Symbols of Faith
For many Zoroastrians, the living flame of the sacred fire (Atash) is the greatest symbol of ‘He who is pure undefiled light’. However, orthodox Parsis believe that Ahura Mazda is physically present in the sacred flame, and therefore take a more sacramental interpretation. Therefore, if a Zoroastrian cannot pray before a flame he may pray before a light, ideally the sun.
Other important symbols include the sudre and kusti (sacred shirt and cord respectively), which represent the spiritual ‘armour’ of the religion, and a portrait of the prophet Zoroaster often found with a lighted oil lamp in front of it to symbolise the sacred fire.
There are no anthropomorphic symbols of Ahura Mazda. A symbol of Ahura Mazda that decorates many Zoroastrian religious buildings, homes and worn as a broach or necklace is what is known as the winged symbol. It was historically derived from Babylonian art but was used as a common motif in the magnificent Achaemenid dynasty (6th to 4th century BCE) palace.
Other motifs and figures from the sculptures at Persepolis decorate the walls of temples to express the great antiquity of the religion of which all Zoroastrians are proud.
An ancient and common symbol of evil is the fly as it is associated with rotting, decaying and dead matter and therefore seen as a pollutant. Other animals are viewed as natural killers and thought to represent evil, for example, snakes and scorpions, lions and wolves. The ancient texts say these were invisible forces of evil created by Ahriman (the evil one) but Ohrmazd made them visible so that humans could see them and thus avoid their deadly work.
Other creatures represent the Good Creation, with the cow being a particularly good example as it is peaceable and gives of itself through its milk, its hide, its dung (used like coal for fires) and its body as food. Traditionally, the most holy animal is the dog as it embodies the virtues of loyalty, devotion and obedience. Zoroastrians see the animal world as powerful symbols of, and participants in, the conflict between the bounty of the Good Creation and the destructive forces of evil.
The common Zoroastrian emblems and their expression in art and architecture are sometimes reflected in language, with, for example, Zoroastrian references to the living flame within all good living things. Similarly, the military connotations of the sudre and kusti (the sacred shirt and cord worn next to the skin by all Zoroastrians after initiation) have led to these being regarded as the ‘armour’ of the religion, with Zoroastrians often describing themselves as the ‘army of Ahura Mazda’ in the war with the forces of evil’.