The First Prophet and His Legacy

Out of all the post I’ve made on this blog, so far, one in particular solicited the sharpest criticism. It probably had something to do with the title. Naming the post Blame Zarathustra and then connecting the ancient sage to the invention of what I characterized as an extremely dangerous strand of dualistic thinking that normally goes by the name of a later prophet and his religion- Mani and Manichaeism- brought forth much justified criticism from still practicing Zoroastrians and scholars of his ancient faith.

I decided I should do a little homework before holding to such sweeping assertions. I was, in other words, in search of the real Zarathustra, and that search led me to a book of exactly that title: the wonderful In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek.

Kriwaczek’s aim is to uncover both the truth and the legacy of the figure of Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), a man he characterizes as the first prophet. His quest takes him throughout Asia and Europe through both the past and the present.  For Kriwaczek the new vision that Zarathustra, brought to the world was that:

Unlike other prophets of antiquity, Zarathustra had taught that history was neither cyclic nor eternal. The struggle described between good and evil would one day be brought to as head in a great battle, and after many troubles and torments, the forces of good would be victorious.

Evil would be vanquished; history- the world as we know it-would come to an end. (148)

Zarathustra thus brought two ideas into history that were to be of enormous consequence. The first was the view of history as a battle between the forces of good and evil. The second was the promise that the ugly reality of not just human history but the natural world would come to a beneficent and final end. This latter idea has proven perhaps the most potent for it broke with the much older traditions of a cyclical and therefore irredeemable history. Cyclical views of history and nature were those such as the Hindu idea of Yugas or epochs- a golden age, Satya-Yuga, inevitably giving way to successively worse ages until the total decay of the Kali-Yuga ended and the cycle began all over again. Other cyclical theories of history, such as that of the Greek poet, Hesiod, were almost identical to the Yugas.

Kriwaczek thinks these two ideas: the war between good and evil, and the idea that history is linear and leading to a positive end state, influenced the almost as ancient Hebrew idea of God as an actor in human history. Kriwaczek holds that the ideas of the Hebrews regarding “the end of the world” that were developed independently and can be found in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, among others,  were far more this-worldly in nature than the vision of Zarathustra. The early prophets foretold the coming of a messiah and the reordering of the political world in which the Jews would play the role in world affairs we ascribe to conquering and imperial peoples such as the Romans. What the early Hebrew messianic visions did not hold was the idea that history itself, and the relationship of humankind with the world would be revolutionized, which was the view of
the Zoroastrians. ( 149-150)

Kriwaczek sees the Book of Daniel, with its intense imagery and prophesy of a world transformed, which was compiled from earlier stories during the Maccabean revolt of the Jews against the Greeks, as a bridge linking the Hebrew messianic and the apocalyptic  legacy of Zarathustra. The Maccabean revolt resulted not in Jewish independence, let alone,Palestine becoming the center of a new and divinely sanctioned world power, but to the intervention of the Roman general Pompey and the Jews absorption  by the growing Roman Empire. Under these conditions, Judaism abandoned its worldly millennialism for a concept of an end of the world that would transform the very nature of the human relationship with God, nature, and each other- ideas much closer to Zoroastrianism. (160)

These ideas regarding the imminent end of the current world and the birth of a new one were especially popular among so called “God-fearers”, gentiles who had adopted elements of the Jewish faith. (166) The Roman Empire provided a vast network for the interchange of ideas, people, and products. In these conditions Judaisms became a proselytizing faith actively seeking converts in all corners of the Empire. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. this “open” Judaism was perhaps the most numerous and widespread faith in the Roman world. Perhaps, one of the major reasons Rome crushed the revolt in Palestine with such violence as depicted in The Jewish War of Josephus.

One uses the singular term Judaism for the faith during this period, but in fact Judaism was a spectacularly diverse religion during the late periods B.C.E and early periods of the Common Era giving rise not just to the schools of the Pharisees and Sadducees depicted in the New Testament, but to apocalyptic sects such as the Essenes and, of course, Christianity.

If Kriwaczek gives us a good grounding in Zoroastrianism and Judaism we need other scholars to move further afield.  The religious scholar, Elaine Pagels, in her Book Of Revelation explores how a  group of Christians best represented by John of Patmos, author of the Book of Revelation, built upon earlier beliefs to create their own version of a world that was soon to undergo a second creation, after an epic confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

John of Patmos lived in truly apocalyptic times, especially for early Christians. Not only was there the evil decadence of figures such as the emperor Nero, there was the brutal persecution of Christians, the before mentioned invasion of Judea and burning of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman legions, and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which must have truly made it seem that the world itself was coming to an end.

John of Patmos must have been tapping into a deep need for apocalyptic narratives for Christianity’s great rival during its first centuries was an even more dualistic faith in the form of  Manichaeism founded  by the prophet Mani (216-276 C.E.).  Manichaeism was a form of gnosticism, a broad array of beliefs on the nature of humankind and the world to the divine that if it had one broadly shared feature it was the idea that the material world was corrupt and the individual, therefore, was called to free his spirit from its spell. Manichaeism  imagined a world torn between a world of light and a world of darkness. It was an amazingly flexible faith able to spread from societies as diverse as the Roman Empire, Safavid Iran, India and even China.

After Mani, the best known Manichean was a man who converted from that faith to Christianity- Saint Augustine. Augustine probably did more than any other person to move the Church away from its apocalyptic and utopian strain. His great work The City of God reimagined the Christian community as mystical city, not the seed for some type earthly paradise.

