Zoroaster; portrayed here in a popular Parsi Zoroastrian depiction. This personified image of Zoroaster emerged in the 18th century, the result of an Indian Parsi Zoroastrian artist's imaginings; it quickly became a popular icon, and is now regarded by many Zoroastrians as being historically based.
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Amesha Spentas · Yazatas
Ahuras · Daevas
|Scripture and Worship |
Avesta · Gathas
The Ahuna Vairya Invocation
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Book of Arda Viraf
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Zoroastrians in Iran
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Zarathustra (Avestan: Zaraθuštra), sometimes, in English, referred to as Zoroaster (after the Greek Ζωροάστρης, Zōroastrēs) was an ancient Iranian prophet and the founder of Zoroastrianism, a religion that was the national religion of the Sassanian Empire of Persia, and is predominantly practiced today by the Parsi community of India. Zoroastrianism also played an important role in the earlier Achaemenean and Parthian empires. In Persian, the name takes the form Zartosht (زرتشت).
Zoroaster is generally accepted as a historical figure, but efforts to date Zoroaster vary widely. Scholarly estimates are usually roughly near 1200 BC, making him a candidate as the founder of the earliest religion based on revealed scripture, while others place him anywhere between the 18th and the 6th centuries BC.
The name Zaraθ-uštra is probably a Bahuvrihi compound in the Avestan language, which has been interpreted variously:-
- zarəta- = "old" + uštra = "camel", giving "having old camels, the one who owns old camels".
- Avestan zaray (Modern Persian zærd) = "yellow" or "golden", + "camel", giving "[having] yellow camels"; this may mean "having golden camels, he who by trading with goods carried on camelback gets wealth".
- zara = "shine", "gold", "light" + tushtra or tusht = "friend", "lover", giving "he who loves the light"
- 'zara = "gold" + a wrongly presumed Avestic cognate of Vedic Sanskrit Ushas = "dawn", giving "[bringer of the] golden dawn".
 A variant of this is the translation "Golden Star", assuming the second part of his name is a variant of "Aster", or "Akhtar"; in modern Persian, Setareh means "star". These last translations seem to have derived from a desire to give a more fitting meaning to the prophet's name than "owner of feeble camels".
Dating of Zoroaster
Estimates for the lifetime of Zoroaster vary widely, depending upon the sources used:-
- 1400 BC to 1000 BC is cited by Mary Boyce in her A History of Zoroastrianism (1989), representing the current scholarly consensus.
- "Before 458 BC" is cited by H.S. Nyberg in Die Religionen des Alten Iran (1938).
- The Bundahišn or Creation, an important Zoroastrian religious text, cites the time of Zoroaster as 258 years before Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia, i.e., 588 BC. This "Traditional Date of Zoroaster" was accepted by many 19th century scholars, among them Taghizadeh and W. B. Henning.
Other scholars have been arguing even later dates, now widely-rejected, Darmesteter reporting 100 BC.
Persian mythological dates are very early, reaching into what is today known as the Neolithic.
From an early time, scholars such as Bartholomea and Christensen noticed problems with the "Traditional Date", namely in the linguistic difficulties that it presents. Tradition holds that Zoroaster composed the eighteen poems that make up the oldest parts of the Avesta, the Gathas. The language of the Gathas and of the text known as Yasna Haptanghaiti (the "Seven Chapter Sermon"), is called Old Avestan, and is significantly more archaic than the language of the later parts of the Avesta, Young Avestan. Gathic Avestan is still rather close to the Vedic Sanskrit of the Rigveda. Sound changes separating the two branches, both descending independently from Proto-Indo-Iranian, include loss of z and development of a retroflex series in Indo-Aryan and loss of aspiration and of prevocalic s in Iranian.
Since Rigvedic Sanskrit is slightly more conservative than Gathic Avestan, the Avesta is usually dated to a few centuries after the Rigveda. Based on the date of the composition of the Rigveda, commonly put to between the 15th to the 12th centuries BC, and a date of Proto-Indo-Iranian of roughly 2000 BC, the Gāthās are dated to around 1000 BC (with 1200 BC as likely as 800 BC, compare glottochronology for the inaccuracy of such estimates).
