In Search of Zarathustra

Impressions while reading Paul Kriwaczek's

In Search of Zarathustra,

The First Prophet and

the Ideas That Changed the World

(Alfred A Knopf, 2003)

In 2 Parts (both follow on this page):

1 --My Impressions

2 -- Impressions contributed by an unnamed friend in response to my impressions and further reading

1 --My Impressions

Long ago during college days I checked out and read much of The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism by R.C. Zaehner (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1961).  From that book I picked up on the simple condensed version of Zarathustra’s admonition: think good thoughts, say good words, do good deeds that I quoted on one of my older web pages.

From that book I also picked up some information on Manicheans and others, and found that the concept of Satan and hell, as well as heaven and a savior, likely were Zoroastrian ideas introduced into Judaism and thus Christianity, and later into Islam.

One Christian author, the one who wrote the Gosple of Matthew, went out of his way to build a bridge between Zoroastrianism and Christianity by inserting the story of the wise men from the east.  [Kriwaczek puzzled me by not mentioning this in his book.] Inserting this story is a  very obvious attempt to link Zoroastrianism, in whatever guise it was preserved at the time of Christ, onto the birth-of-Christ-story.  Matthew’s wise men from the east were undoubtedly meant to suggest that Magi, holy men with great experience in astrology (considered a science by many at that time), received a sign in the heavens from God and followed its implications: there is a new king!  They traveled to pay homage to the Christ child with gifts fit for royalty.  They risked their lives sneaking back to their homeland evading Herod, who then ordered the slaughter of all children 2 and under.  

In my opinion this is a clear attempt at linking Jesus with the Saoshyant, the messiah predicted by Zoroaster who would divide good from evil and direct the overthrow of evil at the end of time.  The story occurs only in Matthew.  It was clearly meant to symbolize that the Christ’s mission was a fulfillment of the expectations that are part of other, respected, regional religious traditions.  Matthew linked into the Christ story what must have been a well-known set of prophecies from the east, prophecies that Kriwaczek said were sufficiently well known to have become incorporated into the Jewish society’s awareness, making that society ready for this new messianic message (page 169).

I remember Zaehner’s book NOT being the most readable.  So when I saw this newer book by Kriwaczek I jumped at the chance to read it.  It is a perfect book.  Perfect for those trying to make sense of the religious developments in the Fertile Crescent, looking backward from Zarathustra to ancient Hinduism and forward to Judaism, then Christianity, and Islam.  But what made the book so perfect for me is that Kriwaczek also tied Zoroastrianism into the history of religious “dualism” and explored its probably linkages to the Bogomils and Cathars, and provided food for thought concerning the readiness of southern France and its surrounding areas to welcome this heresy, called “The Great Heresy” by Krowaczek (and others).

In my college days I had also attempted to read The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy by Stephen Runciman (Cambridge, 1946).  All I remember is thinking “why am I reading this?”  So I quit reading it.  I did not at the time have any feelings about or knowledge about the Cathars, hence my failure to see a link of interest and my failure to carry through.  

I am very happy that Kriwaczek read both these books for parts of his own book, and I am very happy with the careful way he tied all the loose ends together.  Where earlier scholarship has been superceded by later work casting it in concrete or, more usual, casting doubt on it, he tells it like it is.  When he wants to speculate where experts and specialists fear to tread, he says he is doing just that.  I liked his style and his insights because it was an easy, but yet very informative, read.

Another project I started but gave up on in college was to read Nietsche.  I just did not like what I read.  I never did read what Kriwaczek spends a whole chapter on, his work on Zarathustra: Also Sprach Zarathustra (many publishers, many dates).  I believe that using Kriwaczek’s “The True Philosopher” chapter as a surrogate has brought me to understand Nietsche better, but I still do not like his philosophy.  I did check out his Also Sprach Zarathustra when I first became interested in this prophet’s message, but that is not what Nietsche's book was really about.  As Kriwaczek tells it, he channeled Zarathustra because of the latter’s belated, post-mortal realization that he had made a huge mistake introducing religious morality into the world.  So Nietsche was his vehicle for correcting this error and urging the world to step beyond notions of good and evil and seek higher values such as gaining “super-human” power, with power being the ultimate good.  

