The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Book 2. How Persia Created Judaism
Zoroastrian Influences on Judaism and Christianity (Part I)
Pre-Zoroastrian Iranian Religion
Beyond all doubt, in Iran, hundreds of years before Christ died, a prophet arose whose life and teaching left an indelible but nowadays ignored impression. The Greeks saw him as a philosopher, mathematician, astrologer or magician, while Jews and Christians saw him as an heretical prophet and a magician. He was known in Greece as Zoroaster, a Graecization of the Iranian Zarathustra. Zoroaster’s conception of God has interested modern biblical scholars because of the similarities between his teaching, and Judaism and Christianity. Some authorities deny claims that Zoroastrian ideas influenced Greek, Roman, and Jewish thought, but they are quite wrong—these claims cannot be disregarded by anyone who is interested in true history as opposed to the arrogant exclusivism of modern Zoroastrianists, Jews and Christians.
The Persian religion Zoroaster founded, and whose priests were called the Magi, has had an influence on the world which today is unrecognized. Zoroastrianism is the first revealed religion to have appeared on earth and so, if any dependency of one revealed religion on another is to be found, Zoroastrianism is to be the donor not the receiver. The Reverend Matthew Black, writing as long ago as the middle of the twentieth century could declare unequivocally in Peake’s Commentary:
What we know as Judaism, as distinct from the ancient religion of Israel, is a post-exilic phenomenon.
Being “post-exilic” meant that it was indebted to the Persian Zoroastrian kings and administrators who provided for the Jews to “return” from exile. The Reverend Black was not the first to state this view. Lawrence H Mills was an American professor at Cambridge who translated much of the Avesta and published Zarathustra, Philo, The Achaemenids and Israel, in 1903 and Our Own Religion in Ancient Persia in 1913, both of which revealed the indebtedness of Judaism to Zoroaster and the Persians. Even further back, C W King writing in 1887 said that the Jews had their angels, the immortality of the soul, belief in a future life, the Last Judgement and the idea of rewards and punishments after death, “the latter carried on in a fiery lake”, from the “Zoroastrian scheme”. G F Moore in 1927 concluded:
Many scholars are convinced that this whole system of ideas was appropriated by the Jews from the Zoroastrians.
Is it worth asking why this should have been known well over a century ago but is still never taught in schools, in synagogues or in churches? A most prominent Christian scholar and cleric can tell us that many scholars know this but they are not willing to tell their flocks. We simple non-Christian types look on with incredulity. Surely these Christian scholars and gentlemen are irresponsibly but deliberately giving the wrong history of God’s plan to their bleating lambs. Surely they must be worried that God will not forgive them for such a huge porky-pie when they get to the balmy place—perhaps they will not even get into a place with such a narrow gate having such a huge blemish in their account. Doesn’t that scare them?
Not a bit! They know quite well heaven and hell are baloney whether or not they come from Zoroastrianism, and are only for the consumption of idiots. If they thought otherwise, they would have cause for concern. They display none.
Some critics say that the Judaism was not indebted to Zoroastrianism, but that Zoroastrianism was indebted to Judaism. If true, all the more reason to ask why such a wonderful fact is not being trumpeted in the schools, churches and synagogues. What a religion is this Judaism, that it should take over and dominate the rulers and priesthood of the greatest empire yet known by the world? And that those who spread it were a tiny number of pious Jews held in captivity by a preceding vast and influential empire.
No Jew or Christian trumpets it because it is absurd, does not stand up to the facts, and once these were realized would draw too much attention to the real, non-revealed, origins of these modern religions themselves. Since the truth is that these religions depend upon Zoroastrianism, the priests and ministers, the scholars and rabbis of these religions central to our culture are neglecting their true origins, but it is safer for them to ignore Zoroastrianism—and Persian history—than to decry it or uphold it. So, they say nothing, hoping that eventually, out of neglect, it will go away.
Canon George Rawlinson, a Victorian authority on old cultures and religions, pretends that there is no debt at all, although Zoroastrian is pretty noble for Paganism. The religion of the ancient Medes and Persians was “of a more elevated character than is usual with races not enlightened by special revelation!” Though this is thoroughly arrogant and racist, there are few Jews or Christians who will disagree with the learned Canon. In his researches, Rawlinson probably had discovered the same truth that people like Mills had discovered but dare not speak it. You can read it here in these pages. Black is undoubtedly correct—Judaism is indebted to Persian religion.
It is time that the real influence of Zoroaster was recognized and properly researched. The problem is to decide what was Zoroaster’s original teaching. This has two aspects, how to distinguish between the reforms of Zoroaster and the religion of the Iranian tribes beforehand; how to distingish the religion of Zoroaster from the religion set down in the Zoroastrian books we now have, like the Avesta. These issues are not fully resolved, but enough is known with enough confidence to embarrass both Christian and Jewish religious bigots. The Jewish religion—and therefore the Christian and Islamic religions—has its roots in the Persian conquerors who set it up to justify their position as kings of the world.
The Background of the Aryans
Iran is the ancient name of Persia, and it is derived from the root “Arya” or Aryan, the Indo-European branch of peoples who settled in that land. From the lost “seedland of the Aryans”, the Indo-Europeans moved to upper India, Iran, Russia and the nations of Europe such as Greece, Italy, Germany, France, Scandinavia, England, Scotland and Ireland. Sanskrit, Latin, Avestan are all sister languages, and the present day upper Indian, Persian and European languages are related. Baradar in Persian is Brata in Sanskrit and is Brother in English. “Persian” is a late European term for the “Farsi” language of Iran.
The kings of ancient Iran were very proud to call themselves Aryans—their rock edicts proving it: “I am an Aryan, the son of an Aryan”. The word Aryan occurs time and again in the ancient scriptures of the Aryans. Nothing is known about the beliefs of the conquered people but they will have formed a servile peasantry, just as the Saxons did for the Normans, and the Aryans were a minority ruling class.
