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A Zoroastrian date


The cypress at Kâshmar.
The cypress at Kâshmar (©**)
Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster): legendary religious teacher from Bactria, founder of Zoroastrianism.The Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira thought that Zoroaster (the Greek name for Zarathustra) lived six thousand years before Aristotle's own teacher Plato (427-348 BCE). This is clearly a legendary figure that we need not take very seriously. Modern scholars, on the other hand, have linguistic arguments to date Zarathustra's life in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE.

However, there is another date that may have some significance: 596 BCE. This year can be found in a medieval work called Bundahishn: it dates 'the coming of Zarathustra', 258 years before the reign of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who is correctly said to have lasted fourteen years (336-323). The fact that the author of the Bundahishn knew the length of Alexander's reign, suggests that he had access to an unknown chronological text, and inspires some confidence in the number 258.

At Kâshmar in northeast Iran, a famous cypress still reminds the visitor that on this place Zarathustra won a decisive victory in a debate with his opponents; his host, king Hystaspes, became an adherent of Zarathustra's new religion (text). In 838 CE, an ancestor of the modern tree was cut down; rings were counted and it was found out that the tree was 1450 years old. This would suggest that the seed was sown in 597 BCE, only one year before the date from the Bundahishn.

This may be coincidence, but maybe there is more to it. Maybe the tree commemorated another important event in Zoroastrian history, for instance, the conversion of a local chief.

There is another possibility, even though we now enter -and this needs to be stressed- the realm of speculation. The holy book of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta, was transmitted orally, but there are linguistic grounds to maintain that at least the hymns known as the Yashts were written down some time after 625. (The language of the Yashts resembles that of contemporary inscriptions.) Perhaps the 'coming of Zarathustra' in 597/596 BCE mentioned in the Bundahishn, refers to some kind of breakthrough: a local ruler of some importance decided to support the Zoroastrians and offered them the means to write down several texts. This is, of course, speculation, so we better not digress on this suggestion any longer.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2001
Revision: 9 December 2006
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