Library of The
World’s Best Literature
Ancient and Modern
Avesta, or Zend-Avesta, an interesting monument of antiquity, is the Bible of Zoroaster, the sacred book of ancient Iran, and holy scripture of the modern Parsis. The exact meaning of the name “Avesta” is not certain; it may perhaps signify “law,” “text,” or, more doubtfully, “wisdom,” “revelation.” The modern familiar designation of the book as Zend-Avesta is not strictly accurate; if used at all, it should rather be Avesta-Zend, like “Bible and Commentary,” as zand signifies “explanation,” “commentary,” and Avesta u Zand is employed in some Persian allusions to the Zoroastrian scriptures as a designation denoting the text of the Avesta accompanied by the Pahlavi version or interpretation.
The story of the recovery of the Avesta, or rather the discovery of the Avesta, by the enthusiastic young French scholar Anquetil du Perron, who was the first to open to the western world the ancient records of Zoroastrianism, reads almost like a romance. Du Perron’s own account of his departure for India in 1754, of his experiences with the dasturs (or priests) during a seven years’ residence among them, of his various difficulties and annoyances, setbacks and successes, is entertainingly presented in the introductory volume of his work ‘Zend-Avesta, Ouvrage de Zoroastre’ (3 Vols., Paris, 1771). This was the first translation of the ancient Persian books published in a European language. Its appearance formed one of those epochs which are marked by an addition to the literary, religious, or philosophical wealth of our time; a new contribution was added to the riches of the West from the treasures of the East. The field thus thrown open, although worked imperfectly at first, has yielded abundant harvests to the hands of later gleaners.
THE ZEND-AVESTA. Facsimile of a Page of the AVESTA; from the oldest preserved manuscript containing the YAÇNA. A.D. 1325. In the Royal Library at Copenhagen.
With the growth of our knowledge of the language of the sacred texts, we have now a clear idea also of the history of Zoroastrian literature and of the changes and chances through which with varying fortunes the scriptures have passed. The original Zoroastrian Avesta, according to tradition, was in itself a literature of vast dimensions. Pliny, in his ‘Natural History,’ speaks of two million verses of Zoroaster; to which may be added the Persian assertion that the original copy of the scriptures was written upon twelve thousand parchments, with gold illuminated letters, and was deposited in the library at Persepolis. But what was the fate of this archetype? Parsi tradition has an answer. Alexander the Great— “the accursed Iskander,” as he is called— is responsible for its destruction. At the request of the beautiful Thais, as the story goes, he allowed the palace of Persepolis to be burned, and the precious treasure perished in the flames. Whatever view we may take of the different sides of this story, one thing cannot be denied: the invasion of Alexander and the subjugation of Iran was indirectly or directly the cause of a certain religious decadence which followed upon the disruption of the Persian Empire, and was answerable for the fact that a great part of the scriptures was forgotten or fell into disuse. Persian tradition lays at the doors of the Greeks the loss of another copy of the original ancient texts, but does not explain in what manner this happened; nor has it any account to give of copies of the prophet’s works which Semitic writers say were translated into nearly a dozen different languages. One of these versions was perhaps Greek, for it is generally acknowledged that in the fourth century B.C. the philosopher Theopompus spent much time in giving in his own tongue the contents of the sacred Magian books.
Tradition is unanimous on one point at least: it is that the original Avesta comprised twenty-one Nasks, or books, a statement which there is no good reason to doubt. The same tradition which was acquainted with the general character of these Nasks professes also to tell exactly how many of them survived the inroad of Alexander; for although the sacred text itself was destroyed, its contents were lost only in part, the priests preserving large portions of the precious scriptures. These met with many vicissitudes in the five centuries that intervened between the conquest of Alexander and the great restoration of Zoroastrianism in the third century of our era, under the Sassanian dynasty. At this period all obtainable Zoroastrian scriptures were collected, the compilation was codified, and a detailed notice made of the contents of each of the original Nasks compared with the portions then surviving. The original Avesta was, it would appear, a sort of encyclopaedic work; not of religion alone, but of useful knowledge relating to law, to the arts, science, the professions, and to every-day life. If we may judge from the existing table of contents of these Nasks, the zealous Sassanians, even in the time of the collecting (A. D. 226-380), were able to restore but a fragment of the archetype, perhaps a fourth part of the original Avesta. Nor was this remnant destined to escape misfortune. The Mohammedan invasion, in the seventh century of our era added a final and crushing blow. Much of the religion that might otherwise have been handed down to us, despite “the accursed Iskander’s” conquest, now perished through the sword and the Koran. Its loss, we must remember, is in part compensated by the Pahlavi religious literature of Sassanian days.
