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Book 7. Persians and Greeks

Persians & Greeks: Zoroastrian Influence on Greek Philosophy

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What was was ever, and ever shall be, it has no beginning or end, but is without limit.

Melissus of Samos (440 BC)




Zoroaster is said to have travelled to Anatolia, the Asian peninsula south of the Black sea that is now Turkey, but in the seventh century BC was Ionian Greek in the West, Lydian in the centre and bordered Assyria in the east, with Persia beyond. If this is more than mere legend, it offers the possibility of a direct Zoroastrian influence on the Greek philosophy of the Ionians, like Pythagoras of Samos and Thales of Miletus. In dealing with pre-Socratic thought, A N Marlow tells us we find ourselves in an atmosphere more akin to that of the Orient than to that of the West. An indirect influence seems certain.

Pythagoras was said to have learnt from the Magi of Babylon, and the Neo-Pythagoreans’ doctrines of immortality and dualism owed much to Magian belief. Plato mentions Zoroaster in Alcibiades, describing him as a son of Oromazdes—the God Ormuzd. Since Persian tradition says Zoroaster travelled both to India and China, an influence of Persian religion on Buddhism and Chinese philosophies is also likely. These suggestions are not to disparage the marvellous inventiveness of the Greeks, the Indians or the Chinese, but the remarkable blossoming of religious and philosophical sentiment from the sixth century BC might have had a common seed, and that seed might have been Persia, in the center of all these astonishing changes, and the base of Zoroaster, who preceded the other great men of the time.

A complication is that the earliest Greek myths seem to have been similar to those of the Hindus as well as some of the Persian myths. How did Indian influence reach Greece so early? All of these peoples were Indo-European, and so the Hindu pantheon has affinities with that of the early Greeks, since both are derived from a common source. So it is often difficult to decide where the true points of contact are, but at this date contact with Persians rather than the Indians seems more likely. Radhakrishnan writes that agreements between the myths of the Greeks and the Indians indicate that:

The two peoples must have been in contact at some early period, but neither possessed any recollection of those times and they met as strangers within the Persian Empire.


The emergence of the Persians must have stimulated interest in Anatolia in northern legends. The Ionian Greeks were stimulated by Persian cosmology to think on a cosmic scale and a timeless scale. They began to see morals and nature as the strife between opposites, and the qualities of air, earth, fire and water began to be seen as “elements,” though the term itself is a later invention. As F H Smith pointed out, the apeiron (the Boundless) of Anaximander is, in Hindu, the Nameless and Formless, called Aditi, the Unlimited, in the Rig Veda. Moreover, this Aditi is ordered by the immanent Rita (Law, Order), later called Dharma, the Persian Arta or Asha (Truth), just as in Anaximander an immanent Dike, Justice, ensures that all things eventually return to the apeiron whence they came:

From which all things take their rise, and by necessity they are destroyed into these, for all things render just atonement to one another for their injustice according to the due ordering of time.


After the time of Alexander, the way lay so open to Oriental influence and parallels with India become more frequent and less remarkable.

Philosophy is peculiarly Greek, but the lines of thought of many early Greek phlosophers seem to emerge from the new cosmology of Zoroaster. Zoroaster’s remarkable new ideas stimulated the philosophic mind of men who sought to do better than their enemies. The investigator has to remember, though, that most of the Persian works of Zoroaster’s school have been destroyed, so many connexions are irrecoverable, and the apparently clear links between Hindu thought and the pre-Socratic Greeks might simply be reflecting the lost common ground in Persian thought.

Westerners have never been happy even to consider that the glory of Greece owed anything to anybody, let alone Persians who are thoroughly disliked now that they are run by mad mullahs. But the Persians and the Greeks had the same origins, as did the Indians, and in 500 BC probably did not seem much different from each other, though subsequent breeding with the indigenous stock doubtless led to differences in appearance and outlook. So, any debt of Greeks, Chinese or Indians to the Persians has not been adequately explored, simply for reasons of prejudice.

Certainly, something happened, and the most evident thing that did was the emergence of the Persians from obscurity. Some scholars such as M West, (Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford, 1971) have had something to say about the Greek debt to Persia but most ignore it. It was accompanied by a birth of knowledge throughout the world as it was then known. For anyone that might want to begin the study, here is a little background history for comparison with Zoroastrianism.

M L West seems irritated by the no-marks who can never allow any non-Greek or non-Jewish influence on our civilisation, but truthfully both Greeks and Jews were themselves profoundly influenced by Zoroastrianism. So, first introductory essays on the Logos of Philo and Time that will establish some of the themes.

The Logos of Philo

Asha (Arta) and Vohu Manah of the Avesta are in some ways like the Logos of Philo, so, in Victorian times, some scholars thought the Gathas had been influenced by Philo. The idea of the Logos “arose from the observed regularity of natural phenomena, the rising, course decline and disappearance of the sun and other heavenly bodies, the succession of the seasons, etc,” according to Rev L H Mills. Religious services had to copy the regularity of the heavens and seasons—in their rhythm—lest the gods be offended. Herodotus and his successors, Hermippus and Theopompus, report a stage of Mazda worship more fixed and liturgized than such lore as even we find in parts of the later Avesta, suggesting its antiquity even then.

Asha—Truth or Order—might be regarded as the rhythm of Nature and so is quite like the Logos of Philo, a creative aspect of God. Vohu Manah is Good Thought, which might be more loosely translated as Benevolence or Grace. Asha and Vohu Manah in some ways represent the same ideas but as applied universally (Asha) and individually (Vohu Manah). In this sense, Asha has the meaning, socially or communally, of “Justice” while Vohu Manah means personal “Love”—or rather “Kindness,” because it is not sexual.

The basis of the accusation of dependence of the Gathas on Philo is that some parts of the Avesta, and works like the Denkart were late enough to have had Platonic influences, but others such as the Gathas are plainly earlier than Plato, from language and from the poetic form, and could not have had any such influence, even interpolated. Greek philosophy was taken into Persia only in 533 AD by Simplicius and his school. The Denkart was written in the Moslem period. Rev L H Mills proved any dependence of the Gathas on Philo was absurd and chronologically unsound, so that any influence that existed was the other way round. So, indeed most scholars have found.

