Zoroaster



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Fast Facts
Zartosht.jpg
Other Names and Nicknames: 
Zarathushtra, Zarathustra, Zartosht, زرتشت, Zertuşt
Function: 
Prophet
Traditions: 
Zoroaster, Zarathushtra, Zoroastrianism, Parsis
Main Countries of Activity: 
Persia
Date of Birth: 
6th century BC
Place of Birth: 
Persia
In His/Her Body ("alive"): 
No
Date Left His/Her Body: 
Unknown

Biography

Zoroaster, also referred to as Zartosht (Persian: زرتشت), (Kurdish:Zertuşt), was an ancient Persian prophet and religious poet. The hymns attributed to him, the Gathas, are at the liturgical core of Zoroastrianism.

Information about the life of Zoroaster derives primarily from the Avesta, that is, from Zoroastrian scripture of which the Gathas - the texts attributed to Zoroaster himself - are a part. These are complemented by legends from the traditional Zoroastrian texts of the ninth to twelfth century.

The Gathas contain allusions to personal events, such as Zoroaster’s triumph over obstacles imposed by competing priests and the ruling class. They also indicate he had difficulty spreading his teachings, and was even treated with ill-will in his mother’s hometown. They also describe familial events such as the marriage of his daughter, at which Zoroaster presided.

In the texts of the Younger Avesta (composed many centuries after the Gathas), Zoroaster is depicted wrestling with the daevas and is tempted by Angra Mainyu to renounce his faith (Yasht 17.19; Vendidad 19).

The Spenta Nask, the thirteenth section of the Avesta, is said to have a description of the prophet’s life. However, this text has been lost over the centuries, and it survives only as a summary in the seventh book of the ninth century Dēnkard. Other ninth to twelfth century stories of Zoroaster, as in the Shāhnāma, are also assumed to be based on earlier texts, but must be considered to be primarily a collection of legends. The historical Zoroaster, however, eludes categorization as a legendary character.

Collectively, scripture and tradition provide many rote details of his life, such as a record of his family members: His father was Pourushaspa Spitāma, son of Haechadaspa Spitāma, and his mother was Dughdova. He and his wife Hvōvi had three daughters, Freni, Pourucista, and Triti; and three sons, Isat Vastar, Uruvat-Nara, and Hvare Ciθra. Zoroaster’s great-grandfather Haēchataspa was the ancestor of the whole family Spitāma, for which reason Zoroaster usually bears the surname Spitāma. His wife and children, and a cousin named Maidhyoimangha, were his first converts after his illumination from Ahura Mazda at age 30.

According to Yasnas 5 & 105, Zoroaster prayed for the conversion of King Vištaspa, who appears in the Gathas as a historical personage. In legends, Vištaspa is said to have had two brothers as courtiers, Frašaōštra and Jamaspa, and to whom Zoroaster was closely related: his wife, Hvōvi, was the daughter of Frashaōštra, while Jamaspa was the husband of his daughter Pourucista. The actual role of intermediary was played by the pious queen Hutaōsa. Apart from this connection, the new prophet relied especially upon his own kindred (hvaētuš).

Zoroaster’s death is not mentioned in the Avesta. In Shahnama 5.92, he is said to have been murdered at the altar by the Turanians in the storming of Balkh.

Teachings

In his revelation, the prophet sees the universe as the cosmic struggle between aša “truth” and druj “lie.” The cardinal concept of aša - which is highly nuanced and only vaguely translatable - is at the foundation of all other Zoroastrian doctrine, including that of Ahura Mazda (who is aša), creation (that is aša), existence (that is aša) and Free Will, which is arguably Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy.

The purpose of humankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain aša. For humankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of good thoughts, words and deeds.

Elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through their influence on Judaism and Middle Platonism and have been identified as one of the key early events in the development of philosophy.

Locations

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Books & Media

Recommended Books: 
Cover image

The Hymns of Zoroaster: A New Translation of the Most Ancient Sacred Texts of Iran

by M. L. West

(Paperback)

Zoroaster was one of the greatest and most radical religious reformers in the history of the world. The faith that he founded some 2600 years ago in a remote region of central Asia flourished to become the bedrock of a great empire as well as its official religion. Zoroastrianism is still practiced today in parts of India and Iran and in smaller communities elsewhere, where its adherents are known as Parsis. It has the distinction of being one of the most ancient religions in the world: only Hinduism can lay claim to greater antiquity. The foundation texts of this venerable system of belief are the founder's own passionate poems, known as the Gathas (""Songs""), and a short ritual composed soon after his death, called the Liturgy in Seven Chapters. These hymns are the authentic utterances of a religious leader whose thought was way ahead of his time, and are among the most precious relics of human civilization. After so many millennia they continue to speak to us of an impressively austere theology and of an inspiring and easily understood moral code. Yet existing translations are few, divergent in their interpretations of the original Avestan language of Zoroaster, and frequently hard to access. M. L. West's new translation, based on the best modern scholarship, and augmented by a substantial introduction and notes, makes these powerfully resonant texts available to a wide audience in clear and accessible form.