European Centre for Zoroastrian Studies

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What is Zoroastrian Studies?

Zoroastrian studies are a field of study that has long been established in the western academic circles. Most European and American universities teach this matter. The aim is to study the ideas, work, influence and language of one of the most fascinating personalities in history, called Zarathustra by the Persians and Zoroaster by the Greeks.

In fact, for over more than 3,000 years, Zarathustra has featured in the mythologies and the collective unconsciousness of not only the Persians and Central Asians, but also of the Europeans. The Ancient Greek philosophers constantly used his name as a symbol of knowledge, but astonishingly, many of them sheltered their philosophical or scientific work under the cover of his authority.

It was an established belief that the great philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato and many others had studied at the school of Zarathustra. (See J. Duchesne-Guillemin: The Western Response to Zarathustra; Oxford 1958; M. Afnan; Zoroaster’s Influence on Greek Thought; New York 1965; J.A. Farrell; The Influence of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism on Western Culture, Sydney 1977). This passion for Zarathustra in the West had started from the 5th century BC. In this period the Persians, dominating world affairs, had set up a huge empire made of 46 nations including Greece, Egypt and India. East and West were unified and this was to last for over 200 years.

Thanks to Zarathustra’s reform, the Persians propagated in an unprecedented way the most tolerant and humanitarian ideas, in complete contrast with those who preceded them. They had learned that “the truth does not belong to any people, any country, any race” (Gerard Israel; Cyrus the Great, Paris 1987, p.264 271; see also, Plato; The Laws, chapter the Persians III 693,694)

It was within this Zoroastrian atmosphere, which permitted the abandoning of all the religious dogmas and formalisms that the first declaration of Human Rights was drawn up, in the 6th century BC, under Cyrus the Great. According to this chart, engraved 2541 years ago in Old Persian on a clay prism, and preserved today in the British Museum, the people of the Empire could enjoy the freedom of faiths, languages, customs, owning property and choice of the place of abode: “I have granted to all humans the liberty to worship their own gods and ordered that no-one could ill-treat them for this. I ordered that no house should be destroyed. I guaranteed peace and tranquility for all humans. I recognized the right of everyone to live in peace in the country of his choice …” ( W. Eilers; The cuneiform text of the Cyrus’ cylinde , Acta Iranica, tome II, 1974; I.Quiles, Analysis of the principles in cylinder of Cyrus, Acta Iranica, tome I 1973; Gerard Israel; Cyrus the Great, op cit. pp.268-269)

It was the first humanitarian and liberating revolution in history. In particular, women found equality with men. The great French specialist of Zarathustra Paul du Breuil writes “the Persian women enjoyed the unprecedented liberty through the whole Antiquity, thanks to Zarathustra’s reform. Before, the women were real slave, like for Aristotle, the women had no soul” (Paul du Breuil; History of Zoroastrian Philosophy, Paris 1984. p.110)

It was also in this context that the Jews were liberated from their Babylonian captivity by Cyrus and the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed in the 7th century by the Babylonian Nabuchodonosor, was rebuilt by Darius. The Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, Hezekiah, Daniel, Jeremy named Cyrus in the Bible “The Saviour”. (See, E.Yamauchi; Persia and the Bible, New York 1990)

A revolutionary vision of humanity was now established. It was based on liberty and transcendence.

The liberation of the Jewish people by Cyrus, the reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem by Darius and the gathering of the traditions of the Torah by Artaxerxes – the three Zoroastrian kings of Persia – and the massive return of Jews from their Babylonian captivity provoked a beneficial review of the ancient Jewish laws. The prophets of Israel then included, with a great lyricism, the Zoroastrian vision into the New Laws (G. Israel; Cyrus le Grand, op.cit. pp. 270-295)

The collapse of the Persian Empire in the 3rd century B.C. in no way reduced the prestige of Zarathustra. On the contrary, during the Hellenistic period and then during the Roman period, the passion for Zarathustra took such proportions that there was no better way of lending weight to a scientific or philosophical work than to attribute it to him. This passion became even so intense that they started to attribute to Zarathustra nearly all sciences, including alchemy and astrology! (See; Mary Boyce; History of Zoroastrianism; 1982, Vol. II p. 491-565; J. Duchesne-Guillemin; The Western Response to Zarathustra, op.cit)