The Egyptians too had a divine order, according to Frankfort. Maat is…

…a divine order, established at the time of creation. It is manifest in nature in the normalcy of phenomena, it is manifest in society as justice, and it is manifest in an individual’s life as truth.
Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation


The Egyptian texts say the king’s throne was “founded on Maat”, and each coronation was a renewal of the cosmos, a victory of order over chaos. Through his edicts as ruler, and by enforcing justice and piety among the people, the king kept Egypt conforming with cosmic order and helped maintain it. Yet Egypt, in its formative period, was greatly influenced by the parallel civilization in Asia by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Scarab seals were based on cylinder seals from Ur. The fantastic menagerie of strange animals came from Sumeria but were modified to suit the imagination of Egyptians. Foreign ideas came into Egypt but were Egyptianized, and the process was completed in respect of Sumerian influence by the end of the Egyptian first dynasty. Maat and the annual celebration of God’s victory over chaos seem to have been taken into Egypt from Asia, perhaps by early Iranian invaders.

Heraclitus might have introduced the concept of the Logos, derived from the Persian idea of “Asha” or cosmic order, and Parmenides spoke of trusting only the Logos or “Reason,” as opposed to the senses or imagination. The idea of “Reason” as inherent in Nature was dear to Heraclitus. For Heraclitus, “Fire,” also “Asha,” was the eternal substance, a remarkable guess, we might think today, knowing that energy is, and that fire is the most obvious of its forms. He was also inspired in seeing movement as being constant—the process of “becoming”.

He did not consider the Logos as active or conscious. His Logos is the eternal law of motion, eternally splitting apart and pulling together. By strife alone, life becomes possible—disease makes health valued, there is no peace without war. All of it is plainly traceable to Zoroastrianism. Stories of the two antagonistic divinities of the Persian religion must have stimulated Heraclitus’s thought of a world moved by conflict. In Zoroastrianism, conflict is utterly at the centre of life—time and movement only begin with the Evil Creation. Before that perfection meant stasis.

Which Holy Spirit was inspiring these guesses? It could only have been Spenta Mainyu, the Zoroastrian one, if it necessary to have one at all, as Christians insist.

Heraclitus must have been somewhat aware of the nature of the widespread Mazda worship with which his successors were so familiar, for the Persian forces which looked to Ahuramazda for victory and abhorred Angra Mainyu [or the Druj] as the author of defeat, surged for years up to the very gates of Ephesus where Heraclitus was in his prime.
Rev L H Mills


He will have seen the fire altars of the Persian army burning in their camps by night and discovered that it was Asha, apparently the same as the regulating principle of nature. Asha as fire and Asha as Truth are hardly connected in the Avesta but, who are we to assume that they also were not for Heraclitus. He heard the same word for both and perhaps saw them as a noun and a verb, inspiring his thoughts.

Petty critics, unable to bear the idea that western thought, as well as religion, might have started in the east, do just what Christians always do to defend Christianity against external influences—they highlight the differences, as though Heraclitus had to take the entire Zoroastrian belief system or none at all. Had he done the former he would have been a Zoroastrian, and had he done tha latter he would never have been heard of at all! Needless to say there is little left of whatever Heraclitus believed. If we had had more, his sources might have been clearer, but as it is he used manifestly Zoroastrian concepts, but used them in his own way, either because he did not understand the originals properly or because he rejected parts of the Zoroastrian philosophy. Since he was utterly opposed to gods of any kind, other than using the name for certain natural powers, he tried to put the Zoroastrian idea of conflict into a non-supernatural framework.

Antithesis is the keynote of Zarathustrianism.
Rev L H Mills


Moving on in Greek philosophy, Empedocles appears, also with a dualistic system, influenced by Heraclitus or perhaps by Zoroastrianism directly. The causes of motion were the two principles of “Love” and “Hate,” Love being the uniting principle and Hate the dividing one.

Anaxagoras introduces the idea of “Endless Time” from Zoroastrianism where it was called “Zruvani Akarani.” For him, “Nous” stirred matter into motion, “Nous” being another name for Logos. Plato came early under the influence of Heraclitus through his pupil, Cratylus. Plato took to this Nous and had one that was transcendental and therefore a god, and one that was in nature as a World Soul. Nous was Reason and conflicted with Necessity (Matter) in yet another form of dualism. Nous, Logos and Logisticon were all the same thing, a sort of universal Reason.

The Stoics, like Heraclitus, believed in no conscious, finger poking, personal gods, because they took Order or the Logos as being god—the law of all things in the universe. It was a law, so could not whimsically stir its index finger in the proper order of the world, like the Jewish and Christian god. It was a law of the universe not a transcendental being looking into the world.

Aristobulus introduced Logos into Judaism as the creative word of God about 160 BC. In the form of the Goddess Sophia it appears in the Wisdom of Solomon (7:22) as omniscient, omnipotent, controller of the best of things, continually reviewing them and directing the fate of humanity, especially that of the pious. Yet God remains the creator, though Sophia seems to have taken most other of his characteristics.

Philo finds that Plato, “the holiest and the great,” Heraclitus, “the great and the famed,” Parmenides, Empedocles and Zeno, a “holy union of divine men,” are all indebted to Moses. That seems quite absurd until one realises that Moses is Mazas—Ahura Mazda—and suddenly Philo might be taking sense. The question is whether Philo knew of the identity.

God is the “Being One” or simply the “Being.” Philo saw God as the “Mover” without which everything would be static, like Heraclitus’s Logos. Perhaps in the same way the Stoics saw the Logos as god, but as the universal law, and could honestly declare, though they were atheists in fact: “The world is full of god.” So, for Philo, God is the “Mind of All Things”.

