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Zoroaster (Greek Ζωροάστρης, Zōroastrēs) or Zarathustra (Avestan: Zaraθuštra), also referred to as Zartosht (Template:PerB), was an ancient Iranian prophet and religious poet. The hymns attributed to him are the scriptural basis of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster is generally accepted to be an authentic historical figure. Within Islamic, Christian and Jewish tradition he is associated with the prophet Baruch ben Neriah.

The person


Avestan Zarathustra


Avestan Zaraθuštra is generally accepted to derive from an Old Iranian *zarat-uštra-, which is in turn "perhaps"[1] a zero-grade form of *zarant-uštra-. This is supported by reconstructions from later Iranian languages – in particular from Middle Persian Zartosht, which is the form the name has in the 9th-12th century Zoroastrian texts.

The interpretation of the -θ- in Avestan zaraθuštra was for a time itself subject to heated debate because the -θ- is an irregular development: As a rule, *zarat- (a first element that ends in a dental consonant) should have Avestan zarat- or zaraϑ- as a development from it. Why this is not so for zaraθuštra has not yet been determined. Notwithstanding the phonetic irregularity, that Avestan zaraθuštra "with its -θ- was linguistically an actual form, [is] shown by later attestations reflecting the same basis."[1]


The second half of the name – i.e. -uštra- is universally accepted to mean 'camel'.[1]Template:Ref label The first half of the name does not otherwise appear in Avestan, which makes it necessary to seek a meaning in the etymology of the name. Subject then to whether Zaraθuštra derives from *zarat-uštra- or from *zarant-uštra-, several interpretations have been proposed:Template:Ref label

Following *zarat-uštra- are

  • "moving camels" or "driving camels," and related to Avestan zarš- "to drag."[2]
  • "desiring camels" or "longing for camels" and related to Vedic har- "to like" and perhaps (though ambiguous) also to Avestan zara-.[3]

Following *zarant-uštra- are

  • "with old/aging camels," related to Vedic járant- and similar to Ossetic zœrond.[4]
  • "with yellow camels" with a parallel to Younger Avestan zairi-.[5]
  • "with angry camels," from Avestan *zarant- "angry, furious."[3]

"Several more etymologies have been proposed, some quite fanciful, but none is scientifically based."[1]

Greek Zoroaster

Greek Zōroástrēs appears[4] to have arisen from an association of ástra "stars" with the leading zōrós meaning "undiluted." This is the oldest attested Greek form of the name, attested in the mid-fifth century BCE Lydiaka of Xanthus (frag. 32) and in (Pseudo-)Plato's Alcibiades Maior (122a1). This old form appears subsequently as Latin Zoroastres and - as a secondary development - Greek Zōroástris.

Greek Zōroástrēs has motivated attempts to reconstruct an intermediate Old Western Iranian variant of Avestan Zaraθuštra from which the European forms could then derive. The proposals include *zara-uštra- or *zarah-uštra-, which – or so it is theorized – first produced Greek *zara-óstr(ēs), then – by metathesis – *zaro-ástr(ēs) and finally – provoked by the association with "stars" – the attested Zōroástrēs. Neither *zara-uštra- or *zarah-uštra- have a great following among the linguistic community since neither adequately explain the Old Iranian forms. Besides, *zarah-uštra- is a "phonologically improbably form in any Old Iranian language."[6]


Until the late 1800s, Zoroaster was generally dated to about the 6th century BCE, which coincided with both the "Traditional date" (see details below) and historiographic accounts (Ammianus Marcellinus xxiii.6.32, 4th c. CE). However, already at the time (late 19th century), the issue was far from settled, with James Darmesteter pleading for a later date (c. 100 BCE) and others pleading for dates as early as 6000 BCE.

The "Traditional date" originates in the period immediately following Alexander's conquest of the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BCE. The Seleucid kings who gained power following Alexander's death instituted an "Age of Alexander" as the new calendrical epoch. This did not appeal to the Zoroastrian priesthood who then attempted to establish an "Age of Zoroaster." To do so, they needed to establish when Zoroaster had lived, which they accomplished by counting back the length of successive generations until they concluded that Zoroaster must have lived "258 years before Alexander." This estimate then re-appeared in the traditional Zoroastrian texts of the 9th-12th centuries, which in turn gave the date doctrinal legitimacy.

In the 20th century, this date (which may be any number of different years subject to when "Alexander" happened) remained acceptable to a number of reputable scholars, among them Hasan Taqizadeh, a recognized authority on the various Iranian calendars and hence became the date cited by Henning and others.

