ZARATHUSHTRA
Prophet and Founder

The name of the founding Prophet of Zoroastrianism is not Zoroaster, which is a Greek transliteration of the name, but Zarathushtra, which means, in ancient Iranian, "yellow camel." (zara = yellow, ushtra = camel). An alternate reading is "old camel." Animals such as camels and horses were essential and even sacred to the people of Zarathushtra's age, and thus a name containing one of these animals marks a person as important. A similar naming practice occurred among the ancient Greeks where names containing "-ippos" or horse denoted high birth - such as Philippos (lover of horses), Aristippos (best horse), or Xanthippos (yellow horse).

The later Zoroastrians, perhaps embarrassed by their prophet's primitive-sounding name, said that the name meant "Golden Light," deriving their meaning from the word zara and the word ushas, light or dawn. There is no doubt about Zarathushtra's clan name, which is Spitama - perhaps meaning "white." Zarathushtra's father was named Pouruchaspa (many horses) and his mother was named Dughdova (milkmaid). His birthday is celebrated on March 26, as part of the Iranian New Year Festival.

No one knows where or when the Prophet was born. Some legends place his birth in western Iran, perhaps near Tehran; others, which are somewhat more likely due to the eastern Iranian language of his poetry, place his birthplace in the east. As for the date of his birth, it has been since ancient times a matter of controversy. Greek sources placed him as early as 6000 B.C., a reckoning derived from poorly transmitted Zoroastrian legends; few if any scholars take that date seriously. The traditional Zoroastrian date for Zarathushtra's birth and ministry is around 600 B.C. This is derived from a Greek source that places him "300 years before Alexander" which would give that date; other rationales for the 600 BC date identify the King Vishtaspa of Zarathushtra's Gathas with the father of the Persian King Darius, who lived around that time.

As the linguists of both Europe and India worked on the Gathas, however, it became clear that the language of the Gathas attributed to Zarathushtra was far older than the language spoken in Iran at the time of King Darius' father. Gathic Avestan was very close to the Sanskrit of the Indian Rig-Vedas, which can be dated from the period 1500-1200 BC. This would mean that Zarathushtra lived far earlier than the "traditional" date. Some scholars have said that the 600 BC date is still plausible if Gathic Avestan was actually an artificially preserved sacred language, somewhat like Latin, which continued in literature and rituals thousands of years after it had ceased to be spoken.

Recent work by Martin Schwartz and Almut Hintze tends to discount this theory, as the linguists show that the Gathas are not the work of an academic writing in a dead language; they show all the signs of poetry composed and recited in an oral tradition, similar to the heroic poetry of Homer or the Rig-Vedas. These studies would confirm the earlier date for Zarathushtra.

The problem of Zarathushtra's time will never be solved, unless some improbable archaeological find turns up. Most scholars agree on a time-frame for Zarathushtra which could be as early as 1700 B.C. or as late as 1000 B.C.

Zarathushtra received his prophetic calling in about his thirtieth year, in which he envisioned God through Vohu Manah, or "Good Mind." His prophecies were not foretellings of the future, but prophecy in the sense of the later Hebrew prophets: revolutionary messages of religious purity and social justice, speaking out against corrupt priests and potentates.

There is very little biographical material in the Gathas. What is there indicates that Zarathushtra was cast out of his original home, wherever that was, and forced to wander, along with his followers and their animals. Yasna 46 begins with a sad verse about this:

"To what land should I turn? Where should I turn to go?
They hold me back from folk and friends.
Neither the community I follow pleases me,
nor do the wrongful rulers of the land...
I know... that I am powerless.
I have a few cattle and also a few men."
(Jafarey translation)

He and his followers wandered until they found a sympathetic friend in King Vishtaspa, who was not the father of King Darius but an earlier ruler of the same name, who may have lived in eastern Iran or in Bactria, modern Afghanistan. There, Zarathushtra won over the king, and his court, and became the court prophet.

Zarathushtra is said to have had six children, three boys and three girls. This is not exact information, since the number and gender equals that of the six Amesha Spentas and may be only symbolic. But the last Gatha is composed for the marriage of Zarathushtra's daughter Pouruchista (Full of Wisdom) so he is known to have had at least one child. Zarathushtra, in the legends, had three wives (in sequence) of whom the last was Hvovi (Good Cattle) the daughter of King Vishtaspa's prime minister. Thus Zarathushtra married into the king's court; Pouruchista, in turn, married the prime minister.

There is no exact or provable information about Zarathushtra's life at court, though it may be assumed that it was here that he composed the Gathas, and the names of king and court appear in the poetry as if, in oral recitation, they were there listening to him. The prophet may have spent almost three decades there, before his death at age 77.

Again, no one knows how Zarathushtra died. Many legends, and Zoroastrian tradition, say that he was killed, while praying in the sanctuary, by a foreign enemy of the king. But there is no holiday commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet, as there would be in other religions (Christianity, for instance) and other Zoroastrian traditions, and scholars, say that Zarathushtra died peacefully.

