The Gathic form and its derivatives. The authentic form of Zoroaster’s name is that attested in his own songs, the Gathas, Old Av. Zaraθuštra- (Old Avestan [OAv.] and Young Avestan [YAv.] references are fully listed by Schlerath, 1971, pp. 134 f.), on which are based regular derivatives like zaraθuštri- “descending from Zoroaster” or zaraθuštrō.təma- “most Zoroastrian.” Although phonetically an irregular development (see below), the Av. form with its -θ- was linguistically an actual form, as is shown by later attestations reflecting the same basis: Man. Parth. zrhwšt (Zar(a)hušt, with -h- from *-θ-), Man. Sogd. zrwšc, ʾzrʾwšc, Mazdean Sogd. zr(ʾ)wšc (Z(a)rušč,) from which come also Man. Uighur zrwšc and Chinese suo-luo-ći̯e (cf. the references in Bailey, 1953, p. 40, n . 6). In contrast to these forms, however, the Persian ones, viz. Book Pahlavi and Mid. Pers. inscriptional zltw(h)št Zar(a)du(x)št (with -ušt from -uxšt, which is the regular outcome of *-uršt < OIr. *-uštra-) and NPers. Zartušt, -dušt, Zarātušt, -δušt (on which are based Syr. Zardušt, Z(a)rādušt, and Ar. Zarā/ăḏušt) as well as Man. Mid. Pers. zrdrwšt (Zar(a)društ likewise showing metathesis of an original *Zar(a)duršt) require an earlier form with internal -t-, *Zaratuštra-, the same that underlies Av. Zaraθuštra-. (The assumption of a despirantisation of -θ- to -t- for the Persian forms does not help.) The reflex of a form with either -θ- or -t- is present also in Aram. zrtštrš = *Zaraθ/tuštriš (proper name or common noun) on a 4th century seal (cf. Schmitt, 1997, pp. 922 f.).

Also quite close to the Avestan form are Skt. Jarathuśtra- (in Neriyosangh’s translation of the Avesta) and Byzantine Gk. Zarathroústēs (with metathesis only; in Cosmas of Jerusalem [8th cent.], who elsewhere has the variant Zōrothrystēs, which is reshaped after the Greek standard form Zōroástrēs). From the same basis comes (only with anticipation of r and dissimilatory shortening in *Zarathr° ) the form Zathrāstēs, the name of “an Aryan law-giver” in Diodorus 1.94.2 (cf. Schmitt, 1996, p. 94; Gnoli, 2000, p. 100). The significant formal changes and reinterpretations involved in the case of Gk. Zōroástrēs (and Zōróastris) and Arm. Zradašt, Zradešt will be discussed below, but shorter forms like Gk. Zarátās, Záratos, Zarádēs or Lat. Zaratus (see the index of Bidez–Cumont, 1938, p. 389b), possibly contractions of the prophet’s name, are not relevant to the study of the name Zaraθuštra-.

Etymology. Much has been said about the etymology of the Avestan and in general the Iranian forms of this name as well as about their attribution to certain dialects. The only point universally agreed upon is that the second element is Av. uštra- “camel” (it is found in other anthroponyms also). Since a first element ending in a dental, in this case something like *zarat-, should as a rule produce Av. *Zaraṱ.uštra- or (in continuous writing) *Zaraδuštra-, the irregular development demands some explanation. The phonological or morphological reconstructions thus far proposed to explain -θ- are all speculative. These include: an initial laryngeal in *Huštra- (Werba, 1982, p. 173), an original *ṷuštra- in the foreign word for “camel,” a basic form *Zarati-uštra- (with loss of *-i̯- in the sequence *-θi̯u-), and a postulated “OSogd.” *Zarat-huštra- (“with euphoric hu,” Gershevitch, 1995, 4a). It is more reasonable to regard the name as reflecting a dialectal origin of not genuine Avestan form, without discounting a purely phonetic explanation of -θ-, such as that proposed by Thieme, 1981, pp. 124 f., who reconstructs the form *Zaratruštra- by assuming the proleptic addition of an -r- and its subsequent dissimilation. But it is still unclear at what stage of the transmission of the Avestan texts the attested form came into being.

In general, OIr. *Zarat-uštra- is behind the various forms attested in the Iranian languages (a variant OIr. *Zara-uštra- is also postulated solely on the basis of Gk. Zōroástrēs). Several interpretations have been proposed for *zarat-, which is perhaps the zero-grade of *zarant-. One see it as *zarant- “old” (Ved. járant-; cf. Oss. zœrond), and explains it as “with old/decrepit [better: aging] camels.” A second interpretation starts from the verbal *zarat- “moving, driving” (cf. Av. zarš “to drag,” Bailey, 1953, pp. 36–42), and suggests “who is driving (i.e., can manage) camels” or “who is fostering/cherishing camels.” A third takes the verbal *zarat- “desiring, longing for” (cf. Ved. har “to like” and, despite its ambiguity, OAv. zara-), and give the meaning “who is longing for camels.” A fourth proposal sees *zarant- “angry, furious” as the base and interprets the name as “with angry/furious camels.” Finally, with the noun *zarant- “yellow” (parallel to YAv. zairi-; cf. Werba, 1982, pp. 184 f.), one has obtained the meaning “with yellow camels.”

