views updated May 29 2018


ZARATHUSHTRA . Zarathushtra (known in the West under his Graeco-Latin name of Zoroaster) is seen by all Zoroastrians and by most modern scholars as the founder or the prophet of Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in the Iranian world up to the ninth century ce. Since modern scholarship dates the earliest texts of Zoroastrianism (attributed to Zarathushtra himself) to the beginning of the first millennium bce and there is broad agreement over the fact that these texts were not written down before the fifth century ce, it is not surprising that the historicity of Zarathushtra has been doubted by several modern scholars. Two different approaches are available for an introduction to this pivotal person in the development of one of the oldest and most influential of all religions. The first is based on the Zoroastrian traditions concerning his life and mission and the second on the findings of modern scholarship. These two approaches, which often interlock in both religious and academic writings, need to be discussed separately here not only to avoid anachronisms but also because modern assumptions about Zarathushtra's activities tend to distort the image of the prophet in premodern Zoroastrianism itself. Modern scholars agree on the fact that Zarathushtra can only count as the author of a tiny portion of the corpus of the Avesta. However, in premodern Zoroastrianism the text of the entire Avesta and its commentaries were seen as the revelation brought to the world by Zarathushtra according to the wish of the supreme god Ahura Mazdā. Therefore the "sources" available for reconstructing his life and activities cannot be immediately settled.

Zarathushtra in Zoroastrianism

The focus here is on the image of Zarathushtra in "classical" Zoroastrianism, that is, the Zoroastrianism of the Pahlavi books (dated to the ninth century ce), with additional materials from earlier texts and evidence from non-Zoroastrian sources. If Zarathushtra counts as the "founder" of Zoroastrianism at all in these sources, it is usually in his capacity of the chosen person who brings Ahura Mazdā's revelation to the world. This revelation is usually referred to as dēn, a word that has a wide range of meanings but most often simply means "religion." This is not a banal detail: most Zoroastrian texts use the words "it is revealed in the religion" as an introductory formula to the claim that what is being transmitted is part of the "original" revelation of Ahura Mazdā to Zarathushtra. This revelation, the religion, was prepared by Ahura Mazdā even before the work of creation. Small parts of it were revealed by Ahura Mazdā to earlier persons from the mythical history of the Iranians as is told explicitly in the Pahlavi books and follows naturally from the fact that Ahura Mazdā regularly speaks to such important early humans as the first man (Gayōmard), the first human couple (Mašya and Mašyāna), and the first king (Yima). It is also part of the evolved theology of Zoroastrianism: if Ahura Mazdā is good and the religion is necessary for the benefit of humankind, Ahura Mazdā should be protected from the reproach that he had left humankind unaware of his intentions up to the time of Zarathushtra.

Other traditions, however, mention that all "prophets" before Zarathushtra refused to bring his revelation into the world and that it was only Zarathushtra who took this work upon himself. The revelation he brought consisted of the whole Avesta (in its own special language) with its commentaries (in the vernacular). This is evident especially from later texts (in Pahlavi), which had to account for the fact that the religion was formulated and that priestly decisions were based on the Zand, the (exegetical) translation of the Avesta, rather than on the Avestan texts themselves (several of which had been lost). The Gāthās were occasionally attributed to Zarathushtra in a more direct sense than the other parts of the revelation. In the Avesta, Zarathushtra is presented "while singing the Gāthās" (Y. 9.1), and the recitation of the Gāthās in the Yasna liturgy is preceded by important introductory formulae. But the suggestion by a nameless heretic that one should accept as Zarathushtra's revelation only the Gāthās is firmly rejected in the Dēnkard, one of the most important Pahlavi texts (Dēnkard 3.7).

As bringer of the revelation, Zarathushtra occupies a pivotal place in the history of the world. From the early texts onward, this aspect of his life is stressed regularly. In order to emphasize his importance, the world before Zarathushtra is portrayed as a world where demons roam freely. With the first utterance of the sacred Ahuna Vairya-prayer, Zara-thushtra smashed the shape of the demons and repelled them from the face of the earth.

The Zoroastrian tradition has preserved a lengthy legendary biography of the prophet, the value of which is enormous for a proper understanding of Zoroastrianism and its sense of history. Every aspect of his life is characterized by miracles and portents. His coming to the world came to be seen as preordained: his guardian spirit (fravashi ) was created millennia before his actual birth. His birth in itself was miraculous in many ways: the various constituent elements of his human life (body, soul, guardian spirit, "glory") were all transmitted by Ahura Mazdā and several of his divine helpers in a very complicated process, which involved his father and mother and various elements from the natural world.

During the pregnancy of his mother, the demons and evil priests were struck by terror and feelings of impending disaster for their ways of life. At birth, Zarathushtra laughed, and as a boy, he showed every sign of great accomplishments. The most crucial episodes from his life took place when he was thirty years old. Having moved to the "land of the Aryans," he entered a river to draw water for the morning rituals. Purifying himself, he encountered a shining figure on the banks of the river who introduced himself as Wahman (Vohu Manah, "good thought") and brought him to heaven, before Ahura Mazdā. There were a total of seven meetings between Zarathushtra and Ahura Mazdā. During these, Ahura Mazdā gave Zarathushtra the revelation and ordered him to spread it in the world.

This was not an easy task. Zarathushtra had to overcome the opposition of the wicked priests and their secular overlords of the religion(s) he meant to replace and was, initially, not very successful in doing this. Success only came after a lengthy stay at the court of King Wištāsp. After a series of philosophical debates, an episode of treachery leading to his arrest and incarceration, and Zarathushtra's success in curing the king's favorite horse, he finally found an audience willing to listen to his words. He recited the revelation for the king and his family, and they were the first to convert outside his own family. From the conversion of Wištāsp onward, the history of Zoroastrianism was to be a history of growth and success, but hostilities continued nonetheless. According to late traditions, Zarathushtra lived to be an old man but was eventually murdered and received into heaven.

A part of Zarathushtra remained, however: his semen is kept in a lake, where it will rest until the period of the separation of good and evil begins. When this time arrives, a virgin will bathe in the lake and become pregnant, giving birth to Zarathushtra's son(s), the Savior(s), who will lead humankind in bringing about the Renovation of the world. Thus Zarathushtra is represented, in Zoroastrian traditions, in all periods of world history, from the beginning of creation up to the desired end.

Many elements from these Zarathushtra legends can be found already in the Avesta. His meetings with Ahura Mazdā are alluded to in what is undoubtedly an old text, the confession of faith (Fravarānē, Y. 12). Parts of the Avesta are cast in the literary genre of questions and answers between Zarathushtra (asking the questions) and Ahura Mazdā (giving the answers) and thus stress the fact that he was responsible for the whole revelation. Although the Gāthās contain little if any information relevant for his personal life according to modern opinions, many elements from the Zarathushtra legends can be traced back to (often obscure) passages from the Gāthās. Although Zarathushtra played a role in the Zoroastrian version of the history of the world that is almost incommensurate with human capacities, there is no evidence that he was ever seen as something other than human.

In contemporary Zoroastrianism, pictures of Zara-thushtra are omnipresent in houses as well as fire-temples and sanctuaries. It is not certain how old this custom is, but the iconography used in the Iranian and Parsi communities cannot be traced to a period before the late eighteenth century. Small devotional rituals can be performed in the presence of these pictures: lighting a candle or an oil lamp or decorating the picture with a garland of flowers. On the sixth day of the first month of the Zoroastrian calendar, Zoroastrians commemorate Zarathushtra's birth and the beginning of his meetings with Ahura Mazdā.

In ancient and medieval non-Zoroastrian sources, Zarathushtra is often mentioned. Usually he is presented as the founder of the Persian priesthood (the magi) and the founder of the religion of the Persians. From an early period, Zoroaster was also annexed in Western traditions. Among Greeks and Romans, he came to be known as an early sage, who invented magic and astrology. The Western traditions on Zoroaster owe little to Zoroastrian ideas. This is true for antiquity but also for the remarkable popularity of Zoroaster in western European traditions from the Renaissance up to the late eighteenth century.

Zarathushtra in Modern Scholarship

The traditional biography of Zarathushtra is of course a myth. This myth is of great importance for a proper understanding of Zoroastrianism, but it yields little information on the historical Zarathushtra. Modern scholars (and indeed most modern Zoroastrians) do not accept the entire Avesta as the work of Zarathushtra, not to mention the vast body of exegetical literature in the Zand. When the Avesta and other Zoroastrian texts reached Europe in the late eighteenth century, the study of these texts remained under the influence of traditional Zoroastrian understanding only for a short while. The academic study of Zarathushtra and his message had to disengage itself more and more from the tradition that grew out of it. In the middle of the nineteenth century the German Orientalist Martin Haug demonstrated that a small part of the Yasna (sacrifice), the text of the daily high ritual, was written in a different language than the rest of the Avesta; that this language was more archaic; and that the texts in this more archaic language were the only texts that could be accepted as Zarathushtra's own words. These are the Gāthās (songs), five in number, to which modern scholarship has now added a few prayers and a short ritual prose text, all written in the same archaic dialect. These texts have now been recognized as the only possible source of information for the earliest period of Zoroastrianism. They are attributed to Zarathushtra himself by many scholars, but others have voiced doubts about the historicity of Zarathushtra or about the possibility of gaining accurate knowledge about him from these texts.

The corpus of relevant texts is thus small and unfortunately difficult. It is not only full of words of disputed or unknown meaning, but especially the difficulty of the poetic Gāthās is seen as intentional. Although earlier scholars thought of these texts as "verse sermons" or solemn declarations of new religious insights, it is now generally assumed that the poems are to be interpreted as visionary poetry composed in a ritual setting. The Old Avestan prose text, by contrast, is much less opaque. Since the texts do not refer to historical or geographical settings known from other sources, the possibility of contextualizing these texts is slim. Even though there is no shortage of speculation on this matter, it seems impossible to date the texts with precision or to situate them in a geographical environment. The texts mention the names of several persons, all known from the later Zoroastrian tradition, but it is a moot point whether that tradition has preserved knowledge of these persons or has invented a narrative in which these persons could fit.

In order to confront these difficulties, most scholars use two different sets of comparative materials. The first of these are the later Zoroastrian traditions, which reflect the religion that grew out of these early texts. The second set of comparative texts is offered by the hymns of the gveda, which were composed in a language that resembles Old Avestan closely and are full of set expressions and poetic usages that both traditions share.

There are certain dangers in using either approach to the exclusion of the other. Both sets of comparanda are, in a sense, quite far removed from the Old Avestan texts. Using both sets of data in combination seems to be the best option to guard against anachronisms (by reading later developments into the early texts) and against reading into these texts Vedic ideas that may never have been present in them. The truth is that the Gāthās are different from the Vedic hymns. There are certain similarities in poetic expressions and in the grammar of the texts, but the poems as compositions are completely different, as are the main components of the contents of the Gāthās.

Since contexts are unavailable, only rough indications of dating and localization, based on the content of the texts and the archaisms of their language, can be given. There seems to be a broad agreement that the texts (and therefore Zarathushtra himself) should be dated around the beginning of the first millennium bce in an eastern part of the Iranian world, perhaps the area known as Bactria-Margiana (present-day Afghanistan and Turkmenistan).

Two names stand out in importance in the Gāthās. The first of these is the name of the god who is celebrated in these hymns: Ahura Mazdā, "the Wise Lord." The second is the name of the most important man in these hymns: Zarathushtra, who occurs regularly as singer of the hymns and as performer of the rituals that the hymns accompanied. Following an established poetic pattern, the singer of the hymns declares that he is going to proclaim certain truths about the gods, the world and reality. In these proclamations, Ahura Mazdā is extolled as the creator of the world, dispenser of justice, lord of all that is good, and rightful recipient of prayer and sacrifice. But he is not alone: there are his children and his (spiritual) creations, personifying mental attitudes and human virtues, who aid him in the struggle against evil, which is taking place in front of one's own eyes. For there are evil beings in this world and in the spiritual world; although they are worshipped by those of little intellect, they should not be worshipped, for they cause nothing but harm to humankind and to the world at large. These evil beings are called daēvas and they too appear to be ruled by a separate being, who is chiefly alluded to as the "evil one," "the deceitful one," or "the one of evil doctrine" and who is said to have destroyed existence once (but will not do so again: [Y. 45.1]; the interpretation of this verse is debated). In several passages, two spirits are referred to who are each other's total opposites and between which humans must choose. If one makes the wrong choice, this has consequences for his or her afterlife. Indeed many passages have a marked focus on the implications of human choices for their fate in the other world.

The marked polarity between good and evil in these texts, focusing chiefly on the options for "righteousness" or "deceit," also splits human society. Even though some scholars have doubted the interpretation of the Gāthās as containing elements from Zarathushtra's biography, there are many passages that hint at an acute crisis, instigated by enemies and borne by the majority of the people surrounding Zara-thushtra. In these passages, various individuals and groups of enemies are mentioned, together with examples of their hostilities. This may reflect an actual struggle between competing groups of religious specialists, divided over matters of ritual and ideas about the gods and reality.

Many passages of the Gāthās show that rituals and religious views mattered not only for this world but also for the afterlife. Those who oppose truth will certainly be held accountable for their wrong choice through an ordeal and a judgment of their souls. A blessed existence is promised the righteous ones and a life of woe the wicked.

In a number of passages, all rather cryptic, there are allusions to the most influential of all Zoroastrian ideas: that the world as humans know it will come to an end in a decisive, collective transformation according to the wish of its creator. The most important passage is Y. 30.711, which contains the famous words "thus may we be those who will make existence brilliant" (Y. 30.9). Although other suggestions have been made, it is most likely that these verses indeed refer to the notion that the battle between good and evil, and therefore the world and "history," will eventually come to an end. This is certainly how it has always been understood in the tradition.

In spite of the many lexical parallels with hymns from the gveda, these are all aspects from the Gāthās for which one would look in vain in the Vedic corpus. The god Ahura Mazdā is as absent from India as the important Indian gods are from the Gāthās. Although ideas on the importance of ritual for the life and well-being of the people are characteristic for both traditions, the pervasive focus on the distinction between good and evil, their existence as (the only) two "primal" spirits, and their impact on the lives of humans in this worldin the afterlife and in the transformation of the worldis wholly specific for the Gāthās. Something resembling the Gathic insistence on the primary nature of Ahura Mazdā and his sole responsibility for the origins of everythingand especially the idea that history would come to an endis likewise difficult to find in early Indian literature. There are no indications whatsoever that these were ideas that had grown slowly among the Iranians. For these reasons, the idea that a single person, Zarathushtra, was responsible for the Gāthās and in a real sense the founder of the religion that grew out of them raises fewer historical difficulties than the idea that such a person did not exist. One can question the suitability of the concept of "originality" in the writing of history but not doubt the possibility of real innovations. All the evidence suggests that the oldest Zoroastrian texts, which were preserved in a different language among a much larger body of ritual literature, offered a new vision of reality, using traditional words and concepts for the (successful) propagation of an innovative message.

See Also

Amesha Spentas; Avesta; Saoshyant; Zoroastrianism.


The literature on the subject is enormous and shows a wide variety of approaches and interpretations. The selection given here assembles some fundamental works and examples of the various methods scholars have used to make sense of the data.

There are many translations of the Old Avestan texts, ranging from intensely personal interpretations with an almost mystical message to elaborate philological studies. The most recent of these certainly show great improvements over earlier attempts.

Humbach, Helmut, Josef Elfenbein, and Prods Oktor Skjaervø. The Gāthās of Zarathushtra and the Other Old Avestan Texts. 2 vols. Heidelberg, Germany, 1991.

Insler, Stanley. The Gāthās of Zarathustra. Leiden, 1975.

Kellens, Jean, and Eric Pirart. Les textes vieil-avestiques. 3 vols. Wiesbaden, Germany, 19881991.

Studies of Zarathushtra

These include discussions of his historicity and, where accepted, his most likely dates and place.

Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1: The Early Period. Leiden, 1975.

Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour. Costa Mesa, Calif., 1992.

Gnoli, Gherardo. Zoroaster's Time and Homeland: A Study on the Origins of Mazdaism and Related Problems. Naples, 1980.

Gnoli, Gherardo. Zoroaster in History. New York, 2000.

Kellens, Jean. Essays on Zarathustra and on Zoroastrianism. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2000.

Lommel, Herman. Die Religion Zarathustras: Nach dem Awesta dargestellt. Tübingen, Germany, 1930.

Molé, Marijan. Culte, mythe, et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien: Le problème zoroastrien et la tradition mazdéenne. Paris, 1963.

Schlerath, Bernfried, ed. Zarathustra. Darmstadt, 1970.

Skjaervø, Prods Oktor. "The State of Old Avestan Scholarship." JAOS 117 (1997): 103114.

Studies of the Image of Zarathustra in Zoroastrian and Non-Zoroastrian Traditions

De Jong, Albert. Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature. Leiden, 1997.

Molé, Marijan. La légende de Zoroastre selon les textes pehlevis. Paris, 1967.

Rose, Jenny. The Image of Zoroaster: The Persian Mage through European Eyes. New York, 2000.

Stausberg, Michael, ed. Faszination Zarathushtra: Zoroaster und die europäische Religionsgeschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. Berlin, 1998.

Zoroastrian Works on Zarathustra

There are many modern Zoroastrian studies of Zarathustra and his importance for the Zoroastrian tradition. Most of these appear in Persian or Gujarati. Some representative examples are:

Dhalla, Maneckji Nusservanji. Zoroastrian Theology. New York, 1914.

Kapadia, Shapurji Aspandiarji. The Teachings of Zoroaster and the Philosophy of the Parsi Religion. London, 1905.

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathustra. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2003.

Mistree, Khojeste. Zoroastrianism: An Ethnic Perspective. Bombay, 1982.

Nanavutty, Piloo. The Gathas of Zarathustra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom. Ahmadabad, 1999.

Taraporewala, Irach Jehangir Sorabji. The Divine Songs of Zarathustra. Bombay, 1951.

Albert de Jong (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


BORN: Persia

Persian religious leader; teacher

Zarathushtra was a prophet, or divine messenger, who founded and gave a version of his name to the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. In the early twenty-first century the religion is practiced by an estimated 2 million to 3.5 million people, most of whom live in Iran and India, where they are called Parsis. The prophet's full original name was Zarathushtra (or Zarathustra) Spitama, although he is most widely known as Zoroaster, the Western adaptation of the ancient Greek version of his name, Zoroastres. The modern Persian version of his name is Zartosht, or Zardosht.

"Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed world-religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith."

          —Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices.

He is often credited with founding the world's first monotheistic religion, that is, one in which a single supreme God is worshipped. Disagreements about the era in which he lived make this conclusion uncertain, however. Some historians believe that Zarathushtra lived before the emergence of Judaism, in which case the monotheism he preached would stand first historically. If this is true, many of Zoroastrianism's principles likely had a major impact on the development of Judaism and on Christianity, which evolved from Judaism. Other historians believe that Judaism came first, and so it was Judaism that influenced Zoroastrianism.

