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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Primitive Religions. A religion is not dualistic simply
because it admits the existence of good and evil spirits.
In animism both good and evil spirits are still con-
sidered to belong to the same genus. They all belong
to the forces of nature that can be both good and bad:
good in certain respects and bad in other respects, good
in certain circumstances and bad in other circum-
stances. These powers are concerned with what serves
or injures them rather than with good for the sake of
good or evil for the sake of evil.

Certain so-called primitive religions recognize a
supreme spirit, a great God, and certain among them
represent this God as the principal but not the only
creator of the world. According to stories that are
found among the North American Indians and in cen-
tral and north Asia, a second being intervened in the
creation and caused the institution of death. The world
had been created all good, without evil or death, but
this second being (who is either an adversary or a
clumsy collaborator of the supreme God) did something
malicious or stupid which led to irreparable harm.
These stories seem to express the astonishment of man
in the presence of evil and death, and the tendency
to believe that these do not belong to the essence of
things but are rather the result of an accident which
cannot be due to the supreme deity. A germ of dualism
resides in that idea. But nowhere is the independent
origin of the second being positively expressed; some-
times he is a creature of the good god, sometimes
nothing is said of his origin.

Religions in Antiquity. In ancient Egypt a dualistic
tendency appears, on the one hand, in the religion of
the sun-god Rē, the principle of life and truth, who
has a perpetual adversary, Apophis, the gigantic ser-
pent of darkness; on the other hand, a similar tendency


appears in the legend of Osiris, in which Set is the
adversary who kills Osiris and constantly opposes Isis
and Horus. However, Rē (or another good god) might
be represented as the universal creator. As for Set, who
had been the principal god in certain provinces, he
was for a long time regarded as capable of doing good
in certain respects; only in a later epoch did he become
the personification of evil. Moreover, he was regarded
as the brother of Osiris, which means they had a com-
mon origin.

In the Vedic hymns we find two groups of divinities
who, though both were equally venerated, are some-
times conceived as opposed to one another: the deva
and the asura. In the Brāhmana, the deva remain as
gods, but the asura became demons. However, these
Indian demons are unorganized, scattered, without a
leader, and nothing is said about their origin. We also
find in the Veda a greatly stressed antithesis between
order (or truth, ṭta) and falsity (druh); but this opposi-
tion is not the basis of the entire religion, as it is in

Various ancient mythologies present a picture of a
tremendous battle between the gods and the giants,
monsters, or demons. Babylonian mythology tells of the
war of Marduk against Tiāmat. The Bible mentions
Leviathan, a sea monster of chaos, that God has van-
quished and will kill. Greek mythology relates the
battle of Zeus against the Titans. The mythology of
the Germans includes the past and future struggles of
the gods against the giants and against the demonic
powers, offspring of Loki. (German myths refer also
to the war of the Ases and Vanes, but this war seems
to be of a different kind, since Ases and Vanes seem
to be complementary forces whose struggle ends in a
reconciliation.) The Indian epic narrates the war of
the Pāndava, born of the gods, against the army of
their demon cousin; now this story is perhaps the
transposition of an older story in which the gods them-
selves fought the demons. These pictures of a gigantic
drama might suggest a dualism, but in none of these
examples is the dualism complete or systematic. The
two parties are always descended from one another
or from the same principle. Marduk is a descendent
of Tiāmat; Zeus and the Titans have the same origin;
Leviathan was created by God; the combatants of
Mahābhārata are in the same family; Loki is an Ase
like Odin who has a certain friendship for him.

Zoroastrianism. The Iranian dualism differs from the
others because of its systematic character. It implies
a concentration of all that is good around the great
god Ahura Mazdā or Ohrmazd, principle of truth; all
that is evil is concentrated around the Evil Spirit, Ahra
Mainyu or Ahriman, the power of falsehood. This
dualism establishes a nearly perfect symmetry between
the forces of good and those of evil, and the whole
religion is based on the idea of their incessant warfare.
Only at the end of time will the Evil Spirit be van-
quished completely.

