previous next


or Zoroastres (Ζωροάστρης). The prophet of ancient Iran, and one of the great religious teachers of the East. He is commonly spoken of as a Magian (Μάγος, Magus), or as a reformer of the old faith of Persia; the religion which he founded is best designated as Zoroastrianism, after his own name, for the lessons of his teaching sank deep into the heart of Iran. There can be no question as to the fact that Zoroaster was an actual historical personage in spite of doubts that have been raised on the subject.

Considerable uncertainty has prevailed as to the exact date at which Zoroaster lived; so much, however, is certain, that his era must be placed at least six centuries before Christ; and although the historical origin of Zoroastrianism has not yet been cleared up, the religion presumably became the faith of the great Achaemenian kings, and entered upon its long history as one of the important early religions of the world. The national power of the creed was broken by the victorious invasion of Alexander the Great, but Zoroastrianism outlived the blow, and still lingered in Iran under the Seleucid government and the Parthian sway until the third century of our own era, when it once more rose to supremacy at the time of the Sassanidae (A.D. 226- 651), and was restored to its pristine glory. (See Persia.) The final overthrow of the Zoroastrian belief, however, came in the seventh century with the rise of Islam; for the religion of Ormazd was almost blotted out in Iran by the Mohammedan conquest, although a few true followers of Zoroaster are still to be found scattered here and there in their old home. The small band, however, which preferred exile to conversion and sought refuge in India became the ancestors of the flourishing community of Parsis to-day in Bombay; these are the veritable Zoroastrian descendants of the persecuted faithful whofound among the Hindus a place of safe retreat and of freedom to worship Ormazd. They are the chief conservators of what remains of the sacred literature, which has naturally suffered from the various vicissitudes and crises through which the religion has passed.

Respecting Zoroaster's life and teaching, our sources of information are either directly the Avesta, or Zend-Avesta, and the Pahlavi books, below mentioned, or they are indirectly the statements found in other Oriental writings or contained in allusions in the classics. Next to the ancient Avesta and the Pahlavi writings, which latter belong chiefly to Sassanian times (A.D. 226-651), the most important Oriental contributions to our knowledge come from the later Persian national epic Shāh-Nāmah, or “book of kings” (tenth century A.D.), and from the Zartusht Nāmah, a legendary sketch of Zoroaster's life (thirteenth century A.D.). Both of these, however, must be used with proper judgment. Considerable valuable information, moreover, is to be gathered from Arabic writings; though these statements are often tinged by a Mohammedan colouring.

All classical antiquity is agreed on the point of Zoroaster's being an historical personage, even if he was in the eyes of the authors of the time a more or less hazy figure. He was regarded by the writers of Greece and Rome as the arch-representative of the Magi, and was more famous sometimes perhaps on account of the magic arts attributed to him than for the depth of his philosophy or his legislation, his religious or moral teaching. The Magi were the reputed masters of learning in ancient times (De Div. 1, 23, et al.), but it is difficult to form a clear picture of their doctrines and teachings, except so far as we may believe them to be reflected in Zoroaster, making due allowance, however, for changes or reforms which he may have instituted. The tradition preserved to the effect that Pythagoras studied under these masters in Babylon, or that he may have caught some Zoroastrian ideas, may not be altogether without foundation (De Fin. v. 29; Val. Max. viii. 7; Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxx. 1, 2; Florid. p. 19; Vita Pythag. 41; Lactant. Institut. iv. 2; Iambl. Vita Pythag. c. 19; Clem. Alex. Strom. i. p. 357, et al.). Plato, moreover, according to tradition, was anxious to visit the Orient and to study with the Magi had he not been prevented by the Persian wars (Diog. Laert. iii. 7; De Habitud. Doctrin. Plat. p. 569). The followers of the sophist Prodicus are reported as boasting of possessing secret writings of Zoroaster (Clem. Alex. Strom. i. p. 357), and even a Magian teacher named Gobryas has been claimed for Socrates (cf. Axiochos attributed to Plato). Instances might be multiplied. Aristotle, Eudoxus of Cnidus, Deinon, and especially Theopompus, were familiar with Zoroastrian tenets (cf. Diog. Laert. Prooem. 8; Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxx. 1Pliny H. N. 30.20; Is. et Os. 47). An allusion is also found to a work bearing Zoroaster's name by Heracleidus Ponticus, a pupil of Plato and Aristotle (cf. Adv. Colot. p. 1115A). Hermippus, moreover, made careful studies of Magism and of Zoroastrian writings (cf. Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxx. 1, 2); finally, there are common enough references to Zoroastrian ideas to be found in Plutarch, Strabo, Pliny , and others. A number of purported books by Zoroaster, such as Περὶ Λίθων Τιμίων, Περὶ Φύσεως, Λόγια, Βίβλιοι Ἀπόκρυφοι Ζωροάστρου, Ἀστεροσκοπικά (cf. Suidas and Pliny ), or Gemistus Pletho's Μαγικὰ Λόγια τῶν ἀπὸ τοῦ Ζωροάστρου Μάγων, from which citations are quoted, are doubtless apocryphal; they nevertheless show the reputation which Zoroaster later enjoyed (for references cf. Fabricius, Bibl. Graec. vol. i. p. 304 seq.), although his name is not mentioned by Herodotus nor by Xenophon, and there are only doubtful grounds for assuming its presence in the fragments that happen to be preserved of Ctesias. The earliest authenticated allusion to Zoroaster by name in the classics seems to be that in the Platonic Alcibiades, i. 122; but according to Diogenes Laertius ( Prooem. 2) he is mentioned by the earlier Xanthus of Lydia. The Greek form Ζωροάστρης, under which the sage is known to fame, is a modified form of Zarathushtra (cf. Zardusht), which is the prophet's actual name in the Avesta; Diodorus Siculus (i. 94) once has Ζαθπαύστης.

