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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Zarathushtra & the Horse


By: Prof. Richard Nelson Frye


I had intended to present a paper on "The Gathas in Time and Place", but much of what I at first put down was nothing new and I decided [1] to speak about archaeology, which was not mentioned at the conference. One of the important points of the latter was the function of the horse in his society. First, however I should like to make some general remarks.

At the outset let me say that the Gathas themselves provide no information about the time and place of their origin; they are in effect timeless and spaceless.[2] But can we by analogy and inference go from the better known to the unknown in regard to the Gathas? By this I mean can we place the Gathas in what in German is called Sitz im Leben (contemporary milieu) comparing neighboring cultures? Obviously, any comments here will be impressionistic, but with the lack of sources they hardly can be otherwise. First, however, we may list those points on which almost everyone agrees about the Gathas:

The Gathas were composed by Zoroaster, or a proto- or pseudo-Zoroaster somewhere in the greater eastern Iran region, or in southern Central Asia, sometime in the first millennium B.C.E. Some people would place Zoroaster even earlier than the first millennium, but this is not the usual consensus. As I often have said archaicness of language cannot be used as the main criterion for the age of any texts. 3 On the other hand one could postulate a span of time for the daily use of a living, spoken language which probably should not exceed half a millennium at the most, which would place the prophet sometime between 1000 and 500 BC, with more likelihood earlier rather than later. Why earlier? Because the ambiance of the Gathas suggests that Zoroaster, with his references to the cow, was living in a pastoral society with one tribe raiding another to steal cattle. But it is also possible that the prophet was living in a settlement or town, with inhabitants defending their land against nomadic marauders. Also prophets usually receive their inspirations in wilderness, desert or mountains, away from settlements in communion with nature, and Zoroaster could have well fitted this pattern. So the prophet would be placed at the beginning of the Lunduz zhme (settlement) of the Iranian tribes on the eastern part of the Iranian plateau. The language and style of the Gathas, of course, are our important sources, but dating of language remains a matter for discussion, since some languages disappear quickly after some catastrophe or conquest of one people by another, while others are very conservative. Some scholars would assign Zoroaster to the sixteenth or fifteenth century B.C., claiming contemporaneity with the Rigveda. The latter, however, in my opinion is not so old, because the cuneiform records of the Mitanni in their relation with the Hittites, most likely date from a similar time but are in the Indo-Iranian or Aryan tongue rather than Vedic Sanskrit. What does archaeology tells us about the time and place of Zoroaster, who has been so aptly designated by Skjaervo as essentially a poet in the ranks of ancient bards, as well as prophetic.

It is generally agreed that the Indians preceded the Iranians in the migration to the south from a common homeland in south Russia and/or western Siberia. When the Iranians arrived on the plateau what did they find? If we look at the vast area of that world in which the poet cum prophet lived what do we discover? At the outset, in India the Vedas tell us about the Indians who worshipped many deities, both of the Aryan invaders and, in time, also of the aborigines. Rituals were all important in the religious practices of the Indians, and the faiths of Buddhism and the Jains probably had not yet emerged. On the other hand, there may have been incipient schools of yoga and other similar practices. Temples probably had not developed as fully as later, and they do not seem to have been great centers of power as in the Near East. The political situation in the sub-continent seems to have been one of tribal domains, probably staked out by various chiefs of the warlike Aryans. In that early period there is no evidence of a large state. Society may have seen the beginning of a caste system with the Aryan conquerors on top. In brief, this is the picture of India we may postulate at the time of Zoroaster.

To turn to the Near East, the other side of Zoroaster’s homeland, we are better informed because of written sources. The western part of the Iranian plateau had seen for a long time settled societies, the Elamites in the south with MaMeans and Urartians in the north, while in the east the fewer aborigines probably had been mostly absorbed by the Iranians. West of the central deserts of Iran Mesopotamian influences were very strong, and these also impressed the new coming Iranians, as we can see from such influences on later Achaemenid art and architecture. The ancient Near East, like India, was a polytheistic society with many local deities including spirits of trees, rocks and streams. Magic, charms and amulets to ward off evil abounded. Political life, on the other hand, was well developed with states, which fought one another, and even empires had been created and vanished. Temples were most important in Mesopotamia, not only as religious, but also as economic centers and foci of power. Society was differentiated into many forms, with guilds of craftsmen and merchants in the towns. This situation seems to have been in contrast to India.