The various tribes of Persia were, like the Aryans that had gone before them into India, nature worshippers, worshipping a pantheon of lesser gods and spirits, Daevas (Divas) and Ahuras. As a tradition of pastoral culture, it was natural that Iranians worshipped the heavens. God spread above their heads from one horizon to the other, dressed in his heavenly cloak, and, like the heavens, all Iranians gods could not be confined to “houses” but covered the whole world. Iranians had no built temples and no images, worshipping in the open.
Stone age society identified the sky with stone, the substance used by men and warriors to make their weapons, but then metals arrived on the scene superior to stone. The priests had to find an answer and it was that the sky was made of a particular stone—crystal, which appeared in veins in rocks just like gold and metallic ores. Crystal was therefore the same as stone and metal unifying the two. At the end of time the metal of the cosmos would melt engulfing everything destroying it unless it is righteous.
When the Iranian warriors established themselves as a nobility, they sought a distinctive and superior god of their own, not suitable for ordinary herdsmen and farmers. They decided it was wholly appropriate that the shining (deva) sky of bronze was the god of warriors, and the earth the goddess of peasants—and women. Spenta Aramaiti is the protectress of the earth and of women: “This earth then, we worship her who bears us, and women (Y 38:1)”. Her consort is Khshathra Vairyu, Desirable kingdom, Lord of the Sky. Here is the basic dichotomy of patriarchal religions: Khshathra, Sky, Kingdom (power and authority), Man—Aramaiti, Earth, Devotion, Woman.
So, the Aryans were worshippers of a Father Heaven and a Mother Earth among a variety of nature gods and goddesses. Those that shine and were immortal (amesha) were the heavenly bodies, and in the old Aryan background, these were gods, whence deus, zeus and theus, daevas and devils. The earlier Aryan invasion of the Greeks brought the father god, Dyaus (Zeus) Pita or Jupiter and his sister, a mother god with a name of similar structure, who became Demeter. She might also have had, in Persian, a name like Ahura Mata that simplified to Aramaiti.
The Persian god of heaven was called Ahuramazda (that the Greeks called the god, Oromazdes and the Pahlavis later called him Ormuzd shows that the “h” was scarcely pronounced), and this was the name of God in the Avesta as revealed by the ancient prophet Zoroaster, centuries before Christ.
Aryan Native Religion
The origin of “Ahura Mazda” is obscure. The many Vedic Asuras (Iranian, Ahuras) were “Lords”, even so long ago, the title of the gods, but were restricted to three in the Iranian religion. Only Ahuramazda, Mithras and Apam Napat, the Son of the Waters, were ahuras in the Avesta. In the Rig-Veda, an “asura” was a powerful and potentially frightening god, and they became devils in Indian tradition, but the power was placed before the fear in the Zoroastrian reform. Ahuramazda was an Ahura, Ahura Mazda, and he was declared the Most Powerful God, the single true God above all others. The Persians always wrote the name of the god as one word but Zoroaster would use the words separately and in no fixed order, evidence that his works were genuinely earlier because the name had not become stereotyped.
In Babylonia, about 1760 BC, the Kassites who conquered the land from western Iran, had a god written down as “Suriias”—the Indo-Iranian, Suryas. Clay tablets from about 1400 BC Egypt testify to gods with Iranian names in Syria and Palestine, and plainly enough, Syria and Assyria contain the name, Surya, itself, “sura” being a common adjective in Persian scriptures meaning “strong” or “mighty”, evidently derived from the word “surya”.
The Vedas, scriptures written by the Indo-Europeans that migrated to India, know an indistinct god called “The Asura” but otherwise the high gods were Varuna, Mithras and Indra. The job of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian gods like Varuna and Mithras was to uphold “Arta”, (Persian, Asha, Vedic, Rita) the principle of truth, justice, righteousness and order, but Indra was an amoral adventurer who granted arbitrary favours not rewards for “Arta”. The word, “Arta” can be seen in the names of Medes mentioned on Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions in the ninth century BC. The mention of a god Assara Mazas in the eighth century Assyrian tablets must be Ahuramazda, and probably is “The Ahura” of the Vedas.
Later, Mazda appears as “Masdayasna” in scripts, and in theophoric names in Assyrian, Elamite and Aramaic texts. The original high gods seem to disappear and are replaced by the single god Ahuramazda. Mithras later made a comeback but Varuna disappeared unless he was an entity called The Baga (the God), a name of Varuna in the Vedas, and Indra disappeared because he was the chief of the daevas, the immoral gods hated by Zoroaster.
Oddly, the Zoroastrian yazata of waters, Apam Napat, was also called the “High Lord”, suggesting that he had been Varuna, the link between water and the sun being that the sun sets into the sea (doubtless the Caspian Sea for the Aryans) to become Varuna, the god in charge of the subterranean ocean. Or, the important water qualities of Varuna were assigned to Apam Napat when Varuna disappeared.
In treaty forms found at Boghozkoy in Turkey, four gods, Mithra, Varuna, Indra and Nasatyas are invoked as witnesses. These are either Indo-Iranian or proto-Indian gods, the Indians therefore appearing west of Iran at a fairly early date. Assyrian records suggest that the route to the east of the plateau into India was well trodden by 700 BC, to judge by the preponderance of Aryans names, but so many names did not appear in the west.
Avestan “Mithra” was a “covenant” or “contract”, (Vedic, Mitra = “friend”). In Persian, the same word became “mihr”, meaning “loving kindness” or “friendship”, and a title of the god Mithras was “The Friend”. Mithras is the purveyer of Arta—order, truth and harmony. Arguably, Mithras began as a guardian spirit of contracts, but must quickly have become associated with the sun because the sun always was considered to see all wrongdoing from its vantage point in the sky. So he became the aspect of the sun god that guarded contracts, and as other sun gods disappeared from the scene he became the epitome of a sun god. Mithras is recognized as the Judge (Yt 10:81,92), a warrior in a chariot, drawn by white horses, that casts no shadow (Yt 10:68; 102; 125; 136), and had a thousand perceptions and ten thousand eyes (Yt 107;82), all features of solar gods.
