Tag Archives: Zarathustra

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!

Chrismahanukwanzadan

Happy holidays from a pluralistic world! Whenever I see the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs that crop up this time of year, I think of the wonderful profusion of holidays that people from most faiths can share without being territorial about it. After all, the Pagans got there first—the Christian Christmas predates Jesus by centuries, it turns out. So when my daughter wished me a happy Chrismahanukwanzadan—from a mix of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan—I had to smile. Seems like some in the younger generation are really starting to get it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but a holiday that celebrates people getting along is worth the effort. Being possessive of our holidays rings of hollow triumphalism—I feel happy because I have something that you don’t. Is this really the spirit of this secular season of giving wrapped in many confessional names? I’m sure shepherds and Magi didn’t exactly share a Weltanschuung.

Those who despair the lack of Christmas have not spent much time with history. As a cultural holiday the celebration of Christmas is younger than the United States, at least in this context. From the beginning Christmas was a pastiche of traditions from different religions celebrating aspects of Odin, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Zarathustra, at the very least. Bringing these religious figures together into a season that represents the human need for light amid a dark and cold time of year, who would want to exclude others from their own holiday traditions? Having stood in the bleak fields of the Orkney Islands in a massive stone circle aligned to the winter solstice and constructed over a millennium before the birth of Christianity, I have to believe Christmas is one of the earliest expressions of human desire and certainly not limited to Christians.

What makes a holiday holy? Is it exclusive rights like those slapped on every movie you pop into the DVD player? The trademarking of an idea someone else thought of? Religions have a long history of forsaking the spirit of the law for the letter—its most familiar name is dogma. No matter who came up with the idea of doing what we can to bring a little light back into the dreary world around the time when night seems unending, it is a cause that any person of any religion, or none at all, can fully appreciate. Instead of marking territory, should not those who claim Christmas as their own be glad to share it with all? If the one who’s birth the church proclaims at this time of year in no way improves our outlook to others we might wonder if there should be cause to celebrate at all. My answer, such as it is, is Happy Chrismahanukwanzadan!

A holiday in anyone's book

A holiday in anyone’s book

Robopocalypse


Yesterday the long anticipated novel Robopocalypse was released. Although I seldom indulge in hardcover fiction, I headed to my local Borders to purchase a copy. Sadly, it seems, my local is cutting back on first-day releases because I walked out of the store empty handed but with a robotic Armageddon in my head. Last summer I became acquainted with Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising, but word on the street is that this novel is serious. Steven Spielberg purchased the movie rights even before the book was released. And the concept owes its existence to religion.

If it were not for human religious sensibilities, would the concept of an apocalyptic end have ever arisen? Probing into the ancient psychology that lead Zoroastrians to suppose an ultimate conflict was just down the theological road, it is clear that even a strong moral sense alone does not dictate ultimate dissolution. By personifying evil in the form of Angra Mainyu, Zarathustra gave a (divine) human face to wickedness, and thus opened the possibility of battling against it. Evil as an abstract, non-personified force might simply be accepted as part of the universe we inherited. By providing it with will and intention, however, Zoroastrians allowed for a natural human response. Fight or flight is hardwired into our brains, but would we have dared fight a foe that is immaterial, amorphous, and completely abstract?

The nature of the enemy has transformed itself many times over the ages. Wilson, a scientist working with robotics during his education, has taken a religious theme and placed it in the context of a godless world of cybernetics. I must use caution here, since I haven’t yet acquired a copy of the book, but it remains clear that it is the humanization of non-human entities that gives force and pathos to a final conflict. Jesus charging his white horse into a foul-smelling cloud lacks the same impact. Thus mythologies are born. Mythologies that people live by and for which they frequently die. I do hope it all holds off until I can get a copy of Robopocalypse to read. Better yet, the end won’t come until after the movie is released.

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Preparing for another round of my annual course on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, I have been brushing up on Zoroastrianism. For this I generally first turn to Mary Boyce’s standard introduction, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. The book was written in the 1980s and is showing its age a bit, but it remains a seminal introduction to a religion whose humble position among world belief systems belies its overwhelming impact. A strange fact about the religion is that many of its main tenets have been summarily dismissed by the more politically influential religions of antiquity while its secondary features have been dramatically embraced. The classic example is dualism.

Zoroastrianism was founded on a dualistic principle: Ahura Mazda was the entirely beneficent, good creator, while Angra Mainyu was the powerful principle of evil. This cosmic struggle tapped deeply into all aspects of life, leading to the beliefs in two afterlife realms (which evolve into Heaven and Hell), two very powerful entities (that become the God versus Satan paradigm), and two dispensations (present age as opposed to future age, the ultimate source of the apocalypse). Indeed, it would be difficult to recognize Christianity without Heaven and Hell, the Devil, or the final judgment. Boyce carefully traces the earliest evidence for Zoroastrianism back to its formative period and offers detailed explanations for each aspect. Beyond this, however, Zoroastrianism became a forgotten faith, an abandoned parent.

