News Opinion

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

Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, came from a family of Zoroastrians. Image by Atelier NerodimARTE/Creative Commons

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. Photo by A.Davey/Creative Commons

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.

In 2004, it was estimated that there were between 128,000 and 190,000 Zoroastrians living around the world, with 18,000 residing in the United States.

Like sugar in milk

The “Qissa e Sanjan,” which translates to “The Story of Sanjan,” was composed around the 17th century. It describes how the Zoroastrians, fleeing religious persecution from Muslim invasions in their Persian homeland many centuries earlier, head to Gujarat, in western India.

Once they arrive, they reach out to the local king, whom they call “Jadi Rana.” He agrees to give them land if they adopt local dress, language and some customs. However there is never any question about religious faith: They still practice their religion, and Jadi Rana is elated that these newcomers worship as they please.

Parsi history has two versions of what took place.

In one, when the Zoroastrian refugees arrived in Gujarat, the king sends them a jar of milk filled to the top – his way of saying that his kingdom is full and there’s no room for any more people. In response, the newcomers stir in a spoonful of sugar and send it back to the king. In other words, not only do they promise to integrate with the local population, but that they’ll also enhance it with their presence.

In the other version, they drop a gold ring into the bowl to show they’ll retain their identity and culture, but they’ll nonetheless add immense value to the region.

These are both compelling narratives, though they make slightly different points. One extols the integration of immigrants, while the other highlights the value of different cultures living together but in harmony.

Parsis in India – and wherever they have gone – have done both. They’ve adopted some of the customs of the land they live in, while maintaining their distinctive culture, religious rituals, and beliefs.

They’ve also made more cultural contributions than the initial wave of refugees to Gujarat could have ever imagined.

Despite their small numbers, Parsis can count a number of famous musicians, scientists, scholars, artists and entrepreneurs among their ranks.

Beyond Freddie Mercury, there’s Zubin Mehta, the director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; Jamshedji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, the largest business conglomerate in India; Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian elected to the British Parliament; Harvard professor Homi K. Bhabha; and nuclear physicist Homi J. Bhabha, to name a few.

Freddie Mercury’s family were migrants. Their first home was in India. Then they moved to Zanzibar, before finally settling in England.

Like his ancestors, Freddie Mercury integrated into a new culture. He changed his name, and became a Western pop icon.

Yet through it all, he remained immensely proud of his heritage.

“I think what his Zoroastrian faith gave him,” his sister Kashmira Cooke explained in 2014, “was to work hard, to persevere, and to follow your dreams.”The Conversation

The trailer for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’

Vasudha Narayanan, Professor of Religion, University of Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the author

Vasudha Narayanan

44 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Thanks for the overview of the faith and its influence on one of the 20th Century’s great musicians.

  • Is it not interesting……everyone always seems to compare the next “religion” discussed to Christianity? Are they trying to compete with the real thing?

  • You are really insecure. Nobody wants to be in your religion. It wouldn’t be heaven if you were there.

  • Well, we’ve made progress Spud. One, you know I’m going to Heaven, and two, you can discuss it’s reality. Progress.

  • It’s a lot more than that. The social sciences merely borrow the concepts of Christian theology in order to describe the Asian traditions. This move forces the social sciences to study these other religions in a comparative manner—Zoroastrianism vs Christianity; Buddhism vs Christianity; Hinduism vs Christianity; and so on. This is why atheists are sometimes termed secularized theists [Ref 1].

    Ref 1

    http://www.hipkapi.com/2011/03/05/atheism-a-secularized-theism-jakob-de-roover/

  • Since this religion predates Christianity, they aren’t comparing it to Christianity, they are mentioning concepts that are a part of this ancient faith and the similarities with concepts in the more recent Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths which came into existance in that order.

  • Do you think her Christian arrogance is a bit on the nose?
    I want to see her engraved invite but she’ll most likely trot out a manuscript of dubious translation.

  • The story that the Zoroastrians added sugar to the milk to indicate that they would assimilate to a degree in the new society and also enhance the milk is a great metaphor for today’s immigrants, refugees and receiving societies to embrace. .

