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( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The name Zoroaster is a Greek form of Zarathustra, the name of an ancient sage, or prophet, who stands in the traditions of Persia as the founder of the national religion now represented by the religion of the Parsees of India and as the author of the sacred writings of the Persians.

Of the life of Zoroaster we know absolutely nothing, The accounts of him which have come down to us from Greek and Roman sources differ widely among them-selves, both as to the time when he lived and the country of his birth, and very little reliance can be placed on the legends concerning him in the later Persian and Parsee literature. Herodotus, in his account of the religion of the Persians, makes no mention of Zoroaster, though the name occurs in a fragment of an earlier writer, Xanthus. Plato speaks of him as the founder of the doctrine of the Magi, and calls him the son of Oromanes. Another early Greek writer says he was a Persian, the first Magian; another still, that he was a king of the Bactrians, and founder of the Magian knowledge of the stars. Pliny speaks of Zoroaster, and gives us the interesting facts in his life that he laughed on the day of his birth, and that for thirty years he lived in the desert upon cheese. As to the time in which he lived; one Greek authority places him 5,000 years before the Trojan War; Ctesias makes him a contemporary of Semiramis, while a later Greek writer dismisses this question with the sensible remark that it is no longer possible to determine with certainty when he lived and legislated.

Some modern scholars have questioned whether Zoroaster was an historical personality, and not rather a fictitious character, to whom tradition had found it convenient to refer work which was really done by a priesthood, and which probably extended over a long series of years. This view is not favored, however, by a close study of the relics which still exist of the old Persian sacred writings. The doctrine set forth in these writings is marked by strong characteristics which bear every appearance of having been impressed upon it by a single mind and at some definite period. The opinion of those most competent to judge now is that Zoroaster was a real person, that he lived some centuries before the founding f the Persian Empire by Cyrus, and that his home was probably Bactria, in the eastern part of Iran.

Iran was an ancient designation for that high plateau which lies eastward from the valley of the Euphrates and Tigris, between Hindustan and the Caspian Sea, and which is now occupied by Persia, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan. Northward of it are the steppes of Tartary; eastward the plains of Turkestan. This extensive and lofty plateau is usually held to have been the original seat of the Aryan race the race to which we belong the home from which at some remote epoch in the past, or probably at different times, were sent off migratory branches, southward into India, to become Hindoos, westward to become in Europe Celts, Germans, Italians, and Greeks. Within this area, it is altogether likely, originated the germs of that nature worship which developed, in India, first into the simple religion of the Vedas, and later into the more philosophical religion of Brahma, and out of which in the West sprang the mythologies of the several nations of Europe. The Medes and Persians belonged to this Aryan race, and were, therefore, heirs to the original Aryan nature-worship. But in the times of Zoroaster this religion must already have lost much of its primitive character, and must have advanced far in its development into a theological creed, as it did in India; but its course of development in the two countries seems to have been somewhat different. It may not be possible to say what was the precise form of the Iranian religion, in the times immediately preceding Zoroaster. And, indeed, to treat of this question would be to exceed the scope of the present article. All that is designed here is to present the unquestionable fact that Zoroaster had material with which to work that he found a religion already existing, and that he was simply a reformer, or reconstructor, not an originator.

Our knowledge of the religion of Zoroaster is derived partly from the accounts of it given by Herodotus and other Greek writers, but principally from the sacred writings themselves of the Persians or what is left of them namely, the Zend-Avesta, the sacred book of the Parsees.

From Herodotus we learn that the ministers of the national religion of Persia were the Magi, of whom there were two classes. The first consisted of inferior priests, who conducted the ordinary ceremonies of religion. The second had charge of the sacred fire. The whole order was presided over by an arch-magus, or high priest. They had three kinds of temples; first, common oratories, in which the people performed their devotions, and where the sacred fire was kept only in lamps; next, public temples with altars on which the sacred fire was kept continually burning, where the higher order of the Magi directed the public devotions and the people assembled; and, lastly, the grand seat of the Arch-magus, which was visited by the people at certain seasons, with peculiar solemnity, and to which it was deemed an indispensable duty for every one to repair once in his life-time. From Diogenes Laertius we learn that no pictures or images of the gods were used in the worship of the Magi; that they practiced divination and prophecy, "pre-tending that the gods appeared to them;" that they were clothed in white robes; that they made use of the ground for their beds, and of a reed for their staff.

