AVESTA . Only a small part of the Avesta (MPers., Abastāg; the name probably means "the Injunction [of Zarathushtra]"), the collection of sacred books of Zoroastrianism, has come down to us: about three-quarters of the original texts, whose codification dates to the Sasanid period (third to seventh centuries ce), have been lost. The oldest extant manuscript is from the thirteenth century.
The oral tradition that has permitted the transmission of the texts is therefore very long, especially since significant portions of the Avesta go as far back as the first years of the first millennium bce. This fact, together with the problems connected with the writing system employed (derived from the Pahlavi alphabet, of Aramaic origin) and with the manuscript tradition, means that the study of the Avesta is philologically among the most difficult and complex.
The selection of texts that has survived—first published by their discoverer, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil du Perron, in 1771—was apparently primarily determined by liturgical interests. For the most part, these are the texts that were used for religious services during the period in which the manuscript tradition arose, and they are accompanied by Pahlavi versions. It should be remembered that their language (which, being impossible to locate geographically within the Iranian world beyond a general characterization as eastern Iranian, is simply called Avestan) was no longer understood. Pahlavi versions were, consequently, necessary for an understanding of the text, which was thus strongly influenced by a relatively late exegetical tradition (in any case, not earlier than the Sasanid period). The compilation must have had to meet the requirements of the new Zoroastrian state church to provide—as did the contemporary and rival religions Christianity, Judaism, and Manichaeism—scriptures that would promote the establishment of a solid and rigid orthodoxy. Indeed, the process of selection of the scriptures is mentioned explicitly in the Pahlavi literature.
The surviving texts are highly varied, both in content and in language. Several parts of the Yasna are written in a dialect known as Gathic: the Gāthās, the five compositions in verse attributed to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself, which constitute chapters 28–34, 43–46, 47–50, 51, and 53; the Yasna Haptanhāiti, or Yasna of the Seven Chapters (35–41); the three fundamental prayers of Zoroastrianism, Yenhē Hātam, Ashem Vohu, and Yatha Ahū Vairyō (chap. 27); and the prayer Airyema Ishyō (chap. 55). The other parts of the Avesta are written in a linguistically later Avestan, more or less archaic and also more or less correct. They include the rest of the Yasna and the Nyāyishn, the Gāh, the Yashts, Sīrōza, Āfrīnagān, Vendidad, Nīrangistān, Hadhōkht Nask, Aogemadaēchā.
The Yasna is the most important section, and not just because the Gāthās are inserted in it: these are the seventy-two chapters recited by the priest during the ceremony of the same name (Yasna, "sacrifice"). Among these is found the Hōm Yasht, the hymn to Haoma (chap. 9–11); the Fravarānē ("I profess"), a confession of faith (chap. 12); and the so-called Bagān Yasht, a commentary on the three fundamental prayers (chaps. 19–21). But without doubt the most important part of the Yasna, and the most beautiful part of the whole Avesta, is the Gāthās ("songs") of Zarathushtra. Difficulties of interpretation do not diminish their value: they are the primary source for a knowledge of the doctrines of the prophet. In their literary genre, they are close to the Vedic hymns and testify to the presence in Iran, as elsewhere, of a tradition of Indo-European sacred poetry.
Among the other sections, the Yashts (hymns to various divinities) deserve special mention. Several of these hymns or prayers are particularly significant in the history of religions, as they are the most direct evidence of the new faith's adaptation of the older religious tradition. Especially noteworthy are those dedicated to Anāhitā (5); to Tishtrya, the star Sirius (8); to Mithra (10); to the fravashis (13); to Verethraghna (14); to Vāyu (15); and to Khvarenah (19).
The Vendidad (vī-daēvo-dāta, "the law abjuring daivas "), the only section that may be an addition to the text, contains, along with mythological parts like the second chapter dedicated to Yima, the king of the golden age, a detailed body of rules for achieving purity. The Hadhōkht Nask and the Aogemadaēchā are texts dealing with events after death and funeral rites. The other parts are primarily invocations and prayers for the various forms, articulations, and requirements of worship services.
Editions and Translations of the Avesta or of Its Sections
Bartholomae, C. Die Gathas des Avesta: Zarathustra's Verspredigten. Strassburg, 1905. Translated by J. H. Moulton in Early Zoroastrianism (1913; reprint, London, 1972), pp. 343–390.
Darmesteter, James. The Zend-Avesta, pt. 2, The Sirozahs, Yashts and Nyayesh. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 23. Oxford, 1883; reprint, Delhi, 1965.
Darmesteter, James. The Zend-Avesta, pt. 1, The Vendīdād. 2d ed. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 4. Oxford, 1895; reprint, Delhi, 1965.
Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. Zoroastre: Étude critique avec une traduction commentée des Gâthâ. Paris, 1948. Translated by Maria Henning as The Hymns of Zarathushtra (London, 1952).
Humbach, Helmut. Die Gathas des Zarathustra. 2 vols. Heidelberg, 1959.
Humbach, Helmut. The Gāthās and the Other Old Avestan Texts. 2 vols. Wiesbaden, 1991.
Insler, Stanley. The Gathas of Zarathushtra. Acta Iranica, 3d ser., vol. 1. Leiden, 1975.
Kellens, Jean, and Eric Pirart. Les textes vieil-avestiques. 3 vols. Wiesbaden, 1988–1991.
Lommel, Herman. Die Yäšt's des Awesta. Göttingen, 1927.
Lommel, Herman. Die Gathas des Zarathustra. Edited by Bernfried Schlerath. Basel, 1971.
