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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Avesta in Western Iran To Macedonian Conquest


 

By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 9 - 19 January 1999

 

 

INTRODUCTION The intention of this, and the next lecture is to highlight the special features of the Zoroastrian sacred texts when they arrived in Western Iran, and to examine the long history of their transmission in the West there after. It has already been stated that Zoroastrianism was born and flourished in Eastern Iran long before the conversion of the Western Iranians. The Western Iran however, seems to have quickly overshadowed the prophet's birthplace and acquired the honour of becoming the new centre of the faith. From then onwards Eastern Iran fades into the background, and Zoroastrian studies acquire new dimensions. Most scientific facts, such as, recorded history, Near Eastern archaeological data, and a large volume of deciphered inscriptions, relate to Western Iran. Nonetheless these evidence are of little value unless examined in conjunction with the Zoroastrian religious literature. These holy texts remain our only living link with the birthplace of the faith, i.e., Eastern Iran. It is, therefore, necessary to understand the FORM in which these texts appeared (and REMAINED UNCHANGED) in the West sometime at the beginning of the first millennium BC.

SPECIAL FEATURES OF THE AVESTA IN THE WEST The Avesta is regarded by the Zoroastrians as a revealed text, containing the dialogue between Ahura Mazdah and his prophet. The conversion of Western Iranians to the eastern faith, therefore, must have been heralded by the arrival of this body of holy literature. A detailed study of that conversion, let alone the establishment of the centre of the faith in the West, and its subsequent long history there, would hardly be possible unless we take account of two extraordinary features which distinguish Zoroastrian religious literature from that of any other great faith.

 

First, it is part of a rich and ancient oral tradition, which for a very long time was passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth only.

 

Secondly, the language in which it was composed and transmitted is an Eastern Iranian language which probably was not fully understood in Western Iran when the centre of the faith moved there. This second feature of the religious texts indicates inter alia, a geographical origin, and a terminus ante quem for the arrival of the faith in the West.

   

IRANIAN ORAL TRADITION Ancient Iranians, as far as is known, did not make extensive use of writing, and they may even have had an aversion to writing sacred texts (Boyce, M., "The Lady and the Scribe", "Acta Iranica" XII (1988) p.277; Pur-Davoud, I., "Farhang-i Iran-i Bastan" 1976, pp.114-5.). Nonetheless, a culture such as theirs, which possessed a sophisticated religion even before the advent of the Zoroastrian reforms, could not have survived without possessing a mechanism to record laws and events. In the absence of writing, this recording had to take place in the minds and memories of an elite priestly class. It was probably realised from the outset that the most effective way to hand down an unwritten text is to compose it in verse instead of prose. This must have led in time to the development of the ancient tradition of religious poetry composed by priestly seers. The tradition of oral poetry was not of course exclusively Iranian; it was common to most other Indo-European peoples (Schmitt, R., "Dichtung und Dichtersprach in indogermanischer Zeit", Harrassowitz, 1967). The Iranians, however, abstained from committing their religious poetry to writing for a long time, preserving it only in their memories.  

Zoroaster, following the age-old Indo-European tradition, composed the Gathas in verse, and it seems that the greatest part of this and other religious literature was handed down by the priestly class in this form. Poetry undoubtedly played a leading role in the development, and even the survival, of this religious oral tradition. Zoroastrian literature, however, was not composed or transmitted entirely in verse. Laws governing routine rituals, for example, unlike hymns and prayers, are not recited as part of liturgy. Hence, there was no need to compose them in verse. The Vendidad is naturally the most important example of this non-metric literature.

 

These texts, whether poetry or prose, were naturally subject to the dynamics of oral transmission. Laws governing this process are fundamentally different from those affecting the development of a written literature. In the absence of a written reference, some errors in transmission, for example, may go unnoticed. The lack of an adequate mechanism for cross-reference, inherent in oral transmission, is partly responsible for many inconsistencies now detectable in the surviving chapters of the Avesta.

   

THE GATHIC AND "YOUNG" AVESTAN The second special factor which has helped to determine the special character of the religious literature in Western Iran is the language in which it is composed. The surviving holy texts are composed in two Avestan dialects: first, Gathic, the language of the prophet himself, which had probably ceased to be a living vernacular long before it reached the West. Secondly, the less complex "Young" Avestan, which may have been still understood in Eastern Iran at that time. The contrasting status of these two languages was probably an outcome of the different ways in which they were transmitted. The linguistic evidence suggests that the divine revelations of the Prophet were memorised word by word, and probably syllable by syllable, from the first, and faithfully transmitted from generation to generation without any material alteration. This excluded the Gathas from the natural process of linguistic development, making them more static. Nonetheless, a certain deterioration did occur during the long period of oral transmission (e.g., wrong division of words). Non-Gathic works, on the other hand, as their grammatical and syntactical structure bears witness, were passed down in a more flexible tradition. This allowed them (for only a limited period, at the beginning) to absorb some new ideas, and probably to discard a few old ones.