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 Gathas are very cryptic, and open to much interpretation, such a method can also only yield very rough estimates. The Gathas point to a society of nomadic pastoralists, contrasting sharply with a view of a Zoroaster living in the court of an Achaemenid satrap such as Vištaspa. 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 sometime between the 13th to the 11th centuries BC, before Iranian tribes settled in the central and west of the Iranian Plateau, but it is just as likely for him to have lived in a rural society during the centuries immediately after the Iranian migration. The historical estimate is thus consistent with, but just as vague as, the linguistic one. Gherardo Gnoli gives a date near ca. 1000 BC.
Archaeological evidence is usually inconclusive for questions of religion. However, a Russian archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, links Zoroaster to ca. 2000 BC based upon excavations of the BMAC (Asgarov, 1984). Indo-Iranian religion is generally accepted to have had its roots in the late 3rd millennium BC (e.g. the Soma cult); but Zoroaster himself already looked back on a long religious tradition. The Yaz culture (ca. 1500-1100 BC) in the Turkmen-Iranian border area is considered a likely staging ground for the development of East Iranian and early Zoroastrian practices.
Zoroaster was famous in classical antiquity as the founder of the religion of the Magi. His name is cited by Xanthus, and in the Alcibiades of Plato as well as by Plutarch, Pliny the Elder and Diogenes Laertius. Ancient Greek estimates are dependent upon Persian mythology, and give dates as early as the 7th millennium BC. These are the dates to which Parsis subscribe., 
Persian mythology, mainly the Shahnama of Ferdowsi, and oral tradition place Zoroaster quite early. Manly Palmer Hall in his book, Twelve World Teachers, arrives at a rough estimate ranging from 10000 BCE to 1000 BCE.
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 from archaeological 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) and the Shāhnāma are based on earlier texts which are no longer extant.
It is fair to say that Zoroaster lived in the northeastern area of ancient Persian territory. The Greeks refer to him as a Bactrian (present-day Afghanistan) because this is where he preached his religion. His wife was named Hvōvi, and they had three daughters, Freni and Pourucista and Triti, and three sons, Isat Vastar and Uruvat-Nara and Hvare Ciθra. His mother was Dughdova; his father was Pourushaspa Spitāma son of Haecadaspa Spitāma. His illumination from Ahura Mazdā 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 hermitic life-style. According to tradition, and Pliny's Natural History, 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 Aməša Spəntas "Immortals" (Pahlavi Amahraspandān). However, they seem to contain allusions to personal events, over-coming 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 Daēvas or "evil immortals" (Pahlavi Dēwān), and is tempted by Ahriman to renounce his faith (Yasht, 17,19), comparable to the story of the Temptation of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels.
The historical Zoroaster, however, eludes categorization as a legendary character. The Gāthās within the Avesta make claim to be the ipsissima verba (the literal word) 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 Vištāspa.
Zoroaster in 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 Ditya River, 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 birth-place, and the home of his father. This same text identifies Ērān Wēj with the district of Aran on the river Aras (Araxes), close by the north-western frontier of the 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 Persian 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, Zoroaster prayed for the conversion of 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, viziers 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 relied 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 the surname Spitama. His sons and daughters are repeatedly mentioned. His death is not mentioned in the Avesta; in the Shahnama, 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 Book of Arda Viraf, Zoroaster taught an estimated 300 years before the invasion of Alexander the Great. Assyrian inscriptions relegate him to a more ancient period. Eduard Meyer maintains that the Zoroastrian religion must have been predominant among the Medes; therefore, he 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 among the Medes as the prophet of a new faith, but met with sacerdotal opposition and turned eastward. Zoroastrianism then seems to have acquired a solid footing in eastern Iran, where it continues to survive in dwindling numbers.
The teachings of Zoroaster are presented in seventeen 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) (cognate with Sanskrit sumata, sukta, suvartana).
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).
- Vohu Manu, Pahlavi Wahman, "Good Mind": the principle of the good
- 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)
- Xšaθra- Vairya-, Pahlavi Šahrewar: "Best Rule", the power and kingdom of Ahura Mazdā and guardian of metals
- Spɚnta- Ārmatay-, Pahlavi Spandarmad, "Holy Thought": the female immortal of the earth
- Haurvatat: "Perfection"
- Amərətatāt, Pahlavi Amurdād: Geush Urvan, defender of animals, and Sraōša, Pahlavi "Immortality", the guardian of food and plants.
Another prominent immortal is Srōš, "Obedience".
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 lost ancient wisdom and was appropriated by Freemasons and other groups who claimed access to such knowledge. He appears in Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte 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.
