The Strange Tale of How We Came to See the World as an Eternal Battle Between Good and Evil

Guest post by Charles A. Cogan

On September 30, Vladimir Putin gave a fiery speech about the Satanic West and Russia’s fight to overcome Evil (New York Times, September 30, 2022, “With Bluster and Threats, Putin Casts the West as the Enemy”). He also announced that the four regions of Ukraine that Russia had occupied were now formally a part of Russia. What does this rhetoric of Good vs. Evil mean and how did we come to the place where everything needs to be characterized in extremes? When the United States moved into Afghanistan over twenty-one years ago the same language was used. After twenty years, the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan and the new Taliban regime is struggling to build an inclusive government and meet its peoples’ needs. Russia has invaded Ukraine and images of death and destruction and increasing allegations of war crimes have become the new normal. At the same time, there is a polarization taking place across the planet with incredibly diverse countries divided along tectonic plates of identity, history, nationality, language, culture and ideologies. This trend has been active for many years and the divergence became pronounced in the years following September 11, 2001, when the US responded to unexpected attacks by intervening militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the borders in West and Central Asia are fluid and do not represent any true realities on the ground beyond those considered during the partition of the region after World War I, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and Russian expansion to the borders of Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, the complexity can be overwhelming to the average person. Instead, the governments began to focus on terms with a long history in the region, the duality of good versus evil. This world view dates back more than two thousand years and a look at even the language of the past fifty years can show older ideas and worldviews peeking out from behind the current situation. The simplistic language of Good vs. Evil doesn’t seem sufficient to describe what is going on, or to help us find solutions. Some have likened George W. Bush’s rhetoric after 9/11 to Manichaeism, whose focus on Light vs. Darkness, Good vs. Evil, a never-ending struggle between the forces of light and darkness, etc., all evoke images very familiar to the average Christian American. The same desire to demonize the enemy is in play right now as Vladimir Putin describes all Ukrainians as Nazis. Why is it so important for current leaders to demonize their enemies?

Good vs. Evil as a way of seeing the world

Any student of Middle Eastern History knows that the many religious traditions influenced one another over the past five thousand years. While most Americans are very familiar with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which all trace their roots back to Abraham, much less is known about ancient religious traditions that exerted a powerful influence on the history and imagery and even theological conceptions of their Abrahamic neighbors. When we begin to peel away the layers to reconstruct the process, never inevitable or pre-ordained, through which modern Americans and other global citizens received their holy books and their world views, the results can surprise us.

The direct impact of these deeply-held images can be seen in our political rhetoric. From Ronald Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as “The Evil Empire” to George W. Bush’s identification of “The Axis of Evil”, neo-conservative politicians use the imagery of dualism on a regular basis. The fact that some of these forces of evil happen to be former allies (the USSR in WW II and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the years after the Iranian Revolution, especially during his war with Iran in the 1980s) doesn’t faze us, since we know that some questionable alliances need to be made in the face of even greater evils.

This dualism is not limited to Christian Americans. When the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979 and Ayatollah Khomeini eventually emerged as the spiritual and political leader of Revolutionary Iran, he described the United States as “The Great Satan”. In the past fifty years, the language of discourse has become so polarized that it’s not uncommon for politicians throughout the Middle East and some parts of Europe to invoke their own religious metaphors to paint their opponents in the darkest possible terms. When such language can be used at the level of nation states, it’s not surprising that the terms bandied about on the streets of Gaza, Baghdad and Tehran, not to mention Washington, D.C. and throughout Europe, have taken on very ominous tones. Political allies are the forces of light and progress (and Democracy), political enemies are ‘demons’ and the ‘forces of darkness’ and evil terrorists. The identities of these evildoers often shift. Former allies become evil (Saddam Hussein), former enemies become good (Yasir Arafat). It’s hard to keep up in the best of times, but at present, the mood seems disturbingly similar to that described by W.B. Yeats in his timeless poem, “The Second Coming”:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity.”

