Nietzsche’s Zarathustra includes the notable “parable of the camel”, “Three metamorphoses of the spirit have I designated to you: how the spirit became a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.” The parable is itself an in-joke or a meta-semantic commentary, for “Zarathustra” in Avestan is taken to mean “owner of old camels” (there is some dispute about what it means, in fact—what is certain is that it refers to camels, the camel being sacred in the region). Hence the parable of the camel is appropriate for the prophet Zarathustra—the “prophet of camels”. There is no way that Nietzsche, as a master linguist, didn’t know that he undertook this linguistic parallel.
Zarathustra is a mysterious figure—nobody can agree when he lived, with time ranges anything up to 6,000 years before Christ. However, he is a significant figure and not least because details from his life seem to coincide with Christ—his story even includes a lion that laid down with a lamb and a period in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil; when he was born the ruling king launched a Herod-like campaign to kill all the just-born infants in the kingdom.
In addition, certain numbers line up with Zarathustra’s life and the life of Christ—40, 12, 7 (he died at “x years plus 40 days”). Now, many people have taken this to mean that Christ is just “modelled” on Zarathustra—it’s a spin on the JG Frazer Golden Bough thesis, people in the Middle East like to “make up” gods and holy men on the basis of a common theme, the “dying god” or “Zarathustra”. However, I take a different tack: I think that holy men are created, in part, because they adhere to certain numeric procedures—i.e. it is because they go into the wilderness for 40 days or gather 12 disciples about them that they become holy men. The themes recur not because people copy some ur-model, whether Zarathustra or Gilgamesh, but because there are certain things you just “have to do” to attain miracle powers.
Zarathustra’s teaching is somewhat obscure—just like his life—but he basically pioneered religion as we understand it. He took Aryan folk tales and formalised them to create religion as we know religion—i.e. there is a “good God” and he is in conflict with “the devil” and both sides are assisted by their helpers and minions; eventually, the good God will win; and, in particular, a saviour will return to bring about a final judgement (Zarathustra himself is often depicted with eyes upraised like Jesus). If you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew what I have just described pretty much *is* what religion is for you. Indeed, the Jewish cosmology comes from Zarathustra—when they lived in Iran under Cyrus they adopted this cosmology, with their own adjustments. “Paradise” in the Bible refers to the walled gardens in the desert created by the Aryan kings—the original “Gardens of Eden”; so the Jewish religion has an Aryan origin.
For Zarathustra, the “good God” is Ahura Mazda (who is asha—as in the mid-90s hit song “Brimful of Asha”, which could be taken to mean “brimful of goodness” since the Zoroastrian wishes to increase the amount of asha in the world; and, it should be added, Ahura Mazda is the source name for the Japanese car brand Mazda). Asha struggles against “druj” and its master Ahriman. If this all sounds a bit Lord of the Rings that’s because it is—the Indo-Aryan languages are related; so the Norse Aesir are related to these Zarathustrian entities, as are the Indian ashuras and devas (there is some confusion because for the Celts “devas” refer to good gods whereas in Hindi the devas are solely evil). Anyway, you see the basic picture.
Our role as humans is to align ourselves with asha—good deeds. We have been granted free will to do so, just as in the Christian tradition—it’s up to us to make the right choices and in the end we will be judged. The struggle between good and evil is co-equal in the sense that the Godhead is not always conceived as purely good, it splits itself to know itself—evil is necessary for creation but will eventually succumb to good and then the process will start again in an endless process of playful self-discovery (just like the yin-yang symbol).
Zarathustra is often listed as the first philosopher—even before Heraclitus, in fact he inspired Heraclitus (that’s how old he is). Now, Zarathustra is usually depicted with an astrolabe and that is because in Greek his name means “undiluted star”—and he talked to the stars; indeed, it is said the stars may have destroyed him because he tried to bind them.
Zoroastrians are the Magi from the Bible, the astrologers (the magicians)—the men who “followed a star” to Jesus. Regular readers of this site will know I have encountered star-like entities, often mistaken for UFOs, at Merlin’s traditional home Hartsfell and at the Minions stone circle. These are the same as the stars the Magi and Zarathustra saw. These star-entities are related to but not necessarily synonymous with actual stars—and can pop into existence at certain times (remember that the ancient Egyptians also orientated themselves around the Dog Star Sirius and the Greeks held that the heroes turned into stars in the heavens—and the Christians think that the faithful become angels, the angels being stars).
So Zarathustra was the first—or the earliest we know of—to contact these star entities and call for moral reform; presumably, given his Greek name, he turned into one himself. At one point, Zarathustra floated through the roof of a king’s hall with a flaming cube in his hand—and I can well believe, based on the things I’ve seen, that this happened. In short, the true philosophy (philo sophia—love of wisdom) is to understand and communicate with these star entities, to use your free will to increase asha in the world; and to do so not because a tyrant God commands it but because to do so is in accord with wisdom. Those who follow this path will acquire certain powers—the siddhis, in Hindu terms—such as the ability to walk on water and raise the dead.
Now, this doesn’t have much to do with Nietzsche because he didn’t think anything like this was possible—he was much more materialist than that. Yet Zarathustra is really at the root of religion as we understand it today, and what comes from the Bible is merely what the Jews learned of this Indo-Aryan tradition (Jesus worked in the same tradition as the Magi, hence they came to venerate him—they followed a supernatural star that led them to his birthplace, just as I’ve seen these star-entities move about at various sacred sites). Similarly, figures like Merlin and the Druids, great star-gazers, worked within the Zarathustrian tradition—and the Holy Grail is written in the stars, being an ancient Indo-Aryan symbol.
Mithras is also related to this religion, for he was included within Zarathustrianism—his red Phrygian cap was worn by the Zarathustrians; and they supped haoma, a sacred nectar, to commune with him. Late in the Roman Empire, the pagan religions centralised just as Christianity was centralised—so at the end there was a cult of Mithras and of Jesus, with Mithras also depicted as a “good shepherd”. In truth, both gods came from similar Zarathustrian traditions albeit with different emphasises on what was central to the religions and with Jesus given a more Semitic interpretation through St. Paul and company.
It would be too strong to say Zarathustra is the be all and end all of religion, but he certainly has shaped what religion is for us today (except we have forgotten the immortal stars—although some men, such as Dante, remembered very well). The roots are Indo-Aryan—the stars are the gods, the star-entities are the gods, and the heroes become stars upon their death. Freddy Mercury knew, being a Parsi (Zoroastrian), hence he named himself “Mercury”—he was Mercurial, Hermetic; he served the god Mercury. Zarathustrian priests tend eternal fires, eternal Heraclitean flames—and to the purifying fire we will return.