Angra Mainyu

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Angra Mainyu (from the Avestan language, meaning: "destructive spirit") refers to the concept of evil in the Zoroastrian religion. Viewed as a negative force pervading the cosmos, Angra Mainyu, also called as Ahriman in the Persian language, is described alternatively as the antithesis of Ahura Mazda (divine energy), or as one of the many hypostases of God. Historically, Zoroastrian understanding of the relationship between Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda shifted depended on the political era and school of interpretation involved, especially fluctuating over whether "Absolute dualism" or "Relative dualism" was in vogue. In certain Zoroastrian scriptures, Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu battle for possession of khvaraenah, "divine glory" or "fortune" (Yasht 19.46). In some verses, the two principles are said to have created the world (Yasna, 57.17), which contradicts the Gathic principle that declares Ahura Mazda to be the sole creator, reiterated in the cosmogony of Vendidad.

Zoroastrianism had a profound influence on the development of Judaism as a result of the Babylonian Exile (597-537 B.C.E.), when the tribes of Israel were captured and indentured in Babylon. During this period, the tribes of Israel were exposed to Zoroastrian beliefs, some of which were assimilated into Judaism. Zoroastrian ideas also influenced the development of Mithraism and Manichaeism, which spread to the Roman Empire. In these ways, it is likely that the Zoroastrian concept of Angra Mainyu may have indirectly influenced the development Christian views of evil.

Origins and Context

The Avestan concept of 'angra mainyu' seems to have arisen with Zoroaster[1] although the Gathas, comprised of 17 hymns which are the oldest texts of Zoroastrianism, do not use 'angra mainyu' as a proper name.[2] In the one instance in these hymns where the two words appear together, the concept spoken of is that of a mainyu ("mind," "mentality," "spirit" etc.)[3] that is angra ("destructive," "inhibitive," "malign" etc). In this single instance - in Yasna 45.2 - the "more bounteous of the spirits twain" declares 'angra mainyu' to be its "absolute antithesis."[1]

A similar statement occurs in Yasna 30.3, where the antithesis is however 'aka mainyu', aka being the Avestan language word for "evil." Hence, 'aka mainyu' is the "evil spirit" or "evil mind" or "evil thought," as contrasted with 'spenta mainyu', the "bounteous spirit" with which Ahura Mazda conceived of creation, which then "was."

The 'aka mainyu' epithet recurs in Yasna 32.5, when the principle is identified with the daevas that deceive humankind and themselves. While in later Zoroastrianism, the daevas are demons, this is not yet evident in the Gathas: In Zoroaster's view, the daevas are "wrong gods" or "false gods" that are to be rejected, but they are not yet demons.[4]

In Yasna 32.3, these daevas are identified as the offspring, not of Angra Mainyu, but of akem manah, "evil thinking." A few verses earlier it is however the daebaaman, "deceiver" - not otherwise identified but "probably Angra Mainyu"[1] - who induces the daevas to choose achistem manah - "worst thinking." In Yasna 32.13, the abode of the wicked is not the abode of Angra Mainyu, but the abode of the same "worst thinking." "One would have expected [Angra Mainyu] to reign in hell, since he had created 'death and how, at the end, the worst existence shall be for the deceitful' (Y. 30.4)."[1]

Yasna 19.15 recalls that Ahura Mazda's recital of the Ahuna Vairya invocation puts Angra Mainyu in a stupor. In Yasna 9.8, Angra Mainyu creates Aži Dahaka, but the serpent recoils at the sight of Mithra's mace (Yasht 10.97, 10.134). In Yasht 13, the Fravashis defuse Angra Mainyu's plans to dry up the earth, and in Yasht 8.44 Angra Mainyu battles but cannot defeat Tishtrya and so prevent the rains. In Vendidad 19, Angra Mainyu urges Zoroaster to turn from the good religion by promising him sovereignty of the world. On being rejected, Angra Mainyu assails the prophet with legions of demons, but Zoroaster deflects them all. In Yasht 19.96, a verse that reflects a Gathic injunction, Angra Mainyu will be vanquished and Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail.

Yasht 15.43 assigns Angra Mainyu to the nether world, a world of darkness. So also Vendidad 19.47, but other passages in the same chapter (19.1 and 19.44) have him dwelling in the region of the daevas, which the Vendidad asserts is in the north. There (19.1, 19.43-44), Angra Mainyu is the daevanam daevo, "daeva of daevas" or chief of the daevas. The superlative daevo.taema is however assigned to the demon Paitisha ("opponent"). In an enumeration of the daevas in Vendidad 1.43, Angra Mainyu appears first and Paitisha appears last. "Nowhere is Angra Mainyu said to be the creator of the daevas or their father."[1]

In Zurvanite Zoroastrianism

Zurvanism was a branch of Zoroastrianism that sought to resolve the dilemma of the "twin spirits" of Yasna 30.3. The resolution, which probably developed out of the contact with Chaldea, was to have both Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu as twin sons of the First Principle "Time" (Avestan: Zurvan). Zurvanism was strongly criticized as a heresy during the Sassanid period (225-651) of Iranian history, an era in which it probably also had its largest following. Although the monist doctrine is not attested after the 10th century, some Zurvanite features are nonetheless still evident in present-day Zoroastrianism.

