Zoroastrianism flourished on the Iranian plateau for 1200 years, from the sixth century BCE to the seventh century CE and the rise of Islam in that region, and survives today among less than 200,000 faithful, mostly in India and eastern Iran. The religion is based on the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathustra), a prophet from northeastern Iran. The consensus now is that he lived about 1200 BCE, but scholars previously argued for dates ranging from 6000 BCE until 600 BCE.
Elements of Zoroastrian Afterlife
Dating is important for Zoroastrianism because it incorporates many elements that may have influenced more flourishing religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, and even Greek and Roman religions. However, even determining the dates for Zoroaster himself and for the era of his religion does not resolve the most intractable questions of influence, since there are few early archaeological or textual records. Most of the surviving materials are quite late, and it is impossible to determine with certainty the nature of their originals. We do know that Zoroastrianism went through at least two major transformations, once when it integrated elements of the old Indo-Iranian pagan religions and again when Zurvan (Time) rose to the top of Zoroastrian pantheon and Zurvanism modified the dualism that otherwise characterizes Zoroastrianism. These transformations over time further complicate research into the transmission of ideas from Zoroastrianism.
Consequently very influential ideas about the afterlife like hell, heaven, individual judgment, resurrection of the dead, and last judgment might originate here, or they might be later borrowings. We find the idea of the judgment of the individual at death as an element of the Egyptian afterlife, but there is no evidence of Egyptian influence on the ideas of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism probably does introduce the idea of final judgment or Apocalypse (Frashegird or Frashokereti ). The fate of wicked souls after the Frashgird evolved in Zoroastrianism. Scholars of Zoroastrianism find that in earlier texts, the souls would be subjected to everlasting punishment in hell, later the belief was that they would be destroyed in the molten metal of the Apocalypse, and even later belief holds that the molten metal will actually purify everything, allowing even the wicked to proceed to heaven. However, the ultimate fate of the wicked is not conclusively explained in any of the hell texts themselves.
The Fate of the Soul
The Zoroastrian afterlife begins with a three-day period after death when the soul sits at the head of its body praying for its future. Next the souls must cross a river that grows more difficult as their weeping relatives swell it with too many tears. The ordeal or judgment at the Chinvat Bridge follows, where the soul often meets the three angels of judgment: Mithra, Srosh, and Rashnu. The bridge stretches from Alborz Peak (Hara-Berezaiti, probably the mountain known today as Mount Damavand) to heaven or Daitih Peak, near the river of the same name. Although this has been identified as the Aras River, parts of this geography are mythological and so not easily identified with actual places.
Some texts speak of the individual judgment as a balancing of good thoughts, words and deeds against their opposites, but the judgment also can play itself out in the physical manifestation of the bridge as either a wide walkway for the good, which allows them to reach the peak, or a sharp and narrow razor-edge for the wicked who fall into hell. After death, the soul also meets a young maiden who is the reflection of its own thoughts, words and deeds in some texts this encounter occurs before, and in others after, the crossing of the Chinvat Bridge.
Few texts describe Zoroastrian hell a gloomy and fiery place full of stench. Only one, The Book of Arda Viraf, describes it in detail, and it is difficult to determine Arda Viraf’s perspective, whether he is looking down on, or passing though, the scenes he describes. This makes it difficult to get a sense of the geography of the place. However, in addition to the river and bridge, it mentions hills and four particular places by name: Dush-humat, the place of evil thoughts; Dush-hukht, the place of evil words; Dush-huvarsht, the place of evil deeds; and Chakat-i-Daitih, a desert below the Chinvat Bridge. In addition it describes the unnamed deepest region, the pit, of hell, which Manuschihr in Religious Judgments (Dadestan-i Denig) calls Drûgâskan, a place so dark that all who are sent there are as if blind.
Sins and Sinners
Since the texts do not comprehensively describe the geography of hell, it is difficult to get any notion of whether sinners are consigned to specific areas. Despite its prohibitions against evil thoughts, evil words and evil deeds, descriptions of Zoroastrian hell only catalog sinners guilty of evil deeds: acts either committed or omitted. Punishments correlate to sins. The Book of Arda Viraf, in particular, describes 85 punishments and specifies the sins that occasion them. Both men and women are among those punished, with men slightly outnumbering women. Children appear only to torment parents, but adults may be punished if they were bad children. Usual sins include sodomy and adultery; theft, lying, perjury, deceit, slander, extortion, making false covenants, breaking promises, and murder.
