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Zarathushtra and the European Experience
A Model for the Seekers of Freedom


















It is well known that the past experience can be a guiding light for the present and future actions. In this context I believe that the European experience in search of an identity and freedom of thought started from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century, and the major role played by Zarathushtra throughout this experience, can be of the highest importance, as a model, for today’s seekers of freedom.

In fact for the past 2500 years Zarathushtra's ideas and views on the existence and the world have been an integral part of the European culture. But this very long period has not always been a love story. It has been marked by the alternation of the highest veneration for Zarathushtra and the deepest rejection of him. 

Praised and venerated passionately for about 1000 years as the highest symbol of knowledge by almost all the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, Zarathushtra, was severely demonized as from the 6th century by the Church in Europe as the father of Dualism; and with him all the Persian doctrines such as Mithraism and Manichaeism together with Platonic philosophers were rejected. 

The 6th century was the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe. A horrible time called the great heresy. A period of terror, obscurantism and inquisition that destroyed by what is called today “collateral damage” the finest part of the Western European civilization.

The Church had decided that any idea, any philosophy or any movement that has incorporated in their Christianity a belief in Dualism, was at war against God. Thus they should be punished. And punishment meant either to be killed or to be burned in public places. Behind the concept of “dualism”, according to which the existence is conditioned by the struggle between two opposite forces, good and evil, the Church saw mainly Zarathushtra.

With Zarathustra’s rejection, almost the whole Pre-Christian European civilization was rejected by the Church.  In fact, many of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mostly dualistically inspired, had astonishingly either sheltered their philosophical or scientific work under the cover of Zarathustra’s authority or had related themselves in one way or another to Zarathushtra For instance Pythagoras the great philosopher and mathematician of the 5th century BC., a convinced dualist, called himself a pupil of Zarathustra, another great dualist philosopher, Plato of the 4th century BC. was called by his famous student Aristotle, a reincarnation of Zarathushtra, so much he was influenced by the Persian Master. 

There were also the Manichaeism, another Persian religion, under the form of the Southern French Catharism and many other movements around the Mediterranean sea and in Central Europe, behind which the Church saw again Zarathushtra, as the great evil.

The fifty years of a terrible war initiated by Pope Innocent III  in the 13th century, on the Cathars and the horrible carnage at Montsegur the Cathar's stronghold in the South of France, is well documented (1). As, Paul Kriwaczek, the author of “In Search of Zarathushtra” points out, “the more one reads accounts on successive crusade that left hundreds of thousands dead and the conquest of the south of France by Catholic orthodoxy, the more one is reminded of the totalitarian tyrannies of our own time”. 

Perhaps it is worthy to note that, the Protestant Churches, since the Reform, kept distance with the Catholic Church and didn’t praise any of Catholic excommunications(2).

The confusion and the absurdity regarding Zarathushtra went so far that during the whole European Middle-Age, Zarathushtra was called prince of the Magi, when the magi in return were strangely mistaken for magicians! Even the invention of the astrology, alchemy and the Jewish Cabala was attributed to him(3)!

In such a confusing and repressive climate, gradually the discontent voices of some enlightened minds against the religious totalitarism, here and there, start to raise. 

We are in the 14th century, the beginning of the slow European Renaissance. Europe in search for a new cultural reference and a new identity starts to be interested in the long forgotten culture and civilization of the ancient Greece and Rome. Everything was to rediscover. 

At this time the great and influential Byzantine philosopher of the 14th and 15th century, Giorgius Plethon, who was initiated into the Zoroastrian philosophy by his Jewish master Eliaus, decided with a number of intellectuals of that time to promote an ambitious, perhaps too ambitious idea.  He said, “the world is tired of the endless wars between the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So let’s try another road, another vision for this world”. Using his important political influence at the Byzantine court and his great intellectual notoriety among the Intellegencia of that time, he tried to set up a universal religion made of Zoroastrianism and Platonism to replace the three mentioned religions(4).

Despite the years of huge effort, he did not succeed.  However, his ideas spread among European elite and flourished within the famous Platonic academy in Florence. They became the basis of the process that lead to the humanism in Europe during the  Renaissance. As from that period the interest in Zarathushtra was once again reborn in Europe. 

The cultural freedom fighters of that time, namely philosophers, historians, writers, musicians, scientists, poets and many others, in search of the means for their struggle against the totalitarian power of the Middle Age Church, felt that  Zarathushtra could bring them a new light and a new instrument in their fight.

But in those times, who really knew what exactly Zarathushtra's existential philosophy was, or what did he say. Since at least 1500 years, even the Zarathushtra's language had been forgotten. The Moslem invasion of Persia, in the 7th century had burned and destroyed almost the whole Zoroastrian texts and literature.         

