Interview with the Prophet (Part 1)

I recently crossed paths with the legendary prophet Zarathushtra while hiking in the mountains behind my house, the Diablo Range. He and I swapped cell numbers, and he graciously consented to scheduling an interview.


Idol Chatter: I’d like to begin by saying what a great honor it is to be granted an interview with the prophet of good and evil.

Zoroaster: The honor is all mine! And thanks for the latte by the way.

IC: So tell me: what have you been up to for the last three thousand years?

Z: Seeing the world. Seeing all its beauty. Chatting with people. Gardening. I like to garden.

IC: Yes, you’ve got quite a reputation as a tree planter and a sustainability advocate. But now you’re a traveler too.

Z: Yes. Making the most of my golden years, you see.

IC: I suppose you’ve seen about everything by now.

Z: No, you’d be surprised how much there is to see.


IC: Forgive my impertinence, but aren’t you just the spittin’ image of Freddie Mercury?

Z: Ah yes, well of course we are both Iranians.

IC: He was a Parsi, right?

Z: Yes, though the so-called Parsis, as Khorasanis, are more Parthi than Parsi.

IC: Does it sadden you that so few of your faith remain, and that so few of those who remain reside in the homelands of their faith?

Z: It does, sometimes, but the spirit of a universal idea is no mere matter of cultural heritage. It persists and is reborn like the spirit of a man.

IC: How so?

Z: The soul of a man, that is, his individuality, only lives in the world for a short while, but the spirit of a man will continue to be embodied over and over again as his thoughts are recovered. A religion is like a man in this regard.

IC: So you believe in a metaphorical kind of reincarnation, but not in the immortality of the soul itself?

Z: Just think of it this way: we are reborn when another soul relives our ideas and passions, but they don’t get access to our memories.

IC: But you taught immortality of the soul, right?

Z: I didn’t invent the idea of personal immortality. What I did was propose a change in the goods which men barter with the gods for divine favor. I summoned men to offer sacrifice to the God of Wisdom, who asks only for the sacrifice of good thoughts, words, and actions.

IC: This seems somewhat calculating. You call it a barter. I’m sure you’re familiar with the charge that this is mere “marketplace morality.”

Z: Ah, that devil Nietzsche. He knew me well, but as I said, I did not found the marketplace. Do me a favor and look around: do you see justice in the world?

IC: Not generally.

Z: Neither did I, and I could see that I was not alone.

IC: So you conceived a world of justice, of karma?

Z: Yes: a world of justice, and eventual redemption of this world. I could see this was what men needed.

IC: To make them behave?

Z: Not exactly. Men generally want to live a good life, and to have a good self-image is central to a good life, but to ask most men to live a good life in an unjust world is asking too much.

IC: So again, your objective was to motivate the people.

Z: That was a strategic necessity, a prerequisite, and a selling point when seeking the patronage of the king; but my primary objective was to give men hope so that they may live good lives. Of course this would be quite difficult in a world of anarchy.

IC: Your opinion of this world seems rather dim, yet you have the reputation of a “life-affirming” prophet.

Z: No, I see abundant good in the world, but there is too much bad in the world for men to be left to battle it alone. I taught men to make a single leap of faith: to have faith in the eventual ascendancy of Good.

IC: But you did preach divine punishment.

Z: I promised justice; not vengeance. I preached that all actions have personal consequences, but I also preached that the penalty would fit the crime, and that all suffering would end. The ultimate salvation would be shared: the restoration of the good creation.

To be continued …

The Cradle of Ethical Metaphysics

If we turn to the Gathas to determine the geographic origins of Zoroastrianism, it seems reasonable to conclude—or guess—that Zoroastrianism originated somewhere in or around Bactria-Margiana. Recent discoveries of what appear to be ancient, pre-Zoroastrian fire temples in the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC), appear to confirm this line of reasoning.

The alleged fire temple at Dashly-3

The alleged fire temple at Dashly-3 (Bactria)

But we cannot necessarily conclude that all aspects of Zoroastrianism can be traced back to the same time or region. The definitive doctrine of cosmic dualism, for instance, is not apparent in the Gathas or in the archeological finds of Bactria-Margiana. Perhaps we can say that the Zarathustra of the Gathas taught that some thinking is good and some is bad, and that dishonesty is a chief characteristic of the latter, but that does not necessarily mean that Zarathustra taught a doctrine of ethical metaphysics—or cosmic dualism, as identified by Nietzsche.

