The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
in Western Iran To Macedonian Conquest
By Dr Oric Basirov
9 - 19
FEATURES OF THE AVESTA IN THE WEST
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
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
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
GATHIC AND "YOUNG" AVESTAN
AVESTA AND THE WESTERN MAGI
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]).
IRANIAN ELEMENTS IN THE AVESTA
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
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