Zoroastrianism is an ancient Iranian religion that divides into various phases starting with the legendary prophet Zarathushtra, whose non-Iranian name is Zoroaster, deriving from the Greek sources. The account below follows through from prehistoric religion to the Sassanian and Islamic eras.


Icon at Persepolis



1.       Introduction

2.       The  Problem  of  Legend  Versus  Fact

3.       The  Factor  of  Mysticism

4.       The  Gathas

5.       Questions  of  Chronology,  Homeland,  and  Vocation

6.       The  Factor  of  Ritualism

7.       The  Ethical  Dualist

8.       The  Soul  Journey

9.       Becoming  a  Majority  Movement  or  Religion

10.     Persians  and  the  Magi

11.     Zoroastrianism  of  the Sassanian  Era

12.     Mani  and  Kirder

13.     Sassanian  Complexities

14.     The  Mazdakites

15.     Khusrau  I  and  Sassanian  Downfall

16.     NeoMazdakites  of  the  Islamic  Era

17.     Zoroastrianism  in  the  Islamic  Era

18.     The  Parsi  Reformists



1.  Introduction

The Iranian prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) is celebrated as an ancient proponent of "ethical dualism." This entity affords a challenge to philosophical and historical investigation. His legendary dimensions are extensive. His date and homeland are subjects for debate, with a rather notorious scope for disagreement. The Avestan poetry in his name (known as Gathas) has yielded very different professional interpretations that can baffle the non-specialist. The divergences have exasperated even specialists. In the history of religions, the origins of Zoroastrianism are a particularly difficult problem to solve.

The classical Greek sources are frequently considered a distraction by scholars. The name Zoroaster is derived from the Greek Zoroastres, a variant of the Iranian name Zarathushtra. Zoroastrians today prefer the Iranian rendition of the name, which is more authentic for serious usage. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche employed the Iranian name in the title of a well known book, Also Sprach (Thus Spake) Zarathustra, a personal creation which has no relation whatever to the Iranian prophet.

l to r: Walter B. Henning, Henrik S. Nyberg

The scholarly literature on Zoroastrianism is profuse, mainly beyond the reach of most non-specialist investigators. Probing this subject at Cambridge University Library, during the 1980s, I found numerous contrasts in exegesis. For instance, the "shamanist" thesis of Professor Henrik S. Nyberg (1889-1974) was repudiated by Professor Walter B. Henning (1908-1967), who adhered to the traditional date for the prophet in the face of alleged ahistoricism. Henning's attack appeared in his well known Zoroaster, Politician or Witch Doctor? That book was published in 1951. Nyberg resented the criticism as "a sort of moral prejudice against shamanism."

The Henning stigma of "witch doctor" referred to shamans. Henning's concept of Zarathushtran "ethical dualism" regarded Nyberg's "Siberian shamanist" version as aberrant (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures, 1995:276-278). This issue became associated with hemp-smoking shamans. Henning was also resistant to Nyberg's suggestion that Islamic era dervishes of Iran were successors to Zarathushtra. In terms of acceptance, Nyberg's presentation did not long survive the critique. However, in more general terms, the "witch doctor" caricature tends to illustrate the bias of that period against shamans. For instance, the popular American "Cowboy and Red Indian" movies and television features of the 1950s, frequently presented the losers as very simple grunting and broken English aborigines competing with the heroic US cavalry. Sabres and rifles were glamorous attributes of colonialism. A native so-called witch doctor often hovered in the background, resisting the invaders. The truth was occasionally allowed to surface in Hollywood dollar projects: "White man speak with forked tongue."

In other directions, the Slovenian-Polish scholar Marijan Mole regarded Zarathushtra as the innovation of ritual legend, contrary to the approach of Professor R. C. Zaehner and others. Professor Mary Boyce opened up a completely new perspective on the subject, locating the origins of Zoroastrianism in a much earlier phase of time than was generally envisaged.

Marijan Mole

The instance of Marijan Mole (1924-1963) is relevant to consider. He maintained that Zarathushtra was purely mythical, interpreting the Gathas in terms of liturgy or ritual. His controversial views are found in the influential work Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien (1963). Mole commendably ventured into Islam and Sufism, a project commemorated in his Les Mystiques Musulmans (1965). This tangent was certainly not typical of Iranist scholars committed to pre-Islamic Iran. Mole was interested in both Shi'ism and Sufism; he even made a pilgrimage to Mashad, and visited Shia places of worship in Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. In relation to Sufism, he published essays and critical editions (A. Khismatulin and S. Azarnouche, The Destiny of a Genius Scholar, 2014, online at academia.edu). However, his industrious studies did not prevent his tragic suicide at Paris, which greatly shocked his colleagues.

In relation to Zoroastrianism, Mole was criticised for a lack of historical perspective by Iranist Gherardo Gnoli. Enlarging the focus here, we are informed that Mole was influenced by structuralism, which had become fashionable in his day. He wanted to demonstrate that the Pahlavi legend of Zarathushtra originated from the ritual he associated with the Gathas. "This view rendered the problem of the existence and the date of Zoroaster absolutely redundant, without denying the possibility of an historical Zoroaster" (Carlo Cereti, "Gnoli, Gherardo," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Marijan Mole apparently wanted to find out if Sufism and Shi'ism linked to pre-Islamic Iran. His more history-oriented angle in this direction is at odds with his dismissal of Zarathushtra. A suggestion is that he derived more inspiration and sustenance from Sufism. He edited two treatises of the unusual thirteenth century Sufi Aziz Nasafi, including a lengthy introduction on that largely obscure subject. Mole was evidently fascinated by Nasafi and other Sufis. By comparison, he may have been offput by the ritual and priestly nature of many Zoroastrian texts, believing that historical detail could not be extricated from these. This complication does not mean that legendary figures never existed. His dismissal of Zarathushtra is endorsed (and furthered to an extreme) by the current "mythological" programme in Iranist studies. Professor Prods O. Skjaervo refers approvingly to Mole's doctoral thesis of the 1950s, which maintained that the Gathas were ritual texts:

Although Mole did not deny the historicity of the prophet, he suggested that, already in the Gathas, the historical Zarathushtra had been transformed into a ritual model and that the legend of Zarathushtra was the myth corresponding to the Gathic sacrifice. He also questioned the traditional construct of the philosopher and reformer, emphasising the improbability that such a religion could have existed in the first millenium, let alone the second millenium BCE. (Skjaervo 2011:326)

Mole could not believe that anyone like a reforming Zarathushtra could have existed in archaic times. The gist of assumption is: how primitive the archaic Iranian people were by comparison with the current technological society inspired by the Enlightenment of Europe. This is an evident underlying basis of assumption for the ritual Gathas as conceived by the "mythologists." What they cannot believe could never have happened. Instead, the audience must accept what the pro-Mole mythologists can believe. A bonus for disbelief is that ecological suicide (or at least disaster) is now an unwelcome prospect for the complacent affluent society.

Gherardo Gnoli

In contrast to Mole, Professor Gherardo Gnoli (1937-2012) did not abandon the historical Zarathushtra, a disposition for which he is criticised by Skjaervo. In many ways an exceptional scholar and organiser, Gnoli nevertheless changed his mind in reverting to support for the traditional circa 600 BC dating for the Iranian prophet. Gnoli here discarded his earlier timeline relating to his Sistan theory. His book Zoroaster's Time and Homeland (Naples 1980) remains one of the most well argued and documented attempts at historical context.

A new and influential ritual-oriented model has emerged in Iranist curricula, resembling the Mole theory in several respects. This model has been dubbed the “mythological,” as distinct from the “historical” angle of Zarathushtra analysis. An Iranist commentator relays:

According to this view, Zarathushtra neither composed the Gathas nor was a historical person. The Mazda-worshipping religion thus has no known beginning at a certain point in time through the intervention of an individual. Instead, it is argued that it evolved organically over a long period out of the prehistoric Indo-Iranian religion. In this process, the Gathas gradually cohered over time in the anonymous, collective mentality of the priests and eventually crystallised and petrified into the compositions which have come down to the present day, while at the same time being handed down from one priestly generation to the next in the oral tradition. The figure of Zarathushtra, in turn, is seen as the product of priestly cosmological speculation…. Both models [historical and mythological] draw on the notion of ‘history,’ the difference being that the former allocates historical reality to both Zarathushtra and the tradition, while the latter does so only to the tradition, represented by the priests, the so-called ‘poet-sacrificers.’ (1)

The commentator is Professor Almut Hintze, who adds a description of the two rival models in terms of “revolutionary” and “evolutionary,” the first meaning Zarathushtra history. Parallels for the revolutionary include Gautama Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, and Muhammad. “Examples of the second, ‘evolutionary’ model are harder to find, but include Hinduism” (Hintze 2013:16).

The “poet sacrificer” paradigm has effectively eschewed dissent in the Gathas. The “revolutionary” is put to death by preference for ritual. The “collective mentality” of the Zoroastrian priesthood rules supreme in this paradigm. Leisured priestly speculation is the gauge for events over many centuries. Linguistic strategy can be deceptive. What do the Gathas mean? The sacrificial knife of ritualist philology has decapitated the Iranian poet and prophet. The "historians" Gnoli and Henning (along with "shamanist" Nyberg) are Zarathushtra tombstones, while mythicist Mole is resurrected from suicide as the guide to sociocultural evolution and cult in the ancient Iranian territories. Zoroastrian defender Mary Boyce hangs from the evolutionist gibbet. Any dissident might be deemed ahistorical, not actually existing in reality.

By way of comparison, let me here dwell briefly upon an outdated conventional analysis found in a book on comparative religion published in the early 1960s, a book written by a Professor of Religion. The date of the Iranian prophet was here stated to be uncertain, though "increasing evidence supports a date for his ministry in the first half of the sixth century B.C." (2)  That contention can be contradicted by other theories favouring earlier dates; the "increasing evidence" emerges as an arbitrary factor.

The same commentator stressed that many similarities exist between Hebrew prophecy and the teachings of Zarathushtra. The Iranian prophet "opposed the more barbaric practices of the nomadic peoples and advocated the pursuit of agriculture and the spread of settled life." (3)  It is still not clear exactly who his opponents were; to what extent his community resembled that of settled agriculturalists is a debateable issue. He "also opposed the cultic practices of his day, which involved bloody sacrifices and drunkenness, much as Amos and Hosea, a few centuries earlier in Palestine, had opposed the cult of Baal." (4)  Others think that Zarathushtra existed centuries earlier than Amos and Hosea. However, the underlying trend may have been similar in all instances, even though pro-Mole ritualist philology imposes a cordon on Iranian dissidency in favour of RigVedic language.

"Very little is known with certainty about the actual position of Zoroaster on crucial theological teachings." (5) The present form of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian corpus of scripture, dates from the Sassanian dynasty, containing much older ingredients that are frequently difficult to contextualise. That part of the Avesta known as Yasna or liturgy includes the Gathas, comprising seventeen "hymns" in the name of Zarathushtra. "The bulk of them [the Gathas] are either obscure or impossible to translate without ambiguity." (6)

The poetic Gathas are described as "the closest approximation to the actual message" of Zarathushtra. (7)  The 1960s commentator goes on to analyse the worldview attributed to the ancient prophet, here considered to be "fairly uncomplicated," similar to the basic worldview of the Old Testament. Rather more complexity and complication is now evident to non-ritualist analysis. The 1960s assessment is that of a cosmic struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu for control of the world, each of these deities having "a group of helpers akin to the angels and demons of late biblical thought." (8)  The six amesha spentas are described as attributes of Ahura Mazda. Their evil counterparts are the daevas, who "probably are the other gods of the Iranian tribes" of Zarathushtra's time, and associated with Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the Lord of Darkness and Lies.

Professor Bradley stated that the Zoroastrian religion "would be little more than a museum piece were it not that Zoroastrian theology greatly influenced the Judaeo-Christian tradition, both directly and indirectly." (9) Other analysts urge that preoccupation with Judaeo-Christian themes has obscured the Iranian characteristics of Zoroastrianism. Christian interpretations of Zarathushtra's monotheism are in dispute. The dualism of the ancient prophet may have been more sophisticated than the reconstructions commonly found. The above-cited coverage is similar to many others in not envisaging any mystical extensions to the "uncomplicated" worldview attributed to the Iranian prophet of antiquity. The post-Mole "mythological" theory is another constriction, favouring RigVeda priorities of ritual in a distant environment.

A flexible attitude is surely required rather than a closed one. My suggestions in Minds and Sociocultures (1995) were intended as an alternative to the rather rigid assumptions of many Western scholars that no mysticism is evident in the Zoroastrian religion, not even in the Sassanian phase, which is much better known than earlier eras. A minority of scholars have deemed this "no mysticism" attitude to be an extreme approach; a case has been made for mystical elements in the Sassanian phase that were formerly overlooked. So-called impossibilities can merely amount to a lack of data.

My earlier coverage related to emphases outlined here:

1)   The vocation of Zarathushtra was described in terms of being a prophet (according with the conventional religious view), though a small g gnostic orientation was also suggested, in contradistinction to capital G Gnosticism (now a fashionable pastime of affluent new age occultism). Some commentators view the ethical content of the Gathas as being more important than any "nebulous" mysticism. However, the intensive analysis by Professor Martin Schwartz has validated a mystical content (or a "poetic ethico-mystical mentalism"). In contrast, well known translations of the Gathas have tended to weaken the ethical dimensions, instead emphasising a ritual context. A "ritual mysticism" has been proposed, a theory meeting some resistance (sections 4 and 6 below). My own independent approach means something quite different to the “Christian monotheist” profile, or even the “Jewish prophet” association. Instead, I argue for the archaic Iranian “shaman” (however, not as Nyberg did; the remove is very substantial, because the Gathic poet was far more like an Indian rishi than shamans as generally conceived in a Siberian context). A Gathic similarity to RigVeda idioms does not mean that the Gathic poet was a typical Vedic rishi or a soma ritualist; the Gathas are very distinctive by comparison with Rig hymns. Zarathushtra may be viewed as an archaic Iranian mainyu (spirit) "panpsychist" whose connection with ritual is tenuous in terms of the Younger Avestan sequel. The bias of Marijan Mole against the archaic Iranian society is deceptive, reflecting 1950s technological complacency after a devastating world war of European origin. Ecology setback will eventually negate diverse excesses of industry, politics, and social delusion. It is too late for a scrupulous Avestan “libation to the waters,” because the oceans and many rivers are now tragically poisoned by industrial greed and carbon excess.

2)   Relying upon the Insler translation of the Gathas, and some other sources, I supported the view that a defective haoma cult was repudiated by the prophet. This is a vexed issue. Specialist scholars have argued both for and against the haoma ritual being sanctioned by Zarathushtra. The possibility of entheogen use can alter the picture substantially (section 8 below).

3)  The nature of the prophet's role as zaotar ("ritual priest") was repeatedly queried in view of the general uncertainties about factual details. The conventional view of Zarathushtra, as a ritual priest, is often imposed with little or no flexibility. That priestly role is only vaguely defined in historical terms. The Pahlavi legend, like ritualist philology, cannot be relied upon to impart precise contextual details. The uncertainties with regard to the date of Zarathushtra surely merit caution in assessing the nature of his role. I therefore adopted the attitude that a method of doubt is more scientific than any assumption that the orthodox view is entirely correct.  A major factor influencing my presentation is that the Iranian "shaman" prophet may have been born into a relatively classless, pastoral socioculture, where priestly roles could have been very different to their profile in later Iranian class society. The period of Gathic origin could link, to some extent at least, with the very archaic Yamnaya-Sintashta steppeland cultures of Central Asia, still in process of reconstruction.

4)   Zarathushtra, the Iranian poet, is often confused with the artificial verbal puppet in Thus Spake Zarathustra, facilitating the “will to power” of elitist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who was oblivious to the fate of commoners. Sadly, Nietzsche became insane; his example provides a reminder of what to avoid. The archaic Iranian mainyu poet was far removed from European sickness. He was much closer to the ancient Greeks than to Protestant Christians, but is unlikely to have resembled the exploitive Athenian disposition to slavery. He may have lived a thousand years before Pythagoras, so the gap in circumstance and mentation is potentially substantial. He is not to be so easily dismissed as a real life dissident because of the pro-Mole reductionists. After centuries of erratic Western speculation, the pro-Mole attitude amounts to: the Gathic poet cannot have existed, except in ritual maintained by the priestly conformist aggregate. Critics deem this a soporific explanation.

Such issues are only a small part of the study of Zoroastrianism and Iranian socioculture as a whole. The formation of a priesthood, the different monarchical phases, the friction with Manichaeism, the Mazdakite phenomenon, and the Islamic phase of constriction, are major aspects of the historical record.

A significant factor is often overlooked. "Notions of gender parity are firmly rooted in the teachings of the Avesta and reflect the character of early Iranian society" (Leon Goldman, "Women in the Avesta," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Professor Almut Hintze emphasises the category of women priests in Zoroastrianism. The Avesta testifies that access to religious education, and even priestly roles, was open to both sexes. The archaic text Yasna Haptanhaiti affirms: "May a good ruler, a man or a woman, rule over us." This situation of equality between men and women apparently continued for many centuries. Women were able to achieve the leading priestly role of zaotar, meaning chanter and ritual expert. (10)

The percentage of female priests is very obscure. The situation of gender parity is discernible in some Pahlavi texts; misogynistic attitudes are also evident, apparently in relation to the Sassanian era. Zoroastrian priests eventually excluded women from all religious roles. A major issue was menstruation, considered a defilement by male priests. By the Islamic era, the Zoroastrian priesthood was strictly hereditary, operating through the male line. Education for women chronically deteriorated, prior to the nineteenth century Parsi reformism in India. (11)

2.  The  Problem  of  Legend  Versus  Fact

The Younger Avesta comprises archaic texts of a later date than the Gathas. The chronology is uncertain, nevertheless now assessed by text experts in terms of a gap of centuries. In the Younger Avesta, Zarathushtra "is presented as the prototypical priest who performed the rituals as instructed by Ahura Mazda" (Hintze 2012:50). A term favoured by Avestan priests for their own role was zarathushtrotema, meaning "the one who is most like Zarathushtra." In Pahlavi, the sacerdotal label became zardushtrotom (ibid:51). The question arises: What were the priests copying? According to some analysts, the belief in imitation revolved around ritualism, although references in Pahlavi texts have suggested an ideal of "ethical dualism."

The extensive legend of Zarathushtra is included in the Denkard, a ninth century CE text in Pahlavi, compiled by priests of the early Islamic era. This legend is generally regarded as a hagiographical adventure in elaboration. However, the ideological example of Marijan Mole is not to be commended, as this caused considerable confusion. Some components of the legend are probably more relevant than others; a flexible approach is required in the face of ritualist philology. Diverse use has been made of this legend, sometimes admixed with data from Greek sources possessing a similar reputation. See Zoroaster in the Pahlavi Books.

A brief version of Zarathushtra's life, found in a popular encyclopaedia of mythology, is perhaps the most well known reference in English. This supplies traditional details of a kind meeting with scepticism from hard core historians. The difficulty is one of separating legend and myth from history. The encyclopaedia opted for a Parsi tradition that the prophet lived between 660 and 583 BC, plus a belief that the Avesta was written down at this period. Iranist experts contradict the belief by concluding that the Avesta was not written down until the Sassanian era many centuries later. The difference is significant.

"His [Zarathushtra's] religious vocation was in many ways similar to that of Buddha." (12) This deduction may be correct, who knows; certainly, Buddhist influences on the legend have elsewhere been credited. The status of the Iranian prophet's contemplative disposition is a matter tending to be generally overlooked, or even dismissed. The compilers of the entry under discussion here say that, at the age of twenty, Zarathushtra left his home in search of the man who was "most in love with rectitude and most given to feeding the poor." (13)  He is said to have remained in silence for seven years in a cave situated on a mountain reminiscent of Sinai.

At the age of thirty, Zarathushtra is described as receiving various revelations from the "archangels" or amesha spentas. Vohu Manah, here described as the Spirit of Wisdom, "conferred on him ecstasy in the presence of Ahura Mazda." (14)  The compilers of the entry locate that mystical experience in Azerbaijan. Zarathushtra then began to wander and preach, travelling to the eastern sectors of Iran. During the twelfth year of his ministry he converted Vishtaspa, identified as the king of Balkh; the process of conversion is said to extend as far as the Hindus and Greeks. A late source cited here is the Shah-Nama (Book of Kings), an epic composed by Firdausi during the early Islamic era, borrowing from Sassanian literary collections whose accuracy is suspect.

Propagation of the new religion was at first pacifist. However, in the last years of Zarathushtra's life, a holy war supposedly raged against the "infidel Turk, enemy of Vishtaspa," as a consequence of which the prophet was believed to have been killed in his seventy-seventh year. His essential aim is said to have been "striving after perfection by thought, word and deed." (15) One may credit the latter theme, but the matter of his death is more problematic. A specialist has affirmed: "The story of Zoroaster's death by violence thus proves quite worthless and late, the product of scholastic ponderings upon a misinterpreted passage of the 'national' epic." (16) This is a reference to Zoroastrian scholars of late Sassanian or early Islamic times.

The legend of Zarathushtra is supplied at length in Book VII of the Denkard (Acts of the Religion), a Pahlavi work whose final redaction dates to the tenth century CE, at a time when Zoroastrian priests were on the defensive against the rule of Islam. This manual was "primarily an apology for Mazdaism," meaning the religion of Mazda (i.e., Zoroastrianism). The Denkard is "the product of a Persian milieu already largely islamized, and was thus intended both as a reply to Muslim attacks upon dualism and as a compendium of what could be saved of the scriptures" (P. Gignoux, "Denkard," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Richard N. Frye

A specialist in Iranian and Central Asian history emphasised the difficulty involved in writing about the religion of pre-Islamic Central Asia. Richard N. Frye (1920-2014), a Professor at Harvard University, was one of the most accomplished Iranists and noted for an absence of dogmatic attitude (a plus feature in a sector noted for dismissals and antagonisms). He lists the sources on the origins of Zoroastrianism: the Avesta, the Pahlavi books in Middle Persian, New Persian writings, and foreign accounts primarily in Greek and Syriac. However, the materials amount to "various studies about Zoroaster," (17) there being no internal history of the faith. The Greek sources are not generally given much credence, being associated with exaggerations (although blanket dismissal is not advisable).

According to Frye, the prophet Zarathushtra initiated some reforms in the old Aryan religion, which he represented as a zaotar or priest. There is a complexity here. "Either he, or a proto-Zoroaster, changed the worship of daevas into rejection of them as false gods." (18)  Other scholars have seen no reason to refer to a proto-Zoroaster. Professor Frye discounted the claim of West Iran to be the prophet's homeland, on grounds that the language of the Avesta is East Iranian, and also that the place names mentioned in the Avesta are all from East Iran. "It would be reasonable to suppose that some, if not much, of his missionary activity was in Bactria, the most prosperous and populous region of the east." (19) The northern boundary, in the general trend to agreement on this point, appears to be Uzbekistan-Tajikistan. A few scholars have proposed extensions in the far north.

Dates for Zarathushtra have been proposed as far apart as the sixth and fifteenth centuries BC (and even earlier). "The consensus is that he lived closer to 1000 B.C.E. than to the rise of the Achaemenian Empire because of the archaic nature of the Avestan language," (20)  and also indications that he lived in a pastoral society. This was a polytheistic age in which "the priests or shamans obviously had no written documents." (21) An organised religion did not exist. We are heavily dependent upon the Avesta for information. There are pronounced drawbacks here.

Only one of the twenty-one books of the Sassanian Avesta has survived in complete form, namely the Videvdat (corrupted to Vendidad), the Law Against Demons, "primarily a collection of purification rules and punishments for breaking such rules." (22)  The remainder of the extant Avesta amounts to "only fragments of the old parts, and these were rearranged probably several times in the past." (23)  The corpus was written down in a new alphabet during the fifth or sixth century CE.

The Gathas consist of seventeen "hymns," which are "presumably the words of Zoroaster," (24) comprising the oldest part of the Avesta. The Gathas "are only a small part of the original compositions of the prophet." (25) The Gathas and Yasna Haptanhaiti are in Old Avestan, being added to a group of later texts known as the Younger Avesta, again very difficult to date.

Prominent compositions of the Younger Avesta are the Yashts, hymns dedicated to old Indo-Iranian deities like Mithra. "The Yashts, like most of the Avesta, usually entail a dialogue between Ahura Mazda and Zarathushtra" (A. Hintze, "Yashts," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The dialogue attributions are notorious for blanket representation.

"The intense tone and philosophical contents of the Gathas are very different from the Yashts, which are more like the Rigveda of India." (26)  The RigVeda has been dated to the period 1400-1000 BC. The great majority of Rig hymns were composed for rituals, particularly soma rites. Consolidation of the Rig ritual tradition probably occurred after 1000 BC. (27) The soma cult was an Indian equivalent of the Iranian haoma cult.

The Yashts "were brought into the Zoroastrian religion after the death of the prophet." Professor Frye here supports the "old" scholarly view of the haoma cult. "The cultic drink haoma, Indian soma, opposed by Zoroaster, found its way into the rites of later Zoroastrianism." (28)  Later legends insisted that the prophet regarded the haoma ceremony as a pious duty, along with tending the sacred fire; some modern scholars supported this orthodox tradition in a "new" interpretation.

3.  The  Factor  of  Mysticism

Christian monotheistic interpretations strongly coloured the subject of Zoroastrianism in the wake of Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), an Oxford scholar who produced an influential book on Persian religion in 1700. Despite ideological glosses, European scholarship did make some important strides in this field during the nineteenth century. The Gathas were then discovered to be in a more ancient dialect than the rest of the Avesta. This advance dispelled the traditional priestly idea that Zarathushtra authored various later texts in the canon. However, the Protestant Christian interpretation tended to assume a thorough knowledge of what had occurred in Zoroastrian history.

Reverend James Hope Moulton

In a book published at Oxford in 1917, James Hope Moulton described Christianity as the crown of Zoroastrianism, employing a New Testament reference to the magi as support for this contention. Moulton extolled the Christian missionaries to India, concluding that Zoroastrianism was "a religion which for all its high qualities had failed in its mission." (29) The Reverend Moulton was himself a Methodist missionary in India during World War One.

Moulton wrote an earlier work of a less evangelistic complexion. This contribution provided a useful description of Zoroastrianism, the interpretation nevertheless being moulded by theological horizons of Christianity. "For all the profundity of Zoroaster's thinking... there was a singular absence of the mystical element about his teaching. A little more of it might perhaps have helped his religion to secure a much larger part in human history." (30)  The basic assumption here is that mystical Christianity was superior to the non-mystical rival, which could therefore be the due subject of attention for proselytising missionaries.

Moulton's belief, concerning the absence of mysticism in Zarathushtra, was for long the general rule in studies of Zoroastrianism, though losing any specific Christian orientation. The well known ethical "rationality" of the Zoroastrian religion, denoting an orientation in "this worldly" attitudes, has frequently influenced assumptions that there never was any mysticism involved at any time. The colonialist Christian missionaries, preaching in India under British Empire auspices, are no guide to ancient Zoroastrian events.

The historical context of the Gathas is not known, unlike the context of the Gospels or the Quran. The elusive chronology of Zarathushtra is a hindering factor. Assessments have varied widely, depending on whether the gauge is linguistic affinities with the RigVeda, or the traditional date of circa 600 BC that is derived from the Pahlavi work Bundahishn. (31)  There is no proof that the Gathic situation resembled any Rig situation in a different environment.

In 1930, a suggestion was made that the Gathas contain a hint of esoteric tendencies in the "allusion to 'secret things' to be taught by Ahura Mazda to the knower." (32) This allusion, found in Yasna 48.3, is reminiscent of emphases in the Upanishads attesting the restricted transmission of teachings to select disciples. A passage in Chandogya Upanishad 3.11.5, an early Upanishad of obscure date, has been cited. Comparisons have also been made with the RigVeda, at risk of identifying with ritual elements in a different language and milieu. The case for Zarathushtra, as an Iranian variant of a rishi, is open-ended. This theme has met with query because of an assumption that Zarathushtra was a missionary eager to spread his dualistic teachings. Unlike Christian missionaries, the rishis are not noted for evangelism, but for poetry. An archaic Iranian "shaman," revering the elements and "creations," is not equivalent to zealous Christian preachers of the British Empire phase.

There is no confirmation for a missionary role in the Gathas. Indeed, the complex "Lament of the Cow" has prompted a specialist conclusion that the format and content would have been unintelligible to a general audience. The cow is discernible as "an allegorical figure representing religious vision, the daena" (Malandra 1983:37). The semantic complexity moves above the level of evangelism, which is the distracting creation of later religious imagination, both Zoroastrian and Christian. The potential of ancient sages and "knowers" remains elusive.

In Minds and Sociocultures (1995), I gave almost two hundred pages to a coverage of Zoroastrianism. Philosophically, one of the contentions I made is that ethical premises and viable mysticism are not opposed; the former are essential to the latter. In the basically ethical mainyu teaching of Zarathushtra, there are implicit mystical elements. I have credited the view that Zarathushtra repudiated a resort to drugs and stimulants (whether or not Yasna 48.10 refers to haoma). Such considerations attend my reflection: "The person who is not thoroughly ethical at the commencement of a gnostic endeavour is prone to becoming psychologically deformed" (Minds and Sociocultures, p. 244). The word gnostic with small g here denotes the subject of "spiritual knowledge," and is distinct from the capital G Gnosticism scholastically defined for the early Christian era.

Small g gnosis here indicates varieties of mystical experience occurring, and recurring, in Iranian minority repertories (meaning oral, behavioural, and experiential repertories). The small g factor does not designate extremist asceticism or libertinism, both of these manifestations being associated with early Christian versions of Gnosis. Small g gnosis does not represent a doctrine but an experiential disposition (or range of dispositions). Accordingly, this perspective can also be applied to some Indian manifestations of spirituality, even though ascetic trappings in that sector are usually considered remote from the spirit of Zoroastrianism.

Small g gnosticism is an innovative phrase, contrasting with Roman era Gnosis, customarily viewed in terms of a doctrine exhibiting theological peculiarities. The innovation lies outside the rather animated arguments applying to the subject of capital G Gnosticism. For instance, Professor R. C. Zaehner treated the words "Gnostic" and "Iranian" as being mutually exclusive. Whereas Professor G. Widengren favoured possibilities of an Iranian origin for Gnosticism. Professor J. Duchesne-Guillemin assessed the contribution of Widengren as pointing out traces in Iran of a religious attitude, surviving from an Indo-Iranian past, obscured by Zarathushtra's ethical dualism, but subsequently revived.

We are on safer ground with the suggestion of Professor Franciscus B. J. Kuiper (1907-2003), an Indologist of considerable repute. In relation to three Gathic verses and wrazma (bliss), Kuiper posited "an Iranian contemplative mysticism with roots in Indo-Iranian thought." Professor Martin Schwartz is in agreement, referring to "a contemplative mysticism paralleled by a crypticism of linguistic devices."  (33) The subject can become complex for easy reading, some acquaintance with Avestan terminology being advisable. Schwarz quotes Yasna 30.1: "Lo! I shall tell, O ye who seek, the things to be understood indeed by the knower, with Good Mind's praise, and worshipfulness for the Lord Who is very wise, and for Rightness: the things to be seen with the lights in bliss" (Schwartz 2003:376). Good Mind or vohu manah (one of the amesha spentas as categorised in later texts) is a basic guideline and inspirational factor in the Gathas. The evocative "lights in bliss" are rather more contemplative than ritual actions.

The commentator informs that a a certain Greek Orphic phrase (I sing for those who can understand) represents: "an Indo-European formula introducing poetic mystagogy, of the type 'I speak for the knowing,' reflected in Vedic with vidvan...'knowing (one), knower.' Such a formula occurs in the Gathas not only at 30.1, but also at 31.17 and 51.8, in both of which the motif of speech to the knower signals [to] the initiates that an encryption is occurring" (ibid:385). A key phrase in 31.17 is: "Let Knowing One speak to knowing one; let not the unknowing one prattle!" (ibid). The "wrongsome one" is a target of reproach, his destructive effects being described, and contrasting with "the healer of existence, the knower, has heard Rightness" (ibid). In Yasna 32, "the divine state of blissful interconnectdness is that which the righteous will enjoy," the wordings here extending to "the most blissful connection [in the divine Dominion]" (ibid:388).

Schwartz concludes: "Gathic theological doctrines...were endowed by Zarathushtra with a mystical depth and resonance, through the cryptic, i.e. encryptive, techniques of his poetic revelations, which were particularly aimed at his patronly initiates....The last two techniques demonstrate the astounding cognitive complexity of Zarathushtra's poetics, and the intellectual sophistication of the patronly milieu who were converted by his poetry" (Schwartz 2003:389).

My expedient of suggesting a small g gnostic classification, for the knowing ethical mystic, arose from a sense of wonderment at how many scholarly studies have compared the Gathic event with, e.g., Biblical prophets, African tribes, Greek mythical figures like Zalmoxis, rather than acknowledge any affinities with later Iranian mystics, meaning the diverse ranks of Sufis, ishraqis, and even Shi'ite urafa ("gnostics"). Many temperaments are represented here. Some analysts say that urafa should be distinguished from the general body of dogmatic Shia clergy who are notorious for hostility to religious minorities; unfortunately, scholars like Henry Corbin did not make this subject clear in a resort to metahistory. My suggestions for Zarathushtra were not intended in terms of any doctrinal similarity to Islamic era events, but in terms of a similar psychological orientation via the intuitive faculties. The fact that a link has been proposed between Sassanian mysticism and early Sufism (34) does not lessen possibilities with regard to affinities in earlier times.

In my vocabulary, small g gnostic describes a mystic who may be an ascetic or an example of "be in the world but not of it" lifestyle. In that respect, the term is very generalised. However, there is a more pointed connotation of an "illumination" experience. Zarathushtra is traditionally credited with such an experience; his legendary vision of the sacred heptad may or may not be a legitimate point of reference. He is commonly viewed as a prophet with no mystical teaching, only a "rational" approach to salvation via an ethical doctrine of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds." An "Iranian contemplative mysticism" requires a more flexible approach. We are discussing an archaic Iranian "shaman" whose perspective witnessed mainyu (spirit) in nature, to a degree suggested by the Gathas, which are not dogmatic theology, but intricate poetry demanding close attention to content.

I have compared Zarathushtra with the much later ishraqi gnostic Azar Kaivan (d.1618), a Zoroastrian of the Safavid era. The purpose of making such a parallel was to indicate possible similarities in psychological experiences, not in doctrines. Such experiences (whether called mystical or no) may cut across different lifestyles, e.g., ascetic and non-ascetic, and are not reducible to linguistic criteria.

Definitions of the word gnostic have varied. In relation to Sufi mysticism, the term is used very differently to idioms associated with early Christian Gnosis. Professor Annemarie Schimmel wrote: "The mystic of the gnostic type strives for a deeper knowledge of God: he attempts to know the structure of His universe or to interpret the degree of His revelations - although no mystic could ever dare to 'know' His Essence." (35)

Some mystics were perhaps more daring than others. There is surely nothing heretical in suggesting that Zarathushtra was a mystic of the gnostic type in his addresses to Ahura Mazda. One could easily interpret in this light a statement of the Gathic poet that he is vidvah, a word translated as "a knower, or sage." (36) The Gathas do not explain exactly what such terms mean, or rather meant in archaic times. Gatha 44.9 asks: "How am I to perfect my Vision?" (Malandra 1983:43). The word vision is here a translation of daena, a key term also associated with the RigVeda. In the Gathas, daena signifies "vision, conscience, individuality" (M. Shaki, "Den," Encyclopaedia Iranica). There must have been at least a few gnostic priests in the ancient world. Zarathushtra may fit the category of a poet or reforming priest familiar with an archaic version of "soul journeying."

"Aspects of shamanism abound in Zoroastrian lore: to Zarathushtra himself is attributed a visionary journey." (37) Realistically, he would have observed methods of an artificially induced "soul journey" amongst his contemporaries, who may have habitually resorted to trance and drugs in the pursuit of other-worldly experiences (section 8 below). He was perhaps familiar with the same "subtle world" known to ishraqi philosophers of the Islamic era; that topic is subject to acute superstitions and abnormal behaviour in those seeking to induce premature experiences. If that non-material world has any real existence, then it would surely not be the prerogative of any particular religious group.

"Though a devoted husband and father, the prophet was able to endure long periods of solitude and contemplation."  This theme is based on aspects of the legend. The same Iranist scholar has described Zarathushtra's perception of Ahura Mazda, as wisdom (Lord Wisdom), in terms of: "From this single, overwhelming realization, preceded perhaps by that contemplation of Mind which has ever been intrinsic to Indo-Iranian religious thought, the prophet was enabled to behold all life in symmetry." (38)

In Minds and Sociocultures, I suggested that Zarathushtra was a contemplative priest or "knower" who confronted an artificial soul journey amongst opposing priests. These rivals may have represented the widespread tendency among occultists to force a way into the "subtle world," with proportionate hazards and deceptions occurring. A major problem with "mysticism" is deficient psychological orientation underlying the professed altitude.

4.   The  Gathas

Zarathushtra is a figure notoriously difficult to locate in time. The traditional legend of the prophet does not assist any realistic chronology. Some Iranist scholars have disregarded the legend, crediting only the "autobiographical" references in the Gathas, which are meagre. The Gathas are "hymns" traditionally attributed to Zarathushtra; they are semantically obscure in many respects. The prophet is named sixteen times in these compositions. They were orally transmitted for many centuries before being recorded.

There was no satisfactory translation of the Gathas during the twentieth century. These archaic texts are currently afflicted by disagreements. A disputed philological interpretation, of Professor Jean Kellens, questioned authorship of the Gathas, on the basis of reference to the name Zarathushtra in these texts. Kellens and Eric Pirart objected to the apparent discrepancy of that name appearing in the third person in ten Gathic passages. Other scholars like Professor Helmut Humbach maintain that the prophetic name is in due context as the poet author (Humbach, "Gathas," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Humbach has industriously produced several translations of the Gathas. Another eminent Iranist concludes:

"We can be confident, therefore, that when we find Zarathushtra referred to in the 2nd or 3rd person, it is not some other poet or guild of poets invoking his name; rather, it is Zarathushtra himself employing traditional poetic conventions which were also the inheritance of the Vedic rishis" (W. W. Malandra, "Zoroaster," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

The subject of Gathic content is important for any interested party to grasp in due perspective. In reference to interpretation, one commentator refers to "a high degree of uncertainty and guesswork, largely masked in the translations.... Readers can easily be misled on important doctrinal disputes based on the 'authority' of the Gathas, not realising the extent of speculation involved" (Joseph Peterson, Two New Translations of the Gathas, 2010).

One of the Gatha translaters was Professor Stanley Insler, who stated with honesty: "We are faced with the realisation that much of our knowledge of these poems is highly doubtful." Syntax is a problem, also words of equivocal meaning. "The Gathas truly appear to be a book of riddles." Insler also disclosed: "The transmitted text of the Gathas has suffered profound corruption in a few important passages which escape assured reconstruction" (Insler 1975: Introduction).

Arguments relate to arrangement of the liturgical Yasna, which incorporated the Gathas at some unknown date. Much of the Yasna was composed in Younger Avestan, probably several centuries after the Gathas. The Yasna is "a composite text representing the editorial work of scholar-priests" (W. W. Malandra, "Yasna," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The Yasna Haptanhaiti was integrated with the Gathas in this compilation. The Haptanhaiti text is also archaic Old Avestan, but different in content to the Gathas, and lacking the name Zarathushtra. A tendency to bracket these two early texts with the RigVeda has been considered at risk of undue conflation.

Converging with Kellens, another sceptical view argues that the Gathas were not the creation of a single known author. "The Gathas and the Yasna Haptanhaiti are archaic, anonymous, oral poetry, most closely related to the hymns of the Rigveda." The commentator here is Professor Skjaervo, who views the Gathas as "ritual texts" possessing a complex symbolism, their purpose being a "regeneration of the ordered cosmos after periods of chaos." The "ritualism" is not explicit in terms of later phases of Zoroastrianism. Of these Old Avestan texts, Skjaervo comments: "The ritual they accompanied may have been an early version of the later yasna ritual." (39)

A basic idea of contemporary ritualist exegesis is that the Gathas were chanted while rituals were being performed. The precise nature of Gathic era ritualism is not known. The metaphor of these hymns is sufficiently dense for some analysts to doubt any major application in ritual prior to the Younger Avestan phase, when Zarathushtra was profiled as a sacrificer in changing cultural circumstances that are still obscure.

A counter to the Kellens theory, by Professor Almut Hintze, emphasises the cross references discernible between Gathas and internal individual hymns. Such features support a view of the Gathas as the work of a single author rather than an anonymous group (Hintze 2002:35). Cross references and keywords are here described as "signposts" in the poetic craft of the Gathas. "[Martin] Schwartz has convincingly argued that most, if not all, Gathic hymns are ring compositions.... The technique of ring compositions belongs to the culture of oral poetry in which the entire Avesta is deeply rooted. Moreover, the care with which signposts are placed supports the view that initially the Gathas were composed in order to be understood. Only in the later, post-Gathic, period did the language fall out of use and gradually become obsolete" (ibid:39).

A contemporary approach to the Gathas has affirmed: "The breadth of themes and density of Zarathushtra's philosophical reflection is overwhelming." An extending consideration is expressed: "Zarathushtra's theism and views of the social world are 'the first philosophy'." His authorship of the Gathas is here described in terms of: "composed and recited complex, aesthetically sophisticated metrical poetry with intentionally enigmatic lexical and syntactic ambiguities, coded alliterations, a technique of scrambling key words, ring-compositional generation of poems out of the sequential vocabulary of preceding poems, and quasi-spatial compositional patterns" (Olga Louchakova-Schwartz, Intersubjectivity and Multiple Realities in Zarathushtra's Gathas, 2018).

The source for this presentation is the distinctive output of Professor Martin Schwartz, who accepts the "historical Zarathushtra" as the author of the Gathas. A basic theme emerges: "Between these two principles [productive and destructive] humans also choose, with a resulting afterlife respectively of paradise or hell, following a judgment at an alternatively expansive or contractive Bridge of the Selector (Avestan: chinvato-peretu); finally, evil will be eliminated through a universal trial by fire and molten metal, and the world will be restored to its pristine splendour" (Schwartz, Dimensions of the Gathas as Poetry, 2015).

In every Gathic poem occurs "complex ring-composition," meaning "a systematic pairing of words and themes across concentrically related stanzas" (ibid:2). Yasna 32 reveals that the rivals of Zarathushtra were attempting to appropriate his poetry as though this output "was in line with their traditional polytheistic cult" (ibid:7). Schwartz underlines a difference from the Vedas and Younger Avesta: the Gathas exclude mythological material and similes. Instead, Zarathushtra demonstrates "a focus on the mind's necessity to understand, discriminate, and choose between Right and Wrong, with concomitant consequences for the fate of the individual soul and for the perfection of the world" (ibid:11).

In theological terms, "unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Gathas contain no proclamation of the oneness of the divinity... the question of whether Gathic religion is monotheistic (a question itself conditioned by the assumptions of the declaredly monotheistic background of scholars) is invalid.... Gathic theology absolves God from the origin of evil.... Both the contents and the style of the poems which constitute the Gathic corpus render them a thoroughly unique document in the literature of religions" (ibid:11).

Yasna 53 features the wedding of Pouruchista, daughter of Zarathushtra. Other scholars decided that this Gatha was not composed by Zarathushtra, but by his circle. In contrast, Professor Schwartz restores Yasna 53 to authorship of the figurehead (Schwartz, "Pouruchista's Gathic Wedding and the Teleological Composition of the Gathas," 2009, online).

Schwarz has celebrated Zarathushtra as "an incomparable poetic genius, the likes of whose mind the world has not since known." A related phrase describes the Gathas in terms of a "poetic ethico-mystical mentalism." These descriptions are visible at avesta.org.

In my own non-specialist treatment (published in 1995), I attempted to honour the Gathas, and the traditional legend of the prophet, without being an uncritical partisan of many beliefs accumulating about Zarathushtra, for instance, that he founded a ritual priesthood which continued in a more or less unchanging manner. That priesthood crystallised over generations and centuries, apparently undergoing pronounced amplifications of ritual and doctrine before and during the Sassanian era.

5.   Questions  of  Chronology,  Homeland,  and  Vocation

Proto-Indo-European Migrations and Linguistic Variations

The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers were apparently semi-nomadic pastoralists who inhabited the territory extending from what is now Ukraine to West Kazakhstan. The Yamnaya culture complex existed here during the fourth and third millenia BC, with offshoot societies resulting. The early Iranian peoples were dominant in the Eurasian steppe, seemingly causing some pressure for the "Indo-Aryans" to migrate into India (Carlos Quiles, Eurasian Steppe dominated by Iranian Peoples). In another direction, contrasting theories apply to a violent warrior society that invaded Europe. PIE warriors had an equestrian advantage over existing cultures which they attacked and occupied. To the east, the Indo-Iranian language evolved amongst Yamnaya cattleherders. The horse enabled the expansion of PIE peoples, via the use of wagons. There is no definitive history of these diverse developments. See Edward Dawson, A History of Indo-Europeans; R. Schmitt, "Aryans," Encyclopaedia Iranica.

The age of Old Avestan texts is charted very approximately. "The most likely model historically is that Iranian tribes were on the move southwards into Iran [from Central Asia] some time around the mid-2nd millenium BCE. The provenance of the Avesta and of the Zoroastrian religion would then coincide with that of the Avestan language and early Iranians, presumably in the area of Southern Central Asia" (A. Hintze 2015:38). The Younger Avesta probably appeared several centuries later. (40)

Mary Boyce

In Minds and Sociocultures, I favoured the controversial dateline proposed by the late Professor Mary Boyce (1920-2006) in relation to the Iranian prophet. She expressed variants ranging from c.1200 BC to c.1700 BC. (41) I do not believe it unreasonable to have adopted the dateline of c.1500 BC as a working hypothesis for the Gathas. Publication of the Boyce magnum opus, A History of Zoroastrianism, was a milestone in Zoroastrian studies, gaining partisans and critics. Assistance in the third volume came from the archaeologist Frantz Grenet, whose evaluation is of interest. (42) The first volume of the Boyce history sent some conservative scholars reeling with shock at the high dateline proposed for Zarathushtra, which went well over the traditional date of c.600 BC. Boyce concluded that the prophet lived during the period between 1000 BC and 1400 BC, matching estimates for the Rig Veda. She subsequently moved higher to 1700 BC, later modifying the dateline to c.1200 BC. This was evidently because of the resistance encountered. The chronology remains very open-ended.

Mary Boyce associated the Gathic poet with the early Sintashta settlement in Kazakhstan, then dated to the sixteenth century BC. That location on the steppes, despite the presence of large houses, was practising a settled pastoralism, tending sheep and goats, cattle and horses, together with a little farming. “Inferences from limited data clearly cannot be too much relied on; but in general the material remains of the Sintashta people, and the indications which these yield about their social and religious life, accord remarkably well with the relevant facts which can be gleaned from the Gathas” (Boyce 1992:37).

Rivals of Boyce said that Kazakhstan was much too far north for credence as a proto-Zoroastrian locale, however associatively. Sites to the south were considered rather more feasible, basically meaning Bactria. This region was one of those claimed in Zoroastrian tradition as the setting for the prophet’s activity. The claim of Bactria was eventually reconciled with the claim of Azerbaijan to be his birthplace. Other traditions also made similar claims for Central Asian regions such as Sistan and Sogdia (P. Leriche, F. Grenet, “Bactria,” Encyclopaedia Iranica).  There is no firm history attached to these attributions, which may nevertheless be significant for a belief in origin.

The homeland of the Iranian peoples is associated with the legendary Airyana Vaejah, a name found in Avestan texts, meaning "area of the Aryans" (in Pahlavi, Eran Vej). The Vendidad refers to sixteen countries, including Bactria and Airyana Vaejah. Central Asia here emerges strongly. Some scholars have argued for Khwarezm as the homeland of Zarathushtra, although a more southern environment has also been proposed. Gherardo Gnoli urged: "Airyana Vaejah is only the homeland of Zarathushtra and of Zoroastrianism," not a more generalised reference to ethnic homeland (Gnoli, "Avestan Geography," Encyclopaedia Iranica). "The concept of Airyana Vaejah was an invention of Zoroastrianism, which gave a new guise to a traditional idea of Indo-Iranian cosmography" (ibid).

Anthropological data (Antony 2007) has caused some analysts to credit that archaic cultures in Kazakhstan are the ultimate answer to the Airyana Vaejah issue. These steppe cultures appear to start with the Poltavka, dated to the period 2700-2100 BC. The lack of unanimity on this matter precludes any attribution in definitive terms.

Poltavka culture was the successor of Yamnaya, and assessed in terms of Indo-Iranian, or the blanket term PIE (Mallory 1997). Use of the horse has been dated to the fifth millenium BC (Antony 2007), a thought-provoking scenario for the steppeland societies. Those societies include Srubnaya (Timber-grave), succeeding Poltavka from circa 1800 BC, and located in the eastern part of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

Arkaim, discovered in 1987, is one of the Sintashta sites, and a strong focus of Russian popular interest

The Sintashta site was early described in a journal article of 1979 by the Russian archaeologist V. F. Gening (Shepherd 1995:841 note 67).  The name Sintashta became a general label for all the sites of that period. The Sintashta site was subsequently dwarfed by the celebrity of Arkaim in Russian popular media. The recent phenomenon of Russian Zoroastrianism, in addition to New Age groups, demonstrates "an avid interest in Arkaim," believing that Zarathushtra lived in the Arkaim area. In another sector, Russian archaeologists like Gennady Zdanovich and Viktor Sarianidi "uncritically endorse the idea that Zarathushtra was born in Russia or in Central Asia" (Michael Stausberg and Anna Tessmann, The Appropriation of a Religion, 2013).

Indologist Michael Witzel reflected: "We cannot be sure that (Proto) Indo-Iranian was actually spoken at Sintashta-Arkhaim around 2100/2000 BCE, but it must be pointed out that the archaeological assemblage and the geographical position of these sites close to the taiga makes this quite likely: the Sintashta-Arkhaim complex has the newly developed spoked (proto-) chariot and many other items (horse sacrifice, grave structure, Dadhyanc style replaced horse head in a grave at Potapovka, pur-style forts, etc.) overlapping with the early IA and Old Iranian cultures and texts" (Witzel, Sintashta, BMAC and the Indo-Iranians: A Query, 2003).

Another factor of geography is the BMAC (Bactria and Margiana Archaeological Complex), also known as the Oxus civilisation. This indigenous society dates back to the fifth millennium BC. Here a farming population achieved an impressive milieu of architecture, bronze tools, and jewellery. This layer of activity is dated to c. 2400-1600 BC at major sites. Altin Depe, in what is today Turkmenistan, gained a large religious complex, described as a four stepped tower reminiscent of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. Altin Depe was apparently abandoned because of soil exhaustion and climate change (see V. M. Masson, “Altin Tepe,” Ency. Iranica). Bactria and adjacent regions eventually became  Zoroastrian territory, at an uncertain date. Some archaeological details are of interest  (see Wu Xin, Zoroastrians of Central Asia, 2014).

Kazakhstan steppe

The PIE expert James P. Mallory stated: “What can be gleaned from the hymns [Gathas] is that they appear to be composed in an essentially rural milieu where stockbreeding, especially cattle-keeping, is held in esteem along with agriculture. Urbanism of any sort is not suggested…. By the mid-second millennium BC, most of the northern regions of Central Asia were occupied by pastoral societies deriving, either from the Timber-grave [Srubnaya] culture which was centred west on the Volga, or the Andronovo culture, a blanket term for a variety of steppe Bronze Age cultures that emerged in Central Asia and south Siberia…. They are in sharp contrast to the proto-urban centres of southern Central Asia such as Namazga V or Altin Depe, whose sophisticated architecture including temples, technology, art and economy bear scant resemblance to that portrayed in the earliest Iranian literature. Moreover, the remains from these steppe Bronze Age sites provides us with some of the finest parallels with common reconstructions for Indo-Iranian culture. The settlement and cemetery of Sintashta, for example, although located far to the north on the Trans-Ural steppe, provides the type of Indo-Iranian archaeological evidence that would more than delight an archaeologist seeking their remains in Iran or India…. The identification of the Andronovo culture and at least the eastern outliers of the Timber-grave culture as Indo-Iranian is commonly accepted by scholars.” (43) 

Revised dating for the PIE Sintashta culture is circa 2100-1800 BC, now viewed as a forerunner of the “Indo-Iranian” Andronovo complex, which spanned the second millennium BC. The archaeological difficulty was to penetrate the remains of Sintashta sites existing beneath those of later settlements. Several Sintashta towns were built over older settlements of the Poltavka culture. Another predecessor was the Abashevo culture at circa 2500-1900 BC, located in valleys of the Volga and Kama rivers. These societies were offshoots from PIE Yamnaya. The extensive number of sites, plus  ethnic and  linguistic associations, in this steppe scenario comprise an important part of Asian history, disappearing  from view many centuries ago. The archaeological jig saw puzzle is rarely so acute.

Location of Sintashta-Petrovka zone and other sites. Courtesy ScienceDirect.

Discovery of the bronze age Sintashta-Petrovka culture in Kazakhstan continued over many years. The famous Arkaim site was discovered in 1987 by Russian archaeology, since causing much speculation on popular media. This site, on the Russian side of the border (west of Sintashta), has been allocated to the Sintashta-Petrovka complex. The political situation imposed a confined coverage for many years. In 2010, a more public exposure caused international amazement at the “spiral cities” on the Kazakhstan steppe (now on the Russian border) dating to circa 2000 BC. Archaeologists had uncovered some twenty settlements, believed to have been occupied by Indo-Iranians (or “Aryans”) using the swastika symbol later made notorious by Nazi Germany. Rigveda associations were strong. About fifty more suspected sites were said to be under review. The territory involved was four hundred miles in length.

The Abashevo and Poltavka herders fled from ecological drawbacks to river valley sites. War between tribes was an unhappy feature of the Abashevo period, creating fortifications and eventual resort to war chariots. Weapons feature in many Sintashta graves, also the first known chariots, attested in ritual burials. Remains of smelting ovens were found in the excavated buildings at Sintashta, Arkaim, and elsewhere, permitting a description as early industrial sites. This metallurgy included an early form of weapons production. The necessity to defend mines and settlements of metalworkers required the building of fortresses, which then served as production centres. A military elite is envisaged in this context (Kuzmina 2007:223).

According to Russian archaeologists and others, the Sintashta-Petrovka culture complex, comprising many sites, emerges as a springboard for the spread of Indo-Iranian languages to India and Iran via the new equestrian migrations. These sites were the focus of a distinctive bronze metallurgy, very unusual in a steppe society. This industry was so successful that a booming trade in metal occurred, the Sintashta products reaching Bactria-Margiana and the urban centres of Iran and Mesopotamia.

Indologist Asko Parpola deduces that the Indo-Aryan contingent branched off from the Iranian peoples circa 2300 BC, when the Abashevo culture was formed. According to Parpola, two major Indo-Aryan waves  entered India, the first circa 2200 and the second circa 1700. The first wave are interpreted as interacting with the Indus Valley civilisation, while the second wave brought the Rigveda to India. An innovative contention of Parpola is that the first Indo-Aryan migratory wave transmitted the Atharva Veda, here considered to be older than the Rig. The Atharva is generally assessed as being several centuries later than the Rig.

The Iranian branch of steppe tribes are viewed by Parpola as remaining in the cattle-herding Yamnaya homeland of the Pontic-Caspian steppes until circa 1500 BC, when they too became equestrian, moving to the Asiatic steppes, thereafter migrating in various directions. Another wave of “West Iranians” arrived circa 1000 BC, moving to Iran. (44)

"One's assessment of Zarathushtra and the nature of his religious ideas will differ significantly, depending upon where and when one places his life." (45)  An argument formerly used to support the traditional chronology of 600 BC reads: the prophet was merely employing archaic forms of speech and imagery; priestly language tends to be conservative, resisting vernacular adaptation, thus reflecting an anachronistic cultural situation. The Gathas were composed at a much earlier era, on the linguistic basis of “some or many centuries” intervening between Old Avestan and the Younger Avesta.  The choice of “where and when” is extensive for the archaic time layers. The dateline of c.1500 BC may represent a contraction, not an exaggeration.

A type of shamanic mysticism may have been nurtured by proto-priestly vocations of circa 1500 BC. A scholar who assigned Zarathushtra to Kazakhstan, of the second millenium, has commented: "To compare him (Zarathushtra) with other shamans, and then adduce the differences to show he was not one, is a fruitless enterprise" (Russell 1988:13). The theory of Professor James Russell here posited a shamanic Zarathushtra, in a pastoral society, reforming shamanistic practices under the impact of his revelatory experiences. This theory has some points to commend. However, the shamanic attribution has not generally been in favour.

The version of Boyce does not employ the term shaman, but does refer to Zarathushtra in the context of "Iranian mystic,"   (46) which is not a typical idiom in the scholastic literature. Tthere are different ways of accenting such a discussion. The late Professor Henry Corbin is well known for numerous books relating to Iranian religion and mysticism. "One of the most significant contributions of Corbin to the Islamic culture of Iran was to establish a bridge between the pre-Islamic gnostic worldview of the Persians and Shi'ite spirituality and philosophy." (47) Strong disagreements relate to Corbin's method of exegesis, which is viewed as metahistory by some critics.

Iranian savants like Professor S. H. Nasr have employed the term gnosis to designate a complex area of experience which often causes confusion. "One can say that Islamic esotericism or gnosis crystallised into the form of Sufism in the Sunni world while it poured into the whole structure of Shi'ism especially during its early period." (48) Until recent decades, the word gnosis was unpopular in Christian countries, where attendant ideas were moulded by the Church Fathers as distinct from the Nag Hammadi codices. The new popularity of (Capital G) Gnosis involved some contemporary misconceptions. Further, application of the word gnosis, in a different doctrinal context, to Islamic mystics, has sometimes caused annoyance to the more inflexible conceptions.

Zoroastrian legend depicts Zarathushtra as encountering the amesha spentas in an illumined vision involving great light. Ahura Mazda, the eternal uncreated God, is part of the sacred heptad in this vision. The Pahlavi text Wizidagiha-i Zadspram, dating to the ninth century CE, says that this vision occurred while the prophet was in a state of ritual purity. The current finding of scholarship is that the heptad system of amesha spentas is not discernible in the Gathas, except perhaps in Yasna 47.1. This systematisation does begin to form in the Old Avestan text Yasna Haptanhaiti, but did not fully resolve until after the Zoroastrian calendar was established by the Achaemenian monarch Xerxes. (49)

The Avestan "hymns" exhibit a basic dualism between good and evil; there are major complexities underlying this dualism. Zarathushtra taught a moral choice for his followers. He is often said to have preached themes like linear time, resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell. However, such themes do not actually gain much detail in the Gathas; there is no systematic theology in the allusive poetry. Many of the archaic words employed are awarded different nuances by various translators. One instance is daena, a complex word formerly translated as "conscience." According to the Parsi scholar Cursetji Pavry, the Gathas teach that a man's conscience is the real determinant of his future destiny; man has the power of exercising freewill between the two principles of good and evil. "The wise" choose correctly by their good thoughts, words, and deeds; "the foolish" yield to evil thoughts, words, and deeds, bringing upon themselves misery "of long duration." (50)

Pavry rendered the meaning of Yasna 46.11 in the sense of: through their power the karapans and kavis have yoked man to evil deeds with the consequence of destroying his (future) life - but their own soul and their own conscience (daena) will cause them anguish when they come to the Chinvat Bridge, to be dwellers in the House of the Druj (Lie) for all eternity. (51)  The obscure karapans and kavis were the opponents of Zarathushtra. The apparent fundamentalism is open-ended. The sense of "eternal damnation" has elsewhere been considered misleading. "All their lifetime" is apparently more accurate than "all eternity." (52)

Another statement in the Gathas also modifies the sense of eternal damnation which some translators have employed. Zarathushtra refers to to the fate of followers of the Lie in terms of "a long life of darkness, bad food, (and) lamentation" This reference comes from Yasna 31.20. (53) Professor Shaul Shaked expresses doubt as to whether Zarathushtra should be attributed a doctrine of damnation, which appears in much later texts. (54) Caution is in general advisable about identifying the originating impulse with subsequent Zoroastrian doctrines.

The term daena achieved alternative translations, including that of "Inner Self."  (55)  Another rendition is "the good Vision." (56)  In later Zoroastrianism, the term daena gained the connotation of "religion." The original sense has been compared to the Vedic dhih or "vision" (daena comes from the same verbal root), described in terms of a faculty "at once human and divine." (57)

The Chinvat Bridge is metaphorical, not being clearly described in the Gathas; however, this concept was much elaborated in later texts and is identified with the after-death state. The Chinvat Bridge was also believed to be cognisable during a "soul journey" while still living, a factor which lent the "Bridge of the Sorter" a visionary status. Henry Corbin stated: "The Bridge of Chinvat links the summit that is in the center of the world to the cosmic mountain; and the ascent of the latter leads to the Garotman, to the 'Abode of the Hymns.' " (58)

Such exotic symbolism offput some disconcerted analysts. A traditional view is that the soul has to face the ordeal of the Chinvat Bridge three days after death, when heaven or hell result. The term Garotman signifies heaven or paradise. The Pahlavi word garotman derives from the Avestan garo demana, meaning "house of song." The Garotman appeared in Corbin's portrayal of a gnostic dimension of existence, as culled from varied sources of Neoplatonism, Mandaean texts, ishraqi teaching, Shaikhism, and the Gospel of Thomas. "A meeting of the Earth with the 'Abode of Hymns' " (59) was juxtaposed with reflections on the "same world in which the liberated soul, whether in momentary ecstasy or through the supreme ecstasy of death, meets its archetypal 'I,' its alter ego or celestial image." (60) The commentary of Corbin has not always met with agreement, his usage of terminology being considered extravagant, and also influenced by Jungian conceptions.

Other disagreements attended the exegesis of Professor H. S. Nyberg, who contributed a controversial shamanistic version of Zarathushtra. The better known commentary of Professor Mircea Eliade states how Nyberg's interpretation of Gathic references implies: "Those who have been united to him (Zarathushtra) in ecstasy will cross the [Chinvat] bridge with ease." (61) One can here query the role of Zarathushtra as a psychopomp. According to Eliade: "The bridge, then, is not only the way for the dead; in addition - and we have frequently encountered it as such - it is the road of ecstatics." (62)

Nyberg construed that Zarathushtra and his disciples induced an ecstatic experience, by means of ritual songs intoned in a sacred space (maga), where mystical "communication between heaven and earth became possible." (63) The description of paradise as "house of song" (garo demana), was thought to justify this "shamanist" interpretation. Other scholars deemed this version to be fantasy.

A more recent version of a shamanist Zarathushtra urges a visionary element as the key to his doctrines. "It has become fashionable to regard the prophet as a philosopher above all, as if nothing but clear thinking, coupled with a poetic gift, could have led him to preach." (64) One might reflect that a shaman is only very approximately to be defined as a priest; the shamanic vocation is basically that of leaving home for solitude in which a vision occurs, conferring a sense of new life. Zarathushtra's obscure "priesthood" may have been structured around solitude and visions first and foremost, with sacrificial rites an appendage for some practitioners.

Whether Zarathushtra resembled any of the PreSocratic philosophers is conjectural. Entities like Empedocles had comparatively little affinity with modern philosophy; in the later era, Plotinus was an indisputable mystic. Perhaps the main point here is that a mystical component does not preclude being a philosopher, this juxtaposition only being foreign to comparatively recent academic philosophy. Nietzsche is said to have employed "a rhetorical strategy of inversion" in his Thus Spake Zarathustra, a work whose "lyrical hero has nothing to do with, and in fact, is quite an opposite of, the historical Zarathushtra" (O. Louchakova-Schwartz, Intersubjectivity and Multiple Realities, 2018, note 4).

A well known commentator described Empedocles in terms of : "primarily belongs to the mystical tradition.... his exuberant genius combined the temperament of a prophet with a really scientific turn of mind" (F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, repr. Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 150).

The conventional denial of any mysticism in the Gathas seems myopic. To quote a recent observation: "Zoroaster's own encounters with Ahura Mazda - whom he addresses familiarly as a beloved friend - involve a vision of the beginning of the world which itself can certainly be classified as mystical." (65) The same scholar refers to "the Zoroastrian mystical path." (66) The theme of the world's beginning is found in Yasna 30, a Gathic text thought to derive from "a direct religious experience." (67) To be more precise, the term xwafna has been translated as "vision."  Yasna 30.3 thus includes the statement: "These are the two original Spirits who, as Twins, have been perceived through a vision." (68)

Yasna 30 is described by some specialists as a reinterpretation of the mythology of primordial Twins, thought to be very archaic and extending back into Proto-Indo-European religion. In Zarathushtra the dualism is not absolute; the opposing forces of truth and falsehood (the Lie) appear to be emanations or creations of the supreme deity Ahura Mazda.

A modern conclusion is that Zarathushtra "uses abstractions to refer to states of mind as well as to divine entities," as in the case of amesha spentas. "One comprehends that for him the macrocosmic struggle is simultaneously occurring in the human microcosm." (69)

In Zoroastrian doctrine, the world was originally good; this emphasis has often been contrasted with the equation of matter with evil in most Gnostic (capital G) systems. Nevertheless Angra Mainyu, the Evil Spirit, invaded the world, where evil exists in perverse human will; this concept does involve a dualism "between matter and spirit." (70)

In Yasna 50.6, Zarathushtra identifies himself as a "poet who raises his voice," requesting Ahura Mazda to instruct him "so as to become the charioteer of his intellect and tongue" (W. Malandra, "Chariot," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The non-poetic charioteers caused military havoc via far less intellectual pursuits in diverse countries; by Achaemenian times, Persian charioteers could devastate infantry with the addition of scythe blades fitted to wheel hubs.

"How am I to perfect my Vision (daena)?" (71) This question is posed by Zarathushtra in Yasna 44.9. The inspired vision is one which "correctly shall see thee, O Mazda," (72)  a formulation appearing in the next verse. The aspirational flavour of many Gathic verses attests an intimate and direct relationship with Ahura Mazda. Some readers find difficulty in perceiving how such moods were closely related to ritual preoccupations attributed to the composer by pro-Mole scholars.

"According to tradition, he [Zarathushtra] was a zaotar, that is, a sacrificing priest and chanter." (73)  Another source says: "In the Gathas he [Zarathushtra] refers to himself as a 'zaotar,' that is, a fully qualified priest.... In the younger Avesta he is spoken of by the general word for priest, 'athaurvan.' " (74)  An advocate of the traditional dateline stated: "Zarathushtra was probably trained to be a priest," here believing that the subject was "a ritualist through and through." (75) The element of uncertainty in this version may have been prompted by the consideration that Zarathushtra was probably not a hereditary priest, instead choosing his vocation. "His name and those of his father and a sole recorded ancestor would hardly qualify as priestly names." (76)

The family of the prophet are depicted as horsebreeders. The word aspa or horse is evident in the name of his father Pourushaspa and his ancestor Haecat.aspa. That word also appears in the name of the king Vishtaspa, the prophet's legendary patron. Zarathushtra's own name bears the word for "camel" (ushtra), as does that of his disciple Frashaoshtra. A deduction follows that these are pastoral names, the animals concerned having long been domesticated on the steppes. The name Zarathushtra is variously rendered as "herder of camels" and "he who possesses old camels." This may represent a "deprecatory name" rather than any occupation. (77) Favouring a shamanist milieu, one scholar has referred to the prophet's grazing animals and his sleek horses, while indicating that he lived in a felt-covered yurt or tent, at least during his travels. (78)  

Followers of Marijan Mole have controversially denied Zarathushtra's authorship of the Gathas (section 1 above). For them, the Iranian prophet only exists in ritual, which is thus elevated to a key position. Scholars like Professor William Malandra have contested the pro-Mole theory that Gathic occurrence of the prophet's name, in the third person, means that he was not the author of the Gathas. Malandra counters with the argument that RigVedic variations, between the first and third person, afford a reinforcement of the conventional view that Zarathushtra did compose the Gathas. Traditional poetic conventions in the RigVeda have a counterpart in the Gathas. The same scholar reflects that RigVeda hymns are connected with the religious ritual, although "most are not linked in any particular way to the ritual performance." Indeed, hymns like those of the rishi Vasishtha are personal expressions of the poet's relationship to the deity, with no ritual application being in evidence.

The innovative Humbach translation of the Gathas awards a context of sacrificial ritual for these Avestan texts. Humbach emphasises that Zarathushtra identifies himself as a zaotar (also a vaedemna or "knower"), and that some Gathas refer to a ritual context. Malandra complains at Humbach ritual exegesis, because "it is not at all obvious that some of the Gathas have any ritual context at all." The most well known example of this contradiction is the Lament of the Cow (Yasna 29). "We know next to nothing about what rituals Zarathushtra performed or about how he performed them." (79) The Yasna ritual appears to have developed long after Zarathushtra; the associations of that sacerdotal exercise may comprise an encrumbance in terms of elucidating origins.

"His [Zarathushtra's] own role was probably more radical than the later meanings of zaotar would suggest" (Minds and Sociocultures, p. 242). I also expressed the more cautious comment "even perhaps that he was trained in their solemnization [of rituals] as a priest in his early days" (ibid:293). This connotes the possibility that the prophet did not end his life as a ritual priest, even if he started his career as a ritualising priest or as a type of shamanic entity. Many scholars describe the subject as a priest; however, one or two have called him a shaman. In contrast, the pro-Mole contingent say that only ritual is a reliable gauge of the situation. This tended to be an orthodox view of the Rig rishis who became professional brahman sacerdotalists, developing an extensive programme of ritual etiquette, including the sacrifice of large numbers of animals. Gautama Buddha and other shramanas like Mahavira Jina were in strong objection. Fortunately, the heretics survived in history. The ritualists resisted their presence and memory. Untouchables were increasingly marginalised by ritual preoccupations.

My earlier argument tended to the standpoint that Zarathushtra may have been a "shamanic" version of zaotar, according to a non-hereditary calling in which he became a marked nonconformist rather than a routine sacerdotalist. Zaotar is usually considered an equivalent of the Vedic hotar. However, there is no proof that the Gathic poet had the same role as some or many Vedic poets and chanters. The brahman officiant in India eventually became identified with a social class of priests, affording a general designation reminiscent of the blanket term athaurvan in the Avesta. The class system in Iran developed over centuries, and cannot be taken for granted in the apparently pastoral locale of the Gathas. There was not necessarily any hereditary role of zaotar in that locale.

6.  The  Factor  of  Ritualism

Achaemenian gold plaque from the Oxus Treasure 500-330 BC. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum. Depicts a Zoroastrian priest holding a barsom, a bundle of twigs or grasses for pounding juices used in activities like the haoma rite.

The Iranist scholar Marijan Mole contributed strongly to ritual interpretation of the Gathas, which demoted the historical Zarathushtra (Mole, Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien, 1963). Mole was influenced by the philologist Georges Dumezil (1898-1986), whose theories have not withstood the test of time amongst Iranists. Dumezil's treatment of Iranian data was judged to be inadequate by a wider circle of scholars than Mole. "Some Indologists and Iranists found his system overly schematic, forced, or so elastic as to encompass all manner of unrelated data" (B. Lincoln, "Dumezil, Georges," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Amongst the critics were heavyweight analysts like Jan Gonda, Richard Frye, and F. B. J. Kuiper. Iranists "have gradually turned away from Dumezil's theories in the decades since his death" (ibid).

Dumezilian "tripartite" theory, favoured by Mole, did not convince critics of his "mythological" approach. Mole's presentation of the Gathas has been described in terms of "ritual, myth, and ideology surrounding a stipulated annual festival of the renewal of time." (80) Mole devoted much space to a reconstruction of ritual he believed to underlie the Gathas, based upon his version of concepts found in these archaic poems. However, "the validity of the ritual approach to understanding the texts is seriously limited" (Stausberg 2004:13). That is because almost nothing is known about Old Avestan ritual, as distinct from the Younger Avestan sequel. Another exegete of the ritual approach is Professor Jean Kellens, who conceded that no reliable details about Old Avestan ritual are known. Kellens observed that the Gathas do not describe how the (supposed) sacrifice proceeds, and nor do they narrate the exploits of gods. Instead these poems are credited with explaining the "spirit of ritual" (ibid:13, 16, citing Kellens, Essays on Zarathushtra and Zoroastrianism, 2000).

Varied opinions attend Zarathushtra's proposed reform of ritual practices. Some dismiss this factor as a hindsight "Christian" invention based on slight and misleading references. Interpretations of Yasna 29 have been criticised by Professor Skjaervo, who says that the crucial line of this Gathic composition is almost incomprehensible. A debated line "appears to be referring to the ritual practices of those who wish to promote chaos: mistreatment of the cow and abuse of the haoma" (Skjaervo 2011:331). Yasna 32:14 is often employed as proof that Zarathushtra condemned blood sacrifice. There is no explicit reference to haoma in the Gathas, a fact sometimes believed to prove that the prophet demoted haoma. There is definitely a complaint in Yasna 32:14, relating to obscure opponents known as karpans and kavis.

One contention is that Zarathushtra did not oppose animal sacrifice in itself, but only the violent manner in which the daeva (or baga) worshippers sacrificed animals (baga, Old Iranian for "god," occurs only once in the Gathas). Zarathushtra abhorred the daevas. A drawback is that the Gathas do not divulge the identity of these harmful gods. The Younger Avesta does proffer some identities, but is considered vague on this subject. Thus, the later texts are an inadequate guide, their demonology representing abstractions such as Pollution and Stupor, along with three figures corresponding to Vedic devas, namely Indra, Nanghaithya, and Saurwa. The second name is associated with the twin Nasatyas of Vedic lore, while the third has been identified with Sharva, a form of the god Rudra-Shiva. The last-named is evocative of a variety of sects living on the fringe of Vedic society, with some tendencies to extremism. The god Indra, of martial associations, is strongly linked to the consumption of soma, the substance known to Iranians as haoma.

The Gathas "went far beyond the early religious-scientific insights that characterise the Indian (and perhaps early Iranian) rishi tradition; his [Zarathushtra's] message had clear social implications" (P. G. Kreyenbroek, "Religions in Iran," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The world order had been wrecked by daeva-worshippers, who had no respect for animals, on whom tribes depended for survival. In this interpretation, large numbers of animals were killed as offerings to the Vedic deva (daeva) Indra. Zarathushtra "evidently stood in the Indo-Iranian traditions of the rishi (Avestan arashi, Yasna 31.5)," a significant factor (ibid).

The pagan Iranian religion is imperfectly known. One contention is that the prophet's opponents were worshippers of daevas but not the ahuras. That could be misleading. The term Ahura (Lord) apparently applied to three gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon, namely Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Varuna. Some analysts claim that Zarathushtra deleted the elevation of Mithra and Varuna in an attitude of monotheism.

The archaic Iranians revered the elements. Their respect for water often sounds startling to moderns, when that factor is duly explicated. The archaic "ritual of the waters" was intended to purify water (Yasna 63-9). In Pahlavi, this custom is termed ab-zohr ("offering of water"). "The concept that the offering was given to compensate for human pollution made ab-zohr an appropriate atonement to impose on anyone who was known to have harmed water in any way" (M. Boyce, "Ab-Zohr," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The Avestan text Vendidad imposed ab-zohr as a general penance, covering crimes such as killing the otter, a water animal. Another cause of concern was the contaminated water near battlefields. Compared to these scruples, the modern technological trespass on the oceans and rivers is a super-crime for which no penance is imposed by lax governments.

In contrast, the animal sacrifice (atash-zohr) is less appealing. According to Mary Boyce, there is no evidence to support the view that Zarathushtra was opposed to animal sacrifice; however, this view has often been maintained by Western commentators, on the basis of difficult Gathic verses (including Yasna 32.14). The magi of Achaemenian Iran were certainly strong supporters of atash-zohr, incorporated in the yasna ceremony. The late Avestan text Vendidad enjoins that expiation of a sin requires a man to slaughter a thousand sheep. After this ritual offering, the penitent has to perform the ab-zohr, involving a thousand libations (or zaothras) to the waters. Those libations included haoma, milk, and pomegranate. Blood sacrifice is abundantly attested in the Younger Avestan hymns known as Yashts; this practice gained a continued advocacy in Pahlavi texts, and was popular at gahambar festivals.

The Parsis eventually abandoned animal sacrifice, a feature still attested in the eighteenth century by annual sacrifice of sheep to Mithra. In 1920, Parsis living at some towns of Gujarat were still slaughtering goats for the caharom offering. In Gujarat, Parsis were close neighbours of Hindus, who objected to cow sacrifice. This was probably why the Parsis abandoned atash-zohr. The situation was different in Iran, where Zoroastrians lived amongst Muslims. At Yazd, they were under no pressure to end animal sacrifice, despite the appearance of Parsi reformists. (81)

The haoma controversy involves the issue as to whether later Zoroastrian worship accurately reflects the activities of Zarathushtra. One Gathic verse (Yasna 48.10) condemns "the urine of this stimulant" in relation to the misrule of the karapans (thought to be a category of priest). Some scholars have interpreted that phrase as a reference to haoma, although a drug is also envisaged. "There is no explicit reference to haoma in the Gathas" (Boyce, A Hist. of Zoroastrianism Vol. 1, 1989, p. 217).

A translation of the key phrase in Yasna 48.10 is: "When, O Mazda... wilt thou smite the filth (muthra) of this intoxicant (mada), with which, out of enmity, the pagan priests (karapan) deceive" (ibid:216-17). The term mada is "of wide application, and can be used of anything which exhilarates" (ibid:217). Boyce suggests "a debilitating drug such as opium or hemp" (ibid). The word muthra means excrement or urine. The strong language has proved memorable.

The suggestion of a drug can be taken seriously. Entheogen usage in Zoroastrian worship is emphasised by the Schwartz theory (section 8 below). Elsewhere, an awkward phrase has provoked reaction. The pro-haoma camp argue that the "proper conclusion" to make is that the Gathic reference to mada or drunkenness must apply to something other than haoma. (82) However, the cordon creates a concern for any investigator, under constraint to be "proper" in deference to religious conduct, that the truth might actually be obscured by the legitimising argument. This was one reason why I credited the anti-haoma stance in my earlier published treatment of Zoroastrianism, following a cue in the translation by Professor Insler, whose version of the Gathas is not amenable to ritual elements. (83) In contrast, other recent translators have favoured ritual associations. An argument for ginseng, as the original haoma, did not gain wide support.  (84)  An alternative is to infer that haoma was involved in a situation of "shamanic" drug sponsorship by Zarathushtra's opponents.

The ritual allusions in the Gathas have been differently accented. Professor Insler concluded that these allusions are metaphorical, contrasting with the version of Professor Humbach, who made a case for ritual texts. (85) This issue is rather fraught with disagreements. Professor Malandra has since applied a critique to the Humbach translation, affirming that the 1959 publication was "composed in a dense style that often does not move beyond the obscurity of the original Avestan."

Concerning the obscurity of Avestan language, Malandra cites the verdict of Professor Ilya Gershevitch, who in 1952, commented in a learned journal: "Out of the 238 surviving Gathic stanzas scarcely less than 190 are partly or completely incomprehensible." Opinions vary as to the current state of the art.

The same critic states that Humbach supplied a paraphrase of the Gathas intended to elucidate Zarathushtra's meaning. "Frequently astounding in its departure from what appears to be the surface meaning, the paraphrase is dominated by the idea that the prophet was concerned almost exclusively with ritual in his professional role as priest" ( W. W. Malandra, "Gathas. ii," Encyclopaedia Iranica online).

The same source observes that Professor Stanley Insler was a surpassing Vedacist, and one who contested "the extreme ritualistic interpretation given by Humbach." The rival version of the Gathas by Insler stressed "the moral and ethical character of Zoroaster's thought neglected in the ritualist approach" (ibid).

Malandra adds that the 1991 translation by Humbach was "totally revised" and accordingly "gained immensely in clarity of expression." There are still reservations, however. "The philological discussions and notes almost completely ignore" the scholarly literature on cultural and religious history. Malandra is careful to add that two French translators of the Gathas exceeded Humbach in "the unrelenting insistence on the Gatha's overriding concern for ritual" (ibid). The reference here is to Jean Kellens and Eric Pirart.

The ritual interpretation of Kellens and Pirart controversially suggested that the Gathas were composed by a group of ritual priests. The translators, comments Malandra, "came to the remarkable conclusion that Zoroaster did not compose the Gathas at all." This has been considered a very European view. Mary Boyce lodged a resisting criticism: "An entirely novel rendering of them [the Gathas] was thus achieved, with almost all doctrinal and ethical matter eliminated." (86)

Malandra emphasises the "often severe" degree of uncertainty attending the interpretation of many Gathic stanzas. He adds revealingly: "It is a wonder that translators are so loathe to signal to those of their readers unfamiliar with Avestan, when the translation of a passage rests on pure conjecture or is the best guess among options" (article linked above). Caveat beginners and outsiders.

Professor Helmut Humbach repudiates the extreme exegesis of his French rivals with regard to the eclipsed authorship of Zarathushtra. He credits that the prophet may have lived about 600 years before Xerxes, invoking the Greek account of Xanthus the Lydian. Humbach also emphasises the factor of mysticism, though very much in terms of a "sacrificial mysticism." He contests the interpretation from other scholars that the Gathas amount to a "didactic poem." Humbach states: "The sacrifical mysticism which dominates the first four Gathas is not easily accessible to readers of our time" (H. Humbach, "Gathas. i," Encyclopaedia Iranica online). That means most of the hymns under discussion.

Humbach refers to "the enigmatic style of the majority of Gatha stanzas, which evidence a sacrificial mysticism and spiritual esoterism of which Yasna 29, the so-called 'Complaint of the Cow,' is particularly characteristic; this song must have been completely unintelligible to the public" (ibid).

Humbach emphasises that, in Yasna 33.6, Zarathushtra refers to himself as a zaotar, meaning "officiating priest." The same interpreter urges that the sixteen hymns in the first four Gathas were "composed to accompany official ceremonies of worship ordered and financed by Kavi Vishtaspa" (ibid). Some analysts are more inclined to agree with Humbach's statement: "When referring to the cattle-breeding herdsmen [vastryo.fshuyant], Zoroaster evidently includes himself; in the Younger Avesta, this expression denotes the lowest of the three social classes, but in the Gathas it does not at all qualify the prophet as being of low origin" (ibid). Priests and commoners shared the vocation of cattle-breeding, therefore. How far this reflects a relatively classless society is still unclear.

The ritual allusions have been construed to mean that Zarathushtra meditated on rituals, a practice reminiscent of Indian rishis. Ritual allusions, metaphorical or no, do not necessarily mean ritual texts. Poetic subtleties need not be reduced to a ritual context.

One specialist has commented on disadvantages of the ritualising versions which interpret the Gathas according to idioms in Vedic texts. "Such an approach, though it has its merits, may cause significant aspects of the text to be lost." (87)  Professor Shaked observes that the Book of Genesis can be read merely as a branch of ancient Mesopotamian literature, a reductionist method that was actually pursued by some scholars. A religious tradition often uses old terminology while reaching out towards a new content. "Novel ideas are frequently expressed by old phraseology that is made to adapt to a new communal experience." (88)  The possibility is urged: "The sanctioned ancient language of ritual may no longer have reflected the reality of the new Zarathushtrian religion." (89)  An analogy is provided from Jewish religion. The synagogue liturgy still uses today the language of temple sacrifice that was suspended some 2,000 years ago.

Extreme positions in modern exegesis of Zoroastrianism are here described in terms of "regarding the Gathas as provincial Vedic texts" and in another direction, "reading the whole of later Zoroastrianism into them." (90)

The same scholar affirms, with commendable honesty, that "our understanding of the original teachings of Zarathushtra is quite imperfect." (91)  We may conclude that Zarathushtra had to use an established tradition of poetry to communicate with some obscure religious audience. Long before the Upanishads, his sublimated ritualism may have retreated or advanced into experiential tangents and metaphorical devices.

If Zarathushtra basically experienced the Iranian heroic age from the perspective of "ordinary law-abiding people," (92)  then one should not envisage a typical ritual priest uttering ritual hymns symptomatic of a professional sacerdotal class. The suggested "pastoral millenarianism" is likely to have reacted against ritual interests to a considerable degree.

7.  The  Ethical  Dualist

A distinctive commentator refers to a metaphorical chariot race depicted in the Gathas. The context is a variant of ethical dualism. Professor Schwartz quotes Yasna 30.10: "For then will occur the breakage of Wrong's (chariot)-shafting, but the swiftest will (still) be yoked at the fine dwelling of Good Mind [Vohu Manah] and of Wisdom and Rightness, and they will win in good renown" (Schwartz, "Ecryptions in the Gathas," 2003:377). The translator explains that the broken chariot shaft is relevant for context, because this accessory was frequently the cause of crashes in chariot races.

A Gathic ethical ideal is the "chariot of Rightness," here contrasted with the opposite that meets with accident in the "great race" celebrated by Zarathushtra. This event involves a choice, in which some "opted for Worst Mind," creating a condition of "wild wrath, whereby they afflict mortals" (ibid:376). Worst Mind is a trap for those making the wrong decision. The contrasting vohu manah "means literally the good moral state of a person's mind" (J. Narten, "Bahman," Encyclopaedia Iranica). There is no compelling reason to treat such themes as being ritualistic, a tendency of pro-Mole exegesis.

Zarathushtra may have been an archaic precursor of the abstemious and critical priests mentioned in Book VI of the Denkard (section 11 below). He may have enjoined new prayers as substitute rites of worship. One interpretation urges that he sanctioned moderate animal sacrifice in the interests of community survival. Uncertainties mean that even sacred prayers in the Old Avestan dialect (such as the Ahuna Vairya) are not to be taken for granted, because "there is doubt that they are Zarathushtra's compositions." (93) The Ahuna Vairya (Yasna 27.13) precedes the Gathas in the Yasna liturgy.

The abovementioned Denkard (Book VI) supplies "an anecdote describing two aged mobadan [priests] who live in seclusion and simplicity - much as Zoroaster is alleged in Greek tradition to have lived - chanting the Avesta and eating only vegetable food." (94)  This reference may indicate a minority of Sassanian priests who chose to end their days in contemplation, a tendency conceivably facilitated by rural environments. A contemplative priest, in prehistoric times, may have enjoyed a greater freedom than the subsequent priesthood imposing a sense of "this worldly" values amenable to hereditary roles.

In India, where asceticism was far more pronounced, priestly legislation is known to have restricted the contemplative lifestyle to the fading years of a man's life. In Iran, at the uncertain period when the Vendidad was compiled (long after Zarathushtra), the priestly legists were zealously insisting: "The married is far above the celibate, the man with children above him who has none, the man who eats meat above him who fasts." (95) There was apparently a need felt to assert orthodox superiority over what was perhaps a minority of celibate vegetarians.

Zarathushtra may have become a priest at the age of fifteen, an age associated with maturity amongst the ancient Iranians, though training for that vocation probably began at about the age of seven. (96) There was thus ample time for him to achieve a reformist perspective in his subsequent career. Professor Mary Boyce wrote of the Gathas: "He further describes himself there as a 'vaedemna' or 'one who knows,' an initiate possessed of divinely inspired wisdom." (97) The nature of that wisdom is a very open-ended issue.

According to the traditional Pahlavi legend, Zarathushtra commenced a wandering life in quest of truth at the age of twenty, gained his revelation at thirty, and began to influence the court of Vishtaspa some thirteen years later. If he was a ritualist zaotar during his teens, he might have been a very dissident zaotar by the age of forty. There is surely scope for both ethical and mystical tendencies in the general idea that: "Caring for the other six creations, and bringing their Mainyus ["Spirits"] into his own self was part of the duty of the ashavan; and he should also strive earnestly to be fit for Mazda's Holy Spirit to dwell with him." (98)

The composer of the Gathas refers to himself as a manthran, a term meaning one who composes sacred utterances. However, his method of conveying words was very different to the traditional manthran, who "simply spoke his manthra and left it to work its effect." (99)  In contrast, the prophet exhorted his audience to listen and act, with the purpose of changing their situation. Manthra could merely amount to magical spells, (100) possibly one factor Zarathushtra was opposing.

The metaphorical nature of certain Gathic references is a matter requiring serious consideration. For instance, some scholars have proposed that the cow (gav), in Gathic references, is not the pastoral animal but "an allegorical figure representing religious vision, the daena." (101)  That theory derives support from references in the RigVeda, where the cow is employed as a metaphor for poetic vision. The Gathas do not make any such explicit equation. However, as Professor William Malandra has stressed, Zarathushtra possibly understood the theme of the "Cow's Lament" (Yasna 29) in a spiritual context, as "an allegory for the vicissitudes suffered by the righteous man's soul in its quest for the 'good vision.' " (102)  

The dialogue of Yasna 29 is so complex that uncertainty exists as to who is speaking in some verses - whether Zarathushtra or one of the amesha spentas. The ashavan (truth-possessor) was apparently involved in a quest that continued on from the acquisition of moral virtues; the common translation of ashavan as "righteous man" would appear to be a limitation on meaning.

A spiritual quest for vision may have taken precedence in Zarathushtra's mind, over a ritual profession, at an early juncture in his career. This quest is conceivably related to his emphasis in a well known translation. "Give me this sign: the total transformation of this existence; so that, worshipping you and praising you, I attain to the greatest joy" (103)  This manthra of Yasna 34.6 entails the conception of an imminent renewal or tranformation of existence, a theme that appears to have been radically altered by subsequent generations of priests.

A theological reassessment on the part of posterity came to expect the fulfilment of religion at the end of time; a theory of world ages was developed in which successive saoshyants (benefactors or saviours) figured, leading to a final triumph of Ahura Mazda over the evil Angra Mainyu at the end of history. (104) Therefore, acute reservations about the finished doctrine of frasho-kereti ("renovation") are in order. Although such later doctrines may have had a point of origin in the Gathas, they are not what Zarathushtra actually taught. "In the Gathas, Zarathushtra and his followers bring about the renovation; being Saoshyants, they fight and defeat Evil" (A. Hintze, "Frasho-Kereti," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Putting aside the subsequent embellishments to saoshyant lore, "he [Zarathushtra] did have a concept, though, of saviour figures, whom he called Saoshyants and among whom he numbers himself." (105)  This theme lacks detail. The saoshyants were apparently regarded as the key to victory over the Lie.

Professor Mircea Eliade suggested: "Zarathushtra's speculative effort may be compared with the meditations and discoveries of the sages depicted in the Upanishads." (106)  His speculation, or intuition, employed poetic idioms to dramatise the contest in which the saoshyant confronted his opponents. "The earliest Zoroastrianism, so imperfectly reflected by the gathas, seems to give first place to 'wisdom,' to inner 'illumination' in the presence of the sacrificial fire." (107)

The same comparativist scholar stated: "The [Zoroastrian] cult is so spiritual that even the term 'sacrifice' (yasna) is equivalent, in the gathas, to the term 'thought.' " (108)  Some other commentators give a literal rendition. However, Eliade tended to favour the interpretation conferring an ecstatic experience, via the Avestan word maga, upon officiating priests of the yasna rites. The term maga, associated with Nyberg's shamanistic theory, has also figured strongly in other versions of the sacrificial ritual. "The state of maga is obtained primarily by the haoma sacrifice, the sacrifice of the 'drink of immortality.' " (109)  The word chishti (illumination) also figures in this interpretation of the ritual promoted by clerical Zoroastrianism.

It is not necessary to believe that Zarathushtra derived his inspiration from ceremonies like the haoma ritual. The legend says that he derived his revelation from the sacred heptad. Modern scholars have varied markedly in opinion.

The history of the haoma rite is obscure. Condoning references to the haoma rite, in the archaic Yashts, led to Eliade's description of a Zarathushtran trend in terms of "strong resistance" being applied to an elevation of the pagan heritage. To the extent that "blood sacrifices were later definitively suppressed, and haoma disappeared as an intoxicating drink, being replaced by a mixture of plant juices, water, and milk." (110) The identity of the original haoma plant is still uncertain. Later Zoroastrianism definitely used ephedra, together with other plants and milk. Ephedra is regarded as a medicinal agent. "Ephedra acts as a stimulant by causing the release of adrenaline" (K. E. Eduljee, Haoma).

The Gathas were composed in Old Avestan, which unlike Younger Avestan and RigVedic, has no terms for social classes. The format indicates a social order comprising the family (khvaetu), settlement, and clan. It is very probable, though not certain, that kinship ties linked the members of these units. "The Old Avestan classless groupings of family and clan repeat themselves as the basic pattern for all later Inner Asian steppe-dwellers." (111) Whereas in Younger Avestan, three social classes are mentioned, namely the priest (athravan), the warrior/nobleman (rathaeshtar), and the herdsman/farmer (vastryo.fshuyant).

The deduction has accordingly been made that Zarathushtra's community was pastoral. There is no indication that these people were nomadic. They might have lived in permanent villages rather than seasonal camps. Zarathushtra addressed both women and men; it is not certain whether this indicates an equal social footing or his own policy of equality. Professor Boyce linked this social environment with the vast area to the north of the Jaxartes river, an area known today as Kazakhstan, (112) including steppe, desert, forest, and mountains (section 5 above).

The Gathic verses are "always allusive, with multiple layers of meaning." (113)  These verses employ the word vastrya or "herdsman," which some scholars treat as metaphorical, but which many interpret literally as a reference to the ordinary men, the farmers. An egalitarian message is not necessarily at odds with allusive content. The foes of Zarathushtra apparently included priests who served the warlords, encouraging the ranks of professional fighters and cattle-raiders.

The prophet's ethical dualism is generally viewed as opposing the Indo-Iranian concept of Indra as god of the young men (maryas) of the tribe. The votaries of Indra appear to have fostered violent and amoral attitudes. A related surmisal is that human sacrifice was probably offered at some performances of the archaic yasna, the main act of worship undertaken by priests for the good of the world. (114)

The ancient rationale of yasna ritual was that the "seven creations" were purified and protected by the officiating priest in his state of ritual purity. Haoma was crushed in a stone mortar and represented the plant creation. The sacrificial beast represented the animal creation. The priest represented the human creation. The other four creations were also in evidence: earth was represented by the ground of the outdoor ritual enclosure, the sky was associated with the stone mortar in which the haoma was crushed, water was in the libation bowl, and fire was tended in a brazier. At issue is whether Zarathushtra was more thorough in caring for the diverse creations, if he perceived the inadequacy of such karapan rituals in the achievement of due ecology and social wellbeing.

Rather than being ritual texts, the Gathas "often give expression to his [Zarathushtra's] own inward dialogues with God." (115) They were composed in "a very old esoteric tradition of mantic poetry" which featured "layers of meaning and subtle allusions." The verses of Zarathushtra were apparently intended to be fully understood only by "those who had already attained a measure of spiritual experience and knowledge." (116) Certainly, "there are numerous words whose sense is doubtful or quite unknown." (117)  

Most priests were apparently content to train only to the level of a family priest. More committed cases are envisaged as "going from sage to sage in search of further enlightenment." (118)  Another suggestion reads: "Instruction was perhaps given in techniques of attaining mystical experience, of entering directly into communion with the divine." (119)  

The Boyce reconstruction of context suggests that the Gathas were mainly composed during the early manhood of the archaic Iranian ethical dualist. "He evidently continued to add fresh verses to them from time to time." (120) The period of revelation at the age of thirty is associated with "his great visions - visions which perhaps were the basis for his intellectual formulation of doctrine." (121) Mary Boyce evidently allowed for a strong mystical dimension to some verses. "The verses which tell of his visions also convey his profoundest and most original teachings, thought and mystical experience being fused seemingly into one." (122)

The archaic Iranian concept of the ashavan (truth-possessor) is more complex than often assumed. That category was expected to "entertain within himself" (123)  the six Spirits (or Mainyus) who are best known by the term amesha spenta (not appearing in the Gathas). Exactly how this was done is not really clear. The six Spirits dwelt with the transcendent Ahura Mazda as the sacred heptad linked to the "seven creations." They are not only part of God, but have a separate existence extending into mortals, or rather worthy mortals. Unworthy mortals lose this crucial connection with the heptad, which purifes from corruption.

The tendency of some scholars has been to yoke the heptad to the yasna ritual, while others have done the opposite. "It was presumably already established belief that at the yasna the priestly celebrant stood for the whole creation of man." (124)  Gathic resistance to "the filth of this mada" is definite, but not unanimously interpreted. The "ethical dualist" priority of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds was evidently not dependent upon ritual performances of the karapan contingent. Opposing priests believed that they purified the world through the yasna; Zarathushtran ethics appear to strongly contradict this sacerdotal perspective.

"For Zoroaster the good life went far beyond offering worship and sacrifice, desirable as those activities were, and embraced being ashavan in the full sense of that word." (125)  That statement implies two different meanings of a key term. In this respect, a Gathic verse is cited, exhorting the audience to accompany their "knowledge and sacrifices" with continued words and acts of good purpose. (126)   Exactly what the word "sacrifices" means here is open to question. Even if the reader adopts the view that this is not a metaphorical reference, Zarathushtra was evidently moving at a tangent to the sacerdotal horizons of family priests.

A recent translation of Yasna 51.13 reads: "The Inner Self [daena] of the wicked man destroys for him the reality of the straight way; his soul shall surely vex him at the Chinvat Bridge." (127) Zoroastrian tradition depicts the Bridge as separating heaven from hell; Nyberg's interpretation allows for a mystical extension. A drawback to the orthodox version of later eras is that members of other religions were implied as being doomed to hell, only the Zoroastrian faithful being fit for heaven. (128)

The judgment of the soul, depicted in the Pahlavi texts, does not appear in the Gathas. In the Pahlavi version, Mithra is the judge, assisted by Sraosha and Rashnu, the last-mentioned holding the scales of justice. (129)  No proof exists as to whether the prophet held the same belief. One theory is that he probably regarded Mithra and Rashnu in this context, the presence of Sraosha being a later addition. (130) Sraosha is mentioned in the Gathas in another context, decoded as "the Mainyu (Spirit) of hearkening to God, a concept which merges into spiritual obedience," (131)  a quality to be developed by the ashavan.

Zarathushtra should be viewed as a liberal. This archaic prophet declared that "he would cross the Chinvat Bridge with all who followed his teachings, whether man or woman." (132)  According to Professor Boyce, women had formerly been demoted in the eschatological scheme of pagan Iranian religion, being represented in the afterworld as "a houri-like creature promising sexual delights." (133)

The Gathas refer to three times of daily prayer. However, a conventional belief is that Zarathushtra extended this observance to five times daily. The prayers are associated with the presence of some manifestation of fire, which "might be the hearth fire, or the ritual fire, or the sun by day and moon by night." (134)  The hearth fire, kept perpetually burning for reasons of practical domestic necessity, was the subject of regular offerings in gratitude to the Mainyu of fire. This was nothing to do with the yasna service, an outdoor event centering upon the blood sacrifice and preparation of haoma.

A significant statement of Professor Boyce is: "Comprehension of Zoroaster's doctrines would have been at different levels even among his first followers, ranging from a full understanding attained by other mystics and thinkers to a simple acceptance by many of his hearers of what could be plainly formulated and put into practice in daily life." (135)  In anthropographic terms, that amounts to a fracturing of the minority repertory, which extends to far more than the mere oral preservation of texts. A frequent assumption is that the preservation of oral material means a continuation of original emphases. This may be contradicted; the degree of understanding is crucial, especially in relation to intricate poetry like the Gathas. The experiential dimensions of such materials are not conveyed by oral repetition. Furthermore, the simple acceptance of rituals can obscure other forms of behaviour in a developing religion.

Because the "full understanding" of religious teaching so often becomes obscured by routine observances, one has to be critical of continuation theories. Many scholars formerly deduced that Zarathushtra's ritualism went no further than prayers in the presence of fire. These contenders believed that the yasna service was revived after his death by his followers, if in a modified form to the pagan version. A contrasting interpretation more recently became influential, assuming that there was no break in the continuing importance of the yasna. "By now the identification of allusions in the Gathas to animal sacrifice and the libation to water, together with the abundant and consistent testimony of actual Zoroastrian observance, appears to have decided this matter." (136) The factors mentioned do not constitute any proof that Zarathushtra himself participated in the haoma ritual.

The Boyce version refers to the probability of "some minor changes" in the yasna celebration. Depending upon what substance was originally used for haoma, the changes might have been far more dramatic. The authors of the later Hom Yasht attributed patronage of the haoma rite to the prophet; they did not necessarily possess "full understanding."

A recent hypothesis attributes to Zarathushtra the liturgy known as Yasna Haptanhaiti (Worship of the Seven Chapters), an Old Avestan text of devotional complexion. This is a prose composition, contrasting strongly with the intricate verse of the Gathas. Formerly, Yasna Haptanhaiti  was unanimously considered to be a later text than the Gathas, but is now shown to be of a similar age to those poems. The "Seven Chapters" was apparently intended for use at a regular act of worship. The prophet's name does not occur in this devotional text, unlike the Gathas. An explanation proffered for the inconsistency is: "Had it been composed after the death of the faith's revered founder, the likelihood is that he would in fact have been honoured in it by name." (137)  Some do not find that argument convincing. Not long before, the same scholar wrote that Yasna Haptanhaiti "perhaps represents a collection of what old priests still remembered then of ancient manthras in the Gathic dialect." (138) Some scholars concede that Haptanhaiti could have been composed by the circle of Zarathushtra, while others deny any association with the Gathic poet.

8.   The  Soul  Journey

In the elusive pastoral milieu of the Gathas, possibly a major fixation was the phenomenon known as "soul journey" or "spirit journey." The later text known as Arda Viraz Namag, extant in a Pahlavi version, exhibits a frame-story thought to be very old, with many accretions. That text fits a genre of ancient oral literature widespread among different peoples, involving a spirit journey into the other world. "It is very likely that this was cultivated among the Iranians long before Zoroaster lived, with mantically gifted individuals being believed to make such journeys into the underworld" (Boyce 1992:105).

The Arda Viraz Namag claims association with the early Sassanian era, gaining a definitive format during early Islamic times. This text celebrates the “soul journey,” in a manner that is revealing for context. The hero Arda Viraz is selected by the Zoroastrian community to visit the realm of the dead, the purpose being to confirm religious belief and the efficacy of rituals. He is requested to drink the narcotic known in Pahlavi as mang. His seven sisters (and wives) protest at this ordeal, eventually relenting. Viraz is given cups of “wine and hemp” and then falls sleep, remaining unconscious for seven days and nights. When his soul returns to his body, he provides a record of his experiences at the Chinvat Bridge. "This account is chiefly taken up with a catalogue of the punishments of the damned in hell and of the rewards of the just in heaven" (P. Gignoux, "Arda Wiraz," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

"Aspects of shamanism abound in Zoroastrian lore: to Zarathushtra himself is attributed a visionary journey... and Arda Viraz takes a drug, called in Pahlavi mang, that is, the Avestan bangha-, hemp, to enable his soul to leave his body." (J. R. Russell, New Materials, 1988, p. 12)

Such references do not specify any difference between Zarathushtra's alleged soul journey and the resort of Arda Viraz to mang. It is surely relevant to allow for the ingredient of a "soul journey" in any context for Zarathushtra, whether or not the experience is considered to be specifically shamanistic. However, the assessor must here also convey a qualifying form of interpretation. Was the prophet's version of "soul journey" the same one in practice amongst the priests or shamans of his environment? My conclusion answered in the negative, implying a radical break on his part from existing practices of inducing trances and visions. "The Gathas are best understood in the light of a reformed 'soul journey' independent of  ritual" (Minds and Sociocultures, 1995, p. 307). The reasoning behind my reflection was basically as follows:

The entire priesthood might have seemed "daevic" to Zarathushtra. He was probably confronted by fairly numerous soul journeys of a superficial type, fluently induced by drugs. A lore of descent to the underworld, and ascension to paradise, is easily degraded by cultic usage into a stereotyped pattern of inducing trances and hallucinations. Zarathushtra conceivably opposed the pagan version with a schema of aspirational striving, featuring the lore of amesha spentas, linking to the "seven creations." The detested "urine of the stimulant" was possibly a close accompaniment to narcotic wine of the presumed visionaries. This "urine" is disparaged in Yasna 48.10, where a rival activity is confronted. Scholarly opinions have differed substantially as to the precise meaning. There is no definitive explanation.

The issue of a "soul journey" is probably of more relevance than is generally admitted. Those commentators averse to a shamanist theory tend to ignore the matter completely, while proponents like Nyberg have not always approached the subject satisfactorily (Prof. W. B. Henning was surely justified in criticising Prof. H. S. Nyberg for a theory of Zarathushtra resorting to hemp). The new theme of soul journey reform was initially bracketed by the present writer under the provisional label of "etic gnosticism." The converse of emic gnosticism can be said to include drug-induced experiences claiming knowledge of other-worldly matters. For instance, the legendary Viraz experienced mang, not the further reaches of spiritual knowledge.

The Pahlavi word mang (bang) signifies a narcotic plant, variously identified as hemp, henbane, and jimsonweed. The effects of these plants vary. In modern Persian, bang means hashish. In the Pahlavi texts, mang is “described sometimes as a lethal and sometimes as a hallucinogenic drug” (G. Gnoli, "Bang," Encyclopaedia Iranica). In the modern era, “continued use of hashish generally causes lapses of memory, pronounced mental dysfunction, engenders in the user a condition similar to retardation and idiocy and may eventually lead to manic-depressive psychosis” (ibid).

Mang has also been associated with haoma or soma, being administered in three cups. The priestly haoma ritual is a subject of scholarly disagreement. (139) See D. Taillieu, "Haoma," Encyclopaedia Iranica, including a possibility that the word haoma "might have been used for several similar, or even wholly different, plants."

Kirder's inscription at Naqsh-e-Rajab

A “soul journey” was claimed by the high priest Kirder (Kartir) in a third century Sassanian situation. This eminent Zoroastrian ecclesiastic was a very conservative figure who zealously repressed rival religions and traditions. His inscriptions record that he “struck down” Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Manichaeans, and others (P. O. Skjaervo, “Kartir,” Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Kirder’s report of a vision appears in a Pahlavi text gaining inscriptions at different sites. The purpose was to validate the after-life. Kirder did not himself experience the vision, which was delegated to boys in trance. The details are reminiscent of widespread divinatory procedures occurring in the ancient and medieval world. Kirder’s description of the vision has been interpreted in terms of correspondences with the Gathas, for instance Yasna 50.10, where Zarathushtra “links his priestly action to meriting a vision of the paradisiac lights” (M. Schwartz 2007:375).

The ancient haoma cult is now linked by some exegetes with entheogenic plants. These psychoactive agents "can cause crude, chemically mediated shifts from the experience of the everyday into religious experience. In Zarathushtra’s time, there existed a commonly known Haoma ritual in which such shifts were said by its adherents to help attaining bliss” (O. Louchakova-Schwartz, Intersubjectivity and Multiple Realities, 2018). In this interpretation, Zarathushtra was averse to the Haoma cult, whose priests he criticised for “obfuscation, cruelty, and ignorance.” These priests are viewed as users of entheogens.

Some differences between archaic and Sassanian priestly customs are emphasised. The Arda Viraz Namag “authenticated” Zoroastrianism by means of a drug-induced vision, a theme also evident in the Pahlavi account of Zarathushtra’s patron Vishtaspa. “These accounts go back to a stage of Iranian society which accepted an expertise in psychopharmacology as a means of knowledge of the divine, a stage no longer current in the Sassanian realia” (M. Schwartz 2007:373).

The archaic haoma ceremony is in contention. The word haoma, meaning “that which is pressed,” signifies a drink extracted from a plant and used in a ritual. The basic Avestan source is the Hom Yasht (Yasna 9-11). Diverse attributions of identity for haoma include hemp and fly-agaric mushroom. Ginseng gained little support. The botanist David Flattery proposed a mixture of peganum harmala (wild or Syrian rue) and ephedra. Wild rue, known in Persian as esfand, is a common weed found in Iran, Central Asia, and elsewhere. The widespread popular practice of burning esfand seeds, to avert the evil eye, was possibly influenced by association of this plant with haoma (M. Omidsalar, "Esfand," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

The haoma liturgy indicates that the original haoma plant exerted an intoxicating effect. According to Professor Martin Schwartz, Zarathushtra reworked texts of the Hom Yasht, in the process creating a critique of haoma in his Yasnas 32 and 48. The same scholar favours the original identity of haoma as peganum harmala. This psychotropic plant could evoke alarming visions and trembling, plus certain other negative symptoms. “The Peganum alkaloids harmaline and harmine often induce diarrhea and vomiting” (Schwartz 2006:221). The suggestion is here made: “Zarathushtra may have experienced such adverse effects earlier in his career as a zaotar-priest” (ibid). This is the explanation proffered for a well known phrase in Yasna 48.10, here translated as “the excrement/excreta of that intoxication” (ibid). The Gatha was thus repudiating a claim of the haoma liturgy that the pounded plant produced bright health.

Ephedra is associated with alertness, being the plant used for the haoma rite during the Islamic era; the context is more obscure for ancient centuries. Ephedra does not have any intoxicating effect when pounded in a mortar. The earlier situation remains uncertain. A feasible context is: “Because of pharmacological interaction, however, when ephedra is pounded with Peganum harmala, ephedra acts as a stimulant which helps prevent sleep during the visionary experience” (ibid:222). See Schwarz, On Haoma. (140)  The contention is strong that ancient haoma was never a single plant. (141)

9.  Becoming  a  Majority  Movement  or  Religion

The origins of Zoroastrian sacred feasts are obscure. "A calendar of generally kept feasts was probably created fairly soon in the faith's history" (Boyce 1992:105). These feasts apparently date back to pre-Zoroastrian times. "The other strict obligation which Zoroaster laid on his followers was to celebrate annually seven high feasts." (142) The traditional ascription of these feasts to the prophet himself is not beyond question.

Gahambar feast at Yazd. Courtesy K. E. Eduljee and Be Jahani

Six of these feasts were known as gahambars, while the No Ruz (associated with the spring equinox) was the seventh. The popular No Ruz is first mentioned in Pahlavi texts (Boyce, "Nowruz," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The feasts have been described as annexations of older pagan festivals. Details of their celebration date only from the Sassanian era, even though the names exist in Younger Avestan forms. Many worthwhile customs adhered to them in Zoroastrian usage, for example, gifts to the poor, forgiving wrongs, healing enmities. The feasts also became a feature of royal ostentation.

These feasts were undertaken in honour of the sacred heptad and the seven creations. By the Sassanian era, "through calendar changes, with consequent confusions, it had come about that all major festivals by now lasted officially for five days, and some even longer." (143)  The sixth gahambar and the No Ruz feasts occurred during a festive period which lasted for over three weeks. "Naturally only the well-to-do and leisured could celebrate at such length, but the evidence is that at least the main holy day in each cycle was kept generally." (144)

Opulent kings like the Sassanian Khusrau I (Anushirvan) could easily give food to the poor in ostentatious displays; the poor had lost any role as clansmen and were part of a rather inflexible class system. The situation of observance changed when the Zoroastrians became an oppressed minority during the Islamic era, losing their royal class of patrons. The limitations of mere display appear to have been recognised in the Persian Rivayat texts produced by the priests. (145) Extravagance became an issue in Parsi celebrations. A feast could be abused by those who were not poor and who had too much wine available for consumption.

The feasts excluded women. Not until the latter part of the nineteenth century did "women gradually began to take part also in the public life of the community, and to attend what had previously been wholly male functions, such as the gahambar feasts." (146)  This innovation occurred in Parsi India, where reformist measures gradually secured a degree of female equality; schools for girls did not exist until that time.

"Plainly all the great prophets would be startled, could they return to earth, by what succeeding generations have made of the religions ascribed to them; but Zoroaster would have perhaps the least cause." (147) That theory invites close attention. The reason given for the exception is that Zoroastrianism spread almost exclusively among Iranian peoples. However, there are "occasional allusions even to magic and the use of spells" (148)  in the Yashts, hymns dated to the pre-Achaemenian centuries (i.e., before the sixth century BC). "A great gap is thus apparent in spiritual perceptions," (149)  with "many, no doubt, simply yielding to the tide of a majority movement." (150)  Exactly when the Zoroastrian activity became a majority movement is not clear.

The geographical drift of the Iranian tribes from the steppes into Iran is chronologically uncertain. A general view has tended to be that this drift occurred in the wake of the Indoaryans who moved into areas where urban (and proto-urban) centres had already declined. (151)  A controversy arose concerning the suggested presence of Zoroastrianism, or proto-Zoroastrianism, in the Bronze Age culture excavated in Turkmenia and northern Afghanistan. This theory was launched by the Russian archaeologist Victor I. Sarianidi. "Based on a study of seal images found at Dashli, Sarianidi suggests that its population professed Zoroastrianism." (152) The Dashli culture was subsequently dated to 2100-1700 BC. The claim of Sarianidi was dismissed by archaeologists and scholars in other countries.

According to Professor Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism was probably established in West Iran by the eighth century BC, being adopted by some of the leading Median priests or magi. (153) Surprisingly little is reliably known about the famed magi of Achaemenian Iran; this sector is overshadowed by monarchical history. Even more obscure are the fourth class of artisans/labourers forming in Iranian socioculture.

10.  Persians  and  the  Magi

Data concerning the Achaemenian era is basically derived from royal inscriptions, and commentaries by foreigners (mainly Greeks), about Persian beliefs and practices. This data relates to the Persian empire created in the sixth century BC. Persia covered the modern Iranian province of Fars. The Persians were part of a larger group of peoples identified as Iranian on the basis of linguistic characteristics. The earliest form of Persian, found in royal inscriptions, is known as Old Persian. This is a West Iranian language, whereas Avestan has been defined as an East Iranian language. Closely related to the Persians were the Medes, further to the north, in the area of modern Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana). There are serious difficulties in reconstructing the history of Zoroastrianism during the Achaemenian era.


The founder of the Achaemenian dynasty was Cyrus the Great (d.530 BC), associated with a policy of religious tolerance. This monarch inaugurated the Persian empire, a multiracial phenomenon extending over a wide territory. The Persians at the time of Cyrus had no writing system of their own. The cuneiform inscriptions they created are described in terms of an artificial royal innovation, a script unique to Persia, quite different to the Akkadian cuneiform of Mesopotamia.

By the late sixth century, Persian settlers had founded the city of Parsa in Fars. Royal building projects of Darius I (rgd. 522-486 BC) occurred at Susa and Persepolis (near Parsa). "The new royal sites expressed, in their iconographic decoration, techniques, materials and the craftsmen who worked there, the cultural diversity and massive resources of the empire and how the Persian king could mobilise them. The varied elements.... showed the Persian king supported by, and at the apex of, an empire made up of many peoples" (Kuhrt 1995:669).

Construction of Persepolis was continued by Xerxes. The site has variously been described as a palace complex, ceremonial centre, and administrative centre. Houses of noblemen and workers (of different nationalities) were nearby. The carved limestone terrace here is 300 metres wide and over 450 metres long. "The facade consists of large, irregularly shaped blocks of limestone, which, joined together without mortar and with the minute precision of a jigsaw puzzle, accentuate the impression of extraordinary architectonic achivement" (Wiesehofer 1996:21). Much of the interior was made of cedarwood. "The Persepolis he [Xerxes] built was the expression of everything that Achaemenid royalty stood for: the king throned in splendour in his golden halls, watched over by the farr or royal fortune symbolised by the man in the winged disc; the assemblage of peoples bringing gifts from every corner of his vast empire." (154)

The delegations represented, at this evocative site, are identified as Medes, Susians, Armenians, Bactrians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Lydians, Thracians, Ethiopians, and others (A. Shahpur Shahbazi, "Persepolis," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Palace of Darius I at Persepolis, depiction by Charles Chipiez (1835-1901)

A substantial archive of inscribed Elamite clay tablets, stored at Persepolis, supplies information about the Persian empire administration. These tablets, together with Greek commentators, attest to the importance of a religious faction called magi. (155)

The magi (magoi) are associated with the "wisest men" mentioned by Strabo, a learned contingent who taught Persian oral tradition to the children of the nobility, alongside training in military skills and hunting. (156) Herodotus describes the magi as a tribe of Median priests; they apparently fell into disfavour at the beginning of the reign of Darius, because of their plot to snatch rulership from this Achaemenian. Some commentators distinguish the magi from the parsas, Persian fire priests. This reflects a theory of two rival clans of hereditary priests, the parsas being represented by Darius. The magi were rivals claiming a right to kingship (Stoneman 2015:22).

According to Herodotus, in The Histories, the magi were one of six priestly tribes, comprising a hereditary priestly clan. They were dream interpreters and soothsayers at the Median court. Some modern scholars define them as a priestly class. From the time of Darius I, or before, the magi were official priests of Achaemenian kings. They performed animal sacrifice and made libations to rivers and mountains. These priests accompanied the Persian army on campaigns. Contradictory opinions about the magi are in evidence.

"An integral part of the activities of the magi was comprised of their ritual functions connected with astrology and magic" (M. A. Dandamayev, "Magi," Encyclopaedia Iranica). In some respects, their habits resembled those of Babylonian priests.

The Greeks believed that Zarathushtra had been a magus, now considered a misattribution. The conversion of magi to Zoroastrianism may have been very gradual. Sometimes ascribed to them is the Vendidad, a text composed in flawed Avestan, covering religious law, rituals, and myth. However, that text does not contain any reference to the magi or to West Iran. The Vendidad apparently originated in East Iran. The Younger Avesta as a whole is "mostly the redaction of older materials by people who poorly understood the language of the original" (Malandra 1983:25). The language of the magi was not Avestan. The corrupted Avestan language is thought to have fallen into relative disuse in West Iran.

The language is very flawed in the Vendidad, which "must have been substantially composed in Arsacid times" (ibid:26), meaning the Parthian era occurring after the Achaemenian. An earlier date has also been suggested. The process of textual assimilation was attended by an extensive compromise of Zarathushtra's teaching. Numerous deities of the pagan religion are thought to have been accomodated in Zoroastrianism. The Younger Avesta frequently exhibits "the clumsy device of introducing non-Zarathushtrian materials as revelations made to Zarathushtra by Ahura Mazda." (157)

The religion of the magi received a blow during the Macedonian conquest, which ended the Achaemenian dynasty. The ruins of Persepolis are an evocative reminder of sociocultural transition. In 330 BC, the army of Alexander the Great arrived victorious at this site of the Persian kings. They destroyed the nearby city of Parsa, slaughtering the inhabitants. Afterwards, the invaders plundered and burned Persepolis. "The idea of the 'destruction' of the place by Alexander is a [Greek] literary device... and has not been confirmed by archaeological research" (Wiesehofer 1996:25). Only parts of the terrace were burned. However, Persepolis remained unoccupied from that time.

The Persian empire was now at an end. Many Zoroastrian (oral) texts are thought to have been lost at this juncture. Greek language and Greek ways became dominant. The resulting Parthian dynasty, ruling Iran for several centuries with a Hellenised veneer, is believed to have permitted considerable local religious autonomy.

11.   Zoroastrianism  of  the  Sassanian  Era

The Sassanian era commenced in the third century CE, the monarchy creating another empire. The state religion was Zoroastrianism; the important transition from an oral to a written use of scripture did not occur until the end of this era.

Investiture of Ardashir I, rock carving at Naqsh-e Rostam. The horseman on the right apparently represents Ahura Mazda. See J. K. Choksky, Sacred Kingship in Sasanian Iran.

The founder of the Sassanian dynasty was Ardashir I (rgd 224-242), who defeated the Parthian dynasty and warred with the Romans. This monarch assumed the title of shahanshah (king of kings). He depicted himself as being divinely appointed. "It seems likely that the first steps to organising a Zoroastrian state church were taken in his reign and that traditions from Achaemenid, Hellenistic, and Parthian times were applied and developed in this connection" (J. Wiesehofer, "Ardashir I," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The policy of Ardashir towards rival religions was apparently insular. "The Jews and others had enjoyed considerably more tolerance and autonomy under the Parthians" (ibid).

Disagreements are in evidence about Zurvanism, a component of theology at the Sassanian court. Many scholars formerly referred to Sassanian orthodox Zoroastrianism and “heretical” Zurvanism. Professor Nyberg regarded Zurvan, the "god of Time," as the deity of the Median magi. Contrasting interpretations arose as to how the trend of "Zurvanism" arose in Zoroastrianism. (158) The Zurvanite myth has been considered a "fairly inoffensive variant of the Zoroastrian myth of creation,"(159)  an assessment reducing the dimensions of alleged heresy. Zurvanism, as a supposedly major sectarian movement, "remained an important heterodoxy within the state religion for many centuries."(160) More pointedly, Zurvanism is now described as "a hypothetical religious movement" (Albert de Jong, "Zurvanism," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Zurvanism was first mentioned in Muslim works via the term zurvaniyya. In modern scholarship, "Zurvanism became a convenient receptacle for everything that clashed with generally held notions about 'real' Zoroastrianism" (ibid).

Professor Shaul Shaked denied the existence of a Zurvanite heresy, which he viewed as a misconstruction of scholars like Arthur Christensen and R. C. Zaehner. Christensen emphasised that Sassanian kings were Zurvanites, even suggesting that this heresy weakened the Zoroastrian faith, contributing to decadence and Arab conquest. Shaked’s book Dualism in Transformation argues that Sassanian orthodoxy was not uniform, despite the strategy of kings and court priests. The systematic formulation of orthodox belief was not achieved until the early Islamic era, when a small group of Zoroastrian priests created the ninth century Pahlavi books. In earlier centuries, the Sassanian priests were not a homogenous body. “While some of them were in the employ of the king, others cherished their independence and uttered criticism of the court priests.” (161) This commentary finds a Sassanian receptivity to Greek scientific and philosophical ideas, contributing to an intellectual and religious activity “as could ever be found in ancient Iran” (Shaked 1994:12).

The same scholar reveals the problems involved in studying Zoroastrian religious literature. The notorious obscurity of the Gathas is underlined by a contention that the priestly tradition of exegesis "was faulty and did not always reflect the original meaning of the text." In contrast, the Younger Avestan texts are less daunting, "though they are not free from difficulties and textual corruptions." (162) A major consideration is that the extant Avesta represents "but a small portion of a much larger body of literature which once constituted the canon.... Almost the whole of the Avesta dealing with questions of doctrine, cosmology, cosmogony, eschatology, as well as the majority of the text which dealt with questions of law, is lost."(163)

The surviving texts are basically oriented to liturgical usage and ritual prescriptions; constant reliance upon them is one explanation for their survival. Some portions of the lost texts are said to be "imperfectly reflected in brief summaries" appearing in the Pahlavi books, composed in Middle Persian and redacted during the Islamic era. Shaked advises a circumspect use of the Pahlavi books, because "the Zoroastrian interpreters of a later period often read into the sacred text ideas which were not explicit in it, but belonged to their own period." (164)

Shaked has suggested the existence of esoteric trends in Sassanian Zoroastrianism. (165) Until the reign of Khusrau I, the religious climate in Sassanian Iran seems to have been complex, despite the establishment of a strict orthodoxy. Both heretics and semi-heretics were apparently tolerated within Zoroastrianism (however, not the Manichaeans, who were severely censured). The orthodox attitude was basically insular, restricting access to religious learning via oral procedures amongst the hereditary elite who preserved an archaic language.

Sassanian priests elaborated the religious rituals. The performance of supererogatory rites was believed to accumulate treasure in heaven. This situation has evoked the comment: "Such treasure could more readily be accumulated by the rich than by the poor." (166) The approval of wealth, hallmarking the this-worldly attitude of Zoroastrianism, was exploited by the Sassanian priesthood, who "tended to press the laity to have rites performed to excess." Another of the less inspiring Sassanian trends was "an inquisition set up by the state to discourage apostasy amongst Zoroastrians." (167)

A few Zoroastrian writings of late Sassanian times exhibit "a streak of asceticism." This has been ascribed to non-Zoroastrian influences, whether Gnostic, Christian, or Indian. (168)  The associations could be deceptive. A practical orientation appears in the Denkard anecdote of two learned priests (herbads) who opted for a life of manual labour; they are reported to have rejected gifts from a high priest, even criticising his luxury lifestyle (M. Shaki, "Darvis," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Book VI of the Denkard notably commends the driyosh, the "worthy poor," whose way of life was exemplary. "It is clear that the driyosh were a group within the learned clergy, a group whose members sought spiritual merit and salvation in self-imposed indigence, contentment, abstemiousness, diligence, and amicability toward high and low" (ibid). The moral virtues of "living by one's own labour, and the excellence of holy poverty (driyosih) are especially stressed.... the fact that these extolled virtues accorded ill with the opulence and self indulgence of the high clergy has been vividly described in a unique passage that savours of the Mazdakite reprobation of the nobility." (169)

12.  Mani  and  Kirder

Mani, identified in the Syriac inscription as "Mani, the Messenger of Light"

Manichaeism was shunned as a rival religion by both Christians and Zoroastrians. The founder Mani was regarded by his followers as a successor to the activities of Zarathushtra, Buddha, and Christ. He was born in Babylonia (circa 216 CE) near the Sassanian city of Ctesiphon. Al-Nadim says that his parents were both of Arsacid blood, implying a noble background; his paternal forbears are said to have come from Hamadan, a detail that could denote an Iranian origin. His father Pattak (Patik) was reputedly an Arsacid nobleman. However, Mani did not claim affiliation to the Iranian upper class, apparently preferring Babylonian antecedents. Legendary accounts of his youth do not satisfy historians (W. Sundermann, "Mani", Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Pattak joined a sect of "baptists," identified as a branch of the Elchasaites. These people were Jewish Christians, described by Professor Widengren as "a Gnostic movement little known with an enigmatic founder." Other scholars merely say that the sect might have been influenced by Gnosticism. This grouping has been described as anti-Pauline Jewish Christians who observed the Sabbath; they apparently possessed their own version of the Gospels, deeming the orthodox Christian texts to contain false passages. Mani was reared in this sect, possibly deriving from them his practice of vegetarianism.

In 1969, the Greek document now known as the Cologne Mani Codex, was discovered in Egypt. This manuscript has thrown some light on Mani's relationship with the Babylonian Elchasaites. The Codex dates to the fourth/fifth century CE, and is perhaps a translation from Syriac; it comprises a partial biography of Mani compiled by early Manichaeans. The Codex "follows hagiographic convention, in many places based on the pattern of the life of Christ and often incorporating popular themes, but it also includes historical material" (W. Sundermann, "Cologne Mani Codex," Encyclopaedia Iranica). A reasonably clear development is that Mani seceded from the Elchasaite sect, disagreeing with some teachings, including prescribed ablutions, which he considered to create a distracting preoccupation of purifying the body as distinct from the soul. He was maltreated and expelled from that community.

At the reputed age of twenty-four, Mani moved to the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon, apparently preaching in public. Much of his career is enveloped in legend. He composed diverse works, and was also an artist or book illustrator. Hie dictated letters to a group of scribes; these communications were sent far and wide. Mani taught that real purity can only be achieved through Gnosis, involving knowledge of the separation of Light from Darkness. His universalist version of "dualism" was associated by the Elchasaites with a Pauline tactic of preaching to the gentiles. Mani proclaimed himself as a Light-bringer; the exact nature of his personal claims is difficult to ascertain.

The Christian sources on Manichaeism are generally polemical and unreliable. The Acta Archelai describes Mani's activity in "a hate-filled and distorted form," according to Widengren. Prior to the recovery of primary Manichaean texts during the twentieth century, Western scholarship relied upon the highly distorted accounts of opponents who ridiculed Mani. The most influential of these accounts appeared in Acta Archelai, dating to circa 340 CE, a distorted source colouring almost all subsequent Christian reporting (Gardner, "Mani's Last Days," in Mani at the Court of the Persian Kings, 2015:159).

Accompanied by his father and two other disciples, Mani based himself at Ctesiphon, where he appears to have established his first community. He sent missionaries to Eastern Iran and to the Roman lands, also making a journey by boat to north-west India, where he encountered Hindu and Buddhist teachings. His universalist attitude was compatible with Buddhism, Christianity, and his (possibly ancestral) Zoroastrianism. His teaching was more specifically Gnostic.

Mani is sometimes criticised for having adjusted his teaching to local religious terminology, as in the case of his deference to Zoroastrianism; other analysts feel that his syncretism was more impressive than the insular religious attitudes he frequently encountered. Though acknowledging the validity of earlier religions, Mani believed that their teachings had become distorted by followers. His own "Religion of Light" was apparently intended by him as a world religion to counteract the military divisions imposed by monarchs and prelates.

Shapur I and the captured Roman emperor Valerian (Naqsh-e Rostam, Fars)

Shortly after his return from India, Mani gained an audience with the Sassanian monarch Shapur I (rgd 239-270). This was apparently at a date very early in Shapur's reign. The monarch was lenient towards him, allowing Mani and his followers to preach their doctrines freely in the Persian empire. Two brothers of the king reputedly became followers of Mani. Iran remained the major scene of his activity; the extent of his own missionary endeavour is not clear. He sent disciples as far as Syria and Egypt, and maintained contact with East Iran via other missionaries. The story (via Alexander of Lycopolis) that he accompanied Shapur in royal campaigns against the Romans has been considered unreliable. This legend nevertheless encouraged the Roman concept of Mani as a Persian enemy.

According to the Coptic text Kephalaia, Mani accomplished court service under Shapur; the reason for this is thought to have been his close knowledge of medicine (and astrology). A suggestion (lacking proof) is that Shapur thought of using Mani's liberal teaching as a national ideology to resolve religious differences, without any reliance upon the conservative class of magi (meaning the Zoroastrian priests). Mani was not able to convert Shapur to his teaching. Despite Shapur's religious tolerance, he and Mani "were ideologically irreconcilable" (Shapur Shahbazi, "Shapur I," Encyclopaedia Iranica). One of the books composed by Mani, namely Sabuhragan, was dedicated to Shapur.

The Sassanian empire included such diverse religious factions as Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, in addition to Zoroastrianism. At that time the matter of a state religion was in flux. According to Widengren, both Mani and the prelate Kirder had the ambition of creating a state church in the Sassanian empire. Kirder was a Zoroastrian priest of increasing influence; he reputedly accompanied Shapur on the Roman campaigns. Kirder emerges as a major rival of Mani, expressing an insular policy that sought to exclude and eliminate religions other than Zoroastrianism.

Shapur prevented the magi from persecuting other religions in his empire. The royal policy has been deemed tolerant and syncretistic, perhaps reflecting the counsel of Mani. However, at political levels, the struggle against the Romans was a major preoccupation of Shapur; in 260 CE, his army defeated and captured the emperor Valerian, who died in captivity.

Kirder (Kartir) has been discerned as the prime agitator against Mani's influence. This high priest evidently gained favour with influential nobles at the court of a subsequent monarch, namely Vahram (Bahram) I, whose regnal dates are variously given as 273-6 and 274-7. The new monarch was won over by Kirder's conservative faction, in contrast to his predecessor Ohrmazd I, whose brief reign ended in 273. The priestly class became inquisitorial. Mani was banished from court at Beth Lapat (meaning the Iranian city of Jundishapur, known to Muslim writers as Belabad). He subsequently returned from Ctesiphon, intending to defend himself against priestly accusations. Kirder and his elite associates were resentful, complaining to the king. Mani was ordered to appear before the monarch, who reproached and humiliated him. Mani's aversion to war and hunting was apparently a factor contributing to the displeasure of Vahram.

The king gave orders for Mani to be arrested, fettered, and imprisoned. He spent some weeks in jail, chained to a guard, receiving visits from followers. Mani reputedly welcomed his death, which is obscure. Manichaean hagiology referred to his end in terms of a "crucifixion." Both the Acta Archelai and the Chronology of Al-Biruni say that Mani was executed at royal command. Modern scholarship has considered this to be a misinterpretation; he died in jail, but was not executed. However, "it was surely the intention of the king to sentence Mani to capital punishment and not to mere imprisonment" (W. Sundermann, "Mani", Encyclopaedia Iranica).  The prison episode became portrayed in the Manichaean literature as a "passion," associated with the death of Jesus. The corpse of Mani was decapitated; his severed head is reported to have been displayed over a city gate.

Kirder's faction of conservative clergy had triumphed. Kirder was keen to declare, in one of his inscriptions, that Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Manichaeans, and others had been dealt blows in the Sassanian realm. The political suppression is not attractive. The high priest Kirder was at the height of his power during the fairly lengthy reign of Vahram II. Violent persecution befell the unfortunate Manichaeans, many of whom fled to Central Asia. About ten years after Mani's death, his successor Sisin (Sisinus) was executed.

An ecclesiastical hierarchy seems to have quickly developed amongst the surviving Manichaeans, sponsoring a high moral code; their doctrine appears to have gained embellishments, and probably simplifications. Retaining a base in Babylonia, their growing missionary religion extended as far as China in later times. The Manichaean religion eventually became extinct. Surviving texts, in a variety of antique Eastern languages, are the subject of specialist analysis. (170)

There is no need to assume that all the magi of West Iran thought and acted like the proscribing Kirder. According to Professor Shaked, the Sassanian priests "did not constitute a homogenous body." While some took employment at the court, others preferred independence and were apparently liable to criticise those who did not. The independents are here described as rural priests; the suggestion is made that they "fostered a more spiritual approach to religious matters." (171)

13.  Sassanian  Complexities

Usage of the term raz ("secret"), in the Pahlavi books, has given rise to the view that esoteric elements existed in priestly doctrines of the Sassanian era. "Speculation about the possible nature of those esoteric doctrines may lead us to think of an allegorical, as opposed to a literal, understanding of the ritual prescriptions and of the mythical stories." (172) The priests apparently conceived of "a deep religious experience, in some cases reserved for those few persons who were capable of reaching to a higher type of religious awareness than common believers." (173) The context is not straightforward.

The profession of an elitist attitude does not guarantee proficiency in the esoteric. One problem posed by the Sassanian era is that "expressions of elitist attitudes are associated in the texts with the tendency to bar most members of the Zoroastrian community from access to an independent study of the scriptures." (174)  This ban applied particularly to the zand, a word signifying the technique of scriptural interpretation in the vernacular. The same scholar says that the prohibition was justified by the fear of dissidents spreading heresy. "The kings, for their own part, had their special interest in limiting access to the scriptures." (175)

The Manichaeans were identified by the priests as zandig, a term conveying the stigma of "twisters of zand," a phrase apparently referring to heretical exegesis of the Avesta. It is often stated that Zoroastrianism never accepted the equation of the moral dualism (i.e., good versus evil) with the Gnostic dichotomy between the spiritual and material. However, Manichaean thought did share "certain essential points with the Zoroastrian tradition." (176)  A significant feature of this convergence was the belief that "certain aspects of the human person are essentially identical with the divine world, as well as the idea that the aim of human existence is to try and make this identity a reality." (177) The factor of convergence may have prompted the stigma of zandig. At the heart of Zoroastrianism was the attempt "to try and become divine," in which respect "the aim of a gnostic religion and Zoroastrianism are similar." (178)  

Among the Sassanian priests, there appear to have been several schools of thought on abstruse matters. Mani is said to have borrowed their conception of multiple souls, meaning the spiritual entities in man such as the soul (ruwan), the vital soul (jan), and pre-existent soul (frawahr). (179) Perhaps the most salient detail is a priority given to visions of the hereafter in the Pahlavi literature, not restricted to the Arda Viraz Namag, which is merely the best known example. "Zoroaster himself had been one of the models for this attainment of vision, coupled in his case with the wisdom of omniscience." (180)  The Arda Viraz Namag portrays a drug experience, a sobering reminder that visions of the hereafter could be artificially induced (section 8 above).

Visions of the amesha spentas (Amahraspands) are also frequently mentioned in the sources. The organ said to operate in this kind of vision is "the eye of the soul," facilitating contact between the getig or material dimension of the world and the menog or spiritual dimension. Vision of the menog world is a theme that "seems to have been alive throughout the whole of the Sassanian period," (181) subsiding in post-Sassanian times. Experience of the menog dimension "was certainly not a way open to all; it was confined to a select group of people." (182)

The "journey" into menog was recognised as being potentially hazardous. "These were rare occasions, which were deemed to be surrounded by grave risks." (183)  A major issue is that the desired experience was artificially induced by some or many journeyers. "In some cases the preparation for this journey was done by administering to the officiant a dose of mang, or mang mixed with wine." (184)  According to specialist scholars, mang refers to a narcotic. The Pahlavi term mang has been identified with the Avestan bangha or hemp, and also peganum harmala.

The celebrated monarch Vishtaspa, patron of Zarathushtra, was the subject of an influential legend in which he was administered "the intoxicating potion" to gain a vision of the hereafter. In other words, he was credited with a resort to mang for the purpose of undertaking a "soul journey." This monarch gained a dual reputation for achieving wisdom and for being the "vain, foolish, and vacillating" supporter suggested by late texts. (185)  His "soul journey" reputedly occurred prior to his conversion to Zarathushtra's teaching; the legend affirms that Ahura Mazda was the cause of administering to him the potion, which gave him proof of the new religion. A recent deduction is that the pagan soul journey was resisted by the prophet's experiential tangent, subsequently confused with artificial ecstasy by persons of a ritual disposition (section 8 above).

The third century high priest Kirder bequeathed a description of a visionary journey mediated by boys in trance. This, together with the Arda Viraz Namag, has been analysed in terms of strong similarities to shamanistic counterparts. (186)  Other commentators argue that it is not necessary to view Sassanian Zoroastrianism as a shamanistic religion. The Zoroastrians were not the only practitioners in the technique of visions of the hereafter; Jews, Christians, and Romans have been cited as counterparts. (187)  Kirder's description of his "divinatory" soul journey has been deemed a mere literary imitation by some analysts, a convenient means of lending distinction to his political role. Even if Kirder was wildly exaggerating for status purposes, the underlying theme is difficult to ignore as a feature of doctrine.

14.  The  Mazdakites

Next-of-kin marriage is one of the less appealing emphases in the Pahlavi books. The practice is there praised as one of the greatest acts of merit. (188)  Sibling marriage amongst royalty is attested during the Parthian era. Earlier Greek reports are sometimes doubted. The custom in question was known as khvedodah (Avestan: khvaetvadatha). One interpretation views the controversial practice of sibling and cousin marriage as a means of insulating the Zoroastrian religion from foreign beliefs, amounting to a form of racial segregation. This custom has been implied as a target of the reforming Mazdakite movement.

The Mazdakites appeared during the late Sassanian era. They were accused of sexual laxity by detractors. However, "it does not seem likely that a religion with a certain ascetic tendency, as Mazdakism seems to have been, would advocate free sexual intercourse." (189) While some scholars take the hostile reports at face value, others have seen a reform of insular marriage customs which elevated pride in family and class.

Depiction of Mazdak

The Mazdakite phase is attended by very scant detail and conflicting modern interpretations. In 484 CE, the invading Hephthalite nomads defeated and killed the Sassanian monarch Peroz. This development, combined with heavy taxation, contributed to the growing discontent of the lower classes, especially peasant farmers. Continuing wars with the Byzantines were another drawback. The new monarch Kavad I (rgd 488-531) was in confrontation with the exploitive nobility and the powerful Zoroastrian priesthood. Kavad supported Mazdak, "a member of the Zoroastrian religious hierarchy who preached against the greed, arrogance, and unrestrained power of the country's ruling classes." (190) Mazdak represented a reform movement within Zoroastrianism that opposed violence and bloodshed, and also contested the elite trend to accumulate property and women. Harems were a sport of the nobility.

A section of the oppressed peasant population rose against the aristocracy, taking possession of upper class property and women. They were temporarily supported by Kavad. There is no proof that Mazdak was involved in the uprising. A key Denkard text, reporting Mazdakite doctrine, "does not connect the Mazdakites with the act of breaking open and plundering the granaries of the aristocracy and abducting their women." (191) A contrasting theory suggests that Mazdak created the peasant revolt. (192)

In response to the uprising, the opponents imprisoned Kavad in 496. When he regained his throne, Kavad tended to appease the anti-Mazdakite courtiers and nobles, who eventually triumphed. When Khusraw I gained the throne, he ruthlessly suppressed the Mazdakites in a campaign of terror. Mazdak was executed. Thousands of his followers were imprisoned, and many of them executed. The reform movement was forced underground, surviving into the Islamic era. Diverse commentators left incomplete records of these events.

According to the later Arabic report of Shahrastani, the reforming Mazdak prohibited strife and war and gave free access to property. He also "advocated the killing of souls in order to extricate them from evil and from the admixture of darkness" (Shaked 1994:128). This complexity, complicated by linguistic transitions, apparently referred "to the mortification of one's own soul, that is to say, to ascetic practices" (Shaked 1994:128). Shahrastani's important report of Mazdakite doctrine is brief, nevertheless suggesting to modern analysis that "the elect of Mazdak's faith were theurgical mystics" (Shaked 1994:130).  harbouring a teaching concerning letters of the alphabet, the Great Name, and the Great Mystery. If a man combined the "four," the "seven," and the "twelve," he could become divine while still in the lesser world, no longer needing religious obligations.

While there are numerous references to the social doctrine of Mazdakism, in the works of various antique historians, only the liberal Muslim commentator Shahrastani (1076-1153) is known to have reported on the philosophical outlook of the sect. "And every person in whom these powers of the Four, the Seven and the Twelve unite, he becomes [part of] God in the world below and will be relieved from religious obligation" (this is Professor Shaki's translation from a passage in Shahrastani's Kitab al-milal wa'l nihal). The report of Shahrastani is very condensed; some expressions may represent glosses imposed by Islamic thought.

The Seven and the Twelve are open to conjectural associations with the planets and the Signs of the Zodiac. The Four has been construed in terms of innate divine powers such as discrimination and intelligence. Professor Mansour Shaki has seen in this report a different cosmology to that of Manichaeism; he views Mazdak as subscribing to Mazdean (Zoroastrian) ideas on astrology, whereas Mani disapproved of astromantic practices. Shaki's interpretation is averse to the sentence in Shahrastani which "explicitly declares Mazdak to be a mystic and theosophist, pure and simple, that recalls Hallaj proclaiming ana'l-haqq." The insinuation here is that the influence of Sufi mysticism has coloured the record. Instead a comparison is made with the tattva theory of Indian materialists. (193)

In contrast, Professor Shaul Shaked suggests that "some of the mystical fervour of Islam was derived from Zoroastrianism," (194)  mentioning the name of Abu Yazid al-Bistami in the context of Sufi esotericism barely removed from Zoroastrian forbears. (195)  Bistami was a ninth century Sufi of Khorasan. According to the same assessment, the more radical type of Sufi mysticism "belongs largely to the Iranian type of religious thinking," (196)  and could therefore link with earlier Iranian mystical attitudes. While Sufi mysticism in Iran was strongly influenced by Islamic doctrine and Arab blood, it is also true that a fair number of the early Iranian Sufi mystics were very close in time and genetics to Zoroastrian antecedents.

Various arguments attach to Mazdak, who has been called a "communist prophet" in modern scholarly literature. (197)  His detractors credited him with an insistence upon abolition of social inequalities; the abolition of social classes and class privileges evoked a positive response from the poor, but directly threatened the position of the nobles and Mazdean clergy. Shaki has interpreted Middle Persian sources in terms of Mazdak being the most prominent and militant reformer of Zoroastrianism, a follower of the sect called drist-den, founded by Zaradusht-i Khurragan of Fasa. (198)  Some other scholars have described Mazdak as a Manichaean reformer, but this does not seem likely.

The term drist-den appears to have designated a sect who were tolerated for several generations as one of the numerous Zoroastrian heresies. (199)  The ascendancy of Mazdak attended a brief revolutionary period contrasting with the earlier drist-den pacifist codes. The so-called "community of women" has been interpreted in terms of a marriage system which refused to follow the code of priestly social stigma and hereditary honours; no immorality is necessarily implied. (200)

Three Middle Persian (Pahlavi) texts from the Denkard are identified as referring to the Mazdakites. These three passages are fragmentary and brief, preserving the attitude of priestly orthodoxy. Two of these texts are censorious and one is more impartial, informing that the Mazdakites preached righteous deeds, abstention from sin, and abstention from sacerdotal function. Apparently, the Mazdakites rarely performed Zoroastrian rituals, although they did follow the essential Zoroastrian faith. (201)  The Muslim sources in Arabic are more detailed, in general adopting a hostile perspective.

One interpretation views Mazdak as a militant social reformer, and his royal patron Kavad I as an opportunist who tried to turn the Mazdakite movement to regal advantage by constricting privileges of the nobility. The subsequent Sassanian monarch, Khusrau I, apparently suppressed the name of the heretical Mazdak from all records, after a severe persecution of Mazdakites. Ibn al-Muqaffa (d.760) introduced an account of Mazdak in Arabic, translated from a Middle Persian work of fiction; this apparently served as the main source for later Perso-Arab historians. Mazdakite writings did not survive the grim persecution. As a consequence, we are very poorly informed about the events in question.

The Mazdakite sect is said to have been founded by Zaradusht ibn Khurragan, a mobad or chief mobad from Fasa (in Fars). The Danish scholar Arthur Christensen identified this man with a Manichaean called Bundos who, according to John Malalas of Antioch, appeared at Rome during the reign of Diocletian (284-306), taught doctrines distinct from the Manichaean majority, afterwards departing for Persia. Christensen thus regarded Mazdakism as a reforming Manichaean sect, whereas Otokar Klima regarded Zaradusht and Bundos as separate entities, believing that the former's teaching derived from the latter. Another theory has dated Zaradusht to the fifth century CE. A strong argument identifies his movement as being Zoroastrian in origin. (202) The obscure drist-den movement was revived by Mazdak son of Bamdad, of whom little is known. He is said to have been a mobad or distinguished priest.

A point at issue is how far this movement developed Gnostic features lending some affinity with Manichaeism. There seems no need to invoke Carpocratean associations. The egalitarian sharing of wealth, women, and wisdom has been traced to Zoroastrianism, as in the rule of the Vendidad: "He who asks for a wife shall be given a wife to marry." (203)  A sympathetic explanation is that Mazdakites were not being promiscuous, but instead attempting to reform marriage customs abused by the wealthy upper class who maintained extensive harems. In this perspective, Mazdak may have treated women as being equal to men, being concerned to rescue females from their plight as harem chattels.

The extant sources, in different languages, mostly dwell upon the alleged community of women and the resulting promiscuity. The sixth century Greek source John Malalas implies that the Mazdakites were Manichaeans, perhaps merely repeating a slander arising in Iran. Analysts like Professor Ehsan Yarshater have considered these reports to be a heresiographical muddle, instead deducing that Mazdak advocated the right of each man to have a wife. Mazdak pressed for abolition of social barrriers to marriages between nobles and commoners, as part of a reform of Zoroastrianism. (204)  When Mazdak was executed, the distinction between nobles and commoners was firmly restored by the elite.

The principal source for Shahrastani appears to have been Abu Isa Harun al-Warraq, a learned Manichaean or Zoroastrian scholar converted to Islam in the ninth century. Warraq is thought to have had access to Mazdakite materials. The degree of authenticity attaching to the coverage by Shahrastani is uncertain. One argument urges that, in sources other than Shahrastani, Mazdak is not reported to have emphasised deification of the spiritually enlightened, a factor which could easily have been used in the long list of accusations made against him. Therefore, it is unlikely that he promoted any such doctrine. In support of this theory, Professor Shaki quotes a passage from the Denkard, relaying how some Mazdakites affirmed that, through righteousness, one becomes the best of beings in the corporeal world as well as in the impalpable world. (205)  The Mazdakite conception of righteousness appears to have been more comprehensive and radical than the orthodox priestly conception.

On the basis of two Denkard passages and the account of Shahrastani, Mazdakism is viewed as the forerunner of numerous Islamic groupings who promoted the unorthodox trend of thought known as batiniyya. The implication is that Mazdakites, like the Manichaeans and later Batiniyya and also Sufis, recognised different levels of spiritual hierarchy. In the Batini context, for instance, the novice passed through various stages to reach a final state which relieved him from the obligation of religious observances. Similarly, the Mazdakites appear to have stressed peace, righteousness, asceticism, self-mortification, temperance in eating, and abstention from meat, as preliminaries to an eventual stage in which the mysteries of the "four," "seven," and "twelve" were revealed, resulting in an enlightenment relieving the recipient of the obligation to religious observance.

The Mazdakites believed that righteousness (ahlayih), not ritualism, was essential to salvation. This factor is interpreted in terms of their brotherhood being founded on esoteric (batini) principles and unorthodox interpretation of the Avesta (comparable with the exegesis known in Arabic as tawil). According to Professor Shaki, the Shah-Nama of Firdausi preserved the original Pahlavi formulation in which Mazdak states that the hidden meaning (nehani) of the true path is necessary knowledge for "our faith." This nehani (Pahlavi nihanih) apparently referred to esoteric meanings of the Avesta. The Muslim commentators Al-Biruni and Ibn al-Athir report the Mazdakite abstinence from meat and aversion to the killing of cattle. Opinions are divided as to the accuracy of those accounts, which may be true. (206)

Disagreements exist about the Gnostic elements claimed by some modern scholars as the basis for affinity between Mazdakism and Manichaeism. Those elements include pacifism, asceticism, "fatalism," esoteric interpretation, and the rejection of ritual. The major issue here is asceticism, a feature which is difficult to prove. Some commentators associate asceticism with vegetarianism. Shahrastani's reference to "the killing of souls" is perhaps more relevant. Professor Yarshater has argued for a contrast between ascetic and hedonistic tendencies in Mazdakism, explaining this in terms of a self-denying elite and worldly lay members. That theory has been viewed as a contradiction to what is implied by a gloss to Vendidad 4.49. The hostile gloss alleges that Mazdak ate fully himself but subjected others to hunger and death; the dispossessed rich men are perhaps implied here.

A suggestion is that Mazdakites may have borrowed some ideas from the Carpocratean sect of Gnostics at some conjectural point in time. (207)  This is very speculative, and some say tediously misleading. The Carpocratean sect emerged in the second century CE, being generally classified under the blanket term of Gnosticism; their alleged antinomianism has received differing assessments. "It is probably mistaken to conclude from this that the Carpocrateans taught the living of a dissolute life." (208) 

Mazdak was accused by later (Christian and Muslim) detractors of advocating free love. He is also said to have closed most of the Zoroastrian fire temples, a gesture obviously sufficient to arouse the strong opposition of clergy. There are various hostile references in Syriac, Greek, and Arabic sources. No Mazdakite source has survived. Some modern scholars doubt the accuracy of all hostile accounts.

According to Professor Yarshater, two opposing tendencies developed within the the same broad movement (of Mazdakism, which he extends into the Islamic era). The founder of Mazdakism taught a pacifistic code, exhorting his followers to resist sensuality, while allowing the majority of adherents an enjoyment of life in moderation, without encouraging competition, and without causing suffering. The conclusion here is that at least some of the leaders, or some factions of the movement, were committed to self-denial. However, circumstances attending the reign of Kavad I turned many Mazdakites into militant sectaries, establishing a precedent of armed insurrection which later sects furthered during the Islamic era. An ethical and pacifist teaching thus became a militant ideology bent on correcting social injustice. A partial parallel is afforded by the much later Safavid dynasty, which transited from Sufi beginnings to an aggressive militancy.

A more recent phenomenon may also be relevant for comparison. The oppressive Qajar era (1789-1925) was dominated by monarchs and bribed clergy who similarly maintained harems. The Shia clerics are known to have hoarded grain at times of chronic drought. Qajar clerics even had their own armies, which could live off the land to the detriment of peasants. The Babi revolt was assisted by reactionary clerics like Vahid-i Darabi, who became a disciple of the Bab, an insurgent leader who was executed in 1850. The suppression of the Babi movement was extremely violent, followed by long-term suppression of the peaceful Bahai movement. (209)

15.  Khusrau  I  and  Sassanian  Downfall

The Sassanian Empire. Courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

Mazdak is thought to have counselled a series of measures designed to divest the higher classes of their excessive privileges. Those measures included the breaking up of large estates, the prohibition of hoarding, adjustment of the shares from crops acquired by landlords, the reduction of class distinctions, and the institution of public foundations for the benefit of the poor. Mazdak seems to have been welcomed by peasants and artisans, though he apparently did not include the slaves in his social programme. According to one version of events, support from the monarch Kavad I resulted in disturbances created by a Mazdakite mob who attacked granaries, storehouses, and mansions. (210) Kavad was deposed and imprisoned by aristocratic opponents and the priesthood. He subsequently resorted to retribution against both Mazdakites and nobility.

Mazdak and his followers favoured the older son of Kavad I, namely Kavus, a supporter of their reform movement. In contrast, the younger son Khusrau was favoured by the anti-Mazdakite nobility and the priesthood. These supporters assisted Khusrau to gain the throne. Afterwards, many of them plotted against him. The monarch had these rebels killed. This event may have related to a revival of Mazdakite influence (see A. Shapur Shahbazi, "Sasanian Dynasty," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

The anti-Mazdakites were triumphant. A "reign of terror" targeted the dissidents, who had allegedly stolen the properties of aristocrats. Khusrau is said to have killed many thousands of Mazdakites in a single day. Mazdak was now easily eliminated. Khusrau I, alias Anushirvan, nevertheless gained a reputation for justice in the eyes of posterity.

The policy of Khusrau (rgd 531-579) extended to the completion of tax reforms previously introduced by his father to alleviate the plight of the peasantry. Agricultural produce was taxed according to a system annually assessed by royal tax-collectors. Furthermore, a burdensome poll-tax was also extracted from many subjects in the realm, thought to have been paid mostly in money. A modern source (Ency. Iranica) refers to "the avarice of corrupt tax-assessors."

A new system was devised for collecting land-tax. A control mechanism was vested in priests who acted as district judges. Khusrau is credited with revising the poll-tax in terms of imposing rates according to taxpayer means, exempting people below the age of twenty and above fifty in all social classes. However, this new system did not abolish the exemptions applying to members of the higher classes, meaning the priests and nobles. An accompanying agricultural reform was devised to prevent the growth of vast estates whose owners could acquire special privileges and immunity to taxation.

The reforms appear to have gained "moderate success for a few decades." A complication was created by prolonged military campaigns against the Byzantine empire, exhausting financial resources. Difficulties occurred at the end of the reign of Khusrau, when the new bureaucratic system proved prone to corruption. Strained relations occurred between soldiers and civilians, especially in the more remote areas of the Sassanian realm. "In effect, the king could restrain only the soldiers under his direct command from despoiling the rural taxpayers" (Z. Rubin, "Kosrow I ii. Reforms," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Taxation became increasingly extortionate.

The Islamic historian Masudi reports that Khusrau I prohibited Zoroastrians from engaging in theological discussions about sectarian matters. The same monarch is also associated with a liberal programme of studying writings of the Greeks and Indians, (211)  a trend emerging in the earlier reign of Shapur I, probably reflecting the cross-cultural inclinations of some learned scribes. This liberal tendency adheres very closely to the memory of Buzurgmihr (Pahlavi: Wuzurgmihr), an entity sometimes described as a minister or "vizier" of Khusrau, though he was probably a secretary or learned scribe (dibir). Buzurgmihr is depicted as a sage with an ideal of universal wisdom. (212)

The category of dibir is described in the Tansar Nama as one of the four classes in Sassanian society. The scribes denoted were usually employed as secretaries; they could achieve various state offices, thus gaining a political importance. Those scribes recorded events, wrote or copied books, and managed royal correspondence. They were not priests. Buzurgmihr was adopted in the much later tradition of ishraqi philosophy as a figurehead of ancient Iranian wisdom; the ishraqi disposition for Greek and Indian material is notable.

A group of Greek philosophers sought refuge at the court of Khusrau I, as a consequence of friction with Byzantine authorities. Damascius and his colleagues are believed to have been disillusioned with the situation they found, discovering that Persia was not an ideal state as they had hoped; Khusrau was nothing of a philosopher-king, lacking any familiarity with philosophical subtleties. The visitors soon returned westwards (Shaked 1994:113-114). One might conclude that, although these Greek visitors were tolerated in Iran, they were not understood, save perhaps by learned "universalists" like Buzurgmihr.

Some commentators say that the text of the Avesta was fixed during the fourth or fifth centuries CE, a feat involving much editing when the materials were cast into written form. Professors Nyberg and Widengren favoured the reign of Khusrau I in relation to this development. However, other scholars emphasise that such a written text would have remained largely inaccessible to Zoroastrians at large; the majority of priests would have continued their habit of oral recitation via memorising the sacred text. The accompanying zand was not committed to writing during the Sassanian era, the vernacular translation and commentary denoted by that word being reserved for oral transmission. Extant zand compilations were not written down until after the Islamic conquest, by one or more groups of priests in the ninth and tenth centuries. The transmitters were trying to preserve what they considered to be worthy of survival. The result has been described as "a very narrow and one-sided selection of zand material." (213)

The son of Khusrau I was Hormizd IV (rgd 579-90), who supported the landed gentry (dehqan) while trying to control wealthy aristocrats. He apparently killed many aristocrats and priests. He was tolerant towards Christians, resisting persecution of that contingent by the priesthood. His aggressive mood against aristocrats led to a revolt. At Ctesiphon, Hormizd was blinded by his brothers-in-law, who afterwards executed him.

Tabari reports that huge sums of money accumulated in the coffers of the succeeding monarch Khusrau II Parvez (rgd 590-628). This grandson of Khusrau I opted to extend his empire westwards, continuing the military ambitions of his dynasty, a useless and damaging activity in the eyes of Mazdak. In 613, Khusrau captured Syria and Palestine. Six years later, his army invaded Egypt. The consequence was a severe depletion of state funds. A Byzantine counter-attack caused the overstretched Sassanian army to disintegrate. One of Khusrau’s sons, Shiruya, usurped the throne as Kavad II. In the process, this ambitious and ruthless man executed his father and all his own brothers and half-brothers. The new king died a few months later, bequeathing a disastrous anarchy.

Yazdegird III (rgd 632-651) was only eight years old when he gained the throne. "He was merely a powerless spectator who could only watch the incessant infighting between army commanders, courtiers, and powerful members of the nobility as they battled among themselves and eliminated one another" (Kia 2016:284). This military chaos was suicidal for any due national recovery. In 636, the Arabs defeated a Sassanian army in Iraq, the Islamic invasion resulting.

The Sassanian downfall is now explained in terms of an underlying internal weakness. Professor Pourshariati informs that the initial Arab conquest of Iraq occurred prior to the accession of Yazdegird III, during the years 628-32 CE, “precisely during the period of intercenine warfare between the Pahlavi and the Parsig.” (214) The Pahlavi and Parsig here mean the Parthian and Persian factions of Iranian aristocracy. The civil war dates to 628-632. This reckless conflict resulted in a severe plague that killed half the population of West Iran, including Kavad II. The alliance of Sassanian (Persian) and Parthian elites had become unstable. Powerful Parthian dynastic families abandoned the new monarch Yazdegird III, achieving a truce with invading Arabs, in exchange for retaining power over their own lands.

United we stand, divided we fall. The military outlook of Iranian aristocracy caused havoc, facilitating Islamic rule. The nobility lost their power, the Zoroastrian priesthood contracted. The people at large were devastated by plague and poverty. The reforming Mazdak was obscured by mythology and the death warrant bloodlust of violent monarchy.

16.  NeoMazdakites  of  the  Islamic  Era

The description of NeoMazdakite has been applied to religious sects existing during the early Islamic era. Some scholars stress that, although these Islamic era sects may have adopted certain elements of earlier Mazdakite theology, they should be clearly distinguished from the precedent, as they employed other doctrinal materials also. (215)

The violent persecution associated with Khusrau I sent the Mazdakites underground. Professor Yarshater suggests that sequels occurred during the Islamic era, when many Zoroastrians became Muslims in order to escape royal wrath and the poll-tax (jizya) exacted from non-Muslims. The Zoroastrian landed gentry are said to have gradually adopted the Sunni version of Islam and sided with the state, whereas the "NeoMazdakites" are linked with the formation of Shia doctrine.

According to Yarshater, the extremist Shi'is (ghulat) were practically identical in their doctrine to the Khurramis or NeoMazdakites. This version of events strongly implies that the Mazdakites, now professing Islam, primarily inspired the ideas of groupings generally known as extremist Shi'is. Other origins for the ghulat have also been discussed, including the "Sabaeans" associated with Harran, and even Judaeo-Christian sects. Yarshater deemed the Mazdakite case to be the most convincing, though conceding that other channels, influenced by Gnostic and messianic beliefs prior to Islam, may have contributed.

The basically discernible ghulat beliefs have been listed as:  the incarnation or "indwelling" (hulul) of divinity in the prophets and imams (leaders), reincarnation (tanasukh al-arwah), concealment of the imam, and interpretation of scripture according to inner meaning (batin).

The Islamic sources often use terms like batini, zindiq ("freethinker"), and Qarmati in an imprecise manner; this factor has created difficulties in assessing local or factional differences which must have existed amongst the "NeoMazdakites." An equation has been made between batinis and Ismailis, viewed as a Neomazdakite variant in some interpretations. Though basically an Iranian phenomenon, Mazdakism apparently had followers among the Arabs at an early date, having penetrated to Hira during the reign of Kavad I. Kufa is also implied as a focus for NeoMazdakite activity, associated with the first "communistic" Qarmati village colonies appearing in that region of Iraq. The Iranian "NeoMazdakite" resistance to Islam created "nativist prophets" extending from "local Zoroastrianism." (216) Reacting to Islamic rule, the rebels gained criticism from Muslim writers over the centuries. Separating reliable fact from attribution and distortion is not always easy.

Whatever the presumed affinities of Ismaili thought with NeoMazdakism, Ismaili writers depicted Mazdak as an adversary of Zarathushtra, (217)  thus siding with the version of Zoroastrian priests. This detail reflects the traditional Zoroastrian portrayal of Mazdak as an arch-heretic. In contrast, some of the earliest sects of Shia Islam seem to have remembered the heretic in a very different light. For instance, the rebel leader Sunpad, supported by the mountain peoples of Khorasan in his struggle against the Abbasid Caliphate, preached that their hero Abu Muslim was not dead but lived on in the company of Mazdak and the esteemed mahdi. (218)  For centuries after, Mazdak appears to have been enthusiastically commemorated amongst the lower classes and the disaffected.

The Muslim scholar (and scientist) Al-Biruni conferred Mazdakite auspices upon Al-Muqanna, the "veiled prophet" of Khorasan who rose against the caliph Al-Mahdi in 777 CE. Al-Muqanna is disparaged in the Muslim sources; he was besieged and defeated in 785-6, and said to have committed suicide by throwing himself into a fire to avoid captivity (P. Crone, "Moqanna," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Biruni states in general terms that Al-Muqanna prescribed for his followers everything Mazdak had introduced. Muslims of later centuries conceived of Al-Muqanna as having claimed to be the final divine incarnation, as having taught the transmigration of souls, and as favouring sexual license. More definitely, his following comprised Sogdian peasants and Turkish tribesmen of Transoxiana. (219)

The designation of Khurramiyya is found in Islamic sources as a kind of blanket term for the Mazdakite movement and various Iranian sects which appear to have been offshoots. Professor W. Madelung cautions that any attempt to establish a close link between the Khurramiyya (Korramism) and the Qarmatis and Ismailis must be viewed with reserve. (220)

"Though Korramism and  Mazdakism are undoubtedly related, the Korramis are too widely attested to be the residue or a revival of a defeated sect.... This suggests that we should see Korramism as the religion of rural Iran, a Zoroastrian 'low church'.... this 'low church' will have functioned much like rural Sufism in later times and should not be envisaged as intrinsically rebellious"  (P. Crone, "Korramis," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The geography here extends from Mesopotamia to Khorasan and Central Asia. One of the beliefs in this sector was reincarnation, a factor converging with Manichaeism. Both Mazdak and the early magi are also implied in this outlook, more generally associated with India.

A relevant Khurrami figure is Babak, said to have been a dihqan or landowner of Azerbaijan. He inherited ideas and customs of the Islamic phase "Mazdakites." In 817 Babak rebelled against the Abbasid Caliph, maintaining resistance for two decades in north-west Iran until 838 CE, when he was defeated and executed. "All the accounts of Babak are biased, some begin with curses on him" (G. H. Yusofi, "Babak Korrami," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Prior to the time of Babak, the Khurramis (or Khurramdinis) were peaceful farmers, refraining from killing or harming others. Babak is said to have changed these people into militants eager to fight and kill; he incited them to hate the Arabs and to rebel against the Caliph. Hostile reports allege that he ordered his warriors to destroy villages after seizing adjacent castles. Gradually a large multitude were encouraged to join him. For long there had been groups of Khurramis scattered in Isfahan, Azarbaijan, Rayy, Hamadan, Armenia, and elsewhere. Some earlier revolts had occurred, though not on the scale achieved by Babak. Several of the Muslim sources affirm that the Babak movement was an offshoot of Mazdakism, a testimony which is difficult to discount. (221)  Some modern scholars urge that a mixture of Zoroastrian and Muslim beliefs was involved in the sequel.

Babak's community became known in Arabic as al-Babakiyyah (followers of Babak), and also as al-Muhammirah, "the red-clad," a reference to the red warrior banners they carried, symptomatic of their martial spirit. Although the Babakiyyah has often been called a syncretistic trend, there are some doubts that any Islamic ideas were represented. (222) Babak soon became the subject of legendary tales, along with his predecessor Javidan. According to the Fihrist of Al-Nadim, when Javidan died, his widow married Babak, declaring him to be her husband's successor. When the warriors of Javidan assembled, a ritual of slaying a bull was followed by a communal meal of wine and bread, plus an oath of allegiance to Babak. Widengren viewed these rites in terms of the Mithraic mysteries, an interpretation that is in dispute. (223) Doctrines of the Babakiyyah are said to have been based on the strict dualism between Light and Darkness common to all types of Iranian religion. (224)

Most Islamic accounts of the Khurramiyya are brief. The participants are all said to have believed in the transmigration of souls, which is not a feature of Islamic doctrine. They maintained that prophetic revelation never ceased, and that the same divine spirit inhered in all prophets. They were much concerned with cleanliness and purity (conceivably a Zoroastrian trait), and strictly avoided bloodshed except when they decided upon rebellion against oppressors.

Some of the Khurramiyya are said to have maintained that promiscuity was permissible with female consent. There is uncertainty about the accuracy of such allegations from opponents of later times. Professor Madelung states that the more extravagant cliches of some Islamic writers, concerning sexual libertinism of the Khurramiyya, deserve no credence. Sound evidence is lacking for the alleged community of women among them. The same scholar concludes that the Mazdakite and Manichaean basis of Khurrami beliefs is evident. (225)

The subject of the early Shi'ite "extremists" (226) is complex. They cannot be written off in terms of heresiographical debauchery or as mere violent reactionaries. (227)  A sympathetic reconstruction of basic Mazdakism implies a custom of restriction to one wife only. Secret rites involved solemn vows upon initiation, accompanied by strict rules concerning diet and cleanliness. The participants supported each other as a community. They shunned nominal groupings, bearing the same name, who did not adhere to the disciplinary vows. Such recent assessment was based upon a still existing rural group of Shi'is. (228)

The most important source on pre-Islamic Mazdakite religion remains the vestigial report of Muhammad al-Shahrastani, written circa 1127. Shahrastani, living in Khorasan, is sometimes identified as an Asharite theologian with a broad-minded outlook; however, some scholars classify him as a secret convert to Ismailism. (229)  In the relevant section of his Kitab al-milal wa'l nihal (Book of Sects and Creeds), (230) Shahrastani may at best have transmitted traditions preserved by persecuted "NeoMazdakites" in Islamic times. Disagreements have arisen over the details of his brief report, the accuracy of which is uncertain (see section 14 above).

The description of Mazdakism as a Gnostic movement has provoked the counter-argument: "Mazdakism differs from Gnostic teachings, and especially Manichaeism, in its fundamentally positive, non-ascetic attitude toward the world and the powers that govern it." (231) The positive interpretation of the planets is here invoked, a theme implying mystical connotations.

The comparativist Mircea Eliade began to tentatively distinguish between an early Christian gnosis (small g) and Gnosticism, (232) and indeed between Gnosticism and "the numerous earlier or contemporary gnoses." (233) However, that scholar created confusion in his references to a libertine Gnostic sect, the Phibionists, and by using blanket descriptions such as: "The Gnostic finds himself completely alienated from his own culture and rejects all of its norms and institutions; the inner freedom obtained by gnosis enables him to comport himself freely and to act as he pleases." (234) That may well have been true of the degenerate element in Gnostic ranks. The Eliade assessment is far less appropriate to other categories of Gnostic. Many generalisations expressed about Gnosis and gnosis are very muddled in the contemporary era. A useful exercise is to focus upon the tangible data giving rise to the theories and misconceptions.

17.  Zoroastrianism  in  the  Islamic  Era

An early dakhma, the oldest of the "Twin Towers" near Yazd

The Islamic conquest of Iran was facilitated by the Sassanian civil war of 628-632. The invading Arabs quickly gained a victory in Iraq, entering the deserted capital of Ctesiphon in 637. "The accounts of this conquest are often contradictory, the exact course of events unclear, precise dates for even major events elusive" (M. Morony, "Arab Conquest of Iran," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

The last Sassanian emperor Yazdegird III fled with his imperial court. The remnant of his army was decisively defeated at the battle of Nihawand in 641. The invaders pressed forward into Fars and Khorasan, completing the conquest in 654. The Sassanian empire was completely overthrown. Khusrau the Just and other monarchs passed into legend.

The Zoroastrian priests were now the underdogs. Zoroastrians were officially tolerated as a "people of the book," meaning their scriptural tradition nominally recognised by Islam. In contrast, the Manichaeans were opposed on theological grounds. The sub-surface influence of the banished Manichaeans "is to be seen in certain Ismaili cosmologies and most likely also in some of the writings of Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi," (235)  the philosopher and freethinker of the ninth/tenth centuries.

Eliade touched on a theme elsewhere magnified. The comparativist referred to "the nostalgia for ancient Persia felt by Suhrawardi [Maqtul] and many other Iranian poets and mystics." (236) Some other commentators have described that nostalgia in terms of a mere nationalism, a depreciation not universally agreed upon. The retrospective sentiment was not accompanied by the factual details available today. The Islamic ruling classes definitely exercised a repressive policy towards Zoroastrianism.

Economic penalties, not the sword, were a major incentive to conversion amongst Zoroastrians. There was nevertheless considerable harassment in some urban centres like Bukhara, where the military general Qutaiba was intent upon undermining and eradicating Zoroastrianism. A member of a small Arab tribe, Qutaiba was appointed governor of Khorasan in 704 CE.  A few years later, the town of Merv revolted against Arab rule. Qutaiba sacked this city, achieving a massacre of the male population, taking the women and children as slaves. These details can shock modern audiences.

The relentless policy of Qutaiba was to establish permanent garrisons in the subjected Iranian cities of this region, to build mosques, and to recruit local fighters into his ruthless army. According to the chronicler Al-Biruni, Qutaiba destroyed the ancient culture of Khwarezm by killing all the learned men and eliminating their writings. A much greater degree of fighting occurred in the Central Asian zone than in Iran; the majority of the population in Central Asia were probably Zoroastrians. A large number of slaves were taken from this area (Khwarezm and other territories) to the Near East during the Islamic conquests. Some of those victims returned to Central Asia with a different sense of cultural values as converts to Islam. Historians speak of an Islamic veneer in relation to many converts.

As a consequence of drastic military measures, the majority in Central Asia quite quickly became Muslims, whereas the pace of conversion was much slower in Iran. Islamic learning flourished in Central Asian cities like Balkh, Tirmiz, Bukhara, and Samarkand during the early Abbasid era (750 CE onwards). This development has been viewed in terms of the converts creating a new Islamic culture superseding the values of Arab tribesmen. (237)

Many urban Zoroastrian sacred fires disappeared during the rule of the Ummayyad caliphs (661-750 CE). However, many small towns and villages in Iran remained predominantly Zoroastrian. The priestly head of the Zoroastrians, now known as the Hudinan peshobay, resided in Fars (the Arab name for Pars province) as successor to the mobads of Sassanian Persia. In the attempt to gain a dialogue with Islam, some Zoroastrian priests learnt Arabic; they undertook debates with Muslim savants. The Pahlavi books evidence an awareness of the Quran and basic Islamic doctrines, extending to Mutazilite theology.

The ninth century has been described as a time of renaissance for Zoroastrianism, when Pahlavi works like the Denkard were compiled. However, the Abbasid era saw increasing pressures to conversion. Zealous Islamic preaching missions went out from the cities into the villages, still harbouring many Zoroastrians during the ninth century. Harassment sometimes accompanied these missions, which could spark into violence. There was also an element of officially sanctioned coercion. A strategy of Islamic officialdom was to rule that any Zoroastrian convert to Islam could eventually claim the entire assets of their heathen family.

Despite such afflictions, Fars province managed to retain a strong Zoroastrian presence in some towns until the early eleventh century, with fire temples existing in many places. A factor involved in the continuation is assessed in terms of "the depth of national pride in what had been the cradle of both the Achaemenian and Sassanian dynasties." (238)

Fars (Pars) had been the home of Zoroastrian magi for many centuries. By the sixteenth century, the Zoroastrian presence dwindled substantially in this region. A variant of the priestly learning achieved expression in the unorthodox figure of Azar Kaivan (d.1618), who lived at Istakhr, a village (formerly a town) close to the ancient site of Persepolis. Kaivan followed the trend of priests to learn Arabic and to be in contact with learned Muslims. His Zoroastrian version of ishraqi philosophy is still obscure in many respects. He emigrated to Mughal India in the face of mounting religious intolerance during the Safavid era. (239)

Meanwhile, the new incoming waves of Turks and Mongols severely hit Zoroastrianism. The Turks were zealous Muslims who tended to eliminate religious minorities. The Mongols habitually destroyed so much that lay in their path. Surviving Zoroastrians retreated to the desert regions adjoining the cities of Yazd and Kirman, affording refuges where the old faith was able to persist at a rural level in comparatively sheltered villages. The high priest of Fars moved to the Yazd locale at an unknown date, his companions taking with them Pahlavi and Avestan manuscripts that were continually in danger of being destroyed by Muslim zealots. Petty harassments, and more severe outbreaks of religious animosity, persisted in the Yazd locale also.

Although a small number of Zoroastrians managed to become affluent, particularly at Kirman (where some of them participated in the wool trade), the majority were reduced to being agricultural workers (and gardeners) living in poverty. They were a hardworking and long-suffering community, gaining a reputation for honesty inspired by the clause of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" at the root of their religion. Their very poverty appears to have gained them a degree of toleration as a harmless, if contemptible, population of "fire worshippers." The latter epithet was an Islamic reference to the priestly custom of maintaining sacred fires. The existence of Zoroastrians was never secure; they were subject to hooligan attacks.

Zoroastrian villages near the ascendant city of Isfahan seem to have been destroyed in wars. A small community of Zoroastrians, recruited from Yazd and Kirman, were settled at the new capital of Shah Abbas I in 1608. Housed on the outskirts of Isfahan, they served as labourers and weavers, working for a bare livelihood as social underdogs. In 1699, this tragically depressed community was eliminated in a single day, when the Safavid monarch Shah Sultan Husayn was persuaded by Islamic theologians to sign a decree for the forced conversion of infidels. While a number of terrified Zoroastrians yielded to conversion at swordpoint, many others courageously chose to die, loathing the fanatical oppressors. A few victims are said to have escaped southwards from the bloodstained capital of Shia Islam, (240)  now a majoritarian factor very different to the early Shi'i minorities.

Another form of escape had occurred in the tenth century, when a group of Zoroastrians from a small town in Khorasan departed by sea to India, landing on the coast of Gujarat in 936 CE. They founded the Parsi ("Persian") community in Western India, which became concentrated in the area of Bombay (Mumbai). Starting as farmers and weavers, the Parsis later became prosperous, nurturing a reformist movement in modern times. Their milieu contrasted very markedly with that of depressed Zoroastrians in Iran; Parsis gained a pronounced degree of freedom by the nineteenth century. (241) Their fellow religionists in Iran were known as Irani Zoroastrians, whose lives were moulded by a conservative disposition imposed by the priesthood.

Manekji Limji Hataria

In 1853, Parsi reformists established the Society for the Amelioration of the Condition of Zoroastrians in Persia. Their long-term representative in Iran from 1854 was Manekji Limji Hataria (1813-1890), an envoy committed to eliminating the non-Muslim jizya tax. Hataria commenced the task of educating and reorganising the Irani Zoroastrian community. (242) Hataria found that "the majority of rural Zoroastrians in Iran were enduring considerable poverty, living in huts, and subsisting on a diet of bread, rice, and vegetables" (F. M. Kotwal et al, "Hataria," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

The Zoroastrians did not gain a political representative in Iran until the establishment of a liberal constitutional government in 1906. A national parliament or Majlis was then established; one of the first members to be elected was a Zoroastrian, a merchant banker named Jamshid B. Jamshidian (1851-1933). Born at Yazd, he moved to Tehran, introducing modern banking in Iran. Jamshidian gained 150 Zoroastrian employees in his Tehran firm; he wanted to reduce the traditional Zoroastrian dependence upon agriculture. A close contemporary of Jamshidian was another native of the Yazd plain, who adopted a very different lifestyle. Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932) fled from his oppressed rural community to live as a wandering mendicant, migrating to India, where he became a scholar and businessman at Poona. He was the father of Meher Baba (1894-1969). Sheriar Irani was the son of a salar (dakhma guardian), who is strongly associated with the famous disused dakhma ("tower of silence") in the close vicinity of Yazd city.

The new liberal view, in early twentieth century Iran, was that all religious minorities should be allowed fair representation, the criterion being that they were Iranian and not Muslim. Conservative Muslim clerics clashed with educated Muslim laymen over many legislative issues, denouncing the innovations as an emulation of European attitudes.

The Iranian programme of national reform, at that period, clearly aimed at "severely curbing clerical influence, and once the constitutional government was established, measures were immediately taken to secularise those very institutions the ulama (clergy) had controlled for so many centuries." (243) The clerical influence subsequently regained ascendancy.

18.  The  Parsi  Reformists

A Parsi Wedding, 1905

A programme of religious reform was proposed and conducted by Parsis in Western India, where customs perpetuated by Zoroastrian priests came under strong question from educated Parsis. A major incentive was provided by one Nauroji Ferdunji, a Parsi who lived in Bombay. In 1851, he founded the Zoroastrian Reform Society (Rahnumai Mazdayasnan Sabha). His declared intention was "to fight orthodoxy, yet with no rancour or malice... to break through the thousand and one religious prejudices that tend to retard the progress and civilisation of the community" (Boyce 1979:200). 

The reformist trend aroused strong opposition from the orthodox; many frictions arose between the two parties. There was a tendency of reformists to adopt the religious interpretations of (Protestant) Christian scholars from the West. Whatever drawbacks there may have been here, education did improve substantially. (244)  Many Parsis were educated at the Elphinstone College, established at Bombay in 1856 under British colonial auspices, promoting a curriculum of European education. This influential establishment contributed to a Western-educated Parsi literati who nurtured reformist tendencies. These people created a new professional class eclipsing the prestige of the priesthood. The sons of priests often found a secular career more appealing, and also better paid.

The Parsi reformist ideals gained some attention from Muslim liberals in Iran, who applied their new patriotic perspective to an increased respect for the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. This trend was in evidence during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to the throne in 1925. An emphasis of the Pahlavi monarchy on the pre-Islamic cultural heritage of Iran percolated to school textbooks. This trend is now subject to criticism for having "traced a national historical continuity from pre-Islamic times to the present through the institution of the monarchy." (245) Furthermore, the Pahlavi monarchy resorted to harsh and coercive means to further their policies. That drawback eventually alienated their supporters.

Meanwhile, the Irani Zoroastrians became concentrated in Tehran, moving to the capital from their provincial situations at Yazd and Kirman. The number of priests dwindled very substantially, with many priestly families taking up secular careers at Tehran. The number of working priests at Yazd was over two hundred in the 1930s, diminishing to only ten by the 1960s, a reduction that furthermore lacked a high priest. This loss in numbers was even more pronounced at Kirman, where only three or four working priests existed in 1962. (246)  Modern Zoroastrianism became very largely a lay community, both in India and Iran.

Assessments of Zoroastrian religion have varied markedly even amongst the adherents. Strong tendencies to reformism occurred in both twentieth century Iran and India. A factor frequently evoking criticism is the tendency of the priests to have laid "such stress on the merit of having rituals performed that they almost appear to suggest that salvation could be bought by this means." (247) The ritual preference is evident in early texts like the Vendidad, and also in the much later New Persian Rivayats. The latter documents are not to be confused with the Pahlavi Rivayat literature of earlier centuries.

The word rivayat (which is Arabic) designates a text devoted to miscellaneous beliefs and observances of the orthodox priestly religion. The Persian Rivayats comprise letters written by Irani dasturs (high priests) to the Parsis. These documents date between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries CE.  Rituals and practices are there described that were not to the taste of later reformists; the Rivayats even included "a handful of Avestan manthras (called in Persian nirangs) to be used virtually as spells to ward off evils." (248)

The origins of Zoroastrian priestly legislation are very obscure. The Vendidad provided some detailed prescriptions. The authors were apparently magi living during the Achaemenian or Parthian eras. The priests here codified what are known as "purity laws," a body of observances accumulating additions over the centuries. Those purity laws imposed many rites upon the laity as well as priests; laypeople must have found the proceedings burdensome. The system of rules was concerned to avoid pollution. However, "demonology, not hygiene, is the determining factor" (Malandra 1983:162). The Vendidad authors framed their composition as a dialogue between Ahura Mazda and Zarathushtra, a facile resort of religious assumption. See further Malandra, "Vendidad," Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Some commentators say that the practice of exposing corpses, to be eaten by vultures or dogs, was intended to protect the earth from contamination. However, the basic reason clearly emerges: the corpse of a believer (equated by the Vendidad priests with the concept of ashavan) was considered to be contagious because of possession by the corpse-demon (nasu druj). Anomalously, the corpse of a drujwant (non-believer, or worshipper of demons) was not associated with demon-possession and instead considered to be harmless. (249)

The crude demonology in evidence has been explained in terms of a shift in emphasis from Zarathushtra's teaching to "the priestly casuistry so dominant in the Pahlavi books." (250)  The original dualism of the Truth (Asha) and the Lie (Druj) was an "ethical dualism," a profundity increasingly understood by priests as "a simple dualism of good versus evil." (251)  Thus, Asha now connoted the purity maintained by the priests, while Druj was identified with the pollution kept at bay by the ritual contingent.

One may credit an archaic Zarathushtran insistence that earth, water, and fire should be protected. By the time of the Vendidad however, such worthy concern for the elements was part of a superstitious sacerdotalism, conceiving of Druj in terms of pollution from contact with corpses and pollution from menstruating women. Those were two major concerns of the priestly legislation about "purity." The attendant rules and taboos were carried forward into the Sassanian era, accompanied by new beliefs, including an insistence that the demon-haunted night brought pollution on all. (252)  Superstition may be considered one of the greatest pollutants of the mind. The ritual priests are unlikely to have possessed any esoteric expertise, even if those in late retirement managed to preserve some esoteric lore, as some scholars believe.

The impositions created by the priesthood for women seem extreme. Menstruation was believed to be a daeva-infested pollution; the victim had to be isolated from the rest of the community. (253) "She must withdraw to a place, usually a small, dark hut where her glance cannot strike, and thereby pollute, the seven sacred creations of Ahura Mazda" (J. R. Russell, "Binamazi," Encyclopaedia Iranica). The preoccupation with ritual cleanliness stigmatised any flow of blood, which meant that women were considered a serious problem during their menstrual periods, a source of grave contamination. At such critical times, women were segregated and prohibited from engaging in their usual activities. "It seems that the Zoroastrian priests gradually elaborated the restrictions, which became in the end severe." (254)  

In Iran by the Safavid era, menstruating Zoroastrian women were obliged to live in solitary confinement, using small and rudimentary huts constructed in the fields. They must have been terrified of molestation in the hostile environment dominated by Muslims. This ruling of the relentless purity laws became so dangerous by the nineteenth century that the retirement of women was upgraded to "the greater safety of houseyards or stables." (255)  Discomfort was still the order of the day, even if the attention of Muslim hooligans could be avoided.

The Persian Rivayats furthered the strictures under discussion, the presiding dasturs (high priests) never having to leave the security of their homes. The dire restrictions were not relaxed until the early twentieth century, the delay being due to the acute conservatism of Irani Zoroastrian priests.

Women did not begin to participate in public life, of the comparatively progressive Parsi community in India, until the late nineteenth century, after the spread of literacy outside the priesthood. Schools for girls did not exist amongst the Parsis until that time, the reformist measures gradually securing a degree of female equality. The first Iranian school for girls was founded in the early twentieth century by the leader of the Zoroastrian council (anjoman) at Yazd. (256)

Parsi businessmen were hugely successful. Parsis also adapted well to the European ideal of skilled professions. The philanthropy of wealthy Parsi families endowed hospitals, libraries, and scholarships. The Parsi community achieved a high rate of literacy. Twentieth century Zoroastrianism was attended by a diaspora to Western countries like Britain and America. (257) A few thousand Parsis live in Pakistan.

Zoroastrians are small in number by comparison with other religious communities. The majority of them live in Western India, being concentrated at Mumbai. Their total in India was over eighty thousand in 1976 (as compared with twenty-five thousand in Iran, mostly at Tehran). (258) This number represented a substantial decrease from the census of 114,000 Indian Parsis in 1941. The decreasing Parsi population generated an internal sense of alarm, and is currently viewed as a major crisis. (259)  In 2015, the number of Parsis in India was down to 69,000. The following year, the total was stated to be only 61,000. The Indian government is sensitive to the loss of such a prosperous community. In 2013, a nationally funded project was commenced, bearing the slogan Jiyo Parsi. The word jiyo means stay alive. A BBC commemoration is entitled Why is India's wealthy Parsi community vanishing?

Meanwhile, rivalling reformism, the "orthodox" stance was basically that of emphasising traditional religious observances, the continued use of liturgical languages (not spoken by the laity), retaining the authority of all Zoroastrian scriptures, strict endogamy, the exclusion of potential converts, and support of familiar charitable organisations as a means of promoting education and social welfare. The number of priests significantly declined during the twentieth century, as did the Parsi population in general.

In contrast, the "reformists" relied upon the Gathas, eschewing the authority of later texts; they have desired to eliminate some rituals, and to translate liturgical texts. The reformists advocated an overhaul of priestly education, though apparently still envisaging a hereditary priesthood. They frequently preferred to tolerate exogamy and to include prospective converts. The reformists were also concerned to devise new organisations for social welfare, and to advocate the application of modern science "to clarify and separate the traditionally and confusedly overlapping categories of hygiene, morality, and religion." (260)

Kevin  R. D. Shepherd
November  2009 (last modified August 2019)



(1)       Almut Hintze, Change and Continuity in the Zoroastrian Tradition (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2013), pp. 15-16. Cf. Prods O. Skjaervo, "Zarathushtra: A Revolutionary Monotheist?" (317-350) in B. Pongratz-Leisten, ed., Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism (Wimona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2011), p. 336-7, stating: "In my opinion, Zarathushtra was spirited into a history he never belonged to and, even if he ever was in history, that history is now irretrievably lost." I should add that the issue of monotheism does not mean anything to me in this context, as the archaic Central Asian Iranians more closely resembled a "panpsychist" people with reverence for the mainyu (spirit) in all things, including earth, fire, and water. Such matters were scarcely comprehended by the many Christian commentators on the Avesta, a contingent commencing with Thomas Hyde of Oxford.

(2)        D. G. Bradley, A Guide to the World's Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 39. A stimulus for the traditional date of the prophet was W. B. Henning, Zoroaster, Politician or Witch Doctor? (Oxford, 1951), which opposed H.S. Nyberg, Die Religionen des Alten Iran, trans. H. H. Schaeder (Leipzig, 1938; new edn, 1966). See also Bo Utas, "Henrik Samuel Nyberg" (1-5) in Monumentum H. S. Nyberg Vol. 1 (Acta Iranica, 1975), informing that Nyberg's first major studies related to Semitic languages, particularly Arabic. Nyberg's dissertation Kleinere Schriften des Ibn al-Arabi (Leiden 1919) contained a lengthy introduction including an oft-quoted account of the "theosophic system of Ibn al-Arabi." Cf. R. N. Frye, "The Rise of the Sasanians and the Uppsala School" (237-245) in the same Monumentum. See also M. Mole, Culte, mythe et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien (Paris, 1963). Cf. R. C. Zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (London, 1961). Cf. Jenny Rose, The Image of Zoroaster: the Persian Mage through European Eyes (New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000).   

(3)       Bradley, op. cit., pp. 39-40.

(4)       Ibid., p. 40.

(5)       Ibid.

(6)       Ibid. Cf. Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010), p. 12, commenting: "We can surmise that many of the original allusions of the Gathas were lost to subsequent generations at the point when the oral text became fixed linguistically.... The poetry in the Gathas contains a high degree of abstraction and complex compositional techniques."

(7)       Bradley, Guide, p. 40.

(8)       Ibid., p. 41.

(9)       Ibid., p. 39. The reference to a "museum piece" can easily arouse comment. Granted that the Zoroastrian religion is antique, and indeed archaic in origin. However, the context of the quotation is clearly one of a religious opinion. In contrast, a philosophical and sociological investigation can yield conclusions of a neglected relevance for Zoroastrianism in studies of the history of religions. The archaic phases, the Sassanian friction with Manichaeism, and the Islamic phase constriction, all betoken a complexity that requires to be duly assessed.

(10)     Almut Hintze, "On the Prophetic and Priestly Authority of Zarathushtra" (43-58) in Jamshed Choksy and Jennifer Dubeansky, eds., Gifts to a Magus: Indo-Iranian Studies Honouring Firoze Kotwal (New York: Peter Lang, 2012), pp. 52-4.

(11)   Jamshed K. Choksy, Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History (New York: Peter Lang, 2002). The author tends to argue that the negative image of women was predominant in Zoroastrianism, maintained by male priests. Some statements have been viewed as contradictory. "Mazdean women, although often ephemeral in the official record, participated actively in defining the culture and the history of both late Zoroastrian and early Islamic Iran" (ibid:101). See the review by A. Hintze in Jnl of the Royal Asiatic Society (2003) 403-410.

(12)    New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology (London and New York: Hamlyn, new edn 1968, fourteenth impression, 1979), p. 312 col. 2. The authors of the section on Persia were P. Masson-Oursel and L. Morin.

(13)    Ibid.

(14)    Ibid.

(15)    Ibid. For a translation of the Denkard legendary material, see Marijan Mole, La legende de Zoroastre selon les textes pehlevis (Paris, 1967).

(16)    M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1992), p. 16. The "national epic" is here the Pahlavi original of the Shah-Nama, composed by the Islamic era poet Firdausi.

(17)    R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1996), p. 67. The Greek sources have frequently been criticised for exaggerations and distractions; they even associated Zarathushtra with astrology and magic. The classical Greek and Roman world was at a disadvantage for precise history. Pliny very erroneously named Zarathushtra as the inventor of magic. See further Roger Beck, "Zoroaster  iv. As Perceived by the Greeks" (2002), Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

(18)    Frye, op. cit., p. 68.

(19)    Ibid.

(20)    Ibid., p. 69. This assessment has been confirmed in W. W. Malandra, "Zoroastrianism: Historical Review" (2005), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. Professor Malandra comments on "the majority of scholars seeming to favour dates around 1000 BCE."

(21)    Frye, op. cit., p. 69.

(22)    Ibid., p. 70.

(23)    Ibid.

(24)    Ibid., p. 74.

(25)    Ibid., p. 70.

(26)    Ibid., pp. 70-1.

(27)    Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, trans., The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India Vol. 1 (Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 5, 25, 28.

(28)    Frye, Heritage of Central Asia, p. 71. A distinctive exponent of anti-haoma was H. S. Nyberg, who urged that haoma rites were denounced by Zarathushtra in Yasna 32. However, Nyberg's approach was complicated by his deductions about hemp.

(29)    J. H. Moulton, The Treasure of the Magi: A Study of Modern Zoroastrianism (London: Oxford University Press, 1917), p. 252.

(30)    J. H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism (London: Williams and Norgate, 1913), pp. 146-7.

(31)    See M. Boyce, "Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Age" (279-307) in The Cambridge History of Judaism Vol. One (Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 279. The Bundahishn is here described as being part of the Pahlavi literature, "most of which was written down between the fourth and tenth centuries C.E." The relevant chapter in that text contains king-lists, and refers to Kavi Vishtaspa, "which sets the prophet's floruit at '258 years before Alexander.' This is the date expressly recorded, as that assigned by the Zoroastrians to their prophet, by the early Islamic scholars al-Masudi and al-Biruni" (ibid).

(32)    S. Shaked, Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran (University of London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1994), p. 74, citing G. Messina, Der Ursprung der magier und die zarathustrische religion (Rome 1930), pp. 88ff. Cf. J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," Jnl of the Society for Iranian Studies (1993) 26(1-2): 73-94, pp. 82-3, implying an eschatological context for the verses in Yasna 48.

(33)    J. Duchesne-Guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 98, 100; F. B. J. Kuiper, "The Bliss of Asha," Indo-Iranian Journal (1965) 8:96-129; M. Schwartz, "Encryptions in the Gathas: Zarathushtra's Variations on the Theme of Bliss" (375-390) in Carlo G. Cereti et al, eds., Religious Themes and Texts of Pre-Islamic Iran and Central Asia: Studies in Honour of Professor Gherardo Gnoli on the occasion of his 65th birthday (Wiesbaden 2003), p. 376.

(34)    Shaked, Dualism, p. 3, stating: "It may be suggested that some of the mystical fervor of Islam was derived from Zoroastrianism, although it is not easy to show this in any detail," because of the late priestly transmission of Pahlavi texts which imposed a selective bias on the materials. See also Shaked, From Zoroastrian Iran to Islam (London: Variorum, 1995).

(35)    A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 6.

(36)    J. R. Russell, "The Sage in Ancient Iran," p. 2 (photocopy sent to me by the author in 1989). See also Russell, "Sages and Scribes at the Courts of Ancient Iran," in J. Gammie and L. Perdue, eds., The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns, 1990).

(37)    J. R. Russell, New Materials towards a Life of the Prophet Zarathushtra (Bombay: Zoroastrian Studies, 1988), p. 12.

(38)    Ibid:11 (both quotes).

(39)   P. O. Skjaervo, "The Gathas as Myth and Ritual" (59-67), in M. Stausberg and Y. Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina, eds., The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, 2015, pp. 59, 62. Cf. Stephanie W. Jamison, The Rig Veda between Two Worlds (Paris: De Boccard, 2007), pp. 21ff, providing a comparison between the Rig and the Gathas. Professor Jamison finds both linguistic and ideational differences between these texts. For instance, the relationship between poet and deity is more direct and mutual in the Gathas. The Avestan poems avoid similes, which are numerous in the Rig. The Gathas compensate in this respect by rich figurative language. Another point covered is the "single author" context for the Gathas, in contrast to the collective Rig text, featuring many poets. Professor Jamison tends to guard against the viewpoint attributing Gathic texts to a historical Zarathushtra. Cf. Almut Hintze, "On the literary structure of the Older Avesta," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (2002) 65:31-51, arguing strongly for a single author context, and also giving attention to the generally neglected Yasna Haptanhaiti, a very old text praising Ahura Mazda. The complexity of the Gathas is here evident, including the consideration: "Key words in prominent positions, such as Zarathushtra's name in the central stanzas of four out of five Gathas, or the reference to 'making life excellent' at the end of the first three Gathas, must have had some function for the listeners" (ibid:39).

(40)   A. Hintze, "Zarathushtra's Time and Homeland: Linguistic Perspectives" (31-38) in M. Stausberg and Y. Sohrab-Dinshaw Vevaina, eds., The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, 2015, p. 38.

(41)  The bold upper dateline of c.1700 BC appeared in Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979). A more cautious dateline of c.1500 to c.1300 BC appeared in Boyce, “Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Age” (1984), p. 280. See note 31 above. Boyce subsequently pruned the high dating to c.1200 BC (Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, pp. 44-5).

(42)   M. Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Vols 1-3 (Leiden: Brill, 1975-1991; Vol. 1, corrected edn, 1989); F. Grenet, “Mary Boyce’s Legacy to Archaeologists,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute (2012) 22:29-46. Grenet concludes: "It is quite possible that philologists, historians, and anthropologists alike will find much to reject [in the output of Boyce]. As an archaeologist, I can say with confidence that my fellow archaeologists will find very little [to reject]. Our debt to Mary Boyce is far from being repaid" (ibid:42).

(43)   J. P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), pp. 52-3; Mallory, Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture (London 1997). See also Elena E. Kuzmina, The Origins of the Indo-Iranians, ed. J. P. Mallory (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 352-3, stating that genesis of the Timber-grave culture is still a strongly debated matter. Also pp. 448ff on the problematic date of Zarathushtra. Kuzmina provides a detailed analysis of the Russian archaeological data. Cf. David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language (Princeton University Press, 2007), the anthropological perspective gaining much interest. Cf. Ilya Gershevitch, "Old Iranian Literature" (1-30) in Gershevitch et al, Iranian Studies Vol. 1: Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1968), p. 10, relaying that support for the Chorasmia (Khwarezm) theory had been steadily growing since 1901. This theory involved the assumption that Chorasmia was at least partially identical with the homeland Airyana Vaejah mentioned in the Avesta. The boundaries of Airyana Vaejah are not stated in the Avesta, but were now thought to include Merv and Herat. Cf. G. Gnoli, "Further Notes on Avestan Geography" (43-50) in Dieter Weber, ed., Languages of Iran: Past and Present (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2005), p. 47, urging that the long winter climate of Airyana Vaejah points to the mountainous zone of Central Afghanistan rather than to Khwarezm; this means that the homeland of Zarathushtra should be sought in a large area from Bactria to ancient Drangiana and Arachosia. Cf. F. Grenet, "An Archaeologist's Approach to Avestan Geography" (29-51) in V. S. Curtis and S. Stewart, Birth of the Persian Empire Vol. 1 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), commending and revising Gnoli's Central Asian identification of countries mentioned in the Vendidad. The Avestan source states that winter lasted ten months in Airyana Vaejah. Gnoli identified this description with Central Afghanistan, whereas Grenet favours Badakshan (now in Tajikistan). Grenet also disputes Ragha, earlier believed to be a city in Media, but which he locates in Bactria. A conclusion is that the Vendidad was composed in southern Afghanistan, not later than the sixth century BC.

(44)  Asko Parpola, The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilisation (Oxford University Press, 2015). Cf. the  critical review by Wendy Doniger, Another Great Story.   

(45)  Malandra, Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 16. An argument for the traditional date can be found in G. Gnoli, Zoroaster in History (New York: Persian Heritage Foundation, Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series, 2000). See also Gnoli, "Agathias and the date of Zoroaster," Eran ud Aneran: Festschrift Boris I. Marshak (Venice, 2006). The difference in scholarly opinion may be further sampled in A. Shahpur Shahbazi, "Recent speculations on the 'traditional date of Zoroaster', " Studia Iranica (2002) 31 (1): 7-45. Most specialist scholars appear to have rejected the traditional date. Professor Gnoli formerly emphasised an earlier date in his impressive work Zoroaster's Time and Homeland (Naples, 1980), relating to a suggested homeland in Sistan a few centuries prior to the traditional date.

(46)   M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 66. See note 16 above. In the main however, the Boyce version of Zoroastrianism is associated with a defence of the traditional faith. Her presentation led to much acclaim, and also criticism for the element of apologism. The present writer was one of those who reacted to some of her emphases, though I have always been willing to credit the more venturesome aspects of her work. One critic states: "It is the merit of Professor Boyce to have firmly re-established the unity of Zoroastrianism as a subject of scholarly inquiry" (Michael Stausberg, "Contextualising the Contexts," in Stausberg, ed., Zoroastrian Rituals in Context, Leiden: Brill, 2004, p. 3 note 9). However, "she has probably overemphasised the continuity and coherence of what she calls 'the faith,' and her History of Zoroastrianism in a way is one of the most unhistorical histories ever written" (ibid). Another critic remarked that her "attempt to place him [Zarathushtra] on the Inner Asian steppes of Kazakhstan prior to the migrations onto the Iranian plateau was motivated by misguided ideological considerations." See W. W. Malandra, "Zoroaster ii. General Survey" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online (accessed July 2019). Some other analysts seem to think that the Kazakhstan association is as valid as any of the competitors, none of which have been proven. See Manfred Hutter, "Zoroaster iii. Zoroaster in the Avesta" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. The best suggestion for the homeland of Zarathushtra is here viewed in terms of a wide territory in Central Asia, from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan. Furthermore, "the most probable conclusion... is that the most suitable date for Zarathushtra's life may be sought in the last centuries of the second millenium BC, perhaps in the middle of the millenium at the earliest."

(47)   M. Aminrazavi, "Persia" (1037-1050) in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Part II (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 1043.

(48)   S.H. Nasr, Sufi Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972), p. 90.

(49)   M. Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 19, for the orthodox format. The prophet is said to have gone to a river to fetch water for the haoma ceremony. The vision is said to have occurred when he emerged from the water. Cf. F. Grenet, "Mary Boyce's Legacy to Archaeologists" (2012), p. 34, supplying the qualification about the heptad.

(50)   J. D. Cursetji Pavry, The Zoroastrian Doctrine of a Future Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1926), pp. 28ff.

(51)   Ibid., p. 31. See also pp. 33ff. on the daena as portrayed in the later Avesta and the Pahlavi literature. A fragment of the Hadokht Nask describes how the daena comes to greet the soul at the dawn of the fourth day after death, either in the form of a beautiful maiden or in the shape of a hideous hag. The Pahlavi book Arda Viraz Namag gives another description of the hag.

(52)    M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 82 note 72.

(53)    W. W. Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 23.

(54)   Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 39.

(55)    Boyce, op. cit., p. 76. See also H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (second edn, Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 123, who repeats the version of C. Bartholomae: "inner essence, spiritual ego, individuality; often hardly translatable."

(56)    Malandra, op. cit., p. 186.

(57)    M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 1 (London: Collins, 1979), p. 472.

(58)    H. Corbin, Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi'ite Iran, trans. N. Pearson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 28. See also ibid., p. 292 note 128.

(59)    Ibid., p. 104.

(60)    Ibid., p. 103.

(61)    M. Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. W. R. Trask (Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 398.

(62)    Ibid.

(63)    Ibid.

(64)    J. R. Russell, New Materials, p. 12.

(65)    J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 77. Professor Russell here significantly contradicts the conventional denial of esoteric doctrines within Zoroastrianism. He states: "From the earliest times Zoroastrians believed that special knowledge about the end of the cosmic battle between good and evil... might be acquired by spiritually advanced believers employing mystical techniques" (ibid., p. 74). He emphasises: "Zoroastrians are associated in New Persian literature, from its very beginnings to the present time, with mystical practices and religious intoxication" (ibid., p. 74 note 3). Professor Russell favours a version of Mithraism operating not "as a distinct religion in its own right, but rather as a secret society within the larger framework of Iranian religion, conferring rites of initiation" (ibid., p. 77 note 11). He appears not to draw a line between the use of psychotropic drugs, mantric recitations, and silent meditation (ibid., p. 74). The lastmentioned factor of silent meditation is correlated with the Avestan phrase tushna.maitish ("silently thinking"), and may have had profound significances of the kind I emphasised in Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995), Part 2. The present writer suggested that Zarathushtra's reform involved a repudiation of the drug-induced "spirit journey" which later appears to have resurged in orthodox clerical Zoroastrianism (cf. Russell, art. cit., p. 74 note 4).

(66)   Russell, art. cit., p. 77 note 9.

(67)   Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 39.

(68)   Ibid., pp. 39-40.

(69)   Ibid., p. 40.

(70)   Ibid., p. 20.

(71)   Ibid., p. 43.

(72)   Ibid.

(73)   Eliade, A Hist. of Religious Ideas Vol. 1, p. 304.

(74)   Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 18.

(75)   Malandra, op. cit., pp. 17, 21.

(76)   Ibid., p. 17.

(77)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, pp. 31, 46 note 29. See also J. R. Russell, New Materials (1988), pp. 8-9; idem, "A Wandering Herder of Camels," Annual of Armenian Linguistics (1987) 8: 5-15. See also R. Schmitt, "Zoroaster i. The Name" (2002), Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

(78)   Russell, New Materials, p. 17. See also H. P. Schmidt, Zarathushtra's Religion and his Pastoral Imagery (Leiden, 1975).

(79)   Quotations from  W. W. Malandra, "Zoroaster ii. General Survey" (2009), Encyclopaedia Iranica online. Malandra is here contesting the interpretation in Jean Kellens and Eric Pirart, Les textes vieil-avestiques (3 vols, Wiesbaden, 1988-91). The output of Kellens gained a reputation for denying Zarathushtra and opposing the idea of his reform. Professor Kellens criticised the theory of Zarathushtra's monotheism, often associated with Protestant Christian exegesis. See Kellens, Le Pantheon de l'Avesta ancien (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1995); Kellens, Essays on Zarathushtra and Zoroastrianism, trans. P. O. Skjaervo (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 2000); Kellens, The Fourth Incarnation of Zarathushtra, trans. R. C. Foltz (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 2019), for a critical survey of Avestan studies in the West.

(80)    M. Stausberg, "Contextualising the Contexts: On the Study of Zoroastrian Rituals" (1-56) in Stausberg, ed., Zoroastrian Rituals in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2004), pp. 10-12.

(81)    M. Boyce, "Atas-Zohr and Ab-Zohr," Jnl of the Royal Asiatic Society (1966): 100-118. The argument is here employed that Zarathushtra was similar to Jesus in not opposing animal sacrifice. "Jesus did not oppose the traditional animal sacrifices of the Jews, which were continued by his followers at least down to the time of Paul" (ibid:110).

(82)    Malandra 1983:22.

(83)    See S. Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra (Leiden, 1975).

(84)    G. L. Windfuhr, "Haoma/Soma: The Plant" (699-726) in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985). The case for ginseng as the original haoma is here argued, in a manner implying the compatibility of Zarathushtra with this consumption. "Haoma/soma thus appears to inspire and to further and stimulate asha, i.e., orderly and true thoughts, words, and deeds, as opposed to the fury and wrath induced by the mada" (ibid:704). Professor Windfuhr employs the explanation of Professor Boyce for Yasna 48.10: "When will you smite down the urine of this intoxication?" The contention is that this Gathic verse suggests a different substance to haoma. However, other analysts believe that the mada or intoxication is a complex reference to haoma. For an objection to the ginseng theory in relation to Zarathushtra, see Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), pp. 383 ff.

(85)    See H. Humbach, Die Gathas des Zarathushtra (2 vols, Heidelberg, 1959); idem, The Gathas of Zarathushtra and the Other Old Avestan Texts (2 vols, Heidelberg, 1991). See also Humbach and P. Ichaporia, The Heritage of Zarathushtra (Heidelberg 1994). A more recent contribution is H. Humbach and Klaus Faiss, Zarathushtra and his Antagonists: A Sociolinguistic Study with English and German Translation of his Gathas (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2010).

(86)    Boyce,  Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 64, citing J. Kellens and E. Pirart, Les textes vieil-avestiques Vol. 1 (Wiesbaden, 1988). See also J. Kellens, Zoroastre et l'Avesta ancien: Quatre lecons au College de France (Paris, 1991).

(87)    Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 27 note 1.

(88)     Ibid.

(89)     Ibid.

(90)     Ibid.

(91)     Ibid., p. 7.

(92)     Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 38.

(93)     Malandra, Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 182.

(94)     J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 89. See also S. Shaked, trans., The Wisdom of the Sassanian sages - Denkard VI (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979), p. xvii, informing that much of the material contained in Book VI of the Denkard is based on oral traditions of the Sassanian era, "while some of it seems to go back even further in antiquity." Compiled in the ninth century CE, Book VI is introduced as a specimen of "what has been done and held by the orthodox," this contingent being defined in terms of "the early sages." While a number of sayings are ascribed to specific sages, others are anonymous. Book VI is "addressed to an audience on a higher intellectual level" than the fairly large group of extant andarz (gnomic) texts. Book VI "contains many sayings of a sophisticated nature, based on allusions which contain literary associations or puns, sometimes hard for us to understand," while also present are "a small number of quite obscure hints which seem to possess some esoteric significance." The attention given to wisdom (khrad; Avestan: khratu) can gain different interpretations. Book VI carries the admonition for every man to gain knowledge of basic factors about himself. This aspect of wisdom enjoined the age of fifteen as the time for such self-evaluation to begin. "Did I come from the other world or did I originate in this world ? Do I belong to Ohrmazd or to Ahriman ?" (ibid., p. xxv). The current critical question is: did this train of thought merely lead, in many cases, to a doctrinaire evaluation which never reached beyond the formal aspect of religion? Mere belief in a divine affiliation is not necessarily transformative. The important distinction between menog and getig, between the spiritual and material modes of existence, might easily have become blurred by a "this worldly" orientation of orthodox sages who assumed they possessed full wisdom. The dogmatic position of Kirder was a product of priestly conservatism and wisdom lore.

(95)     J. H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism (1913), p. 147.

(96)     Boyce, Zoroastrians (1979), p. 18.

(97)     Ibid., p. 19.

(98)     Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), p. 95.

(99)     Ibid., p. 65.

(100)   Malandra, Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 187, who says that in many contexts the word manthra is best translated as "(magical) spell."

(101)   Ibid., p. 37, citing the contributions of S. Insler and H. P. Schmidt. "One must entertain the possibility that for Zarathushtra the theme of the 'Cow's Lament' was to be understood on a spiritual as well as this more mundane level" (ibid).

(102)   Ibid., pp. 37-8. See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, pp. 259ff., citing G.G. Cameron, "Zoroaster the Herdsman," Indo-Iranian Journal (1968) 10: 261ff.

(103)   Eliade, A Hist. of Religious Ideas Vol. 1, p. 312.

(104)   Malandra, op. cit., p. 23.

(105)   Ibid., p. 22.

(106)   Eliade, op. cit., p. 314.

(107)   Ibid., p. 316.

(108)   Ibid., pp. 314-5.

(109)   Ibid., p. 315.

(110)   Ibid., p. 324.

(111)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 31. See also Boyce, "Avestan People" (1987), Encyclopaedia Iranica online, stating: "The Gathas appear indeed to mirror ancient Iranian society still at this pastoral stage, the community of 'cattle and men' (pasu vira, Yasna 31.15, 45.9), experiencing violent changes but not yet driven to the 'swarming' represented by the great migrations from the steppes southwards into Iran, which led, it seems, to the evolution of social classes." A late passage of the Avesta refers to a fourth social class, in which the huiti is recognised, meaning the craftsman or artisan. The term huiti "presumably included not only smiths, but also potters, weavers, and the like, all now becoming specialised workers" (ibid.).

(112)   In Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, section 2.11 (pp. 288ff.), I described aspects of the Boyce theory under the heading of "The Khwarezm Theory," as the region of Khwarezm was mentioned in the earlier works of Mary Boyce. The first volume of her magnum opus A History of Zoroastrianism followed Professors E. Benveniste and I. Gershevitch in proposing the importance of Khwarezm. Cf. I. Gershevitch, "Approaches to Zoroaster's Gathas," Iran (1995) 33:1-29. Unlike Boyce, Professor Ilya Gershevitch inclined to the traditional date of Zarathushtra, following the precedent of W. B. Henning. Gershevitch suggested Sogdia, while Henning favoured Khwarezm (Chorasmia) as the location for Zarathushtra.

(113)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), p. 37.

(114)   Ibid., p. 58. The relevant passage states that the yasna "re-enacted the cosmogenic myth of the three sacrifices, in so far as those of plant and animal were concerned (human sacrifice was probably also offered on rarer occasions)."

(115)   Ibid., p. 62.

(116)   Ibid.

(117)   Ibid.

(118)   Ibid., p. 65.

(119)   Ibid.

(120)   Ibid., p. 65.

(121)   Ibid., pp. 65-6.

(122)   Ibid., p. 66.

(123)   Ibid., p. 67.

(124)   Ibid., p. 68.

(125)   Ibid., p. 74.

(126)   Ibid.

(127)   Ibid., p. 76.

(128)   In Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, p. 247, I referred to the theme of Professor H.S. Nyberg "that the Chinvat Bridge originally related to a mystical experience, one which aligns with shamanic ideas of the "Cosmic Tree" rather than the fundamentalist "heaven and hell" preferred by officiating priests." In a similar vein to Nyberg, the comparativist Mircea Eliade observed that the Bridge was not only the passage for the dead but also "the road of ecstatics," here invoking the Pahlavi work Arda Viraz Namag for the colourful instance of Arda Viraz who "crosses the Chinvat Bridge in the course of his mystical journey" (Eliade, Shamanism, Princeton University Press, 1964, p. 398). That "journey" was drug-induced, a factor often neglected in generalising commentaries.

(129)   Eliade, A Hist. of Religious Ideas Vol.1, pp. 330-1.

(130)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 75.

(131)   Ibid., p. 67. See also G. Kreyenbroek, Sraosa in the Zoroastrian Tradition (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985).

(132)   Boyce, op. cit., p. 76.

(133)   Ibid.

(134)   Ibid., p. 84.

(135)   Ibid., p. 97.

(136)   Ibid., p. 87.

(137)   Ibid., p. 88, citing J. Narten, Der Yasna Haptanhaiti (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1986). Professor Boyce says that the attribution "was suggested, cautiously but with an admirable marshalling of the evidence" by Narten (ibid., p. 98 note 17). Cf. P. O. Skjaervo, "The State of Old Avestan Scholarship," Jnl of the American Oriental Society (1997) 117:103-7. See also A. Hintze, A Zoroastrian Liturgy: The Worship in Seven Chapters, Yasna 35-41 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007). In the introduction, Professor Hintze comments: "We cannot be sure about the original pragmatic function of the Gathas, but there is no doubt that the Yasna Haptanghaiti is a liturgy intended to be recited during a religious ceremony."

(138)    Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), p. 37. Transmission of Zoroastrian texts is a complex subject. See W. Malandra and Pallan Ichaporia, The Pahlavi Yasna of the Gathas and Yasna Haptanhaiti (2010; second edn, Weisbaden: Reichert, 2013), p. 12, stating: "Anyone who has worked in a scientific manner on the Gathas understands that these have not been transmitted directly.... There have been intervening stages of transmission that have altered the original poems in various ways" (from the introduction by Malandra).

(139)   See David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline: The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogenic "Soma" and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore (University of California Press, 1989), pp. 13-23. The authors make the relevant point that Arda Viraz Namag attests a belief that drug visions were the efficacious means to religious knowledge in the tradition of the magi. The authors argue against the mushroom theory of R. G. Wasson, and also contend that mang was the same substance as soma and haoma. For a contrasting analysis, see Harry Falk, "Soma I and II," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1989) 52:77-90, arguing for the identity of soma as ephedra, mainly on the basis of RigVeda texts. Cf. Jamison and Brereton, trans., The Rigveda Vol. 1 (2014), pp. 31-2, favouring a stimulant rather than a hallucinogen in the controversy about soma. See also Walter Belardi, trans., The Pahlavi Book of the Righteous Viraz (Rome 1979); Fereydun Vahman, trans., Arda Wiraz Namag: The Iranian 'Divina Commedia' (London 1986).

(140)   Martin Schwartz, "On Haoma, and Its Liturgy in the Gathas" (215-224) in A. Panaino and A. Piras, Proceedings of the Fifth Conference of the Societas Iranologica Europaea (Milan: Mimesis, 2006);Schwartz, "Kirder's Clairvoyants: Extra-Iranian and Gathic Perspectives" (365-376) in M. Macuch, M. Maggi, W. Sundermann, eds., Iranian Languages and Texts from Iran and Turan (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2007). See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures (Cambridge 1995), pp. 304-308, 350-359, viewed by some in terms of anticipating the Schwartz paradigm.

(141)    See Matthew Clarke, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca (London: Muswell Hill Press, 2017), maintaining that soma/haoma was never a single plant, but instead a combination of psychoactive plants exerting a similar effect to ayahuasca. This situation is envisaged for an extensive geographical area. The author suggests that the plant combination he discusses was the probable basis of the ritual drink known as kykeon, employed in Greek mystery rites.

(142)    Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 33. Cf. Boyce, A Hist. of Zoroastrianism Vol. One (corrected edn, 1996), p. 175, stating that Zarathushtra "refounded" the seasonal feasts.

(143)    Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 142.

(144)    Ibid. See also Boyce, "Further on the Calendar of Zoroastrian Feasts," Iran (2005) 43:1-38. See also K. E. Eduljee, "Gahambar."

(145)    See Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 138, citing the anecdote in which Khusrau Anushirvan's lavish celebration of the sixth gahambar is contrasted with the behaviour of a poor man who deprived himself, the latter gaining more merit.

(146)     Ibid., p. 208, also informing that the Parsi Panchayat of Bombay, in the eighteen century, tried to curb extravagance in the celebration of gahambars and ceremonies for the dead, a struggle which proved largely unavailing because of the new wealth gained by Zoroastrians in India (ibid., p. 193). The Panchayat amounted to the traditional council of elders, and prominently featured laymen, though such roles were generally hereditary. The Panchayat were influenced by priestly protocol in their attitude of rivalry with Muslims and Hindus. who were still regarded as aliens by Parsis during the first half of the nineteenth century. The gahambars were employed as insignia of Zoroastrian identity, a foil to the visiting of Hindu shrines and also to intermarriage with Hindus. Such considerations apart, it has been a matter of disagreement that some writers do not distinguish between the "feast" attributed to Zarathushtra and the much later potlach displays of opulent kings. If any redistributive feast was favoured by the prophet, then surely the format was rather different to the celebration of Khusrau I. In the unrevised page 298 of Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), I ventured a criticism of both commercial Christmas and the excesses associated with Zoroastrian feasts. In the subsequent revised page, made in the interests of avoiding any cause of offence, I observed that "the Zoroastrian feasts did have merits such as providing occasions for feeding the poor, a redistribution that would doubtless have appealed to the prophet; the feasts were extended over the centuries, and are only known in detail from the Sassanian era."

(147)    Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 107.

(148)    Ibid., p. 115.

(149)    Ibid.

(150)    Ibid.

(151)    See, e.g., M. Tosi, S. Malik Shahmirzadi, and M. A. Joyenda, "The Bronze Age in Iran and Afghanistan" (191-223) in A. H. Dani and V. M. Masson, eds., History of Civilizations of Central Asia Vol. 1 (Paris: Unesco, 1992), p. 200, stating: "After the year 2200, that is, at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age, the urban system begins to deteriorate and there is a radical and rapid decline of the large centres in all the enclaves of Central Asia." That assessment includes Mundigak and Shahr-i Sokhta, where the process of urbanisation was completed between 2600 and 2500 B. C. (ibid., p. 199).

(152)    G. Gropp, "Thus Spake Zarathushtra?" Hali (London, 1994), 74: 96-100, who further writes that Sarianidi's arguments about the Dashli culture embracing Zoroastrianism "appear extremely weak," a conclusion meaning his "interpretation of several buildings as the oldest fire temples must therefore be called into question" (art. cit., p.116 note 2). Dr. Gropp further informs that French archaeologists had contributed the dateline of 2100-1700 BC for Dashli. See also Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 50 note 100.

(153)   Boyce, op. cit., p. 125. Cf. Daniel T. Potts, Nomadism in Iran: From Antiquity to the Modern Era (Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 68ff, for complexities of tribal identity and movement in the first millenium BC, concluding that the Iranian-speaking groups, breeding horses in the western Zagros, were sedentary, at least by the time they settled in Iran.

(154)   Richard Stoneman, Xerxes: A Persian Life (Yale University Press, 2015), p. 180. See also Eric F. Schmidt, Persepolis (3 vols, University of Chicago Press, 1953-1970); Josef Wiesehofer, Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD, trans. A. Azodi (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996); Ali Mousavi, Persepolis: Discovery and Afterlife of a World Wonder (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012).

(155)   Jason M. Silverman, Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (London and New York: T. & T. Clark, 2012). p. 68.

(156)   Amelie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East Vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 683, stating that the "wisest men" mentioned by Strabo "were almost certainly the magi, who were associated with divine worship and were the guardians of Persian lore." See also A. Kuhrt et al, Achaemenid History (13 vols, Leiden, 1987-2003); Kuhrt, The Persian Empire (London: Routledge, 2007).

(157)   Malandra 1983:25. Cf. A. D. H. Bivar, "Mithra and Mesopotamia" (275-89) in J. R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies Vol. 2 (Manchester University Press, 1975), pp. 286-7, suggesting that an uncontaminated Zoroastrian tradition of Khorasan was in conflict with a corrupted Median priesthood, and describing the magi in terms of an aberrant devotion to a deity of the underworld, whether designated as Nergal, Zurvan, or Ahriman. This theory tends to employ the traditional chronology for Zarathushtra, thus implying that the prophet's reform was specifically aimed at cults like the magian (here associated with human sacrifice). If Zarathushtra was actually much earlier in time, then it is deducible that East Iranian traditions of Zoroastrianism were not necessarily uncontaminated at the period these converged with the Median priesthood (associated with the magi). The Bivar theory as a whole is concerned to emphasise that Mithraism amounted to a blend of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian elements with the Babylonian cult of Nergal, thus contesting the interpretation of Franz Cumont that Mithraism was a Westernised form of Zoroastrianism. See also the update in Roger Beck, "Mithraism" (2002), Encyclopaedia Iranica. For the pioneering Cumont, Mithraism in the West was Romanised Mazdaism, still essentially a Persian religion, despite the intervening adaptations.

(158)   E.g., G. Widengren, Les religions de l'Iran (Paris: Payot, 1968), pp. 314ff.; M. Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism Vol. 2 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982), pp. 232ff.

(159)   Y. Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe (London: Arkana, 1994), p. 256 note 63, citing S. Shaked "The Myth of Zurvan: Cosmogony and Eschatology," in I. Gruenwald, S. Shaked, and G. Stroumsa, eds., Messiah and Christos: Studies in the Jewish Origins of Christianity (Tubingen, 1992), pp. 232-3.

(160)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 142. Boyce also says that "orthodox Zoroastrians continued to denounce the heresy" (Cambridge History of Judaism Vol. 1, p. 307). See also R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955).

(161)   S. Shaked, Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran (1994), p. 2. Cf. M. Boyce, “On the Orthodoxy of Sasanian Zoroastrianism,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1996) 59:11-28, stating that Shaked “has evolved a partly new version of the history of Zoroastrianism.” Boyce objected to the view that Sassanian state religion did not reflect the teachings of Zarathushtra, instead maintaining her contention that Zoroastrian doctrine remained unchanged over the centuries.

(162)   S. Shaked, "Iranian Influence on Judaism," (308-325) in The Cambridge History of Judaism Vol. 1, p. 311.

(163)   Ibid., pp. 311-12.

(164)   Ibid., p. 312.

(165)   See Shaked, "Esoteric Trends in Zoroastrianism," Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (1970) 3:175-221. This article generated some disagreements. Sir Harold Bailey criticised the theory involved on the grounds of trying to discover some mysticism in Zoroastrian orthodox tradition where Jean de Menasce had found none. Professor J .R. Russell countered the accusation: "This criticism appears to have been based on a misunderstanding. Shaked never meant, in fact, to suggest that the Zoroastrians promulgated mystical doctrines or practices, only that they restricted access to religious learning which might be misused by the ignorant, by foreign enemies of the Iranian faith, or by heretics within" (Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 73 note 2, citing Bailey, Zoroastrian Problems in the Ninth Century Books, second edn Oxford 1971, p. xxix).

(166)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 116.

(167)   Ibid (both quotes).

(168)   Ibid., p. 142.

(169)   M. Shaki, "The Fillet of Nobility," Bulletin of the Asia Institute (1990) NS 4:277-279, p. 277.

(170)   H. C. Puech, Le Manicheisme (Paris, 1949);  G. Widengren, "Manichaeism and Its Iranian Background," (965-90) in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. 3 Pt 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 965-6, 970, 971-2; A. Henrichs, "Mani and the Babylonian Baptists: A Historical Confrontation," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (1973) 77:23-59; idem, "The Cologne Mani Codex Reconsidered," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (1979) 83: 339-67; K. Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984), pp. 326ff; G. Gnoli, De Zoroastre a Mani (Paris: Klincksieck, 1985); S. N. C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China: A Historical Survey (Manchester University Press, 1985); L. Koenen and C. Romer, eds., Der Kolner Mani Kodex (Opladen, 1988); J. C. Reeves, Jewish Lore in Manichaean Cosmogony: Studies in the Book of Giants Traditions (Hebrew Union College Press, 1992); Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One (1995), pp. 350ff.; G. Mikkelsen, ed., Bibliographica Manichaica (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997); R. E. Emmerick et al, Studia Manichaica:IV (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000); M. J. Vermes, trans., Acta Archelai (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001); A. Van Tongerloo and L. Cirillo, eds., New Perspectives in Manichaean Studies (Brepols, 2005); S. N. C. Lieu et al, Dictionary of Manichaean Texts (3 vols, Corpus Fontium Manichaeorum - Series Subsidia, Brepols, 1999-2006); W. Sundermann, "Mani," Encyclopaedia Iranica; idem, "Manicheism i. General Survey," Encyclopaedia Iranica; I. Gardner et al, Mani at the Court of the Persian Kings: Studies on the Chester Beautty Kephalaia Codex (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

(171)   Shaked, Dualism in Transformation (1994), pp. 2, 115.

(172)   Ibid., p. 75.

(173)   Ibid., p. 78.

(174)   Ibid., p. 79

(175)   Ibid., p. 78.

(176)   Ibid., p. 58.

(177)   Ibid., p. 59.

(178)   Ibid.

(179)   Ibid., pp. 58, 56-7.

(180)   Ibid., p. 46.

(181)   Ibid.

(182)   Ibid., p. 45.

(183)   Ibid.

(184)   Ibid.

(185)   See J. R. Russell, "The Sage in Ancient Iran," stating: "Like most of the monarchs depicted in the New Persian epic Shah-nameh of Firdausi, Vishtaspa seems to have been vain, foolish, and vacillating in his adherence to the new dispensation" (page 5 photocopy sent to me in 1989, and see note 36 above).

(186)   See P. Gignoux, "Essai sur le chamanisme dans l'Iran ancien," Journal Asiatique (1979) 41-79; idem, Les Quatre Inscriptions du mage Kirdir (Paris: Studia Iranica, 1991). See also Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. 1, p. 853 note 148.

(187)    Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 50.

(188)    For a discussion of this controversial custom, see Shaked, op. cit., pp. 119 ff. Khvedodah was favoured by royalty, and evidently endorsed by the priesthood. However, the practice was "perhaps not followed as frequently as the clergy would have liked" (ibid:122). See also G. J. Van Gelder, "Incest and Inbreeding," Encyclopaedia Iranica, observing that "the alleged practices of the Zoroastrians are a recurrent motif in Muslim texts." The Arabs "frequently taunt Persians with this custom [next-of-kin unions], even though it is likely that even in Sassanian times it was never widely practised, and there is no clear proof that it survived in Islamic times" (ibid.). Further, "reports on sectarians who are accused of propagating and practicing sexually deviant customs, among them marriages that are incestuous by Islamic standards, should also be treated with caution" (ibid). Of interest here is the detail that Behafarid of Khorasan "who led an uprising near Nishapur around 129/747... and who acted as a kind of Neo-Zoroastrian prophet, spoke out against the practice [of next-of-kin unions]" (ibid).

(189)   Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 126.

(190)   Mehrdad Kia, The Persian Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2016), p. 222.

(191)   Wiesehofer 1996:209.

(192)   E.g., Patricia Crone, "Kavad's Heresy and Mazdak's Revolt," Iran (1991) 29:21-42, ending with the comment that Sassanian sources only provide "a glimpse of a real society at work" in relation to Mazdak. These sources "only show us enough to make us realise how little information was transmitted" (ibid:34). Crone regards as superfluous the modern suggestion of a Carpocratean background, and also resists the modern criticism of a "community of women" as being a fabrication created by opponents. She describes the "communism" as utopian, not as antinomian. Mazdakites are here recognised as egalitarian, pacifist, vegetarian, and as being against priestly rites.

(193)   M. Shaki, "The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak (527-543) in Papers in Honour of Professor Mary Boyce (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985).

(194)   Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, p. 3.

(195)    Ibid., p. 79, commenting: "One may think, for example, of Abu Yazid al-Bistami, al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, and many others."

(196)    Ibid., p. 70.

(197)    J. J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 111.

(198)    M. Shaki, "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak in the light of Middle Persian evidence," Archiv Orientalni (1978) 46: 289-306, p. 300.

(199)    Ibid., p. 301.

(200)    Wiesehofer 1996:208ff; Kia 2016:xli-xlii.

(201)    Shaki, "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak," pp. 294-5.

(202)    See A. Christensen, L'Iran Sous Les Sassanides (second edn, Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1944), 316ff.; idem, Le regne du roi Kawadh I et le communisme mazdakite (Copenhagen, 1925); O. Klima, Mazdak (Prague 1957; repr. New York: Arno Press, 1979); Klima, Beitrage zur Geshchichte des Mazdakismus (Prague: Institute der Tschechoslovak, 1977); E. Yarshater, "Mazdakism" (991-1024) in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. 3 Pt 2 (1983).

(203)    M. Guidi - M. Morony, "Mazdak" (949-52) in The Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 6 (second edn, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991). Cf. J. Duchesne-Guillemin, "Zoroastrian Religion" (866-908) in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. 3 Pt 2, pp. 892-3, inferring that Mazdak was partly inspired by the doctrines of Mani.

(204)    Yarshater, art. cit., pp. 998ff.

(205)    Shaki, "The Cosmogonical and Cosmological Teachings of Mazdak," p. 542.

(206)    Shaki, "The Social Doctrine of Mazdak," pp. 305-6.

(207)    Guidi-Morony, art. cit.; Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp. 1018-20.

(208)    S. Petrement, A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism, trans. C. Harrison (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), p. 348.

(209)    Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp.1012-13; Fereydun Vahman, 175 Years of Persecution: A History of the Babis and Bahais of Iran (London: Oneworld, 2019).

(210)    Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp.1020ff. In this version, the disruptions were possibly accompanied by Mazdakite mismanagement of common properties, causing many earlier supporters to feel alienated, and to desire a return to comparative law and order.

(211)    Shaked, Dualism in Transformation, pp. 78, 106.

(212)    Ibid., p. 105; D. K. Motlagh, "Bozorgmehr-e Boktagari," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 4, fasc. 4 (1989), pp. 427-9, favouring a theory that the legendary vizier was a secretary of Khusrau I named Borzmehr, a man later executed at the order of Khusrau's son and successor Hormuzd IV.

(213)    Shaked 1994:119, citing Widengren "Leitende Ideen und Quellen der iranischen Apokalyptik" (77-162) in D. Hellholm, ed., Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (Tubingen, 1983), pp. 97ff. Cf. Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, pp. 133-4, affirming that the zand was written down in Middle Persian during the later Sassanian period, apparently from the fourth century onward. Furthermore, "zands in other Middle Iranian languages were evidently drawn on, especially for the glossses and commentaries."

(214)    Parvaneh Pourshariati, Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire (London: I. B. Tauris, 2008), p. 4. The author emphasises that Sassanian monarchs ruled by means of a decentralised dynastic system. This rationale clashes with the centralisation emphasised by Arthur Christensen, whose theory became “paradigmatic in scholarship” (ibid:2). Cf. Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides (1944). Cf. Touraj Daryaee, Sassanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009). Cf. Daryaee, "The Sasanian Empire, 224-651 CE" (187-207) in Daryaee, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History (Oxford University Press, 2012).

(215)    Shaked 1994:119, stating: "This is the main criticism that could be made of Yarshater's otherwise sober and balanced exposition of Mazdakism." Cf. Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp. 1001ff., 1018.

(216)    Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

(217)    F. Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 238, reporting the views of Abu Hatim al-Razi, who was moved to apply a critique to the Kitab al-Mahsul of the dai Muhammad al-Nasafi, a work regarded as unorthodox by the Fatimids and which did not survive. These early Ismaili authors formulated eras of prophecy in human history, assigning a role in this scheme to Zarathushtra.

(218)   I. M. Lapidus. A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 79. Abu Muslim, originally a Persian slave, was an Abbasid governor who was treacherously killed by the Caliph Al-Mansur in 754 because of his growing power. Despite his subsequent profile as a hero of revolt, in 749 Abu Muslim eliminated the rebellion of Bihafarid, a peasant leader in Khorasan whose following subscribed to "a combination of Muslim ideas and the ancient worship of Ahura Mazda" (ibid:78). Ironically, Zoroastrian priests were the agency requesting Abu Muslim to put down this movement, an indication of how much these clerics feared the threat of the lower classes producing a rival doctrine. See also G.H. Yusofi, "Behafarid," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 4, fasc. 1 (1989), pp. 88-90. Bihafarid is sometimes described as a reformer.

(219)   W. Madelung, "Khurramiyya," Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 5 (1979), fascicules 79-80, p. 64. Lapidus, op. cit., p. 79, says that most of Al-Muqanna's support came from peasant villages. J. J. Saunders, A Hist. of Medieval Islam (1965), p. 113, says that Al-Muqanna "revived the doctrines of Mazdak." See also C. E. Bosworth, "Abbasid Caliphate," Encyclopaedia Iranica, stating that Al-Muqanna attracted "many elements of discontent, including the Abu Moslemiya, believers in metempsychosis, and above all, Mazdakite sympathisers."

(220)   Madelung, art. cit., pp. 63, 65.

(221)   G.H. Yusofi, "Babak Korrami," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 3 (1989), pp. 299-306. Cf. Saunders, op. cit., p. 113, stating that Babak terrorised the countryside for twenty years. A number of scholars have expressed hesitation in making too strong a judgment of such millenarian sects on the basis of biased and inadequate sources. See E. L. Daniel, The Political and Social History of Khurasan under Abbasid rule 747-820 (Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1979), pp. 125ff., on the ghulat sects. See also C. E. Bosworth, "Abbasid Caliphate" (linked above in note 219), stating that the constituent elements of these Khurrami sectaries "seem to have been similar to those of earlier movements, with Mazdakite adherents and a certain emphasis on the part of women in activities clearly identifiable; socially, it [the rebellion of Babak] seems to have set peasants and small landowners against the owners of large estates."

(222)    G. Widengren, "Babakiyah and the Mithraic Mysteries" (675-95) in U. Bianchi, ed., Mysteria Mithrae (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979), p. 677. Widengren observes that the Babakiyya believed in metempsychosis; a commentator has added "as do Khshnumist Zoroastrians, some Sufi Muslims, and some Jewish Kabbalists, though the orthodox of all three faiths rejects such a doctrine" (J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," p. 79 note 16).

(223)    Widengren, art. cit., p. 676. Cf. P. Crone 2012:498-500, criticising Widengren's conjectural portrayal of Babak's Mithraic wedding ceremony. In more general terms, the cult of Mithras "seems to have lost most of its Iranian features in the process of transplantation to Rome.... Exploiting the Mithraic evidence for the history of Iranian religion is thus extremely difficult" (ibid:498). Cf. J. R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies (2 vols, Manchester University Press, 1975). See also A. D. H. Bivar, "Mithraic Images of Bactria: Are they related to Roman Mithraism?" (741-60) in Bianchi, ed., Mysteria Mithrae, contending that Mithraic origins are far older than the Roman empire, and suggesting that Mithraism was the religion of the early Medes. Cf. D. Ulansey, The Origin of the Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford University Press, 1989), who does not favour Iranian origin theories. Cf. J. R. Russell, "On the Armeno-Iranian Roots of Mithraism," a paper read at the Mithraic Subsection of the International Congress of Religious Studies held at Rome in September 1990. This refers to Mithra as an important divinity of Arsacid Armenia, and mentioning beliefs and traditions having an obvious affinity with Mithraism as known in the Roman West, traditions which "are for the most part the result of the fusion of Iranian and Armenian beliefs" (ibid:1). See also Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia (Harvard University Press, 1987); idem, Armenian and Iranian Studies (Harvard University Press, 2004).

(224)    Widengren, art. cit., p. 677. See also G. H. Sadighi, Les Mouvements Religieux Iranians (Paris: Les Presses Modernes, 1938), pp. 229-80. Cf. Crone 2012:46ff, for an up to date assessment of Babak.

(225)    Madelung, "Khurramiya," p. 65. See also Madelung, Religious Trends in Early Islamic Iran (New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988), chapter one.

(226)    M. Moosa, Extremist Shi'ites: The Ghulat Sects (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988).

(227)   Nevertheless, brutal violence did manifest in the Qarmati extremism that competed with the Abbasid power. The Qarmatis (Qaramita) of Bahrain were notorious for harassing pilgrim routes in Arabia, and further tarnished their record in 923, when they ended peaceful relations with the Abbasids and pillaged Basra. Shortly after, they attacked the pilgrims returning from Mecca, killing some people and taking many prisoners. That was the beginning of a decade of "devastating raids into Iraq, interpsersed with attacks on the pilgrim caravans, which greatly enriched the treasury of the Qarmati state" (Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, 1990, p. 161). In 930 the Qarmati leader Abu Tahir Sulayman attacked Mecca, where "for several days the Qarmatis massacred the pilgrims and the inhabitants of Mecca" (ibid:162), while committing many acts of desecration in sacred places, even carrying away the Black Stone of the Ka'ba to their new capital of al-Ahsa. In 931, the disreputable Abu Tahir turned over rule to a young Persian from Isfahan whom he believed to be the mahdi (saviour). The Isfahani is reported to have been a Zoroastrian, claiming descent from the Persian kings. He "manifested anti-Arab and antinomian sentiments" (ibid:163). When the Isfahani started to execute leading Qarmatis of Bahrain, Abu Tahir declared him to be an imposter and had him killed. A few years later, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Radi executed the chief priest of the Zoroastrians, one Isfandiyar ibn Adharbad, for his alleged complicity with Abu Tahir (ibid). Such dramatic events occurred after the establishment of an independent Qarmati state in Bahrain which gained powerful martial support, a state which survived until 1077/78. The degree to which the Qarmatis can be aligned with the earlier ghulat sects has been questioned, especially as their recruits included many Bedouin tribesmen. Sometimes known as radical Batinis, the Qarmatis are often described as an offshoot of the Ismailis. Cf. M. J. De Goeje, Memoire sur les Carmathes du Bahrain et les Fatimides (Leiden 1886), which is still a relevant work. Early missionary activity in the ninth century contrasted with the subsequent martial enlistments; however, the Qarmatis were armed by 891. Their first leader was Hamdun Qarmat, active in the Kufa region of Iraq during the 870s. An influential commentator was Ibn Rizam, writing in the early tenth century. This anti-Ismaili author cannot be trusted in every detail. Ibn Rizam described village colonies near Kufa, alleging that Hamdun Qarmat ordered his missionaries to make an arrangement one night for the women to mix indiscriminately with the men. Such stories are now considered to be a falsification. However, there is more substance in the accusation that Qarmatis rejected the law and rites of Islam. Eleventh century travellers reported an absence of mosques and prayers in Bahrain. Nevertheless, visitors evidently admired the organisation of the Qarmati state, which displayed egalitarian features of concern for the community members. The Ismaili writer Nasir-i-Khusrau visited al-Ahsa in 1051; he reported the existence of only one mosque in the city, whose inhabitants never drank wine, even though the city had 20,000 men capable of bearing arms and 30,000 negro slaves for agricultural work. See further W. Madelung, "Fatimiden und Bahrainqarmaten," Der Islam (1959) 34:34-88; idem, "Karmati" (660-665) in Encyclopaedia of Islam Vol. 4 (new edn); Daftary,The Ismailis, pp. 116ff.; Yarshater, "Mazdakism," pp. 1023-4.

(228)    Yarshater, "Mazdakism."

(229)    Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, p. 368, informing that, although Shahrastani was renowned as an Asharite theologian, some of his contemporaries believed that he was a secret convert to Ismailism. His non-polemical style is now regarded as being unusually objective.

(230)   See A. K. Kazi and J. G. Flynn, trans., Muslim Sects and Divisions (London 1984); D. Gimaret and G. Monnot, trans., Livre des religions et des sectes (2 vols, Louvain: Peeters, 1986).

(231)    W. Sundermann, "Cosmogony and Cosmology in the Mazdakite Religion," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 6, fasc.3 (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1993), pp. 315-17. See also Sundermann, "Cosmogony and Cosmology iv. In the Mazdakite Religion," Encyclopaedia Iranica.

(232)    M. Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 2, trans. W. R. Trask (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 368ff.

(233)    Ibid:371, mentioning these gnoses as an integral part of Zoroastrianism, the Mysteries, Judaism, and Christianity. Although I do basically agree with this distinction, I do so from a different standpoint; I do not believe that Eliade gave a satisfactory account of either the gnoses or Gnosticism.

(234)    Ibid:374.

(235)   S. H. Nasr, Sufi Essays (London: George allen & Unwin, 1972), p. 120. Professor Nasr here states that "elements of Zoroastrianism were integrated into certain perspectives of Islamic intellectual life," though Islam influenced some of the later Zoroastrian writings. Zoroastrianism contributed to the poetic vocabulary of Sufi poets like Hafiz, while Zoroastrian angelology and cosmology are here credited as being revived by Suhrawardi in his ishraqi philosophy (ibid:120-1).

(236)   Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas Vol. 3, trans. A. Hiltebeitel (University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 320.

(237)   P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (tenth edn, London: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 155ff., 209ff.; R. N. Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia (1996), pp. 209ff., 208. See also Frye, trans., The History of Bukhara by Narshakhi (Cambridge, Mass.: Mediaeval Academy, 1954).

(238)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), p. 155.

(239)   Henry Corbin, "Azar Kayvan," Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol. 3 fasc. 2 (1987). pp. 183ff.; Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988), Part Two. See also my web item Suhrawardi's Philosophy of Illumination (2008).

(240)   Boyce, op. cit., chapter eight; Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), chapters ten, eleven, and twelve; idem, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism (Oxford University Press, 1977).

(241)   See further E. Kulke, The Parsees in India: A Minority as Agent of Social Change (Munich: Weltforum Verlag, 1974); J. S. Palsetia, The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City (Leiden: Brill, 2001).

(242)   Monica Ringer, "Reform Transplanted: Parsi Agents of Change amongst Zoroastrians in Nineteenth Century Iran," Iranian Studies (2009) 42(4):549-560.

(243)    M. Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1982), p. 187.

(244)    An Irani Zoroastrian deeply influenced by the Parsi progressivism and learning was Khaikhusrau Shahrokh, who became the first official Zoroastrian deputy in Iran, serving at many sessions of the new national parliament after 1909. He studied in Bombay during his youth. See S. Shahrokh and R. Writer, trans.,The Memoirs of Kheikhosrow Shahrokh (Lampeter, Dyfed: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995).

(245)    Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent, p. 191.

(246)    Boyce, Zoroastrians, p. 222.

(247)    Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 183.

(248)    Ibid.  See also Ervad B. N. Dhabhar, trans., The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz and others (Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1932).

(249)   W. W. Malandra, An Intro. to Ancient Iranian Religion, p. 162, informing that, similar to Rabbinical Judaism, Zoroastrianism shows "an ever-increasing concern for such matters [rules of purity and pollution], to the point of obsession in late Sasanid times."

(250)   Ibid., remarking on the preoccupation with spells and demonology that is evident in the Yashts. See also C. R. Pangborn, "Parsi Zoroastrian Myth and Ritual: Some Problems of their Relevance for Death and Dying" (415-30) in T. N. Madan, ed., Religion in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 417, stating that the Gathas "yield no clues that would make him [Zarathushtra] accountable for his later followers' notions about innumerable ways of cultically corrupting the physical bases of life." The Vendidad offers many prescriptions in the name of Zarathushtra, prescriptions "which in all probability were more congruent with aboriginal beliefs and cultic practices swept away in his reform and then reintroduced by the Median Magi" (ibid). The priests believed that when the corpse was taken to the dakhma (tower of silence), "the sun and the supplementary action of the vultures helped the soul and its spiritual body, the Karp, to come out from the physical body" (ibid:423). By modern times, "only the exceptional priest" knew the Avestan and Pahlavi languages well enough to translate what he had learned to recite by rote (ibid).

(251)   Malandra, op. cit., p. 163.

(252)   Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity, p. 136, referring to what was apparently an innovation of the late Sassanian era. A passage of the Vendidad influenced a new belief that some measure was needed to remove the "pollution of night" from all believers before commencing activities of the new day. The remedy enjoined was to rub cattle urine (commonly used as a disinfectant) over the exposed parts of the body, before applying water and then saying the first of the five daily prayers.

(253)  Malandra, op. cit., pp. 164, 173-4.

(254)   Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), p. 45.

(255)   Ibid:180.

(256)   Ibid:208, 218.

(257)   See Rashnu Writer, Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation (University Press of America, 1994); John R. Hinnells, The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration (Oxford University Press, 2005), covering Bombay, Karachi, London, Canada, America, Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, and Zanzibar.

(258)   Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (1979), p. 226, giving a total figure of 129,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, five thousand of these being in Pakistan, and nearly ten thousand in Western countries.

(259)   See Pangborn, art. cit., p. 427, referring to a steady decline in numbers, especially in Bombay, "where the death rate is approximately 50 per cent higher than the birth rate" (ibid.). The 1981 census figure for Indian Parsis was 72,000, contrasting with an estimated 110,000 in 1951. See also J. S. Palsetia, "Parsi Communities ii. In Calcutta" (2006), Encyclopaedia Iranica. This entry states that the 2001 Indian census showed 69,600 Parsis.

(260)   Pangborn, art. cit., p. 427, adding that orthodox traditionalism is "represented principally but by no means exclusively by the priesthood" (ibid:428). The priestly establishment appears to exercise "at least nominal authority over the Parsi community" (ibid).