Western culture, scholars say, rests on the twin foundations of Hellenism and Judaism. In this brilliant historical essay, BBC producer and writer Kriwaczek makes a solid case for adding Zoroastrianism to the mix.
One of the earliest of the known Indo-European religions, Zoroastrianism posits a dualistic view of the universe in which good forever struggles with evil. This was the religion of the early Aryans, the conquerors of northern India by way of Central Asia; in one way or another, Kriwaczek shows, it wandered into other cultures as well, often by way of kindred Manichaeism, to figure in the spiritual beliefs of the author of the Book of Daniel, the Vikings, the pre-Christian Bulgarians, and the Cathar heretics of southern France, who were burned at the stake en masse for rejecting triune orthodoxy in favor of the more black-and-white conception of the “Magians.” In a compelling insight, Kriwaczek attributes some of this chiaroscuro worldview to the environment of the religion’s birthplace, the high valleys of Afghanistan, where “blazing summers and crackling winters” blended with the prophet Mani’s painterly interest in light and darkness to yield “a fine art raised to the status of revealed religion—unique in spiritual history.” Zoroastrianism, Kriwaczek writes, is also very much alive and well, if perhaps thinly hidden, in that very homeland. The name of the Iranian city of Mehrabad, for instance, has its origins in a phrase meaning something like “faithful to Mithra” (a Zoroastrian deity); the joyous Iranian New Year’s celebration called Noruz is Zoroastrian through and through; and one of the avowed missions of the Taliban was to eradicate traces of this pre-Islamic belief from the Muslim practice of the Persianized urbanites of Afghanistan—another struggle of dark and light, of good and evil, one might say.
A lively, always captivating blend of comparative religion, cultural history, literary travel, and eccentric trivia that deserves a broad readership among the spiritually inclined.