Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) was an important religious figure in ancient Persia (present-day Iran and surrounding areas), whose teachings became the foundation of a religious movement named Zoroastrianism, a tradition that would largely dominate Persia until the mid-7th century CE, when Islam gained ascendancy in the region after the fall of the Sasanian Empire, the last pre-Islamic Persian empire.
Zoroaster is the name by which this prophet is known in the west (Greek Zoroastres), which is an adaptation of Zarathustra, the original name found in the Persian scriptures.
The sources we have available regarding the time period in which Zoroaster lived are truly contradictory. The Avesta, the Persian sacred scriptures of Zoroastrianism, do not contain any reference to any single historically reliable event that could be linked to world chronology. There are, however, a number of items mentioned in the Avesta that seem to be chronologically meaningful, such as genealogical sequences, but the historical accuracy of these is dubious.
Outside the Avesta, we have other Persian sources that deal with the dates of Zoroaster’s life in the Pahlavi books and in the Sasanian records. The challenge here is that, because the Zoroastrian cosmogony claims that time itself will end after a 12,000 year period, these texts use a mythological chronology based on a Zoroastrian cosmic calendar composed of four world ages, each 3,000 years long. Again, the chronology used by these texts is far from reliable as far as events in world history are concerned. Chapter 36 of the Bundahishn (one of the Pahlavi books) offers a detailed list of Persian rulers in which Alexander the Great is mentioned as ruling Persia 258 years after the time of Zoroaster. Alexander conquered Persia in 331 BCE, so Zoroaster must have lived, if we choose to accept the veracity of this dynastic chronology, around 589 BCE.
The dates of Zoroaster are also discussed by some classical authors. Herodotus, who we would expect to deal with this issue, does not mention Zoroaster. Plutarch estimated that Zoroaster lived 5,000 years before the Trojan War; the ancients believed that the date of the Trojan War was 1184 BCE (according to Eratosthenes’ estimations), which would make 6184 BCE a date consistent with Plutarch’s opinion. In the 3rd century CE, Diogenes Laertius, based on a claim of Xanthos of Lydia (a contemporary of Herodotus), places Zoroaster’s life 6,000 years before Xerxes’ military campaign against the Greeks, which took place in 480 BCE. Thus, according to Diogenes, 6480 BCE was the time when Zoroaster lived.
Modern scholars believe that Zoroaster must have lived at some point between c. 1500 and c. 600 BCE. The 600 BCE limit is based on the fact that the Avesta does not contain a single reference to a ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, which was the dominant power in Persia beginning in 550 BCE. The Avesta is believed to have been composed in eastern Persia, which is why one would expect these texts to mention an Achaemenid ruler if its composition was later than 550 BCE. The earlier date in the range, 1500 BCE, is based on linguistic evidence found in the Avesta. This work is composed of several different texts and one of these texts, the Yasna, is considered to be the oldest of the Avestan texts. Its language is Old Avestan (sometimes called Gathic Avestan), which is grammatically comparable to the language of the Indian text known as Rig Veda, since the languages of Persia and India belong to the same language family (the Indo-European Languages family). It is therefore believed that the Rig Veda and the Avesta are about the same age, dating to c. 1500 BCE. The range of speculation for Zoroaster’s life is wide. Saying that he lived in around 1000 BCE, give or take a century or so, is an estimation that would be acceptable to most scholars.
The place where Zoroaster lived is less controversial than his dates. In the Gathas, the hymns of the Zoroastrian liturgy, there is no mention of where Zoroaster lived. On the other hand, the Avesta gives us a clue: the geography described in some of its sections belongs to Eastern Persia. Moreover, linguistic studies have shown that the two Avestan dialects belong to eastern Persia. Some studies have suggested that Zoroaster actually lived towards central Asia, in areas such as Chorasmia, Sogdiana, and the Inner Asian steppes of Kazakhstan, but the evidence supporting these claims is clearly outweighed by the evidence supporting eastern Persia.
In the Gathas, we have some information about Zoroaster’s background. He was a priest, a member of the Spitamid family, son of Pourusaspa, a noble Persian, as was his wife Dughdova. At the age of thirty, it is written, Zoroaster received a divine revelation, experiencing a number of visions coming directly from god. He attempted to preach his vision but did not have any success; on the contrary, Zoroaster gained some powerful enemies. First, the karpans objected to his teachings. The karpans were a group of priests in charge of performing certain religious rituals that Zoroaster considered immoral, some of them involving the slaughter of animals. Pre-Zoroastrian religion had elements such as worshiping ancestors, animals, the earth, and the sun, all merged into a system that had a lot in common with the Indian Vedic religion.
