormously important innovation, the transformation of the whole world into one divided between two gods, one of pure good and the other of pure evil, with all (or almost all) of the gods previously worshipped by men, no matter how fair and gracious they were, made the malignant servants of the god of pure evil and therefore the enemies of all righteous men, who are thereby obligated to convert or exterminate every worshipper of those gods.

That, I submit, was an epochal innovation and a disaster to the civilized world – a cataclysm of which we still suffer the terrible aftermath.


1. The oldest hymns in the Rigveda are by far the earliest expression of the primitive Aryan religion; the Atharvaveda is later, but still very early. For our purposes here, it will suffice to say that both must be considerably earlier than Zoroaster. I am not so temerarious as to try to determine precise dates for their composition.

2. When Zoroaster made daeva a word denoting utter evil, he was, in the vernacular phrase, cutting it fine, for he had to retain the obviously cognate word, daena, usually translated as ‘religion,’ as a term for a praiseworthy activity. The Avestan daena becomes den in Pahlavi and forms part of the extremely common term for Zoroastrianism, Veh Den, i.e., “the Right Religion.” In Avestan, however, some learned perplexities could be avoided by translating daena as ‘spiritual’ and supplying from the context either ‘things’ or ‘nature’ as the accompanying noun. In some contexts the word does mean a reverence for spiritual matters, but in others it must designate the ‘spiritual nature’ that a man creates for himself by righteous or sinful conduct as he passes through life. In the Zoroastrian eschatology, which must be Zoroaster’s, the soul of the dead man must go to the Cinvato Bridge, where it is judged: the True Believers pass over the bridge to Heaven, but the wicked (including, of course, all infidels) slip from the bridge and fall into the abyss of Hell. How this happens is explained in several ways, but a common explanation is that the soul is accompanied by its daena, which is hypostatized as an attendant maiden or female genius; if she is righteous, she sustains him as he walks across the very narrow bridge, but if she bears the accumulation of his evil deeds, her weight, as she clings to him, causes him to lose his footing and fall to his terrible doom.

3. A common etymology derives the word from Ashur (Assur), the Assyrians’ name for their country, their capital city, and its tutelary god; it would thus have designated the gods of an enemy nation, which would explain the later use of the term asura that I shall mention shortly – but why would the Aryans have applied the word to their own gods? It is possible, of course, that we have two words of entirely different origin that came to be pronounced alike and so confused.

4. One explanation is given in the preceding note. Another possibility is that asura was originally a word of very wide meaning in its application to supernatural beings, as are some comparable words in English: the average Christian does not, in his own mind, connect his Holy Ghost with the innumerable ghosts who haunt houses and gibber in the night to scare foolish women.

5. This is most clearly seen in the Dasas, who are a race of demons but obviously represent the dark-skinned aborigines, since the word always retained the meaning of ‘slave’ or ‘Sudra.’ The Raksasas may originally have been Mongolians, whose characteristically slant eyes were exaggerated into the vertical eyes of the demons, while their yellow complexion was supplemented by other colors. The Pisitasins (Pisitasas) were obviously anthropophagous native tribes before they became ghouls. The Pisacas were barbarians who had a language capable of literary expression; I have often wondered who they may have been.

6. For one example, see above. It is true that Asuras appear in some myths as destroyers, but they are never degraded to mere devils. In the Kathasaritsagara, for example, we are twice told the story of the Asura Angaraka, father of the most beautiful woman in the world. She, smitten with love for King Mahasena, eventually betrays her father, as libidinously impulsive as Scylla, who betrays Nisus in the Vergilian poem, but until she does, Angaraka slays Mahasena’s police officers and, in the guise of a great boar, ravages the countryside, but he does so, we are told, because a divine curse forced him to become a Raksasa to expiate a sin. That preserves the purity of his daughter’s praeternatural lineage and saves the dignity of the Asuras.

To be continued

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