From these and other accounts given us of the Magi by the Greek writers we may learn that their system of worship. was of a complex character, closely resembling in its organization that of the later Roman Catholic Church. The Greeks had also some knowledge of the doctrine of the Magi. But regarding this our best source of information is their sacred book itself the Zend-Avesta, already referred to, which has now been in the hands of European scholars for a little over a century. A short notice of this book may precede our account of the doctrine which it inculcates, and which passes for that of Zoroaster.

The Zend-Avesta or more properly the Avesta, for Zend, which means "translation," is applied by the Par-sees themselves to a translation of the ancient text into their modern Pahlavi tongue, and never to the original text itself is a work scarcely larger than the Iliad of Homer, or than the Pentateuch of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is written in the old Persian language, and is the only specimen of that language now extant. It is a mere fragment of a once extensive literature all that was rescued from destruction on the overthrow of the Sasanian dynasty of Persia by the Mohammedans, in the seventh century. The Parsecs claim that their Avesta in the Sasanian period numbered twenty-one books, and that even then a large part of the original text had been lost. This statement seems to be confirmed by accounts from other sources. Hermippus, in the Third Century B. C., affirmed that Zoroaster, the founder of the doctrine of the Magi, was the author of twenty books, each containing 100,000 verses. According to the Arab historian, Tabari, these were written on 1,200 ox-hides. Another Arab writer, Masudi, makes the number of hides 12,000, and states that the book consisted of twenty-one parts, each containing 200 leaves.

In its present shape the Avesta consists of four parts. The first two of these are liturgical, consisting of texts that are recited by the priests on solemn ceremonial occasions. The third is of a narrative character, giving the history of creation, the story of Yima and the Golden Age, etc. The fourth, known as the- "Little Avesta," is designed for the use of the priests and the laity alike. It is a book of private devotion, containing, besides some short prayers, which are in daily use among the Parsees, songs of praise addressed to the deities and angels of the Zoroastrian creed.

Of these four sections of the Avesta the most interesting are the first and third. In the former are found the Gathas, or "Hymns" of Zoroaster, written in meter and in an archaic language, which differs in many respects from that ordinarily used in the Avesta. These Gathas contain the discourses, exhortations, and revelations of the Prophet. They are certainly the oldest part of the work, and if any part of it can rightly be attributed to Zoroaster, they seem the most likely portion to be of his authorship. In the third the narrative section are to be found the essential and characteristic features of the Zoroastrian doctrine, under the form of a two-fold history of the "good" and the "bad" creation.

Every good in the world is offset by an opposite, which is evil. Light is offset by darkness; heat by cold; virtue by vice. This antithesis runs all through nature. It is found in the outer world; it is found in the inner world —that is, in man himself. This principle of dualism and necessary antagonism is the foundation of the religion of Zoroaster. The theory of this religion was that good and evil have proceeded from different sources-that they were the creation of two distinct and hostile powers, or spirits. To the spirit of good was given the name Ahura-Mazda (Ormuzd); the spirit of evil was Angro-Mainyush (Ahriman). While the former has not the power to destroy or even to restrain the latter, he is still in one sense his superior. It is Ahura-Mazda who always takes the initiative. All through the story of creation we see him creating good, which his adversary, always watchful of him, proceeds at once to neutralize by creating an opposite evil.

But the struggle does not end with creation. It is a continual, unceasing warfare, carried on, however, not directly between the opposing spirits, but between their respective creations. It is the conflict between good and evil, which we may see forever going on around us and within us.