It is a fact that religions evolve. Many believers like to trust that they have the straight information directly from the founder’s mouth and that their brand is the authentic brand of faith. All religions, however, if they survive long enough, change to meet the needs of present-day adherents. Again, Zoroastrianism is instructive. Believing in the sacred nature of fire, during the industrial revolution the use of fire for profane work, such as running a steam engine, was considered inappropriate. How were Zoroastrians then to keep up with society without softening their stance on the secular use of fire? The struggle was real and has never been fully resolved. The same exercise could easily be applied to other religions as well. Until the Zoroastrian-inspired apocalypse arrives, religions will have to adjust to continual societal change and accept that quantity of belief does not affect quality.

Zoroastrian Odyssey

Clinton's Red Mill

Clinton’s Red Mill is a popular New Jersey attraction, but numerous reports of paranormal activity have thrown an additional lifeline to the museum in the form of much-needed revenue in the form of seasonal ghost tours. Last year about this time my family and I participated in one. Touring the old grounds at night can certainly lead to spooky experiences, even for those of us who sit on the fence about ghosts. We discovered that The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the “TAPS” of Ghost Hunters fame, had investigated the Mill the previous year. We watched several episodes of the popular show, and for a lark, my wife bought me a subscription to TAPS Paramagazine for my birthday. All in good fun. I always thumb through when it arrives, but it is hard to take much of it seriously.

The last issue (volume vi, issue 2), however, contained an article about Demonology. Now, I thought I had graduated from The Exorcist and the Exorcism of Emily Rose to a healthy skepticism, but I could not resist reading this article. The first statement declares, “A demon is a fallen Angel that rebelled against God along with Satan, refusing to be humble before, and serve, God” (Adam Blai). While I never make light of things I don’t understand, I did consider the fact that the concept of demons, which derives from a Judeo-Christian mythology, presupposes a mythic war between the powers of good and evil. At the same time, I have been reading up on the Zoroastrians, one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. There can be no serious doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed the concept of the demonic from their Iranian neighbors of the ancient Persian Empire.

A Zoroastrian fravashi

The implications of the Zoroastrian connection are profound. If the ancient sage and Afghani priest Zarathustra was correct about the dualistic conflict of good and evil, was he not also right about Mithra and the Amesha Spentas as well? Zoroastrianism gave the Judeo-Christian tradition its base concept of Heaven and Hell, but the divinity of fire they did not accept. By picking and choosing what fit best into its experience, Judaism developed into a religion that allowed for Christian demons and angels and all the invisible hosts of the ethereal realms. Today many Christians accept demons as literal beings (less so jinns, although Clash of the Titans (2010) allowed for them). What does this say about the remainder of Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Ghost Hunters should begin with the Gathas and move on to the Avesta? As for me, I’ll be over here, sitting on the fence.

2012

As the economy rolls along like a marble on a pebble beach and the stock market continues its own bumpy road to recovery, apocalyptic thought is again on the rise. It is when times are bad that apocalyptic comes in most useful. Individuals who feel that this world has run out of possibilities generally look to a new future world where things will be radically different. That’s why people flock to movies like 2012 and dream of a new day, a new era.

That’s the way it has always been. Jews being tortured to death under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid tyrant, looked for that day when Michael would take on the “Prince of Persia” and the new world would gush in and overtake this one. Almost two centuries later the early Christian movement, suffering at the hands of Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, reveled in the visions of Revelation — the new world coming. Rental property is free in the New Jerusalem! The earliest exemplars of apocalyptic thinking appear to go back to the ancient Zoroastrians. This early Iranian religion (which may have originated in Afghanistan) took comfort in a dualistic world where good and evil constantly struggled until a cosmic conflict would result in the ultimate destruction of evil. It helped to explain why things could be so bad for good people in the here-and-now.

2012, however, derives from concerns that the Mayan calendar seems to have run out of space at that time slot just over three years from now. Otherwise intelligent people panic; this is an apocalypse of the secular kind! Experts on the Maya (among which I am not) explain that the Mayans use(d) many calendars (there are still Mayans around). Their large-scale, 5000 year calendar may run out on December 21, 2012, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, that calendar only began on August 11, 3114 BCE, about 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth. It was not meant as a road-map to the cosmos. The real apocalypse is in the minds of those suffering from their own private ills in this world. Ever since Zarathustra spoke, people have had an alternative, better future to anticipate.