In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World, by Paul Kriwaczek, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003
Several years ago I embarked on an ambitious project to read all the major books by all the major thinkers in Western philosophy in a chronological order, using Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy as my map. After having passed out of the pre-Socratics and through Plato and Aristotle, I came to the Bible and took a leisurely route through religious texts. I read apocryphal works, non-biblical contemporary works, and tried to track down influential texts that shaped Judeo-Christianity.
The one religion that I had the hardest time finding primary documents on was Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion that very few people know anything specific about. Educated people have heard of it and many could give you a very, very rough outline of its tenets or at least one belief of it, but for the most part, it is only a name. It certainly isn’t the kind of religious icon that ends up on plaques, bumperstickers, and t-shirts. The libraries in this city, while being very good, didn’t include any copies of the sacred text of Zoroastrianism, the Zend-Avesta (happily these days online), in part because there are so few translations.
I moved on due to lack of information, but the gap in my knowledge remained. What little I knew was tantalizing and not simply because I had been an enormous Nietzsche fan back in my collegiate days, but because in my small knowledge, I knew that Zarathustra had been the first major religious figure to postulate the binary world of good versus evil. The conquering armies of Greece absorbed much of this dualism and exported it to their various colonies. One of Zarathustra’s more dramatic beliefs being that the end of the world was near and it would culminate in an epic battle between the forces of good (light) and evil (darkness).
Needless to say, certain sects among the afflicted Jews under Greek (then Roman) rule found this concept to mesh quite well with their longing for a Messiah who would lead them in some major imperial ass kicking. It has long been said that Western culture rests on the two pillars of Judaism and Hellenism. Kriwaczek goes in search for this First Prophet and comes back to make a compelling case that Zoroastrianism must be included in the mix.
Kriwaczek, who has an adventurous biography (fled Vienna in 1939 at age two, became dentist and traveled extensively in Asia and Africa, for a while being only European dentist in Kabul, then became BBC correspondent for that area, and finally in his fifties took up writing) tells a lively story filled with erudition presented with the lightest touch. What others might write as a dry history replete with endless footnotes and royal lineages, he tells in a time-and-space travelogue fashion, as though this were a fleshed out book treatment of a BBC special.
We travel back in time from our own age first to Nietzsche and from there to the Middle Ages and Inquisitions, back past the founding of Manicheism, dip into the mystery religion of Mithraism which once vied with Christianity as successor state religion of Rome, into ancient Iranian times. With Kriwaczek as our guide, the trip is informative without being stale, giddily fun without being frivolously empty, and a learning experience in the best possible sense of the word. My only regret in reading the book was how late in my perusal I discovered the magnificent color plates and illustrations in two middle sections. Kriwaczek’s own photography, they richly illuminate the text.
Small bits of fascinating information crop up throughout, such as early Zoroastrian paintings included the sun’s rays shooting out from behind the head of the Zoroastrian deity, the God of Light, Ahura Mazda, and from this Christian iconography invented the halo. We likewise learn of how far the worship of Mithra spread, Kriwaczek taking us to more than one ruined temple in England itself.
Also of note is Kriwaczek’s charting the spread of the kernel ideas behind Zoroastrianism as the Persian Empire touched this geographical location and that. From the Persians to the Greeks from the Greeks to the Romans and Jews and from them everywhere. But also through the Mongolians and the Indians and the Turkmen and Bulgarians. On occasion Kriwaczek seems to stretch what scholarship will allow, but his guesswork is of a small nature and is rarely beyond the possibilities of common sense.
While at times the author does appear to be a bit digressive, the digressions are never dull or long-winded. If we learn some of his school day training that fixed Nietzsche so firmly in his mind, it is only a minor flaw and one easily overlooked. This is, after all, an account of a personal journey not a textbook, and so Kriwaczek treats us to the tastes and sights and sensations of Iranian festivals as well as the personal disappointments in his travels. Travelling two and a half thousand miles to see King Darius’ great rock relief only to have it obscured by renovation scaffolding would be enough to chafe anyone, I think.
All in all, In Search of Zarathustra is a fascinating journey, leaving me eager for more books on the subject, as well as for Kriwaczek’s next book E=mc2: The Great Ideas that Shaped Our World. A writer who can so clearly explain the various factions and kingdoms rising and falling throughout three millennia, can so dedicatedly suss out the thread of mythological history, and who can capture the God of Light can surely illuminate Einstein with the greatest of ease.