Now we come to the Iranians who were invaders from the north, probably beginning shortly before the turn of the millennium. They moved by walking, or with horse and oxen drawn carts, as well as with chariots. Mainly they were not horse riding nomads, since that was a later development, although bridles and bits were known. In the time of Zoroaster it seems that the chiefs and warriors of the tribes fought from chariots since riding a horse was not only difficult, but also denigrated as the specialty of pastoralists looking after herds of domesticated animals. The religion of the Iranians was similar to other Indo-European speaking peoples, and by comparing the ancient religion of the Greeks, Celts, Germans, Slavs, and of course the Indians, we can reconstruct the probable basic beliefs and some of the practices of the ancient Iranians. We are now fairly sure that they were carriers of the Andronovo culture, so named after an archaeological site in southern Kazakstan. Let us compare the material culture of the Andronovo people (the proto-lranians) and that of the milieu of Zoroaster in the south after the migration of the Andronovans.

  1. The Andronovans lived on the border of steppe and forest lands of northern Kazakstan and were primarily pastoralists with a rudimentary knowledge of agriculture. The Iranians, after they came south, learned about irrigation from the aborigines but still remained primarily pastoralists. Who were the aborigines they met? In the west probably the Elamites extended as far as Sistan where they met Dravidian people. Farther north and east the ancestors of the Burushaski speaking people of Hunza may well have extended far and wide.

  2. The Andronovans flourished in the early Bronze age with gray pottery, while the Iranians in their southern, new homeland had met aborigines with better painted pottery. The later time was late Bronze and early Iron Ages, which period in Central Asia is generally assigned to ca. 1000 BCE by archaeologists.

  3. There were no towns in the north and the houses of the Andronovans were round and underground like Yima’s var in the Videvdad. In the south the Iranians lived in tents or dwellings on top of the ground

  4. The Andronovans moved south by walking or riding on wagons and chariots. They surely knew horseback riding, since the horse had been domesticated on the south Russian steppes in the third millennium B.C.E. I suggest that for the most part shepherds, rounding up cattle and sheep (holy cows =gospand) rode on horseback, for the style or fad of the time persuaded the aristocratic warriors of the tribes to ride chariots, as Indo-Europeans elsewhere -- Greeks of the Iliad, Indians of the Vedas, Mitanni, etc. The Scythians or Sakas seem to have been the first organized horse riding nomads on the steppes, as described by Herodotus and they are probably to be dated first from the ninth or eighth centuries B.C.E.

  5. The Iranians on the move had no temples and Herodotus is correct in saying that they worshipped their deities in the open, preferably on elevated places, as on the platform above Persepolis. No temples have been found among the Andronovans, and they surely neither carried nor built them on their trek southward.

  6. The Andronovans, like other Indo-Europeans (Greeks, Indians, Vikings, etc.) practiced cremation of the dead, but possibly on their migration south the Iranians learned to expose the dead, either from lack of wood or from the aborigines.

  7. The religion of the Andronovans was general Indo-European or more specifically Indo-Iranian or Aryan, with perhaps shamanistic influences from their Finno-Ugrian or other neighbors. The new message of Zoroaster came in a more settled society with changes from the old religion or a reform of it.

