Zoroastriansim is one of the world’s oldest known surviving religions.
Zoroastra is a Greek derivation of the original Persian name of Zarathustra, the religion’s founding prophet whose presence on Earth is the subject of disagreement amongst sources, with estimates varying between around 2,000 to 600 years BC. Zarathustra preached the existence of a single creator God – named Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd – and thus founded one of the earliest monotheistic religions.
His teachings are reputed to originate from an experience in the presence of Ahura Mazda in which he received his knowledge directly from God and recorded it in the form of sacred songs/poems known as the Gathas. The teachings introduced the concept of a resurrection and judgement after death, with a heaven receiving the good souls and a hell receiving the bad.
Zoroastrianism was accepted as the official state religion of the Archaemenid dynasty in Persia around 550BC, and some sources suggest that the three ‘kings’ or ‘wise men’ said to have followed the star to find the new-born Jesus were of a priestly Persian tribe of Zoroastrian derivation.
However, although it may well have influenced the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism’s following was gradually eroded by these religions. Persecution caused its adherents to scatter, leaving only small pockets in the original Persian region, while the main centre of the religion moved to the Indian state of Gujarat in the 10th century, and much later to the city of Bombay.
In its turn, its development has been influenced by the more powerful religions, such that it has absorbed a hierarchy of lesser gods known as Yazatas, somewhat similar to the gods of Hindu tradition, while also similar to the Christian concept of angels.
The focal point of ‘Across the Bridge’ is the Chinvat Bridge, an important symbolic reference point in Zoroastrianism. The Chinvat Bridge stretches from the great cosmic mountain at the centre of the universe (Mount Hara) to Paradise. It is the bridge of separation and judgement – the destination of all souls following their mortal death.
When the soul reaches the bridge, it is judged initially by Mithra, the best known and most popular of the Yazatas, and is then confronted by its own image. If the soul has made ‘good choices’ (a central Zoroastrian tenet) during life, the image will appear like a beautiful young girl, but if life’s choices have been bad, the image will be that of an old hag. The soul is then led across the Chinvat Bridge by its image. The bridge gradually gets narrower and narrower until it becomes like a razor’s edge.
The beautiful guide will enable the good soul to step lightly and thus reach Paradise at the far end, while the old hag will fail to protect the bad soul which will slip from the bridge and plummet into hell’s everlasting fires below.
The song is in a 5/4 time scale, common to classical Persian music, and features as its lead instrument a hammered dulcimer, an instrument thought to have originated in ancient Persia where it is known as a santoor (though the one played here is actually a Chinese version, called a yang ch’in).
© Peter Ulrich 2005