Some of the Yashts suggest that Mithras was the god of the space between the heavens and the earth (Yt 10:44:75).
His place is the width of the earth.
It is, of course, the sun that does these things, “his glory” being the light and warmth spread by his benign rays. And, in Yasht 10:127, Mithras is accompanied by a wild boar, syncretism with Attis, or the source of Attis being linked with a boar, Attis being a form of Tammuz.
Did Ahuramazda in Iran always stand for the dual deity Mitra-Varuna of the Vedas? The Vedic Mitra acts most often with his solar partner, Varuna. When he emerged from chaos, Varuna became the night-time sun and guardian therefore of the underworld and the cosmic ocean below. Varuna evolved into the chief god of the Rig-Veda, equalled only by Indra, both seen as universal gods. He was a fearful god in the Rig Veda but has the title the “All-Knowing Lord”, reminding us of Ahuramazda, and so gave wisdom to his devotees as knowledge of the cosmic order. Both Varuna and Mitra guard “Rita”. So, Varuna had frightening but also valuable qualities, and Mitra was the daylight sun with all its blessings, and justice.
They are so closely associated that they are invoked jointly with the single word, Mitravaruna, a regular grammatical construction that puts the shorter name first, whether it is the greater of the two or not. The name Mithrasoromasdes has been found even in the UK, on tessara at St Albans. Plutarch mentions Mesorromasdes (Misa-Ahuramazda). It is a variant of Misa-Ahura, a south western Iranian form of the archaic Iranian god, Mitra-Ahura. Such constructs usually stand for equal pairs like left and right, day and night, showing that Mitra and Varuna were once equal. The two equal aspects of the sun—night/day, winter/summer, rainy/dry. In several east Iranian languages, Auramazda appears (Urmaysda, Remazd) and means the sun.
In India, Varuna grew while Mitra declined, and eventually Varuna became “The Creator” and the God of waters, ruling his “kingdom”. The question is what happened to Varuna in Iran. A great god, clearly equal to Mithras disappears. Or does he? Was his name so sacred, it could not be uttered and he comes to be called only by his main title, “The All-Knowing Lord” or Ahura Mazda, or simply God (“Baga”)?
Baga appears in more Median names of the eighth and seventh centuries than any other god, is equally popular in Persian names and so too in Elamite cuneiform, suggesting that Varuna had become “The God” and had been identified as Ahuramazda, since it is the latter that appears on inscriptions. The explanation might be, of course, that the name of the high god, Varuna, could not be uttered—just as, in Judaism, Yehouah could not—so he was always referred to indirectly, by his honorific title, the “Wise Lord”, or simply as “The God”.
In the alternative view that Ahuramazda embodied both Mitra and Varuna—Mitra being the god of the morning sun and Varuna the god of the night-time sun. This deity is already a dual one, and so it is not far to Zoroaster seeing in it two contrasting gods. Because Zoroastrians worshipped in the morning, and never at night, when the evil spirits might be around, so in Iran, after a period obscured by the title Ahuramazda, Mithras emerged as the face of God, or Spenta Mainyu, while Varuna became Angra Mainyu and then Ahriman. Mitra was never separated from the pre-Zoroastrian Ahuramazda, and evidently only for a short time, if at all, from the post-Zoroastrian one. Mithras is first named, though, in Persia, in the inscription of Artaxerxes II (404-358).
So, Ahuramazda looks like the same god as Varuna of the “Vedas” or the dual god Mitravaruna. Varuna also looks to be the same word as the Greek Uranus, meaning “the Heavens” (Boyce denies this on philological grounds, but they must be compelling technicalities because the words, their meaning and their provenance all yell out their identity), and as such must have been the equivalent of Ahuramazda. Like Varuna, Ahuramazda has a surrounding court of ministering spirits, but his goodness is manifest in nature—the ordinary realm of phenomena—the real world. Though people were rewarded or punished in the after life, Zoroaster was concerned with their behaviour here on earth.
The cult of the sun was a powerful one throughout the near east, and arguably all the great gods were sun gods in some of their aspects. “Hvar” (Hur) is “sun”, so the Hurrians, an earlier Indo-European tribe to invade the region of upper Mesopotamia, were associated with the sun. A prominent Babylonian god was Shamash, the Sun God, god of Justice and Righteousness—the Great Judge. Asura meant a sun god and all the Aryan chief gods were sun gods in some aspect or another. But the Iranian sun god was not a powerful god. He was Huar Khshaeta. Already Mithras and Varuna had taken on roles as moral gods, indeed might have been abstract moral gods who took on a solar aspect. Mithras was the god of covenants and contracts, while Varuna was a god of oaths and vows. Mithras was the rising sun, the sun of the pre-noon day, and Varuna was the setting sun, the sun of the night (and so the moon) when the sun was out of sight. Possibly the power of Shamash as a judge of righteousness influenced the Iranians in restoring the solar aspects of their moral gods, uniting them in Ahuramazda.
Akkadian gods were associated with a star. Shamash was associated with Ishtar, the goddess who was the Morning Star. Ishtar was a goddess in the mould of Kali, a goddess of love and of war. At some stage in the distant past, the evening and morning stars had not been recognized as the same and were given opposite attributes, even in respect of sexuality. The careful observations of the Chaldaean astronomers showed the planet was just one and they opted for it to be Ishtar, the morning star, but naturally it had to take the attributes of the evening star too. The ambivalent goddess was the outcome.
The Iranians identified their goddess Anahita (Greek, Anaitis) with Ishtar. Anahita was a goddess of rivers and waters, so suddenly obtained far more significance. Because of this transfer, Herodotus said that the goddess was adopted from the Assyrians and Arabians, but mysteriously he calls her Mithras. As a goddess of love, Ishtar was linked with Tammuz (Dumuzi) who was bewailed each year. An equal cult has been traced in the far north east of Iran in Sogdiana, where the goddess is called “Nana the Lady”, the name of a Babylonian goddess also with characteristics of Ishtar. Both had shrines at Erech within the temple of Anu, the sky god, and both were linked with Venus, but Nana was slightly the lesser goddess. The Iranians could not see the difference between them, calling both Anahita but using Nana as a familiar name for her.
