The Everlasting Flame – a Journey into Ancient Zoroastrianism 1 January 2015
In this review, Dr Sarah Stewart’s edited collection on Zoroastrianism proves to be a rich and colourful exploration of the religion’s ancient and modern history.
Zoroastrianism is one of the few religions of the world that give us an insight into an ancient past. It is part of a pre-Abrahamic religious landscape, a landscape that would be completely unrecognisable from the landscape of today, yet Zoroastrianism has survived through the ages.
There are perhaps around 150,000 Zoroastrian adherents today, who carry with them millennia of culture, heritage, theology and history. It is this immense world that is explored in ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’. The large bounded book was released as part of an exhibition in the School of African and Oriental Studies’ Brunei Gallery. The exhibition’s curator and editor of The Everlasting Flame, is keen to stress in the introduction to the book how unique it is for the long and rich history of Zoroastrianism to be on display and accessible to Europeans. An in-depth understanding of Zoroastrianism has long been confined to specialists.
The exhibition described itself as providing “a visual narrative of one of the world’s oldest religions”, and indeed the book reflects this very same goal. It starts with a number of essays by experts of Zoroastrianism and those involved in creating the exhibition. The topics covered include the theology and cosmology of Zoroastrianism, its development through the eras as an imperial religion of early Iran, its relationships to Vedic traditions and then later Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and its contemporary contributions. It is a whirlwind introduction. The essays themselves appear daunting, especially if the reader is encountering the Zoroastrian religion for the first time, but they provide a wealth of information presented accessibly. It is worth noting too that the authors of the essays are leading experts in the study of the Zoroastrian religion, individuals who have given their lives and dedicated years of scholarship to the topic.
The latter part of the book, and indeed the bulk, is richly illustrated and helpfully annotated. Its illustrations range from pottery, statues, and coin work from the very earliest traces of Zoroastrian civilisation, to paintings and artwork from its imperial height. There are examples too of Zoroastrianism’s interchange with Christianity and Islam, as the three religions competed with each other in Iran. The book ends with modern examples of Zoroastrian communities, providing a rich tapestry that starts in the second millennium before Jesus Christ and continues to the modern world.
It is, from start to finish, an incredibly captivating selection of illustrations. The breadth of the material included is astounding, and clearly selected with an aesthetic attention while also aptly illustrating how Zoroastrianism influenced, and was influenced by, the competing religions of its time.
Throughout, we are given glimpses into the religious meanings and symbolism of Zoroastrianism. From Ahura Mazda (the focus of worship), to the binary between good and evil, through to the religion’s notions of purity, good conduct, and divine justice.
The story told by the essays and illustrations is in no way comprehensive, and indeed it does not intend to be. The Everlasting Flame is not an introductory text into the religion. Instead, laymen and scholars alike are given insights into the life, culture and history of the ancient religion, and of its intersections with other religions and empires.
For those who missed the exhibition on Zoroastrianism that took place in SOAS last year, reading The Everlasting Flame is definitely the next best thing.
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