In this brief report I will present the following:

  1. That the priesthood, as an occupation and function, existed during and before Zarathushtra's time, in Iran.
  2. That priests were named and catagorized according to the various functions they performed.
  3. That, while there were functioning priests, there is some controversy whether the priesthood, in Zarathushtra's time, existed as a social class.
  4. That it is also uncertain whether the priesthood was hereditary.
  6. That the term 'zaotar' has been interpreted as either 'sacrificing priest' or 'invoker'. But regardless of the etymology of the word, both interpretations refer to functions performed by a 'priest'.
  7. That, only one scholar, the Rev. James Moulton, has opined that Zarathushtra did not belong to a priestly class, but he has not present any credible evidence to support his statement.


It is well known that very little information exists about Zarathushtra. In fact, we are not even sure about his date or place of birth; and various conflicting theories exist, with the most probable being that he was born between 1400 and 1100 BC, somewhere in Eastern Iran. The little information that we currently do possess on Zarathushtra comes to us mainly from the Avestan and Pahlavi literature, as well as from early Greek and Roman reports (see Jackson: 1928, for a detailed list of sources). Because the Avestan and Pahlavi literature were only put down in writing many centuries after Zarathushtra, some scholars tend to give little credence to the accuracy of these later reports. However, these same skeptics fail to recognize that Zoroastrianism has had remarkable success with its extraordinary ability to accurately transmit its religious texts orally over the millennia. Thus, an equally high degree of credibility must be given to the fact that the Younger Avestan and Pahlavi texts represent the earliest Zarathushtrian doctrines and traditions. Further, very few records exist about the society, the religion, the culture and the politics of Zarathushtra's period. As a result, much of the modern literature is replete with speculations and suppositions. Thus, because of this shortage of information and because of the conflicting speculative opinions, it is difficult to separate the facts from the fiction.

The only facts that we do possess from Zarathushtra's time come from the Gathas, the hymns that Zarathushtra himself composed. Since what we have left of them is so small, approximately 6,000 words comprising 17 chapters, and since they deal mainly with his doctrines, it is difficult to extrapolate from them to develop a complete personal profile of the prophet, much less to determine the social, cultural and religious environment that existed during his time. One egregious error, made especially by those who have not lived or understood the Zarthushti tradition, is to assume that if something is not mentioned in the Gathas it could not have existed or happened in Gathic times; and they, thus, doubt the credibility of the contents of the Younger Avesta and Pahlavi texts. This grave error has been perpetuated especially by non-Zarathushtrians, who have wittingly or unwittingly imported their Islamic, Christian or Hindu biases and prejudices into Zoroastrianism. This is especially reprehensible when these prejudices are then used to subvert the Zarathushtrian religion and its traditions.

The Gathas were never intended to be a chronicle of the social, cultural, political or even religious events of the time. They are the fervent hymns of an enlightened soul, seeking to point out the way for individuals, and mankind as a whole, to reject, overcome and destroy the evil that exists in this world. It is then amazing how these same hymns have been misconstrued by some to justify their own perverted theories of Zoroastrianism. One tactic that is used by such people is to deny the existence of any thing that is not specifically mentioned in the Gathas, and to condemn all the later Avestan material as a fraud perpetrated by the Magian priesthood bent on resurrecting their pre-Zarathushtrian religious traditions and doctrines.

To look at the Gathas in isolation from the rest of the history and tradition, is to take ONE LEAF from a forest and use it exclusively to make a definitive determination of all the rich and varied vegetation that exists in the entire forest --an impossible task under any circumstance. Unfortunately, these gross errors still continue to be perpetuated today; and yet even more unfortunate, many well intentioned Zarathushtis are being attracted by this flawed methodology, with such catchy phrases as: "pristine purity", and "return to the Gathas".