These words, penned during the years leading up to World War II, reflect a time when the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, even before the Fascist governments of Europe began to leverage fears of Communist revolution in order to make the case for their own brand of strong government. The mention of a second coming, for Yeats, was a very Biblical thing, coming straight from the Old Testament. The sentiments he describes would not be out of place in many parts of the world today, and fit with current reports emerging from Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan as if they were written yesterday. 

These images are deeply-ingrained in the American psyche, though often conceived of in Christian terms. One need go no further than The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to see Good vs. Evil writ large. Several years ago, in a movie review in the New York Times, CARYN JAMES wrote that, “With an emphasis on an eternal struggle between equally matched forces of darkness and light, “Star Wars” and “Batman Begins” suggest a kind of pop-culture Manichaeism” (NYT: June 17, 2005, Movies section). Where do we get these images of Darkness vs. Light, Good vs. Evil, an ultimate struggle in which the forces of goodness and light will eventually overcome the forces of evil and darkness? 

The answer may strike some as strange, since many Americans consider Christianity to be the ultimate source of morality and Christian values to be the cornerstone of American society. As we moved into Afghanistan and Iraq,  twenty-one years ago, the Evangelical Christian West saw us pitted against the “forces of darkness” personified by militant Islam. In her movie review, James refers to Manichaeism, which was characterized by a strong focus on good vs. evil. However, Manichaeism itself was considered to be heretical development from an older tradition, one that has had a powerful influence on almost all of the major religions of a vast region, ranging from ancient to Iran and Iraq to what is now Northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of the former U.S.S.R., and moving westward throughout the entire Roman Empire, to what is now Great Britain, France, the Balkans, Germany, etc. This religious tradition is Zoroastrianism, and without taking the time to know more about the Zoroastrian tradition, we cannot really claim to understand the roots of our own Christian, Muslim and Jewish beliefs. A historical discussion of any of the three above traditions without acknowledging the importance of the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra would be like believing that all of our beliefs have sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus, like Athena.

How far back does all of this go?

Over 2,500 years ago, a prophet traveled across West-Central Asia, teaching a radical new message, that there were not many gods, but one true God. The exact time of his life is still not certain. By some accounts, he was an advisor to the father or grandfather of Cyrus the Great of Persia, at some point in the 7th century B.C. According to other accounts, based on the language of the Avesta, he might have lived hundreds of years earlier. Zarathustra (Zoroaster) was his name, and he taught a very powerful vision of the world, in which the forces of Goodness and Light, led by Ahura Mazda, were locked in battle with the forces of Evil and Darkness, led by Ahriman. This ultimate struggle would take many forms, would span the lives of many generations, would claim many lives, but the ultimate victory would lie with the forces of Goodness and Light. Those who had died in the name of the struggle for the victory of Light would be raised from the dead on a final judgment day, to reclaim their rightful places in the world, while the forces of darkness and evil would be condemned to eternal damnation. This philosophy was a very powerful one, and was characterized by an emphasis on personal choice. By making virtuous decisions and performing proper ceremonies, each person could strengthen the cause of goodness. By succumbing to the temptations of evil, the cause of goodness could be undermined. The Avesta even contains scenes in which the prophet Zoroaster is tempted by the evil Ahriman, in a series of scenes that would be familiar to those who have studied the Bible (or the life of the Buddha, where Joseph Campbell has pointed similarities to the temptations of Jesus in his series of interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth). Although there was only one God, he had many superhuman helpers, Yazatas, who were very similar to the angels of the Abrahamic traditions. 

It is difficult to reconstruct the original teachings of Zoroaster, especially the Avesta. The sacred teachings were handed down through oral tradition, from generation to generation of mobeds (Zoroastrian priests), and the first known written copies of the Avesta were produced during the Sasanian period (though work was first begun during the late Parthian period), over 700 years after Zoroastrianism appeared as the imperial religion of the Achaemenid rulers of ancient Persia, who play such a prominent role in the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Daniel. 

