|A depiction of Zoroaster from a late Persian text.|
All founders of great religions need a feast day to be celebrated by their followers. Most often the feast is identified with the birthday, death date, transformation to godhood, or ascension to immortality. In the case of Zoroaster, the founder of an ancient proto-monotheistic religion which blossomed in Persia (Iran) and became the state religion of vast empires, the feast is a traditional birthday. But not only is his real birthday not know, scholars have trouble identify the era in which he lived by margins of hundreds of years. At least modern ones do better than the Greek historian of philosophy Diogenes and the Roman Plutarch who mis-dated him by several millennia at around 6,000 BCE.
The problem with dating Zoroaster is largely a problem of jibing linguistic development with known historical events. All stories agree that Zoroaster was a priest of an already ancient and long established polytheistic who developed new ideas elevating the deity of wisdom, truth, and pure goodness Ahura Mazda to the status of Supreme Being and Creator, while demoting various other deities to Fravashi, roughly analogous to angels or spirit saints and demons under a Satan-like Angra Mainy who introduces the destructive mentality of the lie into the world. Works of Holy Scripture are attributed to him—Gathas, Yasna, Vendidad, Visperad, Yashts—which are included in an overarching Scripture that includes ritual practices, prayers, and fragments of other texts not attributed to him.
|A Favahari or spirit angel, the most common symbol of Zoroastrianism.|
The problem is that the oldest of his texts are in an early form of an early form of an Aryan tongue known as Avestan of which the texts are the only surviving documentation. That would seem to date these writings, 17 poems of the Gathas, to sometime before 2,000 BCE. But later writings, including supposed autobiographical accounts of his life were written in Persian dialects from around 600 BCE. The great age of the Gathas is what convinced the Greeks and Romans that they were even earlier.
Scholars now date the historic Zoroaster to somewhere in a 200 to 300 year range centering on 600 BCE. That would indicate that he adopted as his own far more ancient teachings and popularized them.
Then there is the problem of just where the hell Zoroaster was from. A lot of claimants for this honor. The earliest texts identify him as coming from Airyanem Vaejah meaning roughly the Expanse of the Aryans a/k/a the Iranians. It may reference a fast flowing river and highlands, perhaps in the southern central Asian plateau or in the north of modern Afghanistan. These same texts fail to mention any of the well-known tribes of western Iran—the Medes, Persians, and Parthians.
Later texts, however, place him in western Iran and identify his priestly cast was the Magi of the Medes and Persians. Modern scholars tend to dismiss the possibility of him being from western Iran and argue between themselves over points of origin from central and eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Baluchistan in western modern Pakistan, Bactria on the plateau north of the Hindu-Kush Mountains, Turkmenistan, and the vast steppes west of the Volga. Put your money down and take your pick.
Although Zoroaster’s original autobiographical writings were thought destroyed in when Alexander the Great’s Army captured Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire centered in Persia and burned the royal library there. Or not. Some scholars dismiss this and say that the original texts, if they existed were lost long before. At any rate later summaries of the lost texts provide a fairly detailed biograph.
Zoroaster was born into a Bronze Age Aryan culture in a priestly line, the Spitamids. His father and mother were identified by name—Poroschasp and Dughdova. He followed the family trade but was increasingly dissatisfied with ritual practices that included animal sacrifice and the corrupt use of religion by a governing caste of princelings and soldiers to oppress the mass of common people. He took a wife, Huvovi and together they had three sons and three daughters.
At age 30 Zoroaster was illuminated by Ahura Mazda and began preaching his revised worship of the elevated deity and his philosophy of a struggle between the forces of pure truth and goodness and of lies and evil. He eliminated animal sacrifice, simplified ritual, and argued against excessive religious taxes diverted to the caste of worldly rulers. He developed as system which, for its time and place, was relatively light on miracles and magic and developed an advanced ethical philosophy.
Huvovi and his children were his first converts and his sons became. At least one daughter was said to have made a strategic marriage to a local ruler that helped spread adoption of the new religion. Zoroaster faced many obstacles in his preaching, including the fierce opposition of traditional priests and of the nobility who felt undermined. He was shunned and outcast in his own mother’s hometown. Yet eventually truth and goodness—aša—triumphed over druj—the lie and much of Zoroaster’s homeland, wherever it was, was brought to the faith.
No mention was made of how the Master died, but later traditions have him murdered at his altar in Balkh located in Afghanistan during a Holy War between Turans—an Iranian tribe—and the Persian Empire in 583 BCE. This tale undoubtedly owes more to politico/religious struggles for legitimacy within the Persian Empire and its successors than any historical truth.
