The Zoroastrian Religion of the Achaemenids
The Greek writings establish with certainty that the Achaemenids were Zoroastrians. But in the past few decades, some academic circles with a clear agenda, insist otherwise.
A change of faith during any Empire would have been bound to bring about some major changes, as well as definite comments by Greeks and other foreign observers. Yet all the observers, from the Greek to Romans report of identical beliefs, rites and the same religion among the Persians, from the time of the Achaemenids to the fall of the Sassanid Empire at the hand of the Arab Bedouins.
The raised objection that the name of the ancient Aryan Prophet Zarathúshtrá is nowhere mentioned in the Achaemenid Inscriptions is mute. For the survived inscriptions of the Achaemenids are administrative and governmental in nature. Moreover, Prophet Zarathúshtrá’s name is nowhere mentioned in any Sassanid inscription either. And no one doubts the Zoroastrian faith of the Sassanid kings.
Against the presumption of Cyrus’ Zoroastrianism has been set his tolerance and respect towards the religions of his non-Aryan subjects, and his readiness to acknowledge their gods. A notable piece of evidence for this is the Cyrus-cylinder from Babylon (W. Eilers, Acta Iranica 2, 1974, pp. 25-34);
The cylinder shows the Persian king acknowledging the support of Marduk, whose great temple, Esagila, he restored. Other local texts show him attributing his triumphs to the moon-god, Sin, or the “great gods” of Uruk (E. J. Bickerman, Studies in Jewish and Christian History I, Leiden, 1976, pp. 72-108).
Cyrus also made a grant of privileges to the priests of an Apollo-shrine in Asia Minor, who had uttered a prophecy favorable to him (S. Smith, Isaiah Chapters XL-LV, London, 1944, p. 41 ; F. Löchner-Hüttenbach in W. Brandenstein and M. Mayrhofer, Handbuch des Altpersischen, Wiesbaden, 1964, pp. 91-8).
A historic parallel could be provided by the course pursued by the British in the early days of their rule in India, when they too acted deliberately as successors to the former rulers, rebuilding temples, supplying money for Vedic offerings, and requiring their officials to attend religious festivals (J. N. Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, New York, 1918, pp. 8-9).
Cyrus lived at a time of ethnic faiths, his conduct outside the Aryan heartland appears due to both religious tolerance and diplomatic pragmatism rather than any lack of personal conviction to the Zoroastrian faith. Darius too continued Cyrus’ policy of respect and tolerance toward the non-Aryan faiths, notably by building a huge temple to Amun-Rē in Egypt (H. E. Winlock et al., The Temple of Hibis in El Khārgeh Oasis, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1938-53).
More importantly, Zoroastrianism was never a religion that sought to forcibly proselytize or impose its beliefs on others.
The only Gd whom Darius the Great names is Zarathúshtrá’s Gd, Ahúrá Mazdá, but the claim goes that Ahúrá Mazdá was venerated also, as a great god, in the Old Aryan polytheism; and Darius’ invocation is not necessarily Zoroastrian.
Well, and where is the evidence for the occurrence of the term Ahúrá Mazdá prior to the Aryan Prophet???? Is there any Asúrá Meðá in the entire Vedas or anything even similar in any other Aryan or Indo European lore??? There is ABSOLUTELY NO such evidence. There is not even evidence of Metis (counsel, wisdom) being the original/real god-power in the Greek mythology.
Making Mazdá (creativity, mind-power, imagination, genius) as the only real god-power (Ahúrá, æsir) is unique to Zarathúshtrá, with no prior precedence.
But the argument goes that the earliest reference to Ahúrá Mazdá in western Iran appears to be in an Assyrian text, probably of the 8th century B. C., in which as-sa-ra ma-za-aš is named in a list of gods. This would “presumably” be the Old Aryan divinity, rather than Zarathúshtrá’s Gd.
The order of as-sa-ra ma-za-aš corresponds to Ahúrá Mazdá of the Younger Avesta, but in the poetic gathas the order is reversed, that is Mazdá, Ahúrá instead of the later Avestan sequence as it appears in the Assyrian document. This only proves that Younger Avestan Zoroastrianism must have spread to Western Iran before 8th century BCE and its spread among Indo-European Medes was well known to the Semitic assyrians at the time.
Darius the Great says “A great GD is Ahúrá Mazdá, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness (Darius Naqš-e Rosstam b 1-3).
Darius’ reference to Ahúrá Mazdá and other bagá or fortunate powers; is reminiscent of the gathic “Mazdá and his ahúrás” or godly, auspicious powers. Bagá appears in the poetic gathas as good fortune, godly power. The word bag is connected to the Russian word for Gd or bog.
In the third century A.D. the high priest Kartir still called Paradise bagán gáh “the place of the bagas,” and the collection of gathic commentaries is given the title Bagán Yašt “adoration of the bagas.”