However, already in the late 19th century scholars such as Bartholomea and Christensen noted problems with the "Traditional date", namely in the linguistic difficulties that it presented. Since the Old Avestan language of Gathas (that are attributed to the prophet himself) is still very close to the Sanskrit of the RigVeda, it followed that the Gathas and RigVeda could not possibly be more than a few centuries apart. Since the RigVedic compositions could be fairly accurately dated to about the 13th/14th century BCE, and because the Old Avestan was less (but only slightly less) archaic than that of the RigVeda, it followed that the oldest surviving portions of the Avesta date to around 1000 BCE (+/- one century).

This 9th/10th century BCE date is now almost universally accepted among Iranists, who in recent decades have also found that the social customs described in the Gāthās roughly coincides with what is known of other pre-historical peoples of that period. Supported by this historical evidence, the "Traditional date" can be conclusively ruled out, and the discreditation can to some extent supported by the texts themselves: The Gathas describe a society of bipartite (priests and herdsmen/farmers) nomadic pastoralists with tribal structures organized at most as small kingdoms. This contrasts sharply with the view of Zoroaster having lived in an empire, at which time society is attested to have had a tripartite structure (nobility/soldiers, priests, and farmers).

Although a slightly earlier date (a century or two) has been proposed on the grounds that the texts do not reflect the migration onto the Iranian Plateau, it is just as possible that Zoroaster lived in a one of the rural societies that remained where they were.


Zoroaster; portrayed here in a popular Parsi Zoroastrian depiction. This image emerged in the 18th century, the result of an Indian Parsi Zoroastrian artist's imagination under European influence. It quickly became a popular icon, and is now regarded by many Indian Zoroastrians as being historically based.

Yasna 9 & 17 cite the Ditya River in Airyanem Vaējah (Middle Persian Ērān Wēj) as Zoroaster's home and the scene of his first appearance. Nowhere in the Avesta (both Old and Younger portions) is there a mention of the Achaemenids or of any West Iranian tribes such as the Medes, Persians, or even Parthians.

However, in Yasna 59.18, the zaraθuštrotema, or supreme head of the Zoroastrian priesthood, is said to reside in 'Ragha'. In later Zoroastrian tradition, this Avestan Ragha - along with a slew of other places - appear as locations in Western Iran. While Medea does not figure at all in the Avesta (the westernmost location noted in scripture is Arachosia), the Būndahišn, or "Primordial Creation," (20.32 and 24.15) puts Ragha in Medea (medieval Rai). However, in Avestan, Ragha is simply a toponymn meaning "plain, hillside."[7] The same text identifies Ērān Wēj with medieval Aran (in historical Caucasian Albania, present-day Azerbaijan).

In the 10th century, the Muslim writer al-Shahrastani (who originated from Shahristān, present-day Turkmenistan) proposed (again) that Zoroaster's father was from Atropatene (also in Medea) and his mother was from Rai. Coming from a reputed scholar of religions, this was a serious blow for the various regions who all claimed that Zoroaster originated from their homelands, some of which then decided that Zoroaster must then have then been buried in their regions or composed his Gathas there or preached there.[8][9]

By the late 20th century the consensus has settled on an origin in Eastern Iran and/or Central Asia (to include present-day Afghanistan): Gnoli proposed Sistan (though in a much wider scope than the present-day province) as the homeland of Zoroastrianism; Frye voted for Bactria and Chorasmia;[10] Khlopin suggests the Tedzen Delta in present-day Turkmenistan.[11] Sarianidi considered the BMAC region as "the native land of the Zoroastrians and, probably, of Zoroaster himself."[12] Boyce includes the steppes of the former Soviet republics.[13] The medieval "from Media" hypothesis is no longer taken seriously, and Zaehner has even suggested that this was a Magi-mediated issue to garner legitimacy, but this has been likewise rejected by Gershevitch and others.

The 2005 Encyclopedia Iranica article on the history of Zoroastrianism summarizes the issue with "while there is general agreement that he did not live in western Iran, attempts to locate him in specific regions of eastern Iran, including Central Asia, remain tentative."[14]


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 9th-12th 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 13th 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 is survives only as a summary in the seventh book of the 9th century Dēnkard. Other 9th-12th 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,[15] he is said to have been murdered at the altar by the Turanians in the storming of Balkh.


In his revelation, the poet sees the universe is 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 mankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain aša. For mankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of good thoughts, words and deeds.


File:Raffael 071.jpg
Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509, showing Zoroaster (left, with star-studded globe).

Although a few recent depictions of Zoroaster present the prophet performing some deed of legend, in general the portrayals are independent of these. These latter images show the prophet in white vestments, easily identifyable as those also worn by present-day Zoroastrian priests.

He often is seen holding a bareshnum, which is generally considered to be another symbol of priesthood, or with a book in hand, which may be interpreted to be the Avesta. Alternatively, he appears with a mace - usually stylized as a steel rod with a bull's head on top - that priests carry in their installation ceremony. In other depictions he appears with a raised hand and reproachfully lifted finger, as if to make a point.

