Book Review: In Search of Zarathustra

In In Search for Zarathustra, author Paul Kriwaczek traces the influence of this ancient religion and its revolutionary prophet from modern times to the European Enlightenment, to the Middle and Dark Ages, to Late Antiquity and Early Christian eras, into ancient Persian and Babylonian Empires and finally to a time before written language and settled society. It is a fascinating journey of eccentric characters, strange heresies, prophets and reformers and the origins of pivotal religious ideas.

In Search of Zarathustra

In the modern world we mainly encounter Zoroaster (the Greek version of Zarathustra) through Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kriwaczek traces this modern interest back to Wagner and Nietzsche, whose interest was in turn influenced by the work of philologists for whom the translation of Zoroastrian texts played a key role in the formation of the theory of an Indo-European family tree of languages stretching back to ancient Sanskrit.

The story of the acquisition and translation of these texts is one of the most interesting parts of the book. It is the story of Duperron; an amateur French historian who made it his life’s mission to obtain Zoroastrian texts and translate them. To do so he endured an extraordinary adventure; braving plague-ravaged ships, colonial wars, disease, jungles, tigers, time in prison and even a duel before succeeding in his aim. However, his work was completely discredited by contemporaries. Time, though, has vindicated Duperron; his translation was found to be accurate, his sources authentic and Western interest in Zoroastrianism has been around ever since.

Kriwaczek also shares his observation that the Islamic practices of Iranians and Central Asians are distinct from their Arabian origins and includes many pagan Zoroastrian aspects. He points to the façade of the Sher-dar  madraseh in Samarkand which features an anthropomorphised sun and a tiger chasing a deer. He discusses the reverence Iranians pay to Daniel – a Jewish sage never mentioned in the Qu’ran or the Hadith – at his tomb.  In particular he describes the festival of Noruz in Iran which has been celebrated there since the time of Cyrus and whose origins are possibly older.

Going back a few centuries, Kriwaczek examines the heresies of the Cathars in Western Europe and the Bulgars/Bogomils in Eastern Europe. Kriwaczek speculates as to the Zoroastrian origins for some of their beliefs and their source – the peoples of the Asian Steppe who repeatedly invaded Europe in late antiquity.

To explain the infiltration of Zoroastrianism into the horse riding people of the Asian Steppe, Kriwaczek goes back to the Zoroastrian renaissance that occurred during the Sasanian Empire. Here we find a battle for the hearts and minds of the people between two key figures in the history of Zoroastrianism – the state sanctioned, chief priest, Kartir, who favoured an authoritarian, orthodox version of Zoroastrianism; and the reformer Mani, who favoured a universal, inclusive religion.

Kartir seems to have won the battle but lost the war, for though Manichaeism was suppressed in the lands were it sprouted, it spread far and wide. Yet for a religion that spread so far, influenced so many and that we still know a fair amount about, it mysteriously disappeared. Kriwaczek’s contention is that Manichaeism clearly reached the Asian steppe and spread eastward, reaching China with the Mongols, so it may have spread westward as well.

In the second half, the book takes a turn to discuss some of the core ideas of Zoroastrianism and argue that they influenced the Abrahamic religions that would come after it. First is the Zoroastrian belief that the battle between good and evil, light and dark, will culminate in a final battle that will end the world. The side for good will win but will take the emergence of a hero, the Saoshyant, to win it for us.

Kriwaczek asserts that this belief in end times and a coming messiah is a Zoroastrian innovation, that no contemporary religion, including Judaism, had a comparable belief. To link the two religions, Kriwaczek, looks to the Book of Daniel. Though thought to be written 400 years after the Babylonian exile and getting many of its historical facts wrong, the Book includes many Persian words and Zoroastrian ideas and the imagery for Nebuchadnezzar’s dream already existed in a Zoroastrian text dating from the time of Alexander.

Extending this idea further, Kriwaczek also speculates as to what other Zoroastrian beliefs influenced early Judaism. He points to early Judaism being a mixture of polytheists and henotheists until the end of the Babylonian Exile when Cyrus captured Babylon and liberated the Jews. Isaiah, the second Isaiah of the Old Testament, writing in Cyrus’ time, is the first to be told by God that he is alone. The passage (Isaiah 45:7) goes on to say “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.”  Kriwaczek says this reference to light and darkness, peace and evil, is a clear reference to, and refutation of, Zoroastrian dualism.

Kriwaczek also mentions other Zoroastrian innovations such as the belief in life after death for ordinary people, the belief in angels, paradise as a garden (‘paradise’ being the Persian word for garden) and a personified force for evil in the world. Kriwaczek does not suggest that all of these ideas were adopted in the same form as their sources. They do differ in the details and some were officially refuted but seemed to endure.

Finally we get to the heart of the matter – Zoroaster. Unfortunately there is very little to go on about the origins of Zoroaster and his original teachings. Even the time and place of his life are obscure. We are talking about a time and region before written language and settled living. There is philological evidence that places the earliest material around the early-middle Bronze Age, contemporary with Abraham and Moses.

Kriwaczek shares his view of Zoroaster as a radical and reformer far ahead of his time. This was a heroic age in both Eastern and Western culture, where gods were plentiful and powerful but with the same defects of character as humans. Elsewhere religions focused on obedience to rules and observance of commandments. Zoroaster, however, imagined a single god who was morally good and identified the source of evil as the ‘lie’, while emphasising moral choice and the good life. Zoroaster spoke against common religious practices of the time such as fire worship, animal sacrifice and the use of hallucinogens. Unlike other religions which said that only rulers, aristocrats and great warriors had immortal souls, Zoroaster promised an afterlife for all. Some of his views did not seem to last long – the use of fire and hallucinogens and the worship of other gods re-emerged within the religion he founded almost as soon as he was gone. But other ideas of monotheism, the afterlife, a source for evil and an end time have endured and spread far.

The above is the essence of Kriwaczek’s book. As you can probably tell it rests on the credibility of several key linkages for the transfer and evolution of ideas over time. If you pick up this book, as I did, hoping for an academic insight into the distant past, supported by convincing evidence, you will be disappointed. He ends the first chapter saying that he was inspired to write the book “to trace Zarathustra’s mark… not as a work of scholarship but as a voyage of personal discovery”.

Oh dear.

Not another one of these. There are history books that are rigorously researched with academic skill and, well, there are the other sort that pollute the popular history genre; part travel-book, part personal journey, filled with anecdotes and romantic contrivances. There is also the stereotype that the more academic kind will inevitably be dry and boring and stifle all the fun of learning history, while the other will be light and lively and well-written. Anyone who reads plenty of popular history knows this simply isn’t true and there are plenty of well-written, well-researched and great to read history books.

First, a minor thing that annoyed me – he uses “Persia” and “Iran” interchangeably without any apparent rule for why or an explanation of the difference. Admittedly, if you are going to use both, knowing where to draw the line is tricky. Westerners continued using “Persia” well into the 20th century, while the people of that region have used names from which “Iran” is derived, or some version of it, since at least the Sasanian Empire if not as early as the Achaemenid Empire. It is Kriwaczek’s inconsistency that irritates me – using both “Persia” and “Iran” for the modern nation, the region and the ancient empires; sometimes referring to the contemporary area as “modern Persia”, sometimes referring to the ancient land as “Iran” and the people who populated the ancient empires of the region “Iranians”. I’d rather he used just one, or take a moment to explain to the reader what he means when using one or the other.

(By the way, despite the title of this book, I am using the Greek “Zoroaster” rather than the Persian “Zarathustra” for the simple reason that when writing in English the extensions – “Zoroastrian” and “Zoroastrianism” – work and sound better that the alternatives)

The biggest problem I have with the book is that he has written it in reverse order, as you can probably tell from the above synopsis. So he starts each chapter with a question, then goes back in time to find an explanation for it, before starting again with the next chapter going further back in time.

This method has one advantage – he gets to fill the book with a lot more material. A book strictly on what we know about Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism might be very slim, but this way he can illuminate the story with lots of other interesting history. And that is not necessarily a terrible thing; there is a lot of fascinating stuff in here. But the method comes with two crippling disadvantages.

Firstly, intentionally or not, I believe it has the effect of concealing the weaknesses of his theories. He prejudices the reader by starting with a premise without much questioning of it. Then he will suggest a connection from the past that explains his premise, even though often the connection is dubious or unproven. To the less sceptical, less discerning, reader this may get easily overlooked as it sounds like his argument has tied itself into a nice little bow, meeting the expectation he set up with his premise.

For example, he may begin by suggesting that the heresy of the Cathar’s had Zoroastrian origins or at least had a lot in common with Zoroastrian philosophy without giving a lot of detail for why we would conclude that. Then he supports this by suggesting how such a Zoroastrian influence may have reached Southern France – by invading Goths perhaps. To his credit he will be honest about how there may not be much evidence to support this – very little about the beliefs or religious practices of Goths is known. But the fact that the evidence is flimsy gets overlooked because it matches quite nicely with his unscrutinised starting point and his honesty about the flimsiness only makes him more endearing. It may not be intentional, but that is its effect.

(Update January 2016 – I have since read Christopher Tyerman’s book God’s War: A New History of the Crusades which has this to say about the relationship between Cathar dualism and the Bogomil Church of Byzantium: “Dualist Christianity in western Europe almost certainly derived from Byzantium, specifically the dualist Bogomil church… although the evidence is patchy, uncertain and much contested.”)

The second disadvantage is probably what annoyed me most about the book. If you are going to go about the history in a backwards direction, you need to give us a working definition of Zoroastrianism to start with. He neglects to do this. It is a serious fault since he will be telling you that this and that are clear signs of Zoroastrian influence from the start and you have no choice but to take his word for it since he has not given you any definition of what Zoroastrianism is or is not. For example, the reason he suspects the Cathar heresy of having a Zoroastrian aspect is because of ‘dualism’, but he hasn’t yet told us what this means or shown us that it is ‘Zoroastrian’.

Ahura Mazda, the chief deity of Zoroastrianism does not get a mention until almost 100 pages into the book. Mithra, a secondary deity but the chief object of worship, the origins of these gods and their relationship to each other, do not get an explanation until close to 120 pages in. Otherwise you may get bits and pieces of Zoroastrianism – duality, use of fire in worship, etc. There is no basis for which the reader can judge Kriwaczek’s assumptions, theories and conclusions.

In many ways this book is a history of ideas, but, while those ideas evolve over time, the labels and names we have for them may not. Calling someone a ‘Magian’ in the 11th century CE may not mean the same thing it did in the 4th century BCE, so you need to explain the difference. But when you tell your story in reverse order you are giving the readers the more evolved idea early and its original conception later, so the explanation becomes tricky. Without an explanation, you may end up contradicting and confusing what you said earlier. For example, early in the book he says the Bulgar/Bogomil heretics were referred to by an Arab source as ‘Magian’ and says that this is “ie Zoroastrian”, but later in the book when discussing the origins of the Magi he is at pains to make the distinction between Magians and Zoroastrians without explaining the earlier (earlier in the book, later in historical time) equivalency.

The low point for me was the mid-book chapter called The Mystery of the Mithras. Here Kriwaczek tries to link the ancient Zoroastrian practice of worshipping a deity named Mithra, with the later Roman cult of Mithra. There’s just one problem – there is no evidence of any link between the Zoroastrian worship of Mithra and the Roman cult. They appear vastly separated by distance and time and, apart from a similar name, have virtually nothing in common. Many historians have tried to link the two religions and even Kriwaczek admits, mid-chapter, that their attempts are long-winded, convoluted and far-fetched. Yet Kriwaczek still wants to entertain his amateur fantasy of a connection. Though interesting, this Mithra chapter was a bit of a waste when it comes to the topic at hand. It’s unproven, unconvincing and irrelevant to Zoroastrianism.

This is an issue that repeats itself several times in the book. Did the Cathar heresy have things in common with Zoroastrian beliefs and did they enter Europe via Goth/Sarmatian invasion? It is difficult to say much about what the Cathars actually believed and practiced since almost all that survives was written by their enemies and everything original was destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade and Inquisition. Gothic/Sarmatian beliefs are also largely speculative.

Does Jewish/Christian/Muslim monotheism and belief in end times and a coming messiah, in paradise and the afterlife, have Zoroastrian roots adopted from the period of Babylonian and Achaemenid rule? The devil is in the details of these beliefs which can differ considerably and some of which seem to have been adopted much later. The similarities could point to a common origin but the differences, and the lack of a definitive piece of connecting evidence, could mean they were arrived at independently.

Kriwaczek may not be wrong about these hypotheses but the conclusive evidence is not there and, while he deserves credit for sometimes admitting as much, I would rather he were more upfront about the fancifulness of these ideas. He also does not help himself with occasional imaginative leaps and amateur observations. Like when he wonders if Zoroastrian dualism came from the opposing extremes of weather in high-altitude desserts of Afghanistan. Or when he spots an obscure anecdote of a Cathar knight who drinks wine out of a skull, just like the Bulgar Khan Krum, and wonders if this might link the Cathar and Bulgar heresies. Or when he wonders if the Assyrians/Phoenicians depicted in stone relief on the ruins of Persepolis were in fact early Jews since their hats resemble (to his mind) the spiral tower over the tomb of Daniel. Or when he mentions the difficulty of reading medieval manuscripts because the ‘f’s look like ‘s’s!

This book was both very fascinating and very frustrating in equal measure. Kriwaczek indulges a romantic, fanciful and speculative view of history, not unlike the premise of a Dan Brown novel. Readers wanting a more authoritative and realistic perspective will be disappointed. Though over 60 years old, we may still have to rely on Zaehner’s The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, which is still considered by some to be an authoritative view but may need a modern update.



3 thoughts on “Book Review: In Search of Zarathustra

  1. Pingback: What’s On My Shelf? (Part 6) | Rants & Raves

  2. Pingback: Book Review: God’s War | Rants & Raves

  3. Pingback: Book Review: God’s War | We Need to Talk About Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s