There is also repeated emphasis on excellence/virtue, that is arta/aša; and the general ethics of Darius’ utterances are wholly consistent with Zoroastrian moral theology, with their stress on foresight, justice, peace of mind, and resolve/will-power. Also Darius’ utter resentment for Old Persian Drauga, Avestan drüj (deception, trick, lie) echoes the Avestan weltanschaung.
In Herodotus’ account of Persian beliefs and practices in his own day (1.131f.) we have the earliest descriptions of the Zoroastrian purity laws in action (killing of noxious creatures/flies, avoiding pollution of water, earth, fire, air and other good elements, exposure of the dead).
Another reason for doubting the Zoroastrianism of the Achaemenids has been that the bodily remains of the Achaemenid kings were laid in burial tombs, instead of being exposed in the towers of silence.
However, all the Achaemenid burial tombs were built with strict regard for Zoroastrian purity laws, and were designed to avoid contamination of the good elements of earth and water from the mortal remains, in meticulous conformity with the Zoroastrian purity laws.
The tomb of Cyrus’ for example consists of a thick-walled stone chamber with a stone door and double stone roof, raised up on a six-tiered stone plinth (Stronach,Pasargadae, pp. 24-43, with plates).
Its only ornament is a great rose carved over the narrow entrance. The rose reminds one of the, gathic verse varedaití ármaitish (Yasna 29.3, 3rd rhymed verse line, first stanza) for the ancient Avestan word for “verdure, growth” and “rose” is the same (vared.) The rose here symbolizes calm, peace, eternal serenity and the flow of meditations and prayers (ár-maiti) for all eternity.
Further, it has been suggested that the six nobles carved on each side of Darius’ tomb are grouped so as to mirror the six Auspicious Immortals (Shahbazi, AMI 13, 1980, pp. 122-25).
In addition, the Zoroastrian lore attributes the compilation of and writing down of Avesta or the sacred lore of unknown or undiscovered wisdom, to the reign of Darius the Great.
Archeologists have failed to find any remains that could be interpreted as those of Zoroastrian temples from the early Achaemenid period; and this accords with Herodotus’ statement (1.131) that still in his day (mid 5th century B.C.) the Persians had no temples but worshipped in the open.
The question of Cyrus’ beliefs has been linked with that of Zarathúshtrá’s date. For those who insist on the 258 years before Alexander the Macedonian timeline, Cyrus could not have been a Zoroastrian, since this date makes king and the ancient Aryan prophet roughly contemporaries. In that case, one would expect some mention of Cyrus and western ancient Iranian peoples and places in the Zoroastrian sacred lore.
However, the supposed 258 years before Alexander the Macedonian timeline, was first calculated after the establishment of the Seleucid era in 312/311 B.C.
Seleucid tried to synthesize Hellenistic culture with local traditions. By moving the date of the Aryan prophet so close to the time of Alexander, they made themselves and their age, the messianic age of the Zoroastrian mythology. But the seleucid date contradicts all the Greek and other ancient reckonings concerning the time and age of the ancient Aryan prophet; and hence is irrelevant for determining the faith of Cyrus or the early Achaemenids (A. Shahbazi,BSOAS 40, 1977, pp. 25-35)
The influence of Zoroastrian teachings has also been seen in early Ionian philosophy, from before Cyrus’ conquest of Ionia (M. L. West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford, 1971, pp. 76f.).
This was perhaps the work of Median priests; for it has been suggested that the real reason why a large number of Medes went over to Cyrus during his final battle with Astyages was that they were Zoroastrians and ready to support even a Persian rebel if it meant the triumph of their Zoroastrian Magian religion (M. Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, HO 184.108.40.206, II, Leiden, 1982, pp. 43, 47-8).
Another important point is Achaemenid Zoroastrian names. An older cousin of Cyrus, Arsháma (Arsames), called one of his sons Vishtáspá (Hystaspes), which was the name of Zoroaster’s royal patron; and Cyrus himself gave his eldest daughter the name Hutaósá (Atossa), which was that of Kavi Vishtáspá’s queen. Thereafter Darius the Great, son of the Achaemenid Vishtáspá, again gave one of his sons this name; and this second Achaemenid Vishtáspá had a son called Pissouthnes, a Greek rendering, it seems of Peshötanö. The Avestan Peshötanö was a son of Kavi Vishtáspá. This group of family names, when taken together, thus provides evidence that members of both branches of the Achaemenid royal house had accepted Zoroastrianism and wished to declare their allegiance to it publicly. (See F. Spiegel, Ērânische Alterthumskunde I, Leipzig, 1871, p. 700 n. 2; Justi, Namenbuch, s.v.; H. S. Nyberg, MO 1929, p. 345; H. Lommel, Die Religion Zarathustras, Tübingen, 1930, p. 16. For later works see M. Mayrhofer, Zum Namengut des Avesta, Vienna, 1977, p. 10, n. 20).
So these facts appear mutually corroborative of the Zoroastrianism of all the Achaemenids.