Zarathushtra's teachings challenged the traditional religious views in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran). He promoted the belief in one God, called Ahura Mazda, which means "wise lord" or "lord of wisdom." Many other Zoroastrian concepts, such as those regarding the soul, heaven and hell, the arrival on Earth of a savior, resurrection (the act of rising from the dead), final judgment, and guardian angels, are similar to those found in Jewish and Christian traditions.

Historical uncertainty

Estimates of when Zarathushtra lived vary widely. Persian mythology places the dates of his life as early as 10,000 bce. The writings of ancient Greek and Roman historians suggest that Zarathushtra lived some time between 7000 and 6000 bce, which are the dates accepted by traditional Parsis. Findings by archaeologists (people who study the remains of past human cultures) suggest that he lived around 2000 bce. One Zoroastrian text, the Bundahism, which means "creation," claims that Zarathushtra was alive 258 years before the defeat of Persia by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great (356–323 bce), which would be 588 bce. Many nineteenth-century historians took this date as authoritative. Modern historians questioned it, however, and most now accept that Zoroaster probably lived between 1500 and 1000 bce, perhaps more precisely around 1200 bce.

Historians arrived at this last estimate after close examination of the language of the Gathas. The Gathas, a collection of divine songs in seventeen chapters and 241 verses, form a sacred Zoroastrian text believed to record the actual words of Zarathushtra. They are contained within a work called the Yasna, which is in turn part of the sacred Zoroastrian text called the Avesta. The Gathas were written in an ancient Persian language called Old Avestan, which was similar to Sanskrit, the classical language of India and Hinduism.

Experts have compared the Gathas to other Sanskrit writings known to have been written around 1200 bce, especially the Rig-Veda, one of the four books that compose the Vedas, the sacred literature of Hinduism. Language similarities suggest that the Gathas were most likely written around the same time. Some scholars, however, remain open to the later date of around 600 bce mentioned in the Bundahism. These scholars note that the Old Avestan language may have been preserved solely for religious writings and was no longer in common use by 1200 bce. An example of this would be Latin, which remained the official language of Christianity even after it was no longer spoken. Others reject this possibility by noting that the language of the Gathas suggests that they were transmitted orally and thus could not have been written in a language that was no longer spoken.

Further support for the earlier dates can be found in references in the Gathas to social customs that were followed roughly between 1200 and 1000 bce. These social customs were those of a rural, nomadic (having no fixed home) society. If the Gathas had been written much later, they would have likely reflected a more urban lifestyle centered around the Persian court.

Many Zoroastrian religious texts were partly or entirely destroyed, some by Alexander the Great in 330 bce, others by Arab and Mongol invaders beginning in 650 ce. As a result, very few written records of the religion and the life of its founder still exist. One of the greatest losses was that of the thirteenth section of the Avesta, the Spena Nask, which contained a summary of Zarathushtra's life.

Early life

Zarathushtra's name is composed of two words in Old Avestan that translate to something like "keeper of old camels," "keeper of feeble camels," or perhaps "keeper of yellow camels." Efforts have been made to suggest a more dignified translation for Zarathushtra's name, such as "bringer of the golden dawn." People living in ancient Persia, however, often had names composed of root words that reflected the ownership of camels or horses, which were signs of wealth and status.

Textual evidence can be used to support claims for a variety of possible birthplaces for Zarathushtra. Most historians agree he was probably was born and lived in northeast Persia, though the Greeks claimed that he was born in Bactria, an ancient Greek kingdom whose borders lay in modern-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. His mother was named Dughdova, which means "milkmaid." His father was Pourushaspa, which means "many horses." The family name was Spitama, or "white."

According to legend, Zarathushtra was an unnaturally wise, thoughtful, and serious child, although one tale claims that he laughed at the time of his birth. He spent an extended period living in the wilderness, and by age fifteen he had decided to devote himself to contemplation and religious beliefs. Traditional accounts hold that when he was seven years old he was the target of an assassination (murder) plot. The plot was supposedly formed by some Persians who believed him to be the prophet of a new faith that would threaten already established religious beliefs.