In regard to the date at which Zoroaster lived a wide diversity of opinion has prevailed. The statements of antiquity on the subject may conveniently be divided into three groups. First


may be considered those classical references that assign to him the extravagant age of B.C. 6000. These are confined simply to the classics, but they have the claim of being based upon information possessed by Aristotle, Eudoxus, and Hermippus (cf. Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxx. 1, 2; Is. et Os. 46; Schol. Plato's Alcibiades, i. 122; De Vita Philos. Prooem. 2; Lactant. Institut. vii. 16; and cf. Suid. s. v. Zoroastres). Such extraordinary figures are presumably due to the Greeks' misunderstanding the statements of the Persians in regard to the position of Zoroaster's millennium in the great world-period of 12,000 years. Second


come those statements which connect the name of Zoroaster with that of the uncertain Semiramis and Ninus (Diod. Sic.ii. 6; Fragm. of Ceph. in Euseb. Chron. i. 43, and iv. 35; Syncel. Chronograph. i. p. 315; Theon , Progymnasmata, 9; Justin, Hist. Philippic. i. 1; Arnob. Adv. Gent. i. 5; compare also Suidas, s. v. Zoroastres, and the Armenian Moses of Khorni, i. 16). Third


, the direct Zoroastrian tradition as found in the Pahlavi books Bundahish, xxxiv. 7-8; Ardā-i Vīrāf, i. 1-5, supported also by abundant Arabic allusions (Albīrūnī, Masūdī, etc.), is unanimous in placing the opening of Zoroaster's ministry at 258 years before the era of Alexander, or 272 years before the close of his dominion, which would give Zoroaster's date as falling between the latter half of the seventh century B.C. and the middle of the sixth century; in fact, in the period just preceding the Achaemenian dynasty. This is doubtless not far from the truth, and may be finally regarded as the best view to adopt. Tradition has it that Zoroaster was forty-two years old when he first converted King Vishtaspa, who became his patron; but there is no good ground for identifying this ruler with Hystaspes the father of Darius. Such identification is made by Ammianus Marcellinus (xxvi. 6, 32), and has met with considerable support, but the doubt which Agathias (ii. 24) raises on this subject is better founded.

Like Homer, Zoroaster's native place is debated ground, but the Oriental tradition cannot be far astray that assigns Atropatené in Media, or even more precisely the city of Oroomiah, as his native land, and places the field of his religious activity in Bactria, where the faith became the organized State religion and apparently spread back towards Media and Persia. Such a view, at least, finds support when the Avesta and the Pahlavi books, supplemented also by Arabic and Syriac writings, are combined with statements found in the classics (Diod. Sic.ii. 6; Fragm. Ceph. in Euseb. Chron. i. 43, and iv. 35; Praeparatio Evang. x. 9; Theon , Progym. 9; Justin, Hist. Philippic. i. 1; Arnob. Adv. Gent. i. 5; Ammian. Marcel. 23, 6, 32; Clem. Alex. Strom. i. p. 357; Pliny , Pliny H. N. xxx. 1, 2; Diog. Laert. Prooem. 2; Suid. s. v. Zoroastres; cf. also the Armenian Moses of Khorni, i. 16).

