Zoroastrianism was mentioned in John McCain’s interview last week on the ABC morning television show The View. (It happens at 2:10 in the YouTube clip above.) Trying to get McCain to talk about the implications of his choice of Sarah Palin to be running mate, Whoopi Goldberg asks McCain whether he believes in the separation of church and state:

Yes, we have Christian-Judeo beliefs, but we also have Muslims in this country, we have Zoroastrians in this country, we have wiccans in this country . . . [scattered applause]

The camera then turns to McCain, who’s looking into the audience and pointing and then says, “Zoroastrian . . . yes . . . thank you . . . good to see you.” Clearly, someone was standing up in the audience and identifying himself or herself as a Zoroastrian — if you happen to read this and it was you, let me know who you are! But I think Joy Behar may have beenĀ  mistaken when she said, “That’s one vote.” I suspect rather that the Zoroastrian in the audience was so flabbergasted to hear the religion mentioned in the same breath with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that he or she had to stand up and be counted.

Zoroastrianism, you see, is a dying religion: a survey conducted in 2004 by the Fezana Journal, published quarterly by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America estimated the number of Zoroastrians worldwide to be fewer than 190,000 and perhaps as few as 124,000. Zoroastrianism can only be passed down patrilineally, and it doesn’t accept converts. And, apparently, more and more young Zoroastrian women are marrying outside the faith.

The applause by the audience at The View suggested not only the audience-members agreed with the point that Goldberg was trying to make, but also that they were far more familiar with “wiccans” than “Zoroastrians.” Most of them, I am sure, would not know that Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, that it predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that it influenced all of them and the ancient Greeks as well. The religion evolved from the pagan fire-worship that Zarathushtra encountered throughout Persia, and in Moby-Dick, Ishmael refers to Persia as “the home of the fire-worshippers.”

My students in Con West are going to know this. They’ve been reading Paul Kriwaczek’s In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to Find the World’s First Prophet (2003), a journalistic account of the influence of Zarathushtra that moves backward in time. (Kriwaczek adopts Nietzsche’s spelling of “Zarathushtra,” dropping the second “h.”) They’ve also read some excerpts from scholarly studies by Mary Boyce (Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices) and S. A. Nigosian (The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research).

One of the things I’m planning to stress this year more than last is the cosmopolitan nature of Zoroastrianism as practiced by Cyrus the Great and Darius I. The Persian Empire (which at its height rivalled ancient Rome and the Chinese Han dynasty) encompassed not only Persians and Medes, but also Babylonians, Bactrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and Scythians. The Old Testament Book of Ezra relates that it was Cyrus who ordered the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and who ended the Jews’ Babylonian captivity.

This year I will show a picture of the famous “Cyrus Cylinder,” which was placed in the walls of Babylon in 539 BCE and discovered there in 1879.


The Cyrus Cylinder, ca. 539 BCE (British Museum)

Now housed in the British Museum, the Cylinder bears inscriptions written in Babylonian that promise a just and peaceful rule by the Persians. The text relates that Cyrus has promised to restore the gods of Babylon, especially Marduk, the patron god of the city, who had been rejected by the previous king, Nabonidus. The Cylinder claims that Cyrus has restored temples in neighboring countries and has allowed the return of their exiled peoples and and their gods.

As a further emblem of the Persian’s propensity for toleration, I’ll be using the story that Kriwacwzek relates from Herodotus about how Cyrus came to power by overthrowing his grandfather Astyages, the king of the Medes. After dreaming that his daughter’s loins would produce a vine that would overshadow all of Asia, Astyages was told by his soothsayers that his daughter’s son one one day rule in his place. So he ordered his nobleman Hapargus to murder the boy, but Hapargus could not bring himself to do it, instead leaving the boy with a poor herdsman. Cyrus eventually came to the king’s notice, and when the story of his childhood was revealed, Astyages exacted revenge on Hapargus by killing Hapargus’s thirteen-year-old son and serving the boy to his father at dinner. When Hapargus discovered what Astyages had done, he chose not to seek immediate revenge but to bide his time. Eventually, he helped Cyrus to the throne. Cyrus, however, chose not to kill Asytages: instead, he let the old man remain in court for the rest of his life (where, I suppose, Cyrus could keep an eye on him). According to Herodotus, Cyrus showed similar restraint toward other conquered rulers.

In Cyrus’s day, Zoroastrians were far more cosmopolitan those around them. Today, that cosmopolitanism seems likely to ensure the demise of the faith. In article called “Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling” (September 6, 2006), the New York Times wrote that “Zoroastrians’ mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures.”

Kriwacwzek’s book, however, suggests that the influence of Zoroastrianism remains strong throughout the Western religious tradition. One Islamist politician from Tajikistan tells Kriwaczek:

[The] faith lives on into the present. Zoroastrianism is the ideology of the future. Do you know what Zoroastrians believe? That the world is a battleground between good and evil and it is the duty of eveyrone to foster good and fight evil. Zoroastrianism failed in the end because it came to early in history. It is an idea for now. . . .

The world has become a very small place. For the first time we really can speak of a world community. To secure our future we must find a humanist philosophy. And Islam, supported by the message of Zoroaster, offers that philosophy.

Tomorrow’s playlist comes from songs that I used last year: the opening of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (of course), Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Play with Fire.”