However, we are fortunate that we do have access to some additional sources of information, which while they are not from Iranian sources of Zarathushtra's period, are from a kindred people of that time, who shared much in common with the Iranians. By using this additional information as a guide, we can start to develop a clearer idea of what all constitutes the "forest". These kindred people are the Indo-Aryans, who migrated from the steppes of Central Asia to the plains of India, and who followed the Vedic religion. Fortunately, their literature was better preserved because it was not subject to the cycles of destruction that the Iranian literature suffered.

Around 3000 BC, the Indo-Iranians, a branch of the Indo-European family of peoples, started migrating southwards from the steppes of Central Asia. By 2000 BC, the Indo-Iranians themselves had separated into two branches, the Indo-Aryans who migrated South-eastwards and settled in the Northwest of India; and the Iranians who migrated South-westwards and settled on the Iranian plateau (Boyce: 1987, p. 513). Before their separation the two groups of people shared a common culture, language and religion. After their separation, and based on the circumstances in their new homelands, the cultural and religious ideas of each group developed separately. Yet, some aspects of commonality continued to exist for centuries after their separation.

These migrations and separation of peoples did not take place suddenly. Rather they continued in waves, over decades and centuries. Even after the separation into the two societies, the Iranians and the Indo-Aryans, in many parts of Central Asia the two peoples lived together speaking slightly different languages and following different religious practices. In order to clarify the distinctions between the various groups, the following definitions will be used:

  • Indo-Iranians: The joint family of people before they separated into Iranians and Indo-Aryans.
  • Indo-Aryans: The sub-group of Indo-Iranians who split from the Iranians and migrated South-eastwards to eventually settle in the plains of Northern India. These people are called Indo-Aryans, rather than Indians, to distinguish them from the native peoples who were already settled in that part of India, and who were then pushed further South due to this migration of Indo-Aryans from the North.
  • Proto-Indoaryans: These were the people of Indo-Aryan stock, who had already separated from the Iranians but, who either settled and remained behind in Iran and Central Asia, or who had followed in later migratory groups which did not make it all the way to India (see Burrows: 1973). Note that Burrows (ibid.: p. 125) also classifies the "Aryans" who migrated Westward and who were found in the Near Eastern kingdom of Mittani, as proto-Indoaryans.
  • Iranians: The sub-group of Indo-Iranians who split from the Indo-Aryans and migrated South-westward and settled in Eastern and North-central Iran.


    Let us start by looking at the Indo-Iranian period. In 1930, Dumezil proposed that the Indo-European society was divided into three classes, and further that since this tripartite division was a characteristic of the Indo-Europeans, the daughter families, and very specifically the Indo-Iranians, were also subject to the same tripartite division: (1) priests (Av. zaotar, Skt. hotar), (2) warriors (Av. rathaeshtar, Skt. kshatriya), and (3) herdsmen (Av. vaastryo.fsuyant, Skt. vaisya). (See Frye: 1993, p. 21 for an elaboration of Dumezil's theory; see also Lincoln: 1981, p. 134; Duchesne-Guillemin: 1973, p. 122). However, this theory has been fairly controversial, with ardent supporters on both sides of the issue. Geiger, (1886, p. 64), in fact had, nearly half a century earlier, stated that the Gathic society of Zarathushtra's time was divided between (1) priests and (2) herdsmen, with the herdsmen ready at all times to pick up arms and fight to defend their possessions. Boyce (1987: p. 523; 1989b) too, endorses this bipartite division of Gathic society. Regardless of whether there existed a bipartite or tripartite division, from a historical point of view, it is fairly incontrovertible that a priesthood existed among the Indo-Iranians, as well as within its daughter groups, the Iranians and the Indo-Aryans. By the time of the Younger Avestan period however, there is no doubt that a clear tripartite division of society had been established in Iran.

    It is apparent that the establishment of each class (or specialization) would be dependent on the speed with which the society developed. Thus, the most primitive societies would have been classless, with different classes gradually emerging depending on the growth and social and economic development within that society. However, even in most primitive societies there was a general awareness of supernatural powers and spirituality, and a group of people would have come to the fore to minister to the needs of the population. This would have led to the priests becoming the first functional subdivision.

