Ahura Mazda, Angra Mainyu, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Avesta, Azi Dahaka, Central Asia, eschataology, evil, Frashokereti, History of Religion, India, Iran, Mayan Long Count, millennialism, monster, proto-Indo-Iranian, Religion, Serpents, Vedic, Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism
Much to the chagrin of the eschatologically-minded, the world simply does not keep ending. The Romans feared that the city would be destroyed on the 120th year of its founding (634 B.C.), and a recalculation after the date passed set the end of the Roman world at 389 B.C. Early Christians were fairly certain that the apocalypse would happen in the 1st Century A.D. (Jesus was expect to return within one generation of his crucifixion). The Essenes (an ascetic Jewish sect) believed the revolt against Rome in 66-70 A.D. was the beginning of the end. The early Christian movement of Monatism (more or less an early version of Pentecostalism) believed Jesus would return sometime in the 2nd Century A.D. Martin, the Bishop of Tours (316-397 A.D.) firmly declared the world would end in 400 A.D. Various prominent Christian theologians variously prophesized that the world would end in 500 A.D (Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, Irenaeus ), 793, 800, 806, 848, 995, 1000 A.D. (Predicted by Pope Sylvester II himself), 1033 A.D. (the 1000th anniversary of the death of Jesus), 1184, 1186, 1260, 1284, 1290, 1335, 1351 (Bubonic Plague spreading across Europe), 1370, 1378, and 1504 A.D.
Jewish Kabbalist Sabbatai Zevi predicted the arrival of the Jewish messiah and consequent end time was scheduled for 1648 A.D. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli suggested a comet would destroy the earth on April 5, 1719 and Mathematician William Whiston said the same thing, but set the date as October 16, 1736. Wovoka, Northern Paiute religious leader and founder of the Ghost Dance movement said the world would end in 1890 A.D. French Astronomer Camille Flammarion thought Halley’s Comet would destroy all life on Earth in 1910. Famed Psychic Jean Dixon said the final day would be February 4, 1962. Scientists Gribbin and Plagemann predicted that a gravitational alignment of the planets would bring about the apocalypse on March 10, 1982. Pat Robertson said 1982 as well. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate maintained that it was all over on March 26, 1997. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo was ready for November 29, 2003. These are just a sampling of the numerous apocalyptic prognostications that have not come to pass, as there are far too many for a relatively brief, yet illustrative account.
Of course, we have a parcel of dates for Armageddon that have not passed yet. As of this writing (December 20, 2012), we are one day from the end of the Mayan Long Count. The Mayans themselves had very little to say about this. They just stopped counting. Sunni Muslim theologian Said Nursî predicted 2129. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism places the next date for the apocalypse around 2240 (another Talmudic opinion says 3240). Then there are the physicists that are pretty confident that things will be getting fairly uncomfortable when our Sun becomes a red giant around 5 billion years from now, that the “Big Rip” resulting from the expansion of the universe will occur around 22 billion years in the future, and finally as 10100 years from now we can look forward to the ultimate heat death of the universe. Eventually the apocalypse will arrive, but since estimates vary from 1 day hence to 10100 years from now, holding one’s breath is ill-advised.
Does it seem so unreasonable to request a little creativity in the nature of the coming apocalypse? Call me consumed with existential ennui, but it is a little tiresome for devotees of the deep weird to read about yet another prediction of an erstwhile messiah returning and judging us unfit, a comet sending us the way of the dinosaurs, pole shifts, tidal waves, earthquakes, demons loose on the earth, the occasional scientific accident creating a black hole that devours the planet, or igniting the atmosphere with nuclear detonations. How about putting a little effort into Armageddon? Plagues of locusts and rivers turning to blood are so 1st Century. Rampant jaguars and household appliances turning on us? Now we’re getting somewhere, but unfortunately, the details of the upcoming Mayan pre-Christmas apocalypse are a little fuzzy, and such things are merely modern accretions that were never discussed by actual Mayans. No monsters, no fire and brimstone, no natural disasters we can examine are involved in the end of the Mayan calendar, at least not according to the Mayans themselves. I won’t dwell on the Mayans since one can turn on the Discovery or History channel anytime in the next few days and be inundated with documentaries on the subject, replete with clinically fascinating interviews of crazy-haired “experts” discussing ancient aliens. Allow me to summarize. Boring. When envisioning an apocalypse, one hopes for at least an interesting cast of nefarious characters. Case in point – the Zoroastrian Apocalypse starring the serpent/dragon/general evil dude and snappy dresser Aži Dahāka.
Before the ascendancy of the Abrahamic religions in the Middle East, the go-to religion was Zoroastrianism (also known as Mazdaism), formerly one of the world’s largest religions. This is one seriously old religion, with precursors in the early religions of Indo-Iranian peoples. Due to migrations, proto-Indo-Iranian religion split into two strains with a common inheritance, those being Zoroastrian (in the Middle East), and Vedic (in India). Zoroastrian theology influenced the mythologies of the Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where Vedic theology influenced the development of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Even elements of classical Greek philosophy were thought to have been influenced by Zoroastrian ideas. Basically, a fair portion of the organized religions currently extant have at least some mythological roots in the proto-Indo-Iranian religion. “While other religions of the ancient world, such as those of ancient Egypt, Chaldea, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome, have disappeared from the face of the earth, this has survived many trials and vicissitudes and still flourishes, if not in all its pristine vigour and glory, with many of its distinctive features preserved practically intact. In the earlier days of its greatness its adherents were counted by millions, and it had a considerable body of renowned literature. But the repeated conquests of Persia by foreigners, are believed to have caused the destruction of a greater part of that literature, and only a few fragments now remain. Centuries of persecution and oppression, moreover, have considerably reduced the number of its adherents, who are now a mere handful. But small though its literature and insignificant the number of its followers, this religion and the ancient customs of its followers, some of which have been preserved up to this day, possess certain striking and interesting features, which have always excited the admiration and respect of those who have brought a liberal and sympathetic spirit to bear on their study” (Bharucha, 1893, p.1). One would think that those crazy Zoroastrians would get a little more air time, but alas it is estimated that there are only about 190,000 remaining Zoroastrians in small communities in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North America, and Australia. And more to the point, nobody seems particularly concerned about the prophesized Zoroastrian apocalypse and its monstrous central figure Aži Dahāka.
Zoroastrianism was founded on the revelations and philosophy of the Persian prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) who is reputed to have died around 583 B.C. The primary collection of its sacred texts is called the Avesta, written in ancient Avestan, an East Iranian language that was extinct in the 1st millennium B.C., but remains in use as a liturgical language for Zoroastrian adherents to this day. The central tenet of Zoroastriansim was that existence is a continual struggle between truth (aša – although it is considered a subtle and untranslatable concept that would require a dissertation for proper exploration) and lie (druj), and that mankind’s purpose is to sustain and increase aša. The central figure of Zorastrianism is the highest deity Ahura Mazda, the omniscient (but not omnipotent) upholder of aša, and an uncreated god i.e. first principle. Ahura Mazda shares his existence (in the same way that Catholicism conceptualizes the trinity) with the destructive spirit Angra Mainyu. Angra Mainyu corrupted the original creation of the universe with evil, but in a final climactic apocalypse called the Frashokereti (“Destruction of Evil”), existence will be renovated through complete destruction, resulting in perfect unity of everything with Ahura Mazda. The first hymn in the Avesta mentions our creature of interest as the serpent.
Ahura-Mazda spake to the holy Zarathustra.
I created, O holy Zarathustra, a place, a creation of delight, but nowhere was created a possibility of approach.
For had I not, O holy Zarathustra, created a place, a
creation of delight, where nowhere was created a possibility of approach.
The whole corporeal world would have gone after
Airyana-vaeja, this paradise.
The first and best of regions and places have I created, I who am Ahura-Mazda:
The Airyana-vaeja of the good creation.
The Airva Maineyus, who is full of death, created an opposition to the same:
A great Serpent and Winter, which the Daevas have created. Ten winter months are there, two summer months.
And these are cold as to the water, cold as to the earth, cold as to the trees.
After this to the middle of the earth, then to the heart of the earth.
Comes the winter; then comes the most evil.
(“F. Speigel translation of first Fargard of the Zend-Avesta,” Parks, 1887, p.203)
So, essentially, one of the first things an angry Angra Mainyu does is creates a great serpent, who comes to be known as Aži Dahāka (Avestan. Aži = “Dragon or Snake”, cognate in Sanskript; Dahāka has an unclear origin, but it has been suggested that original meaning may have been “burning, stinging, manlike, or huge”). Suffice it to say, Aži Dahāka (later referred to as Zohhāk in Persian) was not meant to describe something pleasant. Aži Dahāka figures prominently in the Frashokereti apocalypse. The Frashokereti itself is strikingly familiar in its proposed scenario for Armageddon.
For the earth should be consumed with fervent heat. Its solid rocks should become for three days like molten metal, through which the righteous should move as a soft bath of milk, while the guilty were purged of the last traces of impurity in the penal fire. And then the powers of evil should be overthrown. Not for them, indeed, was there any hope of deliverance or redemption. The warfare which had been since the beginning would end in the eternal victory of right. The Lie and its hideous progeny should be driven into the heart of the flame; the stench and pollution arising from the regions of darkness should be consumed and the land of hell should be brought back for the enlargement or prosperity of the world.
