In the history of religions,
Zoroastrianism has been an unusually efficacious, exercising an influence on the doctrines of other religions
disproportionate to the size of its following. The notion of angels
as agents of God (rather than as demigods) is but one of Zoroastrianism’s
legacy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Zoroastrianism was founded in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran)
in about 1000 B.C. (some sources say much earlier, others around 600
B.C.) by the prophet Zoroaster. It was the official religion of the area
until Alexander the Great’s conquest, after which it was later restored.
In the seventh century A.D., Islamic invaders took over the area, and
Zoroastrianism disappeared from the land of its
birth. A relatively small body of Zoroastrians,
who are called Parsees in the subcontinent, survive
in contemporary India, many in the Bombay
The religion of Zoroaster is best known for
its dualism. The god of light and the upper
world, Ohrmazd or Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord),
and his angels are locked in a cosmic struggle
with the god of darkness and the lower world,
Angra Mainyu or Ahriman (Evil Spirit), and
his demons. Unlike Christianity, in which the
outcome of the war between God and the Devil
has already been decided, Zoroastrianism portrays
the struggle as more or less evenly
matched (although many strands of the tradition
would assert that Ahura Mazda’s triumph is
inevitable). Individual human beings are urged
to align themselves with the forces of light, and
are judged according to whether their good or
evil deeds predominate.
Eventually there will be a final battle
between good and evil, after which there will
be a general judgment in which everyone will
be put through an ordeal of fire (a river of molten metal), in which
good individuals will have their dross burned away and evil people
will be consumed. The souls of the blessed will be resurrected in
renewed physical bodies.
Many of the components of this vision of the end times—a final
battle between good and evil, judgment of the wicked, resurrection of
the dead, and so on—were adopted by Jewish apocalyptic thinkers.
From texts composed by these apocalypticists, such notions were
adopted into Christianity and Islam.
For reasons that are unclear, angels are often associated with religions
and religious movements that place a special stress on such
events expected to take place at the end of time (referred to as the
eschaton in Greek, from which we get the word eschatology).
It appears that Zoroaster set out to reform the preexisting religion
of Persia rather than to create a new religion. It is also clear that he
preached the centrality of one god, Ahura Mazda. The other divinities
of the earlier pantheon were reduced to the status of mere agents of
the supreme deity—that is, to angels. Also, some of the gods of the
original Indo-European pantheon were transformed into demons,
although this transformation may have resulted from factors completely
independent of the reforming activities of Zoroaster.
Chief among the Zoroastrian angels are the holy immortals (the
amesha spentas or ameshaspands). These beings are named after qualities
valued by Zoroastrians, such as Vohu Manah (Good Thought or
Good Sense) and Armaiti (Piety or Harmony). In a certain sense, the
amesha spentas are the archangels of the Zoroastrian religious system.
Corresponding to these archangels of light are agents of the evil Ahriman,
such as Druj (the Lie).
As Zoroastrianism developed, the number of celestial beings multiplied,
leading some observers to remark that the old polytheistic system
had unwittingly been revived in the later stages of this religious
tradition. At some point, a new class of angel, the yazatas, emerged.
They became so important that they seemed to eclipse Ahura Mazda
himself. Chief among the yazatas was Mithra, the god/angel of light.
Yet another group of angelic beings to emerge were the fravashi.
They seem to have originally been spirits of the ancestors, but gradually
developed into guardian spirits, both of human beings and of celestial
beings. Somewhat like the notion of Plato’s ideal forms, the
fravashi is the immortal part of the human being that remains in
heaven even when the individual is incarnate on the earth.