The intensive debate of recent time (cf. Mayrhofer, 1977a, pp. 46–53; Mayrhofer, 1977b, pp. 105 f. no. 416; Mayrhofer, 1977c; Schlerath, 1977) has shown that even if the juxtaposition of OIr. *zarat- and *zara- is justified, it does not necessarily point to a verbal element *zara(t)-. Since no verbal root of such a form exists in Iranian, the only interpretation that can be “based on a word well attested, although not in Avestan” (Schmidt, 1980, p. 197), is the one mentioned in the first proposal, “with old camels.” Some of the alternatives, however, may be more plausible for semantic reasons (cf. Mayrhofer, 1977b, p. 106), particularly as “aging,” let alone “old,” may hardly be understood positively (see Mayrhofer, 1977c, p. 89 fn. 22). Thus, in the final analysis the problem remains far from settled. Also the view of Humbach (1991, pp. 8 and 10), that an allusion to Zoroaster’s name may be seen in the collocation of the rather obscure word zarəm in Y. 44.17b with the word uštrəm “camel” in Y. 44.18c (with the two separated by some 30 words), does not lead anywhere. Several more etymologies have been proposed, some quite fanciful, but none is scientifically based (for references see Mayrhofer, 1977a, pp. 44–53; Schmitt, 1996, p. 93, n. 37).

Greek Zōroástrēs. The relation of the Gk. standard form Zōroástrēs to Av. Zaraθuštra- (etc.) presents a distinct problem, since a regular rendering of this form would have produced something like Gk. *Zarathóstrēs. The form Zōroástrēs is first attested in Xanthus the Lydian (frag. 32 in Jacoby, Fragmente, IIIC, p. 758.8) and (Ps.-)Plato (Alcibiades Maior 122a1). This and its continuants (Lat. Zoroastres and the secondary Gk. formation Zōróastris, as in Plutarch and others) were often taken as important evidence, because they show no dental and differ in several respects from the Avestan form (for details see Schmitt, 1996, pp. 93–98). Nevertheless, the attempts (e.g., Markwart, 1930, pp. 24–26 and Werba, 1982, pp. 183 f.) to entirely separate Gk. Zōroástrēs from Av. Zaraθuštra- and derive it from a totally different original form, perhaps reshaped by the magi, have been unsuccessful.

The Greek form seems to have arisen from a reinterpretation based on Greek folk etymology, since -astr- certainly recalls Gk. ástra “the stars” and the initial zōro- the Gk. zōrós “pure, unmixed.” Such a double influence of folk etymology is not very likely, however, particularly insofar as the meaning and usage of zōrós are concerned. This is the reason why Gershevitch (1995, pp. 20 f.) and Schmitt (1996, pp. 96–98) dwelt on detailed phonetical explanations. Thus, Gershevitch envisaged a succession of phonetic developments, which led from OIr. *Zara-uštra- via Gk. *Zarṓstrēs through metathesis to *Zōrástrēs, merely assuming that at the last stage the common compositional vowel -o- was inserted into this trisyllabic form. Schmitt also started from an OIr. *Zara-uštra-. However, he assumed that it first produced Gk. *Zara-óstr(ēs) which changed through metathesis into an intermediate form *Zaro-ástr(ēs), which provoked the association with Gk. ástra (but was not caused by it), resulting through a subsequent formal remodeling after the theonym Ōromázēs (internally rhyming with it) in the attested form Zōroástrēs (furtherr evidence for the connections between these two names were also given).

Since the reconstructed OIr. form *Zara-uštra- is merely based on Gk. Zōroástrēs, it remains uncertain and unproven, even if it is in line with the common opinion. (The same holds true also for an alleged *Zara-huštra-, as postulated by Bartholomae, 1895–1901, p. 39, and Schlerat, 1977, pp. 133 f., because this cannot be a regular development of Zaraθuštra- at such an early date as that of the first attestations). But if accepted, one still has to justify the reconstruction of the OIr. form *Zara-uštra- and its relationship with *Zarat-uštra. There seem to be only two possibilities: either East Ir. *zarat- was substituted by Northwest Ir. *zara- (> NPers. zar) “old” (so Schlerath, 1977, pp. 129 f. ), or *zarat- was (morphologically?) adapted to *zara-, (in analogy to such compounds as Av. Dāraiiaṱ.raθa- vs. OPers. Dāraya-vauš).

