Monday, April 25, 2011

Greek Perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi

[Also see the companion pages:
» Zoroastrian-Persian Influence on Greek Philosophy and Sciences
» Ostanes - Persian Sage
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 1 The Historical Alcibiades
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 2 Selections from Plato]

1. Classical Hellenic Literature - A Primary Source of Achaemenian Period Persian History
The Burning of Persepolis by Alexander and his troops c330 BCE (artist unknown)
Classical Hellenic texts have become the primary source of information on Achaemenian Period Persian and Zoroastrian history.

As a result of the destruction of Persian texts by Alexander of Macedonia around 330 BCE (also see Destruction of the Avesta and Burning of Persepolis by Diodorus Siculus), not only did the Persians loose records of their history during the Achaemenian era (c. 700-330 BCE), but they lost records of the preceding era as well: the history of the Medes (c. 800-550 BCE) and the intervening history between the end of Kayanian rule based in Central Asia - the northeast of the core Iranian empire, Iranshahr - and the beginning of Median rule based in the northwest of the Iranian empire.

After Macedonian-Hellenic rule of the previous Persian Empire of the Achaemenians came to an end, the Persians attempted to reconstruct their history. But a large gap in the information still remained. By the time the poet Ferdowsi composed his epic, the Shahnameh, about a thousand years ago, other than a vague understanding of Achaemenian King Darius the Great, Ferdowsi's sources had forgotten about the greatest of Achaemenian kings, Cyrus the Great. For information about Cyrus, we have to rely on Greek sources. For instance, one of these sources is the classical Greek author Xenophon's (c. 430-354 BCE) Cyropaedia. The Cyropaedia demonstrates the dichotomy of how the Greeks viewed the Persian. On the one hand, an almost palpable hatred accompanied by an appropriation of everything the Greeks had borrowed from the Persians, and on the other hand, an admiration bordering on reverence.

As an example of the latter, Xenophon in his Cyropaedia elevates Achaemenian Persian King Cyrus to one of the greatest human beings who had every lived. Many classical Hellenic (Greek) authors and philosophers so preoccupied themselves with Persian culture that they journeyed, studied, and as a result, adopted many Persian-Magian-Zoroastrian ideas and skills. But several Hellenic authors also unfortunately either claimed this adopted knowledge as their own or disparaged the Persians.

Nevertheless, when we peel away the layers of bias, hyperbole and old-fashioned fantasy, the Hellenic authors do begrudgingly acknowledge that Zoroaster was an original philosopher and wise - and one from whom the Greek's learnt much. It is not too difficult to see through the distortions and tease out the foundational facts, if only because the Hellenic authors did a good job in criticizing and contradicting one another [e.g. Colotes of Lampsacus (c. 320-260 BCE), a notable Greek critic, accused Plato of plagiarizing Zoroaster when Plato substituted Er's name for that of Zoroaster in his Republic's concluding story].

The earliest extant Classical Greek reference to the religion of the Persians is Herodotus c.430 BCE (see our page on Herodotus and the Customs of the Persians). The latest is Agathias (c. 530-582/94 CE) in Histories 2.23-5. The period they span is close to a thousand years.
School Of Athens by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520 CE) Painted 1509-10. Fresco in Stanza della Signatura, Vatican Palace, Rome
Key to Philosophers & Thinkers
1-Plato, 2-Aristotle, 3-Socrates, 4-Xenophon, 5-Æschines, 6-Alcibiades, 7-Zeno, 8-Epicurus, 9-Federico Gonzaga, 10-Averroes, 11-Pyhthagoras, 12-Francesco Maria Della rovere, 13-Heraclietus, 14-Diogenes, 15-Archimedes, 16 Zoroaster, 17-Ptolemy, 18 Raphael’s self-portrait.
Ptolemy viewed from the back holding an earth sphere. He is facing Zoroaster who holds a celestial sphere. Western Astrology is based on Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos. It is significant that the two are part of a conversation and that Zoroaster holds the celestial sphere.

