iii. ZOROASTER IN THE AVESTA
Zaraθuštra is considered the founder of the Mazdayasnian religion who lived in Eastern Iran during the end of the second millenium BCE. He can be credited with the authorship of the Gathas and possiby the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti. But, generally speaking, both his homeland and his date, and sometimes even his historicity or his authorship of the Gathas, have been questioned. The entry consists of a sketch of Zaraθuštra’s biography according to the Old Avestan texts and the hagiographic development of this biography in the Young Avestan corpus. The current research on Zaraθuštra’s time and homeland and his connection to the Old Avestan texts are reviewed (see also ZOROASTER i).
ZOROASTER’S LIFE ACCORDING TO THE AVESTA
Biographical sketch according to the Old Avesta. Zaraθuštra was born into the clan of the Spitamids, whose ancestor Spitāma is mentioned in the Gathas several times (Y. 46.13, 51.12, 53.1). Zaraθuštra’s name is related to camels (uštra-); therefore we can deduce that he grew up in a pastoral society living on camels and cows. His family is mentioned outside of the Gathas: his father is named as Pourušaspa (Y. 9.13; Yt. 5.18) and his mother Duγδōuuā (FrD. 4; see DUGDŌW). In Y. 46.15 a certain Haēčat̰.aspa is mentioned, who according to later Zoroastrian tradition was thought to be Zaraθuštra’s great-grandfather. Three sons of Zaraθuštra are mentioned in Yt. 13.98, namely Isat̰.vāstra (cf. Y.23.2, 26.5; N. 31), Uruuatat̰.nara (cf. Yt. 13.127; Vd. 2.43), and Huuarəčiθra; the names of three daughters are given in Yt.13.139 as Frə̄nī, Θritī, and Pouručištā; usually Y.53.3 is seen as a reference to Pouručistā’s marriage.
We do not know exactly when Zaraθuštra received his formal teaching as a priest; but in Y.33.6 he refers to himself as zaotar “priest” (cf. Yt. 13.94), and on some other occasions he says he is one with “spiritual knowledge” (Y. 28.5, 48.3: vaēdəmna-). Perhaps we can also deduce from the cosmological stanzas in Y. 44 that Zaraθuštra was ordained as a priest, knowledgeable in both ritual and theological speculations. According to Zoroastrian tradition, at the age of 30 Zaraθuštra encountered Ahura Mazdā and chose his most prosperous spirit (cf. Y. 43.16). We can take this as a starting point and as some kind of revelation that leads to Zaraθuštra’s new career, his search for and furthering of “truth” (aṣ̌a). But in the following years his fellow-countrymen paid no attention to his words (Y. 31.1), with his cousin Maidiiōi.māŋha (Yt.13.95; Y. 51.19) being his first—and almost only—follower. Zaraθuštra refers to this situation in Y. 46.2: “I know wherefore I am lacking in vigour, O Wise One. (It is) on account of the scantiness of my cattle stock, and because I am one of few men (only)” (tr. Humbach, 1991, p. 168). As we can deduce from other passages in the Gathas, Zaraθuštra and his followers faced opposition, which was based on, not only theological differences, but also economic ones (cf. Y. 31.15, 32.9-11, 46.5, 49.1). According to some interpretations, names of Zaraθuštra’s adversaries are mentioned in the Gathas: Y. 32.13 f. may refer to a certain Grə̄hma, under whose influence the karapans prefer (ritual) practices that are not shared by Zaraθuštra himself and which are interpreted by Zaraθuštra as a means of destroying existence. Another adversary of Zaraθuštra is Bə̄ṇduua (Y. 49.1 f.), who not only differs from Zaraθuštra in economic wellbeing, but also religiously, as he gives shelter to a deceitful teacher, who leads people astray from truth and life. Apart from such individual persons, Zaraθuštra also faced opposition from the side of the karapans and kauuis. Both are groups of people who obviously perform some religious functions, but—according to the world-view of the Gathas—through their religious practices they yoked the people with evil actions, to destroy their existence. Perhaps some of these karapans and kauuis also could influence the political leaders in Zaraθuštra’s environment, as Y. 48,10 mentions them together with bad rulers (dušəxšaθra-; cf. Y. 48.5, 49.11).
