Zarathustra initially met with harsh resistance to his message until he converted the king Vishtaspa, who then led his people to the new faith. Zarathustra then received messages from Ahura Mazda while he was deep in prayerful meditation which he would repeat to his disciples. These messages came in answer to questions and were memorized by the prophet and his followers as a living scripture which was passed down from generation to generation in the ancient language known as Avestan. The faith was embraced by the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) and the Parthian Empire (247 BCE-224 CE) who maintained the oral tradition. Under the Parthian Empire, a written record of the conversations between Zarathustra and his God was initiated.
The scriptures were finally committed to writing by the scribes of the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE) after Zoroastrianism was declared the state religion. The oral tradition in written form became known as the Avesta (also given as Zend Avesta). Zarathustra’s vision of a single, all-powerful, all-good God who took a personal interest in the lives and particularly the morality of human beings would inform the later monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Early Life & Religion
There is no scholarly consensus on when Zarathustra lived or even the meaning of his name. It is generally understood that in the old Iranian language some variant such as Zara-ustra had something to do with the care of camels which may point to his family’s occupation, though this is far from clear. The dates of c. 1500-1000 BCE are commonly accepted for the time in which he lived, taught, and founded his religion based on a long tradition of scholarly work on the timeline of the Early Iranian Religion, evidence of the acceptance of Zoroastrianism, and references in the Avesta.
His place of birth and lineage are also unknown. The Avesta, the only source of information on Zarathustra outside of commentaries written on it and legends, does not concern itself with the details of the prophet’s life nor with the peoples he would have interacted with such as the Medes or Persians. Once Zoroastrianism had been accepted, many different peoples of various regions claimed Zarathustra as their own and provided justification for those claims but none are any more convincing than another.
He is thought, however, to have been born to Persian parents based on their names, Pourusaspa and Dughdova. His family name was Spitama (meaning, roughly, “of a white or shining power”). His father, Pourusaspa, was probably a priest and his son would become one as sons usually followed in their fathers’ professions. He had four brothers (two older and two younger) and was educated at an early age, suggesting a family of significant means in that he was not sent to work nor is there any suggestion of his having any occupation other than priest.
The faith he was devoted to is referenced today as the Early Iranian Religion or the Ancient Persian Religion and was a polytheistic belief system in which many gods were presided over by a chief deity, Ahura Mazda, who guided human activity through benevolence and wisdom, keeping at bay the dark forces of the evil spirit Angra Mainyu (later known as Ahriman). Ahura Mazda had his gods and spirits of light and Angra Mainyu his own legions of demons and spirits of darkness and the two were in constant conflict over control of the world. Every good gift which Ahura Mazda bestowed on the world would be corrupted by the schemes of Angra Mainyu who, nevertheless, would be thwarted by Ahura Mazda’s wisdom in bringing good even from evil intentions.
Caught between these two entities were human beings and the early faith, as far as can be understood from later reconstructions, emphasized the primacy of free will in choosing which side one would ally one’s self with. One could choose the path of light and love by submitting to the will of Ahura Mazda and one would then live well on earth and be assured of an afterlife in paradise or one could join in rebellion and mischief with Angra Mainyu, corrupt whatever was good for one’s own selfish delights, and spend one’s life vainly attempting to find happiness in the misery of others and, finally, pass on to a dark hell after death. Whichever path one chose, it was entirely one’s own responsibility as Ahura Mazda had granted humans the power of choice and there was nothing more potent than human free will as not even Ahura Mazda could (or would) try to subvert it.
Conversion & Mission
The Early Iranian Religion kept an oral tradition and so, with no written scripture nor commentary, there is no way of knowing how the faith’s rituals were conducted. It is known, from references in the Avesta and other Zoroastrian works, that there was a priestly class (the magi) and worship services were conducted outdoors at shrines known as Fire Temples. Sacrifices were made at these temples, most likely in the form of grains, animals, precious metals, and objects, which became the property of the priests. In time, the priestly class grew wealthy from these sacrifices and their probable control of rich farmlands. The names of two types of priests are given as karpans and kawis, but the distinction between them is unclear as are their roles in religious observance.
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