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Zoroastrianism: History, Religion, and Belief

Explore the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, its languages, and the challenges faced by Zoroastrian communities today.

2,741 enrolled on this course

Image of the Zoroastrian fravohar against the background of a map of the ancient Persianate world

Delve into the rich visual history of the Zoroastrian religion

Zoroastrianism has had a profound influence on major world religions. Its history tells the story of imperial culture, persecution, migration and the establishment of diasporic communities.

Utilising a rich visual repository of artifacts, paintings, and texts, this four-week course will take you through the story of Zoroastrian religion, history, and culture.

The course draws inspiration from an exhibition titled ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’, as well as the book of the same name.

Discover the fire at the centre of this ancient religion

You’ll start by looking at the teachings of the Zoroastrian faith to understand where it sits in the context of world religions. You’ll then explore the religion’s history, from antiquity to present day.

Fire is a supreme symbol of Zoroastrianism and is central to the religion’s doctrine, ritual, and observance. You’ll learn how to link this idea to everyday devotional life and care for the planet.

Explore the challenges facing Zoroastrian communities

Today, this ancient religion is in retreat, with numbers diminishing and the language becoming endangered.

On this course, you’ll examine the challenges the community faces and connect them to historical events to build a larger picture of the religion.

Finally, you’ll look at the religion’s ancient language, Avestan, which is key to understanding Zoroastrian texts, myths, and legends.

Learn from the experts at SOAS University of London

SOAS has a long history of teaching and research on the subject of Zoroastrianism, together with the languages, both ancient and modern, that support it.

As the only institution to have two endowed posts in Zoroastrianism, SOAS is uniquely positioned to guide you through the history and challenges of this ancient religion.

Syllabus

  • Week 1

    Who was Zarathushtra and what did he teach?

    • Welcome to the course

      Welcome to the course and overview of the topics it will cover. In this activity you will meet the educators and tell us why you are interested in learning about Zoroastrianism.

    • Introducing Zarathushtra

      Introducing Zarathushtra – who was he? When did he live? Where did he live? What were his key teachings and who were his followers?

    • Teachings, the Gathas

      Key elements of Zarathushtra’s message. [Image: Ilustrated Videvdad Sadeh. British Library RSPA 230. © 2013 SOAS, University of London - The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination catalogue.

    • Teachings: Creation and the doctrine of the Amesha Spentas

      The story of Creation and the doctrine of the Amesha Spentas, divine immortals

  • Week 2

    Historical Perspectives: Iran

    • The central act of priestly worship: Yasna

      A ceremony central to Zoroastrianism: the Yasna. It will remind you of the doctrine of the Amesha Spentas, the centrality of fire in worship, and introduce you to the role of priestly ritual in the religion. [photo: Noshir Gobhai]

    • The Ancient World and the Achaemenid Empire

      This activity deals with three points: an introduction to the ancient world into which Zarathushtra was born, the first great Persian empire of the Achaemenids, and finally on whether or not we think this religion is ‘Zoroastrian’

    • The Parthian and Sasanian Empires

      We trace the rise of the Parthians in north-eastern Iran and go on to explore the consolidation of church and state under the Sasanians. [Image: Sasanian ox-headed mace. Probably Iran, 3rd-7th century. British Museum 129396]

    • After the Arab conquest of Iran

      We begin this week with priestly ritual, then start our historical journey drawing on different textual sources: religious and epic. [Image: Ilkhanid tile, Iran, Takht-e Suleyman, 15th century. Mrs Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian]

  • Week 3

    Historical Perspectives: India

    • Influence of Zoroastrian religious thought on world religions

      Here we will explore the possible influence of Zoroastrianism on the major world religions. [Image: School of Athens from the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphel (Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino) (1483-1520) Vatican City, 1510-1511 fresco]

    • Journey from Iran and early settlement in India

      We will continue our historical overview from the Post-Islamic period in week 2 and the departure of Zoroastrians from Iran. [Image: The Island of Diu (Dib), courtesy of A Zoroastrian Tapesty: Art, Religion and Culture]

    • Devotional life and rites of passage

      We look at Zoroastrianism as it is practiced in India today and go on to consider what life is like for Zoroastrians in contemporary Iran. Finally, you will be invited to take a poll. [Image: silver filigree ses/tray]

    • Challenges facing Zoroastrians today

      We examine some of the challenges faced by Zoroastrians in Iran, India and the diaspora today. [Image: map of Zoroastrian population, FEZANA Journal, 2012].

  • Week 4

    Language week - Avestan

    • Introduction

      Welcome to the fourth and final week of this course.

    • Let's start with letters!

      In this activity we will look at the Avestan alphabet, and learn how it has been created.

    • An Avestan text: the victory of Zaraϑuštra over the demons

      In this activity a famous Avestan text telling how Zaraϑuštra overcame the demons will allow us to discover some specificities of the Avestan language.

    • Review

      This activity contains two parts: a review of the grammatical points followed by a small quiz, and the English translation of Vidēvdād 19. [photo: Noshir Gobhai]

    • An Avestan stanza explained

      In this final activity we will have a look at a longer Avestan stanza as a taster of what can be achieved after a few weeks of learning.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Identify the key elements of the Zoroastrian religion.
  • Trace an outline of Zoroastrianism in a historical context.
  • Explain some of the challenges faced by Zoroastrian communities today.
  • Discuss Zoroastrianism as both a majority and minority religion.
  • Analyse the source materials for the study of the religion.
  • Explore the Avestan language.
  • Recognise and interpret some Avestan terms.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in ancient religions - both ancient and living - specifically Zoroastrian religious traditions and its languages. It will also appeal to anyone interested in Iranian Studies or South Asian Studies.

Members of the Zoroastrian community worldwide will find this course particularly useful.

Who will you learn with?

I am the Shapoorji Pallonji senior lecturer in Zoroastrianism at SOAS and interested mainly in the living tradition in Iran and India as well as the subject of orality.

I am a researcher at SOAS working on Zoroastrianism with a focus on Avestan. I believe in the importance of learning languages for a better understanding of the religion and its intricacies.

Who developed the course?

SOAS University of London

SOAS, University of London is the only Higher Education institution in Europe specialising in the study of Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East.

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