   

THE AVESTA AND THE WESTERN MAGI Both Gathic and Young Avestan are dialects of an Old Eastern Iranian language, which was not fully comprehended in the West. When Zoroastrianism reached the linguistically alien environment of Western Iran, probably only the clergy, who continued to memorise and recite them were aware of their general meaning. It seems likely that a few early generations of the Eastern Iranian clergy were prominent in some centres of religious teaching such as Raga in Media (Boyce, M., "Zoroastrianism, its Antiquity and Constant Vigour", Mazda Publishers, California, 1992, pp.7-8).  The religious tradition, however, was gradually passed on to the Western Iranian clergy, the magi, the majority of whom by then must have been converted to Zoroastrianism. The Iranian faith thereafter, it seems, was kept alive in the West by a group of clergy who had to memorise and transmit its unwritten liturgy word for word, and in a language they may have partly understood, but not well enough to freely compose in it. This extraordinary practice eventually extended the ossification of the religious literature beyond the Gathas, and led to a fixation of other Avestan texts.

 

It is reasonable to assume that an oral interpretation of the Avesta in a Western Iranian language was eventually produced as early as the Achaemenian period (as was the case later under the Parthians and the Sasanians). One can also assume that this was the work of the western clergy, who therefore, must have had some knowledge of the Avestan. What isn't clear however, is the extent of their command of that language. Were they, for example, familiar enough with the grammatical complexities of that highly inflected unwritten language to compose significant new material in it? There are some scholars who believe that important additions could have been made to the Avesta in the West. Such arguments are based on a seemingly reasonable assumption that the ability to translate implies an ability to compose (Darmesteter, J., "The Zend-Avesta", Part I, "The Vendidad", "Sacred Books of the East" 4, Oxford, 1880, p.XXXVII). Some even maintains that texts like the Vendidad are a piecemeal collection of relatively late composition (Humbach, H., "Bestattungsformen im Videvadat", "Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung aufdem Gebiete der Indogermanischen Sprachen, begründet von A.Kuhn" 77 (1961), pp.99-102, see also ch.4 (b); Kammenhuber, A., "Totenvorschriften und "Hund-Magie" im Videvadat", "Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft" 1958, p.307 [she has narrowed down "the date of the creation of the original form of the Vendidad" to the reign of Xerxes]).

   

WESTERN IRANIAN ELEMENTS IN THE AVESTA These arguments are reinforced by a number of evidently later additions to the texts. The absorption of the Mesopotamian tradition of the Great Flood into Yimâ's Var (Boyce, M., "History of Zoroastrianism" I, 1989, p.95, n.69; Darmesteter, op. cit., ch.2) probably took place in the West. The identification of the Eastern Iranian divinities Aredvi Sura and Tishtrya with the Western Iranian deities Anahiti and Tiri (Boyce, M., "the History of Zoroastrianism" II (1982), pp.28-33) may have also happened in the West (see lecture four).  

Such changes to the main text, however, would seem to have been linguistically possible only relatively soon after the establishment of the new faith in the West. This assumption is prompted by the following arguments: most of the tradition may have been more fluid at first, but became ossified later, as texts came to be recited more widely by newly-converted, non-native speakers. Moreover, at that early stage, there were probably still some remote similarities between Old Persian, Median and Young Avestan; hence, the early clergy may have had a greater affinity with Avestan than their successors. Other, more practical reasons would have also favoured an early syncretism of the two Iranian traditions. The Western Iranian religion before the arrival of the new faith from the East was heavily influenced by Elamite, Mesopotamian and other traditions. The successful conversion to Zoroastrianism could hardly have come about without absorbing some of these western traditions at an early stage of proselytisation.

 

Some of these western traditions were probably absorbed by re-arranging the passages of the old Yashts. In reality, however, it seems that not many additions to the main text were made, but that a different dedication and verses from the existing texts were used (Nonetheless, certain aspects of such syncretism cannot be easily explained; in one of the "re-arranged" verses of Yt.5, for example, Aredvi is described as a statue, an anthropomorphic concept which seems not only western in origin, but its adoption into Zoroastrian iconography is believed to have taken place not earlier than c.400 BC; see Boyce, HZII, 1982, pp.201-4). Other additions seem to have been made in corrupt (Boyce (1992) refers to these changes as "halting and imitative Avestan" p.28, or as "clumsy modifications" p.44) Avestan. This suggests that by the time these changes were made, the grammatical knowledge of Avestan had already deteriorated (However, this corruption could equally have been caused by faults in recitation; on the basis of linguistic arguments alone, it is impossible to tell which was the cause of the corruption). The magi, therefore, do not seem to have had the linguistic ability to compose significant new material in Avestan (Boyce 1992, p.27; her views on the date and the provenance of the Vendidad, however, appear to have been modified, cf. HZI 1989, p.274).

 

This, then, may have been the state of the Iranian religious tradition during the Achaemenian era. It was supported by a body of priests who not only kept the tradition alive, but in the absence of written texts, were also a physical repository for it.

 

The study of Zoroastrianism in Western Iran is, therefore, greatly influenced by the following three significant features of its religious literature:

 

It was an oral literature throughout the Median, Achaemenian (and probably even the Parthian) times.

It was composed in an alien language not fully comprehensible in Western Iran.

It remained unchanged in the West, apart from some linguistic deterioration and a very few insignificant additions.   

 

 

 

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