Another group who opposed Zoroaster's teaching was the kawis, whose background is a bit obscure. Zoroastrian texts presents them as “accomplices” of the karpans, but who they actually were is unclear. It is safe to assume that the karpans and the kawis were representatives of the upper class who held significant social power in Zoroaster’s time. He suffered persecution and abuses from his opponents to the point that his safety became endangered and he was compelled to flee his homeland.
While travelling around north-eastern Persia, Zoroaster converted a local ruler named Vishtaspa. This event is merged with legend: it is claimed that Zoroaster healed Vishtaspa’s horse in a miraculous way. Vishtaspa was very grateful and allowed him to preach freely in his realm while providing him royal support. The new faith gained many followers and began to spread fairly quickly. After preaching for many decades, Zoroaster was finally assassinated at the age of 77, while he was praying in an altar, by a priest of a rival cult.
Zoroaster’s religious insight revolved around the idea of a cosmic struggle between Ahura Mazda, a supreme wise and benevolent deity, and Angra Mainyu, Ahura’s evil opponent. Here on earth, humans can support this struggle by taking sides. Living a virtuous life supports Ahura Mazda and contributes to the triumph of good over evil. Zoroaster encouraged his followers to worship Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, claiming that the old Persian deities were unworthy of worship and should be considered spirits of destruction.
Ahura Mazda was considered a supreme god, creator of the universe, but he did not have unlimited power. In fact, according to Zoroaster's teachings, the conflict between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu was evenly matched for thousands of years until Zoroaster was born. At this point, the balance of the battle began to favour Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster believed that, in the end, Ahura Mazda would overcome his enemy in a final battle, destroy all evil, and restore the order of the cosmos, joining together heaven and earth.
An important element of Zoroaster’s vision is free will. This means that Zoroaster emphasized the moral responsibility of the individual. Every decision people make is an opportunity to provide support either to Ahura Mazda or Angra Mainyu, a choice between good and evil. This is why it is so important for people to have a clear understanding of what is good and what is evil since, in every decision we make, we are supporting one of the two sides. It is our capacity to distinguish good from evil that sets us apart from the animals, who are thought to have neither moral sense nor free will. It is the freedom of choice that allows human beings to be part of the cosmic struggle and align themselves with one side or the other.
The moral code developed by Zoroaster included telling the truth, being charitable and loving to other fellow humans, diet moderation, being honest in dealing with others, and always keeping one's promises. According to the Avesta, the duty of a person had three aspects: To make friends out of one's enemies, to make the wicked righteous, and to make the ignorant learned. It is hard to distinguish which of the teachings of the religion actually belonged to Zoroaster himself and which were developed by his followers. We do know, however, that all the religious concepts of the faith were at least largely inspired by Zoroaster’s original teachings.
Myths & Legendary Accounts
Like all important religious figures of antiquity, the life of Zoroaster became merged with many myths and other non-historical accounts to highlight his unique quality. Some versions of his life tell of a miraculous conception in which an angel entered into a plant and passed into a priest through its juice during a religious ceremony. At the same time, the glory of heaven, in the form of a ray of light, entered the bosom of a maid who was part of the royalty. The priest and the maid then were married, and Zoroaster was born as a result of the union of the captive angel in the priest and the captive ray inside the maid.
In order to fully engage in the pursuit of wisdom, Zoroaster withdrew from society and lived in the wilderness. A powerful demon tempted him, but he did not give in to this temptation. Ahura Mazda visited Zoroaster after he had resisted temptation and handed him the sacred Zoroastrian scriptures and requested him to preach the new message. As stated above, he preached with no results at first, but later a prince converted to the new faith and helped Zoroaster to convert his people. After living a long life, he ascended into heaven in the form of a flash of light.
Zoroaster initiated the tradition of devotional monotheistic and doctrinally dualistic religion. By claiming that every person was an active “soldier” in the cosmic struggle and was free to choose sides, he imbued human life with a higher dimension and meaning than it had in earlier religious systems. After Zoroaster, every choice one made in one's daily life was of cosmic importance; one was always working either for good or evil, in the smallest of gestures and the simplest of actions.
His moral concepts drew the patronage of the Persian government during the time of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE, and later the Parthian dynasty (247BCE-224 CE) also adopted the faith. The Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE) promoted the Zoroastrian religion and unified the religion and the state, merging both political and religious leadership and granting the Zoroastrian priesthood a considerable amount of power.
After the rise of Islam in Persia, which followed the fall of the Sasanian Empire, Zoroastrians were tolerated briefly but soon persecuted, and their numbers fell as more and more people converted to the Islamic faith. Today, the population of Zoroastrians is estimated at around 90,000 in Iran and possibly 60,000 in India. The teachings of Zoroaster, however, exerted a powerful influence on the major monotheistic religions which developed after his time, especially Christianity and Islam, and so are still very much present in the religious practices of the modern world.