Biography of Zarathustra, Founder of Zoroastrianism

Life and Legacy of the Iranian Spiritual Leader

Zarathustra Portrait
A portrait of ancient Persian poet and prophet Zarathustra or Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism.

 Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, was an ancient religious leader and philosopher born sometime between about 1700 BCE and 600 BCE, who is credited with founding Zoroastrianism. He served as an inspiration to millennia of philosophers, including those of classic Greek, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, to as recently as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). He was perhaps the earliest of the ancient philosophers who recognized that the world is divided into good and evil.

Fast Facts: Zarathustra

  • Known For: Earliest of the ancient philosophers
  • Alternate Names and Spellings: Zaratust, Zarathrustra, Zeraduscht, (Persian), Zoraster (Greek), Zeretoschtro (Zend), Zaratas, Zarades, Zradašt (Armenian)
  • Born: Urmia county in Iran, sometime between 1700–600 BCE 
  • Parents: Pourušaspa (a herdsman) and Dugdowa 
  • Died: Balkha in Afghanistan
  • Published Works: The Gathas
  • Spouses: At least three wives
  • Children: Several daughters and at least three sons
  • Notable Quotes: "The supreme virtue is to speak truth; the second is to use the bow and arrow well."

Early Life 

Zarathustra's father, Pourušaspa (or Purusasp), was a herdsman. According to tradition, he and his wife, Dugdowa (or Dugdav), wished to have children. To do so, they obtained milk from virgin cows, mixed it with twigs from a haoma plant and drank it. They then attempted to have sex but were prevented by demons three times. The fourth time they succeed and Zoroaster was conceived of three elements, the frawar (his soul) from the hom plant, xwarrag (his glory) from his mother, and his tan gorh (his body substance) from the milk.  

Iran Zoroaster
Zoroastrian engraving is seen on the door at the shrine in the mountain cave in Chak Chak, Iran on June 14, 2014. Kuni Takahashi / Getty Images

There are many versions of Zoroaster's birth: all of them say he laughed uproariously when he was born. The primary tradition is that the supreme being Ahura Mazda sent the Immortal Saint Vohumano ("Virtuous Thought") to enter the infant's soul, and Zoroaster, illumined with a bright light, laughed so loudly that the whole neighborhood heard him. Magicians sitting near him were horrified, and sent word to the king of the realm, who commanded one of his servants to seize him so he could kill the infant. But instead, a terrible pain overtook the servant and he fled.

At the age of 30, on his way to the Spring Festival, Zoroaster experienced a series of visions, what the 9th century CE Pahlavi scholars studying the philosopher referred to as "the year of religion." In the visions, he met the god Ahura Mazda, was instructed in the great cardinal doctrines of the faith, and was tested by three trials or ordeals. After he aroused from the visions, he studied what he learned over a period of ten years, before converting followers. 

The Historic Zoroaster

As is true for the founder of the Abrahamic religions, no consensus exists setting the real Zoroaster in historic time. Scholars speculate that the earliest reasonable dates would be similar in age to the Rig Veda (the oldest texts of any other Indo-Iranian language, ca. 1700–1500 BCE); the latest would be during the rule of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (600–530 BCE). 

Zoroaster (the Greek version of his name, which means "star-worshiper," his Persian name Zarathustra means "possessing courageous camels" or "having old camels") is said to have been a member of the Spitama family in Iran. The Spitama family belonged to the priest class and Zoroaster was the descendant of practicing priests.

Three Visions 

The holy book of Zoroastrianism is the Zend-Avesta, and within that document are stories of Zoroaster's visions. They include clear references to other myths and tales told about other philosophers and teachers. 

Zoroaster's first vision was that he and his companions are walking on the journey and they come to a large body of water with no boat. He prays to the god of justice, who makes it possible for them to cross over with just getting the soles of their feet wet.

The second vision occurred at night. Zoroaster finds himself walking through a solitary plain but suddenly finds his way blocked. He sees that all of mankind is kept away to the north. A mighty army from Bactria advances on him from every side, but another army from Nimrud and led by his cousin and first convert Medyomah approaches to support him. 

The third vision finds Zoroaster on the bank of the river Daitya, where he is drawing holy haoma (a divine plant) water. He sees that the river has four channels, representing changes in the future, and he sees the angel Vohumano, the personification of "good thought," approaching from the south. 

