What Do We Know about the Mysterious Zoroaster?
Did this guy really invent magic?
Much has been written about Zoroaster – perhaps too much, because he couldn’t possibly be what many people think he was. Actually, he may never have existed!
Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra or Zarantustra, lived sometime between the eighteenth and sixth centuries B.C.E, though some think he could have existed as long ago as 6000 B.C.E. You’d think scholars and scientists could narrow the timeline somewhat but apparently they haven’t been able to do so!
Zoroaster was the reputed founder of Zoroastrianism, perhaps the major religion of the Achaemenid Empire (a.k.a. the Persian Empire), which flourished from about 550 B.C.E. to 330 B.C.E, when Alexander the Great conquered its vast expanse. Modern Iran approximates the heart of the Achaemenid Empire.
Nobody seems to know where Zoroaster was born either, though many claim it happened in their country. Many Arabic sources assert he was born in Azerbaijan, a region in northwestern Iran, as opposed to the modern country known as such. In fact, so many countries have laid claim to Zoroaster that it has been suggested he was actually more than one person!
Be that as it may, there are two texts which comprise the sacred works of Zoroastrianism: the Gathas, containing some 5,660 words, and the Yasna Haptanghaiti. These are collections of hymns supposedly written by Zoroaster and both hold references to the life of the prophet. But there appears to be no historical Zoroaster, only collections of legends.
Here are a few lines from the Gathas:
Owing to the best thought, word and deed, inspired through righteousness, Ahura Mazda doth give unto us happiness, immortality (heaven), prosperity and perfect mindedness through Spenta-Mainyu (Beneficent spirit).
The Religion of Zoroastrianism
As the story goes, Zoroaster was given the light by Ahura Mazda, the highest god of the Old Iranian religion. Ahura Mazda was considered omniscient but not all-powerful, though he eventually defeats Angra Mainyu, the evil one. However, some experts think Zoroastrianism may be one of the first monotheistic religions.
According to the tenets of the religion, the purpose of humankind is to sustain Asa (the truth), as opposed to druj (the lie). Interestingly, according to the Younger Avesta, written centuries after the Gathas, Zoroaster was confronted by Angra Mainyu, who tempted him to reject his faith. This event may have some similarity to what happened to Jesus Christ when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, as written in three of the canonical Gospels.
Zoroastrianism influenced many other ancient civilizations. In Classic Greek philosophy Heraclitus was inspired by Zoroaster’s teachings. To many Greeks, Zoroaster was the sorcerer-astrologer. As for the Romans, Pliny the elder called Zoroaster the inventor of magic. And Christian-Judeo literature associates Zoroaster with Nimrod, a Babylonian and the inventor of astrology.
In fact, numerous books throughout antiquity have been attributed to Zoroaster, but all of these are certainly spurious. Nevertheless, Zoroaster and the religion he spawned have stood the test of time, as people still practice Zoroastrianism.
Probably of interest to many, Richard Strauss’ Opus 30, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), was used during the prologue of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Modern Discoveries at Archaeological Sites
In an article entitled “Seeking Zoroastrianism’s Roots” written by Andrew Lawler in the September/October 2011 issue of Archaeology magazine, the author suggests that Zoroaster may have been born in Balkh, once a major city on the Silk Road and now a small town in Northern Afghanistan. Incidentally, modern adherents of the Zoroastrianism call it “the good religion.”
The article goes on to say that In the mid-fifth century B.C.E., Herodotus the historian said that Persians worshipped the sun, moon and the elements, particularly fire. To Zoroastrians, fire is the manifestation of the deity Ahura Mazda. Archaeological sites dating from about 400 B.C.E. in Uzbekistan, Cheshm-e Shafa in northern Afghanistan and Nush-i-Jan in northeastern Iran show the ruins of Achaemenid period temples where Zoroastrian fire altars have been uncovered by archaeologists. But experts disagree on whether the Achaemenid Persians practiced Zoroastrianism, though it seems they almost certainly worshipped Ahura Mazda.
At any rate, Zoroaster and the religion he founded have made a lasting impact on other religions in the Middle East. Muslims adopted the practice of praying five times a day from Zoroastrianism, and Iranians still celebrate the beginning of spring, which was the religion’s holiest day. Also, at the birth of Jesus, three magi came from the east to see the Christ-child. These three were priests of “the good religion.”
Admittedly, there isn’t much information available about Zoroaster. Nobody knows for certain where he was born - or that he was ever born. But, since the name Zoroaster has been thrown around throughout history, his name seems synonymous with mystery, exotic knowledge, magic and astrological notions. Thus, in a fashion, if you know Zoroaster, you know the wisdom of the ages!
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© 2011 Kelley Marks