Such kind of opposition between religious authorities or practitioners and Zaraθuštra may have led to separation of Zaraθuštra from his immediate “home-land;” one reminiscence of this situation may be found in Y. 46.1, which asks where Zaraθuštra should graze his cattle, as the mighty of the land do not satisfy him. But it is important from a historical point of view that we do not deduce from this reference that Zaraθuštra did flee far away from his original home, as there are no indications in the Avesta that he ever came to a new environment that differed socially or linguistically in any substantial way from the situation of his early life. Therefore we can assume that Zaraθuštra moved from the patronage of one clan to another one, but the geographical change—we can suppose—was rather limited. In the course of these movements, Zaraθuštra met with his principal patron, Vištāspa (cf. Y. 51.12; Yt. 13.99 f.; see GOŠTĀSP). Generally speaking, one may assume that, without Zaraθuštra’s meeting with Vištāspa, he and his religious efforts might never have been remembered by the following generations. From the Old Avestan texts no further details are known about Zaraθuštra’s teaching and the growing number of his followers. It is assumed that he was able to organize some kind of community and that they practiced some rituals to revere Ahura Mazdā and those deities who were known in the later tradition as the group of seven Aməṣ̌a Spəntas (cf. Y. 37.4, 39.3). This can be deduced from Yasna Haptaŋhāiti (Y. 35.2-41), which can be taken as the liturgical text of the earliest Zoroastrian community, celebrating the worship of the Zoroastrian gods; the text focuses on the identity of that community by referring always to a group in the first person plural; therefore the text may reflect an early stage of the development of the Mazdayasnian community that originated from Zaraθuštra’s teaching.
Aspects of Zaraθuštra’s legendary life according to the Younger Avesta. As in many religions with only limited interest in the historical facts about their founders, Zoroastrian tradition as reflected in the Younger Avesta does not concentrate on the life of the historical Zaraθuštra. The Younger Avesta describes or refers to an ideal Zaraθuštra: He is the person who lived fully according to the will of Ahura Mazdā and practiced the religion he was fostering in a perfect way. Thus the scanty historical facts known from the Old Avesta gave way to a theological biography of Zaraθuštra, leaving behind history. The most important such text is Yt. 13.87-94. In this long passage Zaraθuštra’s Frauuaši (see FRAVAŠI) is worshipped (cf. also Y. 3.2, 4.23, 13.7; Vr. 13.0, 16.2; Yt. 8.2). By the use of the word yaz-, which regularly has either Ahura Mazdā or the Yazatas as object, Zaraθuštra is rendered as no longer a human being; his Frauuaši is elevated to the same level as other spiritual beings. The whole passage can be seen as the first (theological) description of Zaraθuštra’s life; to quote just the beginning:
We now worship Aši and the Frauuaši of righteous Zaraθuštra the Spitamid, the first who has thought the ‘good’, the first who has spoken the ‘good’, the first who has done the ‘good’, the first priest, the first warrior, the first agriculturalist, the first who finds (for others), the first who causes himself to find, the first who has gained (for himself), the first who has gained (for others) the Cow and the Word and Obedience to the Word and Dominion and all the Mazdā-created Good that originates in Truth; who was the first priest, who was the first warrior, who was the first agriculturalist, who first turned (his) face away from the daēwic and human brood; who first of the material world praised Truth, vilified the daēuuas, chose (the religion as) a Mazdā worshipper, a Zoroastrian, an enemy of the daēuuas, a follower of ahuric doctrine. (Yt. 13.87-89; after Malandra, 1983, p. 114)
With Zaraθuštra there came an end to the daēuuas, and the spread of the religion all over the seven regions (see HAFT KEŠVAR) started with him. That is the theological core of interest in the life of Zaraθuštra within the Younger Avestan tradition. Therefore close to the end of Yt. 13 the texts characterizes Zaraθuštra as follows:
We worship Zaraθuštra, the ahu and ratu, and the first teacher of all material existence, of beings the most beneficent, of beings having the best dominion, of beings the most intelligent, of beings having the most glory, of beings the most worthy of worship, of beings the most worthy of praise, of beings the one most to be pleased, of beings the most lauded, a man who is called ‘worshipped’, ‘worthy of worship’, ‘worthy of praise’, just as (he is called) by each of the beings according to Truth which is best. (Yt. 13.152, after Malandra, 1983, p. 116)
Other verses from the Younger Avesta give a comparable interpretation of Zaraθuštra: Y. 70.1 (cf. Vr. 2.3) mentions Zaraθuštra and Ahura Mazdā together as ratus who are worshipped together; in Y 42.2 (cf. Vr.21.2) the community—referring to themselves as “we”—worships Ahura Mazdā and Zaraθuštra side by side. From such lines we can deduce for the Younger Avesta that Zaraθuštra was conceived as no longer on the level of common humans, but close to the yazatas, worthy of praise and worship (cf. Y. 3.21).
The abovementioned lines from Yt. 13 do not illuminate Zaraθuštra’s life from a historical point of view but give us a glimpse of a legendary and theologically reformulated life of the founder of the Zoroastrian religion. Thus these lines already faintly reflect the theological Pahlavi texts about Zaraθuštra’s life, and from Dēnkard 8.14 it can be seen that the original Avesta seems to have already incorporated such a theological description (lost in the extant Avesta). The so-called Spand Nask most probably had the following themes: Zaraθuštra’s conception and birth, his youth, his encounter with Ahura Mazdā at the age of 30, his wisdom and miracles, and an outline of his doctrines.
Conclusion. From the Avestan texts we thus can deduce a rough outline of some biographical data of Zaraθuštra, provided that we accept that the Old Avestan texts reflect some (faint) knowledge about a historical person, Zaraθuštra by name (but cf. below). For the Younger Avestan texts it is remarkable that they already present another “Zaraθuštra” to us, namely a quasi-mythological hero who is on par with spiritual beings, but no longer a historical figure. Thus for further considerations about Zaraθuštra’s time and homeland we have to refer primarily to the Old Avestan texts.
ZOROASTER’S TIME AND HOMELAND
The Dating of the historical Zoroaster. Within the Avesta there are no references to any historical situation that can be connected directly with some extra-Avestan data and chronological frame. Therefore any attempt to reach a conclusion about the dating of the historical Zaraθuštra has to rely first on the dates given in Greek and Hellenistic traditions: (For details see especially Kingsley, 1990, pp. 245-65; de Jong, 1997, pp. 317-23; Rose, 2000, pp. 40-41, 49-51.)
(a) The longer chronology may go back to Xanthos of Lydia, who says that Zaraθuštra lived 6,000 years before Xerxes’ crossing of the Hellespont into Europe. The same number of years is also referred to by Alcibiades, Eudoxos of Knidos, or Aristotle. At Plato’s academy a comparable number was known, as Plato’s disciple Hermodoros mentions (quoted by Diogenes Laertius, 1.2.) that Zaraθuštra lived 5,000 years before the Troian war, which was then dated to 1,000 years before Plato. From such numbers we can deduce for our historical interest, that within this branch of Greek tradition in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE it was only known that Zaraθuštra lived during some far remote times.
(b) A second tradition handed down by the Greeks goes back to the Hellenistic era, saying that Zaraθuštra appeared 258 years before the “coming of Alexander.” Most probably, this dating originated with Aristoxenos, who lived at the end of the fourth century BCE and was a disciple of Aristotle. He mentions that Zaraθuštra was the teacher of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. (On Aristoxenos, whose works are only preserved by quotations by various classical authors, see Kingsley, 1990, pp. 252-53 and Rose, 2000, p. 49.)
