After a long lapse (occasioned by my absence), tonight we return to the “42 Historical People” series!
Why don’t more people know what Zoroastrianism is? The faith of ancient Iran, which predates Christianity by at least 500 years, is every bit as deserving of the title of one of the world’s great religions as Judaism, Islam and Christianity–although today it has far fewer adherents. Nevertheless, the Zoroastrian faith shaped the ancient Near East, and people like Kartir definitely shaped what Zoroastrianism was and would become.
Kartir lived in the third century CE (the 200s), which roughly makes him a contemporary of the late Roman Emperors. He was a high priest in the Zoroastrian faith in Iran, in which there was, at the time, a deadly schism between Zurvanism and Mazdaism. The theological implications of this schism–as with most of Zoroastrianism in general–is extremely complex and arcane, but suffice it to say it was analogous to the very long Byzantine controversy about the nature of God and how many “energies” He had. Kartir appears to have championed the Mazdaism side, which resulted in Zoroastrianism becoming associated with a concept of Heaven and a disdain for idol and shrine worship–also similar to Byzantine Christianity (Iconoclasm). Zurvanism eventually became extinct.
We do know that Kartir became an important advisor to Shapur I, one of the most important of the early Persian rulers. Kartir’s job seems to have been to enforce religious orthodoxy. He persecuted and punished Zoroastrian priests that fell afoul of his particular belief system, causing intense controversy within the Persian state. Kartir’s influence lasted into the reign of two succeeding Persian kings; he disappears from the historical record during the reign of Bahram I, possibly when he (Kartir) died. During the reign of that king Kartir called for the execution of the prophet Mani, for whom the faith Manichaeism is named. In 274 CE Mani was crucified on Kartir’s orders, his skin flayed and stuffed with straw to be exhibited publicly in order to scare heretics into compliance. Religious tolerance was not high on the list of societal values in 3rd century Persia.
Though obviously an intolerant tyrant by today’s liberal Western standards, Kartir is one of those people in the past who appears more cartoonish than real, but undoubtedly he was a real man whose life illuminates a little-known era of history. Zoroastrianism in general is a fascinating tradition that has been virtually forgotten in the West, although there are still Zoroastrians all over the world. Freddy Mercury, the late singer of Queen, is a noted example.
The photo of the bas-relief of Kartir, at the Naqsh-e Rajab site in Iran, is by Wikimedia Commons user Philippe Chavin and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.