Pahlavi Texts, Part I
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This is part I of the Sacred Books of the East Pahlavi Texts translation. It includes a number of crucial medieval Zoroastrian texts: the Bundahis, Selections of Zad-sparam, the Bahman Yast, and the Shayast la-Shayast, as put into writing about the sixth century C.E. The Bundahis is of note because it is a collection of Zoroastrian traditions about the creation of the world. The Shayast la-Shayast deals with matters of ritual impurity, sin, and rituals related to purification, including many cases related to dead bodies. The Bahman Yast is a prophetic text, which details thousands of years of history, including the downfall and rebirth of the Zoroastrian faith. West compares these texts respectively to the Biblical books of Genesis, Leviticus and Revelation.

Pahlavi Texts
Part I

Sacred Books of the East
Vol. 5

Translated by
E.W. West [1880]


The Parsi Scriptures

THOUGH we must look to the Avesta for information regarding the main outlines of the Parsi religion, it is to Pahlavi writings we must refer for most of the details relating to the traditions, ceremonies, and customs of this ancient faith, which styles itself emphatically ‘the good religion of the Mazdayasnians,’ and calls its laity bahdînân, or ‘those of the good religion.’ In the fragments of the Avesta which still exist, we may trace the solid foundations of the religion, laid by philosophic bards and lawgivers of old, with many a mouldering column and massive fragment of the superstructure. erected upon them by the ancient priesthood. These are the last remnants of the faith held by Cyrus, the anointed of the Lord (Isaiah xlv. 1), the righteous one (Is. xli. 2), or eagle (Is. xlvi. 11), whom He called from the east, and the shepherd who performed His pleasure (Is. xliv. 28); scattered fragments of the creed professed by Darius in his inscriptions, when he attributes his successes to ‘the will of Aûramazdâ;’ and mouldering ruins of the comparatively pure religion of oriental ‘barbarism,’ which Alexander and his civilising Greek successors were unable wholly to destroy, and replace by their own idolatrous superstitions. While in the Pahlavi texts we, find much of the mediaeval edifice built by later Persian priest craft upon the old foundations, with a strange mixture of old and new materials, and exhibiting the usual symptom of declining powers, a strong insistence upon complex forms and minute details, with little of the freedom of treatment and simplicity of outline characteristic of the ancient bards.

To understand the relationship between these two classes of Parsi sacred writings, it must be observed that the Avesta and Pahlavi of the same scripture, taken together, form its Avesta and Zand, terms which are nearly synonymous with ‘revelation and commentary.’ Both words are derived from verbal roots implying ‘knowledge;’ Avesta being the Pahlavi avistâk, which may most probably be traced to the past participle of â, ‘to,’+ vid, ‘to know,’ with the meaning of ‘what is announced’ or ‘declaration;’ and Zand, being the Pahlavi form of Av. zainti (traceable in the word âzaintis), must be referred to the root zan, ‘to know,’ with the meaning of ‘knowledge, understanding .’ European scholars, misled probably by Muhammadan writers, have converted the phrase ‘Avesta and Zand’ into ‘Zend-Avesta,’ and have further identified Zand with the language of the Avesta. This use of the word Zand is, however, quite at variance with the practice of all Parsi writers who have been independent of European influence, as they apply the term Zand only to the Pahlavi translations and explanations of their sacred books, the original text of which they call Avesta. So that when they use the phrase ‘Avesta and Zand’ they mean the whole of any scripture, both the Avesta text and Pahlavi translation and commentary. And the latter, being often their only means of understanding the former, has now become of nearly equal authority with the Avesta itself. It is probable, indeed, that the first Zand was really written in the Avesta language, as we find many traces of such Avesta commentaries interpolated both in the Avesta and Pahlavi texts of the Parsi scriptures; but this is rather a matter of, European inference than of Parsi belief. The later (or Pahlavi) Zand appears also, in many places, to be merely a translation of this earlier (or Avesta) Zand, with additional explanations offered by the Pahlavi translators.

Regarding the sacredness of these Pahlavi translations, in the eyes of the Parsis, there can be no manner of doubt, so far as they cannot be shown to be inconsistent with the original Avesta text. But besides these translations there is another class of Pahlavi religious writings whose authority is more open to dispute. These writings are either translations and Zands of Avesta texts no longer extant, or they contain the opinions and decisions of high-priests of later times, when the Pahlavi language was on the decline. Such writings would hardly be considered of indisputable authority by any Parsi of the present day, unless they coincided with his own preconceived opinions. But for outsiders they have the inestimable value either of supplying numerous details of religious traditions and customs which would be vainly sought for elsewhere, or of being contemporary records of the religious ideas of the Parsis in the declining days of their Mazdayasnian faith. It is with a few of such writings this volume has to deal; but before describing them more minutely it will be desirable to give some account of the Pahlavi language in which they are written.

