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Who was Zoroaster (Zarathushtra)?

The Origins of Zoroastrianism

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Zarathushtra Spitama, who became known in the West as Zoroaster, is one of the earliest known prophets in world history. His teachings are now commonly known as Zoroastrianism, which is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in existence. The origins of Zoroastrianism lie somewhere between myth and history, which begs the question: who was Zoroaster?

Time Period

In the 4th century BCE, Zoroaster’s lifetime was calculated to be 258 years before Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which had embraced Zoroastrianism as the state religion and spread the faith throughout the Middle East. This places Zoroaster's life in the 7th century BCE, and this is the date many sources today still give for his life and the origin of his faith.

The linguistics of Zoroaster’s surviving writings, however, defy this date, and historians now estimate he actually lived somewhere between the 11th and 16th centuries BCE. Such an early date vastly limits the amount of historical information available, and much of what we know comes instead from myth.

Location

For many years, it was thought that Zoroaster lived in western present-day Iran. However, that too has been challenged in recent years, and current scholarship puts him somewhere in the vicinity of eastern Iran or Afghanistan.

Sources

Knowledge of Zoroaster’s life comes from:

  • The Gathas, his own writings
  • The Avesta, scriptures collected over the next several hundred years and which include the Gathas
  • Many later documents such as the Pahlavi Texts, which are probably based on earlier sources now lost to us.
As such, Zoroaster’s story may be a mixing of history and mythology, although most historians accept that Zoroaster was an actual historical figure.

The Zoroastrians themselves are split on the matter, with some accepting the stories as literal history, while others value the Avesta as religious scripture only. A similar situation can be found in Christianity today, where Creationists accept the Holy Bible as entirely and literally true, while others value the book for its religious teachings but do not accept all stories as historical fact.

Life As A Prophet

Around the age of 30, Zoroaster went into seclusion to seek out religious insight, which eventually came to him as divine revelation from Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom. Part of the revelation included a drive to become an itinerant preacher for the new faith, but the way was slow going until he was able to convert a reigning prince named Kavi Vishtaspa, whose patronage allowed the new faith to spread.

Break With Tradition

Zoroaster’s teachings were a sharp break with previous local traditions, including:

  • Ahura Mazda was the only god to be worshipped. The previous tradition was polytheistic.
  • Wisdom being a defining trait of the new supreme god. Traditionally, local gods were nature-gods primarily defined by strength and power.
  • The new religion was to be a religion of righteousness. It specifically focused on correct living and genuine piety rather than stringent ritual aimed at placating the gods.

Zoroaster’s Human Nature

While Zoroaster was greatly favored by Ahura Mazda, with some legends telling of him being surrounded by a glowing light at birth, Zoroaster is in no way considered divine or otherworldly. He was divinely inspired rather than divinely controlled. The Gathas are Zoroaster’s own recounting of his experiences and revelations rather than a recitation or dictation of Ahura Mazda’s words.

The Avesta attributes many miracles to Zoroaster. However, miracle-working is absent from the Gathas, and not all modern Zoroastrians accept their reality.

Death of Zoroaster

While Zoroastrians commemorate the day of Zoroaster’s death as Zarathust No Diso, the manner of his death is unknown. Some legends report he was killed while in prayer, while others state he died peacefully.

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