The subjects of my second Con West class on Zoroastrianism are going to be Zoroastrianism’s approach to the problem of evil and its stress on the importance of free choice. I’ll most likely be using excerpts from the Gathas (included in the Zoroastrian liturgy known as the Yasna) to illustrate these points. I’ll probably also discuss two Zoroastrian symbols: the fire and the Faravahar.

Here’s an excerpt from one of this week’s readings, S. A. Nigosian’s The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research that gets at these subjects:

According to ancient Iranian belief, Ahura Mazda was the wise lord, the all-knowing sky god, and the supreme creator. He was also intimately associated with truth, sovereignty, mysterious power, light, and sun. His nature was best expressed in the cult of fire (atar). The ritual attached to the sacred fire existed before Zoroaster, who adopted it and made it the outward symbol of truth (Yasna 43.9). In fact, Zoroaster taught that, for an individual to exercise free choice intelligently, Ahura Mazda gave his pure mind and his flaming fire of thought (Yasna 46.7). This fire was an enduring, blazing flame bringing clear guidance and joy to the true believer but destruction to lovers of evil (Yasna 34.4). It was through the energy of fire that Ahura Mazda assigned judgment to truth-followers and to
evil-followers (Yasna 43.4, 47 6).

Zoroaster saw humanity divided into two opposing parties: the truth-followers (ashavant), who were just and god-fearing; and the evil-followers (dregvant), among whom were classed all evil rulers, evil-doers, evil-speakers, those of evil conscience, and evil-thinkers (Yasna 49.11). But this basic dualism that Zoroaster saw here and now on earth he projected to the whole cosmos. He came to see that this fundamental tension existed both in the material as well as in the spiritual spheres. Over against a transcendental good mind stood the evil mind; over against the good spirit stood the evil spirit; and so on. Yet, on every level, a choice had to be made. This insistence on freedom of choice was the marked characteristic of Zoroaster’s teaching. In fact, what stood out in Zoroaster’s principles was not the ethical dualism of good versus evil but the importance of the individual as an arbiter between them. Each individual was ultimately faced with making a choice between good and evil, truth and falsehood.

I think it’s that combination of ethical (not to mention cosmic) dualism and freedom of choice that interested Melville and led him to include Zoroastrianism in Moby-Dick. I’m looking forward to exploring that in greater detail this year than I’ve been able to in the past.

Today’s playlist: the Brazilian jazz man Eumir Deodata’s arrangement of “Also Sprach Zarathushtra”; U2, “The Unforgettale Fire”; and The Doors, “Light My Fire.”