By Anna Sowa, Researcher and Producer at the London Film School and the University of Exeter.
In this post, Anna takes us on a tour of one of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism. Find out how it has influenced many of the major religions we recognize today, and explore the innovative installation that is breathing new life into an ancient ritual with modern technology and VR.
Did you ever hear that the three wise men in the Nativity story were probably Zoroastrian? Or catch a rumour that Freddie Mercury was Zoroastrian? Or that the first Asian MP was Zoroastrian?
But what does being a Zoroastrian really mean? That is something that we don’t often hear about. Are you curious about who Zoroastrians are, where they come from, what language they speak and whom they worship?
Come and discover ‘Living Zoroastrianism’: an unusual and immersive exhibition at the Brunei Gallery. You’ll be taken on a journey through the temples of the state religion of pre-Islamic Iran, unveiling the seldom-seen rituals and seldom-heard voices of the Zoroastrian faith. Today, it is a faith that we know precious little about. Yet Zoroastrianism can be traced through many of the major religions of our cultural history – it is the religion that has influenced Judaism, Christianity and nascent Islam. It has shaped many immense spiritual concepts of life after death, heaven and hell, good and evil.
So, although Zoroastrianism may seem to belong to a distant and isolated realm, it is embedded in the roots of many cultures. Today, looking into the beliefs and rituals of this religion – whose performances are almost entirely un-touched by academic research until now – promises to uncover a faith as relevant and fascinating as ever. This exhibition is not only for the interest of those who study religions and cultures, but for everyone who is intrigued by the history of human thought.
The core ritual of the Zoroastrian tradition is the Yasna. Its oldest verses date from the second millennium BCE and are conducted in languages that have been extinct for around two thousand years. To understand the meaning of the Yasna, we must not only delve through ancient manuscripts, but observe the sacred traditions that have survived by being passed down through generations. This has formed the research focus at the heart of The Multimedia Yasna (MUYA) Project, funded by the European Research Council and hosted at the Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zoroastrian Studies at SOAS. A diverse team of linguists, religious scholars, IT experts and language documentarians at MUYA, together with the filmmakers at Chouette Films, have been closely examining the Yasna ritual in both its visual and written forms. The vision throughout has been to bring the ancient traditions, intricate practices, and forgotten languages of Zoroastrianism into the public eye through an in-depth exhibition for everyone to enjoy.
The star of the exhibition is the Virtual Reality experience, transporting you into the midst of the sights and sounds of the Yasna ritual – a ritual hardly witnessed by anyone before now. Non-Zoroastrians are forbidden to enter the fire temple – the Zoroastrian place of worship – making this a truly unique opportunity. The population of Zoroastrians is falling rapidly, giving this exhibition another valuable role to play in preserving a hugely influential element of ancient cultural heritage for posterity. This is a tremendous example of how new developments in technology, like the 360 degree cameras used to record the Yasna ritual, can immortalise a millienia old tradition before it is forgotten on dusty bookshelves.
‘Origins and Endings’ – this year’s theme at the Being Human Festival – resonates perfectly with the story of the Yasna. The ritual follows the journey of a human soul travelling through the universe. It is a circular story, beginning with the act of fetching water from a well – reflecting how the human soul comes into the world – and ending with the water being poured back into the well – as the human soul finally returns to where it came from. Alongside the Virtual Reality installation, the exhibition offers a window into the living faith through an array of interviews with Zoroastrians from all walks of life, in both urban and rural Iran. You will find exhibits exploring diverse aspects of ritual and devotional life in Zoroastrian countries.
This installation opens new horizons, by unlocking the forgotten meanings of the Yasna and making the concepts behind the ritual accessible to both Zoroastrians and the wider public alike. We hope that everyone who visits the exhibition will take away with them a new insight into the Zoroastrian faith and the generations of ancient wisdom encapsulated in its religious practices.
Check out ‘Living Zoroastrianism’ at the Brunei Gallery throughout the festival!
Video courtesy of Chouette Films.