The historical Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet and leader who founded a religion that became dominant in ancient Persia (present-day Iran and surrounding areas) until the 7th century AD, the period in which Islam gained a foothold in the region and persecuted believers in the religion.
There currently exists no academic consensus on the time when Zoroaster lived and the dates proposed by scholars vary according to their interpretations of relevant historical texts (1). However, based upon evidence from socio-cultural and linguistic clues within ancient texts, historians have dated Zoroaster’s activity at some point between 1700-1000 BC or from 650-600 BC. Similarly, Zoroaster’s place of birth is unknown although details in the Avesta, both linguistic and geographical, suggest the prophet was likely active in Eastern Persia.
Historical Sources and Biography
Zoroaster is credited with the authorship of several texts within the Avesta, namely, the Gathas and the Yasna Haptanghaiti. These texts consist of hymns and religious poetry with small bits of biographical information on the prophet. Many of the verses in the Gathas, for example, are directed at Ahura Mazda, the “mighty” God. Zoroaster urged his listeners to live out lives that reflected Ahura Mazda’s direction for them. The Avesta is a collection of many sources collected and compiled over a lengthy period of time, and cover numerous topics including purity laws, prayers, the manifestations of evil spirits, disease, hygiene, taking care of the deceased, and codes of conduct ranging from charity, marriage, social behaviours and more. Most of what is known about Zoroaster is from the Avesta texts although several other Persian sources, such as the Pahlavi books and those within the Sasanian record, deal with the dates of the prophet’s life.
The Avesta, particularly the Gathas, reveals that Zoroaster was a member of the Spitamid family, had a wife by the name of Dughdova, and that was a priest and the son of a noble Persian by the name Pourusaspa. He was apparently a priest at a young age and gained his knowledge during his travels. Zoroaster also claimed to have received a revelation in which he saw a shining figure at a river and that led him to the supreme God Ahura Mazda. Possessing the conviction that his visions ultimately came to him from God, he begun spreading his beliefs which would become the religion of Zoroastrianism. And although Zoroaster’s new religion grew he also met some stiff opposition from the civil and religious authorities in the areas he was active. One camp to oppose his teachings were the Karpans, a group of priests in charge of performing certain religious rituals that Zoroaster considered immoral.
Zoroaster is credited with converting a local ruler by the name Vishtaspa. Zoroaster was initially imprisoned by the ruler only to then miraculously heal his horse. This left an impression on Vishtaspa who then not only gave his support to the prophet but even allowed him to preach in his kingdom. Preaching Zoroaster did, and the religion begun attracting followers. The story of Vishtaspa’s conversion foind in the Denkard and the Anthology of Zadspram is late and legendary. Nonetheless, according to tradition Zoroaster died at the age of 77 after being assassinated by a priest of a rival cult while praying at an alter, but managed to leave behind an established religious community.
Important Theological and Philosophical Views
Arguably Zoroaster’s major theological proposition was his monotheism (belief in one God), which might be the earliest version of monotheism ever articulated within religion. Zoroaster’s monotheistic view is very unique belief in a context and period when polytheism (the belief in the existence of many gods) was the common religious system of thought.
He referred to God by the name Ahura Mazda who is a supreme, wise, and benevolent being, and creator of the material and spiritual world. Zoroaster also held to dualistic view of good and evil, which both constitute forces in opposition to each other. This conflict occurs within the cosmic battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainy (Ahura’s evil opponent), and human beings are able to take sides in this war. Zoroaster emphasized the individual person’s volition and moral responsibility to choose between good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu). Human decisions would reflect this choice, and Zoroaster urged human beings to side with Ahura Mazda by living morally virtuous and upright lives. One can do so by performing good acts such as helping the vulnerable and poor, avoiding lies and deceit, and both saying and thinking good things.
However, according to Zoroaster, although Ahura Mazda was the supreme God he possesses limitations. Angra Mainyu was said to have fought toe-to-toe with him, matching him evenly, and that only when Zoroaster was born did Ahura Mazda begin to obtain an advantage in this battle. In the end Ahura Mazda would defeat Angra Mainyu and subsequently restore cosmic order.
1. West, M. 2013. Hellenica: Volume III: Philosophy, Music, and Metre, Literary Byways, Varua. p. 89-109.