Mary Boyce has posited that the teachings of Zarathustra were especially powerful because they came at a time when there was excessive violence and lawlessness in the Central Asian Steppes. In the older Indo-Iranian pantheon of gods were several who were clearly war gods, like Indra, who plays such a prominent role in the Rig Veda, one of the holiest books of the Indian tradition. By injecting morality and a struggle of good vs. evil, Boyce argues that Zarathustra’s teachings were transformational. At the same time, some older gods were reclassified as demons, those who sought senseless war and destruction, while others were classified as yazatas, allies of the one supreme God, Ahura Mazda, in the struggle for control of the world. In a very real sense, these teachings were designed for situations where anarchy ruled, to inject a higher calling to leaders, to encourage ethical and moral thinking. 

Boyce and others have devoted entire books (amazingly readable ones) to the study of Zoroastrian history and traditions over a period of 3,000 years. Her major work on the subject is a three-part series of books, published over the course of many years, in which she examines pre-Zoroastrian (Pagan) Iranian, Achaemenian and then Parthian/Sasanian Iran. She notes many transformations of the Zoroastrian tradition over those 3,000 years, including the gradual eclipsing of some major gods, the growth of fire temple worship, the cult of Anahita who eventually joined the trinity of the Ahuras, with Ahura Mazda as the principal, followed by the male Mithra and the female Anahita as his lieutenants. This tradition is incredibly rich, and chapters on the Persian Zoroastrian influence on some of the writings of major Jewish prophets, from Second Isiah to Nehemiah (including the hypothesis that Persian support helped lead to the eventual victory of the “Yahweh-alone-ists” (monotheists), led by Nehemiah, at a point in time when the Jewish tradition was under considerable influence tending towards henotheism- one god above the others) and the teachings of Ezra and others in the period 465-424 BCE. At the same time, this influence was not limited to the Jewish tradition, as Boyce also explores Zoroastrian influence on many of the leading Ionian Greek thinkers of the time (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus of Ephesus, for example). This influence may have been mutual, and elements could be chosen while others were rejected. Religious traditions are alive and incredibly diverse, but it would be naïve to assume that the appearance of so many Zoroastrian concepts in Judaism during the period of Achaemenian over-rule and patronage was a mere coincidence.

During periods when the light of the Zoroastrian empires was dimmed (after Alexander the Great’s conquest in 330 BCE and in the years following the eclipse of the Sasanian Empire in the mid-seventh century CE), many historical documents were destroyed and lost forever. Nevertheless, Zoroastrian Empires ruled most of what is now the Middle East and parts of Central Asia for much of a period of twelve hundred years, from the sixth century BCE until the middle of the seventh century CE. Scholars attribute a very powerful influence to the teachings of Zoroaster and many succeeding generations of Persian mages and scholars. As in the case of Rome’s eventual patronage of Christianity as a Roman Catholic religious tradition by the Emperor Constantine, and its spread through conquest, the teachings of Zoroaster were spread and made credible by their adoption by Cyrus the Great and several centuries of Persian rulers, from Cambyses to Darius I to Xerxes and others. The Achaemenians ruled a vast empire, ranging from Egypt to the Middle East, covering most of what is now Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran and moving off in directions later followed by Alexander, in the wake of his conquest of Persia under Darius III, to a region of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is no coincidence that the “Babylonian” captivity of the Hebrews was ended by the Persian Conquest of the region, though the Neo-Babylonian regime was actually vanquished some years earlier by the Medes. There are many Old Testament stories of the influence of the Hebrews on their Persian overlords, such as the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The Old Testament is full of stories of the power and protection of the One True God, who impressed the Persians (and earlier rulers) with his power to protect His prophets and the willingness of martyrs to die for their faith. In fact, at one point in the Bible, when Daniel had caused the destruction of the idol, Bel, and the great dragon of the Babylonians, they rose up against Cyrus, saying, “The king has become a Jew”.  (Daniel, Chapter 14, pp. 934-935, The New American Bible) They forced Daniel to be placed in a den with seven lions, but he miraculously survived again (his second encounter with lions), with the result that the priests themselves were consequently cast to the lions and devoured. In fact, the monotheistic beliefs of the Hebrews fit nicely into the monotheism of orthodox Zoroastrian teachings, which could account for the favored position given to the Jewish community for many years under Zoroastrian Persian rulers.

