History of Zoroastrianism in Armenia: my take on this controversy

Zoroastrian Eternal Flame

Today I am going to talk about an intriguing topic – the history of Zoroastrianism in Armenia. For those who have not heard about Zoroastrianism, let me say it is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. It was founded in Persia and spread far and wide, it had its influence on ancient Armenia. Stick with me and you will learn what Zoroastrianism is and how it evolved in Armenia. I will also touch upon the topic of Paganism in Armenia and how it is connected to Zoroastrianism in a bit of a controversy.

Zoroastrianism originated in Persia and unsurprisingly it made its way to Armenia too. As the Persian Empire expanded, so did the reach of this religion. Since Armenia repeatedly fell under the empire’s control in the 5th century BC and with various breaks until the invasion of Seljuk Turks, Zoroastrianism took root among Armenians. With the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, the influence of Zoroastrianism declined.

Before you move on to read about this fascinating topic, don’t forget to ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips with what you think. I love hearing from you!

What is Zoroastrianism?

Let’s define the term to see what we are talking about. Zoroastrianism is a religion that emphasizes the worship of one god, Ahura Mazda. This religion emphasizes the importance of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Unsurprisingly! 🙂 They all do, at least on paper.

When we talk about Zoroastrianism, the first thing that comes to mind is Iran. Zoroastrianism is the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Persia (Iran today). The religion’s founder is considered to be an Iranian prophet and religious reformer Zarathushtra who lived before the 6th century BC. If you have not heard about Zarathushtra, maybe the name Zoroaster is more familiar to you, as that name variation of his is more widely known outside Iran.

The historic geographic spread of Zoroastrianism

As already said, Zoroastrianism is rooted in the Persian Empire. Back in the day, for some 3-5 centuries before and after Christ, Persia was a pretty powerful empire and it had a big influence on a lot of the surrounding areas.

At its height, the Persian Empire ruled over a huge region of the ancient world, encompassing areas of Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus. This empire was one of the largest and most powerful in the ancient world, extending from modern-day Iran, Iraq, and Turkey in the west to what is known as territories of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and portions of Central Asia in the east, and some parts of today’s Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the north.

Zoroastrianism spread as the Persian Empire extended into new territories. Many communities that fell under Persian control, like the Armenians, converted to Zoroastrianism or adopted their local religious practices to it.

Migration also played its role. During the Arab conquest of Persia, many believers in Zoroastrianism fled to India. They formed prominent communities in India’s north and became an important part of the Indian cultural fabric. These people live in India to this day, mostly in Gujarat and in the area of Mumbai, and they are known as Parsis.

5th century Sassanid Empire map, Photo credits: Geographicus on Wikimedia (PD)

Modern-day Zoroastrianism

After the adoption of Christianity and Islam, in Armenia and Iran respectively, the influence of Zoroastrianism declined. Modern-day Zoroastrianism survives mostly in isolated areas of Iran and in some parts of India where descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian immigrants settled centuries ago. Some small communities can also be found in some Central Asian countries, in China, Pakistan, and in Afghanistan.

The total Zoroastrian population around the world is hard to measure, but it’s likely somewhere between 100 000 and 300 000 people. It’s also worth noting that at the beginning of the 21st century, as ISIS was taking over parts of the Middle East, many Muslim Kurds converted to Zoroastrianism, for example in Iraq. Also, many Iraqi Kurds living in the West followed suit as a result of their disillusionment with Islam after they’ve seen what ISIS did to their people in the name of Allah.

History of Zoroastrianism in Armenia

Armenia is a neighboring country of Iran. It has been so for centuries. As Persian Empire expanded, so did the dominant religion of the empire. In 520 BC, Persia conquered the Armenian kingdom and it remained a part of the Akhmenid Empire until the campaign of Alexander the Great (300 BC). So, the earliest traces of Zoroastrianism in Armenia that we can find typically date back to that period of the 6th-4th centuries BC.

An example of Zoroastrian influence in ancient Armenia that stays as of today is “Ateshgah” temple in present-day Baku. This temple was built in the 17th century and has inscriptions in both Persian and Armenian.

As of today a lot of Armenians warship fire (which is an agent of ritual purity in the Zoroastrian religion). Ancient Armenians built atrushans (places for eternal fire). 

Some say that Persian merchants and traders who traveled through the region spread Zoroastrianism here. There are also texts that suggest that some of the ruling elites of ancient Armenia practiced Zoroastrianism. Even though the main religion was Paganism, some layers of ancient Armenian society surely practiced Zoroastrianism.

With the introduction of Christianity at the beginning of the 4th century AD, Zoroastrianism and Paganism saw a quick decline. This was often accomplished by violent acts against signs of Zoroaster gods. They destroed almost all of the temples of the ancient gods to eliminate the traces of Zoroastrianism and Paganism in Armenian lands. I have a whole post about how Armenians became Christian. So, check it out if you find this topic interesting.

Practices of Zoroastrianism in Armenia

Zoroastrianism emphasizes the worship of one god, Ahura Mazda. The central narrative is around the struggle against evil in the world. There are three key pillars of that personal struggle, three premises, so to speak – the importance of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.

However, Zoroastrianism took a unique form in Armenia. For example, according to Armenian mythology, Armenians believed in a triad of Gods – Aramazd, Anahit, Vahagn as well as in a mix of “smaller” local gods and goddesses. How did this idea of multiple Gods not clash with the key principle of having only one God in Zoroastrianism? I don’t know! But some scholars suggest that Aramazd was somehow the embodiment of Ahura Mazda in people’s minds. As the main God, sort of,  while Anahit and Vahagn were secondary in this divine triad.

So, shared practices and teachings enabled the Armenian and Persian communities to come closer to each other and live peacefully under one ruler. At the same time, since the Armenian “version” of Zoroastrianism left a lot of room for free interpretations, they could easily build everything into their established religious narratives with multiple natural deities. Two birds with one stone so to speak. There is something evil and genius about those ancient rules and their love for social engineering! 🙂

Zoroastrianism vs Armenian Paganism: controversy

There is a bit of controversy surrounding the topic of Zoroastrianism in Armenia. Some scholars believe that there was no such thing as Armenian Paganism and that in fact, our pre-Christian religion was Zoroastrianism. To a certain degree, I think there is some logical merit to this claim. Hear me out!

Merit to this theory

I think, saying that Armenian Paganism was not the same as Zoroastrianism means suggesting that there is only one “correct” version of the latter. I’m sure many scholars will disagree with me, and rightfully so, cause I’m just a blogger writing my personal take on this. 🙂 But I think this idea is a bit silly, given that Zoroastrianism has been around for centuries and it spanned across very wide geographies. Over time, I think the creation of its different forms was inevitable and entirely natural.

Let’s do a little mental exercise. My readers are well aware that Christians can be Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or they can adhere to any other branch of Christianity. But they’re all Christians, right? We don’t dispute that. Similarly, we have Shia and Sunni Muslims, but they are all Muslims. With that logic, if people in a certain location start worshiping their God in a slightly different manner than their neighbors, it doesn’t automatically create a new religion.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that recognizes only one God. But here is the trick – it does mention different forms of that God, or things “worthy to worship”. Armenian Paganism is polytheistic – yes, but what if we simply took those “forms of God” and gave them a bit higher status than Zoroastrians did, by considering them deities? Just think about it!

Lastly, as many other religions have multiple Gods, rooted in interpretations of natural forces, our Pagan tradition had a bit of a fatalist vibe. Aka, no matter what you do, you can’t escape your destiny. At the same time, Zoroastrianism puts a lot more emphasis on a personal journey and personal responsibility in the struggle against evil. But, honestly, these concepts are so difficult to pinpoint into any specific shape or form, that I think whoever wanted to convert a Pagan into a Zoroastrian would easily “blah-blah” their way through it all.

Garni Temple, Photo credits: Lalaine Mendoz on Unsplash

Garni Temple: Pagan or Zoroastrian?

Speaking of Zoroastrianism in Armenia, and Armenian Paganism, it is worth mentioning the historical site of Garni Temple which is located in the Kotayk province of Armenia. Most probably king Tiridates I built it in the middle of the 1st century CE. It survived many earthquakes, invasions as well as the destruction of Pagan temples following Armenia’s conversion to Christianity.

The general belief is that Garni is a Pagan temple. It was dedicated to God Mihr, the Armenian Pagan God of light and sun. However, some scholars may say that it was built as a place of worship of Mithra (do you notice the similarity in the name?), which was a form of the Zoroastrian God, representing … you guessed it – light and sun! At this point, I honestly think it’s more of a “tomato” vs “tomAAto” kind of debate here. 🙂

Today, the Garni Temple is a site of great cultural interest. For us, it is a symbol of the ancient Pagan heritage of Armenia. It is an important cultural and historical site and is a popular destination for visitors from all over the world. Also, the small community of modern-day Armenian Pagans often visit it, who gather there for important ceremonies and annual celebrations.

My conclusion: it’s tricky!

So were Armenian Pagans in fact Zoroastrians? Maybe! Maybe in some parts of Armenia at certain periods of time, they tended to be more aligned with Zoroastrian practices of worship than in others. Also, it’s very likely that the geopolitical agenda of the rulers in those days could have shaped the religious narrative in the community. They could be doing that to either align the people with their neighboring empires or to distance them. It could have been a political tool in the hands of Armenian kings, just like many other cultural aspects were throughout history.

Armenian Pagan traditions and customs

Let’s have a more in-depth look into the Armenian Pagan traditions and customs. So, we’ve already established that my ancestors worshiped multiple Gods. People typically associated these deities with natural forces such as the sun, moon, and thunder. The main Gods were:

  • Aramazd, the God of creation and fertility,
  • Anahit, the Goddess of fertility and healing, wisdom, and water,
  • Vahagn, the God of thunder, fire, and war.

These three Gods were the most popular ones, as they formed the divine triad in our Pagan minds. Paganism also had strong practices in worshiping ancestors. Pre-Christian Armenians believed that they could communicate with their ancestors and that those could have a strong influence on their lives. There were many rituals and offerings devoted to ancestors in our Pagan traditions. To a degree, I think this cultural phenomenon prevailed to this day. Despite Christianization, I think we tend to put more emphasis on the importance of the memory of our ancestors, more so than many other Christian cultures do.

Pagan Armenians also had a strong connection to nature and many rituals were based on the cycles of the seasons and the movement of stars. They also believed they could predict the future. For example, the flight of birds or the movement of clouds were signs and symbols that Armenians used to interpret the present and make predictions for the future.

A lot of our modern-day “Christian” rituals are based on Pagan traditions. Vardavar is a very good example of that. Check out the link to learn more about this holiday, it’s one of the most exciting days in the entire summer season in Armenia. So, I had to write about it! And to learn more about traditional Armenian Pagan Gods, I recommend this article by Shahen Araboghlian. It’s awesome! It explains everything in a very simple yet quite engaging way.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I hope scholars put more time and effort into uncovering this exciting topic. The history of Zoroastrianism in Armenia tells about the practices of Armenians in ancient times. Though different from Paganism in many ways, Zoroastrianism has a connection to our Pagan beliefs. Therefore, I think some form of a mixture of Zoroastrianism and Paganism is what we can find built deeply into our cultural fabric. If this topic interests you and you want to share some insights, please ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I’ll hear more from you.

Featured image credits: Photo by Adam Jones on Flickr (CC), edited


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