The Prophet Whose Name Inspired a Genius of Nietzsche's Caliber

  December 13, 2023   Read time 3 min
The Prophet Whose Name Inspired a Genius of Nietzsche's Caliber
Few facts can be known about Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, as the Greeks called him. It is known that he was a real person and that he lived in very ancient times. During his lifetime the peoples of the Iranian Plateau, his homeland, kept no written documents, so there are no eyewitness accounts of his life.

It is not even known for certain when he lived. The Greeks, who wrote of him first, knew only that the traditions concerning his life were already centuries old. They estimated that he had lived some 6,000 years earlier than the philosopher Plato (ca. 429–ca. 347 b.c.e.). Later historians reckoned that Zarathustra had lived around 600 b.c.e., around the time of the Hebrew prophets. Today’s scholars believe that Zarathustra lived between 1500 and 1000 b.c.e. However even this is a wide range of time.

The earliest versions of Zarathustra’s life were passed down orally (by mouth) for more than a thousand years before they were recorded in writing, so it is hard to know how accurate they are. However, they provide some important clues to the man and his life. Knowledge of Zarathustra comes from his own writings and his influence. One way scholars trace Zarathustra’s life is by looking for clues in the Gathas, the ancient hymns that are believed to have been the work of Zarathustra himself.

Throughout his life Zarathustra composed hymns or psalms to the glory of Ahura Mazda. They are composed in Zarathustra’s language, Gathic Avestan. The Gathas are poems in complex metrical forms that were diffi cult to master. In Zarathustra’s time such learning was largely confi ned to the priesthood, and his use of poetic form suggests that he had priestly training. The Gathas are of high literary quality. They show Zarathustra to have been not only a great religious thinker, but also one of Persia’s earliest and fi nest poets.

Although many areas of Iran have claimed him, Zarathustra was probably born in what was then northeastern Persia, roughly where the boundaries of modern Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan meet today. Persia—which eventually stretched from the prairieland of Russia and the Caspian Sea westward to the Greek Empire and south toward modern Pakistan—had not yet become an empire. From the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, the names of Zarathustra’s mother, Dughda, and his father, Pourushasp, of the Spitama clan are known. Tradition has it that Zarathustra was born in their home on the banks of the Daraja River. His followers celebrate his birthday on the sixth day of the fi rst month, Farvardin (March– April) on the Zoroastrian calendar. The Spitamas were a pastoral people who probably raised and traded horses.

Zarathustra himself, however, was apparently drawn to religion from an early age. The Gathas he composed suggest that he knew the religious traditions well and had been trained as a priest. According to the later legendary Zoroastrian tradition, the coming of Zarathustra was foretold long before his birth. The creatures of the earth and the saints of the heavens had spoken of it from the beginnings of the world. The heavenly glory that would pass to Zarathustra came from the sun, moon, and stars into the home of Zarathustra’s mother, Dughda, even before her birth, starting an ever-burning fi re on the hearth. When Dughda was born, she glowed with light. Evil powers tried to convince Dughda’s father that the light around her showed she was a sorceress. He sent her away from his home, but in her new home she met Pourushasp, who was to be her husband.

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