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FRAVASHIS , beneficent and protective guardian spirits whose services must be secured by means of ritual offerings, are an essential element of the religious structure of Zoroastrianism. They play an important role in the frequency of rainfall and are responsible for guaranteeing the prosperity and preservation of the family. As the spirits of the dead, they are the protagonists in a great feast held on the last night of the year. They are thought to preexist human beings and to survive them.

The fravashi s do not appear in the Gāthās. In the Avesta, the first mention of them occurs in the Yasna Haptanhāiti, and an entire hymn (Yashts 13) is dedicated to them.

The conception of the fravashi has all the characteristics of an archaic, pre-Zoroastrian belief that was later absorbed and adapted by the tradition. Examples of these characteristics include their identification with the spirits of the dead (Söderblom, 1899, pp. 229260, 373418) and their warlike nature.

As the spirits of the dead the fravashi s have often been compared to the Roman manes or to the Indian pitara; as warlike beings, they have been compared with the Germanic valkyries or to the Indian Maruts, the company of celestial warriors. In particular, in the context of the Indo-European tripartite ideology, the fravashi s are seen as a Zoroastrian substitute for the Maruts (Dumézil, 1953); both are linked to the concepts and ethics of the Aryan Männerbund. Most likely, Zoroastrianism absorbed this ancient concept, typical of a warrior society, through its ties to the cult of the dead and reinterpreted the fravashi s as combatants for the rule of Ahura Mazdā. We find such a zoroastrianization in the myth told in the third chapter of the Bundahishn (Book of primordial creation), which relates that the fravashi s chose to be incarnated in material bodies in order to fight Ahriman and the evil powers instead of remaining peacefully in the celestial world.

The etymology of the word fravashi is uncertain. Originally it may have been used to designate the spirit of a deceased hero who was endowed with *vti, "valor" (Bailey, 1943, pp. 107ff.); or it may have expressed the theological concept, fundamental to Zoroastrianism, of choice, *fra-vti (Lommel, 1930, pp. 151, 159163) or that of the profession of faith (Hoffmann, 1979, p. 91; Schlerath, 1980, pp. 207ff.).


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Gherardo Gnoli (1987)

Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris