Ancient World, Antiquities, Exhibitions and Installations

In Search of One of the World’s Oldest Religions

Look closely at the objects displayed with the Cyrus Cylinder to find symbols of the ancient religion of Persia—Zoroastrianism

Plaque with a Priest from the Oxus Treasure / Achaemenid

Plaque with a Priest from the Oxus Treasure, 500–330 B.C., Achaemenid. Gold, 5 7/8 x 2 15/16 in. The British Museum. Image courtesy of and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2013). All rights reserved

In a gallery at the Getty Villa stands a small gold plaque made some 2,500 years ago. We confront a mysterious man in profile, a hood tightly affixed to his head, a dagger short sword at his side, a large bundle of sticks held with outstretched arm. Who is he?

To Dr. John Curtis, Keeper of Special Middle East Projects at the British Museum, the answer is clear: a priest of the Zoroastrian religion. Sometimes called the official religion of ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest surviving religions, with teachings older than Buddhism, older than Judaism, and far older than Christianity or Islam.

Zoroastrianism is thought to have arisen “in the late second millennium B.C.E. amidst semi-nomadic pastoralists in the Central Asian steppelands,” according to Dr. Jenny Rose, a scholar of the religion. Its name comes from Zarathushtra, to whom the earliest texts of the religion (the Gathas, or “songs” of praise to Ahura Mazda) are ascribed. He was known to the Greeks as Zoroaster, hence the name we know today.

In Zoroastrian thought, good and evil are strictly divided. The deity Ahura Mazda (the “wise lord”) establishes everything good, whereas Angra Mainyu (the “destructive spirit”) is the source of everything evil, bringing chaos to the orderly world. The chaos and confusion of evil are spoken of as “the lie,” in contrast to the order, right, and truth of Ahura Mazda.

So how do we know that the golden priest represents the Zoroastrian tradition? He’s “holding a barsom, a bundle of sticks or grasses that were gathered up after ancient religious ceremonies or sometimes sacrifices,” said Dr. Curtis, “and the barsom
is a symbol of the Zoroastrian religion.”

Glipses of the ancient past: Plaque with a Priest from the Oxus Treasure, 500–330 B.C., Achaemenid. Gold, 5 7/8 x 2 15/16 in. The British Museum. Image courtesy of and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2013). All rights reserved

The short sword also offers a clue. “Some people say he can’t be a priest because of this,” Dr. Curtis told me, “but in fact, it’s an obligation of modern Zoroastrian priests to defend the fire,” the most sacred symbol of the religion. “So it’s not inconceivable that a Zoroastrian priest should have been equipped with a sword.”

Two other objects in the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia also point to the presence of Zoroastrianism, or at least its historical precursor, among the Ancient Persians. One is the kingly seal of Darius I, Cyrus the Great’s successor. We see the king hunting lions amidst a palm grove, while above him hovers a figure emerging from a winged disc, which represents the divine fortune that Ahura Mazda bestows upon the ruler.

The Darius Seal / Achaemenid

The Darius Seal (with impression), 522–486 B.C., Achaemenid. Chalcedony, 1 7/16 x 11/16 in. The British Museum. Image courtesy of and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2013). All rights reserved

The Darius Seal / Achaemenid

Detail of an impression of the Darius Cylinder showing the winged symbol of divine fortune bestowed by Ahura Mazda (center), the chief Zoroastrian deity

The other is a stunning gold armlet bearing griffins, mythological creatures that here combine features of a goat, a lion, and a bird of prey. It is also possible that these beaked creatures are not griffins at all, but the varegna bird, one of the incarnations of the Zoroastrian deity Verethragna.

Dr. Rose suggests that the words of the Cyrus Cylinder may reflect a worldview similar to that of the Zoroastrian texts. The Cylinder conveys that Cyrus “brings ‘good religion,’ as opposed to the ‘bad religion’ that preceded him in the actions of Nabonidus,” the last of the Babylonian kings. “This split between good religion and bad religion, between good and ‘the lie,’ is an Avestan notion,” she said, referring to the earliest sacred texts of the Zoroastrian tradition. “I see that dichotomy reflected in the words of the Cyrus Cylinder.”

Armlet with Griffins / Achaemenid

Armlet with Griffins, 500–330 B.C., Achaemenid. Gold, 4 13/16 x 4 9/16 in. The British Museum. Image courtesy of and © The Trustees of the British Museum (2013). All rights reserved

Today Zoroastrianism is practiced by about 130,000 adherents worldwide, with sizable communities in Iran, India, North America, the United Kingdom, and Australasia. The tour of the Cyrus Cylinder across the United States, which comes to a close at the Getty Villa on December 8, has presented an opportunity for many local Zoroastrians to see objects from their early heritage, as well as for visitors of other faiths to be introduced to this millennia-old religion and to consider its role in one of the world’s great ancient cultures.

Armlet with Griffins / Achaemenid

A Zoroastrian echo? Armlet with Griffins, 500–330 B.C., Achaemenid. Gold, 4 13/16 x 4 9/16 in. The British Museum

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      Two chains of the Ancient variety.

      Two chains, 250 - 400, Roman. Gold. J. Paul Getty Museum.

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