    We are well aware that the Indo-Iranians were a deeply religious people. They were very conscious of a spirituality that existed all around them, and they accordingly prayed and sacrificed to various gods. That many of the gods were common to the Indo-Aryans and the Iranians is an indication that they had a common origin from Indo-Iranian times. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that priests, as a functional group, must have existed to tend to the religious needs of these peoples. Specifically the sacrificial ceremony (Av. 'yasna', Skt. 'yajna') would by necessity have to have been officiated over by trained priests, who were skilled in the correct formulations to be recited and in the correct procedures for executing the rituals. This fact is corroborated by Herodotus (i, 132) when he states that: "It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present." Even though Herodotus is reporting on a much latter period of Iranian history, there is no doubt that this practice was in place in Gathic and pre-Gathic times, because it corresponds very closely to the practices of the Indo-Aryans, and hence, must have had a common Indo-Iranian origin. (For an in-depth comparison of the Indo-Aryan and Iranian religious practices see Hodiwala, 1924).

    There is additional information that definitely confirms the existence of a priesthood. This information comes from the Gathas themselves. The Gathas give us four terms: (1) zaotar, (2) ma(n)thran, (3) usig, and (4) karapan. Each of these is a term used for a priest, although of differing race and function.

    Zaotar was the chief or officiating priest, and was used by Zarathushtra to describe himself (the term itself has been translated as 'invoker' or as 'sacrificial priest', but we will deal with this later when we discuss Zarathushtra), and exactly corresponds to the Skt. 'hotar', who was also the chief or officiating priest in Vedic times.

    Ma(n)thra has been defined as "formulated meditation, the utterance which was the 'instrument of thought'" (Boyce: 1989a, p. 8). Boyce goes on to state: "The mathra accompanied rituals; and of old an INSPIRED PRIEST would compose such utterances. ... Zoroaster repeatedly uses an Iranian equivalent, 'mathran', of himself. In general, it seems, PRIESTLY utterances were regarded as inspired in the strictest sense, being revealed or revealing themselves, for such inspiration was held to come either from a deity or from a faculty within the priest himself" (ibid.) (Emphasis added.)

    The Avestan term 'usig' has an exact correspondence to Skt. 'usij'. While 'usig' appears once in the Gathas (Y. 44.20), 'usij' appears approximately 30 time in the RigVeda. The 'usij-s' are the priests who aid the warriors in their bid to raid cattle (Lincoln: 1981, p. 61). And it was for this reason that they are condemned by Zarathushtra in the Gathas -- "...the karapan and the usig take hold of the cow for wrathful treatment..." (Humbach and Ichaporia: 1994: Y. 44.20). Burrows (1973: p. 131) finds 'usij' to be a proto-Indoaryan term for a certain class of priest. Burrows further argues that the proto-Indoaryan warriors (mairya-s) were the cattle rustlers who preyed on the peaceful, pastoralist Iranians and wrought so much destruction and evil; and it was the 'mairya-s' (the proto-Indoaryan warriors) along with their priests, the 'usij-s' and the 'karapan-s', who were the 'daeva' worshippers. The three principal 'daeva-s': Indra, Nanghaithya, and Saurva; were Indo-Aryan or proto-Indoaryan gods (Burrows: 1973, p. 128), and it was these 'daeva-s' (along with the proto-Indoaryan priests and warriors) who Zarathushtra condemned.

    The term 'karapan' can be derived from the Skt. 'kalpa-' (rite), or from the Avestan 'karp-' (to mumble), (Burrows: 1973, p. 132). In the former sense it would be associated with a proto-Indoaryan priestly function. In the latter, it was used derogatorily to describe these same priests, who in Zarathushtra's opinion, were to be condemned, since they too were 'daeva' worshippers.

    Thus, it is clear that Zarathushtra's wrath was exclusively aimed at the proto-Indoaryans, the cattle-raiders, and THEIR PRIESTS (the 'usig-s' and 'karapan-s'), whom he labeled the 'daeva' (false gods) worshippers. THERE IS NOT EVEN THE SLIGHTEST HINT IN THE GATHAS, THE YOUNGER AVESTAN OR PAHLAVI LITERATURE THAT ZARATHUSHTRA EVER CONDEMNED THE IRANIAN PRIESTHOOD. This distinction is extremely important.

