Nietzsche's Zarathustra and the Historical Zoroaster

David Miller

First published in t h e s k e p t i c Vol 15, No 3 56 (1994)

In 'Ecce Homo' Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) claims, in reference to his work, 'Thus Spake Zarathustra', "My concept 'Dionysian' here became the highest deed". If Nietzsche had named his hero after the god Dionysos, rather than after the prophet Zarathustra, I would have had one less quibble with him.

The historical Zarathustra, whom we know by the name that the ancient Greek historians gave him, Zoro-aster, not only represented quite different values to those given by Nietzsche to his fictional hero, but is also accredited with originating a 'moral and ethical' religion, Zoroastrianism, whose modern-day remnant are the Parsees of Bombay.This is the religion from which, some historians claim, the Jews and Christians borrowed the majority of their concepts, ie the creator god, Heaven and Hell, Satan, individual judgement, the final battle between the cosmic forces of Evil and those of Goodness (led by a messiah), followed by the standing up of the corpses, the general Last Judgement and heaven on earth, etc.

This latter point brings me to my second quibble. Nietzsche blamed the Jews and their offshoot, the Christians for creating a religion based on, what he called, 'slave morality'. However, on the contrary, it was Zoroaster himself who at approximately 1200 BC gave forth a revelation which made salvation dependent on the individual's own moral behaviour, and not on the amount of booty the individual had sacrificed to the amoral war-gods. My third quibble is with the Nazis and their precursors who misused Nietzsche's writings to extol an imaginary white Aryan race.

The historical Zoroaster was born into the Spitaman clan in Khwarezmia, south of the Aral Sea. His people, the Iranians, were named after the Aryans. The Aryans are those among the Indo-European speaking peoples whose mythologies refer back to a pre-historic homeland called Airyanem. The Parsee tradition places this homeland in present-day Kazakhstan. This location is immediately to the north east of the area designated as the Proto-Indo-European homeland by many historians and linguists. The proto-Indians moved south out of the Aryan homeland and invaded India in 1500 BC.

The proto-Iranians followed soon after, moving south west and then across the Iranian Plateau toward the Iranian Plateau, Mediterranean. With their bronze-age weaponry and horsedrawn chariots, these nomadic pastoralists were fairly invincible. Inspired by their war-gods, these warriors were hard fighting and hard-drinking pillagers who destroyed the civilisations in their path. In the Rigveda the god Indra is pictured as destroying the 'water dragons', that is, smashing the aqueducts. This behaviour by his own people Zoroaster found horrifying. He declared it a manifestation of absolute evil.

Nietzsche remarks in 'Ecce Homo' that, "... the poets of the Veda were priests and not even fit to unfasten Zarathustra's sandal ... ". The irony here is that the historical Zoroaster had himself been a Vedic priest. Or rather, to be more precise, Zoroaster had been a priest of that religion held in common by the proto-Iranians and the proto-Indians which, after it was taken into India by the invaders, became known later as 'Vedic'.

The creation myth of this religion depicts its gods as creating an original man, bull and tree. The gods then sacrifice these initial three in order to spread their seed far and wide to cover the world with humans, cattle and vegetation. Originally, life after death was seen as a grey joyless underground existence.

Eventually the belief arose of a heavenly paradise. Salvation was dependent on the amount sacrificed to the gods but was restricted to warriors and priests. Concomitant with this belief, funerary procedures changed from burial beneath the ground to that of (in India) cremation. The 'corrupt' flesh was burnt off, allowing the spirit to rise to paradise, and the bones were buried with the expectation that a year later they also would rise to paradise to be clothed in a new 'heavenly' body which would encase the spirit. It was believed that the spirit alone could not fully enjoy the pleasures and sensations of paradise. On the Iranian plateau, at a later stage, exposure of the corpse to scavengers was used as the means of disposing of the corrupt flesh.


