Ancient Persian gods are world-famous for their powers, huge following and stories. These gods, who are now considered a myth, were once the guardians of the Persian people, who worshipped them with all their might.
Here we have put together a detailed account of the ancient Persian gods and their characteristics.
Each ancient civilization is based on an intricate belief system consisting of many gods, goddesses, creatures and heroes. These belief systems ran deep in their civilization and were a big part of their life. It is said that the religious beliefs of one group are a myth to the other and vice versa. But, myth or not, the ancient people used to devote their whole lives to the cause of their religion.
One of the most religious civilizations was the ancient Persian empire, which is known to have had a variety of ancient gods and goddesses. This civilization has seen the rise and fall of many different religions since it came into being. Each new governing party brought its own religious beliefs and gods. The people were then forced to live by the new religion, and so they did.
Even in such conditions, a peculiar religion became the identity of Persia and its inhabitants: Zoroastrianism. Whenever ancient Persia is mentioned, the name of this religion inevitably comes up. Persia saw the downfall of Zoroastrianism after the Muslim invasion.
Many different religions were added to the Persian community like Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. The Persians went from being devout polytheists to Zoroastrians, to Muslims, and then Shia Muslims. Following is a detailed explanation of the Ancient Persian Gods in the chronological form.
The Pre-Zoroastrian Period of Persia
The Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC. Cyrus unified many adjoining kingdoms into one fortified kingdom: Persia.
Before the reign of Cyrus, different kingdoms followed different religions. The only thing that was common in all the religions was that they were all based on polytheism.
This polytheism was introduced in the region by the Latin and Greek settlers. Many references to the Roman and Greek mythologies are seen in the ancient pre-Zoroastrian period of Persia. But even the Roman and Greek gods were given the Persian touch.
Many of these gods, in fact, were given Persian names, despite the fact that they retained the same characteristics as their Greek or Roman identity. These alien gods were eventually absorbed so deeply in Persian culture that their Greek or Roman origin was completely forgotten.
Every family, caste or group of people had their own gods and goddesses. People fought wars based on religious differences and took pride in murdering the people following any other god but theirs. This was a common practice until the empire of Persia came into being. Cyrus was a devout Zoroastrian and, under his rule, his people became Zoroastrians as well.
The Zoroastrian Period of Persia
This period of Persian history is by far the most important. This period saw the rise of the religion of Zoroastrianism, which gave Persia its religious identity and unified hundreds and thousands of people under one religion.
Zoroastrianism was a religion born in 1500 – 1000 BC. This religion was born on the ideas of a philosopher and prophet called Zoroaster. Zoroaster believed that there are many gods and goddesses but they all are led by one ultimate god. He believed that there are always good and evil sides and that good will eventually conquer the evil darkness.
Based on these beliefs, the religion of Zoroastrianism was formed. This religion consisted of many existing gods and goddesses but they were all ruled by Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is the chief of the 11 other gods and together they make the Persian pantheon of 12 ancient gods of the empire.
Each of these entities had a specific role and place in the pantheon.
Here we explain the characteristics and importance of each of the 12 Zoroastrian gods and goddesses:
- Ahura Mazda
- Angra Mainyu
- Hvar Ksata
- Ardvi Sura Anahita
- Tiri and Tishtrya
– Ahura Mazda – The Chief of Gods
Ahura Mazda, also called Ormuzd, was the creator of all things and the most ancient Persian god. He created the sky, water, land and the moon. He then fashioned animals and left them on the land to graze and reproduce.
He created a couple, a man and woman, to whom he gave free will to choose for themselves whatever they thought was best. He always encouraged his creations to be the best version of themselves.
– Angra Mainyu
Ahura Mazda was the noble god who helped humanity. Angra Mainyu, also called Ahriman, was the evil deity that aimed to destroy everything that the Ahura Mazda created. Angra Mainyu wreaked havoc on the land when the first couple was created. Angra Mainyu was pure evil, so there had to be an equally good god: Mithra.
Mithra was and is the most famous and most loved among the ancient Persian deities. He was responsible for changing the seasons and cosmic order. He is known as the god of the rising sun and friendship. He was a loving god that helped and protected the righteous and faithful people. He showed them Asha (light) in their darkest times and never left them alone.