  • presume verb
    pre·​sume | pri-ˈzüm
    presumed; presuming

    Definition of presume:
    transitive verb
    1 : to undertake without leave or clear justification : DARE
    2 : to expect or assume especially with confidence
    3 : to suppose to be true without proof
    presumed innocent until proved guilty
    4 : to take for granted : IMPLY

    intransitive verb
    1 : to act or proceed presumptuously or on a presumption
    2 : to go beyond what is right or proper

  • Not sure that Zoroastrianism has the notion of Satan / Shaitan. Lacking this notion, the phrase “one true Sky God” means nothing.

  • Christianity started in the beginning – we just didn’t have a name for Who we were worshipping
    David. Don’t forget about the scripture of John 1:1-5
    or

    For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6 – New International Version

  • I wasn’t aware the age of the earth was dogma!

    No, when I ask you something it isn’t because I don’t know the answer, I wonder if you do. I wondered how up-to-date you were with modern earth sciences.

  • I said nothing about the age of the Earth. I dismissed your comment as you had nothing of interest to say about mine and you seem to have wanted to change the subject.

  • You constantly belabor your points with ostentatious displays of piety and mendacity. At what point do you realize that these are not successful recruitment tools? At what point do you display empathy, if you possess such a trait?

  • No, that’s not empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
    Saying “do this or die” to anyone you perceive as a sinner is a passive aggressive tactic for instilling fear not displaying empathy. Well, it’s really displaying cognitive empathy as a means to instill fear upon a unsuspecting/unwilling/innocent human. Also known as preying from the pulpit.

  • The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within – I was once unsaved and learned how I needed (and still do need) Christ . That fits your empathy comment
    Saying do this or die…..if you don’t like the truth, walk away. You have two options, you choose Christ, or you choose death – same option is open to everyone. You aren’t special.

  • You say your Christ forgave your sin. That’s a self pleasing subjective statement, a self reported position with nothing empirical to sustain it. It’s of no value to me that you consider yourself saved. From how you “conduct” yourself here I know I should continue to keep my distance from what has afflicted you.
    So, yawn away. I’ll never understand bible clutching while a family struggles to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. Without addressing the latter, what good is the former?

  • In short – Christ created you to love you. He created this earth for us to enjoy. Our “job” is to love and serve Him by helping others (that He has also created) to come into a good relationship with Him where they can be loved and cared for, for eternity. Some maybe more than others will experience worse hardships here – I’ve never read anything in the Bible about socialist or communist manifestos, all I know is what God wants – our hearts. Honey, if you have difficulty with that, then maybe you should be looking at yourself..

  • No it does not. This is projecting YOUR feelings upon the suffering. You’re using cognitive empathy to prey upon the weak instead of listening to understand THEM. It’s not about you collecting points because you pointed out verses XY and Z from a book. Saved and unsaved is a construct that works for YOU, not necessarily for the ones in need.

  • I’m very sad to see that you are so afraid of the truth I present – along with what others present.
    BTW – if you are going to follow me around today, I take 3 cream, one sugar in my coffee…..

  • Now, you see what you did there? Trotted out the twin boogie men
    “socialist and communist” Christ followers like unleash to begin campaigns of fear …and destroyed your argument with ostentatious piety and mendacity.
    I have a governor who does this. 11,000 children are languishing in his custody because his 600 + Christian churches can’t get their collective acts together to save them once they become unadoptable. He trots out parents who adopted babies or stages “weak tea” fundraisers for show. Yet $15 million in general funds were invested in a massive factory that has yet to secure financing to construct the building.

  • I take mine black, Navy style. Cream and sugar are luxuries beyond the chief’s mess and ward rooms.

  • Ah, another, “I hate Christians” recital.
    Well that’s good, there are plenty of us to hate.

  • Sure, I despise all the religious who are incapable of faithfully walking the very path they demand that others follow. When faced with addressing the challenges of the troubled and destitute, they trot out religious tracts and attempt to use it as food, clothing, and shelter. The three things necessary to return any person to productivity and prosperity.

ADVERTISEMENTs