ESCHATOLOGY i. In Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian Influence



i. In Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian Influence

General Observations.

Faith in the events beyond life on this earth is attested in the Zoroastrian scriptures from the very first, from the Gāθās. This faith developed and became central to later Zoroastrianism so that it colors almost all aspects of the religious life. It also seems to have had a deep impact on neighboring religions, notably on Judaism, and through it on Christianity and Islam, as well as on Manicheism.

The concept of eschatology in Zoroastrianism consists of a number of points. Zoroastrian eschatology is the necessary and consistent conclusion to the story of creation. The whole reason for the existence of the world, as is made clear in the late Zoroastrian sources, is to serve as a device in the battle between Ohrmazd and Ahriman (see COSMOGONY AND COSMOLOGY). The end of individual life is the reflection and conclusion of the course of human existence; the eschatological period marks the resolution of the cosmic struggle, and brings to fruition the effort of Ohrmazd, assisted by the other deities and humanities, to bring about the victory of the powers of good. From another point of view, eschatology serves both as a mirror-image of the religious and moral life on earth, and as a court of justice where rewards and punishments are allotted and carried out. In contrast to the ambiguity and frequent injustice which seems to reign in the actual world, the real values of the religion are redressed in eschatological retrospect.

The most prominent aspect of the eschatological descriptions is the allotting of reward or punishment in two ways, through a verdict reached by divine judges and through automatic determination of a person’s merit by an ordeal type of judgment. In every case, the eschatological situation constitutes a reflection of the person’s worth and is final in the sense that what was entirely the person’s responsibility while he was alive is no longer in his hands after death. The same idea of judgment and verdict occurs in a number of ways in the course of the eschatological narrative, both with regard to the individual and with regard to humanity as a collective whole. Beyond the satisfaction of seeing justice done, the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished for their actions, stands the more general view that the end of the world is the stage where the cause of Ohrmazd is vindicated. The disturbance caused in the cosmic order by Ahriman’s invasion of a domain out of his own is permanently and ultimately removed, and the world made to change into a new mode of existence where no evil can interfere. From this point of view man, important though he is, is but a tool in the hands of the supreme powers.

Two different positions seem to coexist in the Zoroastrian eschatological conceptions. One is that of absolute justice given to the individual according to the person’s merits, and the other is that of the posthumous fate of the person being determined as the outcome of a final struggle between the spirits of good and evil over it. The latter conception allows for an appeal by the family and friends of the deceased to the deities to intercede on his behalf. The two points of view coincide, but they may represent two ways of looking at the matter of eschatological judgment, that could have been originally separate (Lommel, p. 186). The multiplicity of events and acts of judgment that seem to repeat themselves in apparent superfluity may be better understood by the great importance that is accorded in Zoroastrian thinking to the dichotomy between the visible, or material, aspect of the world, and its invisible, or mental, aspect, what is expressed in Pahlavi by the terms gētīg and mēnōg (q.v.). The part of eschatology that deals with the fate of the individual after death is all concerned with mēnōg; the account of the end of the world and of its reconstitution, i.e., universal eschatology, reflects a future history that is conducted in a combination of gētīg and mēnōg, with an emphasis on the former. Zoroastrian eschatology, as formulated in the Pahlavi books, has from this point of view a certain coherence and structure, and some of the bewildering repetitions receive a satisfactory explanation.

The purview of eschatology is thus not only wide but often also rather confused. For the sake of clarity, it is best to distinguish between the following pairs of notions: (1) between the fate of the individual soul after death and the fate of humanity as a whole after the end of the world; (2) between the various abodes to which the souls are allotted after death and the division of humanity after the final judgment; and (3) between the events leading to the final dissolution of the world, which are expressed in prophecies regarding the end of time (treated by the genre of literature known as apocalyptic), and the ultimate fate of the world after it is reconstituted. The first two distinctions imply the contrast between individual and universal eschatology, the last one brings out the difference between apocalyptic and eschatology in the proper sense of the term. The earlier scriptures present us with few clear statements concerning the questions involved. The discussion here will be presented in terms of both the main stages of Zoroastrian history and the three main thematic notions: individual eschatology; universal eschatology; and apocalyptic (q.v.).

