Sunday, September 16, 2012

(Chaldean) Oracles of Zoroaster - an Introduction

The (Chaldean) Oracles of Zoroaster had a profound impact on Classical Greek philosophy and religion - especially on the Pythagorean and Neoplatonic movements/religions which used the Oracles as their scripture. In this article and the next [(Chaldean) Oracles of Zoroaster - Beliefs Summary by Psellus and this Author] we seek to understand the Oracles, discuss its possible authorship, and note any convergence or divergence with mainstream Zoroastrian philosophy and theology.

[Post-Alexandrian Persian accounts are replete with assertions that Alexander destroyed Persian (Zoroastrian) texts and that those he did not destroy, he had sent to Egypt and Greece. While these Persian-Zoroastrian texts would have been transformed & Hellenized during their sojourn in the Hellenic heartland, they may yet contain vestiges of their original source and it is in this quest that we scour Classical Greek texts that profess a Persian-Zoroastrian connection.]

Chaldea appears to be a English (from Greek-Latin) version of the Assyrian/Aramaic name Kaldu - an area south-east of Babylonia and between Babylon and the Persian Gulf. Its neighbour to the east would have been Elam and Persia. In English language translations and interpretations of Classical Greek accounts of the reason, we find the name Chaldea used where we might otherwise find Sumer, Babylonia or even Mesopotamia. During the time when the classical Greek histories and accounts were written, Chaldea or Babylonia were part of the Persian Empire and Babylon was a centre of learning visited by several Greek travellers.
Chaldea. Image credit: Wikipedia
Democritus is reported to have also visited Babylon to study the science of the Chaldeans. He summed up the results of his investigations in a Chaldean Treatise. Another treatise by Democritus was titled On the Sacred Writings of Those in Babylon.

The Hellenic travellers to Chaldea-Babylon including Pythagoras who it is claimed was taught Zoroastrian teachings by Zoroaster himself* - learning the principles of religion and practical maxims for the conduct of life (also see the Golden Verses of Pythagoras which have several points of congruence with the Zoroastrian andarz). Pythagorean "scriptures" are said to have included the (Chaldean) Oracles of Zoroaster. (* An improbable claim perhaps implying instead that Pythagoras was taught by a Zoroastrian or a senior Zoroastrian priest.)

The (Chaldean) Oracles of Zoroaster 
The Oracles of Zoroaster (also called the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster) are a collection of fragments of what is thought to be a single mystery-poem. We presume that the word 'Oracle' in the title signifies it being a source of wisdom - even a divine message or a divinely inspired message - rather than it being a source of prophecy.

Authorship of the Oracles (According to Taylor)
The edition of the text that came into the possession of the Greeks was said to have been written in Chaldean i.e. Akkadian or Babylonian. Thomas Taylor in his article Oracles of Zoroaster published in, The Classical Journal (Volume 16, September and December 1817) states that the oracles "are of Chaldaic [Chaldean i.e. Babylonian-Persian] origin, and were not forged by Christians of any denomination, as has been asserted by some superficial writers, is demonstrably evident from the following considerations: In the first place, John Picus, Earl of Mirandula [a lord in Italy b. 1463 CE], in a letter to Ficinus [Marsilio Ficino (Latin name: Marsilius Ficinus) (October 19, 1433 – October 1, 1499) an influential Italian humanist philosopher], informs him that he was in possession of the Oracles of Zoroaster in the Chaldean tongue, with a commentary on them, by certain Chaldean wise men. And that he did not speak this from mere conjecture (as Fabricius thinks he did) is evident from his expressly asserting, in a letter to Urbinatus (p. 256 of his works), that, after much labour, he had at length learned the Chaldean language."

Taylor continues: " Porphyry [of Tyre (in Ancient Greek: Porphyrios) 234–c.305 CE, Neoplatonic philosopher], Iamblichus [c.250-325 CE, an Neoplatonic philosopher], and Proclus [Lycaeus (412–485 CE), a Greek Neoplatonic philosopher] [Among the Neoplatonist writers was Damascius (462-537 CE)] wrote large commentaries on these oracles, and are well known to have ranked amongst the greatest enemies of the Christian religion; there is not even poetical probability, that men of such great learning and sagacity should have been duped by the shallow artifice of some heretical Christian knave [the full commentaries referred to above are lost and survive only as fragments]. To which we may add, that Porphyry, in his Life of Plotinus, expressly mentions, that certain revelations ascribed to Zoroaster, were circulated, in his time, by many Christians and heretics who had abandoned the ancient philosophy, and that he showed, by many arguments, these revelations were spurious; from which it is evident, that the Oracles commented on by him, were not those forged by the heretics of his time.

