The more I try to set aside my pre-pubescent Jedi theology, the more it seems to follow me. This happened again recently when I picked up the book In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to find the world’s first prophet by Paul Kriwaczek, an Austrian dentist turned BBC journalist. Surprisingly going back into history would propel me out into space not once, but twice.
Here's what happened: Kriwacek starts his journey in the 1950s, describing his introduction to Zarathustra through Nietzsche’s book from the late 1800s entitled Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). If that name doesn’t sound familiar to you, one of its sentences might: “Gott ist tot” (God is Dead).
I had somehow escaped college without reading Nietzsche, so I best knew Thus Spoke Zarathustra for its cinematic notoriety. In 1896, composer Richard Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche’s book to write a musical piece of the same name. Then in 1968, director Stanley Kubrick snagged it to use in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know… bom… bom.. bom… DA DA… as the sun appears from behind the planet? Well, that’s part of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
So just who is this Zarathustra? ...
Let’s pull back from space and time a bit. Scholars can’t agree on exactly how far we should pull back, so we are left somewhere between 1500 and 500 BCE. Very pre-Nietzsche and pre-Strauss. Also, we need to spin Kubrick’s planet around to somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Iran.
There, Zarathustra (also known in English as “Zoroaster”) was raised spiritually from a young age as a priest. Just as many religious figures whose names are still known to us today—Jesus and Siddhartha come quickly to mind—Zarathustra experienced a revelation in his thirties. Another midlife “crisis” turned “creative”. Instead of heading off in the proverbial Corvette with a young blond, he took the more meaningful path, rejecting the oppressive class structure of his youth, animal sacrifice, and rituals he no longer could get behind. Not surprisingly, he spun off from his heritage to spread this new knowledge. Eventually some descendants of his followers would supposedly travel to provide presents to a baby over in Jerusalem. (Yeah, I just slipped that in on you. Keep reading, this will come in handy during some winter holiday cocktail party.)
Any philosophy or religion is impossible to explain in a paragraph, yet I’ll attempt to do so to begin to tie all this together. First off, Zoroastrianism is monotheistic—possibly the oldest monotheistic religion. The creator of all, Ahura Mazda (zoom zoom zoom), is the Supreme Being, the highest power. Even though there is only one God, the universe works on a basis of moral dualism. So, Zarathustra’s philosophy typically describes life as the relationship between two primal spirits, or Forces.
Sound familiar? A bit like Star Wars philosophy? Sort of. The first side, Spenta Mainyu, is like when Jedi’s embrace the “light side” of the Force. The opposite side, Angra Mainyu, is like the Sith embracing the “dark side”. Based on this premise, Zoroastrian teachings revolve around seeking out truth (asha) and staying away from the force of deception (druj). This is not exactly your God/Satan feud, this is an internal job. This is free will. This is personal responsibility.
Guided by The Gathas (or Holy Songs of Zarathustra) and Avesta (the holy book), Zarathustra’s followers worked towards the ultimate purpose of life: “be among those who renew the world... to make the world progress towards perfection". (Something Zoroastrians and modern Jewish “tikkun olam”-ers would agree on.) Six Amesha Spentas (divine sparks) that permeate all of creation guide followers as well. With these, Zoroastrians co-create with Ahura Mazda. (It’s more complicated than this, of course, but that’s the nutshell overview suitable for Jeopardy.)
Eventually, many of Zarathustra’s ideas would influence other religions as travelers met each other in trading towns in Persia and beyond. As communities morphed. As wars displaced peoples. Alexander the Great would wield his destruction and much would be lost. Somewhere along the way, some of Zarathustra’s ideas would be picked up by a group calling themselves the Magi (as noted in the Christian Gospel of Matthew) who went to visit a young Jesus. Others would continue more close in to the original faith.
Today, less than 200,000 Zoroastrians are left worldwide according to census numbers. However, the spirit of Zarathustra lives on in the marks it has left on our other world religions. Zarathustra continues to influence new generations in our secular world. Kubrick’s Space Odyssey has made way for Lucas’s narrative, as “unchurched” children try on dualistic heroic roles in their search for meaning and purpose.
I can almost see Yoda whispering the core Zoroastrian tenet “Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta” (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds) to a young Padawan while the sun appears over Dagobah.
Because thus spoke Zarathustra… in a galaxy far, far, away.
Read more from Sarah Bowen in Void if Detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality Through My Father's Old Sermons.