2. Zoroaster
a. Founder of the Religion of the Persians
[Also see Zoroaster/Zarathushtra at Zortoastrian Heritage.]
In classical Hellenic (otherwise Greek) texts, authors such as Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE) in Isis and Osiris 46-7, Diogenes Laertius (3rd cent. CE) in Philosophers 1.6-9 and Agathias (c. 530-582/94 CE) in Histories 2.23-5 understand Zoroaster (Zarathushtra / Zarathustra) to be the prophet and founder of the religion of the Persians.

Herodotus (c.430 BCE) does not mention Zoroaster by name when he speaks of the religion of the Persians. We are not surprised. The religion that Zoroaster established was never known to the Persians by a name analogous to Zoroastrianism. Though Zoroastrians dearly respect Zoroaster / Zarathushtra as the founder of their religion, they hold that a religion based on a person is a cult. Zoroastrians call their religion Mazdayasni - the reverence or worship of God. It is the Greeks who in their quest for knowledge labelled or ascribed the religion as that of Zoroaster (thereby Zoroastrianism) or that of the Zoroastrian priests, the Magi (thereby Magism or Magianism).

The first direct classical Greek reference to Zoroaster and the Magi that we have located is in the dialogue Alcibiades I, a work attributed to Plato (429–347 BCE). In the dialogue, Zoroaster (Zoroastren) is called "the son of Oromasus/Oromazes" (cf. Hormozd from Ahura Mazda, God) and Zoroaster's religion is called "the magianism of Zoroaster... which is the worship of the Gods". The inference here is that Zoroaster is the founder of the doctrine of the Magi.

The other Platonic or neo-Platonic references to Zoroaster are in Alcibiades or Alkibiades Protos (121E-122A), Republic X (p. 600B) and Anonymmi Vita Platonis.

According to Hermodorus, one of Plato's disciples who lived in the 4th century BCE, Zoroaster was a Persian and the first Magian [it is important to note that the Greeks consider Zoroaster the founder of the Persian religion and the first Magus, for when they speak of Persian or Magian customs we can understand that to mean Zoroastrian customs.

Albert de Jong in Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature states, "There is no trace of a plurality among the Iranians. On the contrary, in the (Greek and Latin) Classical texts, only one religion is recognized: the religion of the Persians. This religion is often connected with the name Zoroaster, who enjoyed a wide reputation in the ancient world as the founder of the order of the Magi, and by extension as the founder of the wisdom and religion of the Persians."

The oldest cited reference is that of Xanthus of Lydia (mid 5th Cent. BCE) as cited by Nicolaos (Nikolaos) of Damascus (1st cent. BCE) in Fragment 19. (cf. A.V.W. Jackson, Zoroaster, The Prophet of Ancient Iran.)

According to Hermippus, a third century BCE philosopher, Zoroaster was a Bactrian whose teacher was a man named Agonakes (also Agonaces / Azonaces). [According to Martin Haug, Agonakes/Agonaces was a (Magian) teacher of Hermippus and not Zoroaster. Haug goes on to say that Agonakes was likely a Parsi (Persian) priest since he would have had to have knowledge of the Zoroastrian scriptures.]

First century BCE Roman historian Trogus Pompeius in his Historiae Philippicae (and as quoted by Justinus), notes, "Zoroaster, king of the Bactrians, who is said to have been the first that invented magian (magic?) arts, and to have investigated, with great attention, the origin of the world and the motions of the stars." Trogus also states that Zoroaster was killed by Ninus, a king of the Assyrians (c. 2200 BCE), the eponymous founder of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, and the first to engage in empire-building beyond traditional borders. Ninus was succeeded by his wife Semiramis.

Ctesias, a 5th century BCE Greek historian who preceded Trogus has a different account of the Assyrian war with Bactria. [Ctesias was a Greek historian, author of Indica and a physician to Artaxerxes Mnemon, whom he accompanied in 401 BCE on his expedition against his brother Cyrus the Younger. Indica is an account of India through a Persian perspective.] Ctesias states that Ninus, having conquered all neighboring Asian countries apart from India and Bactria, proceeded to make war on the Bactrian king Oxyartes (Avestan Ukhshyatereta?), employing an army of nearly two million soldiers. During the siege of of the city of Bactria, he met Semiramis, the wife of one of his officers, Onnes, whom he took from her husband and married. Armenian tradition portrays Semiramis as a homewrecker and a harlot. In the Armenian version of Eusebius, Zoroaster is seen as leading a rebellion against Semiramis who succeeded her husband Ninus.

