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Yazidism and its Mazdean roots

How Yezidi intellectuals view the origins of Yazidism

Monday 15 March 2010, by M. Shamsaddin Megalommatis

Yazidi religious practices have been described as a blend of Eastern religions with hints of the ancient Zoroastrian and Mithraic practices, as well as elements of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All the monotheistic prophets are recognized, but Abraham and Noah are especially venerated.

It is always important to know how indigenous peoples and ethno-religious groups view their past and systematize their knowledge about the origins of their religion, without resorting to exterior (in their nature), biased (in their character), and premeditated (in their functionality) Western European, colonialist, Orientalist disciplines and methods.

Little matters in this regard whether Yazidism was more influenced by Mithraism rather than Zoroastrianism (which is quite possible however); what matters is that today’s Yazidi intellectuals and erudite scholars prove to be able to maintain a traditional historico-religious approach to the origins of their religion and the history of the multi-faceted influences that Yazidism received in the course of its longer than 2000-years existence.

In the present article, I republish a very genuine work composed by the Yazidi erudite Dr. Pir Mamou Othman; the focus is on the earlier stages of Yazidism and its position vis-à-vis Mithraism and Zoroastrianism.

Out of focus inaccuracies (there were no Jews transported to Assyria by Shalmanaser V, but Israelites relocated to Assyria by Sarrukin — Sargon) matter very little.

The text’s significance lies on the intellectual strength of a tradition-based historico-religious analysis that is a very rare phenomenon in our days. Very few peoples can today claim such non-Western, historical elaboration skills. For the severely persecuted nation of Yazidis, this is a formidable asset.

The Yezidis before Sheihk-Adi
A scientific religious research by Dr. Pir Mamou Othman [1]

The Yezidi-religion is one the oldest controversial religions of the world. The fact, that Sheik-Adi Ibin Mustafa (ca. 1162 after Christ) introduced a radical change in the Yezidi religion hangs like a dark curtain in front of the Yezidi past. It is unanimously held, that this religion existed before Sheik-Adi, but under other names as well as definitely with other Customs and Traditions.

An article a focus on the Philosophy of the Yezidi religion presents the philosophical disputes in the Yezidi religion, viz. Ta’usi-Melek as God’s representative on the earth and not as the “Evil One”, as other religions state, Ta’usi as the aesthetic Phenomenon, interpreted as such and firmly held only by the Yezidis.

The Yezidis hold that Ta’usi Melek is as fire with two dualistic elementary abilities: Fire as light, but also fire to burn: The good and the evil are one and the same Person. Simultaneously is a human being itself a mixture of two powers: good and evil, i.e. every Yezidi has a part of Ta´usi Melek in himself.

An ongoing research of the available literature about the older religions of the Near East point to no direct connection between the names before Sheihk Adi with the names after him (in the Yezidi religion), except from a few similar Feasts and Words (e.g. Yazatas angel in Zoroastrianism is similar to the Yezidi word “those, who worship the angel”). Our intention here is to present Customs, Feasts and Traditions which exist in Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and Yezidism.

Among the old religions, which existed ca. 2000 BCE in Kurdistan and Persia, Mithraism because of its military character was the strongest; till the advent of Christianity, there was no radical change in the old religions. But new religions came on the scene — each with new characteristics and corresponding to the desires of their new followers and to fulfil present needs; e.g. Zoroastrianism, which followed Mithraism, which was reformed by Zoroaster (ca. 550 BC) not as an abolishing of its revolutionary character, but rather an abolishing of the patriarchal character of Mithraism, Christianity (Rome) and Judaism (Palestine) differed essentially from Mithraism.

Yezidism did not figure in these changes, because it was never in power. But rather other religions influenced it strongly. It was one of the oldest religions, which came with Mithraism from India into the today’s Iran and Kurdistan. What it was called and how many followers it had in this period of time is lost in oblivion. Regarding this, some authorities on religions give important tips, which support the above-mentioned thesis:

In the old and new Avesta (the holy book of the Zoroastrians) one finds peoples, who stand contrary to the Iranian group, or at least pronounce about the chief names of their gods, speak rather about the Indians as the Iranians, because they were disparagingly labelled as Worshippers of Deva (“Devils”). In the Gathas, they appear as deadly enemies of the Zoroastrians who also surface, and after their gradual disappearance countrymen were left behind…

A comparison with Zoroastrianism shows, that it strongly influenced Yezidism. It is not surprising, because it was the official state-religion for over 300 years [2] . Zoroastrians’ influence on Yezidism is similar to that of Islam, especially during and after Sheik-Adi’s appearance in Yezidism.

The Yezidis pray in a way, which resembles the prayer-rituals of the Zoroastrians. Especially noticeable in the Morning Prayer with the face turned towards the sun. The five chief prayers stem also from Zoroastrianism, and not from Islam, as is often stated. The Yezidis have two of these five prayer-sessions as most important: namely viz. at Sunrise and at Sunset. The prayers are addressed to “Mithra” (the Sun-god) and not to Zoroaster. Zoroaster laid down seven serious obligations, namely seven feasts dedicated to Ahura-Mazda. These feasts were rather pastoral and agrarian regarded either as “military” (as in Mithraism) or “economic” (as in Islam). Yezidis have these feasts till today, but as moveable feasts i.e. a change in date to the seasons of the year.

1. Maidhyoi-Zaremaya — By the Zoroastrians, in mid-spring
By the Yezidis, ca. 14. April, i.e. with the feast of the Fravashis, which was celebrated by the Sassanid Iranians and the Babylonians. It is the Yezidi Belinde (feast of the dead) or Cejne Ser Sale.