Zoroaster is rarely depicted as looking directly at the viewer, instead he appears to be looking slightly upwards as if beseeching God. Zoroaster is almost always depicted with a beard, usually brown. His complexion is pale, and this and other factors recall 19th century Jesus portraits.[16]

A common variant of the Zoroaster images derives from a Sassanid-era rock-face carving. In this depiction at Taq-e Bostan, a figure is seen to preside over the coronation of Ardashir I or II. The figure is standing on a lotus, with a bareshnum in hand and with a gloriole around his head. Until the 1920s, this figure was commonly supposed to be a depiction of Zoroaster, but in recent years is more commonly interpreted to be a depiction of Mithra.

Among the most famous of the European depictions of Zoroaster is that of the figure in Raphael's 1509 The School of Athens. In it, Zoroaster and Ptolemy are having a discussion in the lower right corner. The prophet is holding a star-studded globe.

Western perceptions

In classical antiquity

The name Zoroaster was famous in classical antiquity, and a number of different Zoroasters - all described as having occult powers - appear in historiographic accounts.

In Pliny's Natural History, Zoroaster is said to have laughed on the day of his birth. He lived in the wilderness and enjoyed exploring it from a young age. Plutarch compares him with Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius (Numa, 4). Plutarch, drawing partly on Theopompus, speaks of Zoroaster in Isis and Osiris: In this work, the prophet is empowered by trust in his God and the protection of his allies. He faces outward opposition and unbelief, and inward doubt.

In the post-classical era

Zoroaster was known as a sage, magician, and miracle-worker in post-Classical Western culture. Though almost nothing was known of his ideas until the late 18th century, by that time his name was already associated with lost ancient wisdom. Zoroaster appears as "Sarastro" in Mozart's opera Die Zauberflöte, which has been noted for its Masonic elements, where he represents moral order (cf. Asha) in opposition to the "Queen of the Night."

Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire promoted research into Zoroastrianism in the belief that it was a form of rational Deism, preferable to Christianity. With the translation of the Avesta by Abraham Anquetil-Duperron, Western scholarship of Zoroastrianism began.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche fictionalized the historical figure in his seminal work Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) (1885). Nietzsche presents[citation needed] Zoroaster as a returning visionary who repudiates the designation of good and evil and thus marks the observation of the death of God. Nietzsche asserted[citation needed] that he chose Zoroaster as a vehicle for his ideas because the historical prophet had been the first to proclaim the opposition between "good" and "evil."

Richard Strauss's Opus 30, inspired by Nietzsche's book, is also called Also sprach Zarathustra. Its opening theme, which corresponds to the book's prologue, was used to score the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Zoraster was mentioned by the 19th century poet William Butler Yeats. He and his wife were said to have contacted Zoraster through "automatic writing."[17]Template:Page number

The 2005 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy places Zoroaster first in a chronology of philosophers.[18]Template:Page number

Zoroaster is ranked #93 on Michael H. Hart’s list of the most influential figures in history.[19]

In 1997, the British gothic rock band Tammuz released a song named 'Zarathustra' on their album Yezidi. The track features an Avestan language verse from the Gathas. The name 'Zarathustra' appears in passing in Bryan Ferry's 'Mother of Pearl', a Roxy Music song from the band's 1973 Stranded album.

In other religious systems

In Hanifism

Hanifism considered Zoroaster to be a figure (as Hermes, Plato, Buddha and Jesus also) in a line of prophets, which Mani the Elcesaite (210–277) proclaimed he was the final successor of. Zoroaster's ethical dualism is - to an extent - incorporated in Mani's doctrine, which viewed the world as being locked in an epic battle between opposing forces of good and evil. Hanifism also incorporated other elements of Zoroastrian tradition, but these are unrelated to Zoroaster's own teachings.

In the Bahá'í Faith

Zoroaster appears in the Bahá'í Faith as a "Manifestation of God," one of a line of prophets who have progressively revealed the Word of God to a gradually maturing humanity. Zoroaster thus shares an exalted station with Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, and the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh.[20] Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, saw Bahá'u'lláh as the fulfillment of a post-Sassanid Zoroastrian prophecy that saw a return of Sassanid emperor Bahram:[21] Shoghi Effendi also stated that Zoroaster lived roughly 1,000 years before Jesus.Template:Ref label

See also


a. Template:Note labelOriginally proposed by Burnouf[22]
b. Template:Note labelFor refutation of these and other proposals, see Humbach, 1991.[23]
c. Template:Note labelFrom a letter of the Universal House of Justice, Department of the Secretariat, May 13, 1979 to Mrs. Gayle Woolson published in
Template:Citation. p. 501.


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