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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Avesta in Western Iran Since Macedonian Conquest


By Dr. Oric Basirov

Paper 10 - 6th January 1999





It was stated in the last lecture that the Avesta arrived in Western Iran as an oral composition, and continued to be recited in its original Eastern Iranian language which was not fully understood in the West. It was also maintained that, not only these two features remained unaltered during the Achaemenian era and beyond, but because of the unfamiliarity of the western clergy with the sacred language, no significant additions were ever made to the holy texts. The transmission of the Avesta in Western Iran, therefore, continued as before in Eastern Iran, from generation to generation by word of mouth only, without any material alteration to the texts. This lecture intends to study the long history of that transmission from the end of the Achaemenian Empire to the present day, and to examine the many claims for the existence of a written Avesta before the Sasanian times. This lecture shall also maintain that the holy texts were not materially altered in Western Iran.



The Pahlavi tradition maintains that, as early as the Achaemenian era, the Avesta and the "Zand" (its interpretation in presumably the then current language) were written on oxhides (in an unspecified alphabet), and kept in the imperial archives in Istakhr. These oxhides, it is then claimed, were burnt by Alexander the Damned (a.k.a. the Great; Arda Wiraz Namag, I.7 & 8). Unfortunately, none of this can be independently verified, and it seems likely that the tradition is an anachronistic allusion to the 7th century mass destruction of the Sasanian holy city of Istakhr (which did house the imperial archives), and the barbaric wholesale slaughter of its population by the Arab commander, Hajjaj ibn-i Yusef (Many believe the AWN was written after the Arab conquest, and that any mention of that calamity was deliberately left out by the author in order to present it a Sasanian work).  Nonetheless, the Macedonian invasion probably brought about the disintegration of the Zoroastrian clerical structure and the destruction of the centres of its spiritual authority. According to the Zoroastrian tradition a systematic and large-scale massacre of the magi took place, possibly because of their apparent reluctance to co-operate with the infidel invader. Alexander's chroniclers, however, report neither the slaughter of the clergy, nor their supposed opposition to the Macedonians, and nor even for that matter, an encounter between him and the magi. On the other hand, they do not relate either any reverence shown by him towards the Iranian religion. This seems out of character, especially in view of the frequent reports of his acts of extreme generosity towards the clergy and the religion of other conquered peoples. He was reported as being "most careful of religion" and making great benefactions to the temples and the priests in India, Issus, Tyre, Babylon and especially in Egypt (Arrian, VII.28.1).


A possible explanation for this apparent contradiction can be sought in the fact that while he entered all those places as a self-appointed liberator, to Iran alone he came as an avenging conqueror (Nonetheless, it is difficult to understand his chroniclers' silence on this subject, especially as they give the full account of an isolated massacre of the clergy in India. [Arrian VI.16.5., Diodorus XVII.102., Plutarch, Alexander, 59.46.,4., and Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, III, p.15, n64.]. It is possible, however, that by "India", the classical writers here, are actually referring to Persia, as there are other examples of similar mistake; e.g., Strabo, Geography, XV.i.62). It is only from the Zoroastrian sources that we learn about the mass-slaughter of the magi (GBd.XXXIII.14; see also Boyce, op. cit. p.14, n.62), and it seems reasonable to assume that some priests were indeed massacred (Many scholars accept this; see Boyce, op. cit. pp.12-15).


The magi were principal instruments of religious learning, and in an oral tradition the interruption of the transmission for a single generation meant, obviously, total oblivion. The unbridgeable gap caused by the slaughter of the clergy, must eventually have led to a partial loss of the tradition in many parts of Western Iran. The destruction, however, was not total; according to a badly preserved Pahlavi text, fractions of the Zoroastrian religious oral tradition survived in Sistan (Jamasp-Asana, J.M., the text contained in codex MK., Bombay (1913), see also Boyce, op. cit., p.16 & n.69. and Baily, H., Zoroastrian Problems in the ninth-century books, Ratanbai Katrak Lectures, Oxford (1943), reprinted (1971).). According to this text, Sistan was the only place where the religious tradition survived the Macedonian onslaught. This statement may well be an exaggeration inspired by local pride, because this particular text may have originated in that part of Iran. The possibility of the survival of part of the tradition elsewhere can not be ruled out, since it is unlikely that all priests would have been killed. Indeed, Raga in greater Media, and Persis in southern Persia seem to have retained their positions as great religious centres even after the Macedonian invasion, and Atropatene in lesser Media, apparently was not even affected by it (As it was ruled by the Zoroastrian Atropatids dynasty; Boyce, op. cit., p.81). In fact it would be reasonable to assume that liturgical texts, such as the Yasna, the Yashts, and prayers, which were recited by the whole priesthood, must have survived in all of Iran. Only non-liturgical texts such as those belonging to the learned tradition may have been in jeopardy after the invasion. Indeed not only large parts of the Avestan tradition did evidently survive the Macedonian conquest, but also the composition of their commentaries in the living vernaculars seems to have continued throughout the course of the evolution of the Old Persian language to the Middle Persian stage.



The credit for the first serious attempt to collect these traditions systematically, is given in the Pahlavi literature to the Parthian emperor, Vologeses I (VALAXSH 51-76/80 A.D [Darmesteter, SBE4. XXXII to XXXV; Wiesehöfer, J., Ancient Persia, Tauris, London (1996), pp.95 & 314]). Such systematic collection clearly denotes a desire to preserve, and it seems likely that this involved writing. This claim, although not independently corroborated, cannot be completely ruled out, but, if a written down Parthian Avesta ever existed, it must have been, at least philologically, insignificant. On the other hand, a dire need for a written religious book in later Parthian period has to be recognised. During the two hundred years after the reign of Vologeses, many strong factors may have motivated the creation a written religious literature. Probably the most effective amongst them were the growing pressure, first from the Christians, and later from the Manichaeans.



These two religions were controlled by an increasingly powerful and efficiently organised priestly hierarchies who zealously preached and often successfully carried out proselytisation which, as far as it is known, was no longer practised by the Zoroastrians. One of the most potent weapons in the hands of the Christians and the Manichaeans must have been their "written" religions supported by tangible holy-scriptures. A belief in greater trustworthiness of written tradition and the pride in the concept of "the People of the Book", which later became so much in evidence in Islam, was probably used as strong arguments against the unwritten tradition of the Zoroastrian religion. The simplicity and mass appeal of "written" religions must have won enough converts to make the Zoroastrian clergy review the inviolability of their oral tradition which had survived intact from a time long before the days of the Prophet.


The earliest version of the redaction in which The Vendidad has survived, for example is assigned by some to the Parthian era (Darmesteter, op. cit., XXXVII, Boyce, HZI. p.95, see also Boyce, HZIII. p.68, n78, where she suggests an earlier origin, and the possibility of a minor Hellenistic influence).



Eventually, the whole of the surviving texts of the Avesta was committed to writing. It is widely believed that, initially, it must have been written down in the Pahlavi alphabet. The use of this alphabet, however, did not prove satisfactory for Avestan. The interpretations (Exegeses) of the Avesta were not naturally composed in the Avestan language (why), but in the then current vernacular(s). The only extant version of these is in Pahlavi, and is known as "the Pahlavi Zand".


Under later Sasanians a special alphabet, based on the current form of Pahlavi script, but also based on Greek from a typological point of view, was devised, possibly under Chosroes I, and the Avesta was written down in this alphabet. A late Sasanian account relating the transmission of the Avesta seems to confirm this. According to this source the texts were written down during the reigns of an Achaemenian emperor, (Daray son of Daray?), a Parthian emperor, Vologeses, and four Sasanian emperors, (Ardashir I, Shabuhr I, Shabuhr II, and Chosroes I, “Denkerd, book IV; see also Boyce, Textual Sources, p.114”).



The basic assumption so far, that the Avesta could not have gone through significant alterations in the West, is questioned by some, who point out to a number of western elements contained in the holy texts. Some of these western elements, which clearly belong to the pre-Macedonian period, have already been dealt with in the last lecture (e.g., the syncretism of a number of eastern and western deities, and the supposed absorbtion of the western tradition of the Great Flood into Yima's Var). Others relate to later periods.