2. Maidhyoi-shema — By the Zoroastrians, in midsummer
By the Yezidis, also midsummer, approx. at the end of July; it is celebrated in Lalish (the Yezidi-holy-place, ca. 60 km From Nineveh (N. Iraq).

3. Paitshahya — By the Zoroastrians, a harvest-feast
By the Yezidis, at the end of August and everywhere in the countryside. By the Yezidis, it is Mahmad Rashan as protector of the harvest and especially of rain; his feast is celebrated in spring.

4. Ayathriama — By the Zoroastrians, feast of the cattle
By the Yezidis, at the end of the spring. The Yezidis have two Saints for the cattle: Memyshivan, as the holy protector of sheep, and Gawanezersan, as the holy protector of the cow. The feast is named after these two holy protectors.

5. Maidhyaira — By the Zoroastrians, mid-winter
By the Yezidis, at the beginning of October; it lasts seven days. On a Wednesday that the Yezidis call Kabach, an oxen / bull is offered. The Yezidis call these seven days the feast of Cema Sheik-Adi.

6. Hamaspath-maedaya — By the Zoroastrians, feast at the end of spring
By the Yezidis, at the end of December (Belinde). The Christians in Kurdistan celebrate the same feast under the name Balinde.

Animals hold a special place in the old religions, especially in Mithraism and have an important meaning in the philosophy of life as well as in the relationship between the sun and the moon. Plenty of animals are painted in the most well-known Mithraic icons, which are ever till today identical with those in Sheikh-Adis shrine. Their interpretations are also identical to those of the Mithraic feast.

1. The Bull
Mithras killed a bull as Offering. The Yezidis do the same in autumn. They offer it for mankind and for the generation of a harmonious world, and for the original New Year’s feast. The bull earlier symbolized the autumn, and a rainy, fruitful green year was expected to follow its slaughter.

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Snake at the door of the Sheikh-Adi-shrine.

2. The Snake
The snake for the Mithras was symbolical for the cosmos and the zodiac. The snake is a path, over which the sun and the moon move. The sun and the moon follow a goal in their orbits. Hence the zodiac is a symbol of time. Many scientists describe the snake as a symbol of movement and of development. The snake in Mithraism, in connection with the zodiac, symbolizes the year and annual seasons.

The Yezidis regard the snake (especially the black snake) as holy, in fact as a saint. Sheik-Adi, in his time, gave a special interpretation: The Sheik-Caste’s (Sheik-Mend) tribe is its guardian and is the nature-healer of the Yezidis. If a snake stings a Yezidi, he is healed only through prayer of a member of this caste and his saliva on the snake bite’s wound. The snake is depicted in a relief on the walls of Sheik-Adi´s temple at Lalish (next to the entrance).

3. The Scorpion
The scorpion in the Mithraic animal world symbolizes the sun. The snake goes into the sun-orbit on 23rd October. The Yezidis have a special pir (“holy man”). He is similar to the Sheik-Mend as nature-healer. Pir Gerwa is the holy protector of the Scorpion.

One can definitely state, that the Yezidis have taken over the bull, the snake and the scorpion, not from the Zoroastrianism, but rather from Mithraism. The snake and the scorpion are described in the Avesta as harmful animals — sent by Ahriman. The one who kills it, does a good deed. The influence of Mithraism outweighs that of Zoroastrianism among Yezidis who, being a minority, were not confronted by other religions before the invasion of Islam.

From the extensive study of the Yezidis’ feasts, it is clear that not only these two Iranian religions influenced Yezidism, but also that it was exposed to Jewish and Christian influences. Even nowadays, there are many feasts and religious customs which are similar to those of the Jews and Christians, e.g. the circumcision and the feast of offerings (the story of Abraham and Isaac). The Star of Kind David is on the Sheik-Adi’s temple wall, which most probably had

begun during the ban on Jews; Yezidi Kurdistan was the first historical country of exile for the Jews — several hundreds of Jewish prisoners were sent to Kurdistan, after King Hosea’s refusal of to pay tribute to the Assyrian King Shalmanaser (727-22 BCE).

The Christian Easter
In fact, the names of Mary and Jesus are expressly mentioned in the Yezidi religious texts, where they have a place of honourable saints. The Christians also took over some customs from the Yezidis: the colouring of Easter-eggs, the fire and the decoration of the house-entrance with flowers.

The available Yezidi texts give the impression that it is a recent religion, because of several Islamic terms: the important personalities, Mohammad, Ali, Hasan, Abubakir, Omar, etc. are regarded as saints. These are simultaneously a proof, that Islam strongly influenced Yezidism.

There are Yezidi poets, who wrote great religious and theological texts during Sheik-Adi’s time. Among them, the following are the most important ones:

  1. Hasede Al-Tawri, About the advice on how to lead a moral life for every Yezidi
  2. Pise Cemî, Sheik-Adi and the Saints
  3. Pir Dawood, The war against Sheik-Adi and his followers
  4. Sheikh-Fakhre Adia:
    • Praise about Sheik-Hassan
    • Sheikh Seri
  5. Pir Sheref, Qawle Baza — about Sheikh-Adi
  6. Pir Khidir, Qawale Darweshi Adam

Islam extended its power after Sheik-Adi’s arrival. A decisive majority of feasts, customs, and oral religious traditions stem from the post-Islamic period.


[1] Sources: info-media.de and ahrata.com.

[2] In fact, Zoroastrianism was never a state-religion, but rather the main religion and one of the Kings in Iran — Fravahr.org.

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