In Babylonia, Nana was the consort of Nabu, a powerful god, the son of Marduk. He was a Babylonian Hermes, the god of messages, an intermediary who supervised the bringing of messages from the gods to earth. Note that a word in Hebrew for a prophet, who does the same job of transmitting messages from God is “nabi”. As a messnger, Nabu was also the god of writing and therefore of scribes. The Elamite scribes who kept Persian annals had the Babylonian god Nebu as their own god. The Persian for Nabu is “Tiri”. He became associated with Tishtrya, the Zoroastrian yazata of the star Sirius.
Vahu is the wind god, though he is not the wind itself, which is another god called Vata. Vahu is the “Breath of Life” but is also the last gasp on dying, so he is the god of life and death, of both the Good Creation and the Evil Creation. In this sense, of course, he is the creator of good and the creator of evil, rather like Yehouah. He is the “All-conqueror”, a title of Indra in the Vedas, so he was a powerful god. He is also described as “pitiless”. Thus he has characteristics of a storm god and is associated with the space between heaven and earth, as might be expected of a wind god. Later, he was to become associated with Zurvan. More significantly, his name is part of the name of Darius—in Persian, Darayavahu.
The Iranian Vendidad or the “Law to Fight against Evil” is one of the ancient scriptures of the Zoroastrians. The Vendidad actually describes the pre-Zoroastrian legends of the Golden Age of the Aryans in their ancient homeland when they were ruled by “Yima Khshaeta” (Jamshad). King Yima ruled wisely in a world in which there was no old age and death. From the weather described in the Vedas, the ancient Aryan home seems to have been in the Arctic regions, north of Russia.
In the pre-Zoroastrian legends, king Yima was judged to have sinned in some unknown way concerning a bull sacrifice, implying that the ancient Iranians had a bull sacrifice—not surprisingly. It continued into later times to judge by Mithraic iconography. Yima either had an unworthy thought or became arrogant and dedicated the sacrifice of the bull to himself as a god. So, he “sinned”, lost his immortality and died. Nevertheless, he remained a noble figure. The image is that of many of the heroes and kings of Israel and Judah. No matter what their merits, they always sinned at some stage.
In a later development of the tale, the king was told by the gods that the earth had become wicked and would be punished. He was instructed to build a “var” beneath the earth and, like Noah, populate it with pairs of animals. It is a Persian myth that draws upon the same Babylonian sources as Noah, and also links the Persian Yima with the Indian one. Despite their split with their Iranian brothers in the migration, the Indians remembered Yima, but he had transposed into “Yama Raja, lord of the underworld”.
From the evidence of both the Vedas and the most archaic Avestan texts, the continuance of life after death was something taken for granted as self-evident and not open to Question.
In India, the Rig-Veda implies a heavenly paradise for those who have been observant, but otherwise people at death dwelt in a joyless place beneath the earth.
Before anyone other than the Pharaoh Akhenaton, Zoroaster introduced a practical “monotheism” equivalent to that the Jews and Christians think is unique to them. “Zoroastrianism” is the name of the religion Zoroaster first devised sometime before the Persian king Cyrus the Great set up the Persian empire in the sixth century BC, perhaps, in the time when the Persians were still migrating south of the Caucasus towards their eventual homeland, between c 1000 BC and about 700 BC. Zoroastrianism was the original of all the truly universal religions, which Toynbee saw working in history.
The adjective “Magian” describes a group of related religions derived from the thoughts of the prophet Zoroaster. Mithraism and Judaism are forms of Zoroastrianism. Christianity is Mithraism applied to Judaism. Zoroastrian priests, Magi, were present at the nativity of Jesus, and ascribed their coming to a prophet—the prophet was Zoroaster!
Some say Zoroaster is a myth. The works attributed to him are more than any single person could have written, and many of the stories of his life are obviously late and obviously mythical, but none of this means that there was no Zoroaster. Especially in these ancient times, great men always accumulated myths and some perhaps were even turned into gods, but all innovations have a founder, and the founder here was Zoroaster. Later embellishments by his followers were doubtless attributed to him until the corpus of his work became Herculean, yet Zoroaster remains at the core. He is not simply a mythical figure but a real historical person to whose name were attached the work of many later holy men, all of whom were possibly called Zoroaster as a title.
In the west, Zoroaster is the Magus, the founder of the Magian system. The date of Zoroaster’s life is uncertain. Agathias remarks that it is no longer possible to determine with any certainty when he lived and legislated.
The Persians say that Zoroaster lived under Hystaspes, but do not make it clear whether by this name they mean the father of Darius or another Hystaspes. But, whatever may have been his date, he was their teacher and instructor in the Magian religion, modified their former religious customs, and introduced a variegated and composite belief.
No reference to him at all appears in the cuneiform inscriptions of the Persian kings, the Achaemenids, although they were undoubtedly devoted adherents of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster is not mentioned by Herodotus in his sketch of the Medo-Persian religion. He occurs for the first time in a fragment of Xanthos of Lydia in 470 BC, and in the Alcibiades of Plato, who calls him the son of Oromazdes. Hermodorus and Hermippus of Smyrna date him 5000 years before the Trojan war, Xanthos 6000 years before Xerxes, Eudoxus and Aristotle 6000 years before the death of Plato. These are obviously misinterpretations of the mythical 12,000 year timescale of Zoroastianism, which is divided into four quarters of 3000 years each.
The existence of Zoroaster even so is assured by the Gathas, teachings attributed to him in the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta. The Avesta is our principal source for the doctrine of Zoroaster. The thirteenth section, or Spena Nash, which was mainly a description of his life, has perished, while the biographies founded upon it in the seventh book of the Dinkard (ninth century AD), the Shah-Nama, and the Zardusht-Nama (thirteenth century AD), are legendary. The litanies of the Yasna, and the Yashts, refer to him as a personage belonging to the past. The Vendidad also merely gives accounts of the dialogues between Ahuramazda and Zoroaster.