Contrary to Herzfeld (1947, pp. 55 f.) and Gershevitch (1964, pp. 28b and 38ab), the form beginning with *zara- cannot be understood at all as a genuine OPers. dialectal form. And in the absence of definite proof that the adaptation of the type found in such OPers. compounds as Dāraya-vauš or Xšaya-ršan- is really a morphological process and not a phonological one (see Schlerath, 1977, pp. 127 ff.), it is not even clear whether the compound in question (*Zara(t)-uštra-) must be a verbal governing compound rather than a bahuvrīhi beginning with an adjective. As a result, the Greek rendering of the name is also without decisive value for etymologizing the ambiguous Iranian forms of it and does not help to limit the various possible solutions.

It was only from the reshaped Gk. form -ástrēs that the conception of an alleged astral cult of Zoroaster could arise, from which analogous explanations of the name were deduced, such as astrothytēs “star-worshipper” proposed by Dinon (frag. 5 in Jacoby, Fragmente, IIIC, p. 524.3). But those pseudo-scholarly interpretations are without any value.

Armenian evidence. The most important testimonies of Zoroaster’s name in classical Armenian sources, showing the form Zradašt (often with the variant Zradešt), are the following (cf. Hübschmann, Armenische Grammatik, pp. 41 f. no. 74): Eznik of Kołb (sect. 192), Ełišē (History, p. 162.15, in addition the adjective zradaštakan “Zoroastrian,” pp. 19.3; 143.18), and Mosēs Xorenacʿi (History 1.6, 17–18 pp. 23.15; 55.7; 56.1, 4 f., 14), by whom Zoroaster is introduced as a magus and a king of the Bactrians or Medes. The form Zradašt, which is the result of an older form with initial *zur-, was taken as evidence for a MPers. spoken form *Zur(a)dušt by Andreas (1910, p. 872), who even went so far as to draw conclusions from this also for the Avestan form. But the suspicion seems to be unavoidable, that the older form with initial *zur- was simply influenced by Arm. zur “wrong, unjust, idle” and therefore the name must have been reinterpreted in an anti-Zoroastrian sense by the Armenian Christians. Besides, it cannot be excluded, that the (Parthian or) Middle Persian form, which the Armenians took over (Zaradušt or the like), was merely metathesized to pre-Arm. *Zuradašt.



F. C. Andreas, “Bruchstücke einer Pehlewi-Übersetzung der Psalmen aus der Sassanidenzeit,” SPAW 1910, pp. 869–72.

H. W. Bailey, “Indo-Iranian Studies,” TPS 1953, pp. 21–42.

Chr. Bartholomae, “Vorge schichte der iranischen Sprachen,” in Geiger and Kuhn, Grundr. Ir. Phil. I/1, 1895–1901, pp. 1–151.

Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont, Les mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès et Hystaspe d’après la tradition grecque. II: Lestextes, Paris, 1938.

Ilya Gershevitch, “Zoroaster’s Own Contribution,” JNES 23, 1964, pp. 12–38.

Idem, “Approaches to Zoroaster’s Gathas,” Iran 33, 1995, pp. 1–29.

Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster in History, New York, 2000. Ernst Herzfeld, Zoroaster and His World, I, Princeton N. J., 1947, pp. 53–56.

Helmut Humbach, The Gathas of Zarathushtra and the Other Old Avestan Texts, I, Heidelberg, 1991.

Josef Markwart, Das erste Kapitel derGāthā uštavatī (Jasna 43), Rome, 1930, pp. 22–28.

Manfred Mayrhofer, ZumNamengut des Avesta, Vienna, 1977a, pp. 43–53.

Idem, Die avestischen Namen (Iranisches Personennamenbuch, I/1), Vienna, 1977b, pp. 105 f.

Idem, “Zarathustra und kein Ende?” AAASH 25, 1977c, pp. 85–90.

Bernfried Schlerath, “Zarathustra im Awesta,” in Wilhelm Eilers (ed.), Festgabe deutscher Iranisten zur 2500Jahr feier Irans, Stuttgart, 1971, pp. 133–40.

Idem, “Noch einmal Zarathustra,” Die Sprache 23, 1977, pp. 127–35.

Hanns-Peter Schmidt, “Review of Mayrhofer 1977a and 1977b,” Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen 232, 1980, pp. 190–98.

Rüdiger Schmitt, “Onomastica Iranica Platonica,” in Christian Mueller-Goldingen and Kurt Sier (eds.), Lēnaiká: Festschrift für Carl Werner Müller, Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1996, pp. 81–102.

Idem, “Onomastica Iranica symmicta,” in Riccardo Ambrosini et al. (eds.), Scríbthair a ainm n-ogaim. Scritti in Memoria di Enrico Campanile, II, Pisa, 1997, pp. 921–27.

Paul Thieme, “Der Name des Zarathustra,” ZVS 95, 1981, pp. 122–25 (repr. in: Idem, Kleine Schriften, II, Stuttgart, 1995, pp. 1154–57).

Chlodwig Werba, Die arischen Personennamen und ihre Träger bei den Alexanderhistorikern: Studien zur iranischen Anthroponomastik, Ph. D. diss., Vienna, 1982, pp. 172 f. and 181–91.

(Rüdiger Schmitt)

Originally Published: July 20, 2002

Last Updated: July 20, 2002