So what would be a good guess as to the geographic origin of cosmic dualism?

When, for starters, did the Zoroastrian Satan “Angra Mainyu”, or Ahriman, first appear?

We know that the words Angra and Mainyu do first appear together in the Old Avestan as “bad thinking” or “miserly thinking”, which is opposed to “Spenta Mainyu” or, roughly, “bounteous thinking”. So it is reasonable to credit the Gathas of Zarathustra with the philosophical seed of cosmic dualism, but it does not necessarily follow that Zarathustra was a cosmic dualist; indeed, it seems positively unlikely that he was.

The earliest evidence available to us at this time of cosmic dualism was an account of Herodotus (484–425 BCE) of the Magi [I 140], which he seems to have identified as a tribe of the Medes, distinct from Persians but related thereto. All Herodotus mentioned was that it was customary among the Magi to kill noxious beasts. Western accounts of Ahriman and cosmic dualism do not emerge until Plutarch (46–120 CE), well into the Parthian era, and probably before a word of the Avesta was put into writing.

In light of this scarcity of evidence, it seems peculiar that what we recognize as Mazdean dualism is so similar to the ideas of Heraclitus, who was a contemporary of Darius, and predated Herodotus by two or three generations. Heraclitus, though, appears to have been critical of the Magi (though he may have been using the term as a generalization for sorcerers, faith healers, etc.). Still, it seems likely that someone by the name Magi were battling “noxious beasts” before the time of Heraclitus. Perhaps their primitive notions of good and evil caused him to reflect on the ubiquity of opposition in nature, but I’m inclined to go a little further and suggest that the dialectic of Heraclitus was probably a response to a doctrine of universal opposition that was commonly known and discussed in his corner of the Persian Empire.

I think it’s fair to credit the term “Ahriman” to Zarathustra, but I am not so sure that the idea of Ahriman is as Zoroastrian as it is Magian, and the Magi, to the best of our knowledge, were Medes. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain that the Magi weren’t a priestly caste throughout the Iranian world.

Where did this cosmic war between good and evil originate? It is not easy to say. Because we cannot say that it began in the Old Avesta, it seems difficult to claim that it originated in the lands of the Old Avesta. Perhaps the best we can say is that it is an Iranian idea. That would include modern peoples from the Pashtuns to the Kurds, and perhaps the ancient Scythians and Sarmatians as well. But when we look at what we have heard of those ancient tribes of the steppes, we find nothing even alluding to cosmic dualism, which might lead us to suggest that it might have been an invention of the Bactrians or Margianans who succeeded Zarathustra, or even the Medes or the Persians. Perhaps the evidence that points to the origin of the name “Ahriman” in the vicinity of Bactrian-Margiana is the best evidence we have for the geographic origin of the idea of Ahriman; but isn’t it possible that Ahriman derives from a Median word of similar meaning?

At this time, I am inclined to credit the Old Avesta as the inspiration behind the idea, and the lands of the Old Avesta as the soil where the seed was fist planted, some 500 years before Herodotus. There was plenty of time for the idea to develop. When and where it first took the form of doctrine is difficult to say.

The Original Holy Land

What place do most of us think of when we hear the term “Holy Land”?

Perhaps we ought to think of Afghanistan.

Let us begin by looking at that highly influential proto-western religion of the Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism. Though it is evident that Judaism originated in Mesopotamia and developed in and around Palestine, it is also evident that Judaism acquired much of its classical character during its Babylonian captivity, and that much of the influence that the Judeans succumbed to was Persian.

Lapis Lazuli
The finest lapis lazuli is mined in the mountains of Afghanistan.

It has long been recognized that Zoroaster, the “Persian Prophet”, was no Persian. He was surely an Iranian, but there are no traditions or evidence placing Zarathustra in or near the ancient province of Pars.

It was once commonly thought that he may have been a Mede, but modern scholars have abandoned that hypothesis as well, and have established a consensus that Zarathustra lived far from Media and Pars.

Today, the suggested homelands of Zarathustra range from Sakastan (greater Sistan), in what is today Afghanistan and far eastern Iran, to the Oxus Delta, in modern Uzbekistan. The Avestan language is considered to be a northeast Iranian language, more closely related to Scythian and Pashto than Persian.

