Zarathushtra (also spelt Zarathustra), or Zoroaster as he is known in the west, is the founder of the religion that came to be known as Zoroastrianism. Zarathushtra lived and preached in the ancient land of Airyana Vaeja, or Aryan land.
|A portrait of Zarathushtra|
- an artist's impression
There are no written records from Zarathushtra's time. The earliest surviving written references to Zarathushtra are those of Greek writers from about 2,500 years ago (see below). They in turn quote earlier sources now lost to us. Zarathushtra in the estimation of the Greeks, lived some 6,000 years before their time, or 8,200 to 8,500 years ago.
There are no related images or rock carvings from Zarathushtra's time. The portraits of Zarathushtra shown here are artists' impressions.
What we know of Zarathushtra's life comes mainly from his teachings and contemporary references to him, both of which are part of Zoroastrian scripture. These were originally oral traditions.
We are fortunate that Zarathushtra composed his message in the form of hymns - hymns that they could be memorized and transmitted from one person to another, and from one generation to another. [Zarathushtra's hymns are called the Gathas. The Gathas are a part of the Yasna, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta.] His followers copied his style and added to the body of verses that were memorized and passed down through the ages. When a Zoroastrian priesthood developed, part of their training was the memorization of these verses. The priests became living books and guardians of Zoroastrian history. They maintained this duty faithfully even when subsequent generations lost the meaning of the words they were memorizing. Not only did the priests religiously memorize and transmit the verses in a forgotten language, they did so with correct pronunciation. The laity also participated in this process by memorizing selected verses as part of their daily prayers.
This memory bank of preserved verses has been critical to the survival of early Zoroastrian history and tradition. It is only in the last two hundred years or so that modern methods have allowed us to start the process of deciphering the information locked within these mysterious verses. Their survival today as some of the oldest literature known to humankind, is a testament to the perseverance, foresight and wisdom of early Zoroastrians.
Some of the information that was preserved as verse by Zarathushtra and his contemporaries, were the names of Zarathushtra's family and the first "hearers and teachers" of his ideas. These names are preserved in Zarathushtra's own hymns, the Gathas, and in the Farvardin Yasht, now a chapter of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta.
From the preserved verses we learn that Zarathushtra's parents home was located on the upper banks of the river Daraja (Darejya), the river that ran through Airyana Vaeja. Zarathushtra was the third of five sons born to the Spitama family of Pourushasp and Dughdhova, the latter being the daughter of Frahimrava, a person of repute.
Zarathushtra and his wife Hvovi had six children. Their daughters were Freni, Thriti and Pouruchista. Their sons were Isat-Vastar, Urvatat-Nara and Hvare-Chithra.
The Lament of Life's Soul
The picture that emerges from Zarathushtra's hymns is that Zarathushtra was born at a time when the once proud and noble land of Airyana Vaeja had fallen on evil times. Truth was no longer a virtue and religion was used to control and delude the people.
The hymns of Zarathushtra, the Gathas, open with Zarathushtra giving voice to the lament of life's soul - geush urvan: What was the purpose of life, if brought into this world only to suffer violence, torment and destruction?
Zarathushtra was deeply disturbed with what he witnessed around him: a degradation of the human spirit, harm to animals, and a destruction of the environment. The degradation of the human spirit was manifest as unprincipled living, greed and violence.
What he saw drove him to action. He spoke out and led by example. He worked to inspire a fundamental change in the way people thought, spoke and acted, striving to build a community based on righteous order and reverence for all of creation.
The approach that Zarathushtra used to bring about this change was unique for his times. Rather than seeking to bring about this change with the use of power, authority and coercion, Zarathushtra sought to bring about change through reason, wisdom, and empowerment of the downtrodden.
Zarathushtra undertook his mission, knowing that he would incur the wrath of those who profited from disorder, deception and delusion. He knew full well that the established powers would seek to kill him and stop his mission - a mission to empower people to think and reason for themselves, to take charge of their lives and become sovereign.
The first among Zarathushtra's "hearers and teachers" was Maidhyo-maungha, the son of Arasti.
Zarathushtra carried his message beyond the borders of his native Airyana Vaeja. Among the early hearers and communicators of his message were individuals from the neighbouring lands of Tuirya (Turan), Sairima, Saini and Dahi - individuals memorialized by name and residence in the Farvardin Yasht. [For a further discussion on the lands of Zarathushtra's ministry see our page on Airyana Vaeja]
When Zarathushtra began his mission, he appealed to the inherent goodness, dignity and reason within each person. He asked those who would listen not to blindly follow him or anyone else. He suggested instead, that every individual seek knowledge, understanding and an enlightened mind.
An enlightened mind would allow a person to make a fundamental choice in the nature of their spirit: between a bright, positive, constructive, beneficent spirit that seeks wisdom called spenta mainyu, and a dark, negative, destructive, harmful spirit that wishes to remain ignorant called angra mainyu.
This fundamental choice in spirit would lead to a person choosing the path of asha (principled, honest, beneficent, ordered, lawful living), or druj (unprincipled, dishonest, harmful, chaotic, unlawful living and living by the lie - deceiving and deluding others).
A collective choosing of the path of asha would lead to a better life for all and a realization of the best existence possible for all of creation.
