Nyberg, H. S.

views updated


NYBERG, H. S. (18891974), was a Swedish Orientalist and historian of religions. Born in Söderbärke in Dalecarlia, Henrik Samuel Nyberg received his early education at home and at the senior high school in Västeras. In 1908 he entered the university at Uppsala, and there he stayed, working in various positions, for the rest of his life. He earned his Ph.D. in 1919 and was professor of Semitic languages from 1931 to 1956. Concentrating from the beginning on comparative Semitic philology, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ethiopic, Nyberg became an inspiring teacher and one of the most brilliant representatives of the humanities Sweden has ever had, exerting a great influence on the cultural life of his country. His doctoral thesis, "Kleinere Schriften des Ibn al-ʿArabī," already showed the admirable scope that was to characterize his later studies. It is an edition of three minor writings of the great mystic, with an introduction that investigates the origin of Islamic mysticism and attempts to understand the system of Ibn al-ʿArabī as a phenomenon of syncretism.

In 19241925 Nyberg sojourned in Egypt for practical studies of Arabic. The most remarkable result of the trip was his discovery of the manuscript of Kitāb al-Intiār by the Muʿtazilī al-Khayyā (ninth century). Nyberg published the text in Cairo in 1925 with an important commentary in Arabic: Le livre du triomphe et de la réfutation d'Ibn er-Rawendi/Ibn Mohammed/l'hérétique par Abou l-Hosein Abderrahim/Ibn Mohammed ibn Osman el-Khayyat. His deep penetration into the earlier polemic literature of Islam later enabled him to write his famous article, "Muʿtazila," for The Encyclopaedia of Islam (1934).

Nyberg's interest in the dialectology of Aramaic led him to the investigation of some documents from Avroman in Kurdistan. The Aramaic script of the documents appeared to contain a Middle Iranian dialect, and in 1923 he published his pioneering study "The Pahlavi Documents from Avroman" (Monde oriental 17). Thenceforth he was to devote much of his time to the study of Pahlavi; he eventually created the first scientific handbook of this language and was responsible for introducing Iranian studies as an academic discipline in Uppsala.

Influenced by Nathan Söderblom (18661931) and by his friend Tor Andrae (18851946), Nyberg now began his investigations of the Avesta, especially the Gāthās. In this field he made his most important contribution to the study of Iranian religious history, collected in the monumental book Irans forntida religioner (1937). One of the most remarkable traits of this work is the revaluation of the historical impact of Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), considered by Nyberg as a conservative champion of the religion of his own tribe. The consciousness of Zarathushtra's vocation was, according to Nyberg, conditioned by a type of Central Asian shamanism. Highly contested on many points, Nyberg's view in this work has nevertheless exerted a strong influence on scientific discussion in this field.

Familiar with the world of the Bible, Nyberg also worked from time to time in Hebrew. In his much debated Studien zum Hoseabuche (1935), he strongly emphasizes the importance of the oral tradition for the historical understanding of the textual form of the Hebrew scriptures, deliberately practicing a conservative textual criticism and eschewing the predilection for emendations common among many Old Testament scholars.


Nyberg's monumental study Irans forntida religioner (Stockholm, 1937) was translated into German as Die Religionen des alten Iran (Leipzig, 1938) by H. H. Schaeder. It was reprinted in 1966 with a Begleitwort by Nyberg. Obituary notices and a complete bibliography of Nyberg's works can be found in the Monumentum H. S. Nyberg, 4 vols., "Acta Iranica," vols. 14 (Leiden, 1975).

New Sources

Kahle, Sigrid. H. S. Nyberg: En vetenskapsmans biografi. Stockholm, 1991.

Utas, Bo., ed. Frahang ī Pahlavīk. Wiesbaden, 1988.

Frithiof Rundgren (1987)

Revised Bibliography