Useful Notes: Zoroastrianism

One of the oldest religions in history and in Ancient times the only major religion in the Middle East other than Judaism and polytheism. Its doctrine centers around an eternal war between Good (represented by Ahura Mazda, or Ormazd) and Evil (represented by Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman). The former can be roughly equated with God but the latter is definitely not Satan, since Satan is a rebel angel/spirit/former prosecutor fighting his own creator (beginning open rebellion around the time the Persians were running things, for some reason) - thus, Failure Is the Only Option. Ahriman is Ahura Mazda's uncreated Evil Counterpart and thus an equal or near-equal God of Evil who actually has a shot at the title (though akin to Satan, he will lose in the end anyway). Humans have free will, and they face their own personal version of the divine struggle, between Truth and the Lie. Based on one's actions in their struggle, they are either led to paradise (the word comes to us from Zoroastrianism) or hell. Interestingly, hell in Zoroastrianism is not eternal, but meant to reform people.

An interesting note is that the complex mythology of the religion, involving Ahura Mazda, the Amesha Spentas and ahurasnote  and demonic daevas is an inversion of Hindu Mythology and (to a lesser extent) Norse Mythology; the ahuras are etymologically related to the Asuras and Aesir, while the daevas are equivalent to the Hindu Devas (and related to the Norse god Tyr and various words relating to, um, divinity in the West).

It is usually considered the world's oldest revealed religion, tracing its origin to a prophet called Zarathustra (Anglicized to Zoroaster, via Greek Zoroastres). Historians aren't quite sure when he lived, with estimates ranging from c. 1500 BC to c. 600 BC, though he most likely lived around 1000 BC. He is thought to have lived in what is now northern Afghanistan, though, again, historians are not quite sure. Zoroaster wrote the Gathas and seven of the Yasnas, parts of the text known as the Avesta, which is analogous to The Bible. Incidentally, the Avesta gave its name to the language it was written in, an East Iranian tongue known to us as Avestan.

Zoroastrianism was the national religion of the various pre-Islamic Persian dynasties. A heretic form of Zoroastrianism was also followed in Armenia before the kingdom converted to Christianity, with its own native deities thrown in. After the Islamic conquest of Persia they were sometimes regarded as "honorary people of the book" because they were so well established in their country and were monotheists, and they lived in a second class but tolerable status alongside Christians and Jews. Like the majority of the non-Muslim inhabitants of the Muslim empires, however, the Caliphate's tax policies (in which non-Muslims pay far higher taxes than Muslims) led to mass conversions in the centuries following the conquests (to the chagrin of the Caliphate, as they had to find alternative sources of revenue). Rather than convert, many of them fled to India where they remain today as the "Parsees" (a later, smaller group are called "Iranis"). The Parsees were favored in the days of The Raj and had something of a reputation as a Proud Merchant Race.

Among their more interesting customs was the belief in the sacredness of earth, water, and most famously, fire. This led to the custom of keeping an eternal flame at Zoroastrian temples. This also led to the mistaken belief by outsiders that they actually worshipped fire rather then regarding it as a symbol of Ahura Mazda. But one of the stranger aspects of this was the custom of disposing of the dead by placing them in raised platforms ("Towers of Silence") for the birds to eat to avoid desecration of sacred elements.

Zoroastrianism is generally a closed faith that does not accept converts, which does not bode well for its survival, considering birthrates tend to be quite low. This is especially true of the Parsees, by far the most traditionalist group.note  Not coincidentally, demographers expect the number of Parsees to have fallen below 25,000 by 2020 and probably become extinct by the end of the century. Other branches are not nearly as closed-off, but their numbers are steadily dropping as well.

Though now a small religion, Zoroastrians can be found in a number of places in the world. The largest groups in Asia are the Iranian Zoroastrians and the Parsis of India. Probably the best known Zoroastrian in the world was one Farrokh Bulsara, a British Parsi everyone knows as Freddie Mercury.