One of the controversies about Zarathushtra concerns whether he was a priest. He did not live in a religious vacuum, but was born into a society that practiced the polytheistic rites of ancient Indo-Iranian religion. This religion already had a well-developed system of priesthood and service. In one verse of the Gathas (Y,33, 6) Zarathushtra calls himself a "zaota" which in later Zoroastrian usage is the word for officiating priest. The word, though, literally means "invoker" and both Taraporewala and Jafarey translate it simply, claiming that Zarathushtra never meant to call himself a priest. It is very possible that Zarathushtra, if not a priest, had priestly training (how else would he know the highly technical spiritual language found in the Gathas, as well as the ability to compose philosophical/religious poetry?). Other Zoroastrians, including more traditionally minded ones, say that Zarathushtra was indeed a priest and the first of the millennia-old tradition of Zoroastrian ritualizing priesthood.

In the later Avesta, Zarathushtra is used as a character in dialogue with Ahura Mazda; he is featured in ritual texts and in law- texts, and great amounts of ritual and doctrine are thus attributed to him, whether he was their originator or not. In much later Zoroastrian traditions, some of which were not recorded until centuries after the Arab conquest, the life of the Prophet abounds with miracles and divine interventions. His mother glowed with the divine Glory usually reserved for kings; the soul of the prophet was placed by God in the sacred Haoma plant (which Z. condemned in the Gathas) and the prophet was conceived through the essence of Haoma in milk (though the birth is not a virgin birth, but the natural product of two special, but earthly parents.). The child laughed at his birth instead of crying, and he glowed so brightly that the villagers around him were frightened and tried to destroy him. All attempts to destroy young Zarathushtra failed; fire would not burn him nor would animals crush him in stampedes; he was cared for by a mother wolf in the wilderness.

He spent years in the wilderness communing with God before his first vision, in which Vohu Manah came to him in the form of a huge Angel. All the heavenly entities, the Amesha Spentas, instructed Zarathushtra in heaven, and he received perfect knowledge of past, present, and future. Zarathushtra's preaching to King Vishtaspa was enhanced by miracles, especially the healing of a paralyzed horse that convinced the king to accept the new religion.

Most of these motifs are familiar from the lives of other culture heroes such as Romulus, Moses, and Jesus. Whether any of this literally happened is a matter for belief, not scholarship. Tradition-minded Zoroastrians do accept these legends as truth about Zarathushtra. Other, more modern Zoroastrians, who rely more on the Gathas as a scriptural source, discount the legends as pious fantasies, noting that there are no miracles or supernatural interventions in the Gathas.

Unlike Mohammed's recitation of the Koran, the Gathas of Zarathushtra are not "channeled" - that is, the Gathas are regarded as the inspired composition of a poet-prophet rather than a text dictated by a heavenly being. Zarathushtra was inspired by God, through the Bounteous Immortals of Vohu Manah, Asha, and the others - but he was not a passive recipient of the divine wisdom. In accordance with Zoroastrian philosophy, he reached God through his own effort simultaneously with God's communication to him.

Zarathushtra was never divine, not even in the most extravagant legends. He remained a man like all others, though divinely gifted with inspiration and closeness to Ahura Mazda. His life is an inspiration for Zoroastrians of all persuasions, traditionalist and modern - in his innovation, loving relationship with God, and spiritual courage he is a model for all his followers. After his death. Zarathushtra's great soul attains almost the level of a Bounteous Immortal, but still is not merged in the divinity.

Ever since ancient Greek times the name of Zoroaster has stood for mysterious Eastern wisdom. In Hellenistic times many esoteric and magical texts were written using his name (though none of those texts had anything to do with the real Zarathushtra) and Zoroaster was thought of as one of the greatest magicians. Once the Avesta had been brought to the West in the 18th century, his name again became famous in the West - this time not for magic, but for the humanistic, monotheistic, moral philosophy found in the Gathas. Enlightenment philosophers such as Kant and Diderot mentioned him as a model; the playwright Voltaire wrote a play called "Zoroastre." Here was a philosopher from "pagan" antiquity who was monotheistic and moral without any help from the Christian Church! The French composer Rameau wrote an opera called "Zoroastre" and the free-thinking Mozart used a variant of the name for his character Sarastro in "The Magic Flute;" Sarastro is the priest of the Sun and Light who defeats the Queen of the Night. In the 20th century Nietszche was inspired by Zarathushtra's example when expounding his philosophy in THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSHTRA, though there is no identifiable Zoroastrian teaching in the Nietszche work. The German composer Richard Strauss, inspired by the Nietzsche work, wrote the tone-poem of the same name, which became famous in the 1960s as the theme for the Stanley Kubrick film 2001 - A SPACE ODYSSEY.

The example of the Prophet is still good today, and anyone who sees his or her own religion overwhelmed by insensitive, exploitative "orthodoxy" can sympathize with this ancient revolutionary whose message is ever fresh and ever new.

Thus posted Zarathushtra!

Hannah M.G. Shapero
Ushtavaiti


Copyright 1995, 1996 Hannah M.G. Shapero Republished by permission of the author.