Zoroaster Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

Gathas (hymns) 7th century b.c.

The Gathas (translated by J. H. Moulton in Early Zoroastrianism) 1913


Jal Dastur Cursetji Pavry (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Zoroastrian Doctrine of a Future Life: From Death to the Individual Judgement, second edition, 1929. Reprint AMS Press, 1965, pp. 1-8.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1929, Pavry discusses the form and style of Zoroaster's Gathasand observes that according to Zoroaster's doctrines, salvation is achieved through faith and works.]

Yōi mōi ahmāi ssraošsm
dąn čayasčā
upā.jimsn haurvātā
amsrstātā vaehsuš
mainysuš šyaoθanāiš.

—Gāthā Ushtavaitī, Ys. 45. 5.



(The entire section is 3136 words.)

John W. Waterhouse (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: “The Scriptures of Zoroastrianism” in Zoroastrianism, Epworth Press, 1934, pp. 42-56.

[In the essay below, Waterhouse examines the process by which the Avesta, including Zoroaster's Gathas, was compiled and discusses the structure of each.]

The discovery of the key to the understanding of the Avesta, the Bible of the Parsis, is a romantic story. In the year 1754, a young Frenchman, Anquetil du Perron, saw a few pages of a manuscript in an unknown Oriental tongue, in a library at Paris. His interest and curiosity were so awakened that he determined at all costs to decipher the writing. He thereupon joined the French East India Company as a ranker, and...

(The entire section is 4142 words.)

R. C. Zaehner (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: “The Prophet” in The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1961, pp. 33-61.

[In the essay that follows, Zaehner offers an overview of Zoroaster's life and his spiritual doctrines, as outlined in the Gathas.]


The traditional date the Zoroastrians assign to their Prophet is ‘258 years before Alexander’, and for the Persian or Iranian the name ‘Alexander’ can only have meant the sack of Persepolis, the extinction of the Achaemenian Empire, and the death of the last of the kings of kings, Darius III. This occurred in 330 bc, and Zoroaster's date would then be 588 bc, and this date we may...

(The entire section is 14101 words.)

Richard N. Frye (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Iranian Traditions” in The Heritage of Persia, World Publishing Company, 1963, pp. 15-52.

[In the following excerpt, Frye reviews the controversy surrounding the dating of Zoroaster and his scriptures, outlines the differences between Zoroaster's teachings and other ancient beliefs, and comments on the influence of Zoroaster on the development of the Iranian epic tradition.]


Zarathushtra, or Zoroaster, as the Greeks called him, presents many problems, and it is discouraging that after so many years of research we do not know when or where he lived or even precisely his teachings. One may marshal the...

(The entire section is 5671 words.)

Ilya Gershevitch (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “Zoroaster's Own Contribution,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, January, 1964, pp. 12-38.

[In the essay below, Gershevitch investigates the nature of the discrepancies between the doctrines Zoroaster puts forth in the Gathas and those beliefs attributed to him in the Later Avesta.]


Zoroaster's own verses, the Gathas, which may be dated to the first half of the sixth century b.c., form only a small part of the scripture that goes under the name of the Avesta. The difference between the doctrine which Zoroaster states or implies in the Gathas and...

(The entire section is 16678 words.)

George G. Cameron (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Zoroaster the Herdsman,” Indo-Iranian Journal, Vol. X, No. 4, 1968, pp. 261-81.

[In the essay below, Cameron argues that Zoroaster's many references to the cow, pasturage, and herdsmen in the Gathas should be read as metaphors, rather than be taken literally—as they often have been by followers and scholars alike.]

The message of the prophet Zoroaster would have made strong appeal to those people in any era of time who, in the morass of polytheism, were searching for new approaches toward deity. He taught that there was a single god whom all men should recognize and worship since He, who was present at the beginning and would still be present at...

(The entire section is 10028 words.)

Mary Boyce (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Iconoclasm among the Zoroastrians” in Christianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults, Part Four, edited by Jacob Neusner, E. J. Brill, 1975, pp. 93-111.

[In the essay below, Boyce examines the way in which the veneration of fire, which served an important role in Zoroaster's teachings, was transformed by his followers to a ritual temple cult.]

The iconoclastic movement in Christianity has been carefully studied, as has Islamic iconomachy, but the origins of both still present problems; and in investigating these consideration should certainly be given to the fact that Zoroastrianism, ancient and until the 9th century a.d. immensely influential, had an...

(The entire section is 8362 words.)

Cyrus R. Pangborn (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Scriptures and Doctrines” in Zoroastrianism: A Beleaguered Faith, Advent Books, 1983, pp. 13-49.

[In the following essay, Pangborn analyzes the development of Zoroastrianism from the qualified monotheism of Zoroaster's Gathas, through the ritual polytheism of the Later Avesta, to the controversy between the purist reform movement and the orthodoxy of modern Zoroastrianism.]

We have now identified the Zoroastrians and those composing their largest single—and, in recent times, modestly dispersed—community, the Parsis. Meanwhile, little has been said about the substance of the faith which, after all, enough people having embraced it, sets...

(The entire section is 15074 words.)

Further Reading


Afnan, Ruhi Muhsen. Zoroaster's Influence on Greek Thought. New York, N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1965, 436 p.

Analysis of the degree to which Zoroaster and his doctrines influenced the thinking of various Greek philosophers and schools of philosophical thought, including the Milesian school; the Orphic and Pythagorean mystics; the Eleatics; Heraclitus; Protagoras; Socrates; and Plato.

Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975, 347 p.

Historical analysis of the religious background from which Zoroastrianism arose; Zoroaster and his doctrines; and the “prehistoric period” of...

(The entire section is 284 words.)