The Origins of Christianity, part 17
by Revilo P. Oliver
LATER ZOROASTRIANISM (APPENDIX 2)
SINCE one of the later Zoroastrian sects exerted a great influence on early Christianity, some mention of it in these pages seems called for.
A first-rate theologian always wants to rise and shine by devising some novel twist or application of doctrine, and it is safe to assume that in the time of the Persian Empire, many an ambitious Magus tried to make himself prominent. But we do not know what checks there were on heresy. We do not know how the Magi were organized, by what discipline they maintained a reasonable uniformity of dogma, or whether they could make the usual appeal to the “secular arm” in cases of contumacy. In the history of all religions, a heresy is a doctrine disapproved by theologians who are “orthodox” because they have the power to enforce their opinions, especially when their orthodoxy is guaranteed by the police and hangmen. When those indispensable guardians of the True Faith are lacking or ineffectual, the usual result is a schism and an enormous waste of ink and papyrus or paper. But it would be temerarious to guess either that religion evolved normally in the Persian Empire or that it did not.
There is some evidence that the religion’s centre of gravity shifted to Babylon at some time after the Persian conquest. In that large and opulent city the Magi would have come into contact with Semitic superstitions, especially the cult of the god Marduk, and it is only reasonable to assume that they urged or applauded the action of Xerxes when he desecrated the god’s temple and confiscated his huge effigy, reportedly of solid gold. They came into contact (assuming that there was no earlier relation) with the city’s large and wealthy colony of crafty Jews, but we do not know in what ways the Jews tried to exploit them. The Zoroastrian holy men in Babylon also found themselves in the very capital of one of the world’s oldest and most lucrative superstitions, astrology. It was, furthermore, a superstition which at that time, and indeed for many centuries thereafter, could plausibly claim to be a scientific observation of the real world.(1)
The premises of Zoroaster’s religion, and indeed of most religions, should exclude astrology, but it is a poor theologian who cannot make his Scriptures say whatever he deems expedient. It would be interesting to know to what extent astrology penetrated the doctrines of the presumably orthodox priests in the Persian Empire, but all that we know is that the Chaldaean astromancy was taken up by the Magi who were operating in the Greek cities along the Mediterranean and who, if we conjectured rightly above, gave their Saviour’s name the form in which it is now familiar.
The preaching of Zoroaster’s gospel to all the world was interrupted by one of the climacteric events of history, the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great and the consequent Greek colonization of Asia from the Mediterranean to the borders of China and from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges. From its status as the official religion of a mighty empire, Zoroastrianism suddenly fell to the abject position of being only the faith of conquered peoples, discredited by the crushing defeat of its pious monarchs, and abandoned by a large part of its former adherents because they had lost faith in an impotent god, or because they recognized the cultural superiority attested by the conquerors’ military superiority, or because they saw the advantages of joining the victors, or even because they had adhered to Zoroastrianism only because it was fashionable. To the Magi, it must have seemed as though the end of the world had come, and we may be certain that they then began to devise the theology that explained the catastrophe as the result of some bargain between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu whereby the latter was granted a stipulated period of dominion.(2)
Zoroastrianism was eclipsed, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it went underground. There was, of course, no persecution, no opposition to it, no official disapproval of it by the Greeks, who were too intelligent and civilized to be susceptible to the fanaticism and pious delirium excited by “universal” religions. What happened was that the better part of the population spontaneously recognized the superiority of Greek civilization and adopted it, including its incomparable language, its elegant culture, and the Aryan attitude toward religion. It must not be forgotten that the dominant part of the population of the Persian Empire was composed of Persians, Medes, and other Aryans, the racial kin of the victors and therefore sharing their basic racial instincts.(3) I can imagine that many a cultivated Persian had only to become acquainted with Greek literature and philosophy to free himself from the hariolations of a “revealed” religion and to enjoy kicking the Salvation-peddlers from his door. As for the non-Aryan subjects of the former empire, they had new masters to conciliate and to exploit.
The Greeks built Greek cities throughout the lands Alexander had conquered, and Greek became the language of all persons who had any pretensions to culture. Aramaic, the Semitic langaage which had been the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, became largely the language of illiterates, spoken by the Semites among the ignorant peasantry of the countryside and the mongrel or alien proletariat that formed the most debased social stratum of the cities. Ahura Mazda, his name modernized to Horomasdes, lost his universal empire and became just a commoner in a supernatural world already crowded with a plethora of gods. His gospels could not be marketed in polite society: fanaticism had become uncouth. The Magi, who had been God’s terrestrial representatives and the authorized salesmen of eternal life and post mortem beatitude, were reduced to the status of the swindlers who pose as “evangelists” and “psychics” in our society. They had to adapt their sales-pitch to their customers, the ignorant and gullible, and their skill in tricks of prestidigitation, psychological impostures, and applied chemistry gave the word ‘magic’ to all modern languages.