Fragmentary and disjointed as are the remnants of the Avesta, we are fortunate in possessing even this moiety of the Bible of Zoroaster, whose compass is about one tenth that of our own sacred book. A grouping of the existing texts is here presented:— 1. Yasna (including Gathas). 2. Visperad. 3. Yashts. 4. Minor Texts. 5. Vendidad. 6. Fragments.
Even these texts no single manuscript in our time contains complete. The present collection is made by combining various Avestan codexes. In spite of the great antiquity of the literature, all the existing manuscripts are comparatively young. None is older than the thirteenth century of our own era, while the direct history of only one or two can be followed back to about the tenth century. This mere external circumstance has of course no bearing on the actual early age of the Zoroastrian scriptures. It must be kept in mind that Zoroaster lived at least six centuries before the birth of Christ.
Among the six divisions of our present Avesta, the Yasna, Visperad, and Vendidad are closely connected. They are employed in the daily ritual, and they are also accompanied by a version or interpretation in the Pahlavi language, which serves at the same time as a sort of commentary. The three divisions are often found combined into a sort of prayer-book, called Vendidad-Sadah (Vendidad Pure); i.e., Avesta text without the Pahlavi rendering. The chapters in this case are arranged with special reference to liturgical usage.
Some idea of the character of the Avesta as it now exists may be derived from the following sketch of its contents and from the illustrative selections presented:—
1. Yasna (sacrifice, worship), the chief liturgical work of the sacred canon. It consists mainly of ascriptions of praise and of prayer, and corresponds nearly to our idea of a prayer-book. The Yasna comprises seventy-two chapters; these fall into three nearly equal parts. The middle, or oldest part, is the section of Gathas below described.
The meaning of the word yasna as above gives at once some conception of the nature of the texts. The Yasna chapters were recited at the sacrifice: a sacrifice that consisted not in blood-offerings, but in an offering of praise and thanksgiving, accompanied by ritual observances. The white-robed priest, girt with the sacred cord and wearing a veil, the paitidana, before his lips in the presence of the holy fire, begins the service by an invocation of Ahura Mazda (Ormazd) and the heavenly hierarchy; he then consecrates the zaothra water, the myazda or oblation, and the baresma or bundle of sacred twigs. He and his assistant now prepare the haoma (the soma of the Hindus), or juice of a sacred plant, the drinking of which formed part of the religious rite. At the ninth chapter of the book, the rhythmical chanting of the praises of Haoma is begun. This deified being, a personification of the consecrated drink, is supposed to have appeared before the prophet himself, and to have described to him the blessings which the haoma bestows upon its pious worshiper. The lines are metrical, as in fact they commonly are in the older parts of the Avesta, and the rhythm somewhat recalls the Kalevala verse of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha.’ A specimen is here presented in translation:—
At the time of morning-worship
Haoma came to Zoroaster,
Who was serving at the Fire
And the holy Psalms intoning.
“What man art thou (asked the Prophet),
Who of all the world material
Art the fairest I have e’er seen
In my life, bright and immortal?”
The image of the sacred plant responds, and bids the priest prepare the holy extract.
Haoma then to me gave answer,
Haoma righteous, death-destroying:—
“Zoroaster, I am Haoma,
Righteous Haoma, death-destroying.
Do thou gather me, Spitama,
And prepare me as a potion;
Praise me, aye as shall hereafter
In their praise the Saviors praise me.”