Historical survey.

Eschatology in the Gāθās. Some modern interpreters of the Old Avestan texts tend to minimize the existence or importance of eschatology in them. They regard the Gāθās as primarily ritual texts, close in spirit to the Vedic hymns, where the aim of the officiant is to bring about well-being and protection for himself and the world. Such is the case with Helmut Humbach, although he does allot some importance to it (see Humbach, 1959, I, p. 74; 1991, I, pp .92-94), and Jean Kellens, who would concede the existence of individual eschatology within the ritual complex of the Gāθās (see Kellens). Other scholars, however, follow the Zoroastrian tradition in detecting within the Gāθās a foreshadowing of some of the essential eschatological ideas that were later developed and made central in the Zoroastrian religion. Despite the great progress made in their understanding, the Gāθās are still obscure enough to allow for different interpretations.

There is reference in the Gāθās to the doctrine that the person is accountable, eschatologically, for his actions (e.g., Y. 31.14). Notions such as garō.dəmāna-, usually translated “house of Song” (Y. 50.4, 51.15), dəmāna- vanhəus mananho, “the house of the Good Mind” (Y. 32.15), or anhəuš vahišta- “the best of existences” (Y. 46.10, and, by descriptive circumlocution, 15-17) seem to be connected to the reward of the soul for having done good deeds. The reverse, the house of Lie (drūjō dəmāna-), is the reward for evil deeds (Y. 46.11, 49.11). This is described as “a long life in darkness, foul food, (and) the word ‘woe’ “ (Y. 31.20, Humbach’s translation). In Yašt 33.1, 49.4 there may be a reference to a punishment reserved for those whose evil deeds outbalance their good deeds. The ideas of paradise and hell are expressed by “the best (existence)” (Y. 44.2), and “the worst” (Y. 30.4). The eschatological bridge is expressed by the term činvatō pərətu- (Y. 32.15, 33.1, 46.11; see ČINWAD PUHL), perhaps also by means of fire (Y. 31.19, 47.6). As a rule it is impossible to tell in the Gāθās whether eschatology is conceived of in terms of individual or universal judgment. Sraoša (“Obedience”) seems to be the deity most intimately connected in the Gāθās with the judgment (Y. 33.5, 43.12).

One of the clear eschatological terms in the Gāθās is Saošyant, the future benefactor, a term which may have originally applied to Zoroaster himself (e.g., Y. 46.3; cf. Boyce, 1975, pp. 234 ff.). The Gāθās also make reference to the molten metal (Y. 51.9, 32.7, 30.7), which, although the context is not very clear, can be taken in the sense which developed around this notion in the Pahlavi writing, that of a mechanical judgment, whereby people have to wade through a river of molten metal, with the righteous emerging safe and sound. To the eschatological terminology in the Gāθās may belong the word yāh-, which, according to Herman Lommel’s suggestion (pp. 220 ff.), could mean “crisis, decision, danger,” in the sense of the eschatological state of anxiety (cf. Humbach, 1959; Kellens; Kellens and Pirart, III, p. 293). It is not quite clear whether the idea of resurrection is already expressed in the Gāθās. Yasna 30.7 and 34.14 are regarded by Lommel (pp. 232 ff.) as indicating the existence of this belief.

Eschatology in the Younger Avesta. An allusion to the idea that there is a store of good works laid down for the person is contained in Yašt 10.32, and perhaps also in Visprad 15.1. A detailed account of individual eschatology is given in Hādōxt Nask and in Vidēvdād 19. The main elements of eschatology in the Younger Avesta are the appearance of the Saošyant (Savior), the resurrection of the dead, the victory over evil (Yt. 19.11, 89). The three associates of the Savior are mentioned by name in Yašt 13.128, but without further details. An extensive passage is in Yašt 19.89-96. There is no reference in the Younger Avesta to the river of molten metal, which seems to be alluded to in the Gāθās. There is also no allusion to several other features that occur in the later tradition, e.g., the sacrifices of haoma (q.v.) made by Saošyant and Ahura Mazdā.

