Zoroastrianism: Fire, Water, and Animal Sacrifices

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world; it pre-dates Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and is said to only rival Hinduism in terms of age. Zoroastrianism was and is still the spiritual home of the Indo-Aryan people who attribute its origins to their foremost prophet; Prophet Zarathustra whom the religion is named after. There are sources which indicate that some key doctrines found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were actually borrowed from Zoroastrianism. This could be true if you consider the fact that Zoroastrianism at one time was the state religion of the Achaemenid Persian empire under King Cyrus, that oversaw the birth of Judaism by allowing Israelites in captive to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple; a process which gave birth to Judaism which in turn formed the basis of both Christianity and Islam.

The practice and act of worship in Zoroastrianism is ritual based; basic objects used during the exercise of rituals in Zoroastrianism are water and fire. Ancient Indo-Iranians personified waters as goddesses (Apas), by offering prayers and libations to them; an act which came to be referred to as ‘Zaothra’ (a term which generally means offering).

The libation to waters in Zoroastrianism basically consists of three ingredients; sap or leaves of two plants, and milk. These three ingredients symbolize the plant and animal kingdoms which essentially are nourished by water, and therefore consecrated by prayer. It is believed that the libation to waters returns to that element the vital force it has given out to nourish the animal and plant kingdoms so that it remains itself pure and abundant. The libation played a significant part in priestly rites but also formed a regular practice in each household.

Fire also plays a crucial role when it comes to administering rites and rituals in Zoroastrianism. In ancient Iran, fire was an essential tool; a source of warmth in cold winters and a means of cooking. In those times it was a tedious task to light up a fire, hence it was important to always keep a hearth fire burning. During migration, live embers were carried in a pot. This is one of the reasons why Zoroastrianism became widespread and popular; a religious faith of ever burning fire became popular with the masses who saw divinity in the flames. The Brahmans in Hindu referred to this divinity as Agni, the Zoroastrians as Atar.

The libation to fire in Zoroastrianism was also threefold; it entailed incense (from dried leaves of herbs), clean dry fuel, and a small portion of animal fat (this small portion of animal fat is what played a key role in libation to fire). Thus like water, the fire libation was strengthened by two offerings from both the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. In households, fuel and incense were given thrice daily, specifically the times ordained or set aside for prayer (sunrise, noon, and sunset). The small portion of fat however, was only offered whenever the household had meat to cook, of which fire thus received its share.

The libations to water and fire formed the basis of the daily priestly act of worship referred to by the Iranians as ‘Yasna’ (cognate with Hinduism’s ‘Yajna’). During this process, libation to fire was obtained from animal sacrifice which apparently was regularly made. Zoroastrians almost considered it an abomination at taking animal life and never did so without consecrating the act by prayer through which they believed enabled the animal’s spirit to live on.

At the Yasna solemnization, pieces of grass were scattered at the feet of the sacrificed animal and over the ritual precinct. This was done to symbolize that the sacrificial cow has a body made of grass thus the priest gives it back its full body through this act. The officiating priest also held in his left hand a bunch if grass referred to in Iranian as ‘Baresman’ to acknowledge that at the very basic level all flesh is made of grass. Later in both India and Iran, twigs were used in substitute for the grass.

At the end of the offering, the libation to waters was prepared from leaves of one plant, juice extracted from pounding the stems of another, and milk. This combination is what is usually referred to in Sanskrit, as ‘Soma’, or in Avestan as ‘Haoma.’ Great qualities are proffered to the Haoma or Soma by stating that it exhilarated men and heightened their powers; warriors who partook of it right before a battle became supercharged, it inspired poets, and made priests more receptive to divine promptings. The preparation and pounding if the plant in a stone mortar plays a huge role in the Yasna ritual; Haoma, the green eyed god is held as the divine priest and is the one invoked during this ritual to offer protection against drought and famine, to give strength to warriors and to protect cows. Haoma, as the divine priest received the left jaw bone and the tongue of each sacrifice which were consecrated and set aside for him. Otherwise it was believed that the gods were content with the odor from the sacrifice and the intention of the gift to them.

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