The Gathas of Zoroaster claim to be his authentic utterances. The person we meet in these old hymns differs from the Zoroaster of the Avesta. Zoroaster displays emotions, doubt and despair in some of the Gathas, this being taken, like Jesus’s emotions expressed in Mark’s gospel, as a sign of authenticity. Here he is not a miraculous person of legend, but is simply a man, grounded in reality, but who trusts in God and the protection of his friends, for, at times, his position is precarious. Besides exterior opposition and the doubts of adherents, he has to deal with the inward misgivings of his own heart as to the truth and final victory of his cause. Hope, despondency, confidence, doubt and despair, a firm faith in the speedy coming of the kingdom of heaven, or the thought of fleeing—all these emotions find their expression in the Gathas. Yet they give no historical account of the life and teaching of their prophet. They are general admonitions, asseverations, solemn prophecies, sometimes directed to the faithful flock or to the princes, but generally cast in the form of dialogues with God and the archangels, whom he repeatedly invokes as witnesses to his veracity. Moreover, they contain many allusions to personal events which later generations have forgotten. It must be remembered, too, that their extent is limited, and their meaning, moreover, frequently dubious or obscure.
The Gathas have elements in common with the Vedas of India which date to the start of the first millennium BC. The language of most of the Gathas differs from the language of the rest of the Avesta. It seems to be an archaic form of Avestan, and from this and the personal style it is written in, it seems to be the original musings of the prophet. Most of the rest of the Avesta, written in more normal Avestan, is probably the additional work of the later Zoroasters and Magi, as the religion evolved.
Avestan is like Latin and Hebrew, a holy language kept in sacred usage long after it had ceased to be used in daily communication. Indeed, it was dead long before the Avesta’s final recension in the time of the Sasanian king, Khusrau I (531-579 AD). Just as the Jewish scriptures were expanded in the commentaries of the Talmud, the Avesta required extensive commentaries written in Pahlavi. Much of the original Zoroastrian writing was destroyed by Alexander, and much of the restoration of it under the Parthians and the Sasanids was destroyed by the Moslems. Patriarchal religions are not deterred from Patricide!
The Person of the Prophet
According to the Avesta (Yasna 9:17), Airyanem Vahu, on the river Darya, the old sacred country of the gods, was the home of Zoroaster, and the scene of his first appearance. Now, according to the Bundahish, Airan Vej was situated in the direction of Atropatene, and consequently Airyanem Vahu is for the most part identified with the district of Arran on the river Aras (Araxes), close by the north-western frontier of Media. Other traditions, however, make him a native of Ragha. According to Yasna 59:18, the Zarathushtrotema, or supreme head of the Zoroastrian priesthood, had at a later (Sassanian) time, his residence in Ragha. Shahrastani thinks his father was a man of Atropatene, while the mother was from Ragha.
In his home, he saw the celestial visions and conversed with the archangels and Ahuramazda as the Gathas relate. According to Yasht 5:105, he prayed that he might convert King Vishtaspa. He then appears to have quitted his native district, and after many dangers and difficulties, depicted in legend in the later books, he found in Vishtaspa, apparently a prince of east Iran (according to later legend, king of Bactria, probably a king of Chorasmia or Khwarezmia, south of the Aral Sea in Central Asia), the powerful protector and faithful disciple of the new religion he desired. He joins the pre-Zoroastrian world of Iran with the new era of Zoroaster. In the Gathas, he appears historical. In Yasna 53:2, he is spoken of as a pioneer of the doctrine revealed by Ahuramazda. Vishtaspa seems to be the archetypal pious Persian king.
King Vishtaspa does not help much with the historical date of Zoroaster. Vishtaspa does not seem to have any place in any historical chronology, and the Gathas give no hint on the subject. Vishtaspa was long thought to have been the historical Hystaspes, father of Darius I, but it then means the Avestan geneaology is utterly mythical, to no obvious purpose. No one in the court of Vishtaspa can be identified as historical unless king Vishtaspa is king Hystaspes, and queen Hutuosa is queen Atossa, but in history Atossa was associated with Cambyses and Darius, not Hystaspes.
The only secure historical evidence shows that Zoroaster began to propagate his religion at some time before Cyrus the Great conquered Media in 550 BC. According to the Arda Viraf 1:2, Zoroaster taught about 300 years before Alexander the Great, but Assyrian inscriptions put him before then. Oleg Petrov, author of the Temple of Zoroaster website, tells us that, according to Zoroastrian tradition, he flourished in 588 BC, 258 years before Alexander, who conquered the Persians in 330 BC. Zoroaster is said to have converted Vishtaspa when he was 40 years old. If this is assumed to have been when he “flourished” then Zoroaster was born about 628 BC, and died about 551 BC, because tradition made him 77 years old when he died. Western scholars would date him much earlier on the basis of the Gathas, Mills thus judging them to be 900-700 BC. If Eduard Meyer (1908) is right, the name Mazdaka, a proper name of Medes in 715 BC, shows the Zoroastrian religion was already predominant in Media before then. Meyer, therefore, followed Dunker (Geschichte des Altertums) in dating Zoroaster at 1000 BC. Dr Mary Boyce dates him before 1000 BC on the basis of similarities in the Gathas to the Vedas, and the primitive pastoralism of them, suggesting that they were not written for a settled society. Whether this is going too early or not, Zoroaster belongs in the prehistory of Iran. Gautama, the Buddha, was born about 550 BC, Confucius about the same time and Lao Tse, if he lived at all, was about 600 BC, so Zoroaster predated all of these great thinkers.
