Missing image
Zartosht, as popularly depicted by Iranian artists.
Zarathushtra (Zaraθuštra), usually known in English as Zoroaster after the Greek version of the name, Ζωροάστρης, was an Iranian prophet and the founder of Zoroastrianism, which was the national religion of Persia from the time of the Achaemenidae to the close of the Sassanid period. Zoroaster was probably born in the north eastern part of Iran, though there is also a tradition that he came from Balkh in modern day Afghanistan. In Modern Persian the name takes the form of Zartošt or Zardošt (زرتشت).

Zoroaster is generally accepted as a historical figure, but efforts to date Zoroaster vary widely. Scholarly estimates are usually roughly near 1000 BC. Others however give earlier estimates, making him a candidate as the founder of the earliest religion based on revealed scripture.


Zoroaster's name

The name zaraθ-uštra is a Bahuvrihi compound in the Avestan language, of zarəta- "feeble, old" and uštra "camel", translating to "having old camels, the one who owns old camels". The first part of the name was formerly commonly translated as "yellow" or "golden", from the Avestan "zaray", giving the meaning "[having] yellow camels". A more romantic, but inaccurate, translation of the name in the past has been "[bringer of the] golden dawn", based on the mistaken assumption that the second part of the name is a variant of the Vedic word "Ushas" meaning "dawn". This last translation seems to have derived from a desire to give a more fitting meaning to the prophet's name than "owner of feeble camels."

Zoroaster in History

Estimates for the lifetime of Zoroaster vary widely depending on the sources used.

  • Archaeological evidence is usually inconclusive for questions of religion. However, a Russian archaeologist links Zoroaster to ca. 2000 BC based on excavations in Uzbekistan to (Asgarov, 1984). Indo-Iranian religion is generally accepted to have its roots in the 3rd millennium, but Zoroaster himself did already look back on a long religious tradition.
  • The historical approach compares social customs described in the Gāthās to what is known of the time and region through other historical studies. Since the Gāthās are very cryptic, and open to much interpretation, such a method can also only yield very rough estimates. Gherardo Gnoli gives a date near c. 1000 BC.
  • The Būndahišn or Creation, an important text within the religion, cites the time of Zoroaster as 258 years before Alexander's conquest of Persia, i.e. 588 BC.
  • Other scholars have been arguing even later dates, now widely rejected. Darmesteter reports 100 BC; before 458 BC is cited by H.S. Nyberg in Die Religionen des Alten Iran (1938).

Life of Zoroaster

What we know of the life of Zoroaster is from the Avesta, the Gāthās, the Greek texts, oral history (which is a significant method of teaching in the tradition), and what can be inferred and archeological evidence.

The 13th section of the Avesta, the Spena Nask, the description of Zoroaster's life, has perished over the centuries. The biographies in the seventh book of the Dēnkard (9th century AD) and the Šahnāma are mythic.

It is fair to say that Zoroaster lived in the NE area of ancient Iranian territory. The Greeks refer to him as a Bactrian (coming from present day Afghanistan), a Median or a Persian about 3-5,000 years ago. His wife was named Hvōvi, and they had three daughters, Freni, Friti and Pourucista, and three sons, Isat Vastar, Uruvat-Nara and Hvare Ciθra. His mother was Dughdova; his father was Pourushaspa Spitāma, son of Haecadaspa Spitāma. His illumination from Mazda came at age 30. His first converts were his wife and children and a cousin named Maidhyoimangha.

The Greek writers recount a few points regarding the childhood of Zoroaster and his hermit-life. According to tradition and Nat. Hist. Zoroaster laughed on the day of his birth and lived in the wilderness. He seems to have enjoyed exploring the wilderness from a young age. Plutarch compares him with Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius (Numa, 4). Dio Chrysostom relates Zoroaster's Ahura Mazdā to Zeus. Plutarch, drawing partly on Theopompus, speaks of Zoroastrianism in Isis and Osiris.