There are also sins:
- against a spouse: abuse and neglect
- against a child: abortion, infanticide, abuse and neglect
- against religion: apostasy, sorcery and profanity
- against the civil order: false measures, false justice, bad administration, failed hospitality, injustice of employers or partners, disloyalty of subjects
- against the social order: particularly violations of purity laws concerning fire and water; seeds, food and crops, poison and opium; and menstruating women
- against animals: neglect, abuse or murder, especially of quadrupeds, and most especially of cattle
- against the self: laziness, vanity, excessive grief, miserliness, withheld goodness.
The standard punishment found in the majority of texts is for the wicked to be fed fetid and putrid things while waiting thousands of years in the company of demons until the final resurrection. However, the Book of Arda Viraf elaborates on all manner of punishment, which are so disgusting that E. W. West’s translation in Sacred Books of the East broke off midway, explaining: “From here onward the pictures of the tortured souls become too nauseous to follow.”
Indeed, they may also be forced to ingest and devour horrid things (their own corpses, flesh and excrement, menstrual fluids and semen, blood and brains from skulls of the dead and their own children). Other punishments may be even more gruesome, including hanging (particularly upside-down), dismemberment, decapitation, laceration, mutilation and self-mutilation by cutting, gnawing, devouring, gnashing, piercing, beating, tearing, trampling, stinging and dragging. The wicked are stabbed and pelted, and stretched on racks; they are forced to bear enormous burdens, perform painful and fruitless tasks; are burned and cooked in ovens, cauldrons and frying-pans; are cast down into heat, cold and smoke, snow and stench. They endure hunger and thirst; and they are forced to lick hot things or to defecate and masturbate continually; they are submerged in mud and turned into serpents; and also oddly bombarded with hedgehogs (a small spiny animal, native to Iran and popular as a pet among ancient Zoroastrians). In particular, the sense organs of the wicked are attacked: their eyes gouged out and their tongues pulled out; putrid substances are forced into their noses, eyes and mouths. Their sexual organs are also assaulted: their penises are gnawed and their breasts are gnashed and cut off.
While demons are often mentioned in these descriptions, the Book of Arda Viraf again outstrips the other texts by including khrafstars (a general term for demons and demonesses), serpents, worms, snakes, frogs, ants, scorpions, flies; as well as cattle, dogs, the aforementioned hedgehogs, and various animals with horns.
Among the Zoroastrian texts, only the Book of Arda Viraf mentions implements used to torture the wicked and includes pegs, sickles, spurs, and spikes, arrows and axes; knives and forks; stones and mud; and combs. Often natural materials are the implements of torture: and in addition to the bodily materials mentioned above, as possible foods for the wicked, there are also ashes, hail and rain to torment them.
Fire is present, but, because of the special ritual value of fire among Zoroastrians, it is not put forward as an instrument of punishment, instead heat in the guise of hot molten metal, cauldrons, ovens, and frying pans is substituted.
Having highlighted the elements of Zoroastrian hell, we can now return to the question of Zoroastrian influence on other hells. While the principal punishment of the Zoroastrian texts being fed on putrid things may be an original Zoroastrian idea, it is not one that spread into other literatures of hell. Constant defecation and continuous masturbation are also unique punishment motifs and appear neither previously nor subsequently in surviving texts. The use of a hedgehog to punish sinners seems also to be unique. On the other hand, while the particular details of many of the punishments in the Book of Arda Viraf are horrible, most of the motifs had appeared in earlier texts.
The Zoroastrian Chinvat Bridge may be a model for bridges found later in medieval European visions like the Vision of Tundale and well as in medieval European romances such as Perlesvaus, and, although lines of influence are again confounded by the dates of Zoroastrian texts, it is certainly related to the Islamic Bridge of al-Sirat, which leads to heaven.
While many descriptions of hell that originated in Europe describe a place where punishments are inflicted on sinners by all sorts of demons, devils, and infernal creatures, in Zoroastrian hell punishments appear to be self-imposed obligations, executed without guards watching over the sinners: they eat fetid things, masturbate, tear themselves, and perform fruitless and endless tasks by their own volition.