Of course, dualistic ideas regarding the battle between good and evil, and the understanding of history as the unfolding and eventual conclusion of this epic struggle didn’t disappear within Christianity because of Augustine. The philosopher John Gray in his excellent book, Black Mass, traces these beliefs from the figure of the mystic, Joachim of Fiore (1135-12o2 C.E.), through the Reformation and English Civil War, right up until the secular utopias of the 20th century with their own dualistic, apocalyptic narratives- Communism and Nazism.

Part of the inadequacy of Gray’s otherwise compelling book is that he seems to think no good has ever come out of this strain of thinking. I believed this fervently myself until I began to look more deeply into the matter, and came across a figure such as Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). This Catholic friar who lived in the Americas was perhaps the first hero of the movement for human rights, bravely defending the rights of Native Americans against Spanish atrocities. He was also a man whose world view was steeped in dualistic and apocalyptic thought believing the end of the world which would start with the conquest of Europe by Muslim armies to be imminent, and the New World to represent a last refuge for Christian civilization.

How could both of these views be compatible, I thought? And then I remembered my readers’ criticism of my initial post about Zarathustra. “I just didn’t get it”, they seemed to be saying. Zarathustra was talking about something more internal- in the mind and heart- than external, located in the political realm. It seems to me now that what Zarathustra invented, contrary to the parody of him by the genius Friedrich Nietzsche who saw the first prophet as the source of the tortured conscience of humanity, the very possibility of moral progress. As individuals, and as societies, we are called by this ancient sage to choose between good and evil, and in choosing the good, day by day, we can move the world toward ever brighter light.

Blame Zarathustra

The story in its most simplified form goes something like this: the world has fallen into a deep state of chaos and death. All the old ways have collapsed and everyone is confused and does not know what to do, they are lost. The reason this is happening is that there is a war enveloping the cosmos.  A force of disorder, an order based upon the power of lies, has set itself against the peace and good of the world. They have launched a war for the possession of the future. Each individual must now choose sides in the great and coming battle. They can choose to join the side of evil, lies and disorder or the side of the good, truth and peace. Ultimately, the good will prevail, the unjust will be punished and the peace of the world will be restored, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  This will be the final battle, the birth of paradise.

This narrative makes for great story telling- just think of the world of J.R. Tolkien or Star Wars, and were it the case that such stories were only part of our fantasies there would be no issue, and they would remain what they should be, a great piece of childish fun.

The problem, of course, occurs when such narratives are overlain on political and social reality, for the passion and blindness these kinds of stories engender can be found behind some of the bloodiest events of human history. To name only the most prominent: the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, including the English Civil War, the Inquisition, the Terror of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the internal terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazism, the Second World War, the Red Scare, the Cold War, Islamist terrorism, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Something about these types of stories seem to tap into a primal element in human beings, nevertheless, their origin can be traced to historical time.

Zarathustra, otherwise known as Zoroaster, was probably the person most responsible for having first created and popularized a version of this story around 1200 B.C.E. What he had discovered was a “technology” that enabled human beings to engage in a kind of mass tribalism. Dividing whole societies or even all of human-kind into two warring armies created what were in effect super-tribes joined to one another with the kind of depth of feeling and exclusiveness that was once the monopoly of extended kin-groups.  It was a passion that was able to override biological instinct and turn “brother against brother”, and allowed human beings to murder one another in “good conscience” on the grounds that they were waged in battle with an army of demons.

Zarathustra was not trying to do this. What he was seeking after was a path to peace.

The Aryan society in which he lived had gone from an age of idyllic pastoralists to one of warriors. The catalyst for this transition had been, as it has been many times since, technological transformation.  Aryans living in what is now southern Russia had come in contact with the more advanced civilizations in Armenia and Mesopotamia to the south.  From these societies the Aryans learned the art of iron weaponry and the chariot, which sparked a wave of war and banditry, as the whole of the steppe was consumed in violence. The gentle gods of the Arayans gave way to the cult of the militarized Indra- the dragon slayer.

Zarathustra, a priest of the old Aryan gods sought out an answer to the bloodshed. Dreams and visitations came to him. Nothing took place on earth which was not a reflection of the things of heaven. Perhaps Indra and his devas- the shining ones- had brought war not just upon the earth, but upon the just gods of old, the amesha- the immortals.

Then, Zarathustra was visited by the greatest of the amesha- Mazda- lord of wisdom and justice.  Lord Mazda told Zarathustra that he was to mobilize the people for a coming holy war against the forces of evil.

Who could challenge the great Lord Mazda, the most powerful of the amesha?  Zarathustra reasoned that Mazda must have a divine opposite, a god of equal power dedicated to disorder and evil- the god of the lie- Angra Mainyu.

Every human being was called to choose sides in the great and looming battle. ..

It was here that Zarathustra introduced his greatest innovation, for he abandoned the cyclical view of history that had been perhaps the only way human beings, up until then, had thought about time.  In cyclical history time spun round and round within regular cycles of birth, strength, decay and death, historical seasons to match the natural one.  Zarathustra broke free from this cycle. The world was racing toward an end of history- a climax and day of judgment. The great battle would end in the victory of Lord Mazda over the forces of the wicked. A blazing river of fire would run from the heavens into hell and destroy forever the spirit of evil. The world would become a final paradise. . .

Zarathustra crafted his tale on the eve of the Axial Age, a period of religious awakening that gave us some of the deepest, most influential, and compassionate figures of human history: the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius.  But his story lived on. It lived on in the The Book of Revelation, in the 12th Iman of the Shia branch of Islam, it lived on in the religious wars, the idea of world revolution found in communism, in Hitler’s anti-Semitic insanity… in the current apocalyptic logic behind the looming confrontation with Iran.

It is the world’s most dangerous fairy-tale, and if we do not someday soon break its spell, its dark side will come true.