What is less popularly known, but equally clear, is that the Persian religious tradition had a powerful impact on the evolution of the Judaic tradition, and thus influenced the Christian and Muslim traditions as well, both indirectly and directly. The Manicheans and Maitreya Buddhists were also deeply influenced by Zoroastrian beliefs, as can be seen in Mani’s imagery of light and darkness as well as the eschatology of the Maitreyan tradition, with its expectation of an eventual final judgment and second coming, etc. Some of this influence is easy to trace, since Persian Zoroastrian empires ruled large regions of what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and India all the way up to the seventh century CE.  During the course of over a thousand years, the Zoroastrian tradition was the official religion of a succession of powerful Persian dynasties, beginning with the Achaemenians (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, etc.), followed by the Parthians and later the Sasanians. The division of the world into the good and the evil was a very effective theology for a growing empire. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persia of Darius and Xerxes, which failed to conquer Athens and its various (polytheistic) allies in successive battles from 492-480 B.C.E. However, the empire enjoyed another 150 years of undisputed hegemony, until finally meeting disaster at the hands of Alexander the Great. 

Zoroastrianism meets Hellenism

While Alexander is given credit for conquering much of the known world, most of what he conquered had been under the control of the Persian Empire for over 200 years (including Egypt, where Alexander supposedly received a prophesy of his future glory, which he never revealed to anyone). Alexander’s conquest of the region was a terrible setback for the Persian Empire and the Zoroastrian faith, but Hellenistic domination of the region outlived his death by less than a century, though smaller Hellenistic kingdoms competed with other regional powers for a longer period. True believers kept the Zoroastrian traditions alive under the Hellenistic kingdoms, and when the power of Alexander’s successors (especially the Seleucid kingdom) became fragmented. 

In the spirit of cohabitation, the Parthians seem to have continued to consider themselves Zoroastrian, but were also willing to place themselves within the Hellenic tradition and were not adverse to using Greek equivalents to their own gods when appropriate. Thus, many devotions to Zeus can be seen as devotions to Ahura Mazda, while Mithra was often equated to Apollo (a Sun God, later Helios or Sol in Roman times) and Anahita was equated to Artemis. 

As they reasserted themselves in the region, they tapped into the wealth and power provided by their location, in the heart of the old Silk Road. From this central location, the Parthians controlled trade between the commercial capitals of North Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, India and China. It is clear that religious ideas also traveled the same routes, which helps to explain the influence of Zoroastrian beliefs on some Buddhist traditions.

The Parthian Religious Mix

Like Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, the Zoroastrian tradition was influenced over the years by the faiths of the regions they ruled and those with which they had regular contact. There is an ongoing and yet unresolved debate amongst scholars as to whether the traditions practiced by the Parthians can really be considered “Orthodox” Zoroastrianism. Some argue that their contact with Alexander and the Hellenistic world encouraged the Parthians to elevate some of the older “pre-Zoroastrian” Iranian gods to status similar to that of Ahura Madza, a fashion similar to the Greco-Roman model, in which a supreme God like Zeus or Jupiter could be given primacy, but other gods were adopted by certain regions and cities as patron gods. In the Parthian case, the rise of Mithra (a Yazata, or immortal being who was an ally of Ahura Mazda in his fight against evil) became an important figure in the Parthian armies, where he was exalted as their leader in battle against evil. Within the Hellenistic world, it was easy for neighboring peoples to adopt Mithra (or Mithras in its Greek and Roman form), since a pluralistic society had room for more than one god and often found it easy to adopt gods of other cultures, endowing them with a rough equivalency to gods of their owns. Thus, one famous monument to Antiochus I at Commagene shows him paying tribute to a variety of gods, with a primary place given to Mithra (Clauss: 6), who is depicted as a Sun God, comparable to Apollo or Helios. One fascinating study has traced the influence of the cult of Mithras in the Hellenistic world and eventually in ancient Rome back to Armenia, an intergral part of the Parthian Empire, a Zoroastrian power at the time, whose ruler, on meeting with the Roman Emperor Nero, pledged his allegiance to Nero just as he would pledge his allegiance to his God, Mithras (Russell).

