Zoroaster, the visionary Persian prophet and founder of Zoroastrianism, remains an enduring source of inspiration for many, including influential Greek philosophers and Nietzsche.
Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, stands as the spiritual pioneer of Zoroastrianism, a religion that dared to challenge the deep-rooted beliefs of ancient Iranian culture and left an indelible mark on the region. Hailing from the eastern part of the Iranian plateau, Zoroaster was a native speaker of Avestan whose exact place of birth remains shrouded in mystery. Scholars remain divided on the timeframe of his life: some place him in the 2nd millennium BC, while others place him alongside personalities such as Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great in the 7th and 6th centuries BC.
Despite the controversy surrounding his existence, Zoroastrianism emerged as the official state religion of ancient Iran and its territories for almost a millennium until the Arab-Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Zoroaster is widely believed to have authored the Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaiti, which form the bedrock of Zoroastrian philosophy. Yet, much of his life remains a mystery, with many details woven into the stories of his legacy that may be steeped in legend and myth and possibly dating back as far as the 10th century AD. Many philosophers have drawn inspiration from him; among them was Nietzsche.
The Life Background of Zoroaster (Spiritual Founder of Zoroastrianism)
Zoroaster was born to Pouruaspa of the Spitamans, or Spitamids, family, with Dugdōw as his mother and Haēčataspa as his great-grandfather. The names are fitting for the nomadic traditions of the time, with his father’s name meaning “possessing gray horses” and his mother’s meaning “milkmaid.” According to tradition, Zoroaster had four brothers, two older and two younger, whose names are recorded in later Pahlavi works.
Zoroaster likely began his training for the priesthood at the age of seven, becoming a priest around the age of fifteen. The Gathas suggest that he gained knowledge from other teachers and personal experiences while traveling after leaving his parents at age twenty. At thirty, he experienced a revelation during a spring festival, where he saw a shining being who revealed himself as Vohu Manah (Good Purpose) and taught him about Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) and five other radiant figures. Zoroaster became aware of the existence of two primal spirits, the second being Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit), with the opposing concepts of Asha (order) and Druj (deception). He decided to spend his life teaching people to seek Asha. He received further revelations and saw a vision of the seven Amesha Spenta (divine entities), and his teachings were collected in the Gathas and the Avesta.
At around the age of forty-two, Zoroaster gained the patronage of Queen Hutaosa and a ruler named Vishtaspa, who became an early adherent of Zoroastrianism, possibly from Bactria. According to tradition, he lived for many years after Vishtaspa’s conversion, established a faithful community, and married three times. His first two wives bore him three sons and three daughters, while his third wife, Hvōvi, was childless. Zoroaster died at the age of 77 years and 40 days, according to tradition. However, later Pahlavi sources like Shahnameh suggest that he was murdered by a karapan named Brādrēs, due to a conflict with the Tuiryas people.
Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster
The Greeks were fascinated by Zoroaster and created various versions of him that attempted to reconstruct the prophet and wise man. However, due to the distance in space, time, and language between Zoroaster and the Greeks, it was impossible to accurately depict him. Despite this, the Greeks constructed two types of Zoroaster: the prophet and the philosophical and astrological author, as well as a third type, Zoroaster the magician. The Greeks considered exotic wisdom to be the best wisdom and were interested in using Zoroaster’s persona as a convincing peg for their own home-grown philosophy.
The Greeks attributed many works to Zoroaster, including astrological literature and philosophical works, but their authorship was contentious. Zoroaster was also co-opted into different religious traditions, with the Greeks portraying him as the founder of the Mithraism mystery cult. While Zoroaster’s true biographical information is limited, the Greeks created interesting depictions of the major “oriental” religion.
The Influence of Zoroaster in Nietzsche’s Work
Nietzsche was a scholar who is often misunderstood. Many people assume that he was a reckless thinker who made baseless claims, but in reality, he deeply studied both classical and contemporary texts.
One example of Nietzsche’s extensive study is his defense of the historical existence of Homer and Zoroaster when their existence was being questioned. He drew inspiration from Xenophon’s writing on Persian dance and Max Müller’s translation of the Zend-Avesta scriptures. Nietzsche particularly admired the Persians and their education system, which emphasized shooting, riding, and truthfulness.
Although Nietzsche believed that telling the truth was a noble endeavor, he was skeptical about the value of truth as a goal or motive in life. Rather than valuing Zarathustra for his truthfulness, Nietzsche revered him for his originality and genius.
Nietzsche was also heavily influenced by Friedrich von Hellwald’s book The Story of Culture from Its Natural Development to the Present, which discussed the Iranians’ appreciation for truthfulness and their conception of moral world order. Nietzsche’s interpretation of Zarathustra’s birthplace and early life was largely shaped by von Hellwald’s account, although Nietzsche intentionally distanced his protagonist from the historical Zoroaster in the final draft of his work.
Interestingly, Walter Kaufmann, in his book Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, noted that Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra held views that were the opposite of the real Zoroaster’s, but Nietzsche himself was actually close to Zoroaster’s perspective. Both Nietzsche and Zoroaster were inspired by visions and engaged in similar acts of creation and destruction. They shared the ability to re-evaluate past thoughts, find inspiration through poetry, dance, and song, and the courage to act accordingly. Zoroaster’s “Three Stages of History” and Zarathustra’s “Three Metamorphoses of the Spirit” also bear similarities, with both describing a transformation process leading to a new creative beginning.
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