He was the ultimate warrior against the darkness and is portrayed as riding a chariot with white horses. His weaponry contains bows and arrows made of gold and the most formidable axes and daggers. He used his powers to grant noble people the right to lead a kingdom. Any king found unworthy of his kingdom was removed by Mithra.
– Hvar Ksata
Also known as Hvare-Khshaeta, which translates to “the radiant sun,” he was the god of the sun. While he was the god of the full sun, Mithra was the god of the rising sun only. Hvar Ksata was responsible for giving sustenance to the people and giving life to their crops.
– Ardvi Sura Anahita
Anahita is one of the most cherished goddesses in the Persian pantheon. She was the goddess of fertility, water, health, healing and wisdom. Because she is associated with giving health and healing, Anahita was also referred to as the god of war. The warriors would pray to her for health, healing and victory in the wars.
She is considered as the source of all life on earth, which was then maintained by Hvar Ksata. She is portrayed as a beautiful young woman in a silk dress and a white crown. She rides a four-horse chariot and carries twigs of life in her hand.
Rashnu was an angel and not a god. Rashnu was the angel that sorted the dead into heaven and hell after going through their deeds. He would receive an account of the deeds of the deceased by other angels. Rashnu was the judge of the dead until later times, when he was replaced by Mithra as the god of the dead.
Unlike other gods, this god had only one characteristic: Fighting evil and dark forces. He is known as a shapeshifter and one of the greatest forces against Angra Mainyu. There are various legends where Verethragna is seen as a bird, a bull, a 15-year-old boy and a white horse adorned with gold.
– Tiri and Tishtrya
Tiri and Trishya were twin siblings with different but related powers. Tiri was the god of agriculture and Trihya was the god of rain. Both gods worked together to bring people their harvest. In some places, these gods are considered to be one.
It is said that farmers needed to pray to these gods in a specific manner to keep them happy. If the gods got angry or if the praying processions were not to their tastes, their harvest would be destroyed.
Atar was the son of Ahura Mazda. He was most famous because he was the god of fire. Wherever fire was lit, it was said that people were in the presence of Atar. Atar and Mithra were close friends and it is narrated that they fought and won many battles against evil.
Haoma was the god of vitality, strength and power. He was associated with Atar, Mithra and Anahita. People prayed to Haoma for strong sons. The plant of Haoma was also thought of as an extension to the god Haoma. People used this plant before conception.
Vayu was also known as Vayu-Vatu. Vayu was the god of the winds. He lived between the realms of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, which means that he was good and evil at the same time. His actions depended on the direction in which the wind blew. He is the keeper of order among the realms.
He is depicted as a fierce warrior on a chariot with gold weapons and a long sharp spear. Through the stories, he is seen fighting from both sides: the good and the evil.
Zorvan, also known as Zurvan, was the god of time. He is known to be the father of good and evil: Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. It is believed that Zorvan gave birth to two twins with opposite polarities. Zorvan controlled time and space.
In ancient times floods, famine, drought and natural disasters were very common. The people needed some deity that they could turn to and ask for help. The above-mentioned 12 Ancient Zorastrian deities were the deities that the Persians followed. The Persians prayed to these gods, sacrificed for these gods, and killed for these gods.
The religion of Zoroastrian was seen as the main religion of the people of Persia for many years. Other religions eventually were also seen, but in minorities.
The Pre-Islamic Period of Persia
As we know, Zoroastrianism was the main religion in all of Persia and it was based on the views of Zoroaster. At that time in the world, many other religions were at their peak. These religions were Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Gradually, the religions of Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity seeped into Persia.
Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of Gautum Buddha. This religion is said to originate from India and is one of the oldest religions in the world. As Persia shared a border with India, many immigrants came from there. This progressed the religion of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.
The Buddhists are peace-loving, calm and minimalistic people. Because of these features, there are rarely any reported conflicts between the Buddhists and Zoroastrians of ancient Persia.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion that believes in the supremacy of one god and many prophets. They believe that god does not have a body and that he created the universe without any help. This religion was interesting for the Persians as they have not seen the concept of one supreme god before.
