Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are the two main deities in the dualistic doctrine of Zoroastrianism. The former is the supreme deity of this religion, whereas the latter is the evil, destructive spirit. Angra Mainyu or Ahriman is the name of Zoroastrianism’s underlying reality or substance of the “destructive/evil spirit” and the main adversary in Zoroastrianism either of the Spenta Mainyu, the “holy/creative spirits/mentality,” or directly of Ahura Mazda, the highest deity of Zoroastrianism. In these accounts, both Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu are regarded as the creations of Ahura Mazda.
Article by Wu Mingren | Ancient Origins
In art, Ahura Mazda has been depicted in the rock reliefs of the Sassanians, who practiced Zoroastrianism. On the other hand, Angra Mainyu is rarely depicted in art.
Ahura Mazda is spelled also variously as Oromasdes, Ohrmazd, Hormazd, and Hurmuz. The name of this deity, translated from the Avestan language, means “Wise Lord.” Angra Mainyu, on the other hand, is known also as Ahriman in Middle Persian, and the name of this deity translates to mean “Destructive Spirit.” Moreover, Angra Mainyu’s principal epithet is “Druj,” which means “Lie.” This is in opposition to the concept of “Asha,” which has been translated as “Truth,” which is upheld by Ahura Mazda. Thus, in Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are opposed to each other, either directly, or indirectly.
Sassanid relief at Naqsh-e Rostam showing Ahura Mazda presenting the diadem of sovereignty to Ardashir I. (Darafsh Kaviyani / CC BY 3.0 )
Ahura Mazda And Angra Mainyu: Polar Opposites
There are several different accounts of how Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are related to one another. One of these versions can be found in the Gathas, the 17 Avestan hymns believed to have been composed by Zoroaster (known also as Zarathustra), the founder of Zoroastrianism. The Gathas are thought to have been written during the 14th or 13th century BC, and were included in the Avesta (the primary collection of Zoroastrian religious texts) when it was codified in about the 7th century AD.
According to the Gathas, a spirit by the name of Vohu Manah appeared before Zoroaster and commanded him to oppose the bloody sacrifices of the traditional Iranian cults, and to give aid to the poor. Although Zoroaster was unaware at first, he later learned that the spirit was sent by Ahura Mazda. Following this revelation, Zoroaster began to preach that through Spenta Mainyu (meaning “Creative Spirit”), Ahura Mazda had created the world, all that is good in it, and human beings. Subsequently, the rest of the universe was created by the six other Amesha Spenta (meaning “Bounteous / Holy Immortals”).
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Despite the creation of the universe by these good spirits, the existing order was threatened by the daevas, or “evil spirits.” Thus, the good and evil spirits are locked in eternal battle, and human beings have to decide which side to support. According to Zoroaster’s teachings, if humans supported the good spirits in their battle, it would hasten the inevitable victory of Ahura Mazda.
These good spirits could be supported in a number of ways, including the avoidance of lies, giving aid to the poor, the performance of certain sacrifices, and the cult of fire.
Additionally, Zoroaster reveals that there would be a Last Judgment at the end of times. All human beings would be led across a narrow bridge and be judged by Spenta Mainyu. The supporters of the evil spirits would fall into a large pit of fire called the “Worst Existence,” whereas the followers of Ahura Mazda would go to the “House of Best Purpose,” the Zoroastrian version of Paradise.
Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) being slain by Faramarz during a scene from the Shahnameh. (See page for author / CC BY 4.0 )
Interestingly, Zoroaster does not mention Angra Mainyu in the Gathas. Instead, he merely refers to the chief enemy of Ahura Mazda as “The Lie.” Some have pointed out that since the 17 Gathas are of considerable length, Zoroaster would have had sufficient opportunity to mention Angra Mainyu. Instead, Zoroaster consistently refers to “The Lie” throughout his hymns. Therefore, it has been argued that Angra Mainyu may not have been part of Zoroaster’s original teachings.
Conversely, it has been pointed out that the name Angra Mainyu itself is ancient, and that it was a very early innovation, or a very common name. By replacing the evil spirit Angra Mainyu with the more abstract concept of “The Lie,” Zoroaster was trying to, according to some scholars, foster greater personal responsibility amongst his followers.