In the first century of the Christian era, Mithraism, an ancient Persian religion, a longtime integrator of Zoroastrian principles, became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It remained so, for about three hundred years, until the advent of Christianity. Franz Cumont, the great Belgian specialist in Mithraism whose monumental works on the subject – written at the end of the 19th century – are still relevant, considers Mithraism as “the Roman expression of Zoroastrianism”. (See : F. Cumont; Textes et monuments figures relatifs aux mystères de Mithra; 2 volumes, Bruxelles 1896). It was a religion of mystery made of seven levels or degrees of spiritual elevation. Nowadays, thousands of temples created to the glory of Mithra, the Sun, have been discovered in all over Europe.

In the 4th century, Christianity replaced Mithraism in the Roman Empire. As the former did not have any ritual tradition of its own, it absorbed nearly all of the rituals and the symbolic dates of the Mithraists. In particular the 25th of December, Mithra’s date of birth, became that of Christ. Sunday (day of the sun), holiday of the Mithraists, became the holiday of the Christians. The Christmas tree, holy bread and more other things entered, in this way, the Christian traditions. The Christian priest would furthermore be called “my Father”, following the title of the great master of the 7th degree of the Mithraists. Centuries later the Mithraism became a basic part of freemasonry.

In the meantime the biblical traditions tried repeatedly to recover and absorb Zarathustra into the Semitic universe. They made him sometimes “Abraham’s initiate”, sometimes “Annonciator of Jesus”. Many Zoroastrian concepts entered Christianity as well. Especially the Christian God became “the light released from the darkness”, as asserted by John the apostle. In this way, he joined the energy of Good and Light, called in the Zoroastrian concepts “Ahura Mazda”, released from the evil and opposing the evil as Zarathustra announced one thousand years before Christ. (P. du Breuil, Zarathoustra, la transfiguration du monde, Paris 1978, chapitre XIII)

In the 7th century Islamized Arabs invaded the Persian Empire, Zarathustra’s homeland. This violent invasion went on for nearly two centuries during which what was left of the Zoroastrian civilization of Persia was almost wiped out: “in six months hundreds of thousands of burnt books looted from the libraries heated the water tank of the public baths” wrote the Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun.

However, in Europe Zarathustra was not dead but relegated to the pagan sphere; the confusion and the absurdity regarding him went so far that during the whole Christian Middle-Age, Zarathustra was called prince of the Magi, when the magi in return were mistaken for magicians! Even the invention of the Jewish Cabala was attributed to him! (See; J. Bidez et F. Cuont, Les mages hellénisés, Paris 1938, rééditée 1973, p. 6 ; J. Duchesne-Guillemin, Les religions de l’Iran, op.cit. p. 253)

This confusion continued until the Renaissance. At this time the great and influent Byzantine philosopher of the 14th and 15th century, Giorgius Plethon, who was initiated into the Zoroastrian philosophy by his Jewish master Eliaus, tried to set up a universal religion made of Zoroastrianism and Platonism to replace the three Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions. (See; J. Duchesne-Guillemin; Western Response to Zaratoustra, op.cit. p. 4; H. Levy, Chaldean Oracles in the later Roman Empire, Cairo 1956 pp. 99ss). He did not succeed. However, his ideas spread among European elite and flourished within the Platonic academy in Florence. They became the basis of the process leading to the humanism in Europe during the Renaissance.

From that period on, interest in Zarathustra was reborn. However, everything had to be rediscovered, including the language in which his thought had been transcribed but had been forgotten since centuries.

In the 17th century the research started, but the climate of the moment, passionate and marked by sectarian quarrels between Christians, Jews and humanists, did not allow any meaningful progress. It was only in the 18th century that a French scholar, Anquetil Duperron, succeeded in translating from old and middle Persian, the Zoroastrian texts gathered in a book called Avesta. (Anquetil du Perron: Zand-Avesta, ouvrage de Zoroastre, Parisn 177)

But contrary to what Duperron had previously thought, Avesta was not “the work of Zarathustra”. It was made of disparate texts written centuries and sometimes even more than a thousand years after Zarathustra.

Nevertheless, the translation of Avesta provoked passionate discussions in Europe among philosophers and writers. Voltaire, Grimme, Didérot, Goethe, Von Kleist, Byron, Worthsmith, Shelley and later Nietzsche and many others joined this ideological fight. (See a list of all these writers’ texts on Zarathustra in: J. Duchesne-Guillemin, The Western Response to Zarathoustra, op.cit. p. 16-17). The great musicians participated as well. Rameau included Zarathustra in his opera “Zoroaster”, Mozart in his “The Magic Flute” and Richard Strauss in his symphony “Thus Spake Zarathustra”

The main interest for the European intellectuals in Zarathustra was that they thought they had found a weapon against Christianity. To them the Church did no longer have the monopoly of the truth. The truth could also be found in a non-Christian tradition, much older than Christianity.

In reaction, the Christian intellectuals counter-attacked accusing Duperron of being a fraud and the translation of Avesta a forgery. At this point philologists also joined the battle. Three years later another translation of Avesta made by the German linguist Kleukers proved that Duperron was right and Avesta entered forever the field of scientific research. It still took another thirty years until the last doubters gave in and recognized its authenticity.

Despite this victory everything was not yet solved. A part of Avesta, 17 chapters out of 72, seemed to have been written in a language much older than the remainder. These 17 chapters, called “The Gathas” or the “poetic songs” were written in the same linguistic style as the “Rig Veda”, the sacred hymns of ancient India, but seemed still older.

Since centuries the Zoroastrian priests recited these words without knowing neither the language nor the meaning. The language of the Gathas had sunk into oblivion for nearly two thousand years.

In 1861 the brilliant philologist Martin Haug, by isolating these 17 hymns from the rest of Avesta, succeeded to translate them (despite the fact that his translation includes a certain number of big mistakes). Further philological and historical research was able to prove that these 17 chapters, the Gathas, were the exact words coming from the mouth of Zarathustra nearly 3000 years earlier! (Martin Haug; Essays on the sacred language, 2e éd. 1878)

What emerged from the Gathas could be summed up as follows:

The aim of life is to lead a happy and joyful existence (the words “happiness” and “joy” have been repeated more than 75 times in the Gathas), that individual happiness depends on the happiness of society and society cannot be happy if all beings in that society, including animals and plants, cannot lead a peaceful and a fulfilled existence.

However, to get and especially maintain the state of happiness, men and women must learn the basic laws governing their existence. These laws are based on three principals:

1. Life is conditioned by two opposed forces, which at any moment while acting on our thoughts and our feelings, conduct a merciless struggle within and outside us. Joy and sorrow, love and hatred, justice and injustice, truth and lies, peace and anxiety, harmony and disorder, knowledge and ignorance, open mind and obscurantism as well as countless other contradictory forces attracting us towards them.

The source of the positive forces leading us to happiness and inner peace is called Ahura Mazda, meaning “force that creates wisdom”.

As to the source of negative forces, which lead us to unhappiness and anxiety, it is called “angra maynu” meaning anxiety and anguish. Even though this word has not been used in the Gathas, but the concepts are frequently mentioned. The word has been used 68 times the Avesta.

3. To exist, each force immediately creates its opposite. In this world no force makes any sense without its opponent. Good without evil, peace without anxiety, love without hatred, truth without lie, justice without injustice etc. do not make any sense. Each force is defined by its own opposite force.

3. In this existential battle between good and evil, men and women have the freedom of choosing between the antagonistic forces. They can choose between joy and sorrow, friendship and enmity, truth and lie, justice and injustice… etc. And this liberty of choice between good and evil make them also responsible towards themselves and towards the others.

In the Gathas words like righteousness of thought, word and deed are constantly used and the key sentence is “right thinking, right speaking and right doing”.

The whole Gathas is based on the equality between men and women. Even Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, linguistically is both male and female.

The gist of Zarathustra’s ideas expressed more than 3000 years earlier was brought to the limelight in 1883, just a few years after the rediscovery of the texts of the Gathas, by one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Friedrich-Wilhelm Nietzsche, in his book “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. This work radically changed the European thought of modern times. (See, James Farrell; The Influence of Zarathustra on Western Culture, op.cit)


Dr. Khosro Khazai ( Pardis), PhD

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