In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas That Changed the World by Paul Kriwaczek

Alfred A. Knopf 11 February 2003  238 (?) pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


An Austrian dental surgeon practicing in Kabul, Afghanistan, who moved to London, England, to produce television programs for the BBC may not seem the most promising candidate for a book about the historical origins and cultural influence of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (aka, Zarathustra).  But then again, Zoroaster may not seem the most promising candidate for the originator of most of the ideas that now comprise the West’s religions.  Until you’ve read Paul Kriwaczek’s fascinating In Search of Zarathustra, however, reserve your skepticism on both accounts.

To give you some idea of the audacious intellectual breadth that structures this book, let me quote a sentence from late in the story:

“It seemed to me that Darius’s victory over the Magi cast a very long shadow, enshrining Zarathustra’s teachings at the very center of the ancient Persian state and allowing the Zoroastrian vision of the workings of the universe to lay its influence over all the subject peoples of the empire, and so to become—transmitted first through Jewish, then Christian theology—part of the patrimony of both the Western and Islamic worlds.”

Kriwaczek contends that Zarathustra’s message, “his injunction to worship only the one God [Ahura Mazda], seek happiness in this life, and choose good over evil” form the cornerstone beliefs of the religions of the West, including Islam.  Even more important is Zarathustra’s solution to the question, “why does evil exist in a God-ordained world?  … Either God was not all-good or He was not all-powerful.”  Zarathustra contended that “evil was an independent force that must be combated.”  Hence, in addition to the now-popular religions, Zarathustra’s beliefs also can be found in the other religions contemporary with early Christianity, the Gnostic faiths.

Kriwaczek presents his views in a cleverly organized travel narrative that begins in nineteenth century Switzerland, with Friedrich Nietzsche’s rehabilitation of Zarathustra.  From there we move to France and the dualistic Medieval Great Heresy of the Cathars, who believed that “the whole of human existence, birth, life and death, the kingly state, the Church, yea the great globe itself and the sky above it, were the creation of the Devil,” clearly a resurgence of Gnosticism in the service of a “truer” Christianity.

We then leave behind the comparative familiarity of Europe to Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to meet the “seriously disturbed, perhaps even autistic” prophet Mani, a brilliant painter who “discovered himself to be the Paraclete (intercessor), foretold by Jesus in the Gospel of John.”  However, unlike Christ, his teaching claimed that the physical world was the battleground of the forces of light and darkness.  His Iranian followers saluted his genius with the cry “Mani Khai” (Mani lives), a epithet later used contemptuously by his Greek critics, who referred to his followers as Manicheans.

A brief stopover in England introduces us to the cult of Mithras, the mediator between god and humanity, and its intersection with the Roman troops of Hadrian. 

Kriwaczek then takes us on a sustained backward narrative, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of Middle East, tracing the roots of Zoroastrian beliefs to Cyrus the Great, the “first monarch of the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire,” the first universal, multiracial, multi-faith empire … the largest, most prosperous, most enlightened, and longest-lasting empire of the ancient pre-classical world.”  We complete our journey with an examination of the thin historical evidence of this “deeply radical figure.”

This story is not for the faint of heartland.  Obscure places, even more obscure names (with multiple variants) abound: “Darius’s son Xerxes (Akhayarshaya in Persian, Akhashverosh in Hebrew, Ahasuerus in the King James Bible.”

If there is a weakness in this book, it’s the same one that bedevils African anthropologists, who want to discover in Lucy (or Ethel) the original “Eve” that populated the human race.  Zarathustra wants us to believe that the beliefs attributed to this ancient religion are the sole source of ideas and cultural practices that popped up in everywhere from Roman England to 13th century France.  What Kriwaczek has done is established a fascinating correlation between ideas ancient and not-so-ancient, but whether the evidence he offers establishes a casual connection among these ideas remains to be analyzed by a host of scholars from several disciplines: comparative religion, archeology, textual analysis, history, and so on.

Throughout the reading of this book, one vacillates between wonder at the story told, and wonder at the genial intellectual virtuosity of the storyteller.  Anyone interested in religion, the history of ideas, relations between East and West, and obscure travel destinations with find In Search of Zarathustra both a challenge and a delight.