For today’s historical religious figure, let’s take a trip to ancient Iran, or as it was then known, “Iwalked.” Okay, that was just a little humor. (Very little, in fact.) Actually, I’m not sure what the appropriate term would be at that point, since the nation roughly corresponding to modern-day Iran didn’t even exist until the time of the Medes in the seventh century BC. I suppose calling it “Persia” would only work after the Persian King Cyrus took over, as the Persians were just one of several tribes living in the area prior to that. So when did our man live? If you thought there was a lot of discrepancy in the estimated lifetimes of the Chinese sages, this guy takes the baklava. Zarathustra, often known by the Greek and Latin form of his name, Zoroaster, was considered by different people to have lived anytime from the sixtieth to the sixth century BC. The extreme former estimate is that of the Parsi Zoroastrians of the Indian subcontinent, but this seems unlikely. The latter is based on a Greek source referring to the prophet as having lived about 300 years before Alexander the Great.
The collection of sacred Zoroastrian writings known as the Avesta doesn’t give much biographical detail on its founder, but the information we do have sounds rather typical. Zarathustra was born into a priestly family, and when he came up with his own religious beliefs that bucked tradition, he was cast out of his hometown and became a wanderer. Eventually, King Vishtaspa took an interest in the outcast’s philosophy, and hired him as court prophet. How he died isn’t stated, but there’s a tradition that he was assassinated by political enemies of Vishtaspa’s people. How much of any of this is true? It’s pretty much impossible to say, yet historians seem reluctant to dismiss Zarathustra as a purely legendary figure.
The Zoroastrian religion holds a dualistic view of the world, presenting the universe as being in constant struggle between light and darkness. Essentially, there are two gods, the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Angra Mainyu, and they’re pretty evenly matched.
The typical belief is that Ahura Mazda will eventually win out, but I’ve seen indications that some Zoroastrians weren’t too sure. This dualism can be seen to have influenced other religions in the area, including Judaism, as the figure of Satan became much more significant after Judea became a Persian state. Satan remained clearly subordinate to God, however, while Angra Mainyu was more of a force that even the creator of the universe couldn’t rein in. Zoroastrianism teaches free will, and that the purpose of life was to always choose the good. There’s also a belief that a savior will arise at the end of time, when Ahura Mazda finally triumphs over his lifelong opponent, and this will bring a general resurrection of the dead much like the one described in the book of Daniel. While Ahura Mazda was the ultimate force of good and Angra Mainyu of evil, there were other supernatural beings on both sides, much like how angels and demons have become part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Zoroastrianism was the major religion of Persia for centuries, but it eventually became displaced by Islam. It isn’t an especially popular belief system today, but it persists, largely among the Parsi of the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps the most famous Zoroastrian of the modern era, Freddie Mercury, was Parsi.
There’s also apparently a movement in the United States today that mixes Zoroastrianism with Christianity, known as Mazdean-Christian Universalism.