    The Indo-Iranians had a tradition of religious practices. Along with the rituals which the priests learned, they also had to memorize many sacred words or prayers, both of which they faithfully taught to the next generation. Boyce (1989a: p. 8) has identified three types of religious utterances: (1) the 'manthra' (see above), represented in Iran by the 'Ashem Vohu' and 'Yatha Ahu Vairyo'; (2) the 'songs of praise', which were intended to please the gods in order to show the worshippers favors. In Iran, such hymns are represented by the 'Yashts'; and (3) 'religious poetry', represented by in Iran by the 'Gathas', and composed by 'zaotar-s' who had undergone intensive training in order to master the complex intricacies of composing this type of verse.

    Now that we have established that there is a preponderance of evidence that a priesthood did exist in Gathic times, let us examine how the priesthood was organized. Despite Dumezil's theory of a tripartite classification of Iranian society, there is some reason to believe that a formal class structure did not exist in Gathic times. That is, although priests who performed all the various religious functions existed, alongside the warriors and herdsmen, the three groups were not yet organized into formal class structures. Since the formal organization into the classes took place gradually over time, it becomes imperative to know exactly when Zarathushtra lived in order to make the determination of whether the priesthood, as a formal class, existed in his time. But, this may have to remain unresolved until the uncertainty of Zarathushtra's date of birth itself can be resolved.

    There is also a question as to whether, in Gathic times, the priesthood was hereditary. It is probable that a hereditary priesthood would have developed at the same time as the formalization of the class structure. However, we must keep in mind that even in pre-Gathic times, most sons would have tended to follow their father's profession. Thus, although the priesthood might not have been hereditary, most of the priests would have made every effort to teach the necessary prayers and rituals to their sons, in order to pass their knowledge on to the next generation, and preserve the continuity of their religious beliefs.

    In the Younger Avesta, 8 different priestly functions are outlined: (Nirangastan: Book II, Chpt. XXVII)

    1. Zaotar -- the leading priest
    2. Haavanaan -- the priest who prepares the haoma
    3. Aatarvakhsh -- the priest who kindles the sacred flame
    4. Frabortaar -- the priest who presents things at the offering
    5. Aasntaar -- the priest who washes the haoma
    6. Rathwishkar -- the priest who mixes the haoma with the fresh milk
    7. Aaberet -- the priest who bears the water
    8. Sraoshaavarz -- the priest who has to superintend.

    It is quite clear that, certainly in later Avestan times, the priesthood was divided functionally according to the various tasks each priest performed. It is also interesting to note that the terms used are functional descriptions and indicate that there was a degree of specialization amongst the priesthood. In Gathic times, while there may not have been the same number of functions, there is every reason to believe that this same functionality also existed. In fact, Gnoli (1980: p.156) differentiates between the term 'zaotar' being used to define an entire class, as opposed to one that merely defines a function.

    As stated above, there were ritual priests, as well as priests who composed religious utterances. Certainly the skill to compose hymns and prayers would depend on the intellectual skill of the individual, and thus all initiates for the priesthood would not undergo the same degree and detail of religious training. Whether a priest was trained in all areas or even more than one area is not certain.

    We can conclude this section by stating that there is strong evidence to show that the priesthood existed in Gathic times. Further, whether the priesthood existed as a separate "class", and whether it was hereditary, is open to debate. But, what is certain is that priests, as differing "functional" groups, did exist, with different names being assigned to each of the different functions.


    We may now examine the next issue: Was Zarathushtra himself a priest?

    The information that we do possess shows, with a high degree of certainty, that he was. However, there is a contra position, and we will examine that as well.

    First: In his own words, Zarathushtra calls himself a 'zaotar' (Yasna 33.6).

