In the early centuries of the Common Era many different “mystery cults” gained a footing and significant followings across the Roman Empire. To name a few, these included cults of Dionysus/Bacchus, Artemis, Apollo, Orpheus, the Egyptian-derived Isis and Osiris/Serapis, various Asian derived cults of the Great Mother Goddess, and Christianity. Central to such cults were “initiation” into a “mystery” which brought the devotee into a personal relationship with the god or gods. As Roger Beck stated, “Baptism initiates you into the Christian mystery, for example; and yes, early Christianity both can and should be classified with the pagan mystery cults” (2011, “The Pagan Shadow of Christ?” BBC website article accessed 13 August, 2015). Initiation conferred salvation in the next life as well as providing a support system of fellow worshippers in this life. Mithraism, centered on the god Mithras, was a well-known and prominent mystery cult until the late fourth century CE.
Mithras is often viewed as a Sun god, but in many ways he was not purely the Sun god (often referred to as Sol or Helios), but a better way to think of him might be as the spirit or power behind the Sun. Roman Mithraism, popular with soldiers, was a masculine religion that excluded females. Initiates rose through the ranks of Raven/Crow, Man of the Secret, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun, and Father. The central myth of Roman Mithraism was the tauroctony (bull-slaying) in which the god’s sacrifice of the Primordial Bull gave rise to all good and useful living creatures on Earth.
Mithraism originated in Iran (Persia) and had strong ties with Zoroastrianism. As C. W. King wrote concerning Mithraism, “It was the theology of Zoroaster in its origin, but greatly simplified, so as to assimilate it to the previously existing systems of the West. Under this form it took its name from Mithras, who in the Zoroastrian creed is not the Supreme Being, Ormuzd [Ohrmazd, Ahura Mazda, and variants], but the chief of the subordinate powers, or Amshaspands.” (King, 1864, The Gnostics and Their Remains, Ancient and Medieval, p. 47). Thus to trace the origins of Mithraism, we can start with the prophet and religious reformer Zoroaster.
Among scholars there is a wide disparity in the dates attributed to Zoroaster (Zarathustra, Zarathushtra). Franz Cardinal König (Encyclopedia Britannica, online, accessed July 31, 2015) gives birth and death dates of circa 628 BCE and circa 551 BCE, respectively, based on one Zoroastrian tradition that the prophet was about 40 years old and actively teaching 258 years before Alexander the Great conquered Persepolis in 330 BCE.
The sacred text of Zoroastrianism is the Zend-Avesta (or simply Avesta), which includes hymns attributed to Zoroaster known as the Gathas. Various linguists have suggested that the Gathas are written using a language that dates to the second millennium BCE (Hannah M. G. Shapero, “Zarathrustra: Prophet and Founder”, accessed July 31, 2015), and thus Zoroaster himself may have lived during the second millennium BCE.
Pushing the date of Zoroaster still further back in time is the testimony of some well-known Greek and Roman authors (Mary Settegast, Plato, Prehistorian, 1987, p. 211). Pliny (23 CE–79 CE) stated that both Aristotle (384 BCE–322 BCE) and Eudoxus (fourth century BCE) were of the belief that Zoroaster lived 6,000 years before the death of Plato (circa 429/423 BCE–348/347 BCE). Plutarch (first to early second century CE) stated that Zoroaster lived 5,000 years before the fall of Troy (late second millennium BCE). Thus Zoroaster was a man of circa 6400–6100 BCE.
Possibly there was more than one Zoroaster, as stated by Pliny, living at different times. A hierarchy of religious leaders is referred to in the Avesta, with the most superior being called the “Zarathuštrōtema,” a title that may refer to a high priest, or the greatest Zarathustra (Settegast, p. 214). There may have been multiple Zarathustras [Zoroasters] succeeding one another over time; the original prophet’s name may be unknown and Zoroaster/Zarathustra was his title. The original Zoroaster may have lived circa 6400–6100 BCE, another circa 1500 BCE, and another circa 590 BCE.
The first Zoroaster reformed the religion of his time, a religion that included traditions, beliefs, myths, and legends that were already very ancient. The legendary history includes the king Yima (Jamshid/Jamsheed and variants) who ruled during a Golden Age, a paradise. Yima is also Yima xšaēta or Yama xšaita; xšaēta/xšaita can be interpreted as “brilliant” or “majestic” and may derive from a word for the Sun (Helmut Humbach, 2002, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, vol. 26, pp. 68-77). In the Indian Rig Veda the deity Yama may be the equivalent of Yima. Yima parallels the Slavic deity Kresnik (Zmago Šmitek, Studia Mythologica Slavica I, 1998, pp. 93-118), represented in Northern Europe by the Scandinavian giant Ymir. The name Yima may be derived from the ancient Indo-European root “yemo” meaning “twin” (Settegast, p. 106). Indeed, Yima had twin qualities, as we shall discuss.