He also calls the Logos “Father.” In the Avesta only Ahuramazda is ever called Father, but the Holy Spirit was Ahuramazda in activity and Logos had this function for the Hellenistic Jews. Philo has other Logoi besides the Logos. They seem to tie in with Platonic Ideas as Forces, but could also reflect the Amesha Spentas, or the Angels. Forces put the disordered into order and define the limit of things. Philo seems to identify the seven Cities of Refuge (Num 35) with the Amesha Spentas, though one has dropped out through a textual corruption, and he also sees the Logos as a charioteer as does the Avesta of Asha. These sound like sun analogies.

So, the evolution of the Logos starting in Ionia influenced by Zoroastrian belief was, in summary:
first, a monistic, static, and non-religious power,
growing dynamic in Heraclitus, whose “Fire” then passed into the Stoic system as Logos,
crossing to Attica after the Persian wars,
profoundly developed by Plato and Aristotle,
adopted in an impersonal form by the Stoics, influenced by Egypt,
these converging currents synthesized in Plutarch,
and in Philo who strove to see in Plutarch’s sources the doctrines of Moses.


The Logos, originally a blind, impersonal, immanent force in the world, became transformed by Pagan myth, and by the syncretism of Philo of Alexandria until it was personified when John moulded it to his dogma, and asserted that the “Word” was made flesh and was Jesus Christ, thereby, in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, cutting short “all perilous speculation among Christians.”

Instead, the Logos, having appeared in John’s gospel, became so important for Christians that they began to redefine history:

Those who live according to or with the Logos are Christians, even if they were thought atheists, and such were Socrates, Heraclitus and the like among the Greeks.
Justin Martyr Apologies



Pherecydes of Syros who is said to have come to Ionia from further south east in southern Anatolia flourished about 544 BC. Though he is not well known, he is the first to speak of metampsychosis (reincarnation) and he is the first philosopher to have identified a primeval god of time. He acknoledged no teacher but says he worked from the Revelation of Ham and from the Secret Works of the Phoenicians. He identified a trinity of gods, Chronos (Time, not Cronos), Zas and Cthonie. Zas is the high god (Zeus?) and Cthonie is “She who is beneath the Earth.” Zas gave Cthonie the earth as a cloak of honour, and then married her. So she was Ge (Gaia). Chronos did not marry but somehow produced the remaining three elements of fire, air and water.

Curiously, Chronos had fought another primeval god called Ophioneus (the “Snaky One”) for control of the heavens. Chronos had won and cast Ophioneus into the sea and assumed the victor’s crown. The serpent god was apparently utterly defeated and was not a lingering force of evil. This part of the story sounds Babylonian, like Tiamat and Marduk.

The concept of an eternal Chronos, says M L West (Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient), is “without precedent in Greek accounts of the origin of things.” Ra, in the Book of the Dead is the first primeval god and the ruler of years. A Phoenician inscription of the ninth or eighth century has Shamash as the “Sun of Eternity.” Time was at first an aspect of the sun, gradually seen in the abstract as even more basic or primeval. The winged disc was popular in Phoenician cultic art and the Phoenicians were strongly influenced by Egypt. Possibly the idea of Chronos went from Egypt to Ionia via the Phoenicians.

Praja-Puti, the Creator in the Rig-Veda, appears as a “golden embryo” but later, in the Athervaveda, he is the son of “Time” (Kala). This evolution suggests that the concept of “Time” was not original in Indian cosmology. The best evidence is that the concept of time was Phoenician of about the seventh century whence it spread east and west, entering India from Persia. S G F Brandon says the Iranian word Zurvan (Time) is known from the 12th century BC but not in any mythological context. The point of all this is that it implies that Zurvan as a sexless and eternal primeval god was a late heresy of the original Zoroastrian idea.

Later Zoroastrians, the Zurvanites, faced with two apparently equal gods, one good and one bad, invented the concept of “Zurvan” or Endless Time out of which came the conflicting principles. It is a sophisticated idea and there is no way of knowing that the concept did not exist before Zoroaster and have some role in his scheme, but it is not mentioned in the Gathas. Another sect, the Gayomartians, attributed the Evil One to a bad thought in the mind of the Good Spirit. For Zoroaster, however, the only creator was Ahuramazda.

Details of the belief in Zurvan are all late, but evidence exists that it existed from about the time of Artaxerxes II. Zurvan simply means “time” and time is a key part of Zoroastrianism, which divides it into the time of creation, the finite time of history (“Time of Long Dominion”) and the eternal time after that (“Boundless Time”). At the end of finite time, Ahuramazda destroys the evil creation, and restores the world to its pristine state before the Evil Spirit realised what was happening—the kingdom of God.

The sources on Zurvanism are all Sasanian or later. The myth that developed is this. Zurvan existed eternally, but wanted a son. He sacrificed to get one for 1000 years with no result and began to doubt he would succeed. Out of that doubt was born the Evil Spirit, but his worthy sacrifices had in fact worked and yielded the Good Spirit. Zurvan gave the rule of the world to the first son to appear and it turned out to be the Evil Spirit. Realising his error he gave the Baresman twigs to Ahuramazda and placed him over Angra Mainyu for “the time of long dominion,” when Ahuramazda would have absolute control. Knowing this with his foresight, Ahuramazda began his Good Creation, and when he saw it Angra Mainyu countered it step by step with his Evil Creation.

The idea of a Great Year arose about 500 BC, at about the same time as the 360 degree circle of heaven. The Chaldaeans realised that the planets, considered gods, moved in cycles and, because they influenced human life, so human history must be cyclical. The time it took for all the known planets to return to their initial positions was the Great Year. It encompassed the Flood (a Babylonian legend) and the purging by fire (a Persian concept). The observations of the astronomers were not accurate enough to allow a precise calculation of the Great Year so different assumptions led to different answers.

The Zoroastrian concept of time was linear not cyclical, but the Zurvanites fitted the cycles into the “time of long dominian.” Plutarch in Isis and Osiris explains the theory of each spirit ruling alternately, the cosmic warfare then the final peace in perfection. Plutarch’s source was Theopompos from the fourth century BC, which confirms that the theory had been worked out in the time of Artaxerxes II. The Greek idea that Zoroaster had lived 6000 years before was probably from the originally conceived length of the time of long dominion, but it was extended by having 3000 years for creation to happen, and another 3000 years for three Saoshyants to appear each millennium as limited time approached its end. The last incarnation of Zoroaster took the world into “Boundless Time” and eternal bliss for the righteous. Interestingly, the titles or duties of the three Saoshyants can be rendered as the “Teacher of Righteousness” and the “Teacher of Reverence,” with the last one being the “Righteous One.” Each of these millennia copied the whole of history in that they began on a high then degraded until they were lifted again by a new Saoshyant.