Here he is a mortal, empowered by trust in his God and the protection of his allies. He faces outward opposition and unbelief and inward doubt. These human qualities support a historical Zoroaster, despite a lack of historical detail. The Gāthās are poetic admonitions and prophecies, cast in the form of dialogues with God and the Aməa Spəntas "Immortals" (Pahlavi Amahraspandān). However, they seem to contain allusions to personal events, overcoming obstacles in life imposed by competing priests and the ruling class. He had difficulty spreading his teachings, and was even treated with ill-will in his mother's hometown (an exceptional insult in his culture and time).

It is important to note the differences between the Zoroaster of the later Avesta and the Zoroaster of the Gāthās. In the later Avesta, he is depicted wrestling with the Daēva or "evil immortals" (Pahlavi Dēwān), and, in remarkable prescience of Jesus in the New Testament, is tempted by Ahriman to renounce his faith. (Yasht, 17,19)

The historical Zoroaster, however, eludes categorization as a legendary character. The Gāthās within the Avesta make claim to be the ipsissima verba of the prophet. The Vendidad also gives accounts of the dialogues between Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster. They are the last surviving account of his doctrinal discourses presented at the court of King Vištaspa.

Placing Zoroaster in a Historical Context

Textual evidence regarding the birthplace of Zoroaster is conflicting. Yasnas 9 & 17 cite Airyanem Vaējah, "Homeland of the Aryans" (Pahlavi Ērān Wēj), on the river Ditya, as the home of Zoroaster, and the scene of his first appearance. The Būndahišn or Creation (20, 32 and 24, 15) says the Dhraja River in Ērān Wēj was his birthplace and the home of his father. This same text identifies Ērān Wēj with the district of Arran on the river Aras (Araxes) close by the north-western frontier of Medes. According to Yasna 59, 18, the zaraθuštrotema, or supreme head of the Zoroastrian priesthood, had his residence in Ragha at a later (Sassanian) time. The Iranian Muslim writer Shahrastani endeavours to solve the conflict by arguing that his father was a man of Atropatene, while the mother was from Rai.

According to Yasnas 5 & 105, he prayed for the conversion King Vištaspa. He then appears to have left his native district. Yasnas 53 & 9 suggest that he ventured to Rai and was unwelcome. Eventually he met Vištaspa, king of Bactria. In the Gāthās he appears as a historical personage.

The court of Vištaspa included two brothers, Frašaōštra and Jamaspa; both were, according to the later legend, vizirs of Vištaspa. Zoroaster was closely related to both: his wife, Hvōvi, was the daughter of Frashaōštra, and the husband of his daughter, Pourucista, was Jamaspa. The actual role of intermediary was played by the pious queen Hutaōsa. Apart from this connection, the new prophet relies especially upon his own kindred (hvaētuš). His first disciple, Maidhyoimaōngha, was his cousin; his father was, according to the later Avesta, Pourušaspa, his mother Dughdova, his great-grandfather Haēcataspa, and the ancestor of the whole family Spitama, for which reason Zoroaster usually bears this surname. His sons and daughters are repeatedly mentioned. His death is not mentioned in the Avesta; in the Šahnāma, he is said to have been murdered at the altar by the Turanians in the storming of Balkh.

Placing the date of King Vištaspa is difficult. Antiquated sources suggest Vištaspa was Hystaspes, father of Darius I. Hutaōsa is the same name as Atossa, who apparently was queen consort to Cambyses II, Smerdis and Darius I. The matriarchal name is the only link to the Achaemenidian lineage.

According to the Arda Wiraf, Zoroaster taught an estimated 300 years before the invasion of Alexander. Assyrian inscriptions relegate him to a more ancient period. Eduard Meyer (v. Ancient Persia) maintainins that the Zoroastrian religion must have been predominant in Medes, therefore, estimates the date of Zoroaster at 1000 BC, in agreement with Duncker (Geschichte des Altertums, 44, 78). Zoroaster may have emanated from the old school of Median Magi and appeared first in Medes as the prophet of a new faith, but met with sacerdotal opposition and turned his steps eastward. Zoroastrianism then seems to have acquired a solid footing in eastern Iran, where it continues to survive in dwindling numbers.