The Ninus-Semiramis piece in the accounts above does not correspond with Zoroastrian tradition which states that Zoroaster was killed by invading Turanians and not Assyrians (conflict with the Assyrians lead by Zahhak occurred with legendary King Jamshid of ancient Iran). However, of particular interest is the Hellenic confirmation of Zoroaster's domicile and ministry: Bactria in the north-east of Iran-shahr, the classical heartland of the Iranian-Aryan empire. Ancient Bactria was a large kingdom and the capital of not just the kingdom of Bactria, but the Iranian-Aryan empire as well. The Bactrian kingdom would have included Central Asia and what we know of today as the five countries whose names end with -stan, the Persian word for place or country.

Quoting the authority of Ctesias, Diodorus Siculus (1st cent. BCE) in his Library of History 1.94.2 written in the reign of Augustus [also see Commentary on Diodorus Siculus], uses the name Zathraustes, a name closer to the original than the more commonly used Greek version Zoroastres. In his account, Diodorus states that Zarathushtra/Zoroaster was an Arian/Aryan, that is, a native of east Iran [here we have confirmation that Zoroaster was eastern Iranian (Bactrian) and Aryan].

Extracts from Diodorus Siculus 1.94: "We must speak also of the lawgivers who have arisen in Egypt and who instituted customs unusual and strange. After the establishment of settled life in Egypt in early times, which took place, according to the mythical account, in the period of the gods and heroes... ." "...among several other peoples tradition says that this kind of a device was used and was the cause of much good to such as believed it. Thus it is recorded that among the Aryans Zathraustes claimed that the Good Spirit gave him his laws."

Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 CE) speaks of Zoroaster's communion with God and compares him with Lycurgus and Numa. Plutarch, drawing partly on Theopompus, speaks of Zoroaster's religion in his Isis and Osiris (cc. 46 and 47).

Dio Chrysostom (see below), Plutarch's contemporary, declares that neither Homer nor Hesiod sang of the chariot and horses of Zeus so worthily as Zoroaster.

Agathias (c. 530-582/94 CE) in Histories 2.23-5 states, "But the Persians of today... have adopted new ways... seduced by the teachings of Zoroaster the son of Horomasdes. When this Zoroaster or Zarades... first flourished and made his laws is impossible to discover with certainty. The Persians of today [i.e. 6th century CE - during the latter half of the last Zoroastrian empire, the Sassanian / Sasanian] say that he was born in the time of Hystaspes, without further qualification, so that it is... impossible to tell whether this Hystaspes was the father of Darius or someone else... . [Zoroaster] was their teacher and guide in the rites of the magi; he replaced their original worship by complex and elaborate doctrines."

The other references in classical Hellenic literature to the religion of Zoroaster, i.e. the religion of the magi or the Persians, for Zoroaster is not mentioned by name, can be found in Herodotus' Histories 1.131-2 and Strabo's Geography 15.3.13-15.

b. Passion for Wisdom, Justice, Honesty & Truthfulness
Perceptions post 0 CE & and reconstruction of Zoroastrian history & beliefs after the destruction of Persian texts by Alexander: According to Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus (before163-after229 CE) in Oration 36.40 f., "For the Persians say that Zoroaster, because of a passion for wisdom and justice, deserted his fellows and dwelt by himself on a certain mountain; and they say that thereupon the mountain caught fire, a mighty flame descending from the sky above, and that it burned unceasingly. So then the king and the most distinguished of his Persians drew near for the purpose of praying to God; and Zoroaster came forth from the fire unscathed, and, showing himself gracious towards them, bade them to be of good cheer and to worship in recognition of God having come to that place. And thereafter, so they say, Zoroaster has associated, not with them all, but only with such as are best endowed with regard to truth, and are best able to understand God, men whom the Persians have named Magi, that is to say, people who know how to cultivate divine power, and not like the Greeks, who in their ignorance use the term to denote wizards." (Adapted from a translation by H. Lamar Crosby).

c. Zoroaster as a Philosopher
Synesius of Cyrene (4th cent.CE) Considered Ammon, Zoroaster and Hermes as among the greatest philosophers.

[See also our pages:
» Zoroaster / Zarathushtra / Zarathustra
» Zoroastrian-Persian Influence on Greek Philosophy and Sciences]

3. Age in Which Zoroaster / Zarathushtra Lived
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) quotes Eudoxus of Cnidus (ca. 365 BCE) and Aristotle (ca. 350 BCE) as placing Zoroaster 6000 years before the death of Plato (347 BCE) or 6365 BCE.

Pliny also quotes Hermippus (ca. 250 BCE) as placing Zoroaster 5000 years before the Trojan war (ca. 1200 BCE) or around 6200 BCE.

Diogenes Laertius (230 CE) states that according to Xanthus of Lydia (ca. 450 BCE), Zoroaster lived 6000 years before the Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece (ca. 480 BCE) or about 6480 BCE.

Diogenes also states that according to Hermodorus (ca. 400 BCE), a follower of Plato, Zoroaster lived 5000 years before the Trojan war (ca. 1200 BCE) i.e. 6200 BCE.

Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) also places Zoroaster 5000 years before the Trojan war (ca. 1200 BCE), i.e. 6200 BCE.

While he is not a classical Greek author, Lactantius (ca. 240-320 CE), a Latin-speaking native of North Africa, states that ancient King Vishtasp (Hystaspes) reigned long before the founding of Rome (ca. 750 BCE?). Zoroaster lived during King Vishtasp's reign.

4. Founder of Mithraism & Cosmology
According to Porphyry, a third-century CE Neoplatonist, Zoroaster instituted Mithras-worship in the archetypal mithraeum: "... Zoroaster was the first to dedicate a natural cave in honor of Mithras, the creator and father of all; it was located in the mountains near Persia and had flowers and springs. This cave bore for him the image of the cosmos which Mithras had created and the things which the cave contained, by their proportionate arrangement, provided him with symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos. After Zoroaster others adopted the custom of performing their rites of initiation in caves and grottoes which were either natural or artificial." (De antro nympharum 6, trans. Arethusa edition).

The notion of Zoroaster instituting Mithraism is fanciful. However, what may be significant here is a confirmation of the Persian, i.e. Iranian origins of European Mihtraism and the consequent influence of Persian theology on Europeans and ultimately Christianity (cf. Birth of Christ on December 25, the festival of lights etc.). However, many aspects of European Mithraism are antithetical to Mithra in Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta and European Mithraism appears to a syncretic belief system of Iranian (Zoroastrian and pre-Zoroastrian), Greek, Roman and other beliefs.

5. Founder of Magic & Astrology, Magic & Alchemy
Some Hellenic authors make Zoroaster the inventor of 'magic' (Greek magikos) and astrology albeit 'non-plus-ultra', the very best. According to Roger Beck in Zoroaster, as Perceived by the Greeks at Iranica (2003), in many of their constructs, the Hellenic authors were "flagrantly dishonest".

However, Diogenes Laertius (3 cent. CE?) reports on the religion of the magi in very favorable terms and acquits the magi of the charge of sinister magic. Dio Chrysostomus in Oration 36.41 says Greeks call Magi magicians out of ignorance.

Dr. Dhalla in his book Zoroastrian Theology cites Sotion (c. 200-170 BCE) on the authority of Aristotle as saying that sorcery was unknown amongst the Magi and further, that the Magi abhorred divination by magic (Frag. 5 FHG 2.90; Diogenes Laertius, Proaem 9). The Avesta's (Zoroastrian scriptures) Book of Vendidad at 1.14-15 condemns sorcery as in the domain of the evil spirit Ahriman, especially sorcery that deludes peoples and causes harm.

The combination of traits the Greek authors labelled as 'magic' (a term that appears to have been derived from the remarkable skills and abilities of the Zoroastrian priests, the magi) while often used in a disparaging or derogatory sense, also offer grudging acknowledgement of the superior knowledge and skills possessed by the magi, so much so that the efficacy of the magi's work (notably as doctors and healers) appeared to them as 'magic'.

We can understand that the skills (especially their medical skills and knowledge of the natural sciences) of the Zoroastrian priests, the magi (through whom these authors understood Zoroastrianism), were of such a high level so as to appear like 'magic' for the more ignorant. Many basic modern science feats would appear as super-magic to them.

6. Ostanes or Osthanes [Old Iranian (H)ushtana]
1st century author, Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), names Zoroaster as the inventor of magic (in Natural History 30.2.3). Pliny names a Persian senior magus, Ostanes as the person who developed the magicis (magical) arts, invented 'alchemy' and first committed the knowledge including Zoroaster's original verbal teachings (mostly in the form of verse) to writing. According to Pliny, it is Ostanes who first introduced magicis to the Greeks. Pliny make Ostanes a contemporary of Achaemenian King Xerxes and who accompanied Xerxes (519-465 BCE) on his invasion of Greece. Astrology was an adjunct to the knowledge of the natural sciences. The credibility of Pliny's account suffers greatly when he makes Ostanes a contemporary of Alexander (356-323 BCE) as well.

While the art of the magi were seen as being magicis i.e. magical, Pliny's harangue calling it the "most fraudulent of the arts," greatly influenced Western perceptions of the magi. While to Pliny magicis was both the quality magical and the membership magian, for the Roman the two associations became one and the same.

In 30.2.3, Pliny states that while it was universally known that magic began with Zoroaster. In 30.2.8, Pliny notes that Ostanes was the first extant writer of the practice. According to Beck, Pliny also notes that Ostanes's introduction of the "monstrous craft" to the Greeks gave those people not only a "lust" (aviditatem) for magic, but a downright "madness" (rabiem) for it. In 30.2.8-10, Pliny goes on to state that many Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato travelled east to study the philosophy and craft of the magi and then returned to Greece to teach what they had learned from the Persian magi. Pliny notes that Ostanes was the teacher of Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 BCE), an influential pre-Socratic philosopher who formulated an atomic theory for the cosmos. Many consider Democritus to be the father of modern science.

[Also see our page: Ostanes - Persian Sage]

7. The Magi & Zoroaster
The 4th century CE, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus made the following observations in his Rerum gestarum libri 23.6.31-36:

"31. They have also as many cities as Media, and villages as strongly built as towns in other countries, inhabited by large bodies of citizens. In short, it is the richest residence of the kings.

32. In these districts the lands of the Magi are fertile; and it may be as well to give a short account of that sect and their studies, since we have occasion to mention their name. Plato (at Ax. 371D; Isoc. II.28, 227A), that most learned deliverer of wise opinions, teaches us that Magias is by a mystic name Machagistia (Mazdayasni? If so, one of the few Western references to this name which is the Zoroastrian name for their religion and means 'Worship of God'), that is to say, the purest worship of divine beings; of which knowledge in olden times the Bactrian Zoroaster derived much from the secret rites of the Chaldaeans; and after him Hystaspes, a very wise monarch, the father of Darius.

33. When Zoroaster had boldly made his way into the unknown regions of Upper India, he came to a certain woody retreat, of which with its tranquil silence the Brahmans, men of sublime genius, were the possessors. From their teaching he learnt the principles of the motion of the world and of the stars, and the pure rites of sacrifice, as far as he could; and of what he learnt he infused some portion into the minds of the Magi, which they have handed down by tradition to later ages, each instructing his own children, and adding to it their own system of divination (an interesting reference and we can only wonder about Marcellinus' source).

34. From his time, though many ages to the present era, a number of priests of one and the same clan has arisen, dedicated to the worship of the gods. And they say, if it can be believed, that they even keep alive in everlasting fires a flame which descended from heaven among them; a small portion of which, as a favourable omen, used to be borne before the kings of Asia.

35. Of this class the number among the ancients was small, and the Persian sovereigns employed their ministry in the solemn performance of divine sacrifices, and it was profanation to approach the altars, or to touch a victim before a Magus with solemn prayers had poured over it a preliminary libation. But becoming gradually more numerous they arrived at the dignity and reputation of a substantial clan; inhabiting towns protected by no fortifications, allowed to live by their own laws, and honoured from the regard borne to their religion.

36. It was of this clan of Magi that the ancient volumes relate that after the death of Cambyses, seven men seized on the kingdom of Persia (cf. Smerdis), who were put down by Darius, after he obtained the kingdom through the neighing of his horse.

37. In this district a medical oil is prepared with which if an arrow be smeared, and it be shot gently from a loose bow (for it is extinguished in a rapid flight), wherever it sticks it burns steadily, and if any one attempts to quench it with water it only burns more fiercely, nor can it be put out by any means except by throwing dust on it.

38. It is made in this manner. Those skilful in such arts mix common oil with a certain herb, keep it a long time, and when the mixture is completed they thicken it with a material derived from some natural source, like a thicker oil. The material being a liquor produced in Persia, and called, as I have already said, naphtha in their native language."

8. The Extent of the Zoroastrian-Magian-Persian Corpus of Knowledge
According to Martin Haug, Hermippus, the philosopher of Smyrna (ca. 250 BCE), "is reported by Pliny (Historia Naturalis 30.2.4) to have made very laborious investigations in to all Zoroastrian texts, which were said to comprise two million verses, and to have stated the contents of each book separately." Pliny credits Callimachus' pupil Hermippus with having "written on this art in the most exact fashion, while also making accessible, by the contents-lists prefaced to his volumes, the two million verses composed by Zoroaster" (qui de tota ea arte diligentissime scripsit, et viciens centum milia versuum a Zoroastre condita, indicibus quoque voluminum eius positis explanavit). Hermippus' work has been lost.

A copy of the corpus of Hermippus' work (or a portion of it) was said to reside in a library at in Egypt at Alexandria - which was at one point part of the Persian empire. That copy has also been lost to us.

2nd century CE Greek philosopher, Celsus stated that "Zoroaster and Pythagoras formulated their doctrines in books" which were conserved until his time, an observation affirmed by a medieval textual commentator of Alcibiades who stated that Zoroaster had left philosophical writings.

If Zoroaster lived before the advent of writing, then the writings credited to him were likely written by his followers including the magi. We take these various references to Zoroastrian texts to mean that Zoroastrian texts had been committed to writing at some stage and that these texts were extensive in both size and the breath of content.

The Net Result of Greek Perceptions
History as they say is written by the victors. Given that classical Greek authors and the horde of modern so-called researchers who are for the most part hopelessly biased against the Persians - as typified by the third-rate 2006 American movie "300" (based on a comic series of the same name written by Frank Miller, directed by Zack Snyder) - are the primary source of information about the ancient Persians, there is little objectivity in most Western perceptions about the Persians and thereby Iran (for a discussion on the use of these terms, see Iran & Persia, Are They the Same?). Some politicians and professors find it expedient to join that drum-beat. Few scholars give credence to the positive information and even the positive relations between ancient Greeks and Persians contained in the writings of at least some of the classical Greek writers. There are many legendary connections between the Persians and the Greeks as noted in our page on the subject. We also have a section that examines Greek-Persian Relations during the Achaemenian Era.

With regards to the Greek perceptions of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism & the Magi, leaving aside the pejorative and negative value laden terms used by Pliny and a few others (modern authors can see through the nationalistic bias of the authors), what we gather from these references is that the Greeks credit Zoroaster and subsequent magi for 'inventing' many of the sciences including philosophy, medicine, chemistry, astronomy and the other natural sciences - including astronomy.

Albert de Jong in Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature

Companion Pages
» Zoroastrian-Persian Influence on Greek Philosophy and Sciences
» Ostanes - Persian Sage
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 1 The Historical Alcibiades
» Alcibiades, Plato & Some Amazing Insights. Part 2 Selections from Plato

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