Astral Theologies

An Achaemenid rock relief featuring Ahura Mazda, in Behistun, ca. 5th century BC

Stars were not just objects; they had divine power over people, animals, and natural phenomena, and, in some cases, were divine beings themselves. An early Mesopotamian text maps constellations with the commentary, “the distance from one god to another”: that is, from one star to the next. The question was how to deal with all the gods that dotted the night sky and their influence on earth.

In Zoroastrianism, stars formed a vital part of the conception of the universe. Zoroastrians understood the stars to be participants in the battle between good and evil, which played out in elaborate patterned movements in the night sky. 

The earliest layer of Zoroastrian teaching, preserved in the Avesta, claims that all living creatures, mortal and divine, belonged to a single, abstract, collective entity called Θwāša (thwasha) - which in English means something like "space" (in the astronomical sense). The fact that all living beings are intertwined means that every one of them are implicated in the cosmic battle against demonic forces. The prophet Zoroaster exhorts the faithful to make sacrifices to the sun, moon, stars, and sacred elements in order to assist in the cosmic battle and bring good fortune to themselves.


The Zoroastrian Zodiac calendar


A horoscope chart from the Bundahishn in Pahalvi and an English translation

The Bundahishn, an early medieval compendium of Zoroastrian teaching, offers a particularly vivid exposition of this cosmic war. It provides the names and legends associated with the constellations and illustrates the clash between stars, as in this passage from Chapter 6:

"The spirit of the sky is himself like one of the warriors who has put on armor; he arrayed the sky against the evil spirit, and led on in the contest, until Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) had [constructed] a rampart around . . . the sky. And his guardian spirits of warriors . . . on war horses and spear in hand, were around the sky; such-like as the hair on the head is the [number] of those who hold the watch of the rampart."

Here, the stars are personified as warriors manning the ramparts to defend creation from evil. Their movements represent the events of the war and signify the waxing and waning success of Ahura Mazda and the righteous against the ever-encroaching malevolence of Ahriman and his followers.

Other religions in Ancient Iran took a more cautious view of the heavens. For instance, the prophet Mani agreed with Zoroastrian thought that the stars directly participated in the war between good and evil, but he and his followers regarded them as evil creatures yearning to fight against goodness. The constellations of the Zodiac were seen as heavenly prisons built to contain them. Horoscopes, rather than telling fortunes, served to identify the types of demons that governed each individual's condition. Moreover, the planets were thought to be mischievous as well, and their presence in Zodiac constellations was considered evidence of conspiracy with the stars. Manichaean wariness of the stars and planets represents a much darker view of astrology, portraying stars as connected to demonic forces that were only barely held at bay. These Manichaean beliefs suggest the circulation of astrological ideas beyond court circles, a pattern of diffusion also attested by the astrological imagery found in some incantation bowls of Sasanian Mesopotamia.

Astral Theologies