Origins of Human Destiny1
In order to appreciate the determined efforts of both Jews and Greeks to define a way for mankind to escape this world and achieve the ethereal realm of heaven, it is essential to explore the historical background to their thinking. During the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-424 BCE), the royal dynasty of the Achaemenids was the strongest power on earth. With the conclusion of the Peace of Callius (ca. 449 BCE) between Persia and Athens, the vast Persian Empire exercised a profound cultural influence on all the nations over which it had suzerainty. Persia became the meeting place of Greek scholars like Herodotus and Xenophon. Persia also had become the home of numerous postexilic Jews such as Nehemiah, Ezra and Hanani, who achieved prominence in government, in economics and/or in religious scholarship. These foreign visitors and guests not only were enthralled with the glory and splendor of the world’s greatest empire, but they also were deeply moved by the beliefs and writings of the ancient Persian prophet, Zarathustra, who founded what has been regarded as the first great monotheistic religion, known as Zoroastrianism.
The Prophet Zarathustra
According to the “Greek author . . . Diogenes Laertius, . . . Zoroaster [Greek version of Zarathustra] lived six hundred years before Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, that is 1080 BCE.”2 Zarathustra was an Indo-Iranian who was born in Bactria (or Aria), a district of northern Afghanistan now known as Balkh. Zarathustra was the third of five brothers born to their mother, Dughdhova, and their father, Pourushaspa, who belonged to the Spitama (Spitaman) family. When he was seven years old, Zarathustra began his education for the priesthood in an ancient Indo-Iranian cult devoted to the nature gods. His training was entirely oral, for his people had no knowledge of writing. The courses for the priesthood included rituals, doctrines and mantras — sacred formulas believed to embody the divinities invoked and to possess magical power. In addition, Zarathustra was taught to compose poetry in praise of the gods. Later, his poems and hymns became known as the Gathas.
For the ancient Iranians the age of fifteen was recognized as maturity, and it was then that Zarathustra must have been inducted into the priesthood. But he was not satisfied with what he had learned or already accomplished. Thus, for years he continued his search for truth and justice. In the face of continuing tribal violence, war and bloodshed, he longed for a sacred moral law to be established for all mankind — rich and poor, men and women, young and old, strong and weak, so that all might enjoy life in peace, order and tranquility. For years Zarathustra wandered through the Iranian deserts and mountains. Tradition records that Angra Mainyu, the evil god, tempted Zarathustra in the desert and promised to give him earthly power if he would forsake the Supreme God, Ahura Mazda!
It is recorded that the revelation of truth finally came to Zarathustra when he was thirty. At dawn one morning he waded into the middle of the Daiti River to secure water for a ritual ceremony. When he returned to the bank of the river, he had a vision of a shining being who led him to the Supreme Creator God. God commanded Zarathustra to oppose the sacrificial offerings as well as the intoxicating and orgiastic rites that were traditional to his Iranian cult. God also told him to aid the poor, give the divine message to all mankind, and warn the people that there would be a final judgment.
Not surprisingly, the traditional cultic priests did not accept Zarathustra’s vision and new beliefs. For years he preached among his own people but only succeeded in winning a single convert — his cousin, Maidhyoimanha. Finally, Zarathustra’s conflict with the traditional priests became so intense that he was compelled to leave his own country. Fortunately, when he arrived at another tribe, the tribal queen, Hutasoa, and the king, Vishtaspa, gave him asylum.
Soon thereafter the royal family arranged a debate between Zarathustra and the traditional priests. The debate involved thirty-three questions that he appropriately answered. The result was that many noblemen converted to Zarathustra’s new religion. This angered the neighboring tribal princes, who demanded a return to the old religious faith. A battle ensued, but Vishtaspa was victorious, and the new religion was established and secured.
Zarathustra remained at the court of Vishtaspa until he died at the age of seventy-seven. There are conflicting accounts about the cause of his death — either from the dagger of a pagan priest or from the weapons of invading nomads. Some locate his death near his birthplace at Bactra (Balkh), near modern Mazar-I-Sharif in Afghanistan.3
Many questions remain unanswered regarding this strange and virtually unknown person who was contemporary with the Israelite King David at the dawn of human self-consciousness (ca. 1000 BCE). What was the nature of Zarathustra’s vision? What led to his development of the first creedal and allegedly monotheistic religion? What was the impact of his teachings on the later emergence of Greek philosophy and on the religious development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?
The Good God and His First Creation
As already noted, it was at the age of thirty that Zarathustra had a vision in which he saw a shining heavenly being who led him to the supreme and uncreated God, Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom), who had existed from all eternity. Zarathustra learned that Ahura Mazda’s first act was to “create” six lesser ethereal divinities, known as the Amesha Spentas (Holy Immortals), by means of his Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu).4 These immortal figures were later regarded as archangels. The six radiant figures surrounded Ahura Mazda, and together they formed the heptad (seven), representing all the qualities and attributes of lofty, good and beneficent divinity:
- Khshthra Vairya (Desirable Dominion)
- Spenta Armaiti (Holy Devotion)
- Haurvatat (Health)
- Asha Vahishta (Best Righteousness)
- Ameretat (Long Life)
- Vohu Manah (Good Purpose)
- Ahura Mazda (Wisdom)
Ahura Mazda then proceeded to “create” numerous ethereal yazatas (“worthy of worship”). These also were divine beings like angels who helped Ahura Mazda mediate his good thoughts, words and deeds to subsequent creations.
The Evil God and His Counter-Creation
In his vision Zarathustra also was shown that Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) had a “twin god,” Angra Mainyu (Hostile Spirit), who was equally uncreated yet was not only ignorant but also totally evil and who lived in hell. Just as Ahura Mazda had brought forth the Amesha Spentas to represent the attributes of all divine holiness, so Angra Mainyu brought forth six counterparts, who represented the attributes of all wickedness:
- Dush-Kshathra (Cowardice)
- Merethyn (Annihilation)
- Taromaiti (False Pretense)
- Druj (Falsehood)
- Avetat (Misery)
- Akem (Evil Mind)
- Angra Mainyu (Prince of Darkness)5
Angra Mainyu further acted to counter-create numerous daevas (demons) to mediate his evil thoughts, words and deeds to all subsequent counter-creations.
In his vision Zarathustra learned that the God of good and the god of evil had been locked in a dualistic cosmic, physical and ethical conflict from the beginning of time. This combat between good and evil would extend to the ultimate end of history at the eschaton. The outcome of Zarathustra’s vision was that he had become not only a priest but also a prophet for God. Through his sacred hymns (Gathas) and his later sacred, creedal and liturgical writings (Avesta = Authoritative Utterance), Zarathustra was commissioned to bring the entire world to acknowledge the truth.
The Second Creation and the Menog State
Soon after Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) with his Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu) brought forth his six divine assistants (Amesha Spentas = Holy Immortals) and the yazatas, God decided to create the universe. Together, Ahura Mazda with the Spenta Mainyu and each Amesha Spenta acted to create single entities of sky, earth, water, fire, plant, animal and man. Furthermore, they decided to fashion this initial Creation in a disembodied menog state (celestial, invisible, immaterial, spiritual). Ahura Mazda and the Spentas remained individually with each of the seven creations as an immaterial, hidden presence. In this situation Creation was wholly invulnerable to attack by Angra Mainyu (Prince of Darkness) and by his six attendant evil gods.
The Third Creation and the Getik State
In the next creative step Ahura Mazda with his Spenta Mainyu and the Amesha Spentas determined to grant the added goodness of a getik existence — terrestrial, embodied, visible, sentient, material — to the singularities of sky, earth, water, fire, plant, animal and man. “The achievement of the getik state set the field for the battle with evil, for unlike the menog one it was vulnerable to assault; and Angra Mainyu straightway attacked [with his own counter-creation].”6
The Fourth Creation and the “Mixture”
In their attack Angra Mainyu and his attendant evil ones crushed and shattered the seven creations of Ahura Mazda — his unique sky, earth, water, fire, plant, animal and man. In response Ahura Mazda and his attendant good ones (Spentas) ground the remains of each creation to pieces and scattered the pieces abroad. From the pieces Ahura Mazda then brought forth the multitude of creation to challenge evil. To the newly emergent mankind Ahura Mazda gave the power of choice between good and evil. His intention was to gain support in his battle against every form of evil — physical, moral and spiritual.
Ahura Mazda’s fundamental purpose was for all mankind to achieve good thoughts, good words and good deeds. To fulfill his purpose Ahura Mazda had Zarathustra introduce a number of religious practices. These included the daily recital of the creed, five prayers each day before the sacred fires, seven festivals each year, and numerous purification rituals to protect mankind and all Creation from the evil counterparts of Angra Mainyu. The evil included natural disasters as well as ugly and unclean creatures like wasps, scorpions, snakes and predatory animals. The evil also involved smoke, decay and rottenness, and included both human and animal blood. The greatest evil, however, was death (“not-life”) itself. Humanity was called to relentlessly assist the good gods in combating and ultimately defeating all these evils by cherishing all six lesser creations through a daily ethical life, through regular worship before the sacred fires, through the purification rituals, and through invocation of the sacred hymns and verses.
Zarathustra, of course, realized that death was inevitable in this world. When a human being died, the body was not placed in a temple, crematorium or grave but was laid out in the open, either on the ground or upon an elevated funerary tower. Here the getik body was immediately attacked and eaten by vultures and wild beasts, and the bones were eventually gathered and buried to await the final judgment. Meanwhile, the menog soul hovered over the body for three days and three nights and only left for the celestial world at dawn on the fourth day. As the soul left the earth, it approached the bridge, Chinvat, which crossed a vast chasm between this world and heaven. When the soul reached this point, it was met by three yazatas (subordinate gods or angels) who held the scales of justice. They then made an individual judgment on the soul — a judgment with three possible outcomes. (1) If the individual had been largely good on earth, with little evidence of evil, the soul was allowed to cross a broad bridge. On crossing, the soul was grasped by a beautiful angelic maiden and carried to a joyful intermediate place on the border of heaven. Here the soul peacefully resided until the final judgment. (2) If the individual had been largely evil on earth, with little evidence of good, the soul was placed on a narrow bridge shaped like the blade of a sword. In its struggle to cross the bridge, the soul was grasped by an ugly hag and cast into a place of utter sorrow on the border of hell until the final judgment. (3) If the scales of justice were evenly balanced between good and evil, the soul was allowed to cross the bridge and dwell in a dark-gray borderline area called the Place of the Mixed Ones — between heaven and hell — until the time of final judgment.
Zarathustra believed that the combat between good and evil would last at least a millennium (1000 years). Meanwhile, everyone on earth was urged to obey all the commands of Ahura Mazda and thus assist in overcoming Angra Mainyu (The Lie) and his cohorts. To further assure the victory of good over evil, Zarathustra left his sperm to survive and swim in Lake Kasoya — a lake of pure water. Ahura Mazda had assured him that after a thousand years a beautiful virgin would go swimming in the lake, become impregnated with his sperm, and give birth to a son who would become the Saoshyant (World Savior). The Saoshyant would lead the final battle against the hosts of evil in this world. When this battle was won, the final judgment would begin. All souls in the intermediate places and all souls of those still living would be called before the bar of final justice. Either just prior to judgment or immediately afterward, every soul would be reunited with its body in a general resurrection. There were now just two options. Those who had been good were ruled eligible for an eternal life of bliss. Those who had been evil were assigned to eternal death.
Zarathustra believed that when the judgment was finalized, Ahura Mazda and his Spentas would pour forth a vast river of molten metal. Everyone would then have to wade through this river! The righteous ones, who had passed the judgment, would blissfully cross the river as though it were just a river of warm milk. The wicked, who had failed the judgment, would be tortured by the burning metal and taken to extinction in just three days. Finally the molten river would engulf Angra Mainyu and all his daevas (demons), and they too would be taken to oblivion.
The Fifth Creation and the “Separation”
Zarathustra saw that once all evil had been banished and destroyed, the “separation” would be complete, and Ahura Mazda with his Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu) would create a new heaven and a new earth wherein would dwell righteousness. All the good humans, along with the animals, plants, fire, earth, sky and water, would be cleansed. They would be given an immortal getik state and granted the privilege of living together in Paradise with Ahura Mazda himself and with his subordinate gods. Time would be ended. Eternity would have dawned. Death would be banished. Life would be given immortality. Wickedness would be annihilated. Righteousness would be enthroned. Ahura Mazda’s original intention would be fulfilled.
By the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the teachings of Zarathustra had survived for over 600 years, and the truths of his Gathas and the Avestas had been significantly adopted, together with additions made by the Persian priests (magi). But not only had Zarathustra’s teachings become a treasure to the Persian people. Both the Jews and the Greeks who encountered those teachings were also deeply impressed. They were enthralled by the prophet’s account of the reality that was, that is, and that is to come.
Zarathustra’s teachings embodied in the Gathas and the Avesta scriptures of Zoroastrianism constituted an enormous advance over other mythologies of ancient times. This advance included the beliefs that:
1. Time was linear rather than cyclical, so that history had both a beginning and an end.
2. The world was destined to be ruled by good thoughts, words and deeds rather than by violent and despicable power structures.
3. Immortality was not restricted to the power elite but was equally open to all human beings regardless of gender, race, or social, economic and political status.
4. Victory was to be assured by a world savior born of a virgin rather than by armies locked in final combat.
5. This victory was to be achieved within one to three millennia from the time of Zarathustra rather than immediately or in some dark and shadowy future.
6. The ultimate destiny of Creation would be a terrestrial, material, sentient state of getik on the transformed earth rather than a celestial, immaterial, invisible state of menog in some cosmic heaven.
7. All Creation would be immortal and would co-exist in the paradisiacal Garden with the One Supreme God, Ahura Mazda, with his Holy Spirit (Spenta Mainyu), and with his divine assistants — the Amesha Spentas and the yazatas.
8. All creatures would live in close relationship to the divinities, but there was no indication that they would be reabsorbed into the godhead.
There are, of course, a number of negative aspects to Zarathustra’s teachings. Thus:
1. “This dualism indicates that Ahura Mazda . . . does not actually have the power to defeat Angra Mainyu [alone] even though the Avesta says he will at last.
2. “Ahura Mazda is not a personal god like the God of the Bible. Worship is centered around ritual forms, not a personal relationship.
3. “Salvation is achieved by works, not by faith. If a man’s good works outweigh his bad works, he is allowed into heaven. The problem of man’s sinfulness is not resolved. . . .
4. “In actual practice, Zoroastrianism involves superstition and occultism. This is especially true of the [virtual] worship of the sacred fire . . . ” 7
These and other related views from the ministry of Zarathustra (ca. 1080 BCE) later deeply influenced the Greek philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as well as every religion that subsequently emerged, including Second Temple Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Eastern religions such as northern Buddhism. The general focus of this later philosophy and religion, however, was on the achievement of the initial celestial menog state, immune to evil, rather than on the terrestrial getik state, so long subject to the powers of evil. After all, if the individual menog soul could safely cross the bridge to the border of heaven, all would eventually be right. It seemed that there was really nothing else to worry about!
Zarathustra, on the other hand, determined to focus on the final, postmillennial, paradisiacal destiny of humanity in the getik state. Living at the very time of King David, Zarathustra was the first priest and the first prophet to address the entire course of human destiny — past, present and future. Furthermore, Zarathustra’s life and teachings, together with the religion, culture and civilization that later emerged from his ministry, contribute largely to the metaphors used by Jesus to communicate the meaning, significance and value of the Christ event. For only in Jesus do mankind’s myths, dreams and visions meet their end and fulfillment. Only in him do the shadows of history meet the light of reality — an event foreseen by Zarathustra at the dawn of human self-consciousness a millennium earlier!
Notes and References
- Much of the historical and factual material in this essay is drawn from the English scholar, Mary Boyce, Professor Emerita of Iranian Studies at the University of London, and her recent publication, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2002). (go back)
- Jona Lendering, Zarathustra, at www.livius.org/za-zn/zarathustra/zarathustra.htm. (go back)
- See ibid. (go back)
- “Spenta” means “possessing power” — mighty, strong, holy. (go back)
- See Mark Willey, Zoroastrianism, at www.geocities.com/Pentagon/6315/religion/zoro.html. (go back)
- Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 25. (go back)
- See Willey, Zoroastrianism. (go back)