Date of Zoroaster

One of the most important, and dividing, of all issues regarding the Iranian history is “the date of Zoroaster”, that is the date when he lived and composed his Gathas. Different sources ranging from linguistic evidence to textual sources and traditional dates have been used by various scholars to determine the date of Zoroaster. Accordingly, any date from the 6th century BC to 6000 BC has been suggested, although some with more merit than others. Here we shall look at the most prominent of these arguments.

A point of view held by many prominent scholars, among them Taghizadeh and W.B.Henning and continued by Gnoli among others, is what is known as “the Traditional Date of Zoroaster”. This date which was suggested in the Sasanian commentaries on the Avesta (Bundahišn), gives the date of Zoroaster’s life as “258 years before Alexander”. However one might want to interpret this statement (whether from the date of Alexander’s entry to Iran or even possibly from what is known as the “Seleucid Era”), the traditional dating would put Zoroaster at 6th century BC. This placement is particularly attractive when one notices that this dating would make Darius and Zoroaster contemporaries of sort, making Darius’ prominent mention of “Ahuramazda” and other Zorostrian motifs quite appropriate. Furthermore, the fact that Zoroaster’s benefactor, Kāvi Wishtaspa, closely reminds us of the name of Darius’ father, Wishtaspa, who was the Satrap of Parthia during the time of Cyrus the Great in the middle of the 6th century BC.

According to this view, Zoroaster lived in the court of Darius’ father as the chief clergy and influenced Darius as a young man. It was due to this influence that Darius makes constant mentions of Ahuramāmazdā and other Zoroastrian motifs in his inscriptions. The traditional tale of Zarathushtra's death, being slain by invading “Turan” warriors has also been affiliated with the unrests of Darius’ early years on the throne and the attacks of the rulers of Drangiana and Sogdiana on Bactria.

However, from an early time, scholars such as Bartholomea and Christensen noticed the problems with “Traditional Date”, namely the linguistic difficulties that it presents. As we know, Zoroaster himself composed the 18 poems that make-up the oldest parts of the Avesta, known as “the Gathas”. The language of the Gathas, as well as the text known as “Yasna Haptanghaiti” (the Seven Chapter Sermon), is called “Old Avestan” and is significantly different and more archaic than the language of the other parts of the Avesta, “Young Avestan”. On the other hand, Old Avestan is very close to the language of the Rig Veda (known as Vedic Sanskrit). The closeness in composition of Old Avestan and Vedic is so much that some parts of Gathas can be transliterated to Vedic only by following the rules of sound change (such as the development of Indo-Iranian “s” to Avestan “h”). These similarities suggest that Old Avestan and Vedic were very close in time, probably putting Old Avestan at about one century after Vedic. Since the date of the composition of Rig-Veda has been put at somewhere between the 15-12th centuries BC, we can also assume that Gathas were composed close to that time, at sometimes before 1000 BC.

Furthermore, a look at the Gathas and their composition shows us that the society in which they were composed was a nomadic society that lived at a time prior to settlement in large urban areas and depended greatly on pastoralism. This would stand sharply apart from the view of a Zoroaster living in the court of an Achaemenid satrap such as Wištaspa. Also, the absence of any mention of Achaemenids or even any West Iranian tribes such as Medes and Persians, or even Parthians, in the Gathas makes it unlikely that historical Zoroaster ever lived in the court of a 6th century Satrap. It is possible that Zoroaster lived sometimes in the 13th to 11th centuries BC, prior to the settlement of Iranian tribes in the central and west of the Iranian Plateau.

The Gāthās of Zoroastrianism

The teachings of Zoroaster is presented in 17 liturgical, texts, or "hymns", the yasna which is divided into groups called Gāthās.

If basic precepts of Zoroastrianism are to be distilled into a single maxim, the maxim is Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds).