The Growth of Greek Society

Between the years 1000 and 800 BC, when the Persians were migrating south of the Caucasus toward their ultimate destination on the Iranian plateau, Greeks settled the mainland and the coast of Asia Minor, and grew in number. By 750, growth in population and trade led to villages amalgamating into city-states. By the 700s, when Jerusalem was yet still a poor and insignificant town in the Judaean hills, the Greek city-states were thriving along the coast of Asia Minor, at Smyrna, Ephesus and Miletus. On the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece were the city-states of Argos, Olympia, Corinth and Sparta, and on the peninsula of Attica was Athens.

Greek merchants trading between the islands and coastal cities in timber and grain, took to longer coastal voyages to more distant cities, then to the island of Cyprus, and on to northern Syria. Wealthy farmers were growing crops for sale abroad—mainly wine and olive oil. Many landless Greeks were hired to make pottery, furniture and other wares, and some became rich. These activities induced the Greeks to learn writing. First they wrote out bills of trade, then poetry then philosophy.

As Greece lacked tin to make bronze, the forging of iron arose instead, making them early masters in the new technology. The use of iron increased productivity in agriculture and manufacturing. The Greek population soared adding to the incentives for young Greeks to emigrate elsewhere. Greeks established colonies in southern Italy at Cumae, just west of what would in Roman times be Neapolis (Naples), and Croton. On the island of Sicily, they founded colonies at Syracuse and Messina, and they founded colonies on the coast of Libya and at points around the Black Sea.

The women of Greece were property, though an Athenian could have only one wife. Nevertheless, he could have a concubine living within his family—whose children were not recognized as legitimate and not given citizenship. Wives were valued as the bearers of children with citizenship status. Women had to be virgins at marriage and faithful after marriage. The male was not required to be faithful to his wife, but law demanded that a husband divorce an unfaithful wife and return her dowry.

In Athens, women could own no property except their clothes, jewelry and slaves, and they could enter into only minor market transactions. As members of farming families, women had helped in the fields, but with city-dwelling had come the practice of protecting women from public view and confining them to their homes. In such homes, women had their own quarters, and they dined together in a room apart from the men. A man committed an outrage if, without his having been invited by the master of the house, he entered a house where women might be present.

Women had to be accompanied if they left their house. They were to be under the protection of a guardian at all times—their father or a close male relative if they were unmarried, their husband if they were married, their son or a close male relative if they were widowed. The only women free of these controls were foreign women, those few citizens who were living in dire poverty and forced to labour outside the home, or prostitutes.

First Greek Books—Homer and Hesiod

Sometime before 700 BC Homer, a Greek poet who lived on the coast of Asia Minor, wrote down an epic poem called the Iliad, a story about war between the Mycenae Greeks and the city of Troy that had been passed from generation to generation in the oral tradition. In it, Homer described events as governed by the gods, just as the Sumerian scribes, Zoroaster in Persia and those in India who wrote the Ramayana and Mahabharata did. The Greeks had ten, then later, twelve Olympian gods. Herodotus accepted the Egyptians’ claim to have originated the worship of the twelve-member Olympian pantheon (Histories 2:4), and identified Dionysus explicitly with Osiris (Histories 2:144, cf 47-49). The Eighteenth Dynasty inscriptions of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III, indeed, show a pantheon of twelve Egyptian gods—Montu, Atum, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Nephthys, Seth or Anubis, and Hathor (J H Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt).

The Indo-European tribes entered Greece with a supreme god of the sky, the god of thunder and lightning and all other aspects of the weather, Dyaus Pitar. When these Greeks learnt how to write they rendered his name as Zeus and made him chief of the Olympians, the lord of the heavens—for Homer “the father of gods and men”. Zeus, however, was the youngest son of Cronos (Chronos? meaning “Time,” the same as the Persian “Zurvan?”). Hera, his wife, was the protector of women and marriage.

Artemis, Diana of the Romans, the twin sister of Apollo, and goddess of hunting and wildlife, was the moon goddess. Athena, wisdom, born from the head of Zeus in myth, was the goddess adopted by the Athenians, and was a protector of cities.

Poseidon, the sea, was the Neptune of the Romans and caused earthquakes and volcanic eruptions because the ancients believed the earth was supported by water. Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, goddess of love and beauty, was Ishtar of Assyria, and Astarte of Phoenicia. Pluto was Hades, meaning “the unseen,” because it was the underworld, the place of the dead.

Homer described mortals as having a degree of free will, but also doing unintentional deeds, originating in emotion. Through emotion, rather than reason, men followed the dictates of the gods. Homer described dreams as religious messages, such as those sent by Zeus to the Greek king Agamemnon. And Homer’s Iliad described religious rituals that included the ceremonial cremation of a warrior’s remains, which had to be, therefore, transported home for the ritual.

Another Greek poet who wrote before 700 was Hesiod—also from the coast of Asia Minor. Hesiod believed that the Greeks were descended from a golden race that lived in idle luxury in the distant past, before Zeus was lord, when Zeus’s father was king, and Hesiod sought to account for the golden race’s demise and successive declines in civilization. This is close indeed to the Persian myth, and might reflect the common origins of these Indo-European peoples or Persian influence—Persians migrating south of the Caucasus at this time might have begun to make a mark on history through their own mythology.

To explain the fall, Hesiod reworked a Caucasian myth about the god Prometheus—a tale admired by the Greeks. Like the Hindu god Agni, Prometheus was a god of fire, a benign god for humans and a god who taught humanity their arts and crafts. Hesiod described Prometheus as stealing fire from the heavens and giving it to mankind. This theft angered Zeus, and he had Prometheus chained to a rock on a mountain in the Caucasus, where an eagle or vulture tore at his liver each day, Zeus causing the liver of Prometheus to grow anew each night in preparation for the next day’s torture. The Persians revered fire also, not as a god but as an intermediary between heaven and earth.