Most modern scholars appear to agree on Bactria or Margiana as the cradle of Zoroastrianism:

  • Frye: Bactria and Chorasmia [1]
  • Khlopin: the Tejen Delta in Margiana [2]
  • Sarianidi: Bactria and Margiana [3]

This modern school of thought is not without its classical antecedents, though the antecedents are of dubious authenticity. A half-dozen early Christian scholars, apparently beginning with Justin, believed that Zoroaster was a Bactrian king who fought the Assyrians. [4,5,8]

Eusebius of Caesarea appears to have thought that Zoroaster predated Abraham:

Ninus the Assyrian, who is said to have been the first ruler of all Asia except India: after him was named the city Ninus, which among the Hebrews is called Nineve; and in his time Zoroastres the Magian reigned over the Bactrians. And the wife of Ninus and his successor in the kingdom was Semiramis; so Abraham was contemporary with these.

Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, Book X, Capter 9

It’s unlikely that Zoroaster ever fought—or even heard of—the Assyrians, yet it is curious how many ancient accounts refer to him as a Bactrian. Perhaps those accounts originate in stories that traveled west after Alexander’s conquest of Bactria.

The World of the Avesta

As researchers have striven to identify that countries mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book, the Avesta, they have found that:

… almost all identified countries are situated beyond the present borders of Iran, to the east and northeast. The only exception is Sistán, and only for its westernmost part. [6]

It turns out that if any modern country can be called the birthplace of Iranian religion, it is Afghanistan, with the world of the Avesta spilling into neighboring Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Indeed, this very region may have been the cradle of Indian religion as well—the land of the Vedas.

Western Expansion

When and how did Zoroastrianism find its way to Persia? It may have made its way into the Empire of the Medes after 625 B.C.E., when the Medes conquered—or appropriated—Bactria. The Medes may well have had a particular interest in Bactria, as the lapis lazuli trade had existed between Media and Bactria into the remote past, possibly even before the Iranians arrived in the region. The route, known as the Great Khorasan Road and the High Road, later became a major segment of the Silk Road. It is possible that trade may even have brought Zoroastrianism into Media before there was a Median Empire. The religion may then have spread from Media to Pars, the land of King Cyrus, who famously liberated the Judeans, and thereby earned the title “messiah”.

Sources

  1. Frye, Richard N. (1992), “Zoroastrians in Central Asia in Ancient Times”, Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 58: 6–10
  2. Khlopin, I.N. (1992), “Zoroastrianism – Location and Time of its Origin”, Iranica Antiqua 27: 96–116
  3. Sarianidi, V. (1987), “South-West Asia: Migrations, the Aryans and Zoroastrians”, International Association for the Study of Cultures of Central Asia Information Bulletin 13: 44–56
  4. Nigosian, S.A. (1993), “The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition & Modern Research”: 17
  5. Gnoli, Gherardo (1980), “Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland”, Seminario di Studi Asiatici, Series Minor, vol. 7. Naples: Instituto Universitario Orientale: 91–127
  6. Curtis & Stewart (2005), “Birth of the Persian Empire: The Idea of Iran”: 30–
  7. Druncker, Max (), “The History of Antiquity”, : 69–

Good, Evil, and Plutarch

American Faravahar

American Faravahar

Henry David Thoreau, an obscure 19th Century classicist and journalist who earned a reputation as a decent translator of Greek works, once reflected on the profound presence of Evil in the world:

Are there not two powers?

—Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Jan 9, 1853

Among the Greek classics which Thoreau is known to have read is Plutarch’s Moralia, which includes an essay

wherein Plutarch argues that the prevailing wisdom of all peoples is based upon a common belief in a cosmic dualism of Good and Evil.

… it is from two opposite Principles and two antagonistic Powers; … that Life becomes of a mixed nature; …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLV

The primary example provided by Plutarch for what he regards as a universal belief is the Zoroastrian religion, to which he dedicates two sections of “On Isis and Osiris”.

And this is the opinion of most men, and those the wisest, for they believe, some that there are Two Gods, as it were of opposite trades—one the creator of good, the other of bad things; others call the better one “God,” the other “Daemon,” as did Zoroaster the Magian, …

—Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris, XLVI

But when Plutarch endorses these cosmic dualisms, he endorses them as representations of a deep, moral-metaphysical reality.

