Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, is thought to be the founder of Zoroastrianism. The time in which he lived is uncertain; many give the date of 6000 BC while others state 1200 BC. The confusion of the dates may be explained, according to some sources, by the implication that the prophet’s name might also been generic; meaning there was more than one Zoroaster, or his name was used to indicate heads of a priesthood because Zoroaster was a priest as well as a prophet. Such conflicting views might well provide the explanation between the various descriptions of the prophet ranging from some kind of a “shaman” to a worldly familiar of Chorasmain kings and court politics.
However, from the Gathas one gets a semi-self-portrait of Zoroaster himself. He refers to himself as a zoatar” a fully qualified priest, the founder of the creedal religion. Also he refers to himself as a manthran” one composing manthra (Sanskrit for Mantra). The Indo-Iranian training for priesthood probably started at about seven years of age, conducted orally since there was no knowledge of writing, and consisted of learning the rituals, doctrines, extemporizing verses in the invocation and praise of the gods, and learning by heart the great manthras composed by the early sages. The Iranians held that maturity was reached at fifteen, which is when Zoroaster is presumed to have become a priest. Again in the Gathas Zoroaster suggests he sought further learning from other teachers, and describes himself as a vaedema, or “one who knows,” an initiate possessed of divinely inspired wisdom. According to the Zoroastrian tradition (preserved in the Pahlavi books) he wandered years in search of the truth. His hymns suggest that he witnessed violence inflicted by war-bands, worshippers of the Daevas, descending on peaceful communities to pillage, slaughter, and carry off cattle. He consciously felt himself physically powerless, filled with a deep longing for justice, he sought the moral laws of the Ahuras in order to establish tranquility for all, the strong and weak alike.
Also, according to tradition, when Zoroaster was thirty, filled with wisdom, his revelation came to him. It is alluded to in one of the Gathas (Y 43); and briefly described in a Pahlavi work (Zadspram XX-XXI). It is told that he was at a gathering of men celebrating the spring festival; he went to the river to draw water for the haormy-ceremony. He waded in to draw it from midstream; and when returning to the bank-found himself in a state of ritual purity, emerging from the pure element, water, in the freshness of a spring dawn-had a vision. He saw on the bank a shining Being, who revealed himself as Vohu Manah “Good Purpose”; and this Being led Zoroaster into the presence of Ahura Mazda and five other radiant figures, before whom “he did not see his own shadow upon the earth, owing to their great light” (Boyce 18-19). Then Zoroaster received his great revelation of Ahura Mazda and his adversary.
The prophet’s birthplace is no less controversial. While the Gathic hymns seem to belong to the northeastern group of Iranian languages, others associate Zoroastrianism with Persian traditions, and others place it in the west. This latter consideration is suggested because of the religion’s association with the Magi whose homeland was traditionally in western Iran although they reportedly traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Aegean.
This mentioning of the Magi does not help to identify Zoroaster or his religion because in the history the Magi have been “associated with the highest speculation and the most base-charlatanism; the mixed resources of religion and magic; a mysterious origin and an authority that endure across a succession of beliefs” (Settegast 215). While only portrayed as sorcerers in fables, the Magi were more recognized by serious Greeks and Romans as dedicated servants of the gods. Almost universally recognized as masters of learning, in ancient times they were credited with initiating the “cosmological science,” the study of not only the heavens, but of the elements and earth as well.
According to Herodotus they were a Median “tribe,” but others consider them to be a sacerdotal caste of indistinct ethnic origin. They led a strict ascetic life; the wearing of personal jewelry, especially gold, was prohibited; their beds were made on the ground; their diet consisted of cheese, herbs, and coarse bread; the apparently worshipped fire, water, and both the celestial and chthonic gods; and they practiced exposing their dead to scavenge of vultures.
From comparisons of the teachings of the Magi and those of Zoroaster the following possible assumptions have been made: the Magi and their Zervanite religion must have been in existence before the birth of the prophet because the mentioning of the “twin spirits” appears in the Gathas, a proof that Zervanite existed before Zoroaster’s time. In the Zervanite theogony, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, associated with Light and Darkness, were the twin sons of Zurvan, god of Infinite Time (Settegast 216). These conclusions were theoretically independent of Zoroaster’s birth, which Plutarch himself, in naming Zarathustra a Magus, placed 5,000 years before the siege of Troy.
Evidence indicates that religion of the Magi is much older than Zoroaster and his exact relationship with the group is uncertain. At first the Magi may have opposed the prophet’s teachings not only because they spoke against the excesses of the nature cults of his day but against certain Zervanite principles as well. Zoroastrianism did away with the worship of Time and Fate, concentrating instead on man’s active participation in the struggle between the creative and destructive spirits. Further speculation suggests that the Magi continued preaching Zervanite doctrine while absorbing some of the Zoroastrian beliefs as they did with other beliefs. The main point to be noted is the change of worship; nature, time and fate were deemphasized while the struggle between creative and destructive forces, which also increasingly involved man’s participation, was emphasized. This appears to have been Zoroaster’s mission to renounce the Old Iranian gods with his introduction of Ahura Mazda and the Yazatas. A.G.H.
Boyce, Mary, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 18-29
Settegast, Mary, Plato Prehistorian, Cambridge, MA, The Rotenberg Press, 1986, pp. 211-218