Only a few years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Parthians defeated the Roman legions at Carrhae. At this battle, one member of the triumvirate, Crassus, literally lost his head (53 BCE) and the Roman forces were completely routed and their standards captured and paraded by the Parthians in celebration of a great victory. At this point, the imperial Parthian theology (or at least its military) seems to have focused on Mithra, the ally of Ahura Mazda and the champion of light and goodness in the battle against darkness and evil. In the Avesta, there are references and praise hymns dedicated to Mithra. Because of the seeming invincibility of the Parthian armies in battle, the cult of Mithras became very popular in the Roman army as well. The rise of Mithras is an interesting phenomenon. As the lieutenant and/or son of Ahura Mazda (the Romans thought of Mithras as a sun god, “Sol Invictus Mithras”, while in the Avesta, “fire” is praised as the Son of Ahura Mazda, not necessarily Mithra by name), he was mentioned in the original teachings of Zoroaster, so he was not a “invention”. However, Mithras (Mitra or Mehr or Mihr in Persian, Mithras in Roman usage) was also a god in the non-Zoroastrian pantheon of Persian deities and other regional traditions, which raises the question of whether his rise could be compatible with a “monotheistic” tradition. In a much-quoted praise hymn devoted to Mithra in the Avesta, Mithra is given important qualities: truthfulness, a thousand eyes and ears to understand the plans of the enemies of goodness, a powerful support to those who honor their oaths to goodness, “a Heavenly Yazata bestowing rule, he increases the victory of those who offer to him piously, knowingly, purely with alms. For his brightness, etc.” (Avesta, (10) Mihr-Yast: 58-59).

Mithra goes to Rome

There has been much debate over whether the appearance of the Roman Cult of Mithras was ever directly tied to the Persian Yazata Mithra. Books have been written about the subject, including some that have argued for a veritable DaVinci Code of hidden meanings in the principal Roman representation of Mithras slaying the sacred Bull (Ulansey). It’s a fascinating question, but given the diversity of beliefs that exist under the general rubrics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the well-documented influence of Hellenistic mystery cults on the development of Roman Christianity, the search for a ‘pure and unadulterated’ faith tradition is difficult. During the years when Christianity was emerging as a powerful force in the Roman Empire, the Sasanian Empire was attempting to establish itself as the guardian of Zoroastrian orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the diversity of beliefs that Sasanian Persia inherited from the Parthians and the influence of Jewish and Christian doctrines led to the teachings of Mani, which drew on faith traditions very similar to those of the Baha’i in the present world, from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism and Zoroastrian teachings (with the prophesy of Mohammed only bringing the Islamic tradition into the mix in the seventh century, several hundred years after Mani’s death). The richness and complexity of the religious world at that time is fascinating and has been explored in depth by scholars like Boyce and Zaehner. A very readable book on the history of dualism (Good vs. Evil) is Yuri Stoyanov’s, The Other God, but that is material for another day. 

What is very clear is that Mithra and Mithras are both deeply connected to oaths of loyalty, military success in battle in a just cause, with the expectation of eventual success in battle against “forces of darkness and evil”. In Zoroastrian beliefs, fire is the sacred weapon and purifier. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandolf (Mithrandrir) is the guardian of the sacred flame, who vanquishes the darkness of Mordor. Christian readers can very easily relate to this struggle, as can Jewish and Muslim readers. The imagery of light vs. darkness is a part of our shared heritage. 

The dualism of the Zoroastrian tradition is a wonderful mobilizing force for the building of an empire. It is also a wonderful rallying cry for those seeking to unite in the face of an overwhelming outside threat. However, the language of duality: with us or against us, good vs. evil, light vs. darkness, is not as effective for building community and finding common ground between peoples of diverse faiths, traditions, histories, and interests.

Can Dualism be a Positive Force?