During the period of Greek dominion, however, alien superstitions seeped upward from the multi-racial soil on which the Greek society was built in Asia, thus providing a confirmation of Günther’s hypothesis, which we mentioned above.(4) The Aryan’s lack of fanaticism makes him tolerant of alien superstitions, and it is supplemented by what we may call a geographical relativism in religion, which we commonly so take for granted in the modern world that we overlook it.(5) It does startle us, however, when we first encounter it in the ancient world, where it usually takes the form of a theocrasy that, at first sight, seems to us incredible. We, habituated to Christian dogma and its pretensions to know the “truth” about its triple deity, simply gasp when we first see Herodotus give to the Egyptians’ cow-headed Hathor the name of the Greeks’ gracious and beautiful Aphrodite. To us, who believe in neither, that seems a profanation; it did not to Herodotus, who identified them as aspects of a single numen in whose existence he was willing provisionally to believe. When we first read Iphigenia in Tauris, we wonder why Euripides’ fellow Athenians did not accuse him of the most outrageous blasphemy against Artemis when he portrayed that fair maiden as the barbarously sanguinary goddess of blood-thirsty barbarians. That puzzles us until we realize that a Greek was willing to regard an alien deity as the equivalent of the traditional Greek god from whom he or she least differed, and to believe that, if supernatural beings did exist, since they were by nature unknowable, the exotic gods might well represent the same religious concepts as adjusted to a radically different culture of radically different human beings in a remote part of the world.(6)
A striking and fresh verification of Günther’s hypothesis is provided by the current excavations at the site of a great Greek city at the confluence of the Oxus and the Kokoha in the northeastern corner of Afghanistan, three thousand miles from Greece.(7) The city is probably Eucratidia, one of the many cities founded by Greek colonists in the then fertile land of ancient Bactria. The Greeks, who, for several centuries, civilized that distant land, may have weakened themselves by miscegenation, although their rulers, as shown by the portraits on their coins, were handsome Aryans to the end. The Greeks of Bactria certainly weakened themselves by almost incessant wars against their fellow Greeks, the Seleucid Empire, from which they had declared independence, and the Greek kings of India, who were determined to remain independent of Bactria if they could not conquer it. The Greeks further weakened themselves by some civil wars in which, we may be sure, the lower races profited at the expense of their Greek masters. Thus the Greeks and civilization in Bactria eventually succumbed to hordes of barbarians who poured in from what is now part of China. The excavations show, however, that to the end the Greeks kept and cherished their elegant language and their incomparable literature; they maintained their distinctive institutions, such as gymnasia, so repugnant to Oriental vulgarity and prudery; they ingeniously adapted their architecture to the climate of a region in which stone suitable for building was rare; and, significantly, the only evidence of cultural miscegenation is in religion, the few divinities thus far found are all patently non-Greek, and thus far no inscriptions have been found to tell us what names they were given. The chances are that Greeks thought of them as local varieties of their own gods.
The Magi, in a world grown so evil that their incomes had dropped drastically, had to adapt their Glad Tidings to the market. They, no doubt, still had customers among the peasantry and the urban proletariats, both, alas, impoverished. Astromancy, which even good minds had to accept as possible, was, of course, a staple for which there was always a fair demand. But Zoroastrianism really survived in heresies that would have made Zoroaster speechless with horror. The Greeks would listen to no nonsense about a supreme god who had made devils out of all the amiable and companionable gods of the whole world, but they were quite willing to believe that Zeus was also Horomasdes in inner Asia. Why not? He was Amun in Egypt, and it was only reasonable that he would seem different to a different people.
1. In antiquity, the fallacies of most of the astrologers’ hocus-pocus were apparent to good minds long before Carneades and the Academics systematically demolished the hoax, but, as Cicero had to concede in the De divinatione (II.43.90), there was one argument for planetary influences on human life that could not be dismissed or refuted, so that candid and objective students, such as Diogenes of Seleucia (whom Cicero quotes ad loc.), had to concede to astrology a considerable element of probable truth. It has always been a matter of common observation that the children of one man by one woman, if not identical twins, always differ from one another, and often differ radically, not only in physical characteristics, such as features, stature, and figure, but also in temperament and mentality, although they receive the same nurture and the same education. The great differences between the offspring of one pair of parents, observed in circumstances that excluded all suspicion of adultery and even between the children of a brother and sister (as in Egypt or among the Magi) had to be explained by the operation of some variable factor, and before the genetic processes that ineluctably determine innate qualities were scientifically determined in our own time, the significant variables seemed to be the times of conception and birth, and hence astral influences, since observation would quickly exclude such factors as weather and the seasons. The alternatives were 1) unperceived causes, 2) metempsychosis, and 3) special creation of individuals by a god or gods who artistically avoided duplication in their handiwork. The first of these was simply a confession of irremediable ignorance and the third was fantastic, leaving, for all practical purposes, the second; and the hypothesis that there were invisible and impalpable souls that could accumulate in successive lives experiences they could not remember was, objectively considered, much less likely than the hypothesis that some influence from the planets, invisible as the influence of a magnet on iron is invisible, acted on the foetus in the womb from the very moment of conception. Thus the abilities and characters of men and women were to some extent, and perhaps almost entirely, determined by the planetary influences before and during birth; and character within certain limits does determine an individual’s fortunes. This opened the door for a claim by the soothsayers that the planetary influences which had determined character could throughout life exert at least some influence on the being they had formed. Before the modern science of genetics, there was a real problem, and we should not feel for all consideration of astrology in antiquity the contempt that we feel for the practice of it today, when it is simply a notorious imposture on the gullible and superstitious. It is not remarkable that the astrological racket has become so lucrative today: Minds that have been so sabotaged that they can believe in the equality of races can believe in anything.
2. The most generally accepted explanation was that at the very beginning of time Ahura Mazda established a preordained chronology and a series of epochs during which Angra Mainyu was to be dominant. The first era ended when God sent Zoroaster to restore righteousness, but the schedule called for a relapse into sin until, at the end of the next period, one of Zoroaster’s belated sons would be engendered by the miraculous process we described earlier. This notion reappears, of course, in the various Christian doctrines that Yahweh had allotted to Satan a certain period of prosperity, but the Christians do not commonly suppose a bargain between the two gods. In the common version of the Gospel of Thomas, that apostle encounters the snake that seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden and compels him to restore a dead man to life by sucking out the venom with which he killed him, and the snake, infected by its own deadly poison, swells up and bursts, but not before complaining that Thomas is destroying him before the end of his allotted time; similar complaints are made by devils whom Thomas coerces by what they regard as a “tyrannical” violation of their rights, but it is never explained who did the allotting of time. It would have been embarrassing to admit that the good god was directly responsible for the successes of the evil god and also embarrassing to admit that he was powerless to prevent them. That is the inescapable dilemma of all ditheisms.
3. It is extremely odd that even so diligent a scholar as Tarn should have overlooked this obvious fact and attributed to Alexander an itch for race-mixing and a universal brotherhood of mongrels. The plain fact is that Alexander encouraged intermarriage only between his followers and high-born Persians, who were of pure or relatively pure Aryan ancestry. Not being stupid, Alexander would have perceived that fact, if he did not already know it, from their features and bodily conformation; their language, furthermore, was Old Persian, which did not differ from Attic, Ionic, and Doric Greek very much more than did some of the epichoric and contaminated dialects of Greek that may be inspected in A. Thumb’s Handbuch der griechischen Dialekte, revised by Kieckers and Scherer (Heidelberg, 1932-59). What Alexander proposed was nothing more radical than marriage between Anglo-Saxons and Irish or between Germans and northern Italians. There is no evidence at all to support the entirely gratuitous assumption that Alexander would have favored racial miscegenation. Propaganda that he had done so was concocted in the centuries that immediately followed his death, probably by Jews. One audacious forgery was a purported letter from Aristotle to Alexander advising him to interchange the populations of Asia and Europe to produce a mongrelized One World; it is now extant only in an Arabic translation. See S.M. Stern, Aristotle on the World State (Oxford, Cassirer, 1968), in which you will also find copious references to the Jews’ exploitation of the hoax.
4. Supra, p. 45.
5. We usually read Chaucer’s greatest poem when we are young:
When that Aprile with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, . . .
Then longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
The pilgrims are taking a vacation to enjoy travel through the vernal countryside. But why do they go to Canterbury, “the holy blisful martir for to seke”? Isn’t Thomas à Becket up with Jesus in his paradise somewhere above the clouds? Or is he still in his tomb in the Cathedral? The pilgrims are glad of an opportunity to be out on the open road, and naturally refuse to worry about such nice points in theology. Many years ago, I visited the famous shrine at Guadalupe Hidalgo and chance permitted me to converse with a cultivated lady of Spanish ancestry who had come from Guadalajara, half-way across Mexico, to solicit a favor from the Virgin. She admitted that there were shrines of the Virgin in Guadalajara, and she agreed that the Virgin was the same Virgin everywhere, but she was nonetheless convinced that the Virgin at Guadalupe would do things that the Virgin wouldn’t do in Guadalajara. Our feeling for religious geography is stronger than the abstractions of dogma. Many men and women go to Lourdes and are healed of psychosomatic maladies by the strong emotions that are excited by their inner conviction that the Virgin will perform there miracles she is unwilling or unable to perform elsewhere, even though she must now be looking down on the Earth from an abode far above it. The Virgin at Lourdes is as efficient as was the goddess Sequana at her shrine, which was uncovered by archaeologists some years ago, but the polytheist who journeyed to Sequana’s temple nineteen centuries ago did so quite logically: She was a local goddess and, though invisible, resided where she was worshipped. You couldn’t expect her to leave home and come to you, so you naturally had to go to her. Her therapeutic powers were very great, no doubt, but all her powers were limited to the small area that belonged to her.
6. This intelligent attitude was, of course, favored by the diversity of their own gods which posed the questions that Cicero noted in the last book of the De natura deorum. There are, for example, five different stories about the parentage and birthplace of Minerva: Does this mean that there actually are five homonymous goddesses? If not, why not? A Christian theologian, accustomed to making Trinities, would have had no difficulty in making a Quintity out of Minerva, but he would have been laughed at. A polytheist would have reasonably asked the theologian how he knew and such impertinence always sends holy men into fits.
7. See the report in the Scientific American, CCXLVI #1 (January 1982), pp. 148-159.
To be continued
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