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The Search for the Historical Zoroaster

ZoroastrianAll classical antiquity, without a dissentient voice, speaks of Zoroaster as an historical person. But some treat Zoroaster or Zarathustra — the former is the Greek, the latter the old Iranian form of the name, contracted in Persian to Zardusht — as a mythical personage, a figure-head of the official class of the religion, who give currency to their edicts under his name. Weighty authorities may, however, be quoted for the historical reality of Zoroaster, and what appears most important of all, the editor of the Gathas.

In the Avesta, Zarathustra is presented as a mythical poet and priest. This Zarathustra is not a “historical” person in the sense that he belongs in a known historical context or that there are recognizable historical details associated with him. He is also not represented as a “real” person in the texts, much less so than, for instance, Jesus in the Gospels. Some have argued that there is therefore no advantage in assuming that he was a historical person who lived in such and such a place at such and such a time. The futility of such assumptions is indicated by the disagreements among Western scholars on these points.

Zoroaster too, like his great fellow teacher Buddha, fell under the ban of modern scepticism. According to Dannesteter and Eduard Meyer, the Parsee saint is a mere myth, a divinity invested with human attributes, an incarnation of the storm-god, who with his divine word, the thunder, comes down from heaven and smites the demons. Dannesteter, however, failed to realize sufficiently the distinction between the Zoroaster of the later Avesta and the Zoroaster of the Gathas. It cannot be denied that in the later Avesta, and still more in writings of more recent date, he is presented in a supernatural light and invested with superhuman powers. At his appearing all nature rejoices (Yatna 13, OS); he enters into conflict with the demons and rids the earth of their presence (Yatna 17, 19); Satan approaches him as tempter to make him renounce his faith (Yd., 19, 6). Ths Zardusfu-lfdma is full of miracles and miraculous deliverances wrought by Zoroaster.

But it is quite otherwise in the Gathas. The Gathas alone within the Avesta make any claim to be the actual words of the prophet; in the rest of that work they are put into Zoroastor's own mouth (Yatna, 9, 1) and are expressly called "the Gathas of the holy Zoroaster" (Yatna, 67, 8). The litanies of the Yasns, and the Yashts, refer to him as a personage belonging to a remote antiquity. The Vendidad also merely gives accounts of the dialogues between Ormnzd and Zoroaster. The Gathas alone claim to be authentic utterances of Zoroaster, his genuine expressions in presence of the assembled church.

The person too of the Zoroaster in these hymns differs from the Zoroaster of the younger Avesta. He is the exact opposite of the miraculous personage of later legend, — a mere man, standing always on the solid ground of reality, whose only arms are trust in his God and the protection of his powerful allies. And at times his position is precarious enough. Tthe Zoroaster in the Gathas has had to face, not merely all forms of outward opposition and the unbelief and lukewarmness of adherents, but also the inward misgivings of his own heart as to the truth and final victory of his cause. At one time hope, at another despondency, now assured confidence, now doubt and despair, hero a firm faith in the speedy coming of the kingdom of heaven, there the thought of taking refuge by flight, — such is the range of the emotions which find their immediate expression in these hymns. And the whole breathes such a genuine originality, all is psychologically so accurate and just, the earliest beginnings of the new religious movement, the childhood of a new community of faith, are reflected so naturally in them all, that it is impossible for a moment to think of a later period of composition by a priesthood devoid of any historical sense, and incapable of reconstructing for themselves the spiritual conditions under which Zoroaster lived.

As soon as the position has been fully mastered — that in the GathAs there is firm historical ground on which Zoroaster and his surroundings may rest, that here are the beginnings of the Zoroastrian religion — then it becomes impossible to answer otherwise than affirmatively every general question as to the historical character of Zoroaster. On the other hand, not much may be expected from the Gathas in the way of definite detail. They give no historical account of the life and teaching of their prophet, but rather recapitulate the main points of interest, often again in an allusive way. It must be remembered too that their extent is but limited.

As to the age in which Zoroaster flourished, there have been the greatest discrepancies among the ancient authorities. Ctesias makes him a contemporary of Semiramis. Hermippus of Smyrna places him 5000 years before the Trojan War, Xanthus of Lydia 6000 years before Xerxes. Aristotle assigned him a similar antiquity. Aristotle and Eudoxus say that he lived 6000 years before Plato; while Berosus, the Babylonian historian, makes him a king of Babylon, and the founder of a dynasty which reigned over Babylon between 2200 and 2000 BC. Agathias remarks (ii. 24) with perfect truth that it is no longer possible to determine with any certainty when he lived and legislated. "The Persians," he adds, "say that Zoroaster lived under Hystaspes, but do not make it clear whether by this name they mean the father of Darius or another Hystaspes. But, whatever may have been his date, he was their teacher and instructor.