During the second century, Apollodoros gave a more precise calculation: in 570 BCE Pythagoras met with Zaraθuštra—for Apollodoros this year marks the “coming of Zaraθuštra” to the Greek world; reckoning according to the Seleucid era that started in 312 BCE, Apollodoros reached the number of “258” years for Zaraθuštra’s advent before Alexander the Great. Of course, Apollodoros’s calculation does not carry any historical credibility and relevance, but this first “precise” date within Zoroastrian history was handled down through the ages, within the Pahlavi literature of the Zoroastrians and in the texts of Islamic historiographers alike. During the nineteenth century, Western scholars also made use of this fictitious date, which resulted in a kind of consensus (e.g., Henning, 1970, pp. 149-58; Hinz, 1961, pp. 23-25; most recently, Gershevitch, 1995, pp. 3-9) that Zaraθuštra was a contemporary of the first Achaemenids and that Vištaspa (Y. 51.12) was to be identified with Hystaspes, the father of Dareios I (r. 522-486; see DARIUS iii).
The two Greek traditions are contradictory and cannot be reconciled. Therefore they do not lead to a definite solution of Zaraθuštra’s time with an absolute date. Judging from the Avestan linguistic and philological evidence, one can only approximately define the most probable chronological frame for Zaraθuštra Taking the Old Avestan language as starting point, we can compare this language with the Vedic language (see IRAN vi), thus reaching a conclusion that leads to the second millenium BCE; further comparison even gives the impression that the Old Avestan language is more archaic than the Vedic language. Judging the time-span according to linguistic criteria between the Old and Young Avestan language, Jean Kellens reckons (2000, p. 37) with about 400 years that separate the Young Avestan texts from the Old Avestan ones, while the Young Avestan language is linguistically older than the Old Persian language. For Old Persian the earliest evidence is comprised in the precisely dateable inscriptions (522 to 521 BCE) of Dareios I. As a result of such linguistic arguments, we can rule out with certainty that Zaraθuštra was a contemporary of the early Achaemenids, because the language of the Avesta does not allow such a late date.
Further argument for an early date of Zaraθuštra is furnished by the slim evidence within the Avesta that allows some historical reconstruction of the early history of Zoroastrianism. The Farwardin Yašt mentions a certain Ahumstut with his son Saēna (Yt. 13.97) and 100 pupils who trained for priesthood. Some descendants of this Saēna are named in Yt. 13.126; altogether there are five generations, so one can reckon a time-span of perhaps 200 years for the spreading of Zaraθuštra’s religion long before the Achaemenid empire came into sight. Further information can be added from external evidence provided by Assyrian cuneiform sources of the ninth-eighth centuries. Igor Diakonoff argued (1985, p. 140) that Iranian onomastic materials from these sources contain hints about the spreading of Zoroastrianism to the Median area in that period. He mentions Iranian words written in Assyrian cuneiform such as masda- (cf. Av. mazdā “wise”), arta (cf. OPers. arta; Av. aṣ̌a- “truth”), satar or kaštar/kištar (cf. Av. xšaθra- “authority”) and parna/barna (cf. Median *farnah, Av. xᵛarənah “glory”). It is further possible to take the divine name D Assara D Mazaš (from a ninth-eighth century Assyrian source) as the cuneiform adaptation of Zaraθuštra’s god Ahura Mazdā, who is mentioned in a list of gods from Assyria, Urartu, northern Syria, and Elam. From such Iranian words in Assyrian texts, referring geographically to Media, we can deduce that Zoroastrianism was already known in western Iran in the ninth century. But, as western Iran is beyond the scope of the Old Avestan texts, these references can only have originated in a period later than Zaraθuštra’s lifetime.
