Zoroaster Reference


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Persian religious leader{$I[g]Persia;Zoroaster} The founder of one of the great ethical religions of the ancient world, Zoroaster exerted direct and indirect influence on the development of three other world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Early Life

Zoroaster (ZOHR-uh-was-tur)—the corrupt Greek name of the Persian name Zarathustra (zah-rah-THEWS-trah)—was one of the most important religious reformers of the ancient world and the founder of a new religion that took his name: Zoroastrianism. Because very little is known about his life, the dates of his birth and death are disputed. According to tradition, he “lived 258 years before Alexander” the Great. This has been interpreted as 258 years before Alexander’s conquest of Persia in 330 b.c.e. The date has also been interpreted not as a birth date but as the date of one of three principal events in Zoroaster’s life: his vision and revelation at the age of thirty, the beginning of his preaching at age forty, or the conversion of King Vishtaspa (or Hystapas) two years later. As, according to tradition, Zoroaster lived for seventy-seven years, he lived between 630 and 553, 628 and 551, or 618 and 541.

Although he was never deified, legends and pious embellishments began to grow about Zoroaster after his death. Such legends have both clarified and obscured modern knowledge about him. It was said that he was the product of a miraculous birth and that at birth he laughed aloud, thus driving away evil spirits. As an adult, he became a great lover of wisdom and righteousness, withdrawing to an isolated mountain wilderness, where he survived on cheese and wild fruit. There he was tempted by the devil but successfully resisted. He was then subjected to intense physical torture, which he endured by clinging to his faith in Ahura Mazda, the true god and the Lord of Light. He received a revelation from Ahura Mazda in the form of the Avesta, the holy book of his religion, and was commissioned to preach to humankind. After suffering ridicule and persecution for many years, he at last found a convert and patron in King Vishtaspa. Married and the father of a daughter and two sons, Zoroaster appears to have enjoyed a degree of local prominence at his patron’s court. His daughter apparently married a leading minister of the king.

Life’s Work

Like the other great ethical religions, Zoroastrianism had its origins in its founder’s reaction to the religious beliefs and practices of his people. The religion of the pre-Zoroastrian Persians displays many features in common with Hinduism. This is understandable, because the ancient settlers of Persia and India came from the same Aryan tribes that had invaded Persia and India a millennium before Zoroaster’s birth. Persian religion before Zoroaster was polytheistic, with specific deities attached to the three major classes of society: chiefs and priests, warriors, and farmers and cattle breeders. The deities known as asuras (lords), who alone were endowed with an ethical character, were attached exclusively to the first class. Two forms of sacrifice were practiced: animal sacrifice, apparently to propitiate the gods, and the drinking of the fermented juice of the sacred haoma plant, which, through the intoxication it induced, supplied a foretaste of immortality. To perform the sacrifices and the other rituals, a priestly class, the magi, rose to a position of great power in early Persian society.

Basing his teaching on the Avesta, a book of revelations from Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster conceived it as his mission to purify the traditional beliefs of his people by eradicating polytheism, animal sacrifice, and magic and to establish a new, more ethical and spiritual religion. Ultimately, Zoroastrianism succeeded because of its founder’s and early followers’ ability to accommodate their teachings with certain features of traditional Persian religion.

It is impossible to determine how many of the teachings of Zoroastrianism originated with its founder. The Avesta, as it has come down to the present, is composed of several divisions, including two liturgical texts, prayers, and two sets of hymns, only one of which, the Gathas, is definitely ascribed to Zoroaster. Much of the Avesta has been destroyed or lost. Zoroaster probably made additional contributions, as did his later followers. There is, however, general agreement that it was Zoroaster who provided the central teaching of his religion.

According to Zoroaster, the history of the world was the ongoing conflict between the forces of good and evil. God, Ahura Mazda, represented the former; the devil, Ahriman, the latter. Ahura Mazda, one of several of the asuras of traditional Persian religion, was elevated by Zoroaster to the place of the one high god; Zoroastrianism was originally a distinctly monotheistic religion, although later it absorbed polytheistic features. Zoroaster divided history into four three-thousand-year periods, during which Ahura Mazda and Ahriman competed for people’s souls and the ultimate victory of their respective causes. At the end of the final stage, which some Zoroastrians interpreted as beginning with the birth of Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda would overpower Ahriman and his minions in a great conflagration and cast them into the abyss. This would be...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)