Just before Plutarch brings up Zoroaster, he argues against Stoic Deism and the Materialism of Democritus and Epicurus, criticizing them as opposite, equally unacceptable extremes. He summons our friend Heraclitus to introduce the alternative:

… the harmony of the universe is reciprocal, like that of a lyre or bow, according to Heraclitus, …

On Isis and Osiris, XLV

And just after discussing Zoroaster, Plutarch returns to Heraclitus, combining three of the Ephesian philosopher’s fragments into a single compound argument:

Heraclitus directly calls Mars, father, lord, and ruler of all things; and says that Homer, when he prays that “Perish Contention, both from gods and men,” forgets that he is cursing the origin of all things, inasmuch as they derive their origin from contention and antipathy, and the Sun will not overpass his appointed limits, otherwise: “The avenging tongue of Law would find him out,” …

On Isis and Osiris, XLVIII

Thus we find in Plutarch Zoroaster sandwiched between slices of Heraclitus. One might dare suggest that Plutarch saw some correspondence between those two ancient thinkers, one an Iranian, perhaps a Mede or a Persian, and the other a Greek subject of the Persian Empire.

Seeing Zoroaster in this light, not as a literalist but as a proto-Heraclitean, I wonder what fruit an imaginary encounter between Nietzsche and Plutarch might bear. What if the German were to suggest to the Greek that he had seen the potential in Zarathustra and thereby reformed the Persian prophet, beyond Good and Evil, into a Heraclitean? Would Plutarch have been surprised? Might Plutarch have asserted that Zarathustra was a Heraclitean all along?

Honorary Homo

I was terribly nervous the night before election day. I had volunteered to work all day for the No-on-8 campaign. The training had been rather intimidating, and I was afraid that I might misrepresent the campaign. I might get sassy with some evangelical. Being straight and perhaps naive about what prejudice I might encounter, I worried that I might lose my temper.

As it turned out, I had a good time, though the work involved a lot of standing around.

I fondly recall the moment when a man passed by with his daughter. I humbly offered them a “No on 8” card. The little girl took the card and pointed to it, looked up to her dad and said “Obama!”

Now I’m not a the biggest Obama fan, but that was a sweet thing to behold.

The Bear Republic
Republic? Well, not exactly.

I also enjoy the memory of the “mature” lady who shook her index finger at me scoldingly. That wasn’t the only finger that was shaken at me that day. Every finger was a little birdie of liberation. It all felt great.

Then there was the older lady who stopped her car to inform me that my hand was blocking the “8” on my rally placard. Oops!

Late in the day, an equally elderly man stopped his car to cite the Bible and inform me that homosexuality is an “abomination”. I was a little fatigued, so I casually asked whether it was too much to let them decide whether they ought to “abominate” or not. Mainly I was just looking for an excuse to hear myself say “abominate”.

Then I heard the word “Obama-Nation” echo through my head like some demonic forbidden thought. Thankfully I was not the first white boy to think of it.

And all the horns honking and hands waving: I don’t remember ever being so popular with the ladies!

I think my favorite memory is of hearing the word “faggot” screamed from a passing car.

It’s not that such an experience entitles me to claim to know what it’s like to be gay. It’s more about this: when the civil liberties of one of my fellow citizens is systematically attacked, I might as well be the target, because when that person is threatened, we’re all threatened.

Zarathustra the Yes Man.

There is perhaps no message more essential to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra than the whole-hearted affirmation of life as an individual experience.

I am a blesser and a Yea-sayer, … into all abysses I carry my blessing Yea-saying.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3.4, Before Sunrise

This affirmation of life as a whole appears to be the end to which Nietzsche employs the Stoic notion of eternal recurrence, but his affirmation of everything owes much to Heraclitus (who may have inspired the Stoics to think of eternal recurrence in the first place). Fundamentally, it is the Heraclitean vision of the impermanence and intertangledness of everything that causes Nietzsche to take valuation of life “beyond good and evil”. But that is another discussion.

What I wish to point out here is that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a prophet of affirmation, and an iconoclast to the idols of rejection.

To Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the enemy is the teacher of rejection, the “preacher of death”:

There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom rejection of life must be preached.

—Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.9, On the Preachers of Death

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra has also been called a prophet of “dionysian pantheism” and “amor fati”. This is not exactly the image that most Zoroastrians have of their prophet, but the two Zarathustras are not as dissimilar as one might presume, for Zoroastrianism is notable as a religion that values “this life” most of all, and considers this “physical” or “getig” world to be the full realization and highest state of existence.

The getig existence is better than the previous menog one, for in it Ahura Mazda’s perfect creation received the added good of solid and sentient form.

—Mary Boyce, “Zoroastrians”, page 25

The Avestan origin of the word “getig”, Gaethya, derives from a root gay-, jay-, meaning ‘to live’. The opposite of getig is “menog”, which derives from the root “to think”. Though the mental world is considered the primal world, it is the living world that is the ultimate fulfillment of existence. Zoroastrianism does not look to any world but the present “living” world for its ultimate fulfillment, and in seeking that fulfillment, it endeavors to defend a twofold principle of virtue that is at once Truth and Life against the opposite principle of Lie and Death.

Though Nietzsche may indeed have thought that his Zarathustra was the true prophet of life-affirmation, I sometimes pause to wonder whether the fatalistic sense of his doctrine of eternal recurrence is, as Heidegger thought, actually a rejection of the transient character of life. It may be that the Zoroastrian idea of engagement in a cosmic battle or ethical striving is a better model for a truly life-affirming worldview, even though it does not depict every aspect of existence as equally blessed.

No other religion expresses as clearly as Zoroastrianism the affirmation of life, …

—S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, pg. 118

The earthy, irreverent, self-parodying joviality that distinguishes a part of the Parsi character was born of a mixture of influences that included the Zoroastrian life-affirming outlook, …

—Jesse S. Palsetia, The Parsis of India, pg. 186

The Zoroastrian conception of human existence is essentially a joyful and life-affirming one…

—Diané Collinson and Robert Wilkinson, Thirty-Five Oriental Philosophers, page 4

Marriage Against the Mob

Don’t let the mob insert discrimination
into the California state constitution!

Vote No on Prop 8

California is a republic! Not an anarchistic mobocracy!
Let’s defend our constitution!

I attended a No on Prop 8 “visibility” activity at San Jose’s Diridon Station this morning, and was very disappointed in the turnout: three people, including me, and I’m not even gay!

I am, however, a California patriot, and I’m afraid I’m about to see the constitution of my state stained by the graffiti of special interest groups.

In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.

—Adlai Stevenson

Who’s Behind Prop 8 (other than the Mormons)

It’s no secret that Mormons are a tremendous force behind funding for the Yes on 8 Campaign. According to Mormons for Proposition 8, 46% of contributions to the campaign (about $10 million) have come from Mormons. But there are other major players.

Of the ten principal contributors to the Prop 8 campaign, two are based in California. Clearly, this battle is not seen as mere California politics by many Americans. There are significant forces who are doing their best to push Prop 8 through, to see to it that government continues to evolve into a Church-of-State. Californians will have to overcome these powers of bigotry and big government to continue the progress of this land of liberty and equal opportunity; this state that has been said to be “America, only moreso.”

Vote No on Proposition 8!

The principal (non-Mormon) contributors to the the Church-of-State Campaign:

  1. National Organization for Marriage, Princeton, NJ: $1441k
  2. Knights of Columbus, New Haven, CT: $1150k
  3. Fieldstead and Co., Irvine, CA: $1095k
  4. Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, Holland, MI: $650k
  5. Former state senator Robert Hurtt & Container Supply Co., Inc, Garden Grove, CA: $527k
  6. American Family Association, Inc., Tupelo, MS: $500k
  7. Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO: $467k
  8. John Templeton Foundation, Bryn Mawr, PA: $450k
  9. Concerned Women for America, Washington, DC: $409k

Some notes on these principal contributors:

The National Organization for Marriage signs its checks as a resident of Santa Ana, CA, but that is only a branch. The headquarters is in New Jersey.

The Knights of Columbus is “the world’s foremost Catholic fraternal benefit society.”

Fieldstead & Company of Irvine, CA has been called the “Paymaster to the political right” by the Orange County Register.

The Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation is funded with money from Prince Automotive. Edgar Prince co-founded the Family Research Council with neoconservative Gary Bauer. The current head of the foundation, Edgar and Elsa’s son Erik, is also the founder and owner of Blackwater USA.

Two separate contributors from reportedly from Garden Grove, CA, Robert Hurtt & Container Supply Co., Inc, appear to be one and the same: the former state senator from Garden Grove is a perennial contributor to conservative causes, and a big fan of James Dobson.

“The American Family Association exists to motivate and equip citizens to change the culture to reflect Biblical truth and traditional family values.”

The Templeton Foundation is noted for its Templeton Prize, which “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” The founder, John Templeton, was interested in answers to questions such as “How large is God? How are finite beings related to the infinite? What was God’s purpose in creating the universe?” He was also interested in the question “what is the best way to live?” His answer appears to be that the best way to live is for government to dictate to citizens how they must live.

Concerned Women for America is dedicated to bringing “Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.”