In addition, a person's fundamental choice of spirit would ignite a spiritual fire, the mainyu athra - an undying spiritual fire that would live on it their souls, transcending their mortality, and one that would live on in the hearts and minds of subsequent generations.
Light and fire became the defining symbols of Zarathushtra's teachings. They symbolized the primordial fire of creation, the spiritual fire, wisdom, goodness and the energy of action. As he sought to go about his mission, Zarathushtra carried with him a censer of burning embers.
Soon Zarathushtra's wisdom and fame spread to the court of King Vishtasp the Kayanian king of Bakhdhi/Balkh (the fourth nation listed in the Zoroastrian scriptures', the Avesta's, book of Vendidad, known to the West as Bactria).
The poet Ferdowsi, tells us in his epic, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, that during an audience with the king, Zarathushtra said to Vishtasp: "Look upon the heavens and the earth. God, Ahura Mazda, created them not with dust and water. Look upon the fire and behold therein how they were created. If you acknowledge God's work, then acknowledge God to be Lord and Creator."
The Cypress of Kashmar
|4,500 year old Cypress, Abarkuh, Yazd, Iran|
Vishtasp became Zarathushtra's royal patron and is credited with the installation of the first ever-burning fire, the Burzin Meher, as well as the planting of a noble cypress tree, the cypress of Kashmar, or sarv-e Kashmar. As King Vishtasp's reputation as a wise leader grew, the growing cypress became a symbol of wisdom and justice. The cypress grew to be so tall that its upper branches seemed to brush against the heavens. It survived for thousands of years and outlasted so many generations that it seemed to defy death.
Until, that is, the tree was cut down on the orders of the Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil. The caliph ignored appeals of Iranian Zoroastrians who offered him money to spare the noble tree, and ordered the tree to be cut into beams for his palace at Samarra (near Baghdad). His orders were carried out in the darkness of the night of December 9th, 861 ACE. In doing so, the notorious caliph presaged his own demise. On the night when the felled tree arrived on the banks of the Tigris, Mutawakkil was himself cut down, assassinated by a Turkish soldier. Nor was his capital of Samarra spared this ill omen. It has been beset by violence ever since to this very day, and justice has eluded the people of the region.
Today, a cypress estimated to be 4,000 to 4,500 years old stands in the town of Abarkuh (also spelt Abarku or Abarqu) on the border between the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Pars. It is said to be the oldest living organism in Iran and is revered by the Zoroastrians of Iran.
The Hymns of Zarathushtra - The Gathas
Zarathushtra transmitted his ideas through seventeen hymns called the Gathas or songs. The hymns consist of 238 verses, and are in turn made up of about 1300 lines or 6000 words. The Gathas are mathras or manthras, insightful thoughts; thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation. The Gathas can be found as five chapters in the book of Yasna, a book of the Avesta or Zoroastrian scriptures.
The Age in which Zarathushtra Lived
There is no consensus on the age in which Zarathushtra lived. There are a range of dates put forward ranging from 8,500 to 3,700 years ago.
A great body of relevant ancient Iranian records have either been viciously destroyed by Alexander, the Arabs and Mongols, or lost. The majority of accounts of the time in which Zarathushtra lived that have survived are Greek writings from the fourth century BCE to the first century ACE.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) quotes Eudoxus of Cnidus (ca. 365 BCE) and Aristotle (ca. 350 BCE) as placing Zoroaster 6000 years before the death of Plato (347 BCE) or 6365 BCE. Pliny also quotes Hermippus (ca. 250 BCE) as placing Zoroaster 5000 years before the Trojan war (ca. 1200 BCE) or around 6200 BCE.
Diogenes Laertius (230 CE) states that according to Xanthus of Lydia (ca. 450 BCE), Zoroaster lived 6000 years before the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece (ca. 480 BCE) or about 6480 BCE. Diogenes also states that according to Hermodorus (ca. 400 BCE), a follower of Plato, Zoroaster lived 5000 years before the Trojan war (ca. 1200 BCE). Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) also places Zoroaster 5000 years before the Trojan war.
While he is not a classical Greek author, Lactantius (ca. 240-320 CE), a Latin-speaking native of North Africa, states that ancient King Vishtasp (Hystaspes) reigned long before the founding of Rome (ca. 750 BCE?). Zoroaster lived during King Vishtasp's reign.
Some authors think the dates placing Zarathushtra as having lived 8,200 to 8,500 years ago are too fantastic to be true and place Zarathushtra about four thousand years from the present. Yet other dates (now known to be in error) place him later in time.
Behruz (also spelt Behrooz) Dabih (1889-1971 CE), a Persian satirist, is credited with proposing the vernal equinox of 1737 BCE, the beginning of the period of Aries, as the date when Zarathushtra proclaimed the religion. Therefore, the Gregorian year 2010 CE would be 3747 AZ.
The late Mary Boyce (1920-2006), Professor of Iranian Studies at the University of London, stated in her book Zoroastrians, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (page 18) that "to hazard a reasoned conjecture" was "that Zoroaster lived sometime between 1700 and 1500 B.C.", the lower date apparently being made to appease other Western 'scholars' who advocated even later dates.