    Let us examine the term 'zaotar'. This term has been variously interpreted by the translators of the Gathas as either '(sacrificial) priest' or 'invoker'.

    Gershevitch (1959: p. 272) states: "The word for 'priest', 'zaotar-', Batholomae stated in Wb.1653, goes back to Indo-Iranian times (cf. Ved. 'hotr'), when two meanings coalesced in *zhautar-: (1) 'he who performs libation' (Ved. 'juhoti' to pour), and (2) 'he who calls the gods' (Ved. 'havate' to call)."

    A further explanation of the term 'zaota' can be obtained from Geldner (1925: p. 278):

    "While Justi and Darmesteter derive the word 'Zaota' from the root 'Zu' (to call), Modi (1922: p. 78) supports the derivation from 'zu' = Skt. 'hu, juhoti'; and herein he is, of course, right. But Modi says on p. 202, that 'Zaota' literally means "the performer of ceremonies or the offerer of offerings," only the second meaning is etymologically correct. 'Zaota' is FROM THE VERY BEGINNING THE SACRIFICING PRIEST, in whose activity comes everything, that had developed in course of time around the proper sacrificial offering." (Emphasis added.)

    Geldner goes on to add: "The custom of offering the sacrifice in the sacrificial fire may have been prevalent also in Iran before Zarathushtra."

    Now in Vedic times, Geldner states (ibid. p. 277), "The 'Hota' was the chief priest, who had to care for the recitation during the sacrifice and for the hymn ...". Note that Skt. 'Hota' is equivalent to Av. 'Zaota'.

    Boyce (1989a: p. 5) defines "'zaotar' (priest), (as) either 'he who makes offerings' or 'he who invokes'."

    From the above we may conclude that there are two possible meanings for 'zaotar': (1) invoker, one who calls, or (2) the sacrificial priest; and that at some time during the Indo-Iranian period these two meanings coalesced (Boyce, 1989a: p. 6, n.15).

    What is patently clear, however, is that regardless of whether, etymologically, the term 'zaotar' is ascribed to the function of 'invoking' or to the function of 'sacrificing', it refers to the individual who conducts one or more functions during religious ceremonies; and the common definition for such an individual is 'PRIEST'.

    Again, while philologists may wish to argue the derivation and exact meaning of the term, for most lay persons, it surfices to understand the term 'zaotar' simply as 'PRIEST'.

    It should also be emphasized that in all the translations of the Gathas where the term 'zaotar' has been translated as 'invoker', none of these authors has specifically stated that the term does not mean 'priest'. Rather, they too have differentiated between a priest who is an 'invoker' as opposed to a priest who 'sacrifices' (Taraporewalla, 1991, p. 323). Thus, it is presumptuous and erroneous on the part of those who deny Zarathushtra's priesthood, to use this line of argument.

    Second: In order to have been able to develop the skills to compose the Gathic poetry, it would have been necessary for Zarathushtra to have been schooled in the art of such composition. These skills would have been limited not only to those who were being trained for the priesthood, but in addition, to only the brightest of those priestly students who showed a exceptional gift of knowledge. It is doubtful that a humble herdsman, uneducated and untrained in the art of poetic composition, would have been able to compose such a profound work.

    On this issue Boyce (1989a: p.9) writes:

    "...there is the poetry represented in Iran solely by the Gathas composed by the 'zaotar', Zoroaster, and in India by the "wisdom" poetry of the 'hotar', with characteristic eleven-syllable verses. This 'zaotar/hotar' poetry, with its predominantly instructive content, is extremely elaborate, the product evidently of a long and learned tradition; and it was intended plainly for the ears of those familiar with that tradition, who would be capable of understanding its highly artificial constructions and elucidating its meanings, despite a "marked inclination to enigmatical obscurity". Those priests who composed this kind of verse must have devoted years of concentrated study to mastering its techniques and modes of expression; and it seems probable, to judge from the intellectual content of this type of literature, that the 'zaotar/hotar' schools of poetry were maintained by the thinkers among the priests."