Numerous legends and myths early gathered about the name of Zoroaster, and several of these are preserved in classical writers. The tradition, for example, about his laughing instead of crying when he was born, as told by Pliny (Pliny H. N. vii. 16, 15), is found also in the East; but the romantic story of his death by lightning ( Suid. s. v. Zoroastres; Pseud.- Recogn. iv. 27-29, Homil. ix. 3; Chronic. Pasch. i. p. 67) is not in accordance with the prevailing Oriental testimony to the effect that he was massacred at the age of seventy-seven when Balkh was stormed by the Turanians. In his lifetime he is said to have performed a number of miracles; the report, moreover, that he lived in silence in the wilderness for a number of years is doubtless to be explained as alluding to a period of religious meditation and preparation (Pliny , Pliny H. N. xi. 42Pliny H. N., 97; Schol. Plato's Alcibiades, i. 122; Quaest. Sympos. iv. 1, p. 660). The consistent Oriental tradition that he began his ministry at the age of thirty appears also in the Scholion to the Alcibiades. Furthermore, Pliny (Pliny H. N. xxx. 1, 2), Diogenes Laertius ( Prooem. 2), and Suidas (s. v. Magoi) are able to give the names of some of the Magi that succeeded him.

Zoroaster's religion may be characterized primarily as dualism in so far as it proclaims the incessant warfare that reigns on earth between the good principle, Ahura Mazda or Ormazd (Ὠρομάσδης), and the evil spirit, Anra Mainyu, Ahriman (Ἀρειμάνιος). At the end of the world the good will finally triumph, evil will be destroyed, and a general resurrection of the dead will take place (Is. et Os. 47). The doctrine of rewards and punishments for the immortal soul is a cardinal theme in Zoroaster's preaching; the principle, moreover, is inculcated of preserving the purity of the body and of the care of useful animals, especially the cow. The exercise of scrupulous caution is enjoined for preserving the elements, fire, water, and earth, from defilement, particularly from contact with dead matter; hence arose the strange custom of exposing corpses upon the dakhmas, or towers of silence, to be devoured by dogs and birds—a custom which has been commented upon from the days of Herodotus to the present (Herod.i. 140; De Abstin. iv. 21, etc.). The general spirituality of the Persian religious ideas was often remarked upon by the Greeks (Herod.i. 131; Deinon Fragm. 9; Diog. Laert. Prooem. 6; Is. et Os. 46; Vita Pythag. 41); and owing to the more or less close relations between Iran on the one side and Greece and Rome upon the other, the figure of Zoroaster is one of considerable interest to the student of the classics; while, by way of criticism, it may be added that in classical writers there is hardly a statement regarding him or the Magian faith which does not find some support, corroboration, or parallel in the sacred texts themselves.

Bibliography.—The most complete collection as yet of allusions in the classics to Zoroaster, the Magi, and the Persians is to be found in Kleuker, Zend-Avesta, Anhang ii. 3 (Leipzig and Riga, 1783); consult also Rapp in Zeitschrift d. deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, xix. 1-89, xx. 49 seq., and Windischmann, Zoroastrische Studien (Berlin, 1863). The standard text of the Zoroastrian Scriptures is edited by Geldner, Avesta (Stuttgart, 1884- 1895). Translations from the Avesta and the Pahlavi literature by Darmesteter, Mills, and West have appeared in the Sacred Books of the East, vol. iv. (Oxford, 1880 foll.); the most recent translation is in French by Darmesteter, Annales du Musée Guimet (Paris, 1892-93). For a complete list of works of reference consult the articles “Avesta,” “Pahlavi,” and “Religion of Iran” in Geiger and Kuhn's Grundriss der iranischen Philologie (Strasburg, 1895-96).

hide References (10 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (10):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.131
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.140
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 2
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 6
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 8
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 11.42
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 11.97
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 30.1
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 30.20
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 7.15
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: