Zoroaster Critical Essays

Introduction

Zoroaster 628 b.c.?-551 b.c.?

(Also known as Zarathustra.) Founder of the Persian-Iranian national religion and hymn writer.

As the founder of what has been described as either a qualified monotheistic or a dualistic religion, Zoroaster and his doctrines stood in stark contrast to the polytheism of the contemporary Indo-Iranian religious traditions that surrounded him. The hymns of praise he composed, known as the Gathas, may have been either dictated by him or transcribed by his disciples. From his Gathas developed a religious tradition and scriptures that eventually took a form very different from what Zoroaster originally conceived. The Avesta—which includes Zoroaster's Gathas as well as commentary and other scriptures—became the text of Zoroastrians and, in its later editions, known as the Younger or Later Avesta, preached a ritualistic polytheism. Zoroastrian practice subsequently reverted to a dualistic theology. Modern practitioners of the faith are torn between orthodoxy and a purist reform movement advocating a strict return to the Gathas as the basis of faithful worship.

Biographical Information

Extremely little is known about Zoroaster's life. His birth and death dates are conjecture based on assumption and late Zoroastrian tradition, which date Zoroaster 258 years before Alexander the Great. It has been suggested that this date refers to the year Zoroaster converted King Vishtaspa, when, as tradition has it, Zoroaster was forty-two years old. Just as little is known about where Zoroaster was born and lived, although many scholars agree that he lived and taught in eastern Iran, and linguistic evidence appears to support this contention.

Major Works

Zoroaster's Gathas, critics believe, dates from about the seventh century b.c. The earliest manuscripts of the Avesta, which contains the Gathas, date from the thirteenth century, although the majority of extant manuscripts date from the seventeenth century. In seventeen metrical stanzas, sixteen of which are attributed to Zoroaster, the prophet presents anthems of divine praise. The hymns are arranged into five groups, based on meter. The god worshiped by Zoroaster in the Gathas is known as Ahura Mazdah, who is identified with a number of emanations or entities, including a Holy Spirit and a Fiendish Spirit, drawn respectively to Truth and Falsehood. It is the close identification of Ahura Mazdah and the Holy Spirit, as well as the opposition between Ahura Mazdah and Angra Mainyu, the spirit of falsehood and evil, that have led to Zoroastrianism's being described as a dualistic religion. Additionally, the Later Avesta translated the Gathic and Avestic dialects of the earlier texts into the middle Persian dialect, Pahlavi, and the names of Ahura Mazdah and Angra Mainyu were replaced with Ormuzd and Ahriman. Conflict between the two was emphasized, which again contributed to the characterization of Zoroastrianism as dualistic in nature. Other elements of Zoroastrian doctrine include the bestowing of free will on humanity by Ahura Mazdah and man's subsequent responsibility for his own fate, as well as the use of fire as the symbol of truth.

Critical Reception

Critical analyses of Zoroastrianism in general and of the Gathas in particular have focused largely on the nature of the faith as originally outlined by Zoroaster in the Gathas and on the development of the faith into its later and modern forms. John W. Waterhouse details the way the Avesta was compiled, beginning with the Gathas and the writings of the faithful who immediately followed Zoroaster, through the layers of editing, elaboration, and commentary on these earlier writings. Waterhouse also discusses the structure of the Gathas and the Avesta. R. C. Zaehner surveys what little is known about Zoroaster's life and briefly discusses the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, noting that in both faiths there exists a system of rewards and punishments for man's behavior, and an afterlife filled with either “bliss” or “woe” reserved for good and evil people. Zaehner then goes on to examine the primary characteristics of Zoroaster's doctrines. Like Zaehner, Richard N. Frye reviews the controversy over the dates affixed to Zoroaster's life and death. Frye comments on the differences between Zoroaster's message and the ancient beliefs out of which the faith arose. Additionally, Frye observes that Zoroaster's Gathas influenced the development of the epic tradition in Iran. Many critics study the way in which the beliefs of Zoroastrianism progressed from the faith professed by Zoroaster in the Gathas to the way it was presented in the Later Avesta. Ilya Gershevitch traces this development, demonstrating how the monotheistic/dualistic religion found in the Gathas was later practiced as a form of pagan polytheism, but then reverted to a system of belief in two deities, God and the devil. Gershevitch maintains that the Younger Avesta, which contains this mixture of monotheism, dualism, and polytheism, should be interpreted not as a religious system, but as an anthology of Old Iranian cults and folklore. Like Gershevitch, Cyrus R. Pangborn's main interest is in the evolution of Zoroastrianism. Pangborn studies in particular the transition from Zoroaster's qualified monotheism to the ritualistic polytheism of the Later Avesta and to the subsequent practice of theological dualism. Jal Dastur Cursetji Pavry similarly outlines the development of the religion of Zoroastrianism, but focuses on the style and structure of the Gathas. Noting that the language Zoroaster uses is archaic and quite different from that used in the rest of the Avesta, Pavry goes on to describe the style of the Gathas as “exceedingly lofty,” and the ideas expressed there as abstract in nature. George G. Cameron likewise studies the literary elements of the Gathas, examining Zoroaster's use of metaphor. Explaining that Zoroaster's references to the cow, pasturage, and herdsmen have been interpreted literally by followers and critics, Cameron argues that such references should be viewed as figures of speech, in the same way that Christian texts employ the shepherd/flock metaphor to refer to Christ and his followers.