No, that is still not my type of argument.  I am also, as Nietsche was, appalled by the fickleness and stupidity of a lot that gets lumped into religious “morality,” but I also feel the need to teach love as a basis for action, not selfish love either.  My vision of a higher good lies in urging humans to seek cooperation-with, rather than power-over.  On pages 54 and 55 Kriwaczek has us seeing that not all of Nietsche’s admirers were Nazis, his admirers also included Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Martin Buber.  The latter two are high on my list of admired persons.

I like the original Zarathustra better than the entity channeled through Nietsche.  It is a mystery to me that this strange new revelation inspired such darned good music by Richard Strauss, made more famous by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey based on an Arthur C. Clarke novel called The Sentinel (see Kriwaczek’s pages 30-31).

I was thoroughly fascinated by the chapter on Manichaeism and the idea on page 99 that perhaps Mani was autistic, being very artistic, unable to form close human relationships, and “having a pathological disgust” for the body and its functions.  Well, maybe.  Modern Zoroastrians see Mani’s teachings as heretical (see ), but he formulated the matter-darkness/spirit-light dualism with which it appears that Catharism was contaminated.  So perhaps the Bogomil-Cathar ideas were extensions of Manichaeism rather than straight Zoroastrianism?   Runciman had it right?  OK.

Eusebius, Christian Bishop and historian, said that “Mani, the Maniac, was driven by the Devil himself.” (Page 114 of Kriwaczek).  Maybe, but he did have a lot of followers, and they were spread from one end of the known world to the other.  His message was Zarathustra’s with a twist, but the verse copied on pages 114-115 of Kriwaczek is downright “seductive” said Kriwaczek, and is an example of the words through which Mani “had successfully taken Zarathustra’s vision of the universe out into the wider world,”


After he was slowly executed, the watchword among his disciples was “Mani Khai! Pr -- Mani-lives!"  Hence the name Manichees, says Kriwaczek.  

But Mani was not just an adapter and interpreter of Zoroaster.  He was raised in a Jewish-Christian sect and called himself an Apostle of Christ as well as the “Paraclete (intercessor), foretold by Jesus in the Gospel of John” . . . .(page 100).  On page 91 Kriwaczek tells us that there had to be Manichean influence in the Christian heretical beliefs of the Cathars since . . .”so many particulars of Cathar belief and organization were similar, even identical, to those of the Manicheans.”  

Dualism is something they had in common.  In terms of structure both were guided by an elite that lives all the strictures against killing for food or even raising and eating plants, but the regular believer was free to do such things and fed the leaders. Manichaenas were actively aware of, and fighting the :Law of Derived Lives” of Theosophism which says that all advanced life forms subsist on the sacrifice of other life forms.  Mani saw that it was so, and balked, but he also saw that it was impossible to survive without at least eating plants, so had his followers donate plant foods for him to eat.  Both the Cathar and Manichean elites abstained (ideally) from sex, but allowed their followers to engage.  This is not Zoroastrianinsm, which praised agriculture, particularly irrigated agriculture, as part of the fight of good over evil.  Cathars also practiced both agriculture and animal husbandry, although their elite was vegetarian if not vegan.

Kriwaczek explores Mithraism in a fascinating account that suggests that, like the Zoroastrians, they were relatively equalitarian both in terms of their worshipers and between the sexes.  Interesting.  He also explores the Essene introduction of the idea of “The End of Time” in a chapter by that title and suggests the Zoroastrian idea of a final triumph of good over evil was the source of the Essenes' developing eschatology.  On page 169 he suggests that it was the incorporation of Zoroastrian notions of the ‘last days’ in Jewish society as a whole at that time that made Jesus’ ministry fall upon “eager ears and spread so fast.”

The remainder of the notes I took in this book were nuggets of Zarathustra’s wisdom as they have come down through the ages.  But rather than cite them line by line with a page number, I am going to go to a website that Kriwaczek recommends for those wanting to know how Zoroastrianism is faring now, and I want to take from a paper on that website a summary of Zarathustra’s teachings.  The title of the article is: “Thus spake Zarathushtra, An article on Zoroastrianism,” by Ms Shahin Bekhradnia, and I obtained it at under the “Home Menu” and “Articles on Zoroastrianism.” The part I want to cite here is this:

Bekhradnia then covers territory we have already covered, concerning the debt owed to Zoroastrianism by the Christians (which has to include the Jews and Muslims) for their current eschatological beliefs (including a reappearance of a savior at the end of time, although Bekhradnia does not go into such specifics, and their visions of heaven and hell.  Zoroastrians  believe in a day of judgment, which took place

Bekhradnia also defends the use of fire or another light source as a reminder of the creator’s energy.  She rightly points out that accusing Zoroastrians of idolatry over this is like accusing Christians of idolatry over their use of the cross.