Another source that deals with Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu is the collection of writings traditionally known the Bundahishn. This work, whose name translates to mean “Primal Creation,” was written in the Book Pahlavi script, and deals with Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology. In the Bundahishn, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu seem to have existed for all eternity but were separated by a void.
When Angra Mainyu began attacking Ahura Mazda, however, the process of creation began. The world was created as a battlefield, so that Ahura Mazda could vanquish Angra Mainyu. This battle is supposed to last for 9000 years, and it is believed that with the appearance of Zoroaster, 6000 years into the battle, Angra Mainyu’s supremacy came to an end. For the last 3000 years, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu would fight on an equal footing. It is also believed that at the end of this 3000 years, Ahura Mazda would emerge victorious.
Painted clay and alabaster head of a Zoroastrian priest wearing a distinctive Bactrian-style headdress, 3rd–2nd century BC. ( Public domain )
Questions About The Origins Of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu
One of the issues with the account in the Bundahishn is that the origins of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are not discussed. This presents a problem if one were to reject the version in which Angra Mainyu is not the direct enemy of Ahura Mazda. Since the Bundahishn presents Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu as direct opposites, the question of their origins has been raised. This led to the development of Zurvanism, a branch of Zoroastrianism that is now extinct.
According to Zurvanites, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were created by Zurvan (meaning “Time”). This solution, however, disrupted the very essence of Zoroastrianism, and therefore was condemned as heretical.
As an evil spirit, it is only natural that Angra Mainyu was not worshipped by the Zoroastrians. On the other hand, Ahura Mazda was worshipped by them. This is seen, for instance, in the Yasna ceremony, the principal act of worship in Zoroastrianism. The ceremony, which has its roots in ancient Indo-Iranian cultic practices, was used as a form of “maintenance of the cosmic integrity of the good creation of Ahura Mazda.” The central aspect of the Yasna ceremony is the preparation and consumption of haoma, i.e., the sacred drink of immortality. Only qualified priests are allowed to perform this ritual, and it has to be performed each day in the morning. Common people are prohibited from entering the sacred space where the ritual is performed, though the ritual may be attended by a lay patron.
An important aspect of the ritual is the invitation of the good spirits into the sacred space where the Yasna ceremony is being performed. The first of these would have been Ahura Mazda, followed by Amesha Spenta and a number of other good spirits. These spirits would be invited using certain verses from the Yasna, the liturgical text recited during the Yasna ceremony. It is believed that during the ritual, the glorious purity of Ahura Mazda is cultivated, and shines through the priest who is conducting the Yasna ceremony. In turn, those present would be able to obtain a glimpse of the world as it will be following its renewal at the end of times.
Another way in which Ahura Mazda may be worshipped by Zoroastrians is through the Afrinigan liturgy. The goal of this ceremony is to offer direct praise to Ahura Mazda for the goodness that he has bestowed upon the world. Additionally, further blessings of Ahura Mazda on the community of Zoroastrians would be requested through this ceremony. During the Afrinigan liturgy, various offerings are presented to Ahura Mazda, including trays covered with fruits, eggs, water, milk, as well as three cups of wine, and eight flowers. These items are meant to symbolize Ahura Mazda’s blessings on humanity.
A lone modern Zoroastrian at Dakhmeh Zartoshtian (Zoroastrian Towers of Silence) in Yazd, Iran. (Fars News Agency / CC BY 4.0 )
In Modern Times Zoroastrians Have Resorted To Personal Faith
In more recent times, the number of Zoroastrians has dwindled to such an extent that many of them no longer have access to public ritual observances. Therefore, for contemporary Zoroastrians, these public rituals have been substituted with the private remembrance of Ahura Mazda as an essential part of their religious exercise. The most common form of this private remembrance is prayer, one of the most notable being the Ahuna Vairya prayer. This is considered to be the most sacred Zoroastrian prayer, and is believed to have been used by Ahura Mazda himself to subdue Angra Mainya at the beginning of their 9000-year battle.