If the late dates for Zoroaster are correct, the new religion, once launched, must have spread with the astonishing rapidity. It is more realistic to allow time enough for the religion to be significant by the time the Achaemenids took to it. The history of Persia and the Achaemenids before Cyrus is not well known, and nor is it that well known afterwards, considering the importance of the Persian conquest to the history of the world, but the evidence is clear that the Persian kings were Zoroastrians, and it seems safest to assume that some not too distant ancestor of Cyrus was converted. So Zoroaster will have lived at the latest around the eighth century BC.
“Zarathustra” seems to be a compound of “Zara” meaning “golden” because it is the bright quality of the sun (surya) and “Ushtra”, possibly adopted from Babylon (Ishtar) meaning star. To translate it as meaning “having many camels”, (ustra, camel) seems unlikely despite Zoroaster’s herdsmen community, unless the whole is meant to be a pun. So Zarathrustra is a Golden Star, or possibly, if Zara simply means sun, the Star of the Sun, or if Zara means spirit or deity, God of the stars or heavens. Mithras was the sun as justice, but Ahuramazda was the sun beyond the sun—the God of the Heavens—the power behind the Cosmos who wore heaven as his “massy cloke”. The Star of the Sun is the morning star that heralds the rising of the sun. Thus Zoroaster is the herald or prophet of God whether as Mithras or Ahuramazda.
According to Diogenes Laertius (Pro 6:8), the Magi claimed that ‘Zoroaster’ was the Greek translation of his Persian name. Zoroaster’s name meant ‘priest of the stars’ or ‘diviner by the stars”. In the Clementine Recognitiones (4:28), Zoroaster’s name is said to mean ‘living star,’ and in the Homilies (9-5), supposedly his correspondence with Jesus’s brother James authenticated by a letter from Peter, the name represents “the living influence of the star”. Diogenes Laertius (Pro 2:2) adds that some Magi who flourished before the time of Alexander the Great had the name Astrampsychos, ‘the living star’ or ‘incarnate star,’ perhaps another translation of ‘Zoroaster.’
Indeed, Zoroaster might be a word that came to mean a god-sent “prophet”. At Rhages there are hints at more than one Zoroaster, and he is sometimes referred to as the best or highest “Zoroaster”—Zarathustrotema. It implies an order of prophet-priests either in a hierarchy, or possibly a group of them at community level led by a Zarathustrotema. The priestly caste were called the Magi (equivalent to the Brahmins of India) whose leader was considered a direct successor to Zoroaster.
The miraculous and the legendary are absent from the Gathas, Zoroaster being a thoroughly human and fully emotional man, making the Gathas quite acceptable to rationalists, but the legends that are written about him later get more and more biblical. In the Vendidad, as one of the original Nards, a book that precedes Alexander the Great’s destruction of Persepolis, 331 years before Christ was born, Zoroaster was born of a virgin impregnated by a supreme god, who sent an emanation of himself (“khvarena”) to fertilize her, just as Yehouah sent the Holy Ghost to cover the Virgin Mary. As soon as he emerged from his mother’s body, he laughed loudly, showing that life is good and the material world is part of God’s Good Creation, not a domain of wickedness. Zoroaster is tempted by Satan! He was threatened with death by a king as a baby, started his ministry at 30, was tempted, healed and taught. He championed the oppressed, lived an ascetic life, was persecuted and finally was murdered.
J Bidez & F Cumont say the Jews claimed that Zoroaster was a Jew and wrote in Hebrew. The story is that Zoroaster was an Israelite, whose true name was Baruch. He was born in the colony of the northern tribes which, according to the Jewish scriptures (2 Kgs 17:6,18:1), had been transported to Media. The Magi claimed to be a Median holy tribe. They insisted that their blood was transmitted through females hence their famous dogma of “xvaetvadatha” by which it was holy to have intercourse with a mother or sister. The original Jews of Yehud might have been Magi, but there is no clear evidence that the Magi were Jews.
He was born into a noble, possibly priestly, family the Spitama, the “White Ones” traditionally at Rhages (Ragha) in Media near Tehran, though truthfully further east. The people were settled stockholders troubled by nomads from the north-east, like the Persians themselves, who frequently raided and were therefore thought of as devils.
Zoroaster grew up with a love of wisdom and righteousness but seems not to have been specially educated. According to tradition, Zoroaster remained at home until he was twenty, when he retired into a desert for ten years. One morning, when he was thirty, he went at dawn into a river to bathe and fetch fresh water for a cup of haoma, a sacred drink thought to have been an infusion of the mushroom Amanita muscaria. Emerging suitably purified from ritual lustrations, he had a vision of an angel in the form of a shining being called Vohu Manu (Good Purpose), an Amesha Spenta (archangel). Guided by Good Purpose, Zoroaster encountered a theophany of the supreme god, Ahuramazda, at the top of a mountain. Enthroned in glory and attended by the six Amesha Spentas, the agents by which He effects his commands, Ahura Mazda revealed to Zoroaster the True Religion and made him its prophet.
He answered God’s call and returned with the truth he had to tell to the whole world, but his teachings aroused opposition from traditionalists. This is some 1200 years minimum before Mohammed, and 600 years minimum before Jesus, and is even before the Jewish “prophets”, who only the most died-in-the-wool Jews and Christians now think are genuininely dated by their own works, because they are really pseudepigraphs written in the Persian period!
It will all sound familiar to any Jew or Christian because it is the framework of Moses’s theophany with Yehouah, and ultimately of the Transfiguration and mission of Jesus. Christians will laugh at the name of the angel, saying it is like Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress, but Bunyan did not dream up the practice. Jews know what most Christians do not, and that is that many scriptural names also illustrate some characteristic of their owner, though even Christians must know that Jesus means the Saviour of God just as his devotees claim him to be.
Saviours typically disdain women, but Zoroaster was an exception. Jesus was not an exception. He condemned sex and despised women, even his mother, whom he addresses curtly as “woman” and informs that he will have nothing to do with her. When Zoroaster had established himself at the court of King Vishtaspa, he married, eventually having three wives, of whom the third, Hvovi, was the daughter of the King’s Prime Minister.