In the center of this battle is man himself; his soul is the object of the struggle. Man was the creation of Ahura, who therefore has the right to call him to an account. But Ahura created him free, so that he is accessible to the evil power of Ahriman. Man, therefore, takes a part in the conflict by all his life and activity in the world. By a true confession of faith and by every good deed, and by continually keeping pure his body and his soul, he impairs the power of Ahriman and establishes a claim of reward upon Ahura; but by every evil deed and defilement he increases the evil and renders service to Ahriman.

The conflict is not, however, an unending one. Ahura knows that in the end he must win, and Ahriman, that in the end he must be defeated, and must be buried forever, powerless, in his own darkness. The coming of a millennium a time when all evil will disappear from the earth, and when there will remain only what is good was looked forward to by Zoroaster. All through the Gathas runs the pious hope that the end of the present world is not far off. He himself hopes along with his followers to live to see the decisive turn of things, the dawn of a new and bet-ter age. Then will come the final conflict which shall destroy forever the power of evil in the world. Then will Ahura sit in judgment upon mankind, and punish the wicked and assign to the good the deserved reward. Ahriman, and those who have been delivered over to him, will be cast into the abyss, there to abide forever in darkness, while upon earth will be endless summer and a perennial day no more winter and no more night. And here the pious and faithful will lead a happy life unvexed by evil, because no longer in the power of Ahriman.

Such in its essential features was the religion founded by Zoroaster. In process of time this purely spiritual creed, too abstract to satisfy all the requirements of the popular instinctive fondness for concrete forms, became partly overshadowed with a more materialistic cult. In the time of Herodotus the worship of Mithra, a deity popularly identified with the sun, and unknown to Zoroaster, had assumed an important place in the system of the Magi. Mithra, in this later creed, was regarded as the "intercessor," standing between Ahura and Ahriman, and, there-fore, in a position to be eminently serviceable to mankind. Besides Mithra several other new divinities appear in this popularized form of Zoroasterism, as Anahita, the Goddess of Water, Tishtrya (Sirius), and others of the heavenly bodies.

The religion of Zoroaster never extended beyond the limits of Iran and the neighboring valley of the Euphrates, where the Persian established his capital at Babylon. Though there are reasons for placing its origin in the eastern part of Iran, we first become acquainted with it as the religion of the Medes. The Magi are distinctly declared by several of the Greek writers to have been a tribe of the Medes; and the fact that after the overthrow of the Medes by Cyrus and their incorporation into the Persian Empire, the Magi continued to fill the priestly offices, indicates that the authority of the Medes in matters of religion was recognized even by their conquerors. All through the period of the rule of the Achæmenidae in Persia the family of Cyrus Zoroasterism, or the religion of the Magi, continued to be the state religion. After the overthrow of the Achaemenidae by Alexander and the establishment of the Seleucidae in Persia, Greek influences became dominant at the Persian court, and the power of the Magi was weakened. Their religion continued, however, to be still that of the people, and this was its status also through the subsequent reign of the Parthian dynasty in Persia. With the rise of the Sasanian dynasty, in the Third Century, Zoroasterism again became the state religion of Persia, and under this dynasty it seems to have reached its highest development and its most complete organization.

The Sasanian dynasty was in its turn overthrown by the Arabs under Omar, the decisive battle being fought sometime between 640 and 642 A. D., and eventually Zoroasterism was supplanted even as a popular religion everywhere in Persia by the more aggressive religion of Mahomet. A few Persians emigrated to India some-where about the year 720, taking with them their religion and such part of their sacred literature as had escaped the general wreck. The descendants of these refugees are the Parsees, whose principal settlement is at Bombay. The religion of the Parsees is said, however, to be practically monotheistic, though they still adhere to the traditions of their forefathers, exposing their dead to be devoured by vultures rather than to defile with their bodies either earth or fire, and scrupulously attending to all the religious duties and ceremonies enjoined upon them by their great prophet.

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