History 180 – History of Zoroastrianism

This course is a review of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest and earliest monotheistic and least known religious traditions in the world which influenced Judaism, Mahayana Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. In antiquity its followers were numerous, but today there are about 200,000 adherents of this faith mainly in Iran, India, Southeast Asia and in the West. We will look at the doctrine of this faith which grew from its Indo-European and Indo-Iranian background in a historical context. The sacred hymns (Gathas) of the prophet of Zoroastrianism, i.e., Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) will be studied. This will be followed by the study of Zoroastrianism in the historical period in the Achaemenid, Parthians, and the Sasanians period (600 BCE – 700 CE). In this period the Achaemenid and Sasanian royal inscriptions, the Middle Persian texts, the Avesta along with the Greek, Syriac and Armenian sources will be studied. The course will conclude with an overview of the effect of the Arab Muslim conquest of Southwest Asia and the fate of Zoroastrianism during the period of Islamic domination.

Grading: The students are required to take a midterm and a final exam in an essay format. Each exam will be %50 of your grade.

  1. M. Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge, 2001.
  2. P. Nanvutty, P. Nanvutty, The Gathas of Zarathushtra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Limited, 1999.

Week I. The Indo-Europeans, Indo-Iranian and their Religion (January 8, 10): Who are the Indo-Europeans? Migration and models of movement; Tracing the path of the Indo-Iranians; The Bactria Maragnia Archaeological Complex (BMAC); Soma and Fire; Sacred Hymns from the Veda: Soma, Kavi and Indra hymns; and the Avesta: Haoma and the hymn to the Kayanids.

Week II. Zarathushtra: The Prophet and Reformer (January 15, 17). Zarathushtra’s time and homeland; The cultural setting; The Worldview of Zarathushtra as contained his Gathas; The old Gods and the new god(s); Continuity and reform; Ahuras and the Devas; Ahura Mazda and other gods; The post Zarathushtra hymns: Yasna Haptanhaiti.

Week III. The Cosmos, Creation and the End of Time (January 22, 24): Sources and approaches; The Avesta and the Bundahish; The Bovine and the First man: Gayomarth; Ahriman’s assault and the cosmic battle; the victory of good over evil and the end of time: The Zoroastrian Apocalypse and resurrection.

Week IV. Zoroastrian Rituals: Purity, Pollution and Death (January 29, 31): Sources and approaches; Ahriman and his assault; Ohrmazd and his function; Zoroastrian rituals: from birth to death; pollutant matters; cleansing matters and rituals; laws for men, laws for women; the Dakhma and Tower of Silence; rituals for the soul of the dead.

Week V. Zoroastrianism during the Achaemenid Period (February 5, 7) : Cyrus or Darius? Ahura Mazda and other Gods; Ritual and worship; Mithra, Anahita and Humban; Royal inscriptions: From Darius to Xerxes; The treasury tablets and Greek sources; Mihr Yasht and Anahit (Aban) Yasht. Midterm (February 7th)

Week VI. From Alexander to Shapur I: Zoroastrianism (February 12, 14): Alexander and the Magi; Fire and the Avesta; Codifying ritual and law (Widewdad / Vendidadad); Purity and Pollution; Death and dying: From Sagdid to Dakhma: The fate of the soul; Heaven and hell.

Week VII. The Sasanian Period: Codifiers of the Tradition (February 19, 21): Ardashir I and the Zoroastrian foundation of the Empire; Tansar and Kerdir: The priests who shaped early Zoroastrianism; Journeys into heaven and hell and back; Mani and Manichaeism: A challenge to the Magi; Fire, fire-temple and forms of teaching; Denkard: History of the Avesta.

Week VIII. Zoroastrianism at the end of the Sasanian Rule (February 26, 28): Mazdak: Communist or reformer?; King Khusro I and religious reform; hermeneutics and commentaries on the Avesta: The Middle Persian texts; Pazand text; Wiraz: More journeys to heaven and hell; The ideal man, woman and child; Wisdom texts on behavior; Marriage and family; charity and endowments for the sake of one’s soul; confessions and prayers; Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds.

Week IX. The Avesta and the Commentaries (March 4, 6): Survey of Zoroastrian Middle Persian Literature of the Sasanian Period; Madigan I Hazar Dadestan: The Sasanian Law Code; Wisdom Literature: The Invention of Chess and Backgammon; Dinner Speech; Zoroastrian Diet: Licit and illicit; The final form: Yasna; Yasht; Vispered; Widewdad; Khordeh Avesta; The invention of the Avestan script: Omissions and insertions by Khusro I. The Bundahishn: The Book of Primal Creation.

Week X. The Zoroastrian Community under Muslim Domination (March 11, 13): Zoroastrian views of the conquest; Apocalyptic texts; Law and property; To Guide the Community: Pahlavi and Persian Rivayats; The Future of Zoroastrianism.

Final: Thursday March 20th / 4:00-6:00pm

  • History 180 – History of Zoroastrianism image

    Class: HICF 100K / T-TR 5:00-6:20
    Office: Humanities 720B
    Office Hours: T-Th 1:00-2:00