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Ahura Mazda with wide eagle wings

A carving of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, from the Louvre museum in Paris

Who is Ahura Mazda?

About 1500 BC, people in India and Iran worshipped a sky god they called Ahura Mazda.

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Monotheism and polytheism
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An Indo-European god

stone carving of a man reaching to get something from another male figure (a god), both on horseback.

Ardashir I was the first Sassanian ruler of the Parthian Empire. Here he gets the kingship from the chief Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda.

These people were Indo-Europeans themselves, and Ahura Mazda (ah-HOO-rah-MAHZ-dah) was probably an Indo-European god originally.

Who were the Yamnaya?

That is, he probably got started under the big open skies of Central Asia, with the Yamnaya. When the Yamnaya invaded Iran, they brought their sky god with them.

A god of justice and order

He’s probably related to the Hindu god Varuna. He’s also probably related to the West Asian god Mithra. But the relationship between these three is not at all clear.

More about Varuna
Who is the god Mithra?

Is Ahura Mazda Mithra and Varuna’s father? Or should we think of all three gods as brothers? They are all interested in the same thing – promoting law and order over chaos.

More about law and chaos

In this way they are also related to the German god Tyr, and perhaps to the Greek god Hermes.

The German god Tyr
What did Hermes do?

The Indo-Europeans reached Greece and Germany, as well as Iran and India. All of these related gods are male. That’s probably because ancient Indo-Europeans and West Asians had the sexist idea that reason and order were male, while chaos and confusion were female.

Women in West Asian history

What did Ahura Mazda look like?

Ardashir II becomes the Persian king, in the center, with Mithra and Ahura Mazda by his side (Taq-e Bostan)

Ardashir II becomes the Persian king, in the center, with Mithra and Ahura Mazda by his side (Taq-e Bostan, Iran, 300s AD)

Unlike most Indian and West Asian gods of this time, Ahura Mazda didn’t necessarily look like a person. Artists carved him with the head and shoulders of a person. But then the artists gave him wings and a tail like a bird or a spirit. (Compare this to medieval paintings of the Holy Spirit.)

When did people worship Ahura Mazda?

Sometime around 1000 BC, though, a priest named Zoroaster in eastern Iran began to tell people that he had had a special message from God. Zoroaster heard God tell him that Ahura Mazda was really important. People began to worship Ahura Mazda more than they had before.

More about Zoroastrianism

Anahita, Khosrau II, and Ahura Mazda (probably)(Taq-e Bostan, 600s AD)

Anahita, Khosrau II, and Ahura Mazda (probably)(Taq-e Bostan, 600s AD)

After a while, Ahura Mazda became the one supreme god over all the other gods. And most of the other gods gradually became less powerful. People started to think of these other gods as demons. In this way, Zoroastrianism was somewhat monotheistic.

How long did people worship Ahura Mazda?

People kept on praying to Ahura Mazda and sacrificing to him from about 1500 BC to the 600s AD. After about 400 AD, though, it was mostly the Sassanian kings of Iran who worshipped Ahura Mazda. Ordinary Iranian people had mostly switched over to Buddhism or Christianity.

Who were the Sassanians?
More about Buddhism
Manichaeism (a kind of Christianity)

During the 600s AD, the rulers of Iran (and many other people) switched to the new religion of Islam. After that, the only followers of Ahura Mazda were the Parsees, who left Iran and moved to India.

More about Islam
More about the Parsees
And check out the Mazdakites

More about Zoroastrianism

Bibliography and further reading about Ahura Mazda and Zoroastrianism:

Zoroastrianism, by Paula Hartz (updated 2004). Easy reading.

The Usborne Book of World Religions, by Susan Meredith (1996). Easy reading.

An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and Achaemenid Inscriptions, by William Malandra (1983). A nice clear explanation of ancient Zoroastrianism, by a specialist, for adults.

More West Asian religion
Buddhism
Islam
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