What does all of this imply? From scarce indications in the Avesta it implies that Zoroaster was complaining about low class bandits riding on horses, who were stealing the herds of settled folk, as well as condemning cruel practices against cattle. In other words, Zoroaster’s society does not seem to be the culture of the Andronovens in their homeland or their society on the march southward when they are more settled in eastern Iran or southern Central Asia. This further suggests that the date of Zoroaster is at the beginning of our millennium or 900-800 BCE

Where was he born and where did he sing or preach? Now Old Persian (O.P.) was the language of the Parsa tribe who settled in Persis, Fars province. Middle Persian (M.P.) with additions is the descendant of O.P., as New Persian is of M.P. We want to find the place(s) where Avestan (here I shall not try to distinguish Gathic and Younger Avestan) was spoken. In the east the missing link in the Old to Middle Iranian descent is the Middle Iranian (M.I.) phase which we shall call X, the M.I. descendant of Avestan. Sogdian in the Zarafshan and Kashka River basins is not the descendant of Avestan, nor is Khwarazmian or Bactrian, although they exhibit close relationship in some features. Khurasan, where Parthian was spoken, is also not a candidate as the descendant of Avestan. Where is the X on the map where we do not have Middle Iranian sources? I suggest it is the east-Iranian corridor from Herat to Sistan and Arachosia, and the Italians have made a good case for Sistan.

Arachosia or Sistan as the homeland of Zoroaster, on the border of medieval Turan, where there was conflict with non-Iranian aborigines in present Kalat, Baluchistan, has much to commend it. Furthermore, it is close to the Indian lands which linguistically, as well as religiously, have Vedic counterparts of the Avesta.

Legend has it that Zoroaster died in Balkh (Bactria). In the philological tradition of the lectio difficilior I suggest we accept that legend, for surely no one or place would like to claim credit as the site where the prophet was assassinated, although it is possible that someone outside of Balkh did not like the place or its people and wanted to saddle that city with such a crime. However this is unlikely. To conclude with some general remarks, Zoroaster was somewhat ahead of his time in preaching a highly ethical faith and tending towards a monotheism, concentrating on Ahura Mazda, much as the ancient Hebrews did with Yahweh (Jehovah). This happened in a world which was moving from polytheism to monotheism, i.e., concentration on one deity while not ignoring the existence and power of others. This steadfast devotion to one deity may have been the reason for Zoroaster’s rejection by his fellow men and his consequent hegira, probably moving farther east (perhaps to Bactria?) The question of monotheism vs. dualism is not discussed here, for in my opinion it is an ethical or philosophical question rather than cosmological.

Another question is the identity of Ahura Mazda "the wise lord", obviously an appellative, possibly invented by Zoroaster to conciliate various followers of the older Iranian religion. I am unable to say whether it is another name for the Indo-European chief god -- Jupiter, Zeus, Varuna __ it would not be amiss to suppose such was the case. I suppose that, as with other prophets, Zoroaster wanted to reform and renew the old faith and introduce his personal revelations into those beliefs, rejecting some but continuing others. As usual with other religions, Zoroastrianism, or the teachings of the prophet, spread slowly with ups and downs, but it would have been difficult for his followers to disagree with his ethical teachings.

Rituals and practices were another matter. Consequently the religion did spread, and the amalgam with the beliefs found in the "Younger Avesta" became the later religion which we call Zoroastrianism, or more properly Mazdaism. That changes occurred in time in the beliefs and practices of the religion is not unexpected, as in other faiths, but the remarkable continuity of Zoroastrianism is a sign of the strength of Iranian culture and society over the ages.

I fear what I have said is simplistic, and certainly not new, but all scientific and scholarly endeavor is to simplify our understanding of the world and man, and not to obfuscate it. Archaeological work is necessary in the east Iranian corridor to provide new materials, and we may hope in the future excavations will be carried out there.

At least these remarks are the bare bones and framework of placing Zoroaster and his Gathas in time and space. Others may put flesh on these bones, but then on details disagreement is rife and controversy inevitable.



1. I followed the dictum of my teacher Walter Bruno Henning that a theory is not true just because it is new, and another theory is not false simply because it is old.

2. Cf. P. 0. Skjaervo "Hymnic Composition in the Avesta," Die Sprache 36 (1994) 1 99-244.
After all, in the Germanic family in 1996 German is more "archaic" than English, and in the Semitic branch of languages in 1996 Arabic is more "archaic" than Hebrew.






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