Zoroastrianism before the Iranian Empires

  January 07, 2024   Read time 6 min
Zoroastrianism before the Iranian Empires
In a field riddled with uncertainties, there are two very solid facts on which our entire reconstruction of earliest Zoroastrianism must be based. The first of these is the existence of the Avesta, in its own language (Avestan), preserved and transmitted over a very long period by Iranians who did not speak that language.

The second is the fact that the corpus of Avestan texts mirrors a world (literally) far removed from those of the Iranian empires: centered in eastern Iran and Central Asia and borne by a society based on kin groups, tribal associations, and (probably) transient unions of villages and regions. The enemies spoken of in the narrative portions of the Avestan texts are referred to under two different headings: The first are the daeuuaiiasna ̄ s, those who worship the (rejected/evil) daeuua ̄ s and who are contrasted to the “we‐group” of the texts, the mazdaiiasnas, the people who worship Ahura Mazdā. The second heading appears to be an ethnic one: It is Tūiriia (together with a few other ethnic names), the name of the enemies of the “we‐group” of the Avesta, the people who refer to themselves as “Arya.” There is a great elasticity in the application of these terms (in later times, for example, the Tūiriia were identified with the Turks) and together they are responsible for the situation that the identity of the Zoroastrians could be expressed both in “religious” and in “ethnic” terms – the source of much confusion for historians of Zoroastrianism.

It has generally been recognized, moreover, that the Avestan texts that have been preserved are diachronically layered: There is a small portion in a much more archaic dialect (known as Old Avestan), traditionally attributed to Zarathustra himself, and a much larger group of texts that is seen as younger. This diachronic hierarchy is augmented, moreover, by the fact that the younger texts all presuppose the older ones: In some cases, they literally rework them or reflect on them (this is the case, for example, with the Frauuarāne (̄ Y 12), which contains quotations from the Old Avestan texts; and with the commentary on the Old Avestan prayers in Y 19–21), in other cases they show the presence of the Old Avestan texts in the use of names (Zarathustra, Ahura Mazdā) and technical terms (Aməsa Sp ̣̌ ənta; Saošiian ̣ t) specific to that corpus. Most scholars ̣ agree that these Old Avestan passages were not always interpreted correctly – a first sign of the development of Zoroastrian theology – but what these passages do establish is the “foundational” character of the Old Avestan texts.

In the corpus of younger Avestan texts, the narrative of the foundation of the religion through the activities of Zarathustra and the support he gained from Vıštā ̄spa is firmly in place. The important point of this is that from these early texts onward, a notion existed of the “historicity” of the religion: It had originated in a historical past and had not always been around. As a consequence, it had the natural option of presenting itself as a choice that could be made by all: As the religion had already begun to spread, so it could (and would, according to the texts) continue to spread around the world. These younger texts operate, as indicated, with an established notion of a “community” whose identity is expressed primarily – but not exclusively – in religious terms: Belonging to the community is not conditioned by birth, but depends on the choice of the believers to worship certain deities and not to worship others (as is clear especially from the Frauuarāne, ̄ Y 12).

It must be assumed that at a certain moment in history there were people in the Iranian world who chose to adopt this religion, who did not speak Avestan, but were convinced that it was important for their belonging to the community of Mazda‐ worshippers to use the Avestan texts in their prayers and rituals. This has been evoked, somewhat romantically, as a result of the work of Zoroastrian missionaries (Boyce 1975a: 249–276), whose activities are to some extent recorded. Alongside this perspective, however, we find the story of the conversion of Vıštā ̄spa to Zoroastrianism – with its important lesson (much emulated in later times, by Christians and Manichaeans) that the conversion of a ruler equals (or brings about) the conversion of the people in his domain.

There are, of course, no reliable sources on the details of this whole process, but the preservation of the Avesta, in its own language, is a very solid fact that can only be explained from such a background. At the same time, this necessary assumption produces a number of significant questions that cannot be answered and that make any history of the development of early Zoroastrianism impossible to sketch. This is one of the reasons why a history of (early) Zoroastrianism is most often a history of Avestan texts; the situation is roughly comparable to that of the history of Vedic religion, which is almost always written as a history of Vedic literature. For the purpose of the present chapter, there are three particularly important questions: a question of content, a question of understanding or translation, and a question of use. We do not know (exactly) which texts were present at any given moment in Zoroastrian history before the Sasanian period, nor how (or when) they were collected and rearranged (and brought into the service, for example, of the Yasna liturgy, the history of which is equally unknown). Nor do we know how these texts were understood or used by priests and lay people, apart from their (obvious) use in ritual. It has often been noted, for example, that for a native speaker of Avestan, all divine names would have an understandable meaning (since they all reproduce or encapsulate common nouns or adjectives). For them, “hearing” Avestan texts would be comparable to a 17th‐century speaker of English listening to a recital of the exploits of Christian and Mr Worldly Wiseman in the town of Carnal Policy from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Much of this would be lost when the texts began to be recited and heard by people who did not speak that language itself: The goddess “Reward” would easily transform into a goddess with the name Arti, and the Wise Lord himself ended up as a deity with the name Ahura Mazdā (and appears thus, with both elements of his name joined as one, in the inscriptions of the Achaemenids as Ahuramazdā‐).

Finally, we do not know how the Avestan texts were used, apart from their (generally acknowledged) use in ritual contexts. It is customary to believe that the content of the texts (however well or poorly they were comprehended) mattered to the Zoroastrians, but there is no solid evidence for this assumption (de Jong 2009). Much of this has been circumvented on the assumption – reasonable in itself – that the texts were accompanied by translations, but if we do not know which texts were present, we obviously do not know anything about their translations either. Any scenario of the growth of Zoroastrianism must take account of all these variables and it is likely that serious reflection on these will help explain, to a certain degree, the considerable local and historical variety of expressions of Zoroastrianism. The question for this chapter is how we can account for the (eventual) uniformity of the religion.

Write your comment