So, everything was to be rediscovered. But this attempt of rediscovery, and consequently the recuperation of Zarathushtra, became a pretext for another battle between the Christian, Jewish and Humanist scholars. The first attempt by the Christians in that direction was made by a professor at Oxford University, named Thomas Hyde at the end of the 17th century. He based himself on the all sources available at the time, and wrote a large book in Latin. This work was to influence all the subsequent researches on the subject (5).

Hyde was a fervent Christian, for whom everything in the history of mankind turned around Christianity. Therefore, he tried to show Zarathushtra and his doctrine in the light most favorable and acceptable to Christian eyes. He wrote” in reforming the ancient Persian  religion, Zarathushtra repeated the work of Abraham, and showed the religion of one and only God”. He insisted that Zoroastrians were always monotheists, because in their religion God namely Ahura Mazda had priority over the evil called Angra Mainyu.

It was of course a huge change compared to Christian dualist view of Zoroastrianism throughout the Middle Ages.

But, only two years later, Hyde was severely attacked by other zealous Christian scholars.

The first one was Pierre Bayle. A famous French scholar that wrote in 1702 in his important work “Dictionnaire historique et critique” that Hydes argument on the monotheism of the Zoroastrians was weak and false. He wrote “because the Zoroastrians, submitted to the hard rule and hatred of the Moslems, wanted to protect themselves; so they adopted the Semitic religions belief according to which God has created evil”. Bale’s attack on Hyde was to be carried on by another French scholar Abbe Foucher. He blamed Hyde in his numerous papers with much arrogance for having put doubts on the ancient Greek authors’ affirmations according to which the Persians were dualists. He then advised Hyde, a devout Christian himself, to stay in the line of serving the true Religion, that is to say Christianity.

In this scholastic quarrel, undermined by the religious militantism, another famous scholar, this time a Jew named Humphry Prideaux, enter the battlefield. In his book “History of the Jews” published in 1715, he pushed the argument to such an extend that he considered Zarathushtra has been born a Jew ! So he was a monotheist. He even situated Zarathushtra's birth in the 5th century BC. and designated Zarathushtra's Jewish teachers namely Elias, Ezra and Daniel.

With the rediscovery and  translation of Avesta, in the late 18th century by the French scholar Anquetil Duperron, it was the turn of the Humanists, made of  philosophers, scholars, writers, poets, musicians, artists  to enter this ideological battle.                                                                    

The translation of Avesta provoked passionate discussions in Europe. Voltaire (6), Grimm (7), Didérot (8), Goethe (9), Von Kleist (9), Byron (10), Wordsworth (11),  Shelley (12) and later Nietzsche and many others joined this ideological fight (6). The great musicians participated as well.  Rameau included Zarathushtra in his opera “Zoroastre”, Mozart in his “ The Magic Flute” and Richard Strauss in his symphony “Thus Spake Zarathushtra”.

The main interest for the European intellectuals in Zarathushtra was that they thought having found a weapon against the power of the Church. To them the Church did not have anymore the monopoly of the truth.  The truth could also be found in a non-Christian tradition, much older than Christianity.

More and more, as Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin in his book “Western Response to Zoroastre” points out, “Zarathustra became part of an attempt in Western Europe to emancipate modern men and women from Christianity”. Zoroastrianism was praised with all the virtues which Christianity was supposed to be lacking: such as rationality, simplicity, contact with nature, constructive and positive instincts, and above all, Zarathushtra was acclaimed for his dualistic solution to the problem of evil.  

The old and disturbing question about the nature of Jewish and Christian God that had been left unanswered for at least two thousand years, once again, was brought forward:

You say: your God is All Knowledgeable and All Powerful. Tell us why He has created a creature named Satan, to deceit the weak human beings, that He Himself has created. Either this God is not All Knowledgeable or He is not All Powerful or the Evil is a part of him.  In reaction to this embarrassing question, the Christian intellectuals counter attacked and changed the front. They accused  Duperron of being a forger and the translation of Avesta a forgery.  Facing such a poisoning situation, Duperon, himself a faithful Roman Catholic, set back and refused to see anything in the Avesta that could be used against Christianity. His attitude, of course, disappointed the anti-church intellectuals, though Voltaire insisted on Duperron’s courage.

At this point philologists and linguists also joined the battle.  Three years later another translation of Avesta made by the German linguist Kleukers proved that Duperron was right and Avesta entered for good the field of scientific research(15). It took however another thirty years until the last pan Christian resistance gave in and recognized its authenticity.  From then on the scholars became interested to research the hidden sources of Christianity within the Zoroastrian doctrine. The discovery of Sanskrit and the relationship between this language and the Avestan language, made easier the comprehension of the Avesta. The idea of the common origin of the civilization of Iran and India was thus established.

For the Humanists however, there was another victory on the way. That was the recognition and translation of the Gathas, in the middle of the 19th century, by the brilliant German philologist Martin Haug(16). Through a very hard study, he isolated and translated 17 out of the 72 chapters of the Avesta, written in a much older language. These 17 chapters, the Gathas, proved to be the words coming from the very mouth of Zarathushtra, about 3000 years earlier. 

Haug could thus distinguish between Zarathushtra's theology, that was monotheistic and his existential philosophy that was dualistic. This affirmation was enthusiastically welcomed by the Parsis in India because it was pointing out their original monotheism.

But some other scholars, such as Spiegel and Darmesteter could hardly digest the fact that Zarathushtra could be the discoverer of monotheism(17).   So they counter attacked. The first one tried to show it was the Hebrews that had given to Zarathushtra the idea of a single God in the Gathas, and the second went farther and claimed the Gathas were forgeries, composed under the influence of Hellenizing Jews.  Of course neither of these views could be sustained for longtime, specially when the further researches proved that Zarathustra had been lived in the Eastern of Iran where the Jewish ideas had not been penetrated at the time of Zarathushtra. These claims were abandoned soon even by their authors themselves.

This kind of attitudes led other German scholars such as Rhode(18) and Creuzer(19) to claim the Zoroastrian origin for all cultures, Western and Eastern. Perhaps such claim was excessive, but it was the climate of the intellectual battles of that period.

Just a few years after the rediscovery of the texts of the Gathas, the gist of Zarathushtra's ideas expressed 3000 years earlier was recovered in a brilliant way in 1883 by one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Friedrich-Wilhelm Nietzsche, in his book “ Thus Spake  Zarathushtra”.   His work based on an extremely well understanding of Zarathushtra's  revolutionary concept and ideal, rendered in European thought, is considered as the final victory in the struggle against the power of the Church in Europe. It changed radically the European thought of modern times, delivering people from the sins they had never committed(20).

Please let me finish this short talk by this phrase: “I am from today and I am from yesterday; but something in me is from tomorrow, from after tomorrow and from always. Thus spake Zarathushtra.

Khosro Khazai ( Pardis)
Brussels, November 2003

  • Please see the references on the page 6


  1. Zoe Oldenbourg; Massacre at Montsegur. A History of the Albigensian Crusade, 1961.
  2. P. de Breuil ; New scope on some aspects of Zoroastrian history and philosophy, p.64,  1994
  3. J. Bidez et F. Cumont, Les mages hellénisés, Paris 1938, rééditée 1973, p. 6 ; J. Duchesne-Guillemin,
    Les religions de l’Iran, . p. 253, 1961
  4. J. Duchesne-Guillemin; Western Response to Zaratoustra,. p. 4, 1957; H. Levy, Chaldean Oracles in       the later Roman Empire, Cairo 1956 p. 99ss).
  5. Thomas Hyde; De Vetere Religione Persarm, Oxford 1700
  6. Voltaire; Dictionnaire philosophique, “Zoroastre”  Paris 1764
  7. J.Grimm; Deutsch Mithologie, 1835, p.76
  8. Diderot ;Encyclopedie, Article « Perses », p.12
  9. Goethe; Parsi Nameh ( West-Ostihicher Diwan, with notes on the ancient Persians)
  10. Heindrich von Kleist ; Priere de Zoroastre; 1810
  11. Byron ; Child Harold
  12. Wordsworth ;Excursion
  13. Shelly; Prometheus Unbound
  14. F.Nietzsche; Thus Spake Zarathustra ; 1885- 1887
  15. J. Kleukers; Zend-Avesta,  Riga 1776
  16. Martin Haug; Essays on the sacred language, 2e éd. 1878.
  17. Fr. Spiegel; Eranisch Alterthumskund, P.1 and 24,  1873
  18. J..Darmesteter; Le Zend-Avesta ;  3 volumes,1892    
  19. J.Rhode; Die Heilige Sage und Gesammte Relgionsystem, 1980, P. 20
  20. Creuzer ; Symbolik und Mythologie, 1819-1821, P. 21
  21. James Farrell; The Influence of Zarathustra on Western Culture, 1977

1 Based on a speech given by Dr. Khosro Khazaie in Anahiem, California in Dec. 2004 on the occasion of the celebration of the 3000th anniversary of Zoroastrian culture organized by California Zoroastrian Center.