Later tradition credits him with having married his seven sisters and the sister-daughter that his mother conceived by him. That was undoubtedly invented by the Magi to support their dogma of “xvaetvadatha”. The legitimacy of marriage between brother and sister has to be accepted by religions which teach that human beings descended from a primal couple. The myth of Adam and Eve must mean that Eve incestuously copulated with her sons, and her unmentioned daughters with her sons and husband. Zoroastrian theologians make the first pair of proper humans the twins, Masi and Masanl. Women were created equal to males in the Zoroastrian religion, and not as an afterthought by a God with no forethought, proof, if any be needed, that the Hebrew God is not the Supreme God, who has forethought.
The Magi invented the doctrine of “xvaetvadatha” to justify marriages with sisters, mothers, and daughters by which they preserved their bloodline. It is this preservation of the bloodline that required the drastic action of Ezra in the Jewish bible, of dismissing the local wives that the initial colonists had taken on, and it is the same that causes Jews still to deplore marriages outside their faith, and to consider as jews only children of Jewish mothers.
When Zoroaster was engaged in coitus with Hvovi, waiting angels (fravashis) stole his semen and took it to to Lake Kayansih, where 99,999 angels guard it until an unsuspecting virgin bathes in it and is impregnated. Her son is the new saviour, Zoroaster reincarnated—the Saoshyant. In the lake, the holy semen glows in the depths like three lamps. Saviours, as in Christianity, have a habit of being late, and theologians have then to revise their arcane theories. Zoroaster gives the impression, in the Gathas, he expected the Last Judgement in the near future, but it did not arrive on time. So, Magian theologians prophesied three sons for Zoroaster, by the semen of each lamp with successive bathing virgins, separated by millennia. Similarly, early Christians invented the millennium of Revelation when Jesus failed to appear on cue. As Zoroaster is the son of Ahuramazda, so will his third son become the last saviour, the “Saoshyant”, who will deliver the world from evil, resurrect the dead, preside at the Last Judgement, and “abolish space and time” to inaugurate an era of perfect, unchanging happiness for truthful people.
Zoroaster did not try to overthrow belief in the older polytheistic Iranian religion, but placed Ahuramazda at the centre of it as the most high god promising his desirable kingdom of immortality and bliss to the righteous. He described Heaven as a green place, a beautiful meadow or a Royal Park—in Persian, paradise. Zoroaster, like Christians, wanted to convert everyone—he even sent missionaries to India. The Christian scholar, James Hope Moulton has written:
Zoroaster taught nothing about God which a Christian would not endorse and much that a Christian should add.
But besides the promise of eternal life for the righteous, the religion of Zoroaster related to the everyday lives of the Iranian cattle and sheep rearing smallholders and peasants. Though they regarded the maurauding nomads as devils, they had only recently settled themselves and many were probably still semi-nomadic but grazing a fixed locality.
Zoroaster preached his revelation from God for ten years, encountering the persecutions and temptations that all subsequent saviours also had to endure. When he despaired or needed encouragement each of the six Amesha Spentas appeared to help him, but he failed to convert anyone. Then his cousin accepted his message. Accompanied by his first convert, Zoroaster continued to work fruitlessly for two more years. Finally, he was thrown in prison in Bactria and languished there until he had the chance to cure one of the king’s horses. This king of Bactria, Vishtaspa (Greek, Hystaspes), is unknown to history but was so impressed that eventually he too accepted Zoroaster’s message after two years of persuasion, and quaffing drafts of “haoma”. Vishtaspa was converted to Zoroaster’s teachings, and Zoroastrianism had the bridgehead it needed. Vistaspa, inspired by his new visions, offered his subjects the choice of being righteous or being dead, and they chose to be righteous. The prophet does not seem to have objected.
An historical Hystaspes was the father of the Persian King, Darius, and a governor of Parthia from about 550 BC, who worshipped Ahuramazda. He was probably a Zoroastrian, as was his father Cyrus, but it seems unlikely that this Hystaspes was the legendary one. Zoroastrianism seems already to have been a religion of the Medes in the time of the Assyrian king Sargon II, about 715 BC, implying either that Zoroaster lived earlier or that there were Zoroasters before Zoroaster!
If Hystaspes was not the legendary figure, at least the fact that he was called Hyspaspes—presumably after the legendary king of Chorasmia—is evidence that the earliest Achaemenids were Zoroastrian. But, if the Persian kings were Zoroastrian, the religion had already begun to decay from its highest initial ideals. They certainly revered Ahuramazda as the universal god but increasingly recognized “other gods”.
From the Zoroastrian records, names associated with Zoroaster’s mythology begin to appear in the royal line. Arsames, cousin of Cyrus I, called his son Vishtaspa presumably after Zoroaster’s patron. It was a rare name among the Achaemenids but commoner in the east. Others appear including women’s names. These names suggest that the Achaemenids were devout Zoroastrians by the sixth century BC. The Achaemenids might have been easterners who came west bringing their religion with them and married into the Persian nobility when they settled in Anshan. Equally, a Zoroaster from Rhages could have converted Vishtaspa, just as in the legend, but this Zoroaster was a late member of the line, while the one in the Gathas is his ancestor, or predecessor. This latter explanation would allow for Media always being considered as having a longer Zoroastrian tradition than Persia.
Scholars guess that Zoroastrianism barely existed in a pure form anywhere except in Zoroaster’s writings. When the emerging nation of the Persians with their new religion, had their first victory over their fellow Iranians, the Medes, the well-established Median priesthood called the Magi were strengthened. The Achaemenid kings were keen to forge unity and interested in religion mainly for practical and political reasons.
Zoroastrianism was the national religion of Turania besides Persia, and spread to Armenia and Cappadocia, thence to the whole near east. It was the state religion of Persia under the Achaemenid kings when, before the Romans, they ruled the known civilized world, the Arsacid kings, the Indo-Scythian kings, and was revived by the Sassanid kings. In this revival it influenced the sect founded by Mani, the Manichaeans, Bogomiles and thence, the Albigensians.