Yima reigned over a Paradise in which “there was neither cold nor heat, neither old age nor death, nor the envy created by the daēvas (demons), owing to (his) not-lying” (Humbach, p. 69). But something happened to end Yima’s happy reign, as described in the following recounting.
“Yima was the ruler of the golden age, when living beings were immortal. This resulted in overpopulation, and Yima three times expanded the earth to double its size. Ahura Mazdâ [the supreme god] then warned Yima that the earth would be decimated by floods caused by harsh winters and told him to build a bunker (vara) in which he should admit physically perfect specimen couples of all living beings (including fires) to perpetuate the race… In the sequel to this story, alluded to in the Old Avesta…, Yima was caused to roam the earth for having uttered a falsehood (probably out of hubris…).” (P. Oktor Skjærvø, “Zoroastrianism” for Cambridge Dictionary of Ancient Religions, Internet, accessed July 27, 2015)
Further details are supplied in this version:
“The paradise of the Iranian god Yima also stood in the center of the world, on the ‘world mountain.’ Originally it was a fenced-in garden (Avest[an]. pairidaeza, Gr[eek]. paradeisos, Lat[in]. paradisus), later a cave beneath the very top of the mountain. It was believed that Yima built an underground shelter (var) after the instructions of the god Ahura Mazda in order to keep—like biblical Noah—people, animals and plants from freezing cold and from sun storms.” (Šmitek, p. 106)
The loss of Paradise is associated with sin. In one variant Yima is said to have “added the lie, the untrue word” and as a result “the Royal Glory flew away from him visibly in the shape of a bird” (Humbach, p. 69). When Yima sinned, evil entered the world; and the evil was at times personified as the Serpent. But what was the sin, the lie? Was it the hubris of Yima as he began to think of himself as equal to a god? Did Yima introduce the killing of animals and the eating of their flesh, or allow the people to eat meat in abundance (rather than of necessity)? To kill animals and eat their meat, especially in excess, would be acting as a god with power over life and death. To kill creatures in a paradisiacal setting where death did not otherwise exist could be viewed as the ultimate hubris, lie, and sin.
Due to his sinfulness, Yima was cut or split into a twin couple. In some versions of the legend this “twinness” is simply a dual aspect of his character and personality, combining good and evil into a single entity. In other versions the split of Yima results in a brother and sister who commit incest in order to procreate, such procreation being necessary since humans were no longer immortal as a result of Yima’s initial sin.
Settegast suggested that both the early Zoroaster (circa 6400-6100 BCE) and an even earlier Yima have a basis in reality, and “Yima theoretically could have lived and ruled no later than the eighth millennium [BCE], and possibly a good deal earlier” (p. 107). Analyzing the Yima legends, there are key elements pointing to the catastrophic solar outburst(s), circa 9700 BCE, that ended the last ice age and devastated the civilizations and populations of the time (see my 2012 book, Forgotten Civilization). I suggest that Yima was a leader during those tumultuous times in the tenth millennium BCE who witnessed the “loss of Paradise” when the natural cataclysms occurred. Zoroaster, in contrast, lived several thousand years later during the period known as SIDA (solar-induced dark age), which preceded the re-emergence of fully developed civilization in the fourth millennium BCE.
Key aspects of the Yima legend reflect conditions and events at the end of the last ice age and their aftermath. Yima went into a cave and built a bunker or underground shelter (vara or var) where he sequestered and protected his companions (not just humans but animals and plants as well) from harsh winters, freezing cold, floods, and sun storms. The reference to sun storms is, in my assessment, a direct reference to the solar outburst(s) at the end of the last ice age, and it is significant that the name and title Yima xšaēta likely derives from the Sun. The flooding probably refers to the torrential rains and rising sea levels of that time. The freezing cold and harsh winters could be allusions to the relative cold and dampness from the rains and snows (for it would still snow in areas) and the increased cloud cover over certain localized regions even as surface Earth temperatures rose dramatically on a global scale.