My goal here is not to advocate for a renewal of militant Zoroastrianism or to claim that any religious tradition is superior to others. The Zoroastrians who claimed Mithra as their champion against their Hellenistic enemies, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire and other regional enemies were focusing on the physical military battle, not the spiritual quest. Their focus on Mithra had evolved to justify conquest and incorporation of enemy lands and the maintenance of an elite of priests and aristocrats, far-removed from the earlier teachings of Zoroaster and the practices of Cyrus the Great and his immediate successors. The fact that the Romans, including several emperors, felt comfortable using Mithras as a Roman symbol (comparable to Apollo and Helios, all Sun Gods) shows that the cult of Mithras in Rome was not considered in any way to be equivalent to Persian Zoroastrianism. While Mithras is supposed to lead the forces of goodness and light in battle against the forces of darkness and evil, there were even occasions when Roman forces went into battle against Persian Zoroastrian armies, with both sides counting on the support of their own Mithras/Mithra/Mehr/Mihr/Mir in their quest for victory. In a way, this ancient history sheds a direct light on our current crisis, where followers of the three surviving imperial monotheistic traditions are squared off in the Middle East and Central Asia, all calling on the same sources of inspiration and guidance as they seek to defeat one another and combat the evil that they see in their enemies. The spiral of violence is not a new one. The message and spirit of imperial Mithras, for all of its power and martial splendor, is not the one that is needed to solve current crises.

When the Military Power is Subtracted from the Spiritual Quest

Today’s Zoroastrian communities have found a way to move beyond the militancy of Imperial Zoroastrianism to a more spiritual tradition, which seems closer to the original teachings of Zoroaster himself. There are still small Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India. In Iran, they are generally very poor, and limited to only a few ancient cities, including Yazd. In India, the Parsees tend to be rather affluent, highly-educated, known in general for strong ethical practices, and devoted to a much more quiet and pacific search for goodness and light. Despite some periods of persecution, followers of “the good religion” have usually been accorded a protected and respected status within the Islamic world, especially once their threat as the rulers of an earthly empire came to an end. Many Zoroastrians converted to Islam after the fall of the Sasanian Empire, though it has become clear that the waning of the Zoroastrian faith has been a protracted one, not the instant fall that early Islamic accounts liked to portray (see Boyce and others on this). Be that as it may, the culture and beliefs of ancient Persia were powerful, and Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has been heavily influenced by Zoroastrian teachings and imagery.

What can we take away from this exploration of the ancient past?

Current conflicts in the Middle East and Central and South Asia are not new. Their roots go back for thousands of years, but there have also been long periods of peaceful coexistence and even very productive collaboration between the many cultural, religious, and socio-economic groups of the region. The Prophet Mohammed’s quest for unity and his tolerance of rival traditions shaped Islam through much of its history, though the Islamic world is also incredibly diverse in its traditions, from region to region and through different periods of history. 

Up through the end of World War II, there were Jewish minorities, often thriving minorities, in every single Arab and Middle Eastern state. As much as a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish, and many of those who fled Baghdad preserved a sense of nostalgia for their long and prosperous centuries in the heartland of successive Islamic empires. In most, there were also Christian minorities, including a very large Coptic Christian minority in Egypt up to the present day. In Iran, there was an important Baha’i minority for many long years. Peace has not been uninterrupted, even between fellow Muslim states, but the Islamic world has had long periods of stability and cultural pluralism. 

Mary Boyce, in describing the relations between the Zoroastrian communities of Iran and their Muslim neighbors, pointed out that the term, “najib” (noble) is used by the Zoroastrians of Iran to describe tolerant Muslims, while “na-najib” (ignoble) is the term to describe those who are intolerant and oppressive. This kind of broad distinction is a very useful one, and can be used equally well in other parts of the world. The same dichotomy would be familiar to those trying to describe Jewish-Palestinian relations, as well as those between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, Catholics and Protestants throughout the world, Christians and Muslims in the USA, etc.

Recently, some elements claiming to represent Islam have become just one more player in the competition for hegemony in the Islamic world.  The language of Islamic militants in Iraq mirrors very closely the stark dualism of the Zoroastrian past. A fight in the cause of Islam, with death guaranteeing Paradise, the light of a superior religion conquering lesser religions, a struggle for an eventual victory of Light over Darkness. All of these images come directly from the ancient Zoroastrian texts that were born in this very region so many years ago. Unfortunately, there are equally strident and equally Zoroastrian messages in Judaism (see the prophecies of Daniel) and Christianity (from the imperial ambitions of Constantine’s Roman Christianity to the Crusades to some of the fiercer present-day televangelists). The bottom line is that the Abrahamic religious traditions in the region have plenty of battle cries to keep them fighting forever. What can be done?