A cosmic struggle between Aša "The Truth" (Pahlavi Ahlāyīh) and Druj "The Lie" (Pahlavi Druz) is presented as the foundation of our existence. This is often related to a struggle between good and evil in a Western paradigm. This may also be conceptualized as a battle between Darkness and Light. The two opposing forces in this battle are Ahura Mazdā (Ohrmazd) (God) and Ahriman (The Devil). In the yasnas, Zoroaster refers to these forces as "the Better and the Bad."

Zoroaster describes Ahura Mazdā in a series of rhetorical questions, "Who established the course of the sun and stars? ... who feeds and waters the plants? ... what builder created light and darkness? Through whom does exist dawn, noon and night?" (Yasna 44, 4-6).

  1. Vohu Manu, Pahlavi Wahman, "Good Mind": the principle of the good
  2. Ašəm, afterwards Ašəm Vahištəm, Pahlavi Ardwahišt: "Right": truth and the embodiment of all that is true, good and right, upright law and rule (ideas practically identical for Zoroaster)
  3. Xšaθra- Vairya-, Pahlavi Šahrewar: "Best Rule", the power and kingdom of Ahura Mazdā and guardian of metals
  4. Spɚnta- Ārmatay-, Pahlavi Spandarmad, "Holy Thought": the female immortal of the earth
  5. Haurvatat: "Perfection"
  6. Amərətatāt, Pahlavi Amurdād: "Immortality", the guardian of food and plants.

Other prominent immortals are Geush Urvan, defender of animals, and Sraōša, Pahlavi Srōš "Obedience".

History and later development

For the great mass of the people, Zoroaster's doctrine was too abstract and spiritualistic. The vulgar fancy requires sensuous, plastic deities, which admit of visible representation; and so the old gods received honour again and new gods won acceptance. They are the angels (Avestan yazata, Pahlavi yazdān). In the later Avesta, we find not only Mithra but also purely popular divinities such as Vərəθraghna "Victory", Anāhita (goddess of the waters), Tištrya "Sirius" (Pahlavi Tištar) and other heavenly bodies invoked with special preference. The Gāthās know nothing of a new belief which afterwards arose in the fravashi, or guardian angels of the faithful. Fravashi properly means "confession of faith", and when personified comes to be regarded as a protecting spirit. Unbelievers have no fravashi.

On the basis of the new teaching arose a widespread priesthood (aθravano) that systematized its doctrines, organized and carried on its worship and laid down the minutely elaborated laws for the purifying and keeping clean of soul and body, which are met with in the Vendidad. To these ecclesiastical precepts and expiations belong in particular the numerous ablutions, bodily chastisements, love of truth, beneficial works, support of comrades in the faith, alms, chastity, improvement of the land, arboriculture, breeding of cattle, agriculture, protection of useful animals, as the dog, the destruction of noxious animals, and the prohibition either to burn or to bury the dead. These are to be left on the appointed places or (dakhmas) and exposed to the vultures and wild dogs. In the worship, the drink prepared from the haōma plant had a prominent place. Worship was devoid of pomp; it was independent of temples. Its centre was the holy fire on the altar. The fire altars afterwards developed into fire temples. In the sanctuary of these temples the various sacrifices and high and low masses were celebrated. As offerings, meat, milk, show-bread, fruits, flowers and consecrated water were used.

Priests were the privileged keepers and teachers of religion. They only performed the sacrifices (Herodotus, i. 132), educated the young clergy, imposed the penances; they in person executed the circumstantial ceremonies of purification and exercised a spiritual guardianship and pastoral care of the laymen. Every young believer in Mazdā, after having been received into the religious community by being girt with holy lace, had to choose a confessor and a spiritual guide (ratu).

Also in eschatology, a change took place. The last things and the end of the world are relegated to the close of a long period of time (3000 years after Zoroaster), when a new saōšyant (Pahlavi sōšyans) or "savior" will be born from the line of Zoroaster, the dead will return to life and a new incorruptible world will begin.

