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Purity and Fire in Zoroastrianism

Protecting the Ritual Fire From Desecration

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Goodness and pureness are strongly linked in Zoroastrianism (as they are in many other religions), and pureness features prominently in Zoroastrian ritual. There are a variety of symbols through which the message of purity is communicated, primarily:

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Haoma (a specific plant commonly associated with ephedra today)
  • Nirang (consecrated bull urine)
  • Milk or ghee (clarified butter)
  • Bread
Fire is by far the most central and often used symbol of purity. While Ahura Mazda is generally viewed as a god without form and a being of entirely spiritual energy rather than physical existence, he has at times been equated with the sun, and certainly the imagery associated with him remains very fire-oriented. Ahura Mazda is the light of wisdom that pushes back the darkness of chaos. He is the life-bringer, just as the sun brings life to the world.

Fire is also prominent in Zoroastrian eschatology, when all souls will be submitted to fire and molten metal to purify them of wickedness. Goodly souls will pass through unharmed, while the souls of the corrupt will burn in anguish.

Fire Temples

All traditional Zoroastrian temples, also know as agiaries or "places of fire," include a holy fire to represent the goodness and purity toward which all should strive. Once it is properly consecrated, a temple fire should never be allowed to go out, although it can be transported to another location if necessary.

Keeping the Fires Pure

While fire purifies, even consecrated, holy fires are not immune to contamination, and Zoroastrian priests take many precautions against such an action occurring. When tending to the fire, a cloth known as a padan is worn over the mouth and nose so that breath and saliva do not pollute the fire. This reflects an outlook on saliva that is similar to Hindu beliefs, which shares some historical origins with Zoroastrianism, where saliva is never allowed to touch eating utensils due to its unclean properties.

Many Zoroastrian temples, particularly those in India, do not even allow non-Zoroastrians, or juddins, inside their boundaries. Even when such people follow the standard procedures for remaining pure, their presence is considered too spiritually corrupting to be allowed entrance into a fire temple. The chamber containing the holy fire, known as the Dar-I-Mihr or "porch of Mithra," is generally positioned so that those outside the temple cannot even view it.

Use of Fire in Ritual

Fire is incorporated into a number of Zoroastrian rituals. Pregnant women light fires or lamps as a protective measure. Lamps often fueled by ghee – another purifying substance – are also lit as part of the navjote initiation ceremony.

Misconception of Zoroastrians as Fire Worshipers

Zoroastrians are sometimes mistakenly believed to worship fire. Fire is venerated as a great purifying agent and as a symbol of Ahura Mazda’s power, but it is in no way worshiped or thought to be Ahura Mazda himself. In the same way, Catholics do not worship holy water, although the recognize that it has spiritual properties, and Christians in general do not worship the cross, although the symbol is widely respected and dearly held as representative of Christ's sacrifice.

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