prophet of ancient Iran, and one of the great religious teachers of the East. He is commonly
spoken of as a Magian (Μάγος
), 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
p. 19; Vita Pythag.
iv. 2; Iambl. Vita Pythag.
c. 19; Clem. Alex.
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.
p. 569). The followers of the sophist Prodicus are reported as boasting of
possessing secret writings of Zoroaster (Clem. Alex.
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.
; Pliny , Pliny H.
N. xxx. 1Pliny H. N. 30.20
; Is. et
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
, from which citations are quoted, are doubtless apocryphal; they
nevertheless show the reputation which Zoroaster later enjoyed (for references cf. Fabricius,
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 (
) he is mentioned by the earlier Xanthus of Lydia. The Greek
, under which the sage is known to fame, is a
modified form of Zarathushtra
), 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.
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
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.
i. 43, and iv. 35; Syncel. Chronograph.
i. p. 315;
Theon , Progymnasmata
, 9; Justin, Hist. Philippic.
i. 1; Arnob.
i. 5; compare also Suidas, s. v. Zoroastres
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.
i. 43, and iv. 35; Praeparatio Evang.
x. 9; Theon ,
9; Justin, Hist. Philippic.
i. 1; Arnob. Adv.
i. 5; Ammian. Marcel. 23, 6, 32; Clem. Alex.
p. 357; Pliny , Pliny H.
N. xxx. 1, 2
Diog. Laert. Prooem. 2
; Suid. s. v. Zoroastres;
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.
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;
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
Furthermore, Pliny (Pliny H.
N. xxx. 1, 2
), Diogenes Laertius
), 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
), and the evil spirit, Anra Mainyu, Ahriman
). 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.
; 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,
, Anhang ii. 3 (Leipzig and Riga, 1783)
; consult also
Rapp in Zeitschrift d. deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft
1-89, xx. 49 seq., and Windischmann, Zoroastrische Studien (Berlin,
. 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,
. 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