Eschatology in the Pahlavi books and in later Zoroastrian literature. The most extensive eschatological descriptions that we have appear in the Pahlavi books, and it is only from them that one can form a complete picture of the way in which this complex of ideas was conceived in late Zoroastrianism. It is still debated whether it is methodologically justified to amplify the scanty allusions of Avestan texts by reading into them, where appropriate, the eschatological ideas of later tradition. The main books in Pahlavi containing eschatological descriptions are the Bundahišn, Dādestān ī dēnīg and Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram (qq.v.). For individual eschatology there is much material in Dādestān ī Mēnōg ī xrad and Ardā Wirāz-nāmag (qq.v.). Much material is scattered also in the Pahlavi Rivāyat accompanying Dādestān ī dēnīg, and generally in the Rivāyat literature, both in Pahlavi and in New Persian. The New Persian book Sad-dar Bondaheš is another sources to be consulted. The inscriptions of the priest Kardēr (q.v.), in the early Sasanian period, although they are not sufficiently well preserved, also give us an idea how individuals sought to gain knowledge of the world to come by means of vision experiences.

The fully developed eschatology of Zoroastrianism: a composite description.

Individual eschatology. The soul of a righteous person sits during the first three nights after death at the head of the corpse and chants the uštavaiti Gāθās with joy ; the demon Wīzarš (Av. Vīzarəša) sits there too with his associates. In late sources it is said that Ahriman tries at this state to drag the soul to hell, while the angel Srōš (Sraoša) protects the soul. A wicked person’s soul also sits near the head, but it wails and recites Yasna 46. It suffers, according to some Pahlavi sources, remorse and dread at what is awaiting it. After three nights, the soul of a righteous person feels itself surrounded by good smells, with fragrant wind coming to him from the south. The form of a beautiful and radiant maiden of fifteen years of age appears to him. The soul asks her who she is, to which she replies by identifying herself as the daēnā (see DĒN), i.e., his own religious soul (on the concept of the daēnā, cf. Lommel, 1930, pp. 150 ff.), a concept already known from the Gāθās. The good thoughts, speak and deeds of the person while alive caused the daēnā to become more and more beautiful. The description of the soul of the wicked inverses the details quoted above, with the daēnā of that person portrayed as an ugly naked woman. In Sad-dar Bondaheš 99 the scene of the encounter with the female figure who symbolizes man’s religious achievements takes place at the crossing of the Činwad bridge.

After three nights (according to Vd. 19, 27 ff.) the soul of the wicked is led by the demon Vīzarəša (“the one who drags away”) to the Činwad bridge and is made to go down to the darkness. The act of crossing the bridge by the wicked is accompanied by great howls of lamentation (Vd. 13.8-9). The maiden, identified with the daēnā, leads the souls of the righteous over the bridge to the spiritual yazatas (Vd. 19.30). At the entrance to the bridge there are two dogs who act as its watchers. The Činwad bridge is associated in various sources with Hara bərəzaiti (Harburz) or Alborz mountain (discussion in Pavry, 1926, pp. 29 ff.). The reckoning at the bridge is known as āmār ī ruwān (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 7.6), and it is said to be conducted on the mount of Alborz (q.v.; Dādestān ī dēnīg 20.3). The judges are Mihr, Srōš, and Rašn (Dēnkard 9, 20.4; Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 14.30). Sometimes the list is expanded to include Ohrmazd, Wahman, Mihr, Srōš, and Rašn (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 31.11). When the soul crosses the bridge, the latter becomes broad and comfortable for the righteous and narrow and perilous for the wicked. The bridge thus acts as a medium for a mechanical trial. Over the bridge there are good and evil spirits that protect or harm the spirit, according to their function. The former include Srōš, Rašn, Wahrām, and the good Wāy; the latter Wīzarš, Astōwihād, Ēšm, and the evil Wāy. The progress over the bridge for the righteous is described as taking place in four steps, the first of which conform to good thought, good speech, good deed. It is then received by the souls of those who died before and by Wahman, and it is offered food and drink.

The idea of a store of good works is made explicit in the Pahlavi writings (e.g., Mēnōg ī xrad 2.96-97, 22.6; Aogəmadaēčā 83). The dēn that comes toward the soul of the defunct is called “treasurer” (ganzwar, Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt. 1, 24.5 ff.). The sinner encounters an ugly woman who carries his store of sins (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 25.5 ff.; Škand-gumānīg wizār 4.84-99). Good works done by relatives and friends after a person’s death alleviate his suffering (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 7, 8; for further discussion of this idea, see Spiegel pp. 16 ff.; Böklen, pp. 58-59; Moulton, pp. 312-13).

The various abodes of paradise mentioned in Vidēvdād 19.36 are vahišta ahu (Phl. pahlom axwān), garō nmāna- (Phl. garōdmān), and misvan- gātu- (Phl. hamēšag sūd gāh; see also Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 25, 37.2, tr. Pavry, p. 76). A threefold division of abodes is given in Mēnōg ī xrad 12.13-15 and elsewhere. This includes paradise (wahištaxw); the middle section (hamistagān) for those whose good works and sins are equal (the sense of the term is uncertain, perhaps literally “[the place of] those who stand constantly [without being assigned]”); and hell (dušaxw; see DŪZAḴ). They are given similarly in Ardā Wirāz-nāmag 6.9-11. The souls are assigned to these three abodes on the basis of their merits.

The Pahlavi writings lay emphasis on repentance as preparation for the individual judgment (cf. Šāyest nē šāyest 8.8, 4.14; Dādestān ī dēnīg 41.5, tr. West, p. 137; Mēnōg ī xrad 52.3, 53.8; Pahlavi Vd. 7.51 ff.), and on expiation (Šāyest nē šāyest 8.15 ff.; Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 11.2; Pahlavi Vd., 7.53 ff.). Sins that have been expiated do not weigh in the final judgment (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 12.2-3). If they have not been expiated, they will be punished (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 23.5 ff.). It may be noted that a distinction is made between sins that involve injuring other people (wināh ī hamēmārān) and those that are against “one’s own soul” (ruwānīg); the former cannot be atoned for except by obtaining forgiveness from the offended party (Šāyest nē šāyest 8.1, 14-17; Dādestān ī dēnīg 14.3; Pahlavi Vd. 3.35, 42, 13.2; cf. also Pavry, p. 78).

The prohibition on over-indulgence in lamenting and bewailing the dead is given colorful expression by stating that a river is created by the tears shed by the relatives and friends of the deceased and it hampers his progress (Ardā Wirāz-nāmag, 16.7-10). A vivid picture of the fate of the souls of people after death is given in the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag, which describes the wandering of the pious Wirāz in the different realms of the hereafter.

Universal eschatology. There are several characters who figure as universal saviors in the Younger Avesta and in the Pahlavi writings. Apart from Saošyant there are Uxšyaṱ-ərəta, Uxšyaṱ-nəmah, and Astvaṱ-ərəta (Yt. 13.128-29). The Pahlavi writings speak of Ōšēdar, Ōšēdarmah, and Sōšyāns. They are the offspring of Zoroaster, miraculously conceived from semen preserved in water, at the end of each millennium before the end of the world.

The major event of universal eschatology is the resurrection of the dead, effected by Saošyant, the future beneficent being, with the help of several assistants. The dead rise in hierarchical order—first the heroes of the past, and at their head the First Man, Gayōmart (q.v.), and some time afterwards Zoroaster and King Wištāspa. The whole process lasts fifty-seven years. The souls are reunited to the bodies, and a great assembly of humanity of all epochs is brought about, where kinspeople meet and recognize each other. Those living in that age do not die, but move over to the new world and gradually feel no need for nourishment of any kind. The righteous are then separated from the sinners. The former go for three days to paradise, and the latter go to hell. The former do not have perfect happiness in paradise, for they witness the sufferings of their fellow humans, the sinners, in hell; and the reverse is true of the sinners. In contrast to the reward and punishment of the individual eschatology, at this stage there is a reward that is not only mental, but also physical and corporeal. The duplication here is perhaps more apparent than real: Individual eschatology is all conducted in mēnōg, while universal eschatology takes place in gētīg, or rather on a reconstituted plane of a combination of both aspects of being. It may be noted that the threefold division of the abodes—paradise, hell, and the middle abode—do not seem to exist in the stage of universal eschatology; only a twofold one, between paradise and hell, for the residents of hell will be purified from their sins and will join the righteous. There is no need for a middle abode.

After this interval of separation comes the next phase of eschatology. The metals within the earth will melt, and a river of molten metal will cover the earth. All humanity have to go through this fluid, which acts as another phase of mechanical judgment. The righteous feel the liquid metal like a bath of warm milk while the wicked suffer from the scorching heat. This incident in the drama of the universal eschatology serves the double purpose of reward and punishment as well as that of the purification of the wicked from their evil (Dādestān ī dēnīg, pt.1, 31.10). All unite in praising Ohrmazd, and the Savior will present a sacrifice in company with his assistants and will prepare the haoma drink for all humanity, thereby endowing them with immortality.

Ohrmazd becomes victorious over Ahriman in a final battle, and each of the subordinate spirits of Ohrmazd vanquishes its opposite number in the camp of Ahriman. Ohrmazd operates as a high priest with Srōš at his side, but Ahriman flees into the darkness. A dragon survives the battle and hides in hell, but the molten metal fills hell and burns it and Ahriman together with the whole of hell, which becomes purified. This statement is not fully endorsed by all sources. The ultimate fate of Ahriman is not unequivocally clear. Ahriman, on the one hand, is not a created being, and it seems doctrinally unacceptable to claim that he could be annihilated; and yet, to let Evil stay on after the dissolution of the world would go against the notion that eschatology does away with evil (cf. Dēnkard 7, 11.7). In any case, whether he continues to exist or not, he becomes powerless to cause any more harm.

It is a feature of Zoroastrian eschatology (as well as of the eschatologies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), that the punishment for evil deeds at all stages of the eschatology is given by the demons and the evil creatures, who are assigned the task of punishing those who obeyed them. An application of the same principle is the assertion (in Zand ī Wahman Yasn 3.37) that the dragon Dahāg will devour Ahriman at the end of time.

The doctrine of the resurrection was not accepted without some wavering among Zoroastrian scholars of Sasanian and post-Sasanian times. At the question how the resurrection was possible, the answer given was that reconstituting the bodies was easier than creating them in the first place. People will rise at an age of perfection according to whether they died as children (fifteen years old) or adult (forty years old). The resurrection is considered to be universal, with the exception of people who committed particularly grievous sins, unnatural sexual acts, and apostasy. These will not form part of the resurrection, and will not be purified from sin (Šāyest nē šāyest, 17.7).

The situation of the world in eschatology is called in Avestan frašō.kərəti, Pahlavi fraškerd, frašēgerd (q.v.), which may be rendered “making brilliant.” In the world to come there is no hunger or thirst or death, but there is enjoyment of physical pleasures like the taste of eating flesh and of sexual intercourse; at the same time there will be no procreation. The earth will be smoothed out, and the hills will be made even. The whole earth will rise towards the sky, and the sky will come down, so that they will meet. The description of the world to come seems to assume that the ethical dualistic opposition between good and evil will disappear from the world, the ontological dualism between body and soul, between the material and the mental aspects of existence, will at least be toned down, if it does not disappear (for a general survey of the themes of eschatology see Abegg; Colpe).

Zoroastrian influence.

Zoroastrianism seems to have exercised a strong influence on the development and eschatological notions in Second Temple Judaism. Christianity, an offshoot of Judaism at the end of this period, got most of its eschatological ideas through the apocrypha of the Old Testament, the Jewish writings of the period just before the emergence of Christianity. It must, however, be noted that not all scholars subscribe to the statement that regards Persia as the origin of many Jewish and Christian eschatological ideas The basic problem about proving it lies in the fact that, as we have seen above, the main ideas of Zoroastrian eschatology are only known to us in their fully developed form from the Pahlavi sources, and these are much more recent than the earliest Jewish writings which contain eschatological ideas.

