Persian wisdom: Theopompos of Chios and Plutarch on Magians and Zoroaster (fourth century BCE and later)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persian wisdom: Theopompos of Chios and Plutarch on Magians and Zoroaster (fourth century BCE and later),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2024,

Ancient authors: Theopompos of Chios (mid-fourth century BCE), FGrHist 115 F64b-65, as cited by Aineias of Gaza, Theophrastos 64ed and Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 46-47 (ca. 100 CE) (link; link to Greek text; link to FGrHist).

Comments: Plutarch outlines what he or his source believes are the views of Zoroaster (a Greek transliteration of Zarathustra) and the Magians. It becomes clear that Theopompos (or: Theopompus) is one of Plutarch’s main sources only further on in the discussion. Since Theopompos dates to the mid-fourth century BCE, this is among the earliest Greek attempts to explain Zoroaster’s views. The material expressly drawn from Theopompos presumes the cosmic dualism and battle imagery that Plutarch presents earlier on, so it is possible that Theopompos’ characterization of the Magians underlies other parts of this discussion. Throughout, Zoroaster and the Magians are presented as a source of superior foreign wisdom regarding the cosmos. For more on Greek perceptions of Zoroaster and Magians, see the post on the Suda lexicon (link).

The citation from Aineias of Gaza adds one further detail about raising dead bodies in connection with Theopompos’ description of Zoroastrian ideologies.


Theopompos as cited by Aineias of Gaza

Zoroaster prophesies that there will be some time when there will be a rising of all the dead. Theopompos knew what I am saying and he himself teaches this to others.

δὲ Ζωροάστρης προλέγει ὡς ἔσται ποτὲ χρόνος ἐν ὧι πάντων νεκρῶν ἀνάστασις ἔσται. οἶδεν Θεόπομπος λέγω καὶ τοὺς ἄλλους αὐτὸς ἐκδιδάσκει.


Theopompos as cited by Plutarch

The vast majority and the wisest of men hold this opinion: they believe that there are two gods (theoi), rivals as it were, the one the creator of good and the other the creator of bad. There are also those who call the better one a god and the other a lower spirit (daimōn), as with Zoroaster [Zarathustra] the Magian, for instance, who they say lived five thousand years before the time of the Trojan War. He called the one Oromazes [Ahura Mazda] and the other Areimanius [Angra Mainyu]. Furthermore, he said that among all the things perceptible to the senses, Oromazes may best be compared to light and Areimanius conversely compared to darkness and ignorance. Midway between the two is Mithras. For this reason the Persians give Mithras the name “Mediator.” Zoroaster has also taught that men should make votive offerings and thank-offerings to Oromazes and averting and mourning offerings to Areimanius. They pound up in a mortar a certain plant called omomi, at the same time invoking Hades and Darkness. Then they mix it with the blood of a wolf that has been sacrificed, and carry it out and cast it into a place where the sun never shines. In fact, they believe that some of the plants belong to the good god and others to the evil daimon. In a similar way, they think that dogs, fowls, and hedgehogs, for example, belong to the good god, but that water-rats belong to the evil one. Therefore the man who has killed the most of these they hold to be fortunate.

However, they also tell many fabulous stories about their gods, such as the following: Oromazes, born from the purest light, and Areimanius. born from the darkness, are constantly at war with each other. Oromazes created six gods, the first of Good Thought, the second of Truth, the third of Order, and, of the rest, one of Wisdom, one of Wealth, and one the Creator of Pleasure in what is Honourable. But Areimanius created rivals, as it were, equal to these in number. Then Oromazes enlarged himself to thrice his former size and removed himself as far distant from the Sun as the Sun is distant from the Earth, and adorned the heavens with stars. One star he set there before all others as a guardian and watchman, the Dog-star. Twenty-four other gods he created and placed in an egg. But those created by Areimanius, who were equal in number to the others, pierced through the egg and made their way inside. For this reason, evils are now combined with good. But a destined time shall come when it is decreed that Areimanius, engaged in bringing on pestilence and famine, will be utterly annihilated by these same things and will disappear. Then the earth will become a level plain, and there will be one manner of life and one form of government for a blessed people who shall all speak one tongue. Theopompos says that, according to the Magians (magoi), one god is to overpower and the other to be overpowered, each in turn for the space of three thousand years. Afterwards they will fight and battle for another three thousand years, with one undoing the works of the other. Finally Hades will pass away. Then the people will be happy, and they will not need to have food, nor will they cast any shadow. And the god, who has planned to bring about all these things, will then have quiet and will rest for a time – not a long time, but for the god as much as would be an average amount of time for a man to sleep. This, then, is the character of the mythology of the Magians.


Source of translation: F. Babbitt, Plutarch: Moralia, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1937), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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