    Gnoli (1980: p. 228) adds that, "Zarathushtra was a 'zaotar', a priest who was versed in the traditional training, as can be seen from the language and structure of the Gathas". And further, (ibid. p. 189), "Moreover we must not forget that Zarathushtra was a 'zaotar-', a qualification that was not gained without going through a complex, traditional training."

    Here again, we may safely conclude that the author of the Gathas must have, in his early childhood, received a strict education, and that on his showing an exceptional talent, he received even further training in the art of composing "wisdom" poetry. Such education and training would clearly have been reserved only for priestly initiates.

    Thus, Zarathushtra, not only receive formal training as a priest, but his very admission in his Gathas, that he was a 'zaotar', indicates that he was a practicing priest as well.

    Despite the evidence above, there has been one scholar who has taken a contrary position and stated that Zarathushtra was not a priest. The Rev. James Hope Moulton, (1913, p. 117) states: "Now we can hardly understand the Gathas on the assumption that Zarathushtra himself belonged to a separate and high priestly caste. His enthusiasm for husbandry would make us put him with the lowest of the three (priest, noble, herdsman), if we were free to choose." (Parenthetical statement added).

    However, earlier (ibid. p. 116) Moulton, himself states that, "There is one passage in the Gathas where the preacher does call himself by the old Aryan name 'zaotar' (Skt. 'hotar'), "priest"."

    Thus, while Moulton, on the one hand, admits that Zarathushtra was a 'priest', he later contradicts this. His explanation that Zarathushtra's "enthusiasm for husbandry" would be the basis for placing him in the third category (herdsman), is based on a weak foundation. Zarathushtra, as a practicing priest would have primarily ministered to a congregation of herdsmen, and if their main concern was the welfare of their herds then, clearly, this issue would have become most crucial to Zarathushtra as well.

    Zarathushtra also used the example of cruelty to animals as a metaphor for developing his doctrine of good and evil. And, it was by explaining his doctrine in these pastoral terms that he was able to communicate his message to the vast numbers of his followers, who were primarily herdsmen. Thus, Zarathushtra's "enthusiasm for husbandry" has little to do with which "class" he belonged to, but rather, was a tool for communicating his new doctrines to his congregation of pastoral people.

    More important, Moulton clearly fails to give any explanation for why Zarathushtra would describe himself as a 'zaotar', or 'priest', if he had in fact belonged to the "herdsman" class. Without such an explanation, we must conclude that Moulton's inference was mere fanciful speculation.

    Moulton (ibid.) also uses the arguement that since the term 'aathravan' (Fire-priest) is not used in the Gathas, that Zarathushtra could not have belonged to the sacerdotal class. This, too, is an extreme statement. We know that the extant Gathas are but a mere fragment of all of Zarathushtra's teachings, and the absence of a word from them does not prove a thing. To use an analogy, if all the information and literature in the United States were destroyed except for the U.S. Constitution; a millennia from now, would it be correct for people to say that no priests existed in the United States, at the time of independence, because the word "PRIEST" does not appear in the Constitution?

    We certainly know that Av. 'aathravan' is equivalent to Skt. 'atharvan'. Thus the term had a common Indo-Iranian origin, and must have existed even in pre-Gathic times. There is, thus, no reason to deny that 'aathravan-s' existed in Zarathushtra's time. And further, not much weight should be given to its absence from the texts.


    It is very clear that the priests, as a functioning group of people, existed in Gathic times It is also very clear, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Zarathushtra was a priest, a 'zaotar'. Regardless of whether the etymology of the word is "sacrificial priest" or "invoker", both terms refer to functions carried out by practicing PRIESTS.

    Even Moulton, before he denies it, first admits that Zarathushtra's own words indicate that he was a priest. He, however, presents no credible evidence for his denial of Zarathushtra's priesthood.

    Other responses which deny Zarathushtra's priesthood must be treated with skepticism and questioned for their malintent.

    There are many more references and articles on this topic. In an attempt to keep this review short, they have not been used or quoted. Interested readers are requested to email me at , if they have specific questions, or need additional information.


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