We do know that by reign of Cyrus the Great, about 560-530 BCE, Zoroastrianism was wide-spread in his newly unified Persian Achaemenid Empire, although not yet a state religion. Through their enemies the Persians, the Greeks learned about Zoroaster and his teachings, which later became influential in their emerging philosophy though the work of Plato and others. Likewise the empire brought it to the Jews who were also influenced, especially by Zoroastrian duality which shows up in the concepts of the struggle between light and darkness of the Essenes as evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Through both the Greeks and the Jews it influenced Christianity and later Islam, which conquered the Zoroastrian heartland.
|The Renaissance painter Raphael illustrated Zoroaster's influence on western thought by placing him--he's the bearded fellow holding the crystal globe--among the Greek philosophers in his painting The School of Athens.|
The name Zoroaster is, in fact, the Greek form of the name which has become generally used in the west. In Persian the name is Zarathustra, which Friedrich Nietzsche adopted for his philosophical novel, Also sprach Zarathustra—Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which he put his own thoughts on the death of God and the Übermensch into the old prophet’s mouth.
When Darius I came to the Achaemenid throne in 522 BCE he was known to be a personal devotee of Ahura Mazda, but at the time that did not necessarily mean he was a Zoroastrian. He could still have recognized the ancient pantheon but simply dedicated himself to that divinity. On the other hand, he may have been. Not long after Darius died, after extending the empire from Egypt and the Levant to Trace and Macedonia in the Balkans—after failing to conquer Sparta, Athens, and the Greeks—east into India, Zoroastrianism became the state religion, although other cults were generally permitted.
The Achaemenids fell to Alexander, but when his heirs could not maintain his eastern empire, the Parthians arose and established an Empire from eastern Asia Minor down through both sides of the Persian Gulf and east through Afghanistan. This empire lasted from 247 BCE to 224 AD when it disintegrated after a long series of wars with the Roman Empire and the rise of the Sasanians. This empire would also make Zoroastrianism a state religion alongside the ancient gods of the Babylonians.
The Zoroastrians had a last, long running crack as an imperial religion with the Sasanian Empire, which was the chief rival of the Byzantines to the east, between 224 and 651 when it finally fell to the Islamic invasion.
The Islamic Caliphate not only absorbed the entire Sasanian Empire, it quickly expanded to cover roughly the same territory as the old Achaemenid Empire and then some.
Despite the conquest, under the Umayyad Caliphate there was little pressure put upon the local populations to abandon their traditional religions so long as they were monotheistic, their activities did not disrupt or insult Islam, and adherents paid a tax—jizya which was leveled non non-Muslims living in the realm. Over time, however, the tax grew repressive and barriers to advancement in the Caliphate encouraged many, especially among the elite and in the major cities, to convert. After the beginning of the Crusades there was a general backlash against all religious minorities and more oppressive steps were taken, including local rioting and massacres allowed to transpire by authorities.
During the Caliphate the Zoroastrians had adopted a stance of non-prostilazation to convince their overloads that unlike Christians they would not try and covert Muslims. Only those born into the religion were accepted as members. In the long run, as pressure continued on their populations, this custom, along with a traditionally low birth rate, and continued abandonment of the faith for Islam, contributed to a steady decline in numbers over the ages until only a tiny minority remained in the old Iranian and Afghan strongholds.
After a period of particularly brutal repression many adherents fled to India where they established communities on the southern west coast beginning in the 9th Century. That community today represents the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world. Known locally as the Parsis, less than 70,000 were counted in the 2001 Indian census, mostly concentrated around Mumbai.
Their long isolation from their ancestral roots has resulted in customs that are sometimes at variance with traditional Zoroastrianism and mirror the Hindu communities in which they dwell. This includes a modification of the ban on accepting those not born into the religion by accepting the children of marriages to non-Zoroastrians. That has not, however, prevented a general population decline, hastened by emigration to the United States and Canada where there are now small communities.
|Modern Zoroastrian priests perform the Afrinagar ceremony. The wear masks so that their sputum will not accidentaly corrupt the pure flame of sacred fire in it's chalice-like cauldron.|
Pressure in the traditional heartland has only gotten more dire. The Shi’a in Iran and the Taliban Sunni in Afghanistan, as well as Islamists in the southern Caucuses have been equally zealous in their persecutions making many refugees who have to disguise their identities. Hard numbers in these circumstances are hard to come by. Less than 200,000 are thought to be scattered over a broad region overlapping several borders.
Today, probably fewer than one million Zoroastrians are left to celebrate their Master’s birthday.