Finally Bekhradnia tells of the respect that Zarathustra had for the earth and for its water.  Pollution is seriously frowned upon, even washing oneself in a river is frowned upon, water must be taken out of the river, then discarded.  Zoroastrians are expert farmers and masters at irrigating  dry lands and draining swamps to allow them to support agriculture.  

One thing I had not heard before is that keeping the land clean is why bodies were historically exposed to the elements on mountain tops rather than being buried.  Not unlike Mormons who have reached a certain stage in their progression, there is a special undergarment that is to be worn,

Bekhradnia finally extolls the hard work and charity of Zoroastrians,

Bekhradnia has more to say about their society and its history.  Zoroastrian society sounds very attractive.  It reminds me very much of idealized Mormon society with its emphasis on personal accountability and thrift and communal sharing.  Personal integrity and physical cleanliness, industriousness, and an advanced knowledge of irrigated agriculture are also still hallmarks of the Utah and western U.S. Mormon settlements.  In the big cities it is somewhat different, and Bekhradnia explains similar differences between the farm community and big city Zoroastrians.  

One thing I particularly like about Zoroastrianism is that there is no bloody sacrifice of a God-man required in its belief system.  Its savior calls people to do right and live to see their judgment day land them in paradise.  That is the same as the Cathar version of Christ’s role.  So now we are back to Cathars and Christ.

The only thing that bothers me is that those whose deeds in aggregate are found wanting go to hell for eternity, according to Bekhradnia.  That is harsh.  I went to a website dedicated to explaining different versions of hell in different religious traditions, and there it says that hell for Zoroastrians was eternal earlier, but had an end later.  There was also an intermediate idea that the bodies of the evil ones would be recycled when evil was overcome in a great fire, but then some thought that same fire would finally purify them and allow them into heaven. So, it is all over the map, but the punishments (self-inflicted rather than by devils and demons it seems) are disgusting and horrible.

So, OK, there is something about Zoroastrianism that I don’t like after all.  But don’t forget what Bekhradnia said that Zarathustra said:

Where striving for good thoughts, good words, and good deeds are concerned, sign me up!  Overall I really like this man’s vision for life and community!

2 -- Impressions contributed by an unnamed friend in response to my impressions

Comments on Nietsche's philosophy (A)

Comments on commonalities between religions (B)

 Comments on the common themes between Zoroastrianism and Mormonism (C)

A.     Nietsche's Philosophy

Nietsche desired to bring about a new, more naturalistic source of value in the vital impulses of life itself.  I interpreted that to mean that good values should come from the vital impulses of our very beings, from within us, from life itself . . . rather than from outer commandments, threats of punishment, hell fire, celestial bliss, etc. I hopefully thought that maybe as I read on, he would have some idea how to do that.   What I found on reading further was not encouraging or acceptable as it went into his ideas of master-morality and slave-morality.  Not nice.

This idea was made use of by the Nazis.  Hitler probably never read Nietsche, certainly not extensively, and the Nazis made very selective use of his philosophy.

Going back to Nietsche’s master-slave thoughts of structuring society.  My source is Wikipedia, not the most sophisticated source, I'm sure, don't know how accurate it is, but it is condensed, which is good for me as I don't have or don't chose to take the time to read whole books about things.  So here's some of what I found that had me thinking all day:

I do see there is validity in Nietzsche's assertions that society is ordered in this manner. You do see evidence of such a struggle between these two ways of maintaining social order. I particularly noticed and was bothered by this statement, which is perhaps the kernel of the rest of this thinking:

God, that makes my blood run chill. You can see the Nazi piece in that to be sure. It also reminds me of much I read when I spent quite some time studying the history of people with disabilities after [a close relation] was diagnosed, which I also found chilling, horrific really. I remember reading of the custom among the Dorians, contemporaneous with the Spartans, and many other ancient societies, that newborn babies had to be presented to a council to determine if they were whole and strong. If they were found to be weak or lacking, they were to be discarded. If they were found to be weak at later ages, they were also found to be not worthy of life.