Zurvanism's principle feature is then the notion that both Ahura Mazda (MP: Ohrmuzd) and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) were twin brothers, with the former being the epitome of good and the latter being the epitome of evil. Further, this dichotomy was by choice, that is, Angra Mainyu chose to be evil: "It is not that I cannot create anything good, but that I will not." And to prove this, he created the peacock.

The mythology of the twins is only attested in the post-Sassanid Syriac and Armenian polemic such as that of Eznik of Kolb. According to these sources the genesis saw Zurvan as existing alone but desiring offspring who would create "heaven and hell and everything in between." Zurvan then sacrificed for a thousand years. Towards the end of this period, androgyne Zurvan began to doubt the efficacy of sacrifice and in the moment of this doubt Ohrmuzd and Ahriman were conceived: Ohrmuzd for the sacrifice and Ahriman for the doubt. Upon realizing that twins were to be born, Zurvan resolved to grant the first-born sovereignty over creation. Ohrmuzd perceived Zurvan's decision, which He then communicated to His brother. Ahriman then preempted Ohrmuzd by ripping open the womb to emerge first. Reminded of the resolution to grant Ahriman sovereignty, Zurvan conceded, but limited kingship to a period of 9000 years, after which Ohrmuzd would rule for all eternity.[5]

In the Zurvanite Ulema-i Islam (a Zoroastrian text, despite the title), "Ahriman also is called by some name by some people and they ascribe evil unto him but nothing can also be done by him without Time." A few chapters later, the Ulema notes that "it is clear that Ahriman is a non-entity" but "at the resurrection Ahriman will be destroyed and thereafter all will be good; and [change?] will proceed through the will of God." In the Sad Dar, the world is described as having been created by Ohrmuzd and become pure through His truth. But Ahriman, "being devoid of anything good, does not issue from that which is owing to truth." (62.2)

In Zoroastrian tradition

In the Pahlavi texts of the ninth-twelfth centuries, Ahriman (written ˀhl(y)mn) is frequently written upside down "as a sign of contempt and disgust."[1]

In the Book of Arda Viraf 5.10, the narrator - the 'righteous Viraf' - is taken by Sarosh and Adar to see the "the reality of God and the archangels, and the non-reality of Ahriman and the demons." [6] This idea of "non-reality" is also expressed in other texts, such as the Denkard, a ninth century "encyclopedia of Mazdaism",[7] which states Ahriman "has never been and never will be."[1] In chapter 100 of Book of the Arda Viraf, which is titled 'Ahriman', the narrator sees the "Evil spirit, … whose religion is evil [and] who ever ridiculed and mocked the wicked in hell."

Book of Jamaspi 2.3 notes that "Ahriman, like a worm, is so much associated with darkness and old age, that he perishes in the end."[8] Chapter 4.3 recalls the grotesque legend of Tahmurasp (Avestan: Taxma Urupi) riding Angra Mainyu for 30 years (cf. Yasht 15.12, 19.29) and so preventing him from doing evil. In Chapter 7, Jamasp explains that the Indians declare Ahriman will die, but "those, who are not of good religion, go to hell."

The Bundahishn, a Zoroastrian account of creation completed in the twelfth century has much to say about Ahriman and his role in the cosmogony. In chapter 1.23, following the recitation of the Ahuna Vairya, Ohrmuzd takes advantage of Ahriman's incapacity to create life without intervention. When Ahriman recovers, he creates Jeh, the primal whore who afflicts women with their menstrual cycles. In Bundahishn 4.12, Ahriman perceives that Ohrmuzd is superior to himself, and so flees to fashion his many demons with which to meet Creation in battle. The entire universe is finally divided between the Ohrmuzd and the yazads on one side and Ahriman with his devs on the other. Ahriman slays the primal bull, but the moon rescues the seed of the dying creature, and from it springs all animal creation. But the battle goes on, with mankind caught in the middle, whose duty it remains to withstand the forces of evil through good thoughts, words and deeds.

Other texts see the world created by Ohrmuzd as a trap for Ahriman, who is then distracted by creation and expends his force in a battle he cannot win. (The epistles of Zatspram 3.23; Shkand Gumanig Vichar 4.63-4.79). The Dadistan denig explains that God, being omniscient, knew of Ahriman's intent, but it would have been against His "justice and goodness to punish Ahriman before he wrought evil [and] this is why the world is created."[1]

Ahriman has no such omniscience, a fact that Ohrmuzd reminds him of (Bundahishn 1.16). In contrast, in Manichean scripture, Mani ascribes foresight to Ahriman.[9]

"This shift in the position of Ahura Mazda, his total assimilation to this Bounteous Spirit [Mazda's instrument of creation], must have taken place in the fourth century B.C.E. at the latest; for it is reflected in Aristotle's testimony, which confronts Ariemanios with Oromazdes (apud Diogenes Laertius, 1.2.6)."[1]

In present-day Zoroastrianism

In 1878, Martin Haug proposed a new reconstruction of what he believed was Zarathustra's original monotheistic teaching, as expressed in the Gathas - a teaching that he felt had been corrupted by later Zoroastrian dualistic tradition as expressed in post-Gathic scripture and in the texts of tradition.[10] For Angra Mainyu, this interpretation meant a demotion from a spirit coeval with Ahura Mazda to a mere product of the Creator. Haug's theory was based to a great extent on a new interpretation of Yasna 30.3; he argued that the good "twin" in that passage should not be regarded as more or less identical to Ahura Mazda, as earlier Zoroastrian thought had assumed[11], but as a separate created entity, Spenta Mainyu. Thus, both Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu were created by Ahura Mazda and should be regarded as his respective 'creative' and 'destructive' emanations.[11]

Haug's interpretation was gratefully received by the Parsis of Bombay, who at the time were under considerable pressure from Christian missionaries (most notable amongst them John Wilson[12]) who sought converts among the Zoroastrian community and criticized Zoroastrianism for its alleged dualism as contrasted with their own monotheism.[13] Haug's reconstruction had also other attractive aspects that seemed to make the religion more compatible with nineteenth-century Enlightenment, as he attributed to Zoroaster a rejection of rituals and of worship of entities other than the supreme deity.[14]

The new ideas were subsequently disseminated as a Parsi interpretation, which eventually reached the west and so in turn corroborated Haug's theories. Among the Parsis of the cities, who were accustomed to English language literature, Haug's ideas were more often repeated than those of the Gujarati language objections of the priests, with the result that Haug's ideas became well entrenched and are today almost universally accepted as doctrine.[13]

While some modern scholars[15][16] hold views similar to Haug's regarding Angra Mainyu's origins[11][17], many now think that the traditional "dualist" interpretation was in fact correct all along and that Angra Mainyu was always considered to be completely separate and independent from Ahura Mazda.[11][18][19]

Influence on Western Esotericism

Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925), the initiator of the Anthroposophical movement, published detailed and elaborate studies on Ahriman, a spiritual entity whom the author associates with materialism. Ahriman fulfills the role of influencing and undermining events which occur in contemporary society. Steiner writes that Ahriman can be considered to be the same spiritual being as the Satan of the Bible; he differentiated both of these from Lucifer, the tempter, and the demon Mephistopheles. According to Steiner, the biblical demons Mammon and Beelzebub are Ahriman's associates.

Ahriman's assignment, according to Steiner, is to alienate the human being from his spiritual roots and to inspire materialism and heartless technical control of human activity. His positive contribution is to bring intellectual development and a focus on the sensory world. As such, his influence is highly relevant to present-day Western culture. His great opponent is the archangel Michael, whom Steiner equates with Babylonian Marduk. Ahura Mazda and the Vedic Vishva Karman represent Christ's spiritual aura around the Elohim, the spirits of the Sun sphere.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, "Ahriman" Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 1. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 670–673 [1] Retrieved November 20, 2008.
  2. Proper names are altogether rare in the Gathas. In these texts, even Ahura Mazda and Amesha Spenta are not yet proper names.
  3. The translation of mainyu as "spirit" is the common approximation. The stem of mainyu is man, "thought," and 'spirit' is here meant in the sense of 'mind'.
  4. Clarice Hellenschmidt & Jean Kellens, "Daiva" Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol 6. (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 1993), 599-602
  5. Richard Charles Zaehner. Zurvan, a Zoroastrian dilemma. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955)
  6. Martin Haug, (trans., ed.) Chapter "The Book of Arda Viraf" in Charles F. Horne, (ed). Ancient Persia. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (Vol. 7) (1917) (reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, Facsimile ed. ISBN 0766100103)
  7. Jean-Pierre de Menasce. Une encyclopédie mazdéenne: le Dēnkart. (Quatre conférences données à l'Université de Paris sous les auspices de la fondation Ratanbai Katrak) (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958.)
  8. Jivanji Jamshedji Modi. Jamasp Namak ("Book of Jamaspi"). (Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1903)
  9. Maneckji Nusservanji Dhalla. History of Zoroastrianism. (New York: (1938), 392.
  10. Martin Haug. Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis, 3rd ed. posthumous pub., edited by Edward W. West, (London: Trubner, 1884).
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Mary Boyce. (1982), A History of Zoroastrianism. Volume 1: The Early Period, (Third impression with corrections.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 192-194
  12. John Wilson. The Parsi religion: Unfolded, Refuted and Contrasted with Christianity.(Bombay: American Mission Press, 1843), 106ff.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Susan Stiles Maneck. The Death of Ahriman: Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the Parsis of India. (Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute. 1997), 182ff.
  14. Mary Boyce. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. (London: Routledge, (1979) 2001. ISBN 0415239036), 20
  15. Ilya Gershevitch, "Zoroaster's Own Contribution." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 23 (1) (Jan 1964):12-38. 13. : The conclusion that the Fiendish Spirit, too, was an emanation of Ahura Mazdah's is unavoidable. But we need not go so far as to assume that Zarathustra imagined the Devil as having directly issued from God. Rather, since free will, too, is a basic tenet of Zarathushtrianism, we may think of the 'childbirth' implied in the idea of twinship as having consisted in the emanation by God of undifferentiated 'spirit', which only at the emergence of free will split into two "twin" Spirits of opposite allegiance.
  16. Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, Chapter: "Ahriman" Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 1. (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 670–673 [2] : The myth of the Twin Spirits is a model he set for the choice every person is called upon to make. It can not be doubted that both are sons of Ahura Mazda, since they are explicitly said to be twins, and we learn from Y. 47.2-3 that Ahura Mazda is the father of one of them. Before choosing, neither of them was wicked. There is therefore nothing shocking in Angra Mainyu's being a son of Ahura Mazda, and there is no need to resort to the improbable solution that Zoroaster was speaking figuratively. That Ohrmazd and Ahriman's brotherhood was later considered an abominable heresy is a different matter; Ohrmazd had by then replaced the Bounteous Spirit; and there was no trace any more, in the orthodox view, of the primeval choice, perhaps the prophet's most original conception.
  17. Mary Boyce. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism. (1990), 16: This Western hypothesis influenced Parsi reformists in the nineteenth century, and still dominates much Parsi theological discussion, as well as being still upheld by some Western scholars.
  18. Peter Clark. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. (Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. ISBN 1898723788), 7-9
  19. S. A. Nigosian. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993. ISBN 0773511334), 22

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. 1. The Eary Period. (Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch Der Orientalistik) Brill Academic Publishers, (1982) reprint ed. 1996. ISBN 9004104747.
  • Boyce, Mary, translator, Textual sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1984) 1990. ISBN 0226069303.
  • Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, (1979) 2001. ISBN 0415239036.
  • Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. ISBN 1898723788.
  • Dhalla, Maneckji Nusservanji. History of Zoroastrianism. (1938) reprint ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, AMS Press, 1977, ISBN 0404128068.
  • Geldner, Karl F. Avesta, the Sacred Books of the Parsis. Stuttgart, 1896.
  • Gershevitch, Ilya, "Zoroaster's Own Contribution." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 23 (1) (Jan 1964):12-38.
  • Haug, Martin. Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings and Religion of the Parsis, 3rd ed. posthumous pub., edited by Edward W. West. London: Trubner, 1884.
  • Haug, Martin, (trans., ed.) Chapter "The Book of Arda Viraf" in Charles F. Viraf Horne, ed. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (Vol. 7) Ancient Persia. New York: Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, 1917. (published in 14 volumes) Kessinger reprint Facsimile ed. Kessinger Publishing; Facsimile edition edition, ISBN 0766100103.
  • Hellenschmidt, Clarice & Jean Kellens, "Daiva" Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol 6. Costa Mesa: Mazda, 1993.
  • Malandra, William W. An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion—Readings from the Avesta and Achaemenid Inscripitons. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. ISBN 0816611149.
  • Maneck, Susan Stiles. The Death of Ahriman: Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the Parsis of India. Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute. 1997.
  • de Menasce, Jean-Pierre. Une encyclopédie mazdéenne: le Dēnkart. (Quatre conférences données à l'Université de Paris sous les auspices de la fondation Ratanbai Katrak) Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958. (in French)
  • Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji. (1903), Jamasp Namak ("Book of Jamaspi"), Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute.
  • Nigosian, S.A. The Zoroastrian Faith: Traditions & Modern Research. Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993. ISBN 0773511334.
  • Wilson, John. The Parsi religion: Unfolded, Refuted and Contrasted with Christianity. original (1843) Bombay: American Mission Press. reprint ed. New Delhi: Indigo, 2003. ISBN 978-8129200464.
  • Zaehner, Robert C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. Great Britain: Phoenix Press, 1961. ISBN 1842121650.
  • Zaehner, Richard Charles. Zurvan, a Zoroastrian dilemma. Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.


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