Zoroaster was ranked #93 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history.
In 2005 Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy places ZARATHUSHTRA number one (#1) in the chronology of philosophers. The Chronology of philosophers begins with Zarathushtra according to Oxford University. This is because Zarathushtra is the founder and father of the Rational System-philosophy Mazda-Yasna. The word Mazda Yasna is avestan and is translated as "worship of wisdom" in english. This alone makes him father of humanity and ethics. The ZARATHUSHTRIANS who worshiped wisdom, educated the Greeks in this area. So the Greeks later used a similar word to the Iranian one, the word philosophy in Greek means "Love of Wisdom".
Thus Spoke Zarathustra
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche used the name of Zarathustra in his 1885 seminal book Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke 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 manicheic opposition between "good" and "evil", by rejecting the Daēva (representing natural forces) in favor of a moral order represented by the Ahuras. It was this act that Nietzsche proposed to invert. Beyond Good and Evil, however, does not mean "beyond good and bad", as he warned in this work.
Richard Strauss's Opus 30, inspired by Nietzsche's book, is also called Also sprach Zarathustra. Its opening theme (corresponding to the book's prologue) was memorably used to score the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Zoroaster in the Bahá'í Faith
Bahá'ís believe that Zoroaster was a "Manifestation of God", or one in a line of prophets who have revealed the Word of God progressively for a gradually maturing humanity. In this way, Zoroaster shares an exalted station with Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, and the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh. However, the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith caution believers that, as is the case with many Manifestations, few if any teachings of Zoroaster that have survived to the modern age can be authenticated, and any contradictions between the teachings of the Manifestations are ascribed to later corruptions or the differing needs of the age and culture. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Faith, wrote that Bahá'u'lláh fulfilled the Zoroastrian prophecy of the return of the Sháh-Bahrám: "To Him [Bahá'u'lláh] Zoroaster must have alluded when, according to tradition, He foretold that a period of three thousand years of conflict and contention must needs precede the advent of the World-Savior Sháh-Bahrám, Who would triumph over Ahriman and usher in an era of blessedness and peace." `Abdu'l-Bahá, one of the Bahá'í Faith's Central Figures, said that Zoroaster lived roughly 1,000 years before Jesus.
Zoroaster in Tajikistan
President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmonov successfully encouraged UNESCO to declare 2002-2003 the third millennium since Zoroaster's birth, and in his book, The Tajiks in the Mirror of History, he claimed that Zoroaster was a Tajik from Bactria. Rahmonov, a Muslim who has performed the hajj still stated in his work:
- "Many principles of the Zarathushtrian religion have left a deep imprint on the [Tajik] people's mind. The habit has been preserved prohibiting the killing of animals when they are pregnant and the cutting of trees in blossom. Water, earth and fire have to be protected from any impurity. The fumes of some fragrant herbs are still used to keep away sickness and the force of evil.
- These and many other examples give evidence that in every Tajik house we may find trace of Zarathushtra's teachings.
- Let us hope in the new millennium, the Tajik people will continue to live under the spiritual guidance of Zarathushtra, the prophet of truth and light."
This nod to Tajikistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, from UNESCO then gave rise to an extraordinary show of support by Zoroastrian organizations worldwide, resulting in hundreds of large and small commemorative events to celebrate the declared anniversary-- from Dushanbe to Tehran, to Mumbai, to New York, to Vancouver. UNESCO's secretary-general delivered several speeches and texts cementing UNESCO's support for this worldwide collaboration.
- 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 (transoxiana.com).
- Humbach, Helmut. The Gathas of Zarathushtra, Heidelberg, 1991.
- Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra : Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World's First Prophet, Vintage (2004), ISBN 1-4000-3142-7
- Shapur Shahbazi, Ali Reza. “The Traditional Date of Zoroaster Explained”, BSOAS, Vol 40, No. 1. London. (archive link).
- Rüdiger Schmitt, Zoroaster, the name, Encyclopaedia Iranica (online edition, mirror)
- Mary Settegast, When Zarathustra Spoke: The Reformation of Neolithic Culture and Religion, Costa, Mesa, CA, Mazda Publishers, 2005.
- Mark Willey, 'Influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism and Christianity' in Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism (mirror)
- List of founders of major religions
- Airyanem Vaejah - Place where Zoroaster lived according to Avesta
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