Zoroaster's reformation of his old religion commenced with a revelatory vision of his being led into the presence of the moral god of wisdom, the Lord Mazda, Ahura Mazda, later known as Ohrmazd. Mazda informed Zoroaster that originally there had been two diametrically opposed equal and eternal spirits, himself, on the one hand, representing Goodness and Light, and on the other hand, the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, later known as Ahriman, who represented Evil and Darkness.

Although it was the moral duty of Goodness to destroy Evil, Mazda could not destroy Ahriman as both were in spirit form and hence invulnerable to each other. So Mazda decided to create a material world knowing that Ahriman would naturally decide to attack it and would need to adopt material forms to do so and would consequently become enmeshed and trapped within that world, and hence be himself vulnerable to attack. So Mazda enlisted the aid of two other moral gods, Mithra the god of loyalty and Varuna the god of truth. Together they created the earth and the heavens, as well as the initial man, bull and tree. The ground was flat, it was constant noon, there was no death.

As expected Ahriman attacked. Aided by the amoral gods (such as Indra), the forces of Evil destroyed the initial man, bull and tree, so inaugurating death, time, darkness and the motion of the heavens. They attacked the ground making hills and valleys, and went on to sully as much of Creation as they could. The water of the sea they turned salty. They caused things to go mouldy, to putrefy, to rust, to deteriorate, to wither. They created disease as well as all of the varieties of animals, reptiles, insects, vermin, and vegetation that could be designated as a nuisance by humankind. Finally, that special symbol of divine order, fire, they sullied by making it smoky.

The forces of Goodness rallied to the defence of the good Creation - land and soil, sea and rivers, sky and air - all created for the express purpose of destroying Evil. The good gods rescued the remains of the initial man, bull and tree and, as in the old creation myth, covered the world with humans, animals and vegetation. These, especially the humans, were to be soldiers in the defence of the good Creation, as well as playing their part in the defeat of Evil.

Thus in Zoroastrianism there is no mystery as to why its god Mazda created, nor any mystery as to the role required of each individual. Even the lowliest can participate in the great fight by cleaning up dirt and decay, and in so doing, push back the forces of Evil. Nevertheless, each individual is free to make the choice between Good and Evil. To be good means good thoughts, words and deeds. To be evil means following the Evil gods, the amoral gods, the gods of deceit, plunder and looting.

Upon death the soul of each individual is judged by a panel of three divinities. Those judged evil are sent to Hell, to the nether-world caverns where Ahriman is trapped. It is conceived to be a place of torment. Those souls judged to be worthy are raised to sunlit paradise to await the final defeat of Ahriman and the forces of Evil. Following that defeat there will be a final judgement. The souls, good and evil, will return to their bones and be encased in 'new' bodies. The gods will melt the ore in the mountains (this was the bronze-age, remember) and its flow will engulf all. To the virtuous, the stream will be like warm milk. However, the wicked will be incinerated, body and soul, and the molten stream will then flow down into the caverns of Ahriman, finally destroying him. The virtuous will remain, together with the moral gods, in an eternal paradise on earth.

As is often the way, Zoroaster's clan did not take a blind bit of notice of him. He managed to obtain only one convert. So he journeyed to another area and converted the Kayanian tribe. This caused the surrounding tribes to violently object. Not only had Zoroaster decreed that their warrior behaviour was evil, but he had stolen away their reward of paradise, as well as condemning them to an after-life of torment in Hell. Zoroaster was also offering, horror of horrors, the chance of paradise to women, children and lowly herdsmen. So they attacked. Unfortunately for them, they lost.

Zoroastrianism spread south, then west. A belief arose that at a future date a human Messiah would come to lead the cosmic forces of Goodness into a victorious final battle against the forces of Evil. This emphasised humanity's vital role in the defeat of Evil. The Messiah would be born of a maiden who had bathed in Lake Kasaoya (Lake Hamun on the present-day Afghanistan/Iran border) and been impregnated by the seed of Zoroaster therein.

Classical and Biblical

Zoroastrianism enters classical as well as Biblical history when Cyrus, King of the Persians, defeated his father-in- law, Astyages, King of the Medes, in 550 BC. This created the Achaemenian Empire which stretched eastward to the borders of India, and in the west swallowed Babylonia and Egypt and attacked Greece. This latter occurrence we know only too well, as our culture is permeated by the Greek version of these events.