With the aid of the Ahuna Vairya prayer, Ahura Mazda was able to force his enemy to lay prostrate for 3000 years. The status of the Ahuna Vairya prayer in Zoroastrianism has been compared to that of the Lord’s Prayer in Christianity, and reads as follows:
Since He is (the One) to be chosen by the world
therefore the judgment emanating from truth himself
(to be passed) on the deeds of good thought of the world
as well as the power, is committed to Mazda Ahura whom (people)
assign as a shepherd to the poor.
Apart from that, modern-day Zoroastrians may remember Ahura Mazda in all creation since he considered to be the creator of the world . This includes one’s own physical and mental well-being, since taking care of one’s physical and mental health is a way to honor creation, and therefore the creator himself, Ahura Mazda.
The Behistun Inscription, dated to about 520 BC, in Iran. (PersianDutchNetwork / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Ahura Mazda has been depicted in art over the ages, though not consistently. For instance, during the Achaemenid period, the rulers of Persia worshipped Ahura Mazda, though it is possible that they were not Zoroastrians. In any case, Ahura Mazda is mentioned in many Achaemenid texts, including the famous Behistun Inscription , where Darius I proclaimed that “Ahura Mazda has granted unto me this empire. Ahura Mazda brought me help, until I gained this empire; by the grace of Ahura Mazda do I hold this empire”.
Despite these textual references to Ahura Mazda, the Achaemenids seem to have rarely depicted the deity. This is noted by ancient authors such as Herodotus and supported by the available archaeological evidence. Herodotus also mentions that the Achaemenids had a custom whereby an empty chariot drawn by white horses would accompany their armies. The chariot was supposed to be sacred to the supreme god of the Persians, whom the ancient historian refers to as “Zeus,” who was most likely Ahura Mazda.
The earliest known reference to an image of Ahura Mazda is also found in a text, in which a satrap of Lydia is recorded to have erected a statue of the deity during the 39 th year of Artaxerxes II Mnenon (around 365 BC). Since it was written by a Greek, the deity was referred to as “Zeus” the lawgiver, and once again, probably refers to Ahura Mazda.
The depiction of Ahura Mazda in images is also said to have occurred during the Parthian period . Unfortunately, there has not been much elaboration in the modern sources about what these images might have been.
During the Sassanian period , Ahura Mazda continued to be depicted for some time. The best-known of these depictions are the rock reliefs depicting the investiture of the Sassanian kings. An example of these is the Investiture Relief of Ardashir I at Naqsh-e Rostam, which was created during the 3 rd century AD. In the relief (see top image), Ardashir is portrayed on the left, whilst Ahura Mazda is on the right. Both figures are on horseback, and the deity is shown presenting the Sassanian king with the ring of kingship, symbolizing the legitimization of his rule. Incidentally, the corpses of Artabanus IV, the last Parthian ruler, and Angra Mainyu are depicted under the hooves of the horses, symbolizing the triumph of the king and the deity over their respective deities.
It has been noted however, that the Sassanians were iconoclasts, and therefore not in favor of depicting Ahura Mazda. It has been pointed out, nevertheless, that this applies to worship of the deity, and since the rock reliefs were not of a religious nature, the depiction of the deity on them was allowed. In any case, as time went by, it became common in Zoroastrianism to reject anthropomorphic images of deities, including Ahura Mazda.
To conclude, Ahura Mazda is the supreme deity in Zoroastrianism, whereas Angra Mainyu is his principal adversary. Nevertheless, the understanding of these two beings has changed over time, in accordance with the development of Zoroastrian theology.
With each change, a new layer of complexity has been added. In some ways, this is also seen in the depiction of Ahura Mazda in art, whereby he is portrayed at certain times, and in certain contexts, but not in others.
Top image: The Investiture Relief of Ardashir I, with Ardashir on the left, and Ahura Mazda on the right. Source: Photo Ginolerhino 2002 / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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The two opposing spirits that operate in the material world are Spenta Mainyu and Angre Mainyu. Ahura Mazda is the origin and does not have an equal and opposing force. Spenta Mainyu is the progressive and good spirit and Angre Mainyu is the destructive and evil spirit.