At about age twenty Zarathushtra left his parents' house and lived for seven years in a cave, where he practiced meditation, or focused thinking aimed at attaining greater spiritual knowledge and awareness. When he returned he was prepared to preach a new religion, one that placed less emphasis on ritual and more on thought and intellect. Zarathushtra declared his religion would be inclusive of all of Ahura Mazda's people. He also stressed the purity of the earth, which has earned the religion the title "the world's first ecological [environmental] religion."

In the kingdom of Bactria

At first Zarathushtra met with little success in trying to convert people to his religious beliefs. Outside of his immediate family, his first convert was a cousin (or perhaps a nephew) named Maidhyoimangha. Many people in Zarathushtra's community thought he was insane and did all they could to keep away from him. Even the residents of his mother's hometown rejected him, a remarkable insult in the tribal culture of the time, when kinship ties were especially strong. At one point he was imprisoned, but escaped. The rejection was in large part because Zarathushtra demoted the Daevas, or evil spirits, from gods to mere workers on behalf of Angra Mainyu. Angra Mainyu is the name Zarathushtra gave to the primary evil spirit of Zoroastrianism, who is locked in an ongoing cosmic battle with Spenta Mainyu, an aspect of Ahura Mazda who represents good.

Zarathushtra tried to find acceptance for his beliefs for about twelve years. Frustrated, he finally left his community and took refuge in Bactria. In the text of the Yasna, within the Avesta, he commented with sorrow on his departure from his home:

    To what land should I turn? Where should I turn to go?
    They hold me back from folk and friends.
    Neither the community I follow pleases me,
    nor do the wrongful rulers of the land …
    I know … that I am powerless.
    I have a few cattle and also a few men.

The Three Wise Men

According to Christian tradition, after the birth of Jesus Christ (6 bce–c. 30 ce; see entry) he was visited by three magi from the east who are often referred to as the three wise men. The three had followed a bright star, the star of Bethlehem, and arrived at Jesus's birthplace bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Frankincense and myrrh are oils used to make perfume or incense.) The three magi have become a fixed aspect of modern Christmas celebrations in the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas), and most displays of the nativity scene, or the birth of Jesus, include depictions of the magi paying their respects to the Christ child.

The source of the story is one of the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi had been sent by Herod, the Roman governor of Judea, as spies to discover the birthplace of the prophesied Messiah, or Saviour. The Roman Empire, which occupied the region of Palestine, saw the arrival of a Jewish messiah as a threat to the established Roman control and order. In a dream, however, the magi were warned not to return to Herod, so they traveled home by another route. Herod ordered the murder of all boys in and around Bethlehem ages two and under in an effort to ensure that the child destined to be the Messiah did not live to assume his role.

The phrase "three wise men" may be a mistranslation. Many biblical scholars use the word magi, which comes from the Greek word for "magic." The magi may have been "magicians" in the sense that they practiced astrology, which is the study of celestial bodies in the belief that they have an influence on the lives of humans. Some historians suggest that the magi were Zoroastrian astrologer-priests. In Western custom they have been identified by the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but they are known by other names in other traditions. The belief that they were Zoroastrians is supported by the Syrian Christian name for one of the wise men, Hormisdas. This is a variation of a Persian name, Hormoz, later spelled Hormazd, which is the name of the patron angel of the first day of each month in Zoroastrian tradition. This name is also similar to the alternative name for Ahura Mazda, which is Ormazd.

Many biblical historians doubt that the story of the magi has any truth to it at all. They point out, for example, that Bethlehem was only a few miles from Jerusalem. Herod would not have had to send spies; he could have simply ordered his army to the area. They also note that Herod, as a high Roman official in command of Judea, would not have allied himself with people like the magi, foreigners who practiced a religion that was entirely alien to someone like Herod and whom Herod would have regarded as beneath him. Additionally, the star of Bethlehem is mentioned in no other records from the time.