To punish mankind for accepting fire stolen from the heavens, Zeus was said to have sent them a curse in the form of woman. Here was the Greek version of the Hebrew legend of man’s fall—the creation of women. The woman’s name was Pandora, and Zeus sent her with a magic box that he forbade her to open. But after she had been on earth awhile she grew curious and opened the box, and out came the earthly plagues and misfortunes that forever after harmed humankind. Pandora hurriedly put the lid back on the box, but all that remained inside was hope. This legend too is familar in Persian mythology, though it is Ahriman not Pandora who releases the plagues upon mankind.

Zeus, at a conference with his fellow gods in his heavenly palace, decided to destroy humankind and to provide the earth with a new race of mortals worthier of life and more reverent to them. Fearing that destroying mankind by fire might set heaven itself aflame, Zeus called for assistance from a god of the sea, and humans were instead swept away by a great flood.

A god the Greeks acquired from Syria or the Phoenicians sometime around the time of Homer or Hesiod was Adonis. Greek myth described Adonis as a beautiful youth with whom both the goddesses Aphrodite and Persephone fell in love. Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and a goddess of fertility in competition with Aphrodite. She presided over Hades, the place where the spirits of the dead resided. According to the myth of Adonis, Persephone, wanting Adonis, held him captive in Hades, and Aphrodite, also wanting Adonis, freed him from Hades and Persephone’s captivity.

Then, while hunting, Adonis was killed by a wild boar, which sent him back to Hades and Persephone. Aphrodite bitterly mourned his death and pleaded with Zeus to restore Adonis to her. Zeus decided to be impartial between the desires of Persephone and Aphrodite, and he decreed that Adonis would spend his winter months with Persephone—an annual death—and his summer months with Aphrodite—an annual resurrection. These deaths and resurrections coincided with the seasonal cycles and the growth of crops. Adonis was therefore a fertility god. Every year, Greeks celebrated Adonis’s death and resurrection, often with wailing and the beating of one’s own breast with one’s fists. Adonis is plainly a verion of the eastern god, Tammuz, who in the Hebrew scriptures had the women of Jerusalem wailing in sorrow in Ezekiel.

Popular history has it that the Greeks of these times had a vision of the world different from the Jewish worshippers of Yehouah. Supposedly, at this time the Israelites (not “Hebrews” who are all the people of Eber-niri, Persian Abarnahara, of whom the Israelites were only a part) saw the universe as guided by divine purpose, and they would hope for divine intervention that would deliver them from their suffering. Those who worshipped the gods of Homer and Hesiod looked for no such intervention.

The trouble is that up until this time the Israelites had not suffered unduly in their land of milk and honey. About 700 BC the Assyrians did come conquering and supposedly carried off ten of the tribes. About 100 years later the Babylonians carried off the leaders of the rest of the Jews. So when Homer and Hesiod were writing their legendary sagas, Jerusalem and the Hebrews had scarcely had any history at all. The Jewish scriptures are later works pretending to be early—pseudepigraphs.

Early Greeks saw the universe as a chaotic conflict of divine wills, and their gods as experiencing the same blessings and misfortunes as humans. They viewed their gods not only as vain in their desire for reverence from humans, an idea picked up by the Jewish writers under the influence of the Greek conquerors, but as generally imperfect and as negligent and playful. The moral “Lord of the Skies” was an invention of other Indo-Europeans, the Persians, and it is Persian influence that made gods moral for both Jews and Greeks.

Greeks saw Zeus as their god and concerned primarily with them—attributing to themselves a greater importance than other peoples, ideas that brushed off on to the Jews under the Greek kings. They did not see their father-god as jealous and with chronic concerns about the wrongdoing of his people, but they did see him as a god who became angry, and they respected him and feared his thunderbolts.

One of the important gods among the Greeks was Apollo, another god of foreign origin. The son of Zeus, from the time of Homer, Apollo, was god of light and so identified with Helios (the sun). Apollo was also a god of life, knowledge and laws, a god who made men aware of their guilt, and a god of healing. For some, Apollo was a god of crops and herds. He became established at Delphi and was to be seen as a god of communion, music, poetry and dance.

At Delphi, Apollo was served by an oracle, a woman over fifty, who took hallucinogenic drugs in the form of leaves, which she chewed. People, including statesmen, came as pilgrims to Delphi from various parts of Greece to ask questions of the oracle, questions such as whether they should marry, whether their spouse was unfaithful, whether their city should go to war. The oracle would utter unintelligible messages that a priest would interpret and pass to the pilgrim in the form of riddles rather than answers that were specific and clear, leaving the pilgrim himself the task of interpretation.

Early Greek Philosophy

In Greece, as in India, philosophy was pursued by those who were free from having to labour through each day at menial tasks. Philosophy was the preoccupation of only a few—mainly aristocrats. Among the Greeks, philosophy began as an investigation of the properties of nature—a move beyond accepting all as basically spirit and magic.

Aristotle calls the early philosophers “Investigators of Nature,” declaring their scientific interests as including physics, mathematics, astronomy and physiology. They did not cease to speak of the gods of Homer, but rejected supernatural explanations based on the mythology as explaining nothing. They sought to show that the world was essentially rational. In this they were vastly superior in intellect to millions of subsequent Christians, Jews and Muslims, though they lived almost 3000 years ago.

The Greeks began to speculate how the world was arranged and functioned. Zeus looked upon a stationary earth. If the earth itself moved, clouds would be left behind, and an arrow shot straight up into the air fell back down to the same place without being deflected as they imagined it would have if the earth meanwhile had moved.

The stars appeared to rotate about a point in the sky above the north pole each night. To keep them in their relative positions, the Greeks reasoned that they were mounted on a rigid rotating spherical shell, centered on the earth. That the heavens were so fixed, strong and regular seemed to impart them with a god-like quality that justified the almighty sky god—Zeus to the Greeks and Jupiter to the Romans.