Vohumano, elegantly robed in silk or light, crosses the fourth channel of the river and asks Zoroaster to identify himself and state his greatest need and desire. He replies "I am Zaratust of the Spitamas: among the existences righteousness is more my desire and my wish is that I may become aware of the will of the sacred beings and practice so much righteousness as they exhibit me in the pure existence." 

Meeting Ahura Mazda

Vohumano responds to Zoroaster, saying "Righteousness comes from within," to which Zoroaster asks, "Where does the radiance come from?" Vohumano tells Zoroaster he must cast off his garment (that is, his physical body) before he is ready to walk in the divine presence of God. Zoroaster closes his eyes and when he opens them again, he sees his unbound body in heaven with a gathering of angels. He meets seven archangels (the Amesha Spentas) and finally Ahura Mazda (Auhuarmazd), who instructs him in the great cardinal doctrines of the faith. 

Ahura Mazda tells him that the first perfection is good thoughts, then good words, and finally good deeds. Those who love the light are righteous, says Ahura Mazda, and those who love darkness are not.

Founding of Zoroastrianism

The earliest form of Zoroastrianism, known as Gathic Zarathustrianism, was founded during Zoroaster's lifetime, perhaps as early as 1500 BCE. The Gathas documents, a set of hymns written in the Old Avestan language and attributed to Zoroaster, are oldest part of the holy book of the Zend Avesta. The Zend Avesta was written over a period of centuries, with significant parts dated to the 7th century BCE, the 3rd–4th centuries CE, and the 9th century and even the 19th century CE.

After returning from his visions, Zoroaster's first converts were relatives: his cousin Medyomah, Frašaoštra Hwogwa (the father of Zoroaster's third wife Hwowi) and Jamaspa, that man's brother. In contrast to the older established religions, Zoroastrianism was monotheistic—although there were lesser celestial beings, there was only the supreme being, Mazda Ahura. His new religion included an ethical vision of right and wrong beyond the rules set by the ruling elite; a heaven for the righteous ("the house of the good mind" or "house of the song") ruled over by a righteous God, and a hell for the wicked ("house of the worst"), ruled by a demon. Zoroaster established new fire rituals—a burning flame representing purification to reach the supreme being.

Preaching his new religion and conducting new rituals, Zoroaster made enemies of the elites in the society who maintained the status quo by conducting old style rituals. Zoroaster is said to have fled his homeland, arriving in Herat-Merv (today's Turkmenistan) and becoming adviser to King Vishtaspato, where the religion grew.

Death

There are several accounts of Zoroaster's death. He is said to have been 77 years old when he was murdered in the town of Balkh (modern Afghanistan) when the Turanian King Arjasp attacked. A warrior in Arjasp's army named Turbaratus is said to have entered the temple and slain Zoroaster. Zoroaster is said to have asked Mazda Ahura for immortality, and the god replied that his slayer would also remain immortal, that resurrection would be impossible and mankind without hope. Mazda Ahura granted him a glimpse of the delights of heaven and the miseries of hell, and Zoroaster was satisfied with the ending of his earthly life. 

Legacy

Iranian Zoroastrian girls perform a traditional dance
Tehran, IRAN: Iranian Zoroastrian girls perform a traditional dance in front of a painting of Iranian Prophet Zarathustra during the Mehregan celebrations at the Marcar cultural center in Tehran, 02 October 2006. AFP / Getty Images

The Zoroastrian religion was the creed of the Achaemenid kings including Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes (ca. 550–330 BCE). The religion nearly died out after Alexander the Great sacked Persepolis in 330 BCE, but it rose again during the early Sasanian dynasties (229–379 CE) and flourished for four centuries until Islam replaced it in the 7th century CE. The religion prospers today; the majority of Zoroastrians, at least 130,000 worldwide, reside in India.

The impact of Zoroaster on other western religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is widely accepted. The notion of a savior or messiah; the presence of good and evil in the world, in particular a god who exemplifies good opposed to one who exemplifies evil; and the use of animal sacrifices to propitiate the gods are a few of the philosophical tenets foreshadowed in Zoroasterianism. 

Selected Sources