Has there been any literature dealing with the question why Nietzsche chose to make Zarathustra the "prophet" of his "Death of God"? In The Gay Science, the madman remains unnamed, even though the parallels in thought are already noticeable.

Nietzsche's background suggests, that he knew very well who Zarathustra was, and during his study times, several translations and commentaries on the Zoroastrian scriptures were published, e.g. by Friedrich von Spiegel. It was for sure not a mere coincidental choice, but much more a decision he had thought through very well.

Are there any books or articles treating the question of "Why Zarathustra"?


Sorry for not having worded my question clearer. Nietzsche's reasoning of "Why I Am Fatality" chapter 3 in Ecce Homo is known to me; that is why I asked if there are any texts treating it outside of this.

I think that for merely that thought others would have been better or at least equally well suited, e.g. the whole Epicurean school, Gilgamesh, et al., and Nietzsche was surely very familiar with them. It is also questionable that the historico-critically influenced Nietzsche (see his Texts on David Friedrich Strauss in Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen/Untimely Meditations) would have held up an early dating of Zarathustra given that the discussion of the time was mainly about whether he lived around 1200BC or 600BC (see 1st ed. of the Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Art. "Parsismus", col. 1364-1382).

I strongly believe that Nietzsche also aimed at the biblical prophets when choosing Zarathustra as the prophet of the Death of God, especially since the discussion of the time was the connection between postexilic Judaism and Zoroastrianism (cf. RGG1, col. 1382).

4 Answers 4


Nietzsche himself talks about it in his auto-biography "Ecce Homo". He chose Zarathustra because he saw the real Zarathustra (Zoroaster) as being the first one to establish the moral system which eventually evolves into Judeo-Christian morals, and which Nietzsche sets out to demolish in "Thus Spake Zarathustra". He saw it fitting that a fictional Zarathustra should be the one who brings down the moral system that the real Zarathustra started.

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    Even accounting for Nietzsche's individualistic leanings, it is quite telling of the state of historiography at the time (heroes and bursts of genius) that he thought something like morality got "started", and by a single guy at that.
    – Conifold
    Feb 10, 2016 at 1:06
  • Thank you for your answer! I am aware of this passage in Nietzsche's work, however, I think it cannot explain the full thought behind it. There would have been other options Nietzsche probably knew about. I expanded my question, sorry for not doing this earlier. Feb 10, 2016 at 9:19

As Alexander writes Nietzsche answers this question in paragraph 3 of the chapter "WHY I AM A FATALITY" from his work Ecce Homo:

[...] but because of the more important fact that Zarathustra was the most truthful of thinkers. In his teaching alone is truthfulness upheld as the highest virtue — that is to say, as the reverse of the cowardice of the " idealist " who takes to his heels at the sight of reality. Zarathustra has more pluck in his body than all other thinkers put together. To tell the truth and to aim straight : that is the first Persian virtue. Have I made myself clear? . . . The overcoming of morality by itself, through truthfulness, the moralist's overcoming of himself in his opposite — in me — that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth.

According to this quote it was the "overcoming of morality by itself, through truthfulness". This was indeed Nietzsche's goal; e.g. see Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1878) and On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (1887).

But concerning the historical Zarathustra this ascription does not seem justified.

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    Thank you very much for your answer! I am aware of that passage yet I think, it doesn't cover the entire thought behind it, simply as there would have been other options to choose from. I added some more thoughts to my question I should have mentioned before already, sorry for that! Feb 10, 2016 at 9:18
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    @Patric Hartmann According to all we know about Zarathustra, his point was not to overcome morality, as Nietzsche acribes to him. This fact shows that Nietzsche - at least in this passage - reads into Zarathustra what he later wants to read off from the historical person. Nietzsche was not sincere with history. - I do not know any precursors of Nietzsche who questioned morality as forcefully as he did. Why do you think that the Epicureans or Gilgamesh would have been better protagonists? - How do you see the relation between Jewish prophets and Zarathustra?
    – Jo Wehler
    Feb 10, 2016 at 9:45
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    Thank you for your efforts in answering me! Gilgamesh: in the Ungnad/Gressmann transl. of 1911 (GER) on Table X, 274-289 I found verses very close to the Eternal Recurrence or, at least, naming the strive for immortality futile. The parallels to OT proph. are hard to explain in so few words. I will update my question some time again. Feb 10, 2016 at 20:02
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    @Jo Wehler I can think of cynics ("cynic practices shamelessness or impudence (Αναιδεια) and defaces the nomos of society; the laws, customs, and social conventions which people take for granted") and Machiavelli, not to mention Nero and Caligula. Also, "Pyrrhonian skeptics' attitude toward morality (really, toward moralizing) is echoed in Nietzsche's thought and provides for us the best possible model on which to understand his critique of morality". oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/…
    – Conifold
    Feb 11, 2016 at 4:22

I am a Zarathusti (Zoroastrian) but not in the religious sense. I, therfore, completely understand how Nietzsche was infatuated and portrayed Zarathustra as his mouthpiece. Both the elements of Zarathustra, the Persian prophet, has been highlighted by other comments on this string. And if you were to sum it up as Nietzsche, himself does, it explains everything.

Zarathustra was the first moralist but not as Nietsche or the rest of the world sees. He described two paths, right and wrong, asha and druj BUT he asks all men to chose their path and bear the consequences of the path they chose. He does not necessarily claim to be a prophet and seek a following. He wants people to chose thier paths.

So that is what cathces Nietzsche's imagination as he is trying to predict a world beyond god and therefore beyond the morality of right and wrong. At the same time he knows from Greek historians that the Persian boys were tought to ride the horse, be straight shooters and be truthful (the most disgracful thing in the world for the Persians is to tell a lie...Herodotus) That genetic and/or indoctrination runs high even today amongst the Zorastrians all over the world and the Parsees (Zoroastrians) of India. They shoot from the hip and are straight shooters and truthful to a fault.

Putting these together Nietzsche must have strongly felt that since Zarathustra was the first moralist, he would know about morals more than anybody else. In that, he would also have realized that right and wrong is not the absolute truth. (Ofcourse as I explained earlier that is not what Zarathustra claimed). Now keeping with the Persian tradition, Zarathustra would shoot stright and be truthful that morality of right and wrong is not the ultimate truth. And therefore as Nietzsche claims himself that he chose to be the mouthpiece of Zarathustra telling the truth that what people believed as moral values is not the actual truth.

I hope this helps explain it light of Nietzsche explaining himself (Ecce Homo) and the account of Greek historians (Herodotus) about the virtues of Persian boys.

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  • My +1. Just a small suggestion : better to translate "asha" as "conscience" than as "good". Vide the primary prayer "ashem vohu" which I somewhat freely translate as Conscience is the best good and it is happiness. Happy is he who is conscience-full for the sake of the best conscience. So the historical Zarathustra teaching that ashem alone justifies and validates ashem finds it's mirror in Nietzsche where man alone must validate himself. The externality of a religious God is a fraud. yesterday

I see it as related to what Nietzsche is up to, in his framing of the ubermensch.

I think you are wrong to point to his Zarathustra as above all a prophet of the death of God - that was just a dramatised framing of rise of science (I argue he focused on religion in terms of social cohesion, not as cosmology or sets of truths, here What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?).

Nietzsche says what his Zarathustra's the prophet of:

"Behold, I teach you the Übermensch: he is this lightning, he is this madness! …

Behold, I am a prophet of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud: but this lightning is called Übermensch.”

-Thus Spoke Zarathustra, prologue

Nietzsche advocates for a return to an era of culture-heroes and prophets, because they were creators of values, not simply transmitters or book-keepers of a fixed unchangeable unalterable metanarrative. Discussed here: Nieztsche on balancing service to the creation of (or becoming) the Overman and living a life of ones own choosing?

Zoroaster was explicitly a pre-Christian non-Jewish prophet, recalling an era of henotheism, a time when someone could go to a marketplace and declare their visions, create new values, new narratives, new modes of social coherence. Instead of jockeying to become a state religion, backed by violence; Zarathustra was an exemplar of providing a compelling reframing that aimed to pursuade - a mission Nietzsche too was on. The literal marketplace of ideas, where the strongest ideas win, instead of a slave-morality requiring collective submission, enforced by state violence. We are returning to a mode of theologising we knew in the past, a postmodern one, where multiple realities can coexist, and the most compelling reframing can become the new one.

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