Zoroaster (Zarathushtra)

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The Greek form of the name of the prophet of ancient Iran. Like all great religious founders or reformers, he early became a legendary figure, endowed with all kinds of miraculous features. Only his hymns, the gĀthĀs, furnish some evidence on him as a historical person, but they are allusive and obscure. According to the native tradition, and there is no sufficient reason to question it, he lived 258 years before Alexander conquered Iran in 331 b.c. No certain data are preserved regarding his birthplace, but the avesta seems to imply that his religion appeared first in northeastern Iran, that is, in what is now Afghanistan or perhaps farther north, and that it then spread southward and westward. The Gāthās make no allusions to the Babylonian, Greek, or Jewish cultures and completely ignore the Achaemenids. Prince Vishtaspa, whom Zoroaster won over to his new creed, has the same name as the father of Darius, but all attempts that have been made from antiquity to the present to identify the two have failed.

Scholars differ widely in the evaluation of his life, character, and doctrine. On the one hand, he is seen as a kind of primitive sorcerer or shaman, intoxicating himself with hemp fumes; on the other, he is represented as a lofty moralist and social reformer. His hymns receive some clarification from external sources, namely, from the later Zoroastrian traditionwhich, however, may have modified his original teachingor from comparison with the Vedic religion, a comparison that may well fail to do justice to his originality; or, finally, from comparison with the religions of other IndoEuropean peoplesan approach that is delicate but also rewarding.

The decisive event in the life of Zoroaster appears to have been his conversion of Vishtaspa, his first success after a difficult beginning. He then made converts in the royal court and also in his own family. The legend of his daughter's marriage with one of the great men of the realm may have a historical foundation. Sometimesprobably before he found these mighty protectorsZoroaster had doubts on the success of his doctrine. On one occasion he ascribed the reason for his failure to the fact that he possessed few cattle and few men. He found consolation in ahura mazda and his justice. He castigated the followers of false religion, the worshipers of the daēvas. He denounced in a stern and vivid manner a certain prince who had refused him hospitality and left him standing in the cold with his horses shivering. He preached a kind of holy war against such men.

His own ideas on true teaching and ritual seem to have come from visions in which the holiness and beneficence of Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, appeared to him. He is on rather familiar terms with Ahura Mazda, from whom he asks for the help that a friend would give to a friend. The chief tenets of his doctrine are the following. A choice must be made between good and evil, and there is a reward or punishment according to each one's choice and according to his thoughts, words, and actions. There will be a new world in which only the virtuous will have a place. Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, is alone worthy of worship, as the creator of light and darkness, heaven and earth, and the universe and its movements, and as the father of Asha (justice), Vohu Manah (good thought), and Ā rmati (application). No cult should be given to the daēvas (evil spirits); the sacrifice of oxen is forbidden, and that of haoma is limited. The cult of fire is to be carried out because fire is an instrument of ordeal and, above all, a symbol of divine justice.

See Also: persian religion, ancient.

Bibliography: w. henning, Zoroaster: Politician or WitchDoctor? (Oxford 195I). w. eilers, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:186668, with bibliog. h. humbach, Die Gâthâs des Zarathustra (Heidelberg 1960). m. molÉ, Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'lran ancien (Paris 1963). j. duchesneguillemin, La Religion de l'Iran ancien (Paris 1962); Symbols in Zoroastrianism (New York 1966).

[j. duchesneguillemin]