In the Iliad, Zeus boasts he is the strongest of all the gods, for if a golden chain were fastened to the sky, he could hold up all the other gods, sun and moon and earth and sea, so that they would dangle in mid-air, but all of them combined could not drag him down from heaven.

The strength of the sky in the Iliad implied it was rigid. The works of Homer were the basis for a Greek education down through the Hellenistic period. The plays, poetry, and philosophy of the Greeks often harked back to Homer. Homer was effectively the bible of the Greeks, though it was never revered quite like the Christian bible, and what he wrote about Zeus was definitive for Greeks. Some thought the sky must be made of stone or iron to be so strong, and meteorites were seen as evidence of this and as divine because they came from the sky.

These early Greek philosophers were not from mainland Greece but were either from the other side of the Aegean, Ionia in Anatolia (the East), or from Greek colonies in Italy. The Greek cities in Anatolia were more prosperous and successful than the mainland cities and were subject to greater commerce, in trade and intellectually, with the mighty civilisations to the east.

Philosophy among the Greeks is believed to have begun in the Ionian city of Miletus, the richest and most powerful Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor. Miletus was on the edge of interacting cultures: Greek, Mesopotamian and Egyptian, and was adjacent to the rich kingdom of Lydia. Its people travelled, giving them an awareness of conflicting ideas, which encouraged thinking. And among the aristocrats of Miletus was an independence of thought that was a part of an effort toward individual excellence that had been encouraged as justification for their privileges.

The rulers of Lydia wanted to expand their kingdom to the coast of the Aegian but the Ionian Greek cities stood in their way. So, the Milesians came into conflict with the Lydians. Then towards the end of the seventh century BC, Miletus concluded an alliance that secured her against molestation by Lydia. Even half a century later, when Croesus conquered Ephesus, Miletus was not made subject to the Lydians.

As early as the fifth century, Croesus was considered the patron of Greek wisdom, and, though scholars like to belittle it, the myth could hardly have developed so early if it was false. The importance of Lydia was that it was rich and successful and was the center of learning at the time. Herodotus says that the “sophists” flocked to the court of Sardis. Lydia was an advanced post of Babylonian culture, and Croesus was on friendly terms with the kings of Egypt and Babylon. Amasis of Egypt had the same Hellenic sympathies as Croesus.

“The common tale among the Greeks” was that Thales accompanied Croesus as a military engineer in his campaigns. The Ionians, noted engineers, were employed by the eastern kings, and Thales supposedly diverted the Halys river for his employer. The Ionian philosophers sought the material principle (arche) of things, and the mode of their origin and disappearance.

The spirit of the Ionians in Asia was thoroughly secular and the Milesians wholly ignored traditional beliefs. Their use of the term “god” for the primary substance and the innumerable worlds had no religious significance. In the Aegean islands, centered round the sanctuary of Delos, the home of the Ionians long before the Anatolian coasts were open to colonization, memories of a remote past were retained and what remains of local writer, Pherecydes, of the neighboring island of Syros, read like utterances of an earlier age. No doubt it was also different in the Chalcidian and Ionian colonies of the West, which were founded at a time when Hesiod and his followers still held unchallenged authority.

Thales of Miletus. (c 624-548 BC).

The first philosopher from Miletus was Thales, who is thought to have entered manhood around the end of the 600s BC. If orthodox dating of the life of Zoroaster is correct, the two men were almost exact contemporaries, though many scholars, judging from the Gathas, put Zoroaster several hundred years earlier. He flourished in Lydia about the time the Medes won the war against Lydia in 585 BC. He had a long life and lived well into the Persian conquest, so he had many decades of contact with Median and Persian magi who probably triggered his speculations and began the fashion for it in Greece.

The fact that Miletus “struck no blow” against Cyrus suggests that the alliance must have been forged through an influential Iranian presence in the town. It smacks of advanced preparation by Cyrus’s agents.

Thales wrote nothing, and no writer earlier than Aristotle knows anything of him as a scientific man and a philosopher, but he was the founder of the Milesian school, and therefore the first man of science. Nearly all of our information about him comes what others wrote centuries later—mainly from Plato, Aristotle and Herodotus. Even before Herodotus wrote, he was considered one of the seven sages, Solon, the founder of Athenian law being another, and the founder of Greek philosophy. Thales, in Herodotus, before the fall of the Lydian monarchy, urged the Ionian Greeks to unite in a federal state with its capital at Teos.

Thales was supposedly of Phoenician descent but might have been a Carian or Cretan and, whatever his ethnicity, he was thoroughly immersed in Ionian culture. The Phoenician link might be because he brought Phoenician navigational techniques into Miletus. The Milesians were great traders by sea and land and therefore interested in navigation. Thales showed how a ship could be steered by observing Ursa Minor. He is also said to have tried to revise the calendar.

He was a man of wealth, leisure and energy. He apparently went to Egypt and saw there the use of simple and practical geometry in land surveying. Thales had a theory of the inundations of the Nile and is said to have introduced Egyptian geometry into Greece. He was interested in the nature of things and worked this geometry into a set of new mathematical principles.

He was first noted as an inventor and an engineer, and for king Croesus of Lydia he made the river Halys passable by diverting its waters. Thales was also interested in heavenly bodies. A story about Thales says he was once was so intent in his observations of the heavens, he fell into a well. In his travels, he might have come into contact with the astronomical data that Babylonians had accumulated across the centuries, but he also made his own observations of the stars.

Herodotus reported that Thales had predicted an eclipse, which put an end to the war between the Lydians and the Medes (28 May, 585 BC?). Oddly his students did not how to make such predictions, and though Thales learned geometry from the Egyptians it is unlikely thay he learnt how to calculate eclipses, especially as solar eclipses occur only in narrow regions on earth, unlike lunar eclipses that are visible everywhere.