(Avesta, “The Vendidad”, Carpenter, 1903, p.112)
Aži Dahāka is described as a hideous serpent with three heads and six eyes (the position of his eyes with respect to his heads are not recorded, but we can reasonably presume two eyes per head), or to put it more floridly, “Azi Dahaka, the three-mouthed, the three headed, the six-eyed, who has a thousand senses, that most powerful, fiendish Druj, that demon baleful to the world, the strongest Druj that Angra Mainyu created against the material world to destroy the world of the good principle” (Majumdar, 1909, p.133). Other descriptions assign him a single human head with two snake head and enormous wings that blot out the Sun. Traditionally, lizards and scorpions continuously crawl over his body, and when injured, he bleeds vermin such as snakes and insects. Not someone to bring home to mother. The Avesta relates a story about mythical Iranian king Fereydūn as a nine-year-old, defeating Aži Dahāka, wounding him with consequent bleeding of vermin. Ahura Mazda asked Fereydūn not to kill Azi Dahaka to prevent these vermin from infesting the world. Fereydūn obliges and chains Aži Dahāka on Mt.Damāvand. The Zoroastrian version of the apocalypse is prophesized to begin with Aži Dahāka escaping from his imprisonment and indiscriminately consuming one out of three humans and livestock, taking possession of the earth until his ultimate prognosticated defeat in a fairly complex set of events where demons turn on each other, culture heroes rise from the dead to battle evil, and everything bad in the universe gets tossed through a hole in the sky.
The arch-demon Az [Aži Dahāka], Greed, dominates the whole apocalyptic scene. Az, the closest companion of the Evil Spirit [Angra Mainyu], is terribly weak, deriving no power from the creations of Ohrmazd [Ahura Mazda]. “Wrath and Greed will (each) say to the Evil Spirit: ‘I shall devour you, ignorant Evil Spirit for your creation has been seized from you and the thief (has suffered) no harm and it is not possible for me to survive’. First demon-created Greed will devour Wrath with the bloody club, and second he will devour demon-created Zamestan, and thirdly Sej of the furtive movement, and fourthly Zaman short of breath, until (only) a few yet live”. The Evil Spirit turns a hopeless appeal to Ohrmazd: “This creation was created by me, and demon-created Greed, who is my creation, now says that you wish to devour me; I shall take you to judgment. Ohrmazd will stand up with Sros the righteous, and Sros’s righteousness will smite Greed. Ohrmazd will expel the Evil Spirit out of the sky, with the hateful darkness and the evil which he first brought when he invaded and he will expel all (of it) from the sky through the hole through which he [i.e. the Evil Spirit] invaded. And that hole will make him so stunned and senseless, (that) after that (his) stupefaction will remain. There was one who said: ‘The eternally-existing ones will make him powerless by killing his form. The Evil Spirit will be no more: no (more) of his creation!”
(Moazami, 2000, p.12)
Zoroaster himself wasn’t too concerned with setting the date for the Zoroastrian apocalypse and the hungry rampage of Aži Dahāka, but Zoroastrian cosmology divides universal history into four periods of 3000 years each, so we are happy to do it for him. We are in theory in the fourth and final age that began with the prophet Zoroaster, which is further subdivided into three 1000 year blocks. The 1st block was 583 B.C. – 417 A.D., the second block would thus be 417– 1417 A.D., and the third a final block would be 1417 – 2417 A.D. When 2417 rolls around, we should be on the lookout for three-headed, six-eyed, flying, snake-like people and cattle eaters. The upside to the apocalypse being that we get in touch with our inner Ahura Mazda. The omens are there. As actor Jon Cryer said, “I can’t imagine Jon Cryer performing with the New York Philharmonic isn’t one of the signs of the apocalypse”.
Bharucha, Ervad Sheriarji Dadabhai. A Brief Sketch of the Zoroastrian Religion & Customs: An Essay Written for the Râhnumâi Mâzdayasnân Sabhâ of Bombay. Bombay: the Duftur Ashkara Oil Engine Printing Press, 1893.
Carpenter, J. Estlin 1844-1927. Studies In Theology. London: J.M. Dent, 1903.
Majumdar, Jnanendralal. The Eagle and the Captive Sun. Calcutta: Bhattacharya & sons, 1909.
Moazami, Mahnaz. “Millennialism, Eschatology, and Messianic figures in Iranian Tradition”. Journal of Millennial Studies: Winter, 2000.
Parks, Leighton, 1852-1938. His Star In the East: a Study In the Early Aryan Religions. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887.