Horse-drawn chariots are referred to in the Avesta (Yt. 5.50; 19.77; see CHARIOT) with, for example, reference to the “turning post” of the horses in competitions. Already Old Avestan texts refer to such turning posts and races in metaphorical language (Y. 50.6), so we find a terminus post quem for Zaraθuštra’s date. Philological evidence for a terminus ante quem can be seen in the sedentary society depicted in the early Avestan texts, with no hint of the historical migration of Iranian people from Central Asia to within the borders of present-day Iran and Afghanistan (see CENTRAL ASIA iii). That migration started about 1100 BCE (Hutter 1996, p. 25; cf. Boyce, 1975, pp. 15-17). In the Avesta, no impression is given that such long-way migration was already going on.
In summary, the state of the religion shown in the Younger Avesta shows change and development compared with that of the Old Avestan period, as well as the linguistic development from the Old to the Young Avestan language—historical changes that are earlier than our fixed dates from early Achaemenid history. The collected data from Assyrian sources for western Iran in the ninth-eighth centuries BCE reflect the presence of Zoroastrian ideas in Media, but since references to Media are missing in the Old Avestan corpus, these texts must pre-date the ninth century. The most probable conclusion, taking also into account the migration of Iranian people from Central Asia to Iran, is that the most suitable date for Zaraθuštra’s life may be sought in the last centuries of the second millenium BCE, perhaps in the middle of the millennium at earliest (Boyce, 1975, p. 184). An earlier date, such as the “6,000” years in Greek tradition, cannot be upheld with any arguments. But this Greek tradition has a valuable aspect: it makes clear that the Greeks perceived Zaraθuštra as living at some remote time, from their point of view. Thus the idea of Zaraθuštra as a contemporary of the Achaemenids is indirectly excluded, as Greek historiography was fairly well informed about the Achaemenids. The Greek evidence in this way adds to the Avestan arguments, which rule out a late date for Zaraθuštra living in the sixth century.
Zoroaster’s homeland. Avestan geography only refers to eastern Iranian regions, and within the texts there is a clear preference for the land of Airyanəm Vaējah (see ĒRĀN-WĒZ). The list of lands in Vd. 1.3-19 provides the chief evidence for Zaraθuštra’s homeland; it mentions 16 different countries, running from north to south, with Airyanəm Vaējah at the topmost position. Airyanəm Vaējah is considered as the best country in the world, even though its winter lasts as long as ten months and summer only two months. A shorter, but nevertheless useful, list is in Yt. 10.13 f.; the countries it mentions run in a sequence from south to north. Comparison of both lists leads to the conclusion that Airyanəm Vaējah is to be located north of Sogdiana. One can deduce that Airyanəm Vaējah was characterized as the best one, in spite of its harsh climate, because of the Young Avestan remembrance that Zaraθuštra originated historically from that area (cf. also Y. 9.14, Yt. 5.104).
More problematic is the question of the geographic location of this (mythological and symbolic) country. Several scholars, comparing the two lists, came to the conclusion that Airyanəm Vaējah might be identified with ancient Chorasmia in modern Uzbekistan. Mainly Walter Bruno Henning favored such an identification, basing his arguments on linguistic comparisions between Avestan and the (scanty) evidence for the Chorasmian language, but other scholars did not share his arguments; the Zoroastrian tradition itself never refers to Zaraθuštra as an offspring of Chorasmia.
Arguments that put Zaraθuštra’s homeland in the region east of Mashad and in the area of Bactria in Afghanistan (Humbach, 1991, pp. 40-44) have gained greater acceptance. W. Hinz (1961, pp. 22-23) reckons with Zaraθuštra’s origin from Chorasmia or Bactria, before he left his homeland (Y. 46) and went to Kešmar (i.e., modern Kāšmar in Khorasan Province, Iran), where the Šāh-nāma places his activity (see, e.g., Jackson, p. 255 ff.). Another suggestion, favored by Gherardo Gnoli (1980, pp. 23-57), does not base itself on Airyanəm Vaējah: he takes the references to Airyanəm Vaējah only as mythological geography with no historical relevance, but looks to Sistan and Drangiana (cf. Yt. 19) as the actual area of Zaraθuštra’s life and work. Interpretations of Zaraθuštra’s origin in (younger) Zoroastrian tradition refer to Bactria, but also to western Iran, namely Media and Azerbaijan. Zaraθuštra’s place of birth thus is sought in Urmia; in some Zoroastrian traditions the Median city of Raga (present-day Ray south of Tehran) also is mentioned as Zaraθuštra’s home.
