Ahura Mazda: Origin Story, Meaning, Powers, & Symbols

In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is known as the Supreme Being and creator of the universe. As a result, his worshippers often bestowed upon him a plethora of epithets, including “Lord of Wisdom”,  “Greatest cause”, and the “Lord of All”. | Image: Ahura Mazda (on the right, with high crown) bestowing upon Ardashir I (left) with the ring of kingship. (Naqsh-e Rustam, 3rd century CE)

Also known as Ahuramazda, Hurmuz, or Harzoo, Ahura Mazda’s worship began in the late 3rd millennium BCE in Old Median Empire and ancient Persia, making him the oldest monotheist deity in world history. What this means is that his worship predates Christianity by more than 1500 years. According to the myth, Mazda is the all-wise and all-knowing omnipotent deity who is not bound by time or space. As Lord of Wisdom, Ahura Mazda is also described in Zoroastrianism as the “Upholder of Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds”.

God of: Creation and Supreme Being

Epithet: Lord of Wisdom

Symbols: Fire, water

Other names: Hurmuz, Hourmazd, Ohrmazd, Ahuramazda

Religion: Zoroastrianism

Association: Mithra and Anahita

Origins

In Zoroastrianism, followers devote themselves to living by the precepts of Ahura Mazda or Mazdaism. His worship was said to have begun following the proclamation made by Zoroaster around c. 1500-1000 BCE.

Prior to that Ahura Mazda was revered as one of the many gods of the ancient Persian pantheon. This polytheistic religion was mainly practised by the Elamites and the people of Susiana. It was believed that Ahura Mazda was the head of a group of good deities who battled against dark forces headed by Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman).

Archeologists discovered a royal inscription that they reason was written by the Achaemenid ruler Darius the Great (Darius I). The inscription makes references to Mazda, invoking him to come to the aid of the Persians. Similarly, another ancient Persian king Artaxerxes II invoked Ahura Mazda along with two other deities –Mithra and Anahita.

There are also ancient inscriptions and sculptures that show an empty chariot drawn by white horses. It’s been stated that it was seen as an invitation to Ahura Mazda to help the Persian army during battles.

The first humans

The prophet Zoroaster believed that Ahura Mazda was the being who created the first human beings – Mashya and Mashynag. He placed them in a peaceful and harmonious environment and then instructed them to never turn their backs on the truth. However, the humans did the exact opposite by listening to the dark force Angra Mainyu. The dark entity lied to the humans, convincing them that he was their creator, making Mashya and Mashynag turn their backs on Ahura Mazda. This betrayal resulted in their eviction from paradise.

As punishment for doubting Ahura Mazda, the humans were also handed a life of pain, suffering and unending toil.

Characteristics and epithets

Ahura Mazda’s characteristics evolved as time passed. He most likely began as a divine spirit in ancient Indo-Iranian religion. However, his characteristics gradually changed from a created spirit to an uncreated spirit. This explains how he came by his numerous titles and epithets. His epithet as an uncreated supreme being was championed by Zoroaster, the foremost prophet in Zoroastrianism.

It’s believed that Ahura Mazda’s place of abode is Garothman, a heavenly domain that houses all the good spirits and archangels. As the Supreme Being, practitioners of Zoroastrianism believe that Ahura Mazda is not bound by anything, including time and space. Him being an uncreated spirit means that he existed before the beginning of time. He is formless, changeless, and has no equal. It also means that he is not moved by anything or any force.

A firm possessor of the heavens, Mazda is revered for his innate ability to only seek the truth. He is said to bless those who conduct themselves in a proper way; hence his epithet, the “Upholder of the Principle of Good Thoughts, Words and Deeds”.

According to the myth, everything that was, is, or will ever be emerged from Ahura Mazda. As such, he is sometimes known as the “Sustainer of all things”.

Meaning

His name “Mazda” has its origins in proto-Iranian roots, most likely from the word Mazdāh. Language experts opine that the word is a feminine noun, perhaps a reflection of his creative prowess.

“Ahura” is said to mean ‘lord’ while “Mazda” means ‘wisdom’. This means that Ahura Mazda’s name translates to “Lord of Wisdom”.

Some historians have also stated that his name came from the word medhās, a Sanskrit word which means ‘knowledge’ or ‘intelligence’.

His name varied over the years in the ancient world. For example, he was known as Ahuramazda in the era of the first Persian Empire (or the Achaemenid Empire). Among the Parthians and the Sassanians, he was called Hormazd and Ohrmazd respectively.

How Ahura Mazda revealed himself to Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism

Zoroaster or Zarathustra is revered in Zoroastrianism as the foremost prophet. It is believed that Ahura Mazda made himself known to a 30-year-old Zoroaster. This revelation came to Zoroaster while he had committed himself to a solitary life atop a mountain.

The prophet was said to have been on his way to fetch some water from a stream nearby for a religious ceremony. While drawing the water, an angelic being, Vohu Mahah (“good purpose”), appeared and asked him what he desired the most in his life. At which point Zoroaster stated how much he wished to be a pious and wise man. Shortly after, Zoroaster was made to appear before Ahura Mazda and his other heavenly beings and archangels. Ahura Mazda bestowed upon him the honor and strength to pursue noble courses and just principles in life.

Out of those pursuits Zoroaster came a religion called Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster would go on to reject the false religious practices of his people and instead propagate the truth that was revealed to him by Ahura Mazda. The prophet is believed to have braced it all, including being threatened by his own people, in the pursuit of ethical religious practices.

Zoroaster’s prayers and personal deliberations are what formed the Avesta, an important set of scriptures in Zoroastrianism.

Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu

According to Zoroaster, the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda was the creator of everything that is good, including the yazatas, heavenly beings that are worthy of veneration.

On the flip side of things, everything that is dark and evil comes from Angra Mainyu, a destructive entity whose only goal is to derail the good plans of Ahura Mazda. It is unclear where Angra Mainyu came from other than the belief that the spirit is bound to oppose Ahura Mazda until the end of time, at which point he would be vanquished by Ahura Mazda.

There have been questions raised about how Ahura Mazda, an all-good and all-benevolent god, create a universe which contains darkness (i.e. Angra Mainyu). It has made some scholars and mythologists to state that Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu both emerged at the beginning of time. In some cases, the two beings were seen as twin brothers and children of an all supreme entity known as Time (Zurvan).

A third take on this is that Angra Mainyu was spawned out of Ahura Mazda’s negative energy at the time of creation.

Powers

Being the king of the gods and the Supreme Being and creator in Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is seen as extremely powerful being who cannot be contained in any physical form or man-made temple. As a result, it is very rare for the god to be depicted as it is believed that he is an omnipresent force.

Precepts of Ahura Mazda

The building blocks of Zoroastrianism are the Avesta (the 17 hymns attributed to Zoroaster), Yasna (liturgical texts), Visperad (separate parts of the Yasna), Denkard (beliefs and customs), and the Bundalhisn (cosmology and cosmography).

The prophet Zoroaster entreated his followers to at all times abide by the precepts of Ahura Mazda. It means staying clear of deceitful acts. Failure to do so often results in strife and chaos.

Worshipers of Ahura Mazda pursue good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. They are urged to follow the truth, be charitable, and have love for others.

Worship and symbols

Worship of Ahura Mazda began around the Achaemenid era (c. 550 BCE-330 BCE). It has been stated that the Achaemenid rulers were devout followers and often held ritual worships (the yasna) which involves bearing witness to asha (truth or order) and resisting lie (druj).

Fire, which was seen as a sacred element, was vital to the worship of Ahura Mazda. The ancient Persians believed that fire was the last element created by Ahura Mazda. This explains why priests always performed rituals and offered prayers beside a burning fire. The fire was believed to ward of daevas (evil), hence it was always left burning.

Water, the first element, was also another important ingredient in the worship of Ahura Mazda. His followers believed that water symbolized wisdom and goodness.

Depiction

In the Parthian Empire, he was depicted as a male figure standing or on a horseback. Being the Supreme Being in Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda had very few depictions as it was considered a bit sacrilegious to depict a god that was formless and not bound to any physical form.

On an inscription found on a cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam, the burial place of many kings of the Achaemenid Empire, Ahura Mazda is mentioned. He is described as the creator of the universe, the earth, the sky and everything beneath the sky, including human beings.

Ahura Mazda is praised for creating the mighty and powerful Achaemenid king Darius I (or Darius the Great) to lead the Persians. Darius led his fierce Persian army, at the time the greatest army in the world, on numerous military conquests. According to the inscription, Ahura Mazda aided the efforts of Darius in defeating Gaumāta, the high-ranking priest (magus) who is said to have impersonated Bardiya, the brother of Cambyses II.

Faravahar

The Faravahar symbol – the winged sun disk – is perhaps the most common symbol that usually gets associated with Ahura Mazda | Image: Faravahar at the ancient city of Persepolis

The first monotheistic Supreme Being

Following the revelations to the prophet Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda was proclaimed as the one true Supreme Being worthy of veneration. This ushered in the world’s first monotheistic faith. The ancient texts and inscriptions place this between 1500 BCE and 1000 BCE. What this means is that Zoroastrianism predates all Abrahamic religions – i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the first known religion to talk about concepts such as salvation and judgment after death. It also includes concepts of a messiah and the end of days; hell and heaven; and eternal bliss in the company of the Supreme Being.

Other Facts about Ahura Mazda

Interestingly the prophet Zoroaster does not appear on any of the so far discovered inscriptions of the ancient Achaemenid kings.

Following the Arab conquest of Persia in the mid-7th century AD, Zoroastrianism began to decline as followers were severely persecuted.  The Arab invaders at the time saw Zoroastrianism as a false faith and hence suppressed the faith by burning down numerous Zoroastrian temples. The few Zoroastrian temples that survived were converted into mosques. This persecution of the faith in effect caused followers of Ahura Mazda to sharply decline in the centuries that followed. Nonetheless, the religion still survived.

Up to this day, there are followers of Zoroastrianism, although a few thousands of followers across the world, mainly in Iran and the United States

The priests of Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism are known as magi.

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