There are, for example, several passages in the Vendidad, which are perceived by some to refer to known historical events which took place during the Sasanian period (Darmesteter, op. cit., pp.xxxix-xli). Chapter l8 verse l0 seems to describe the exact method of Mani's execution "being flayed alive and decapitated ..". Chapter 4 verses 47‑49 confirms in very clear terms the superiority of a rich man who has a wife and who eats meat over the one who has chosen poverty, idleness, celibacy and vegetarianism. This could be a reference to Mani's celebrated "three seals" with which he sealed his disciples hands, reproductive organs and mouths.


The Manichaean heresy, however, arose in the 3rd century AD, by which time, Avestan had been used in Western Iran, for over a thousand years, as a sacred language only. Clearly any significant addition to the Vendidad at this stage could hardly have been possible. It is likely, therefore, that these passages are not referring to Mani at all. Mani's method of execution does not seem to have been uncommon in Iran (Kent, R.G., Old Persian, (1953), DB2, 70-78, p.124; Plutarch, Artaxerxes, "execution of Masbates”). Ascetism, moreover, was not Mani's monopoly, Hindus and even some Zoroastrians practised it within the Persian Empire. It is also possible that, what was said of Mani, was influenced by the Vendidad.




By the beginning of the 9th century, Islam had taken root and the Zoroastrian community had dwindled to the position of minority; it became progressively difficult to employ people to memorise the sacred texts, they had to be written down. Moreover, writing down the holy texts was a last desperate effort to present the Zoroastrians as "people of the book and prophet".

The last remnants of an active Zoroastrian clergy in Iran made perhaps a final attempt in that century to collect what was left of Zoroastrian literature.


The credit for this heroic achievement is given mainly to a remarkable priestly family who for 150 years from the time the caliph Mamun (813-833) held the office of Hudenan Pešoay of Pars. They were:


i) Adurfarnbag Farroxzadan, …followed by his son:

ii)  Zardušt (who may have apostatised), …followed by his son:

iii)  Vahramšad, …followed by his son:

iv)   Gošnjan, …followed by his son:

v)    Manušchihr (881 A.D.), … followed by his brother:

vi)   Zadspram, … followed by Manušchihr's son:

vii)  Farnbag Ašavahišta.


The prominent members of the family are first, Adurfanbag, who is credited with this final collection of most of the scattered texts, including the great Pahlavi work, Denkard (Denkard III.420; the collection was completed by Adurbad Emedan in the second half of the 9th century; ibid.). Secondly, the brothers Manušchihr and Zadspram, especially the former, who has left us "Three Epistles of Manušchihr" and yet another great Pahlavi work, The Dadistan-i Dinag.



It seems that, again under the influence of Islam, the use of a written book was permitted to the clergy for the first time in the history of Zoroastrianism. The ritual involved only the reading of the Vendidad, in its entirety, as part of the night celebration of the Yasna, holding the book in hand. The service was solemnised notably after death in order to exorcise the power of darkness, and it seems that the Vendidad, meaning "Law against the demons", was deliberately chosen for this purpose. This the only occasion when the use of a written text is permitted to the priests, all parts of every other service must be known by heart.


This significant change seems to have been brought into being to substantiate Zoroastrians claim to be a "people of book". It also appears that it was brought about after the diaspora (in the 10th century), as the Parsis were not aware of this book and it had to be reintroduced to them in the 13th century by the Iranis.




The Avesta and the Pahlavi literature, now totally reduced to writing, were faithfully preserved, for the next 800 years by the two Zoroastrian communities in Persia and India. The survival of the holy scriptures in their original home, Iran, during this period, must be considered nothing short of a miracle.   


It was not until the middle of the 18th century that the Western European intellectual curiosity, using alternative evidence to the classical literature, extended to the study of ancient Iranian culture. The Zoroastrian holy texts, although still highly controversial, are now preserved forever.




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