The sin of Yima could be seen as his inflated self-confidence and hubris over having saved a portion of humanity, combined with the slaughtering of precious animals that would be better kept for breeding. Those who did survive in the cave with Yima likely included members of nuclear families, and the families may have been closely related. The splitting of Yima into twins and the incest between siblings could represent incestuous relationships that occurred among the survivors. The Serpent, personifying evil, might be a zoomorphic representation of the electrical discharges that would appear as “thunderbolts,” “snakes,” or “serpents” in the sky during a major solar outburst. Likewise, the “Royal Glory” that flew away in the shape of a bird could be a recollection of the “bird” and “bird-headed man” plasma/electrical-discharge shapes seen in the sky during a major solar outburst. Additionally, Yima of the legends had a “glass chariot” and his Slovene equivalent (Kresnik) lived in a castle on a glass mountain (Šmitek). As I have made the case elsewhere (Forgotten Civilization), glass castles and the like may refer to vitrification (rock that was melted and turned to glassy substances) which can occur due to plasma impacts during a major solar outburst. The Yima story has too many similarities to the events that occurred at the end of the last ice age (as reconstructed based on the evidence) to dismiss it all as simply coincidence. In Yima we may have a genuine portrayal of a leader who helped his people survive those catastrophic times.
Returning to Zoroaster/Zarathustra, what little we know of his life and teachings fit the time and tenor of the period (SIDA) between the collapse of early civilization at the end of the last ice age and the reemergence of sophisticated cultures some six thousand years later.
Zoroaster reformed the religion of his time. The old religion was the religion of the “Magi”, a sacerdotal caste who may have practiced a form of Zurvanism (Zervanism), named after the supreme divinity Zurvan who was the primordial creator deity and as Zurvān akarāna was the god of Infinite Time and Eternity (Settegast, p. 201). The Zervanites also had a concept of Limited Time (although of long duration); they were polytheistic; they may have believed in the transmigration of souls/reincarnation; they were astrologers who accepted a celestial influence on terrestrial events; and they believed in the cyclical nature of the cosmos (“circular time,” the Earth going through various “ages”). In contrast, Zoroaster preached a concept of linear and progressive time. In the beginning the world was perfect, a paradise, but then catastrophe occurred (interpreted as evil entering the world); sin precipitated the collapse of humanity (the Yima story). Humanity needs to redeem itself, to restore paradise. In the end times a savior will lead humanity through an “ordeal by fire” (Settegast, p. 222) and evil will be destroyed. Zoroaster saw his own time as the period when people must work toward redemption and the restoration of “paradise.”
Thinking in terms of a major catastrophe at the end of the last ice age followed by an extended dark age, Zoroaster’s life and times make sense. In the dreary aftermath of the catastrophe, which lasted for millennia, drugs and other intoxicants may have been used as an “escape mechanism,” as may have been the practice of excessive animal sacrifices (the slaughtered animals were eaten) in Dionysian-style ecstatic frenzies. Another escape mechanism may have been to dismiss the material conditions of life as unimportant and turn to an “empty” spiritualism, including idolatry and polytheism. To restore paradise (the conditions before the catastrophe), Zoroaster preached pragmatic action: settle into communities and take up agriculture and husbandry (as a way to provide for the material needs of the impoverished people), end the abuse of intoxicating substances, limit animal sacrifices, turn away from idolatry and “excessive” polytheism, and attain a balance between the spiritual and material domains. Ultimately, Zoroaster’s message was focused on restoring the right order and harmony of the cosmos.
Concerning the pre-catastrophe paradise that Zoroaster wished to restore, Yima can be placed geographically as well as temporally. Šmitek wrote, “He [Yima] left his traces in the vast territory of Eurasia from Scandinavia to the cattle-breeding Turkic tribes of southern Siberia and Kafirs of Hindukush” (p. 114). Such a distribution could have spread from a “center of origin” located in modern Turkey and this is indeed an area where we have archaeological evidence, in the form of Göbekli Tepe, that there existed a sophisticated civilization that was devastated by the solar outburst(s) that ended the last ice age. To continue the quotation, “A rich religious and folklore tradition was created around him [Yima]. Even after Zoroaster’s religious reform, when Yima lost his privileged position in Iranian religion, his memory was still alive in the form or under protection of gods such as Mithra [Mithras].
The idea of Yima as a ‘divine man’ acquired its expression in Hellenistic speculations and in Christian gnosis” (p. 114). Thus we bring the myth of Yima forward ten thousand years from its origins, circa 9700 BCE, to the early Christian centuries. And even today, another two thousand years later, Yima and his spiritual descendent Mithra/Mithras continue to work behind the scenes to influence modern religious beliefs and outlooks.
Robert M. Schoch, Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy and a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Website: http://www.robertschoch.com