YAZATAS . The term yazata occurs in the Avesta, the collection of sacred books of Zoroastrianism, as an attribute or designation of divine beings. From this term is derived the Middle Persian yazd ("god"; pl., yazdān ). The word appears frequently in the Avesta, although not in the five Gāthās ("songs") attributed to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster); in Gathic it appears only in the Yasna Haptanhāiti (Yasna of the Seven Chapters), ascribed to Ahura Mazdā. Its meaning in this text is "worthy of worship, worthy of sacrifice" (from the verb yaz, "to venerate, sacrifice"), identical to that of its Vedic counterpart, yajata. This is the general meaning of the term, which is used to refer to divine beings, usually secondary gods, personifications, or cult gods of the pre-Zoroastrian Indo-European pantheon that had been absorbed into the religion. Thus, as Zoroastrianism reached a compromise with ancient polytheism, yazata came to designate a deity who was readmitted to the cult. At the beginning of the hymn dedicated to Vayu (Yashts 15), for example, the god is called yazata in a sentence that is evidently meant to justify the integration of the hymn within the canonical list of the Yashts, a section of the Avesta.
In the Zoroastrianism that evolved following the prophet's reforms, some of the ancient daiva s—the word is used here in its most general and archaic sense, to mean "gods"—became or were reinstated as yazata s. That is, they were transformed from beings whose worship was forbidden (daiva s in the later sense of "demons") back into beings whose worship was permitted or even recommended. The Yashts is very instructive in this regard: many passages in various hymns provide justification for the readmission to the cult of one or another daiva, and often it is Ahura Mazdā himself who is said to approve such a reintegration.
The meaning of yazdān in Pahlavi texts (from the ninth and tenth centuries CE) is derived from this general meaning of yazata. It is used for various categories of divine beings: for the gods in general, for the ancient yazata s in particular, and for the Amesha Spentas (MPers., Amahraspandan). The yazdan s rule over the months, the days, and five liturgical periods of the day.
But in the Avesta yazata has a precise meaning: any entity to whom a hymn is dedicated. Besides Ahura Mazdā and Vayu, yazata refers, as has been noted (Kellens, 1976), to the following beings: Mithra, Sraosha ("discipline"), Arshtāt ("justice"), Nairyōsanha ("of manly utterance"), Verethraghna ("victory"), Ātar ("fire"), Apąm Napāt ("son of the waters"), Zam ("earth"), and Gairi Ushidarena ("mountain dawn-abode"). But in the so-called Younger Avesta it is, above all, the deities who form the escort of Mithra who are defined as yazata s. From this it follows that not all the beings to whom a hymn in the Avesta is dedicated are in a strict sense yazata s and that yazata is not the Avestan equivalent of the Old Persian baga ; the latter has no specific meaning but only carries the general sense of "god," as does the parallel Avestan bagha.
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Gherardo Gnoli (1987)
Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris