Our knowledge of the religion of the ancient Persians is principally derived from the Zendavesta, or sacred books of that people. Zoroaster was the founder of their religion, or rather the reformer of the religion which preceded him. The time when he lived is doubtful, but it is certain that his system became the dominant religion of Western Asia from the time of Cyrus (550 B.C.) to the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. Under the Macedonian monarchy the doctrines of Zoroaster appear to have been considerably corrupted by the introduction of foreign opinions, but they afterwards recovered their ascendency.
Zoroaster taught the existence of a supreme being, who created two other mighty beings and imparted to them as much of his own nature as seemed good to him. Of these, Ormuzd (called by the Greeks Oromasdes) remained faithful to his creator, and was regarded as the source of all good, while Ahriman (Arimanes) rebelled, and became the author of all evil upon the earth. Ormuzd created man and supplied him with all the materials of happiness; but Ahriman marred this happiness by introducing evil into the world, and creating savage beasts and poisonous reptiles and plants. In consequence of this, evil and good are now mingled together in every part of the world, and the followers of good and evil--the adherents of Ormuzd and Ahriman--carry on incessant war. But this state of things will not last forever. The time will come when the adherents of Ormuzd shall everywhere be victorious, and Ahriman and his followers be consigned to darkness forever.
The religious rites of the ancient Persians were exceedingly simple. They used neither temples, altars, nor statues, and performed their sacrifices on the tops of mountains. They adored fire, light, and the sun as emblems of Ormuzd, the source of all light and purity, but did not regard them as independent deities. The religious rites and ceremonies were regulated by the priests, who were called Magi. The learning of the Magi was connected with astrology and enchantment, in which they were so celebrated that their name was applied to all orders of magicians and enchanters.
Wordsworth thus alludes to the worship of the Persians:
"... the Persian,--zealous to reject
Altar and Image, and the inclusive walls And roofs of temples built by human hands,-- The loftiest heights ascending, from their tops, With myrtle-wreathed Tiara on his brows, Presented sacrifice to Moon and Stars, And to the Winds and mother Elements, And the whole circle of the Heavens, for him A sensitive existence and a God."
--Excursion, Book IV.
In "Childe Harold" Byron speaks thus of the Persian worship:
"Not vainly did the early Persian make
His altar the high places and the peak Of earth-o'er-gazing mountains, and thus take A fit and unwalled temple, there to seek The Spirit, in whose honor shrines are weak, Upreared of human hands. Come and compare Columns and idol-dwellings, Goth or Greek, With Nature's realms of worship, earth and air, Nor fix on fond abodes to circumscribe thy prayer."