The Achaemenian Dynasty led the first of the three Zoroastrian empires which were to span the next thousand years. During the Achaemenian period the Persians adopted Aramaic as their lingua franca; their own language they considered too noble for such purposes. The Zoroastrian texts remained in oral transmission, writing being seen as unholy.

Cyrus was tolerant of the religious beliefs and practices of the various groupings within the areas that he had conquered. This was typical of the Achaemenian Dynasty. (However, they were not tolerant towards any of their own people, the Aryans, who were found to be worshipping the Devs, as the amoral gods were called.) As we find detailed in the Bible, Cyrus sent the Jews, exiled in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, back to Jerusalem to rebuild their Temple.

Later, King Artaxerxes 1 sent Ezra to Jerusalem in 456 BC to be Commissary for Jewish Religious Affairs. (Ezra has been associated with the Priestly Code, the fourth strand in the Pentateuch). He was followed in 444 BC by Nehemiah whom Artaxerxes appointed as Governor of Jerusalem. These two were the great revivalists of Judaism, yet both were quite

familiar with Zoroastrianism; indeed, Nehemiah had been a cup-bearer in the Persian Monarch's household. There was quite an amount of overlap between the purity laws of the two religions, and the Jews could not but have been impressed with their imperial benefactors.

Over the next few centuries the Jews were increasingly influenced by Zoroastrian religious concepts, particularly the radical elements among the Jews. For example, in the Old Testament's Book of Job, although Satan appears as a doubter among the angels, there is still no resurrection of the dead, no eternal salvation or damnation, all reward is in this world. However, by New Testament times, St Paul was able to split the Council of the Jews by declaring his belief in the resurrection of the dead and so obtained the support of the Pharisees against the Sadducees. The ensuing rumpus panicked the Romans into rescuing Paul from the Council chambers. (Acts 23.6-10). Some scholars go so far as to claim that the name Pharisee is derived from the ancient name for Persia, Farsis. In 331 BC Alexander the Great overran the Achaemenian Empire. Although during the fighting many Zoroastrian priests and temples were destroyed, it was not Alexander's intention to suppress the religious beliefs of those he conquered. Rather, some say, it was to spread Greek culture and to form a marriage of east and west. Others claim that the conquest was for gain and glory.

After Alexander's early death his Empire was divided amongst his Generals, with the Zoroastrian areas falling under the control of Seleucus. On the eastern edge of the Seleucid Empire, Parthia, under its Arsacid Dynasty, arose to Zoroastrian hegemony, finally conquering the Seleucids in 141 BC, and going on to be Rome's major adversary. The Arsacids were quite tolerant of religious diversity. Although sullied with Hellenistic concepts, it was during the long Parthian period that a start was made on the writing down of the orally transmitted Zoroastrian texts.

The Persians once more gained Zoroastrian hegemony when Adashir defeated Ardaban V, the Parthian King, in 224 AD, inaugurating the Sasanian Dynasty. The Sasanian Empire used a fervent Zoroastrianism, purged of Hellenistic and Arsacid influences, as a religious ideology with which to rally their people against their Roman enemies. The Romans were so impressed with this use of religion that they attempted to do the same, firstly with Mithraism, and finally with Christianity. During the Sasanian period the surviving Zoroastrian texts, both written and oral were transcribed into the Pahlavi script. Pahlavi was Middle Persian laced with Parthian.


An interesting religious development occurred within the Sasanian Empire during its early days with the advent of the Babylonian prophet Mani in 240 AD. Manichaeism is the only form of Gnosticism to become an exoteric religion, and a world-wide one at that, lasting a number of centuries. Mani reformed the Zoroastrian creation myth.