The Framework for a Better Future

First, we could begin by dropping the language of our Zoroastrian ancestors and realize that we are all drawing from the same well of traditions as we speak and are just speaking over each other. The fight in Iraq is not between ultimate good and ultimate evil. This is equally true of current conflicts in Israel/Palestine, India/Pakistan, even in Darfur, where Muslims have been oppressing fellow Muslims. There is a struggle in each person between tendencies to good and evil, and if we assume that all people of all faiths are involved in similar struggles, then the need is to lower the volume, back away from the Mithraic image of death and destruction and toward a discourse of trying to find ways of encouraging the good and containing the evil within each person. The language Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Darkness, Cosmic Dualism conjures up powerful antagonisms and fans the flames of conflict at a time when each of the world’s great monotheistic traditions is struggling for a language of discourse that can allow for reconciliation, reconstruction and peaceful coexistence. This does not mean anything so idealistic as a call for everyone to lay down their arms and become friends, but we badly need to avoid the language of polarization and demonization, especially when referring to peoples of other religious traditions. We have more in common that we believe and realize, both for the better and for the worse.

The image of the Roman Mithras is that of a messianic figure, ordained by the One True God (or even The God himself, since Ahura Mazda never became a Roman God), supremely self-confident, self-righteous and militant, spoiling for a fight and sure of victory against inferior peoples and their inferior gods. The problem comes from the marriage of a spiritual religious tradition of great appeal to an earthly empire, which faced all of the pressures and real-life challenges of the physical world. 

The Cyrus Cylinder and What it can Teach Us

To give proper credit to the first great Zoroastrian dynasty, the Achaemenid rulers of ancient Persia, Cyrus the Great managed to balance his own strong faith with a Human Rights Charter, proclaimed in 539 BCE, that has been favorably compared with the present-day “Universal Declaration”. After conquering Babylon, he was careful to show respect for the Babylonian Gods, even though orthodox Zoroastrian doctrine proclaimed that there was only one true God. At the same time, he proclaimed that his forces would guarantee peace, “I would not allow anyone to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad”, while he also “abolished the yoke which was against their standing. I brought relief to their dilapidated housing, putting an end to their main complaints. Marduk, the great lord, was well pleased with my deeds and sent blessings…” (both quotes from p. 35, Upshur et al.). Much of what we know of the reign of Cyrus, Darius I and others came for many years from stories in the Old Testament, which echoed the fact that the Persian rulers were more just than their predecessors and strongly supported the rights of their Jewish subjects, with much praise for the God of the Hebrews.  

In the ancient stone “Cyrus Cylinder” (which was discovered in 1878 during the excavation of the site of Babylon) he even went to the point of  proclaiming that, with the help of Ahura Mazda, he would only rule those who willingly accepted his rule, would respect the “traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire” and would not resort to war to impose his rule (for an easily accessible source, please see English translation at Given the policies and practices of his predecessors, the Assyrians and Chaldeans and Medes, this Human Rights policy is even more striking. It reflects, perhaps, one of the most important principles contained in the teachings of Zoroaster, “that men and women possessed free will and were expected to avoid sin and abide by divine laws. Each person’s choices mattered in the struggle. The king of kings himself was a devotee and example to his people” (Upshur et al, p. 38). By internalizing the teachings of Zoroaster, early rulers like Cyrus and Darius I had to make difficult choices. That both chose to hold themselves to high ideals can be seen as a very positive outcome of their belief in the teachings of Zoroaster, though the realities of maintaining and reinforcing an empire required many compromises.

The importance of Cyrus the Great’s Human Rights policy was underlined fifteen years ago in a Nobel Peace Prize Forum at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, as having, “promoted a Human Rights policy that rivals the Universal Declaration in its breadth”. The person who originally shared this with me is a retired ambassador, Bob Flaten, who agreed to read an early draft of this paper. Pursuing this theme, he asked, “How could Cyrus the Great do this in the context of good vs. evil? If he could do it, why can’t we?”