Eclipses of the moon can be predicted from time sequences without knowing their true cause, and the Babylonians did so, having discovered a cycle of 223 lunar months, within which eclipses of the sun and moon recurred at equal intervals of time. In the eighth century BC, Babylonian astronomers watched for solar eclipses at predicted dates and declared it a good omen if they did not occur. Thales, following Babylonian practice, suggested there would be an eclipse of the sun—and one was visible in Asia Minor! A bad omen for the Lydians, it turned out.

As an engineer who manipulated material realities he thought the material world was understandable rather than merely secretive magic, and this led him to speculate about its basic nature. The basic nature of matter was the great question of the day, and Thales declared water to be the basis of all things. He saw that water was necessary to life and that it was everywhere. He believed with his contemporaries that the world was flat and, according to Aristotle, floated on a great body of water. He theorized that the world was in essence water and that it had originally been in the form of water—as if without moisture everything would become dust and nothingness.

Zoroaster had said that the “creation” of earth was a great disc upon the “creation” of water. Thales said that water was the material cause of things. The Iranians venerated water even more than fire to judge from Herodotus, water being the first of the six creations. Thales also famously said, according to Aristotle, that “all things are full of gods,” a strange statement unless it is seen in the Zoroastrian context of Amesha Spentas, yazatas, fravashis, elements and other holy attributes that were invariably personified.

Water is familiar to us in a solid, a liquid, and a vaporous form. Evaporation suggests that the heavenly bodies are supported by the moisture they draw from the sea. Water comes down again in rain. Because rivers bring down alluvium, the philosophers thought the rain turned to earth. Lastly, earth turns once more to water, an idea derived from springs. The “waters under the earth” were independent of the rain but due to the reversion of the earth to its natural form.

Like others of his time, Thales was unconcerned with that ingredient of scientific proof called verification, and he believed in gods—all things are full of gods. Aristotle inferred that Thales believed in a “soul of the world.” Aetius, missing the caution of Aristotle, attributed the idea of the world-soul definitely to Thales and identified the world-intellect with God, like the Stoics. Cicero eliminating Stoic pantheism, turned the world-intellect into a Platonic demiourgos, claiming that Thales conceived of a divine mind that made everything from water.

The magnet and amber are alive and have souls, for they have the power to move things without contact. Note that to say the magnet and amber are alive is to imply that other things are not, so Thales had a diluted idea of what a god was, if he also believed that everything had gods and the world had a soul.

The Worship of Dionysos

Pythagoras and Xenophanes, the most striking figures of the generation that saw the Greek cities in Asia become subject to Persia, were both Ionians, but both spent the greater part of their lives in the West. There it was no longer possible to ignore religion, especially when reinforced by the revival that now swept over the Greek world. Henceforth, the leaders of enlightenment must either seek to reform and deepen traditional religion, like Pythagoras, or oppose it openly, like Xenophanes.

The revival was not a mere recrudescence of the old Aegean religion, but was profoundly influenced by the diffusion of certain ideas originating in what was then the far North. The temple legend of Delos is certainly ancient, and it connects the worship of Apollo with the Hyperboreans, who were thought of as living on the banks of the Danube. The “holy things wrapped in straw,” which were passed on from people to people till they reached Delos by way of the head of the Adriatic, Dodona, and the Malian Gulf, bear witness to a real connexion between the Danubian and Aegean civilizations at an early date, and it is natural to associate this with the coming of the Achaeans. The stories of Abaris the Hyperborean and Aristeas of Proconnesus belong to the same religious movement and prove that it was based on a view of the soul, which was new, in the Aegean.

The connexion of Pythagoras with Delos is well attested, and it is certain that he founded his society in cities which gloried in the Achaean name. Certain things in the life of Pythagoras that are otherwise puzzling can be explained if the Delian religion was really Achaean.

In Thrace, the northern religion had attached itself to the worship of Dionysos, a god of fertility and vegetation, and was associated with the name of Orpheus, believed to have been a priest and poet. The Orphic religion had two features which were new in Greece:

  1. a written revelation as the source of religious authority,
  2. adherents organized in communities based on voluntary initiation rather than blood ties.


Some Greeks sought relief from the rebellious upheavals of the 600s BC in this Thracian religious cult that promoted everlasting life and community. The new aspects appealed to all those who could not find satisfaction in the worship of the anthropomorphic gods of the poets and the state religions.

Yet, the movement’s practices and outlook were partly a reversion to pre-civilized communal worship. Like the religious rites of the pre-civilized, the worshippers of Dionysos had to be initiated. The cult of Dionysos, like other cults, worshipped together and ate and danced together. Cult members believed that people could reach the supernatural through their emotions.

The new practices were based on the phenomenon of “ecstasy” (ekstasis, “stepping out”). Only when “out of the body” did the soul reveal its true nature—not merely a double of the self, as in Homer—a fallen god, which might be restored to its high estate by a system of “purifications” (katharmoi) and sacraments (orgia).

The Dionysos cult held a special attraction for women, who broke away from domination by males and abandoned their families. On hilltops by night, carrying torches, they danced wildly in self-abandon. The men imagined the women eating raw meat, and suspected the dances ended in sexual as well as spiritual ecstasy.

Men and women members of the Dionysian movement travelled about Greece claiming personal intimacy with the gods and proclaiming Dionysos a son of Zeus—a son of God. Some of them made their living by making prophesies and by performing what they believed were ritual purifications and spiritual healings. They told their listeners of a paradise that could be theirs, that they should be aware of the divine origins of their soul, and that through the ecstasy of the movement’s rituals they could let their souls escape from the prison of their body.

They claimed that their movement’s rituals and purification rites would liberate their souls from prevailing evils. They preached that by following the movement’s strict rules of conduct, including living ascetically and not eating animal meat, they could achieve eternal blessedness. They spoke of their being judged after death according to their deeds during life. And they warned people that they would receive either the reward of eternal bliss or they would suffer punishment in Hades.

Men of wealth, power and influence in Greece feared that the worship of Dionysos might become so widespread that it would disrupt the peace and order upon which they depended. But the spread of the worship of Dionysos proved to have limits, as many Greeks wished to hold onto the gods they had grown up with, and as many believed more in reason than in letting their emotions lead them to the acceptance of promises of eternal bliss.

