We started this series with Dante’s vision of Hell, one of the more elaborate and famous hell-scape in all history. Today, though, we go back to what was quite possibly the grandaddy of all hells–the hell warned of by the prophet Zarathustra (better known in the West as Zoroaster). Zarathustra founded Zoroastrianism in Persia (modern day Iran) in approximately the sixth century BC (the dates are a bit fuzzy but I feel comfortable with that one). His message had many facets that were revolutionary for their time, but that to a modern listener would sound very familiar. He saw the great god Ahura Mazda, the one true God and creator of all things. From an angel sent by Ahura Mazda, Zarathustra also learned of Angra Manyu, the force of evil and corrupter of all things good. The great demon and his hordes were confined to our world, locked in constant battle with the forces of good. Human’s place in this cosmic battle was a central one, as our very thoughts and actions could sway it one way or another. By doing and being good, humans could weaken Angra Manyu’s grip on our world. In Zarathustra’s vision, the eternal war would eventually conclude with Ahura Mazda’s victory, when a savior came and eventually brought about the destruction of our old, corrupt world, making way for a new one where all would be pure…
…sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Scholars more knowledgeable about this kind of thing than me seem pretty convinced Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all got facets of their theology from Zoroastrianism. Which given how large and long lived the Persian Empire was, that makes a lot of sense. But that’s not the focus here. We want to get to the gory details about Zoroastrian hell. And boy, old Zarathustra and the folks who came after had quite the morbid imagination. Now there were a lot of contradicting and fragmentary accounts in my sources, so I am going to try to simplify things a bit. Really, it’s hard to find out a lot about Zoroastrianism because though it is extant, only 200,000 people practice it, and the version they practice differs from the original version (sort of like how modern Christianity would be almost unrecognizable to early practitioners).
Anyway, in the Zoroastrian belief system, the soul of a dead person sorta hovered around the body it formerly occupied for three days, praying for a good afterlife. Then it started its journey to the land of the dead. It first had to cross a river that swelled with the tears of its grieving relatives. Once it did that, it made it to a great bridge over a yawning chasm. Here it was confronted with its earthly deeds in the guise of a woman, either a fair maiden if the deeds were mostly good or an ugly old hag if the balance of deeds were mostly bad. This spirit guide would lead the soul across the bridge. For good souls, the bridge widened and the walk across was pleasant, while for bad the bridge became narrow as a razor’s edge as they tried to cross. Inevitably, the bad souls would fall into the chasm, to be with Angra Manyu and his demons, damning them until the end of days to suffer in torment until the world was purified by Ahura Mazda with molten metal.
As for hell itself, there were some mentions of different realms, but no discernible geography that I could see. So, unlike Dante’s hell, if there was a definite structure to Zoroaster’s vision, it hasn’t survived so far as I know. As for the punishments themselves, there are dozens upon dozens of gruesome fates awaiting the damned. You have the usual dismemberment, burning (with hot metal as fire is sacred to the Zoroastrians), whipping, and various other tortures. Then things get weird. I guess the damned were said to continually eat gruesome things such as brains, menstrual blood, semen, feces, and dead bodies. Some also continually masturbated and/or defecated. These torments were done of the damned’ soul’s own volition, apparently representing their lack of ability to control themselves? Or something–it just sounds entirely unpleasant. Others were subjected to visions of their children, who the mistreated in life, while they are being tortured. There are no children tormented in Zoroastrian hell–they only appear as phantasms, as I understood it, to torment their parents. Oh and some people had hedgehogs thrown at them, which seems weird to me but hey, must have been bad to ancient Persians, right?
The deepest realm of hell, where Angra Manyu sat on his dark throne, was the reservoir for the worst torments. I didn’t see any details of what was said specifically to go on down there, but I did read one account of a translator who, when translating a list of sins in their attendant torments, gave up about halfway and said in effect that from there on things got too gross to write about. So, whatever was said to be done in the lowest level must have been really, really gruesome. Good thing the lowest level was so dark that those there were “as if blind”. Not sure how the demons saw to do any tormenting, but logic doesn’t really enter into these scenarios, does it?