The challenge, then, is to find a way to combine high ideals and strong beliefs with tolerance of differing opinions and traditions. If we need to look for a Mithras for today’s world, we might find him among the most radical and intolerant and violent elements of each religious community. Mithras is the Judge, the one who chooses who is good and who is evil and then helps the good ones to defeat the evil ones. In a fascinating essay, written shortly after George Bush’s original “Axis of Evil” speech, Dan Skinner pointed out one of the critical problems of Bush’s dualism: “Did Bush get the categories right? Is he sure who is Good and who is Evil? If not, he is energizing a high stakes dualistic game based on false distinctions” (Skinner, “Calling Bush’s Views Manichean Is an Insult to the Manicheans”: 2-3, from History News Network, 9/24/04,  

The key to finding a way to a better future will be to avoid this path and find better solutions, better voices, better paradigms from the past and the present for the years to come. Deep religious faith can be a wondrous thing, if it gives people a sense of justice, tolerance and appreciation for the human dignity of others. All of these virtues can be found aplenty in the diverse Zoroastrian, Manichean, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Baha’i and Buddhist traditions of the past three thousand years. We all have to  seek a little harder and then look within ourselves to make conscious choices on behalf of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” (NYT, Sept. 6, 2006, Laurie Goldstein, “Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling”, 

In some future time, in some distant place, humble and modest Christians, Jews and Muslims may all live again in harmony, looking back at their imperial days and wonder how the teachings of their prophets led to the hubris and bloodshed and irreconcilable differences of the today’s world. Like today’s Zoroastrian communities, they may reflect back on the glory years of their faiths, when their religions were spread around the world by mighty empires and their principles were admired and followed by peoples of widely diverse languages and histories and traditions. Unfortunately, this humility and introspection seems to be much easier to achieve after the empire has failed and the worldly power is a thing of the past. If we’re looking for a way out of today’s spiral of violence, it will take tremendous commitment and courage for world leaders to set aside the imperial militancy of their spiritual traditions and seek commonality and compromise and cohabitation. Mithra/Mithras became a war god and a ‘self-righteous’ judge during the years of Persian and Roman imperial might. In earlier times, Zarathustra seemed to want his Mithra to be a judge who could truly provide fair judgements to all of humanity, not just his own team, and the spiritual journey outlined by Zarathustra seemed to be very universal in its abhorrence of senseless violence and bloodshed. Identifying and encouraging good thoughts, good words and good deeds may be just the recipe we need right now.

A Basic Bibliography for Sources Reviewed for this piece

Boyce, Mary (1977) A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism, Clarendon Press, Oxford (UK).

Boyce, Mary (1996) A History of Zoroastrianism Volume I: The Early Period, EJ Brill, Leiden/New York/Koln.

Boyce, Mary (1982) A History of Zoroastrianism Volume II: Under the Achaemenians, EJ Brill, Leiden/Koln.

Boyce, Mary (1975) A History of Zoroastrianism Vol. III: Under Macedonian and Roman Rule, EJ Brill, Leiden/Koln.

Clauss, Manfred (2001) The Mysteries of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries, Translated by Richard Gordon, Routledge, New York.

Stoyanov, Yuri (2000) The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Kriwaczek, Paul (2004) In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World’s First Prophet, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York City.

Mottahedeh, Roy (1986) The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York City. 

Russell, James R (1987) Zoroastrianism in Armenia, Harvard Iranian Series, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (USA).

Ulansey, David (1989) The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, Oxford University Press, London.

Upshur, Jiu-Hwa, Terry, Janice, Holoka, James, Goff, Richard, Cassar, George (2002) Volume I: World History Before 1600: The Development of Civilization, Fourth Edition, Wadsworth, Thomson Learning, Australia-Canada-Mexico-Singapore-Spain-UK-United States.

Zaehner, R.C.  (1961) The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

© Charles A. Cogan, 2022, all rights reserved.

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