The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: Charting a New Empire

June 20–August 4, 2013

A New Religion: Zoroastrianism

Votive Plaque Showing a Priest. Gold. From the Oxus Treasure. Achaemenid period, 5th–4th century B.C. British Museum, London, A. W. Franks bequest, 1897 (123949). Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

Achaemenid kings paid homage to the Iranian god Ahuramazda, the supreme Zoroastrian deity. Zoroastrianism takes its name from the prophet Zarathushtra (the Greek Zoroaster), who is closely associated with eastern Iran and Central Asia. Many scholars now believe Zoroaster flourished about 1400–1200 B.C., centuries earlier than traditionally thought.
Ahuramazda is assisted by the Amesha Spentas—the Bounteous Immortals—and other beneficent divinities. These include Mithra, whose cult later spread across the Roman Empire, and Anahita, who was assimilated by classical authors with Aphrodite. Achaemenid kings respected foreign gods when they traveled outside Iran. Whether or not the kings were strictly Zoroastrian, this religion nevertheless took root in Iran under the Achaemenids. Today there are about a quarter of a million Zoroastrians worldwide.

The gold plaque shown here is from the Oxus Treasure, which yielded twenty-five similar plaques showing male figures wearing Median trouser suits and hoods and holding barsoms (bundles of sticks). These figures are usually identified as Zoroastrian priests or pious figures and the plaques are thought to have been votive for presenting to a temple.