Once upon a time, an ineffable God named Ahura Mazda existed in “uncreated form”. In other words, Ahura Mazda was eternally divine. As worshipers of Ahura Mazda started to elaborate on how fantastic their deity was (circa 375 BCE), they realized there must be a trinity of goodness which emanated from him, so Mithra and Apam Napat were invented to fulfill this trinity.
Interestingly, Mithra held a judicial role (sounds like “he will come again to judge the living and the dead”), and was emanated from the sun. In a later Gnostic sect, called the Manicheans, Mithra assumed the role of the “living spirit”.
*a depiction of a Fravashi, the guardian spirit
Ahura Mazda, being the infinitely good, wonderfully fantastic, (nearly) all-powerful God he was, created angel-like spirits to assist him in all his good-doings. These angels were called yazatas.
By the time the material realm was created, Ahura Mazda was not the only supernatural being who exerted influence over it; he had an adversary named Angra Mainyu. Like Ahura Mazda, Angra Mainyu emanated his own spirits, and predictably, Angra’s spirits were evil and absolutely unworthy of worship or any other reverence. To the Zoroastrians, Angra Mainyu’s existence gave rise to all sin and misery in the universe.
As a result of the subsequent dualism which was fueled by the ongoing cosmic struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the material realm became characterized by imperfection. Some humans even aided Angra Mainyu’s quest for cosmic supremacy; those humans who provided this aid were entirely unrighteous, and as a result of their crimes, would be destroyed.
As with any deity, Ahura Mazda had a logistics problem: how would he propagate information to people so that they could understand the paradigm under which they lived?
Though this detail might present challenges for inferior Gods (hint: Angra Mainyu), it was absolutely no problem at all for the great-and-powerful Ahura Mazda. Ahura sent one of his angels (yazatas) to clue in the human most spiritually prepared for revelation: the 30-year old Zoroaster. While Zoroaster was fetching water to use in a sacred ritual, angel Vohu Manah led Zoroaster to Ahura Mazda, where Ahura Mazda imparted onto Zoroaster true wisdom.
An interesting (and frankly embarrassing) curveball which was revealed to Zoroaster was that Ahura Mazda was not quite powerful enough to simply get rid of Angra Mainyu altogether; rather, this task would be accomplished with the help from humans in the material realm (evidently, the introduction of the material realm presented some challenges to Ahura’s ability to do away with the source of all bad things).
Like all religions, Zoroastrianism had rituals. It’s primary ritual was called Padyab, which translates to “ritually clean”. The steps of the Padyab were preceded by a prayer, and then included the following:
- Wet both hands to the wrists
- Wash face
- Wet right hand, wash right foot three times
- Wet right hand, wash left foot three times
- Wash both hands, and then wipe off hands and face with a clean towel
Like with Christianity, there were heresies associated with Ahura Mazda worship. For example, like in the case of Gnostic Christianity, the Zurvans claimed that it was not Ahura Mazda who was the high God (monad); rather, it was Zurvan, who “emanated” Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu – compare that to the Gnostic myth, which claimed that the Monad first emanated Barbelo, and together (with their divine spark), they emanated a series of eternal angels (aeons); out of one of the Aeons (Sophia) emanated the source of all evil, Yaldabaoth, who emanated 12 archons, and together, they ruled the world.
The parallels between Christianity and its predecessor, Zoroastrianism are quite clear – the trinity, the dualism between good and evil, the evil spirits which the good God couldn’t quite get rid of, and the prophet who was revealed Gnosis (Jesus, then Paul). Like in Gnostic religions, Zoroastrianism even had humans who would never qualify for Gnosis, perhaps because they were descendants of the evil Cain, as opposed to the wonderful Seth (that is how the Gnostics would have seen it, anyway).
The most interesting detail in Zoroastrianism, at least in my mind, is the ritualistic cleansing. Obviously, most people would recognize the cleansing as a potential predecessor of the Christian baptism. The 5-step component raises my suspicion that the secret 5-seal ritual in Sethian Christianity may have borrowed from this earlier Zoroastrian tradition.
The repeated application of the ritual is also reminiscent of the John the Baptist tradition, which likewise had repeat baptismal rites which served in an atonement function.
If one wishes to unwrap this link between the Zoroastrians and the John the Baptist sect, one needs look no further than the extant John the Baptist sect, which today calls themselves the Mandaeans. They, like the Zoroastrians, are in roughly the same geographic area, Mesopotamia (Iran and Iraq).
The bridge connecting the Zoroastrians, the Mandaeans, and the Gnostics does not end with their geographies. Like the Gnostics, the Mandaeans believed that there was a high God and the material realm, and they believe that material emerged from the world of darkness, where the soul was a product of the world of light. Compare that to the Gnostic idea that the Logos was emanated from the divine light.
The Mandaeans have a Demiurge of their own, named Ptahil. They believe the rulers of the world of darkness created demonic offspring who consider themselves the owners of the Seven (planets) and Twelve (Zodiac signs). Mandaeanism, like both Gnostic and apostolic Christianity, prominently features the numbers seven and twelve; consider the parallel in the book of Revelation, which referenced the number seven 59 times, and the number twelve 22 times.
There is a recurring pattern with which one must grapple when they process these details about religions emerging within a few hundred years before and after common era: why did so many religions have such a robust creation myth about the material realm?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
-The Gospel of John 1:1
The answer to this question is quite clear to anyone who is familiar with Greek philosophy: religions had to answer why a God who is responsible for the Earth (and all its maladies) would be worthy of worship. The solution to which so many religions arrived was that there must have been a malevolent or ignorant craftsman (Demiurge) who implemented this imperfect realm, and it was not this Demiurge, but rather, a higher God who is worthy of worship. For the Christians, the Demiurge was Yaldabaoth, for the Mandaeans, it was Ptahil, and for the Zoroastrians, it was the dissection of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu.
But there is a subsequent question that follows this materialistic concern: why is it that the Gnostic Christians came to adopt a similar worldview? This matter is particularly strange when you consider that Christianity was supposedly derived from a Judean minister who was staked to a cross.
In fact, any solution to this evolutionary trajectory borders on the absurd if you presume that Jesus Christ existed and was persecuted by Pontius Pilate. It is simply too much of a stretch to presume that the most educated and philosophically astute members of Alexandrian, Mesopotamian, and Roman society converted this Judean minister to the proxy in the stars that he seemingly became in the Sethian and Valentinian myths.
However, if you presume that these “Gnostic” myths preceded the mid-2nd century pre-Orthodox Christianity of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, the narrative becomes much more economical – it was not the Gnostics who hijacked the pre-Orthodoxy; rather, it was the pre-Orthodoxy which hijacked Gnosticism.