Most probably one should uphold the “Airyanəm Vaējah thesis” and place Zaraθuštra’s origin in that area; and one can argue that Airyanəm Vaējah may be situated north of ancient Chorasmia. Perhaps further evidence is furnished by the reference to the “White forest(s)” in Yt. 15.31; this can refer to birch trees, which were famous in the area north of the Jaxartes river (Syr Darya). Additionally, the list of early followers of Zaraθuštra in Yt. 13.143 f. includes people of different ethnic backgrounds, namely Aryans (Airiia-), Turanians (Tūiriia-), Sairima-, Sāinu- and Dāha- (see DAHAE). For the geographical background of Zaraθuštra’s work, this may be an argument that Zaraθuštra lived in an area at the borderlands of Iranian ethnicity, thus meeting with and winning people of other ethnic stocks for his religion. To interpret that fact for the question of Zaraθuštra’s homeland, the best suggestion seems to be to locate it at the border of northeastern Iran, that is, within a vast area covered today by parts of the republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. A more limited demarcation is not possible based on Avestan sources.
ZOROASTER AND THE OLD AVESTAN TEXTS
The sketch of Zaraθuštra’s life given above depends on the conviction that the Gathas and the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti, as Old Avestan texts, go back to Zaraθuštra himself. For the Gathas this point of view is held by the Zoroastrian tradition, and in recent years Johanna Narten has given convincing arguments that there are no differences between the Gathas and the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti that necessarily lead to the conclusion that the latter, a prose text, goes back to a different author. Both are ritual texts, and one may take them as the core texts of early Zoroastrian rituals, composed by Zaraθuštra to praise Ahura Mazdā and to provide a liturgical text for his followers, Both tasks can be attributed to Zaraθuštra as priest. This point of view in recent years has been questioned by Jean Kellens (2000, pp. 85-90), who states that all the Gathas refer to Zaraθuštra only in the third person or in the vocative (Y. 46.14). But as at least Y. 43.8 and Y. 49.12 seem to refer to Zaraθuštra in the first person, possibly also Y. 28.6 (cf. Humbach’s translation: “to me Zaraθuštra, and to all of us”; zaraθuštrāi... ahmaibiiācā). According to J. Kellens, therefore, the Old Avestan texts do not offer any information about the historical Zaraθuštra, either for his time or for his origin, as the Old Avestan language cannot be inserted into the historical linguistic framework for the Old Iranian languages and dialects. Kellens even goes one step further, questioning the individuality of any author of the Gathas, taking them as the result of the religious ideas of a group of people. Thus Kellens rules out the existence of a founder-personality for Zoroastrianism. The best one can get from the Gathas may be the idea that Vištāspa was the composer of these texts—taking kauui- not as “ruler,” but as a “poet” who knows how to arrange mantras and ritual spells. He concludes that we cannot say anything about a historical Zaraθuštra, but only about a mythological Zaraθuštra who only is known as the focus of identity for the Zoroastrian community. (cf. the related discussion of Zaraθuštra and Vištāspa as possibly mythological figures in Skjærvø, 1996; see now idem, 2003.)
The present writer stills holds the view that although they are ritual texts, and not selections of Zaraθuštra’s teaching or sermons that propagate some of Zaraθuštra’s dogmas, we can deduce from the Old Avestan texts an outline of Zaraθuštra’s life. But it is important for the picture of “Zaraθuštra in the Avesta,” that the Younger Avestan texts have no interest in historical recollection, but already present an idealized Zaraθuštra—the first person who lived according to Ahura Mazdā’s religion, which he propagated.
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Originally Published: July 20, 2009
Last Updated: July 20, 2009