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 (1).
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 (2). However, based on evidence from socio-cultural and linguistic clues from ancient texts, historians have dated Zoroaster’s activity at some point from 1700-1000 BC (3) or from 650-600 BC (4). 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 (5).
Historical Sources and Biography
Zoroaster is credited with the authorship of several texts within the Avesta, namely, the Gathas and the Yasna Haptanghaiti (6). 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 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 (7). They cover numerous topics such as 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 so on. Most of what is known about Zoroaster is from the Avesta texts although several other Persian sources, such as the Pahlavi books and those in the Sasanian record, deal with the dates of the prophet’s life.
From the Avesta, particularly the Gathas, one learns 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 (8). 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 which included the civil and religious authorities in the areas he was active (9). One camp to oppose his teachings were the Karpans, a group of priests in charge of performing certain religious rituals that Zoroaster considered immoral.
On his travels Zoroaster was credited with converting a local ruler called Vishtaspa (10). Zoroaster was initially imprisoned by Vishtaspa and soon after Zoroaster would miraculously heal Vishtaspa’s horse. This event left a deep impression on Vishtaspa who then not only supported the prophet but even allowed him to preach in his kingdom. Preaching Zoroaster did, and the religion begun attracting followers (11). The story of Vishtaspa’s conversion, as communicated in the Denkard and the Anthology of Zadspram, is late (12), and one that has accumulated legends and myths heightened by its late date of authorship well over 1000 years of the purported events (13). According to historical tradition Zoroaster died at the age of 77 leaving behind a well established religious community. The story of his death tells of his assassination by a priest of a rival cult while he was praying at an alter (14).
Important Theological and Philosophical Views
Zoroaster articulated several interesting ideas. These included monotheism (the concept of one God, whom he referred to as Ahura Mazda who was a supreme, wise, and benevolent god, and creator of the material and spiritual world) and his dualistic view of good and evil (15). Zoroaster believed that the human person’s goal was to search for asa (truth) and avoid druj (ignorance and lies). He also believed in a cosmic battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, Ahura’s evil opponent, and that human beings were able to take sides in this war. Thus, there was an emphasis on the human 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. This could take the form through performing good acts such as helping the vulnerable and poor, avoiding lies and deceit, and saying and thinking good things. Zoroaster’s monotheistic view can be considered a unique belief in a time where polytheism (the belief in the existence of many gods) was the common religious system of thought (16). However, according to Zoroaster, although Ahura Mazda was the supreme God he possessed limitations. Angra Mainyu was said to have fought toe-to-toe with Ahura Mazda, 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. Violatti, C (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2014. Zarathustra. Available.
2. West, M. 2013. Hellenica: Volume III: Philosophy, Music, and Metre, Literary Byways, Varua. p. 89-109.
3. West, M. 2010. The Hymns of Zoroaster: A New Translation of the Most Ancient Sacred Texts of Iran. p. 4-8.
4. Nigosian, S. 1993. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. p. 15-16.
5. Violatti, C (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2014. Ibid.
6. West, M. 2010. Ibid. p. 4.
7. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Avesta Zoroastrian scripture. Available.
8. Nigosian, S. 1993. Ibid. p. 12.
9. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Zarathustra. Available.
10. Nigosian, S. 1993. Ibid. p. 13.
11. Nigosian, S. 1993. Ibid. p. 13.
12. Stausberg, M. & Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina, Y. 2015. The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism. p. 527
13. Strausberg, M. 2002. Die Religion Zarathushtras, p. 46.
14. Violatti, C (Ancient History Encyclopedia). 2014. Ibid.
15. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Zarathustra.
16. New World Encyclopedia. Zoroastrianism. Available.