Zoroastrianism was the national religion of Greater Persia, but it was not permanently restricted to the Iranians, being professed by Turanians as well. The worship of the Persian gods spread to Armenia and Cappadocia and over the whole of the Near East (Strabo, xv. 3, 14; xi. 8, 4; 14, 76). Of the Zoroastrian religion under the Achaemenid Dynasty and Aeracides, little is known. After the overthrow of the Achaemenids, a period of decay seems to have set in. Yet the Aeracides and the Indo-Scythian kings as well as the Achaemenids were believers in Mazdā. The national restoration of the Sassanid dynasty brought new life to the Zoroastrianism and long-lasting sway to its clergy. Protected by this dynasty, the priesthood developed into a completely organized state church, which was able to employ the power of the state in enforcing strict compliance with the religious law-book hitherto enjoined by their unaided efforts only. The head of the priesthood, or zarathuštrotema, had his seat at Rai in Medes and was the first person in the state next to the king. The formation of sects was at this period not infrequent (cf. Manichaeism).

The Islamic conquest of Iran (636), with the terrible persecutions of the following centuries, led to the gradual decline of Zoroastrianism. In Iran itself, Zoroastrian communities, though a minority, continue to persist despite the odds (primarily centred in Kerman and Yazd). The Parsis in and around Bombay hold by Zoroaster as their prophet and by the ancient religious usages, but their doctrine has reached the stage of a pure monotheism.

Zoroaster in the West

Zoroaster was known as a sage, magician and miracle-worker in post-Classical Western culture, though almost nothing was known of his ideas until the late eighteenth century. By this time his name was associated with with lost ancient wisdom and was appropriated by Freemasons and other groups who claimed access to such knowledge. He appears in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute under the variant name "Sarastro", who represents moral order in opposition to the "Queen of the Night".

Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire promoted research into Zoroastrianism in the belief that it was a form of rational Deism, preferable to Christianity. With the translation of the Avesta by Abraham Anquetil-Duperron Western scholarship of Zoroastrianism began. In the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the name of Zarathustra in his seminal book Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra). Nietzsche fictionalizes and dramatizes Zarathustra toward his own literary and philosophical aims, presenting him as a returning visionary who repudiates the designation of good and evil and thus marks the observation of the death of God. Nietzsche asserted that he had chosen to put his ideas into the mouth of Zarathustra because the historical prophet had been the first to proclaim the opposition between "good" and "evil", by rejecting the Daeva (representing natural forces) in favour of a moral order represented by the Ahuras. It was this act that Nietzsche proposed to invert.

Richard Strauss's Opus 30, inspired by Nietzsche's book, is also called Also sprach Zarathustra. Its opening fanfare (corresponding to the book's prologue) was memorably used to score the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Boyce, Mary. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Gnoli, Gherado. Zoroaster in History, Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series 2, Bibliotheca Persica 2000.

Gnoli, Gherardo. "Agathias and the Date of Zoroaster," Eran ud Aneran, Festrschrift Marshak, 2003. http://www.transoxiana.com.ar/Eran/Articles/gnoli.html [3] (http://www.transoxiana.com.ar/Eran/Articles/gnoli.html)

Humbach, Helmut. The Gathas of Zarathushtra, Heidelburg, 1991.

Shapur Shahbazi, Ali Reza. “The Traditional Date of Zoroaster Explained”, BSOAS, Vol 40, No. 1. London. http://www.azargoshnasp.net/~iran/Din/traditionaldateofzoroaster.pdf [4] (http://www.azargoshnasp.net/~iran/Din/traditionaldateofzoroaster.pdf)

See also

External links

cs:Zarathuštra da:Zarathustra de:Zarathustra es:Zaratustra fa:زرتشت fr:Zoroastre ko:조로아스터 ia:Zoroastro it:Zoroastro he:זרתוסטרא ku:Zerdeşt nl:Zarathustra nds:Zarathustra ja:ザラスシュトラ pl:Zaratusztra pt:Zaratustra ru:Заратустра sk:Zaratustra fi:Zarathustra sv:Zarathustra


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