I read this book because the protagonist of one of the many novels I want to write was born into Zoroastrian family. I am well aware that the previous sentence way well be the most interesting sentence in this review, but I’m not going to elaborate on it too much. But yes, this hypothetical novel is based on a historical figure who lived in the 8th century. If/when I reach a point when I am actually working on this novel, I will tell you more.
Anyway, Zarathustra is one of several “Z” names for Zoroaster, whom I remember from a couple of paragraphs in a world history textbook and from the occasional mention at Christmastime that the “three kings” of Jesus’s (fictional) birth story were Zoroastrians from Persia. I wanted to know more. This book seemed like the most interesting of the few that popped up on Amazon, and the first thing I learned is that there are very few recent books on Zoroastrianism for the general reader. I mean, there are at least 96 gajillion books about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy fighting over how to redecorate the east wing of Pemberley in the years after their (fictional) wedding, but the pickings are slim on Zoroastrianism.
Fortunately, though, this book is very interesting. It’s part history and part travelogue, following author and protagonist Paul Kriwaczek, whose qualifications include “a two-year stint as the only European dentist in Kabul,” as he travels the globe to sites important to the history of Zoroastrianism. One of the first puzzles he addresses is the question of why there are so few such sites and so little known about Zoroastrianism in general, and the answer to this question is that the two religions that have reigned aggressively supreme in Europe and Asia for the past 1500 years – Christianity and Islam – felt threatened by Zoroastrianism, often for silly reasons.
I’m not going to summarize the whole history of this religion that was once quite wide-spread, but the crux of the issue seems to be that Zarathustra was the first figure in world history to preach the idea that all of existence is a struggle between two opposing forces. Dualism, in other words. Zarathustra – of whose historical existence we know almost nothing – was born in the region we now call Uzbekistan. He came to believe that there is only one god (he called this god Ahura Mazda) but that there is also an opposing force called Ahriman, which represents darkness and evil. In theory, this idea shouldn’t contradict either Christian or Muslim theology, both of which acknowledge a loving God and an evil oppositional force – and it seems to me that the existence of Zoroastrianism throughout Central Asia may have paved the way for the other monotheistic traditions that later took root there, making it easier for people to accept Christianity and Islam – but Zoroastrianism adds an interesting twist: the world was created not by Ahura Mazda but by Ahriman. In addition, as far as we know, Zarathustra was the first to teach that the world was not cyclical and not eternal. As Zarathustra saw it, history was leading the way toward an apocalyptic battle between good and evil – a belief that paved the way for, among other things, the Book of Revelation, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, any number of Kirk Cameron movies, and the cuckoo-birds who hoarded toilet paper and propane in the Ozark town of Harrison, Arkansas awaiting the end of the world on January 1, 2000. But enough on my grad school years for now.
Already familiar with Central Asia after living and working there for some time, Paul Kriwaczek decided to personally track down the remaining traces of Zarathustra’s influence on earth. These traces were somewhat difficult to locate but generally fruitful, and the stories of Kriwaczek’s travels are fascinating. He begins in a German research library investigating Nietzsche, whose Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of the most accessible references to Zoroastrianism in the West. Nietzsche wrote that Zarathustra was “the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the essential wheel in the working of things” (31). Yet Kriwaczek is intrigued (as am I) by the fact that there is no evidence anywhere of how Nietzsche came to know enough about Zoroastrianism to write his book. Information about Zoroastrianism was not widely available in Nietzsche’s Germany, even in major university libraries.
Kriwaczek visited other sites in Europe, including the castle in the Pyrenees where an entire religious community – the Cathars – was destroyed in the attack known as “the Albigensian Crusade.” Dualist thinking was deeply threatening to medieval Christianity. I’ve read many books that use the word “Manicheanism” to describe dualist thinking, mostly in the Middle East and north African in the early years of Christianity, when the off-their-rocker Church fathers were always looking for new reasons to massacre one another over tiny matters of doctrine, but I did not know that this conflict lived on into the Middle Ages, when a world created by the Satan-like Ahriman must have seemed immensely plausible given the living conditions, disease, and violence that were daily realities. As always, Kriwaczek’s next step is to push further into the past. Where did the Cathars come from? If it’s true that the Cathars were actually Zoroastrians, how did a community of them end up in southwestern France in the 13th century? His next stop is the Bulgars – a religious and ethnic group in Bulgaria – but again, how did they get there? And so forth.
I really enjoyed this book, though it throws so many new ideas out there – several of them creepy – that sometimes I had to take a break and read something a little less intense. Many years ago I had terrible nightmares after I read a book about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I started feeling the same sort of shivers while I was reading Kriwaczek’s book. I put it aside often, but I always came back, and I really did find it fascinating in general. Pushing backward into the past, Kriwaczek traces evidence of Zoroastrianism all the way back through Medieval Europe to modern-day Iran and Central Asia, India, and western China, following the tiniest of threads and ending up at fire temples carved into mountainsides a day’s hike from the nearest road. Equally fascinating is the evidence Kriwaczik found suggesting that Zoroastrian practices and beliefs are not at all dead, but are in fact woven into mainstream Islamic culture, especially in Iran, where this heritage not only survives but thrives. I envy Kriwaczik his first-hand experience but very much enjoyed the chance to read along, and if you don’t mind being bombarded with detail and creepy fire rituals and obscure symbolism (this subject matter would make a great Dan Brown-style novel, by the way), I recommend this book highly.