Mills, L. H. The Zend-Avesta, pt. 3, The Yasna, Visparad, Afrinagan, Gahs and Miscellaneous Fragments. Sacred Books of the East, vol. 31. Oxford, 1887; reprint, Delhi, 1965.
Smith, Maria W. Studies in the Syntax of the Gathas of Zarathushtra, Together with Text, Translation and Notes. Philadelphia, 1929; reprint, Millwood, N.Y., 1966.
Taraporevala, Irach J. S. The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra. Bombay, 1951.
Editions and Translations of the Pahlavi Version
Anklesaria, Behramgore Tahmuras, trans. Pahlavi Vendidād. Edited by Dinshah D. Kapadia. Bombay, 1949.
Dhabhar, Bamanji Nasarvanji, ed. Zand-i Khūrtak Avistāk. Bombay, 1927.
Dhabhar, Bamanji Nasarvanji, ed. Pahlavi Yasna and Vispered. Bombay, 1949.
Jamasp, Hoshang, ed. Vendidâd. Bombay, 1907. Avestan text with Pahlavi translation, commentary, and glossary.
Kanga, Ervad Maneck F., ed. Pahlavi Version of Yašts. Bombay, 1941.
Studies of the Transmission, Transliteration, and Oral Tradition
Altheim, Franz. Awestische Textgeschichte. Halle, 1949.
Bailey, H. W. Zoroastrian Problems in the Ninth-Century Books (1943). Reprint, Oxford, 1971.
Henning, W. B. "The Disintegration of the Avestic Studies." Transactions of the Philological Society (1942): 40–56.
Morgenstierne, G. "Orthography and Sound System in the Avesta." Norsk tidsskrift for sprogvidenskap 12 (1942): 38–82.
Widengren, Geo. "The Problem of the Sassanid Avesta." In Holy Book and Holy Tradition, pp. 36–53. Manchester, 1968.
Christensen, Arthur. Études sur le zoroastrisme de la Perse antique. Copenhagen, 1928.
Gershevitch, Ilya. "Old Iranian Literature." In Iranistik-Literatur. Leiden, 1968.
Hoffmann, Karl. "Das Avesta in der Persis." In Prolegomena to the Sources on the History of Pre-Islamic Central Asia, edited by J. Harmatta, pp. 89–93. Budapest, 1979.
Hoffmann, Karl, and Johanna Narten. Der sasanidische Archetypus. Wiesbaden, 1989.
Kellens, Jean. Zoroastre et l'Avesta ancien. Paris, 1991.
Kellens, Jean. Essays on Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. Translated and edited by Prods Oktor Skjærvø. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2000.
Meillet, Antoine. Trois conférences sur les Gâthâ de l'Avesta. Paris, 1925.
Schlerath, Bernfried. Avesta-Wörterbuch. 2 vols. Wiesbaden, 1968.
Schmidt, Rüdiger, comp. Indogermanische Dichtersprache. Darmstadt, 1968.
Stausbert, Michael. Die Religion Zarathustras. Geschichte-Gegen-wart-Rituale, vol. 1. Stuttgart, 2002.
Wesendonk, O. G. von. Die religionsgeschichtliche Bedeutung des Yasna Haptanhāti. Bonn, 1931.
Gherardo Gnoli (1987)
Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris
The sacred book of the Parsees, the modern Persian followers of the ancient religion of zoroaster. Its oldest part, the gĀthĀs, dates back probably to Zoroaster himself. Its most recent parts may be as late as the Sassanian period (3d cent.–7th cent. a.d.). The Avesta is composed in two different dialects of a very archaic language, probably of equal antiquity with Vedic Sanskrit. This language was already obsolete in Sassanian times, when it became necessary to furnish the text with a paraphrase and commentary in the vernacular Pahlavi, or language of the Sassanians. Because such commentaries were called zand, the Avesta has been mistakenly designated as the Zand-Avesta or Zend-Avesta. A summary of the contents of the Avesta surviving in Pahlavi shows that the Sassanian Avesta was about four times longer than the extant form. It contained 21 books, but only one has been preserved intact, the Videvdat or "Code against the Demons." The rest of the extant Avesta is made up of fragments of the other 20 books, arranged for liturgical purposes.
The first part of the Avesta is the Yasna or "Sacrifice," a text recited during the performance of the chief ceremony of the Zoroastrian ritual, a sacrifice—faintly suggestive of the Catholic Mass—of sacred liquor and water before an ever-burning fire. In the Yasna are embedded the Gāthās, metrical discourses and revelations of Zoroaster. The Visprat, or "All the patrons," is a collection of additions to the Yasna, recited in more solemn circumstances.
The second part of the Avesta is a series of 21 Yashts or "Hymns" to as many divinities, including ancient gods whom Zoroaster had ignored or combated, but whose cult had crept again into Zoroastrianism. The chief divinities are Mithra, the goddess Anahita, the star-god Tishtrya, and others. There are also hymns to the spirits of the deceased, to the fravashis, to the Xvarnah or Royal Fortune, etc. The third part is the Videvdat, cited above. In addition there are several minor sections.
Although the Avesta is valuable to the historian of religion, only the Gāthās and parts of the Yashts have any literary value.
Bibliography: r. c. zaehner, The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (New York 1961). j. duchesne-guillemin, La Religion de l'Iran ancien (Paris 1962).
In modern religious practice, Zoroastrians use a Khorda Avesta, a collection of essential prayers for daily use by lay people.