The earliest use of “Orpheus” in Greek verse is that of Ibycus who moved from Italy to Samos, the opposite direction from Pythagoras in the reign of Polycrates. Onomicritus, an Athenian banished from the city, spent a long time travelling in Ionia, and helped popularise Orphism as sacred poetry. He spent time at Susa persuading the Persians to attack the Greeks, implying that he spoke Persian. He it was who brought into Orphism its traditional cosmagonic doctrines and salvation beliefs, and it is hard to deny that he was influenced by Zoroastrianism. Subsequently, though, Orphism became extremely syncretistic, and the mixture of additions and revisions have diluted its original content. After all it was poetry and therefore creative literature.

Orphic literature still extant is of late date and uncertain origin, but the thin gold plates, with Orphic verses inscribed on them, discovered at Thourioi and Petelia take us back to a time when Orphism was still a living creed. Orphic observances and rites were to release the soul from the “wheel of birth”—from reincarnation in animal or vegetable forms. The soul then once more became a god and enjoyed everlasting bliss. This closely resembles the beliefs prevalent in India about the same time.

Parallels between Hinduism and the thought of Plato come through the legacy of Pythagoras and the Orphics. The legend of Earth and Heaven as the parents of the gods, the earliest Greek form of which is in Hesiod’s Theogony, is common in the Rig Veda where water is the primary principle, which develops into the world through time, desire, intelligence and warmth. Similarly, in the Iliad, Oceanus is the “origin of the gods” and the “origin of all the gods.” In the Orphic poems, night is the most ancient goddess, a bird with black wings. Hesiod inclines more to the Orphic view, but there is a similar confusion in the Greek and Vedic accounts of the beginnings, and the confusion lies between the same claimants to the title of first god.

The Orphic communities decided that philosophy is a “way of life.” In Ionia, philosophia meant something like “curiosity,” and, from that use of it, the Athenian sense of “culture.” But the word has a deeper meaning wherever Pythagoras has an influence. Philosophy is itself a “purification” and a way of escape from the “wheel.” That is the idea expressed in the Phaedo, manifestly inspired by Pythagorean doctrine, and this way of regarding philosophy henceforth exemplified the best Greek thought.

Science, then, became a religion, and to that extent philosophy was influenced by religion. The religious revival implied a new view of the soul, and yet it did not influence the teaching of philosophers on that subject. Even the Pythagoreans and Empedocles, who took part in the religious movement themselves, held views about the soul which flatly contradicted the beliefs implied in their religious practices. There is no room for an immortal soul in any philosophy of this period.

Socrates was the first philosopher to assert the doctrine on rational grounds, and Plato shows him as only half serious in appealing to the Orphics for confirmation of his own teaching. Ancient religion was not a body of doctrine. Nothing was required but that the ritual should be performed correctly and in a proper frame of mind. The worshipper was free to give any explanation of it he pleased. It might be as exalted as that of Pindar and Sophocles or as debased as that of the itinerant mystery-mongers described in Plato’s Republic. Aristotle said:

The initiated are not supposed to learn anything, but to be affected in a certain way and to be put into a certain frame of mind.


That is why the religious revival could inspire philosophy with a new spirit, but could not at first graft new doctrines on it.

Anaximander and Anaximenes

Anaximander derived the world from the “Boundless” (apeiron), an idea of time and space stetching from and to eternity or infinity—the substance of divinity, something immortal and without origin that is the origin of everything. Yet this is close to the Zoroastrian idea of Ahuramazda, the one uncreated god who dwells in boundless light, and makes the world according to his plan. It is quite different from Hesiod’s Theogony in which everything is born to something else, and has paradoxically been much more admired, though admittedly a theogony is quite close to evolution. However, Anaximander did suppose that the “Boundless” could have formed other universes inaccessible to our own, an amazingly modern idea. It perhaps stems from the idea of Ahuramazda emanating the Amesha Spentas. His ordering of the heavens is that of the Iranians and different from any subsequent Greek philosopher—the stars are nearest the earth, then the moon and the sun is furthest off. The magi saw the fiery sun as the purest and so the furthest.

Coincidence is excluded. Anaximander’s concepts cannot be derived from Greek antecedents, and to suppose that they chanced to burgeon his mind without antecedents, at the very moment when the Persians were knocking on Ionian doors, would be as preposterous as it is pointless.
M L West


Anaximenes made Aer the prime element but Heraclitus thought it was fire, like the Zoroastrians who thought it permeated all six creations. Heraclitus thought the earth had no fire though it was a terminus of the flow of fire. He took god to be wisdom and called “The Wise” who had no base aspects and guides everything and everyone through the world—Ahuramazda! He also thought the dead body was worse than dung and only fit for scavengers. The Iranians were highly sensitive to the uncleanness of a corpse, and began at about this time to introduce the Towers of Silence. He thought good spirits ascended to the highest heaven of the sun and stars, and lived immortally there watching over good people on earth—implying knowledge of fravashis. Poorer souls were stopped at the moon and then discharged as rain, when they fell back to earth mainly by night and in winter to soak into the earth to Hades. This treatment of opposites, though not Zoroastrian dualism, sounds to have been inspired by it. Heraclitus was opposed to praying to holy images, unlike most Greeks but very Iranian, and he opposed falsehood, conceit and drunkenness.

It was the Zoroastrians who led the Greeks to consider the infinite “beyond the visible sky” that led to science, and the transcendentalism of Platonism. Greek philosophy began, not on the Greek archipelago which remained primitive for another century, but in Asia, near or in the Persian empire. More…

Anaximander of Miletus
Pythagoras of Samos
Xenophanes of Colophon
Heraclitus of Ephesus
Parmenides of Elea
Empedocles of Acragas
Anaxagoras of Clazomenae
The Pythagoreans

These pages are little more than selections from John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, which is accessible on the net and is a remarkable source in which all the ancient fragments known to Burnet are quoted for his comments. Frank E Smitha has a superb historical website, albeit uncritical of traditional religious ideas, called Antiquity Online, for which we are grateful for some of the observations here.


Continue: Inventing a Religion




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