In Bactria, King Vishtaspa and his queen, Hutosa, heard Zarathushtra debate local religious leaders. They decided to adopt his beliefs, especially after Zarathushtra was able to cure the king's horse of an illness. Zarathushtra then established close ties with the family of the king and queen, whose sons were named Frashaoshtra and Jamaspa. Frashaoshtra's daughter, Hvovi, would become Zarathushtra's wife, and the two would have six children: three daughters, Freni, Friti, and Pourucista, and three sons, Isat Vastar, Uruvat-Nara, and Hvare Cithra. In turn Zarathushtra's daughter, Pourucista, would become the wife of the king's son, Jamaspa.

After a time the king and queen made Zoroastrianism the official religion of the kingdom, and they named Zarathushtra court prophet. At first Zoroastrianism was as much a military order as a religion, since its members were forced to fight persecution (mistreatment towards a person or group because of differences) and fend off attacks from other tribes. Zarathushtra himself denounced the Karpans, the priests of traditional Persian religion, enraging them and perhaps leading to his murder. One legend holds that Zarathushtra died during a battle with a central Asian group called the Turanians, under the leadership of the general Arjaspa. This legend claims Zarathushtra was killed as he tended the sacred fire in a temple at Balkh, a town in modern-day Afghanistan, where he was then buried. Other legends hold that Zarathushtra died peacefully.

In the Persian Empire

The religion founded by Zarathushtra spread rapidly, and the battles ceased. Zoroastrianism became dominant in the Persian Empire, particularly during the Achaemenid dynasty (529–323 bce). This dynasty ruled over a vast region, from eastern Europe through the Middle East and into both North Africa and central Asia. One of the most prominent Zoroastrian figures from this period was King Darius I, also called Darius the Great, who ruled from 521 to 485 bce. When Darius secured the kingdom by seizing the throne, he introduced reforms in law, the monetary system, trade, and weights and measurements. Some stories claim that King Vishtaspa was the father of Darius the Great, which, if true, would support the estimates of Zarathushtra having lived around 600 bce.

Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenids beginning in the 330s bce. The empire was then ruled by the Seleucid and Parthian dynasties, but few Zoroastrian records from this time remain. During the Sassanid Dynasty (224-651 ce), Zoroastrianism spread aggressively throughout the Persian Empire. By the sixth century it had moved into northern China, though it died out there by the thirteenth century.

In the seventh century the Sassanid Dynasty was overthrown by Arab Muslims, who were believers in the Islamic religion. Because its followers were often the victims of persecution, Zoroastrianism began to lose influence and membership in the Arab world. During the eighth and ninth centuries large numbers of Zoroastrians fled Persia for India. Zoroastrians living in modern-day Iran continue to be persecuted in the twenty-first century. Members are known as Gabars, meaning "infidels," or unbelievers, and the government strongly encourages Zoroastrians to marry within their own faith as a way of keeping the religion's membership from growing. Even in Iran, however, Zarathushtra is seen as a central figure in the development of the nation's culture. Many people in the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, including Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, began to show renewed interest in their Zoroastrian roots after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century.

For More Information


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Hartz, Paula. Zoroastrianism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2004.

Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World. New York, NY: Knopf, 2003.

Nigosian, S. A. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.


Chothia, Fali S. "Getting to Know the Zoroastrians." The Zoroastrian Associated of Metropolitan Washington, Inc. (accessed June 2, 2006).

"Zoroastrian Archives." (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Zoroastrian Kids Korner. (accessed June 2, 2006).

"Zoroastrianism." United Religions Initiative. (accessed June 2, 2006).


views updated May 14 2018

Zarathustra the Avestan name for the Persian prophet Zoroaster, used in the title of Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra [Thus Spake Zarathustra] (1883).


views updated May 17 2018

Zarathustra (founding prophet): see ZOROASTER.


views updated May 23 2018

Zarathustrian see ZOROASTRIAN.


views updated May 23 2018

Zarathustra See Zoroaster