I am not as interested in Zarathustra the actual prehistoric man, if he ever existed, as much as I am interested in the name Zarathustra as a label for—or a personification of—the core ideas of Zoroastrianism.
For me, the essence of Zoroastrianism is the existentialist basis of cosmic dualism: the value-laden character of phenomena, or perception. As we’ve discussed here before, Plutarch considered this aspect of Zoroastrianism to be the essence of Zoroastrianism, though of course he did not discuss the idea in existentialist terms. Plutarch identified an essential correspondence between Zoroastrian cosmic dualism and the dialectic of Heraclitus. For Plutarch, all things contain a mixture of good and evil, hence existence is characteristically value-laden.
How might we imagine such an idea might be personified?
We have inherited a fairly rich body of Zoroastrian legend, archaeology, and philology from which we might assemble a myth that is both plausible and true to the meaning of Zoroastrianism.
We can certainly imagine Zoroaster as the legendary prophet who retreated to the mountains, but it seems untrue to the myth to see Zoroaster as a man who began as a prophet. What brought the man to the mountains before his epiphany—his revelation?
I’m inclined to envision the young Zoroaster as a man of some status. I do not dare suggest that a barefoot bronze age serf somehow pulled himself up by his bootlaces. Was he a priest? I think he would have had to have been, given the apparent stratification of ancient Iranian society, but the key is that we don’t necessarily need to envision him as a fully-employed priest. Perhaps he was a disillusioned son of a priest who found work as a herdsman. Perhaps seeing him as a merchant would work even better.
The marketplace is intimately tied to common views of morality that consider actions (AKA sacrifices) to be payments made toward some form of compensation, however postponed. The compensation might be delivered by a government, a god, or a force such as karma. There is a single rule at work, and Zarathushtra is no exception to it. The difference with Zarathushtra is that this celestial justice can be seen as serving a higher principle that is intrinsic and fundamental to our personal experience: the Good. The fact that Zoroastrianism makes the salvation of existence itself the priority reinforces this point. Other principles such as karma may imply the existence of a higher Good, but only Zoroastrianism can be seen as making the relationship explicit. When the Good is only implicit, it can be casually merged with notions of celestial power, which has the effect of reducing the Good to a partner—or worse, a servant—of Power.
The idea, where Zoroastrianism is concerned, is that an economy of moral commerce could be conceived. It would be imagined that this economy might trigger a “renewal of existence”. The challenge would be to motivate people to engage in this exchange of “goods.”
Perhaps this mythical moral capitalist—our prehistoric Adam Smith—might have first found work as a herdsman, and then found something to trade. That commodity could lead him to think about value and exchange. One commonly accepted translation of his name “yellow camel” may even hint that he may have been a traveling merchant. Alternatively, he could have partnered with a merchant. A partnership between a merchant and a priest could be the ideal birth of Zoroastrianism.