"...Proclus in his MS. Scholia [medieval annotations or commentaries on ancient Greek or Latin texts] on the Cratylus of Plato, says, that the Oracles respecting the intelligible and intellectual orders were delivered by Theurgists [Divine-Workers (theurgy means 'divine-working')], under the reign of Marcus Antoninus  [Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus? (121-180 CE). One individual sometimes credited as being a possible compiler of the Oracles is Julian the Theurgist, son of Julian the Chaldean. The latter had served in the Roman army during Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus' (121–180 CE) reign]."

Our note: Theurgy was the spiritual belief and practice of Neoplatonists. Neoplatonists were members of a school akin to a religion based on the teachings of Plato. As did Pythagoreans, Neoplatonists regarded the Oracles of Zoroaster as a sacred text or scripture, sometimes, even above Plato himself. In order to prevent the harming of the uneducated, Proclus advocated removing all books from circulation other than Plato's dialogue, Timaeus and the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster. The Theurgy of the Chaldean Oracles was said to have provided the knowledge to aid the soul on its ascent to (re)union with the Divine, a process called henosis. Plotinus promoted contemplation and mediation as the means to reunion with the Divine while Iamblichus of Calcis (Syria) (a student of Porphyry himself a student of Plotinus) promoted invocation and ritual.

Taylor continues: "It is clear, therefore, that the following oracles, which are collected from the writings of the Platonists, are of Chaldean, and not of Christian origin; not to mention that the dogmas they contain are totally dissonant from those of the Christian faith.

"It is likewise evident, that some of these oracles may, with great confidence, be ascribed to the Chaldean Zoroaster. This appears from the Chaldean manuscript of Picus, in which those oracles were denominated Zoroastrian, which exist at present, with the Scholia of Psellus [Byzantine statesman and author (1018-1078 CE)], under the title of The Magic Oracles of Zoroaster."

According to Sapere Aude who wrote a preface to Westcott's "Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster"Berosus, a 3rd century BCE Babylonian writer is said to be the first who introduced the writings of the Chaldæans concerning Astronomy and Philosophy among the Greeks ". Aude goes on to say, "and it is certain that the traditions of Chaldea very largely influenced Greek thought. Taylor considers that some of these mystical utterances are the sources whence the sublime conceptions of Plato were formed, and large commentaries were written upon them by Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Pletho and Psellus. That men of such great learning and sagacity should have thought so highly of these Oracles, is a fact which in itself should commend them to our attention." Further, "We are indebted to both Psellus and Pletho for [quotations and] comments at some length upon the Chaldæan Oracles, and the collection adduced by these writers has been considerably enlarged by Franciscus Patricius, who made many additions from Proclus, Hermias, Simplicius, Damascius, Synesius, Olympiodorus, Nicephorus and Arnobius; his collection, which comprised some 324 oracles under general heads, was published in Latin in 1593, and constitutes the groundwork of the later classification arrived at by Taylor and Cory; all of these editions have been utilised in producing the present revise."

Authorship of the Original 'Oracles' (Our Notes)
The Greeks commonly ascribed to Zoroaster anything related to the religion of the Persians. The 'Oracles of Zoroaster' could read 'Beliefs of Persian-Zoroastrians' as also 'Oracles of the Magi' (Zoroastrian priests). Indeed, Pletho (see below) quoting Psellus refers to the Oracles of the Magi. As there are points of both congruence and divergence between the surviving 'Oracles' and mainstream Zoroastrian thought, only certain parts of the 'Oracles' may be ascribed to Zoroaster, or more properly to later Zoroastrian followers and the magi. It is widely acknowledged that several parts of the text cannot even be remotely connected to Zoroaster / Zarathushtra and in any event Zoroaster / Zarathushtra lived hundreds of years before the Greeks journeyed to Babylon and Chaldea to study the wisdom of the East. Since the Greeks universally acknowledge Zoroaster to be a Persian Aryan who lived in the east of the then Persian empire (in particular, according to them: Bactria), we can conclude that those parts of the text that one can possibly attribute to Zoroaster may have come to the West via Babylon, that is, the Chaldean connection. Ideas expressed in the Oracles appear to be a syncretism: a blending,of Zoroastrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Buddhist and Greek ideas. Some Zoroastrian texts were reputedly stored in Babylon and Alexandria, Egypt, and these texts could have been used to compose a syncretic work on theurgy. Perhaps to gain credibility, the authorship of the composite work could have ascribed to Zoroaster / Zarathushtra.

As we have implied above, it would be incorrect to say that even those quotations ascribed to Zoroaster / Zarathushtra were directly composed by him. Zoroaster / Zarathushtra lived in a different time and place and spoke an entirely different language to Babylonian. Whoever the eventual author or authors of the source 'Oracles' were, if those authors had based some of their writings on Zoroaster's / Zarathushtra's message, they would have had to translate Zoroaster's / Zarathushtra's words and in the translation we can expect that they wrote down their version of what they thought Zoroaster's / Zarathushtra's words meant - words that were part of a language that had already become extinct during the 2nd century CE. It is also natural to expect that different denominations of Zoroastrians (Zurvanist-Zoroastrians being one possibility) would have sprung up in different places infusing different ideas or interpretations into original core Zoroastrian beliefs (cf. the Gathas of Zarathushtra). We see that phenomenon manifesting in today's world despite our ability to communicate across distances, an ability that was severely restricted in ancient times.

Rather than ascribing the authorship of the Oracles' original source work or reference (as different from the versions quoted by Classical Greek authors) to a "Chaldean Zoroaster" as Taylor calls the source, it may be possible to ascribe the authorship to a Chaldean(s), i.e. a Babylonian Zoroastrian(s) or to Zoroastrian priests, the magi. These Zoroastrian(s) or the magi in turn could have based their version of the work on the surviving teachings of Zoroaster.

Authorship of the Extant Oracle Verses (Our Notes)
The verses of the Oracles as we know them survive only in the quotations and comments of other authors - mainly Classical Greek authors. There is some difference between the interpretations and comments leading us to believe that these authors were not entirely faithful to their source document.

As we have stated above, According to Sapere Aude who wrote a preface to Westcott's "Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster"Berosus, a 3rd century BCE Babylonian writer is said to be the first who introduced the writings of the Chaldæans concerning Astronomy and Philosophy among the Greeks ".

Porphyry [of Tyre (in Ancient Greek: Porphyrios) 234–c.305 CE, Neoplatonic philosopher], Iamblichus [c.250-325 CE, an Neoplatonic philosopher], Proclus [Lycaeus 412–485 CE, a Greek Neoplatonic philosopher],  Damascius [Neoplatonist writer (462-537 CE)] wrote commentaries on the Oracles and was the last head of the philosophical school of Athens. These commentaries form the principal sources from which a reconstruction of the Oracles was been undertaken by several modern authors.

In medieval times, Psellus, who lived between 1018 and 1078 CE, was a Byzantine-Christian author and head of the Academy of Constantinople. Psellus wrote a commentary of the Oracles under the title of The Magic Oracles of Zoroaster" and also Expositio Oracidorum Chaldaicorum (in M. 122, 1124 ff). At that time Aristotle's doctrine had been reconciled with Christianity by the church. Platonism was however considered a Christian heresy and as a Platonist, Psellus was liable to the charge of heresy.

Pletho/Plethon (Georgius Gemistus) on Zoroastrianism, Platonism & the Oracles
Psellus is quoted by Georgius Gemistus (c.1355-1454 CE), a latter day Neoplatonic philosopher who expressed his loyalty to Plato by changing his name to Pletho or Plethon meaning "full", and under which name he is known as the author of De Differentiis/Differentia, a comparison between Plato and Aristotles' concepts of God. He also wrote a Summary of the Doctrines of Zoroaster and Plato, in which he expounded his own eclectic beliefs. Pletho's source for what he saw as the similarity between Zoroastrianism and Platonism was Psellus. According to John Taylor in Georgius Gemistus Pletho's Criticism of Plato and Aristotle (1921 - not to be confused with Thomas Taylor), "Plato was for him (Pletho) the world's supreme philosopher, yet he was not an isolated thinker. Among the doctrines he expressed were some which came down from the followers of Zoroaster through the Pythagorean tradition to him. It should be noted, however, that Plato's superiority had nothing to do with supernatural revelation, but consisted in his treatment of ethics, psychology and physics as calculated to lead one's mind to the contemplation of nobler things, and in his desire to attain a unified view of existence and trace the causes of all things back to one principle."

In a note J. Taylor adds, "Pletho (omitted) mention of Aristotle's name as an inheritor of the doctrines of the Magi, and Plutarch, from whose De Iside et Osiride, Pletho quoted two passages. (A. 281 and M. 984A, from Moralia II, 519, 12 S. and A. 280 from Moralia II, 523, 3-5). The theory of a truth gradually unfolded to mankind by a succession of wise men, some of whom imparted their wisdom to (through) oracles (perhaps meaning divinely inspired pronouncements), was, of course, a Neoplatonic tradition, taking its rise probably from Plato's Alcibiades I, 122 a, in which Plato spoke of the magic (sic. cf. observances) of Zoroaster as the service of God (theurgy). Plutarch, Porphyry (cf. Wolff, Porphyrius: De Philosophia ex Oraculis Haurienda, Berlin, 1856), Iamblichus, Proclus and Psellus were the principal transmitters of the tradition to Pletho."

Pletho attributes to both Zoroaster and Pythagoras the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and contrasts the Platonic-Zoroastrian concept of free will to the determinism of Aristotle. Pletho also states that according to Plato, God is the first cause and final end of existence (a belief similar to that in Zoroastrianism) who remains separate from creation (cf. panentheism). Aristotle's God according to Pletho is like a general, part of this universe (cf. pantheism) and merely the senior-most amongst other eternal elements. like a general, Aristotle's God  is responsible for movement and change but not for the existence of the army i.e. creation. Pletho states, "Aristotle does make God the end; but even this must be regarded as a not very exalted claim and not one worthy of God, if he makes God the end not of the existence or essence of particular things but only of movement and change."

(Also see, George Gemistos Plethon on God: Heterodoxy in Defense of Orthodoxy by Darien C. DeBolt, University of Oklahoma)

Congruence of the Oracles with Zoroastrian Teachings
When we compare the quotes in the Oracles (as they have survived and been translated into English today) with the hymns of Zarathushtra and with the rest of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, we find that some of the oracles are remarkably congruent or consistent with ideas and themes expressed in the Zoroastrian scriptures and religious texts. Others have a distinct Babylonian-Egyptian-Greek bias to them. It is the quotes consistent with Zoroastrianism and even Mithraism and the Zoroastrian sect of Zurvanism that are of interest to us. When we further compare Pythagorean and neo-Platonic concepts inspired by the oracles (or by Zoroastrianism directly), we are provided with some fascinating insights and interesting connections that span Greek, Iranian/Persian and Chinese (Daoist/Taoist) philosophies.

Points of Departure from Zoroastrianism
While from the theology of the Oracles we can see that there are several points of congruence between the Oracles and Zoroastrianism - especially the metaphorical references to fires and wisdom (intellect), there are significant points of departure, a most fundamental being the Gnostic beliefs espoused in the Oracles. If we understand Gnosticism to propound that the material world is essentially evil or in any event one of suffering from which the soul must free itself in order to achieve salvation (cf. Buddhism), then Zoroastrianism espouses this creation to be divine and one where humans should work diligently to create the best existence - a paradise for all. This Zoroastrian perspective on doing God's work - theurgy - is a diametrically opposite concept to the Gnostic beliefs we read in the Oracles.

The Oracles and Neo-Platonism give the Supreme Divine a gender and the title "father" which is an anthropomorphizing of the deity and an ascribing of a gender (male) both of which are contrary to Zoroastrian concepts of a non-anthropomorphic, incomprehensible deity.

Also see (Chaldean) Oracles of Zoroaster - Beliefs Summary by Psellus and this Author

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