The arguments for connecting the Jewish developments in the field of eschatology to an Iranian influence can be set forth as follows. There was no doctrine of Jewish eschatology up to the end of the Old Testament period—neither individual judgment nor universal judgment. There was no notion of heaven and hell, nor a description of a reconstitution of the world after its dissolution at the end of time. There seems also to have been no idea of a systematic and universal raising of the dead at the end of times to undergo judgment, reward, and punishment. All these appear rather abruptly in Jewish writings that were composed during the last two centuries B.C.E. and subsequently in Christian writings. Since this was a period that followed a long Persian dominion in Palestine and an even longer period during which a substantial Jewish Diaspora had lived continuously in Mesopotamia and Persia, the emergence of a fully developed eschatology in Jewish circles, and one that displays such great resemblance to the complex of Persian ideas, cannot be a coincidence and must be explained as a result of contact between the two cultures. It seems rather unlikely that these ideas were originally developed among Jews, and that they were borrowed by the Persians, who constituted the dominant culture. The many eschatological allusions in the Gāθās and in the Younger Avesta, although they are not always entirely unequivocal, seem to guarantee a certain measure of antiquity and continuity to these ideas in Persia, while we lack similar indices in Judaism. The strong dualistic character of Jewish eschatology seems also to suggest the likelihood of a borrowing from Iran. Zoroastrian eschatology seems to possess a certain coherence and structure, given the large role that the dichotomy between the notions of mēnōg and gētīg plays in it. This can explain many of the duplications in the narrative, while no similar mechanism is available in the complex of eschatological notions in Judaism. The influence of Persian ideas is particularly easy to show in many details where there is great similarity between some of the rabbinic writings and the Zoroastrian books; for example, it is possible to cite the discussions of the spirits accompanying the soul on its journey or of the fate of people whose virtues and sins are equal (cf. Böklen, pp. 40 ff.). One late Jewish midrash, called “The Ascension of Moses” is built very much like the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag. It exists in several different Hebrew versions and also in a Judaeo-Persian one (a study and edition of the Judaeo-Persian text is in Netzer; for a selection of scholarly discussions of this problem see Böklen; Winston; Shaked, 1971; Hultgård; and, against the assumption of Persian influence on Judaism, König).

The ideas of Islamic eschatology are generally a development of koranic notions. These continue Jewish and Christian themes, themselves, as noted above, developed at least partly under Persian influence. The Islamic ideas are thus removed by several intermediaries from the origin. The essential elements are there, and they were further developed within the context of Islam. Only occasionally is there room for assuming that there was direct influence on the expressions of Islamic eschatological ideas. This may be the case with the peculiar Islamic concept of the maidens of paradise, al-ḥūr, the houris. This idea could have been influenced by the Zoroastrian notion of the eschatological female counterpart of man, the daēnā (suggested by Bausani, pp. 138 ff.; Gray, pp. 154-58; Sundermann, 1992, pp. 169-73). It is particularly the case with the small composition falsely attributed to the great Abū Ḥāmed Ḡazālī (q.v.), al-Dorra al-fāḵera fī kašf ʿolūm al-āḵera (Cairo, n.d.), where a great many parallels to Iranian eschatological ideas are found (cf. Gray; Shaked, 1992). The development (chiefly by al-Ḡazālī) of the idea of a middle abode, called by the koranic term al-aʿrāf, which would be the place for the souls of those who do not deserve heaven or hell, could also show influences of the threefold division of the souls of the dead in Zoroastrianism. The koranic term barzaḵ, of Persian provenance (presumably from *burz-axw “high existence”), was also used in the Islamic tradition in a similar sense. The term has not survived in extant Persian sources (cf. also Bölken, pp. 57 ff.). The Islamic literature concerned with the ascension of Moḥammad, the meʿrāj, contains certain elements that bring it close to the genre of literature that is familiar from Ardā Wirāz-nāmag.


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(Shaul Shaked)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: January 19, 2012

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