The possibility of influence on the foundation of Buddhism and Chinese philosophies seems not to have been widely propagated, though Persian tradition has it that Zoroaster travelled both to India and China. In some passages in the Gathas Zoroaster calls himself the “One who Knows”, “Vaedamna” (cf Veda), a title that might be translated as “Buddha” or “Gnostic”. Even the name, Avesta, of the Zoroastrian bible means “Knowledge” from the verb “Veda” (past participle, “vista”), the same root as “Buddha”.
Zoroaster is also supposed to have travelled to Babylon, which is not unreasonable. Berossus, a priest of Bel-Marduk in Babylon in the reign of the Seleucid king, Antiochus II, about 250 BC, wrote a history of Babylon in which he claimed that Zoroaster founded a dynasty there in 2000 BC. Berossus was fitting his history into a fixed cycle just as the writers of the Jewish scriptures did. Berossus used a cycle of 36,000 years from the first man to the conquest by Alexander. Unfortunately there seems to be no relationship between the kings listed by Berossus and the king lists found on cuneiform tablets, so we must assume that Berossus did not really have any reliable sources for his histories. In any case, whatever he wrote has been destroyed in the Christian era, and all we now have are fragments preserved in Josephus and Eusebius containing this tradition.
He is also supposed to have gone to Anatolia, allowing for the possibility of an early influence on the Greek philosophy of the Ionians, like Thales of Miletus. An indirect influence seems certain. In 530 BC, the Greek philosopher, Xenophanes is telling us that there is a single apparently transcendental god. Pythagoras himself was said to have learnt from the Magi of Babylon, and the Neo-Pythagoreans’ doctrines of immortality and dualism owed much to Magian belief. The playwright, Aeschylus, takes for granted a belief in one supreme god. Plato mentions Zoroaster in Alcibiades, describing him as a son of Oromazdes—the God Ahuramazda (later called Ormuzd).
The apocryphal Book of Tobit seems to contain a lot of Magian allusions including the Holy City of Zoroastrianism, Rhages. In the story, the young Tobiah and the angel Raphael went on a trip to Rhages with Tobit’s dog. When they returned to Nineveh, the dog ran ahead, bringing the news of their return and “showed his joy by fawning and wagging his tail”. Esther is set in the court of the Persian king. There seem to be links between the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria and Zoroastrianism. The Neo-Platonist leader, Appolonius, came from Tyana, a Cappadocian city where Persian influence was strong. Judaism and Gnosticism were indebted to Persian religion.
The Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran Community had an astonishing flavour of Persian religion, and from its Essene origins as well as the later influence of Mithraism so does Christianity. The appearance of the Wise Men of the East, considered to be Magi, in the gospel of Matthew offering gifts to the infant god seems to be a symbolic recognition that here was the Zoroastrian Saoshyant. It implies that the writer was aware of a link, and a need to demonstrate to others who might notice it that the Magians accepted it.
The Persian Religion
The Gathas were written in a primitive society when herdsmen had to practice as warriors when called upon to do so. In the Zoroastrian Gathas, there is no mention of agriculture, seed sowing or harvesting, though these appear in the Younger Avesta. All of Zoroaster’s imagery is that of a cow herder. Even the Younger Avesta is ancient, being “younger” only linguistically, but is still full of ancient Pagan pre-Zoroastrian ideas. It was not as revered as the Gathas. The Gathas, however, suggest a settled community! So, the pastoral imagery might have been a religious convention of the poetry and hymns. It seems the long tradition of pastoralism in the steppes had established conventions and these were preserved through the period of the move to the south.
In the heroic Iranian Bronze Age, warriors separated as charioteers and joined local chiefs who were simply bandits. “Rathaester” is a chariot rider, and is a word that could be argued appeared in the name Zarathustra, before it was corrupted in a punning way—an ancient “Surya Raethester” morphs into Zarathustra. The impetus for the change could have been Zoroaster’s enemies sneering, “This charioteer of the sun is more a herder of many camels”. Guffaw!
The more primitive tribes, such as Zoroaster’s own, that lacked the technology for advanced weapons, were plagued by attacks from the raiding bandits, whom Zoroaster said preferred “the rule of tyrants and deceit rather than truth (GY 32:12)”. That the society of Zoroaster seemed settled might suggest he lived in a society of early migrants from the steppes, and had been among the first to settle, perhaps in Chorasmia. The misery and injustice of these times must have led Zoroaster to envisage a future time of justice and retribution to redress the evils of his own day. He became the first apocalyptist.
The various tribes of Persia were, like the Aryans that had gone before them into India, nature worshippers, worshipping a pantheon of lesser gods and spirits, called daevas. Some of the differences between the Rig-Veda and the ideas in the Gathas are typical of those introduced by religious reformers. Indian religion is, or was, notably sensual and Yasna 44:9 declares that the purification of religion from sensuality was a basis of Zoroaster’s mission. The Gathas mention no female deity sharing Ahuramazda’s rule. The religion of Zoroaster was markedly puritanical. Later religious reformers took their cues from Zoroaster.
Spirits in the Rig-Veda are “daevas” but in the reformed religion of Zoroaster, the “daevas” are devils. The way to put people off old gods when trying to introduce a new one is always to categorize them as devils. Zoroaster originally favoured one god, Ahura Mazda (Zoroaster used the words separately and in either order), so the others—often household gods depicted as idols, the teraphim of the scriptures and the Babylonians—were demonized and their priesthood denounced as idolators. Eventually daevas (devils) increased in numbers as their old identities were forgotten until there were millions of them, all manipulated by the Evil Spirit from hell.
Christianity made most of the old Pagan gods they met into devils. If that ploy eventually failed to put people off them, the bishops made them into Christian saints. Perhaps this is what the Magi did. A few daevas could not be demonized, they were too well regarded, and were retained as assistants to Ahuramazda, and eventually re-introducing as the much loved gods of the Indo-Europeans, but inferior to the Most High God, Ahuramazda. It seems Mithras was one such who emerged as an independent cult.
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