zarathustra -- 4/11/23

Today's selection -- from Persians: The Age of the Great Kings by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. Zoroastrianism and the prophet Zarathustra:
"Every god needed his prophet and Ahuramazda [the supreme god in ancient Iranian religion] found his in the figure of Zarathustra. The Greeks came to know him as Zoroaster; in modern Persian he is Zardosht. Zarathustra was a camel-herder from what is now Afghanistan or possibly Azerbaijan -- the tradi­tions vary. As a young man he served as a priest, worshipping a series of 'lesser deities', until he heard the voice of the true god calling him. Compared with Mohammed, Jesus, the Buddha, or even Moses, Zarathustra is a remote figure, hard to pin down in time or place. Yet as a key figure in the history of religious thought, he is as important as any of the other prophets. Today, in wall posters and illustrated prayer books, his Zoroastrian followers -- for that is the name given to the gentle faith he developed -- depict him so as to resemble Victorian Sunday school portraits of Jesus Christ, with a clean beard, flowing white robes, and dazzling halo, although this glossy image belies his rough mountainous origin. The details of his life are obscure and those that we have are more fable than fact. One story says that at the moment of his nativity Zarathustra did not cry, but rather laughed, delighting in his good fortune to be part of Ahuramazda's great Creation. Modern Zoroastrian tradition places the moment of that birth at 600 BCE, and it associates him too with a Persian princely patron called Hystaspes, the name, of course, of the father of Darius the Great. Scholars rightly tend to push back the date of Zarathustra's birth to 1000 or 1200 BCE, the era -- or shortly after -- of the great migrations.

3rd-century Mithraic depiction of Zoroaster found in Dura Europos, Syria, by Franz Cumont

"The rationale for an earlier date is due to the language and imagery contained in a series of religious texts known as the Gathas, allegedly a cycle of hymns composed and sung by Zarathustra himself. They reflect the nomadic lifestyle of the early Iranians but lack any references to Medes or Persians, or to any rulers or other historical peoples. Annoyingly, Zarathustra's hymns and all other Zoroastrian sacred texts, most importantly the Avesta, were first written down over a thousand years after the prophet's death and mostly date to the sixth century CE. This makes it difficult to filter out the genuine early Zarathustran materials from later additions.

"The Gathas contain fragmentary episodes from the life of Zara­thustra and suggest that when he was around forty years of age, he received a call to prophesy from Ahuramazda. In the course of his early ministry in Central Asia, Zarathustra seems to have made powerful enemies, and the Gathas state that prominent among his detractors were the powerful karpans (priests) and kawis (princes) who conducted their religious rituals in ways antithetical to Zara­thustra's vision of Ahuramazda's message. Zarathustra condemned them as impious pagans, but they stubbornly refused to accept his teachings. Hostilities grew to such a point that his position within his own society became so precarious that he was forced to flee. Remarkably a superb lyric hymn, Yasht 46, contains a fascinating resume of his flight into exile:

What land to flee to?
Where should I go to flee?
From my family
and from my clan they banish me.
The community to which
I belong has not satisfied me,
nor have the rulers of the country!
How can I satisfy you, O Ahuramazda?

I know the reason why
I am powerless, O Ahuramazda:
because of my lack of cattle and that I am few in men.
I lament to Thee.
Hear me, O Ahuramazda!
Granting support,
as a friend would give a friend,
Look upon the power
of Good Mind through Truth!

"Away from his homeland, now on the fringes of eastern Iran, Zarathustra experienced a further seven encounters with Ahuramazda and other divine beings who orbited around the Wise Lord. As a result, 'he accepted the religion' as the Yasht puts it. This suggests that Zarathustra was called not so much to establish a new religion but to reform and refine an already existing faith which was being practised badly by the karpans and kawis of his homeland. Accepting that a prophet is never recognised in his own land, Zarathustra took his message deeper into the Iranian plateau, and through the development of a sophisticated theology in which justice and morality took precedence over all things, Zarathustra gave new form and new meaning to an ancient, faltering faith. He emphasised the dualistic nature of the Creation of Ahuramazda and asked the followers of the faith to play their part in the rejection of the Lie and the establishment of divine Truth, and to this day Zoroastrians maintain a personal commitment to three principal tenets: to have good thoughts, to speak good words, and to perform good deeds.

"Like all religions, Zoroastrianism has evolved over time, and the faith as it is now practised is a far cry from its founder's original system and intentions. The faith has undergone many elaborations and has had to conform to the traditions of other, powerful, rival faiths in order to survive. However, the original words of Zarathus­tra still survive to enlighten the faithful, in spite of the fact that the sacred books of the Avesta are written in a long-dead language. various divinities, and the Videvdat, a body of ritual prescrip­tions and purity laws which bear resemblance to the biblical book of Leviticus. At the centre of the Yashna is a series of very ancient texts known as the Litany in Seven Chapters, a magnificent prose composition dating back to the time of the prophet himself and in which are enclosed the five Gathas, which are actually made up of seventeen separate poems, all composed by Zarathustra himself Ahuramazda lies at the heart of Zarathustra's hymns and the prophet constantly praises the god and exalts his munificence, as well as upholding the goodness of the other abstract deities which emanate from the supreme Wise Lord. Zarathustra called himself both a zoatar -- minister -- and a rishi -- a poet-cum-prophet -- and it is clear that he meant the Gathas to be heard by worshippers. The poems were never intended to be whispered in private adoration, but were composed for public worship, sung aloud and joyously. The texts speak of him proclaiming his gospel, 'facing the zealous in the house of song' with these words:

Let the Creator of existence promote through Good Mind
the making real what, according to His will, is most wonderful!"



Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


Persians: The Age of the Great Kings


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


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