Freddie Mercury’s family faith: The ancient religion of Zoroastrianism

In the Freddie Mercury biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” there’s a scene in which a family member scolds Mercury.

“So now the family name is not good enough for you?”

“I changed it legally,” Mercury responds. “No looking back.”

It might come as a surprise to some that Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. He came from a Parsi family that had roots in India and he was a Zoroastrian by faith.

In the world religion courses I teach at the University of Florida, we discuss Zoroastrianism.

Fleeing religious persecution from Muslims in Persia sometime between the seventh and 10th centuries, the Zoroastrians settled in India, where they came to be called “Parsis.”

Like Freddie Mercury, they worked to integrate into their new surroundings. Yet they also stayed true to the values, beliefs, and practices of their religion, which many scholars say had an influence on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

A precursor for Christianity?

The Zoroastrian faith is one of the world’s oldest religions, one that could date back as far as 1200 B.C.

Zoroaster, a prophet who lived in modern-day Iran, is viewed as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

We’re not sure when Zoroaster lived, though some say it was around 1200 B.C. He is thought to have composed the Gathas, the hymns that make up a significant portion of the Yasna, which are the liturgical texts of the Zoroastrians.

According to the Zoroastrian tradition, Ahura Mazda is the supreme lord and creator; he represents all that is good. In this aspect, the religion is one of the oldest examples of monotheism, or the belief in one god.

A glazed tile depiction of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda in the town of Taft, Iran. A.Davey/flickr, CC BY
The main tenets of the faith center on the opposition between Ahura Mazda and the forces of evil which are embodied by Angra Mainyu, the spirit of destruction, malignancy and chaos. This evil spirit creates a serpent named Azi Dahaka, a symbol of the underworld, not unlike the Biblical serpents of Judeo-Christian traditions.

Within this cosmic battle we see the tension between “asha,” which roughly translates to “truth,” “righteousness,” “justice” or “good things,” and “druj,” or deceit.

Truth is represented by light, and Parsis will always turn to a source of light when they pray, with fire, the sun and the moon all symbolizing this spiritual light.

Indeed, scholars have noted the strong historical influence that Zoroastrianism has had on concepts seen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, whether it’s monotheism, the duality of good and evil, or Satan

Today Zoroastrianism has a small but devout following, though it’s been shrinking.