Many instances of peace and war are present between the Persian Jews and the Persian Zoroastrians.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the teaching of Jesus. It was and is one of the most followed religions of all times. The Persian Christians have played an important role in the spread of Christianity and the conversion of the people of other religions. In ancient Persia, Christianity was seen in areas that were closer to European countries.
In Persia — that is, before the invasion of Muslims — Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity were the three famous religions, with Zoroastrianism remaining the most practiced. In some areas in Persia, people of these four religions lived in peace and harmony, while in some other areas there was a constant fear of war and religion-based hate crime.
Nevertheless, Persians and Persian mythology thrived under the four religions and the people of that time took Persia to the heights of glory. This was until Muslims invaded Persia.
The Islamic Period of Persia
From 633 to 654 AD, the Rashiddun Caliphate invaded the Persian empire. This invasion is also known as the Arab Conquest of Persia. This invasion led to the fall of the Zoroastrian religion, culture and tradition in the area.
Islam is a monotheistic religion and it condemns the association of god to any other thing, living or dead. When the Arabs took control of Persia, the majority were following the Zoroastrianism religion with minority groups practicing Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.
The religion of the minority groups was based on monotheism, which was accepted by the Muslims. But the religion of Zoroaster, which had two major gods and many minor gods, was highly unacceptable to the Muslim Arabs.
Did the Muslims Convert the Persians to Islam?
The Muslim Arabs took it upon themselves to rid the people of Persia of polytheism. This act by the Muslims was condemned by many Persians. Eventually, there were civil and religious wars between them.
Many people of Persia willing converted to the religion of Islam and became devout Muslims. This is the reason that many ancient Zoroastrian praying buildings are now used as mosques.
History narrates different treatment of Zoroastrians by the Muslims at different places. In some places, the Muslims are portrayed to be the harshest rulers. Furthermore, the Muslim rulers put a tax on the Zoroastrian believers. This tax was to be paid in due time, as the penalties were torture or death.
On the other hand, some historians believe that the Muslims gave the Zoroastrians, the Buddhists, the Christians, and the Jews full religious liberty and freedom to live their lives according to their religion. But whatever truly happened, the religion of Zoroastrianism declined after the invasion of Persia.
The Ancient Gods of Persia in the Present Time
What we may think of as mythologies now were once the whole belief systems of ancient people. People lived their whole lives being devoted to the teachings and powers of these gods. They fought and sacrificed for these gods.
The Persians went through a turbulent religious journey. They were first the believers of their various gods and goddesses, influenced by the Greek and Roman mythologies. They then started following the religion of Zoroastrianism, theorized by Zoroaster, a philosopher. Different religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism were introduced to minority groups in Persia.
Lastly, the Persians were invaded by the Muslim Arabs, after which the majority of the Persians resorted to the religion of Islam and the religion of Zoroastrianism saw a prominent decline.
Today the ancient Gods of Persia are not as well known as they were back then but still many minority groups and cults believe in the supremacy and nobility of Ahura Mazda and the evilness of Angra Mainyu.
In this article, we presented the different religions followed in ancient Persia and the different gods that were worshipped in those times.
Let’s go through the main points once again:
- The religion of Zoroastrianism was the original religion of Persians and replaced the worship of Greek and Roman-inspired gods.
- Zoroastrianism was based on the thoughts and ideas of Zoroaster, who was a philosopher.
- Zoroastrianism is based on the pantheon of 12 gods with various abilities.
- The 12 ancient Persian gods and Persian goddesses of Zoroastrianism are as follows:
- Ahura Mazda – Chief of the Gods
- Angra Mainyu – God of Evil and Chaos
- Mithra – God of the Rising Sun and Kingship
- Hvar Ksata – God of the Full Sun
- Ardvi Sura Anahita – Goddess of fertility, health, water, wisdom, war
- Rashnu – The Judge of the dead
- Verethragna – God of War against Evil
- Tiri and Tishtrya – Gods of Agriculture and Rainfall
- Atar – God of Fire
- Haoma – God of the Strength and Vitality
- Vayu – God of the Wind
- Zorvan – God of Time
- Other religions that were found in the Persian empire in minority were Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity.
- The religion of Zoroastrianism declined in Persia after the Arab Conquest.
Did you expert an ancient empire to have such a variety when it comes to religion?
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- Katouzian, H. The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran. Yale University Press, 2010.