The problem with the moral stricture that Good must destroy Evil is that, from a pacifist viewpoint, the action taken by Goodness to achieve this end makes it evil too. So Mani has Evil take the initial action by attacking the Light (Goodness) and consuming part of it. By so doing Evil drugged itself, enabling the forces of Goodness to build the universe out of the bodies of the drugged forces of Darkness. The purpose of this universe is to act as a machine with which to extract the particles of Light out from their mixture with Evil. The forces of Darkness counteracted by generating the human species, within whose bodies the particles of Light were incarcerated, as Soul. An additional Evil stratagem was the use of re-incarnation as a means of retaining Soul in their possession.

Into this reformation of the Zoroastrian creation myth, Mani introduced Judaeo-Christian elements, by naming the first human couple as Adam and Eve, as well as naming as Jesus the particular emissary of Light sent to enlighten the pair. The Zoroastrian priesthood succeeded in having Mani executed for heresy in 277 AD and getting Manichaeism suppressed within the Sasanian Empire. (For Manichaeism and the various forms of Gnosticism leading up to it, I recommend, 'The Gnostic Religion' by Hans Jonas, Beacon paperback, 1963).

St Augustine (354 - 430 AD) was a major influence on the development of Christianity. He had been a Manichaean in his youth. But Augustine failed to make Christianity into as ethical a religion as Zoroastrianism, let alone Manichaeism. In Zoroastrianism the suffering in the world is justified by the inability of Goodness to destroy Evil without there being a world history. However, in Christianity, for reasons of mere self-aggrandise-ment, Goodness, despite having the ability to destroy Evil, deliberately delays that destruction (and hence allows the suffering of history) in order to delude Evil into believing that Satan can seduce the majority of the world's souls and win the 'game'.

The Muslims conquered Persia in the 7th century AD. Not realising that the various religions of the 'People of the Book', including their own, had borrowed so much from Zoroastrian concepts, the Muslims often treated the Zoroastrians as infidel. By the tenth century only a remnant remained. A group of Zoroastrians from Khorasan in Parthia journeyed by ship to Gujarat to seek a new life in India. They prospered. We know them as the Parsees of Bombay.

It was mainly through European contact with the Parsees over the centuries that Western scholarship became aware of Zoroastrianism. However, a variety of theories were put forward by these scholars. In 1700 Thomas Hyde, an Oxford Orientalist, concluded that Zoroaster had been a strict monotheist sent by God to repeat the work of Abraham among the ancient Iranians. In 1760 Anquetil du Perron made a French translation of the Avestan texts.

The Zoroastrian sacred texts are known as the 'Avesta', named after the language, related to archaic Sanskrit, in which they were held in oral tradition. The Zendavesta is a commentary on the Avesta. Perron's translation, contrary to Hyde's interpretation, showed a polytheistic faith. In 1860, Martin Haug, a German Philologist who taught Sanskrit at Poona University, discovered that those sections within the Avesta called the Gathas, were in a more ancient dialect. Only those sections were to be regarded as the authentic utterance of Zoroaster, and these could be interpreted as teaching a simple theism. EW West, who collaborated with Haug, was an English Chief Engineer of one of the Indian railways. His translations of Pahlavi texts made them known to Europe. However, his work began to undermine the theory of Zoroaster's monotheism.

The history of Zoroastrianism is a controversial subject. Every aspect is hotly debated. I have presented you with the merest outline. As an introductory text, I recommend, 'Zoroastrians: Their religious beliefs and practices' by Mary Boyce, Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at the University of London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, paperback 1984.


Talk of Zarathustra and Zoroaster was all the rage in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century. Could Nietzsche have been ignorant of what the name Zarathustra represented? Janko Lavrin, in his book, 'Nietzsche', attempts to give an answer that, "... may provide a clue to Nietzsche's choice of Zarathustra as a destroyer of the old morality in the name of new, entirely different values. The prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) had once founded a religion in which morality was a metaphysical phenomenon and an end in itself. But Nietzsche, who rejected the idea of any metaphysical morals, conjured up Zarathustra in order to make him correct the mistake Zoroaster had made when founding the religion of Zendavesta." (page 83). What can one do or say about Nietzsche's quest, except giggle?


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