Instructor Spotlight: Grace Rotermund

Meet Grace Rotermund, Tufts senior, President Emeritus of COFFEE (Community of Faith Exploration and Engagement), and instructor of EXP-0055: Zoroastrianism: From Ancient Times to Modern Impact
Grace Rotermund

Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to teach this course

As a double major in History of Art and Religion, I’m inclined towards interdisciplinary work. Religion is crystallized in art/architecture and a lot of historical artistic inspiration is drawn from religion; the two make sense together and I find them to be completely inseparable. My own research deals with the artistic echoes of a Zoroastrian-Christian overlap in medieval Armenian architecture, which means knowledge from both fields as well as the ability to integrate them is crucial.

The inspiration for this course is a funny story; in the early spring of 2023, I was looking for scholars of Zoroastrianism in the United States and could only find three in the entirety of the country. I’ve since been able to locate a few more, thankfully, but at the time I was so confused. This religion has been around for thousands of years – its timeline is similar to that of Hinduism and Judaism – and yet academically, it’s quite neglected. I was ranting about the disparity between the number of scholars of Christianity in America versus the number of Zoroastrian scholars to a friend, who suggested that I might get the ball rolling here at Tufts by teaching my own course. While I laughed it off at first, I soon came to realize that kind of epistemological ambition aligns with Tufts’ values and the opportunity to teach my own class couldn’t be passed up – if you want something done, do it yourself! 

What is Zoroastrianism?

The most succinct way to describe it is to say that Zoroastrianism was one of (if not the, depending on how one tracks the dates) the first monotheistic world religions, and it survives today in smaller numbers, both in Indian Parsi culture and smaller diasporic communities across the globe. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires, and stretched from the eastern borders of Greece to the western borders of China at its height. Many people know Zoroastrianism from its exaggerated reputation as a “fire worshiping” religion or from its unusual burial rites, both of which we’ve had the chance to examine in class.

As I told my students on the first day of class, the general “story” of Zoroastrianism is that humanity is trapped in a battle between the forces of good, headed by the main god Ahura Mazda, and those of evil, headed by a devil figure named Angra Mainyu. Each human being has free will, and every action they take directly contributes to one side or the other. Zoroastrianism’s goal is to provide its practitioners with the laws necessary to cultivate a life dedicated to helping Ahura Mazda, the Amesha Spentas, and the yazatas, all of whom are figures on the side of good.

What are your favorite aspects of the religion to study?

I’m very interested in architecture, ritual, and how the two fit together. Religious spaces are constructed to fit the people who perform rites within them, but as rituals evolve over time, they can also change slightly to better fit the kind of building or structure in which they are carried out. The conversation between religion and art, particularly through small iconographic details, deserves a lot of academic attention!

My students, however, have found the discussion of Zoroastrian deities fascinating. The “structure” of the godly hierarchies differs drastically from both the Abrahamic religions and other practices with “pantheons” of gods, like the Greek or Egyptian pantheons, and they love learning about the different levels of power and influence. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing how emanations work, the realms of existence, Zoroastrian ideas of heaven and hell, and the Renovation, or apocalypse.

Why is it important to study lesser-known religions, and how may students bring this knowledge into their other academic pursuits?

I always say that religion must be studied because its influence is less visible than that of other disciplines, which makes it a little more dangerous; the economy is easily seen in inflation today, but governmental ideas about how money should be handled or taxes should be levied (or even how law should work) varies widely throughout history due to religious ideas popular in specific governments at particular times. One might narrow that analogy down a bit and say Zoroastrianism’s importance here is in its massive influence. This was a religion that had millions of adherents over thousands of years in a very large geographical area; even in such a small academic field, there are articles that point out the trade of intellectual commerce between Zoroastrianism and Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Manichaeism, and even Greek philosophers.

To understand a region’s culture, in my mind, is to look at the religions popular in the area over time and to inspect where their values came from. Zoroastrianism’s long history is full of key details that might explain why other things are how they are today.  As for what students may take away, I hope that this class teaches people to look a little deeper at how different cultural aspects influence each other. Politics, literature, art, law – all of these are things that we’ve discussed in class as they relate to religion, and I don’t think society changed that drastically as we entered the modern period. Religion just disguised itself inside other things.

Grace Rotermund (she/they) A24 studies History of Art and Religion, with a double minor in French and Medieval Studies. She's from Omaha, Nebraska, and is Senior Editor of Melisma Magazine, President Emeritus of COFFEE (Community of Faith Exploration and Engagement), and heavily involved in the Tufts Prison Initiative (TUPIT). They also work in Special Collections at Tisch Library, and are going on to pursue a Masters in the study of Religion at the University of Chicago after graduation. In their spare time, they enjoy perusing JSTOR, listening to music, and in rare cases, watching Love Island.