If I'm reading and understanding this right, Nietsche subscribes to the master morality and feels that should be the social order. What I was trying to do today when thinking, was to see if this way of thinking fits into our social order. And I wanted to write to you about this because I wondered what you think about this. Is this kind of thinking, in a very much more sanitized version, what we see played out to some extent between the positions of Republicans & Democrats, social progressives or liberals and social conservatives? I'm thinking that it does seem to me to be drawn out along those lines somewhat. The liberal bent seems more focused on the common-good, on caring for the lest among us, while the conservatives seem to value the wealthly, powerful, and let the crumbs suffice for the low among us. Anyway, Abe, do you see anything to this thinking today being related to this master/slave morality idea, or I am having pipedreams??

I also was rather taken by this section that I read:

Again, I can see this very much reflected in human behavior. It is how many people operate. But gee, it's not the motivation for behavior that I hope wins out in the end. And it seems to go back to what I said last night about us all having these competing energies inside us, pulling us one way or the other, and we decide which one wins. But with both these tendencies seemingly ingrained in human nature, I'm left wondering how the part I consider the "good" part, the part of compassion and love, will one day win out and elevate the human race to a society of peace, prosperity, love and caring. Can we get there from here??

I do, I really do see many, many fine people who order their lives from a paradigm of caring and love. Human beings can be divine, no doubt about it. And we see the gifts of such people daily. But it does seem there is a lot of the other stuff around us too, sometimes too close to home even. Perhaps I'm overly aware of it right now as I've seen in the last couple of weeks what I consider to be some very mean-spirited behaviors in a couple of my kids, which saddens me greatly. . . . it makes me wonder, damn, did I raise these kids?? Do you ever feel that way with your kids??  You see them acting out in ways you carefully tried, when they were children, to teach another way. But I see very clearly that my children are adults, just like me, and they are making their choices, cultivating one part or the other in themselves, living "beyond" me now.

B.     Comments on the resemblances between Mormonism and Zoroastrianism

As I went through your discussion of Bekhradnia's message of Zoroaster, I found myself listing, thinking, comparing:

As I'm going through this I'm thinking, "Damn! how Mormon is this!!!" (except gender equality and blood sacrifice). And then I get to your very, very good paragraph which says exactly what I'm thinking:

C.     Comments on commonalities between religions:

Commonalities in current religions may be the result of concepts coming from a common source, from very early Zoroastrianism.  They caught hold , gained pre-eminence and influenced many, perhaps most, of the world religions we know today and became the basis of them. But it also appears that some very different concepts were held by earlier peoples with animistic beliefs, thus putting into question whether these concepts were truths embedded in every human soul (as per Jung’s notion of built-in archetypes expressed through religions).

Humans seem to be to driven to create some sort of religious structure, and I do say religious, not necessarily spiritual. Seeing that driving need for organized religion and belief, it makes me wonder if it is possible that at some point in our spiritual evolution we do need the structure of an organized religious belief, we need sacraments, rituals, endowments, etc. to begin to get our mind around spiritual things, to get a handle on such things, to begin to glue together a faith and understand our spiritual selves. Perhaps those things serve as a "primer" for the formation of our spirituality.

Maybe it is a needed part of our learning, but I wonder if most of us get stuck at that stage and never go beyond it. Probably we get stuck there mainly because it is in the interest of organized religion to get us stuck there . . . in order to grow its power and control.  That's unfortunate because it may hold us back from moving on to another level of spiritual awareness.  Perhaps if we can grow past those bonds and boundaries of organized religion, perhaps it is then possible that we can mature spiritually and begin to see beyond the structure of a "religion" to something that can be more personally tailored to each unique individual, more inwardly spiritual, less dependent on commandment, reward, outward performance, etc.

Maybe that would help us get to that one thing I did like about what Nietsche said: ". . . finding a new, more naturalistic source of value in the vital impulses of life itself." Maybe it would help us find the impulse that comes from a source within us instead of a force outside ourselves. Being inspired from a force within ourselves might be a much stronger motivator to "think good thoughts, say good words, do good deeds" than an outward force. Something to think about.

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