Bro. Albert Pike, who devoted much labor to the investigation of this confused subject of the Zoroastrian era, says, in an able article in Mackey's National freemason, (vol. mil., No. 3:) "In the year 1903 before Alexander, or 2234 BC, a Zarathustrian king of Media conquered Babylon. The religion even then had degenerated into Magism, and was of unknown age. The unfortunate theory that Vitacpa, one of the most efficient allies of Zarathustra, was the father of Darius Hystaspes. has long ago been set at rest. In the Chaldean lists of Berosus, as found in the Armenian edition of Eusebius, the name Zoroaster appears as that of the Median conqueror of Babylon; but he can only have received this title from being a follower of Zarathustra and professing his religion. He was preceded by a series of eighty-four Median kings; and the real Zarathustra lived in Bactria long before the tide of emigration had flowed thence into Media. Aristotle and Eudoxus, according to Pliny, place Zarathustra 6000 years before the death of Plato; Hermippus, 5000 years before the Trojan war. Plato died 348 BC; so that the two dates substantially agree, making the date of Zarathustra's reign 6300 or 6350 BC; and I have no doubt that this is not far from the truth."

Bunsen, however, (God in History, vol. i., b. iii., ch. vL, p. 276,) speaks of Zarathustra Spitama as living under the reign of Vistaspa towards the year 3000 BC, certainly not later than towards 2500 BC. He calls him "one of the mightiest intellects and one of the greatest men of all time;" and he says of him: "Accounted by his contemporaries a blasphemer, atheist, and firebrand worthy of death; regarded even by his own adherents, after some centuries, as the founder of magic, by others as a sorcerer and deceiver, he was, nevertheless, recognized already by Hippocrates as a great spiritual hero, and esteemed the earliest sage of a primeval epoch — reaching back to 5000 years before their date — by Eudoxus, Plato, and Aristotle."

The date of Zoroaster or Zarathustra can only be fixed very approximately. He stands at the very beginning of the Avesta literature, and the developments in religion to which that literature testifies must have occupied a long period. On the other hand no one proposes to place Zarathustra before the departure of the Indian Aryans from the IndoIranian stock. From such vague data he may be assigned perhaps to somewhere about 1400 BC. The Parsees are more moderate in their calculations, and say that their prophet was a contemporary of Hystaspes, the father of Darius, and accordingly place his era at 550 BC, Haug, however, in his Essays on the Sacred Language, etc., of the Parsees, declares that this supposition is utterly groundless. He thinks that we can, under no circumstances, assign him a later date than 1000 BC, and is not even disinclined to place his era much earlier, and make him a contemporary of Moses.

UNESCO's member states agreed to celebrate the 3000th anniversary of Zoroastrian religion and culture during 2002-2003. While the anniversary approximates the date when Zarathustra's orally transmitted teachings - the Gathas - began to be collected, the religion itself is nearly a millennium older. Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion dating back to the Iranian Stone Age, is still practiced in areas of Iran and India.

Zoroaster is unknown to both Herodotus and Ctesias, the earliest mention of him occurring in a fragment questionably ascribed to Xanthus of Lydia and in Plato (Alcib. I., 122). The later Greek writers place him with almost one consent in the east of Iran, and more particularly in Bactria. The name is not mentioned by Herodotus in his Bketch of the Medo-Persian religion (L 131 ) but it occurs in a fragment (29) of the earlier writer Xanthus. Plato calls Zoroaster the founder of the doctrine of the Magi and a son of Oromazes. According to Hermodorus, one of Plato's disciples, he was a Persian, the first Magian; according to Hermippus, a Bactrian; according to Trogus Pompeius, even king of the Bactrians and founder of the Magian art and knowledge of the stars; according to Diodorus, an Arian, that is, a native of east Iran.

It is generally agreed, that Zoroaster was the original author and founder of this sect; but authors are considerably divided in their opinions about the time in which he lived. What Pliny says upon this may reasonably serve to reconcile that variety of opinions. He states that there were two persons named Zoroaster, between whose lives there might be the distance of 600 years. The first of them was the founder of the Magian sect, about the year 1100 BC; and the latter, who flourished between the beginning of Cyrus's reign in the East, and the end of Darius's, son of Hystaspes, was the restorer and reformer of it. A few details as to his life are given. Thus, according to Pliny, he laughed on the very day of his birth — a statement found also in the Zardusht-Ndma — and for thirty years he lived in the wilderness upon cheese.

The issue of the date of Zoroaster in the ancient and medieval tradition was divorced from the problems of Cyrus’ rise when the scholarly consensus during the 1980s and 1990s tended to date Zoroaster to the turn of the millennium or even earlier. A return by some scholars to the so-called “traditional date” (c.600), however, lent a renewed urgency to this old debate. The correspondence of names in Darius’ family to those illustrious in Avestan tradition — most prominently the name of Vishtaspa — places Darius’ family in a Mazdaean setting. Whether the Mazdaean belief system, was relatively new or not in the late seventh–early sixth centuries is contentious. It certainly seems new in western Iran at the time of Darius, but that is simply because it cannot be clearly tracked before Darius.

The most recent scholarship is inclined to assign Zoroaster to the 6th century BC; and with precision it is reported that he was born in 628 BC and that he died in 551 BC. Others would place his birth at about 660 BC, and his death about 583 BC. Some suggest that he arose in Media rather than in Bactria, the tradition which makes him a Bactrian being late.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:20 ZULU