According to tradition, this religion was founded by
Zoroaster who, if he is not a legendary figure, may
have lived at the latest around 600 B.C. but might have
been much older. The most general opinion is that he
reformed the old Indo-Iranian religion. In fact, there
are in the Gāthās of the Avesta indications of a pro-
found transformation. The word daēva, the Iranian
form of the root which among the Indo-Europeans
designated the gods, in the Avesta designates demons,
and some of the ancient rites witnessed by the Veda
are attacked. Certain customs practiced by the Magi,
and which other peoples regarded as impious (exposing
corpses to birds or dogs, consanguineous marriage),
seem to indicate a radical break with ancient beliefs.
Above all, there is in the Gāthās a constant aspiration
for a transformation, for a “renovation” of existence,
a renovation requiring struggles which will be termi-
nated only in the future. In all these hymns one feels
a constant concern to vanquish enemies, to convert
people to a certain doctrine, to combat a religion taken
to be false, and to fight against social forces taken to
be violent and oppressive. This systematic dualism,
dividing all of the world's creatures into good and evil
beings, could express the intransigeance and the intol-
erance of the revolutionary reformer preaching a new

Was the Evil Spirit for Zoroaster completely inde-
pendent of Ahura Mazdā and co-eternal with him? We
cannot be sure of this. In one text of the Gāthās, the
Good Spirit (Spenta Mainyu) and the Evil One are
called “twins” and are said to “choose” truth and evil
respectively. According to certain scholars this shows
that the two spirits have the same origin and that the
evil one became evil by choice. According to other
scholars the word “twins” implies perhaps only a kind
of parallelism, and they remark that these two spirits
are represented as being from the beginning one good
and the other evil. (In fact the Gāthās do not distin-
guish clearly between choosing evil and being by na-
ture bad; the daēva and the wicked are said sometimes
to choose evil and sometimes to be sons of evil.) What-
ever the case may be, the Evil Spirit, in the formulas
of the Gāthās, is opposed to the Good Spirit but not
directly to Ahura Mazdā. It is true that the latter seems
at times to be identified with the Good Spirit, but the
two are sometimes distinguished from one another.
Perhaps, therefore, Ahura Mazdā was in primitive
Zoroastrianism above the battle.

But in later Zoroastrianism, Ohrmazd is completely
identified with the Good Spirit, and henceforth the Evil


One confronts him directly on the same plane. The
authors of the Pahlavi books (ninth century A.D.) assert
the independent origin of the two principles. This
evolution was justified moreover by the spirit of the
Gāthās, for the warlike atmosphere of irreconcilable
opposition that pervades these hymns should lead one
to deny any link between the adversaries.

The religion of Zoroaster is indeed a religion of
struggle; hence it is not a gentle one. “The one who
is good for the wicked is wicked” (Yasna, 46, 6). Cer-
tain beings in the world are regarded as the creation
of Ahriman, which practically amounts to being re-
garded as completely wicked. The basis of Zoroastri-
anism is morality, but it is a harsh morality which
demands above all, it seems, social discipline. The
religious duty of the Zoroastrian consisted in fulfilling
his function in society in the best possible manner.
Submission and work were the great virtues. In recip-
rocation this religion seems to have been concerned
with the protection of the workers against the forces
of anarchy, the protection of the farmer and shepherd
against the undisciplined warrior. There was a strong
hope that an improved order would be established.
Zoroastrianism is directed towards the future, it aspires
to progress, and includes an eschatology. The Zoro-
astrian rites symbolize and prepare the great future
“renovation” which will drive evil away once and for
all and unify the world.

Under the Sassanids a monistic trend developed in
the speculation called “Zurvanism.” According to the
Zurvanite myth Ohrmazd and Ahriman are both sons
of Zurvān, Infinite Time (that is to say, eternity). How-
ever, some recent studies tend to show that Zurvanism
was not generally taken to be a heresy, and was able
to mingle with orthodox Zoroastrianism. After all, to
say that Ohrmazd and Ahriman are sons of eternity
was perhaps a way of saying that they are eternal. In
any case, Zurvān was too abstract and too indeter-
minate to establish a real unity above the two opposing

The case is different with modern Parsees. They have
really become monists. They think that Ahriman is only
the symbol of what is evil in man. They reject what
is nevertheless the most fascinating characteristic of
Zoroastrianism: relating human goodness or badness to
cosmic powers, the human struggle to a struggle of
the whole universe, and not attenuating by any consid-
erations the opposition of good and evil.