The Pahlavi Language and Literature

The term ‘Pahlavi,’ in its widest extent, is applied to all the varying forms of the mediæval Persian language, from the time when the grammatical inflexions of ancient Persian were dropped, till the period when the modern alphabet was invented, and the language became corrupted into modern Persian by the adoption of numerous Arabic words and phrases. Some traces of Pahlavi words and phrases, written in old Semitic characters, have been found in the legends of coins struck by certain kings of Persian provinces, subordinate to the Greek successors of Alexander, as early As the third century B.C. Further traces have been discovered in the legends on some provincial coins of the time of the Arsacidan dynasty. But, practically, our acquaintance with Pahlavi commences with the inscriptions, on rocks and coins, of Ardakhshîr-i Pâpakân (A.D. 226-140), the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, and ends with certain religious writings of priests and other devout Parsis of post-Muhammadan times, among the latest of which is one dated A.Y. 250 (A.D. 881). Any fragments of Pahlavi composition of later date than A.D. 1000, must be considered merely as modern imitations of a dead language, and cannot be quoted as authorities for the use of any particular Pahlavi words or construction.

With regard to the origin of the word Pahlavî, or language of Pahlav, many suggestions have been offered; but the most probable explanation is that which connects it of with the Parthva, of the cuneiform inscriptions, the land the Parthians known to the Greeks and Romans, and of the Pahlavâs mentioned by Sanskrit writers; the change of Parthva into Pahlav being very similar to that of Av. Mithra into Pers. Mihr. No doubt the language of the Parthians themselves was not Pahlavi, but they were the actual rulers of Persia for some centuries at the time when the Pahlavi language was forming there; and, being formidable to their neighbours, it is not surprising that their name became identified with everything Persian, in the same way as the Roman name has been applied by the Persians, not only to the later Greek empire of Constantinople, but even to the earlier conqueror, Alexander the Great.

Strictly speaking, the mediæval Persian language is only called Pahlavi when it is written in one of the characters used before the invention of the modern Persian alphabet, and in the peculiarly enigmatical mode adopted in Pahlavi writings. Whenever it is transcribed, either in Avesta characters, or in those of the modern Persian alphabet, and freed from this peculiarity, it is called Pâzand.

The peculiar mode of writing Pahlavi, here alluded to long made the character of the language a standing puzzle for European scholars, and was first satisfactorily explained, by Professor Haug, of Munich, in his admirable Essay on the Pahlavi Language already cited.

Like the Assyrians of old, the Persians of Parthian times appear to have borrowed their writing from a foreign race. But, whereas the Semitic Assyrians adopted a Turanian syllabary, these later Aryan Persians accepted a Semitic alphabet. Besides the alphabet, however, which they could use for spelling their own words, they also transferred a certain number of complete Semitic words to their writings, as representatives of the corresponding words in their own language. These Semitic representatives (the number of which might at any time be increased or diminished at the discretion of the writer) were probably never very numerous, and not more than four hundred of them are to be found in the Pahlavi, writings now extant; but, as they represent nearly all the commonest words in the language (excepting those specially relating to religious matters), they often constitute more than half the bulk of a Pahlavi text.

The use of such Semitic words, scattered about in Persian sentences, gives Pahlavi the motley appearance of a compound language; more especially as Persian terminations are often added to the Semitic words. But there are good reasons for supposing that the language was never spoken as it was written. The spoken language appears to have been purely Persian; the Semitic words being merely used, as written representatives, or logograms, of the Persian words which were spoken. Thus the Persians would write malkân malkâ, ‘king of kings,’ but they would read shâhân shâh. This is still the mode in which most Parsis read their Pahlavi literature; and it is only by assuming it to have been their universal practice, in former times, that we can account for the total and immediate disappearance of the Semitic portion of the Pahlavi, from their language, when the Persians adopted their modern alphabet. As the Semitic words were merely a Pahlavi mode of writing their Persian equivalents (just as ‘viz.’ is a mode of writing ‘namely’ in English), they disappeared with the Pahlavi writing, and the Persians began at once to write all their words, with their new alphabet just as they pronounced them.

In the meantime, the greater part of the nation had become Muhammadans, and a new influx of Semitic words commenced, but of a very different character. The Semitic portion of the Pahlavi writing was nearly pure Chaldee, and was confined (as already stated) to the graphic representation of most of the simplest and commonest words unconnected with religion; but it seems to have formed no part of the spoken language, at all events in later times. Whereas the Semitic portion of modern Persian is borrowed from Arabic, and includes most words connected with religion, science, and literature; in fact, every class of words except that which was usually Semitic in Pahlavi writings; and these Arabic words form an essential part of the spoken language, being as indispensable to the modern Persian as words of Norman-French origin are to the English.

In Pahlavi writings, moreover, besides the four hundred Semitic logograms already mentioned, we also find about one hundred obsolete forms of Iranian words used as logograms; much in the same way as ‘ye’ may be used for ‘the,’ and ‘Xmas’ for ‘Christmas’ in English. The use of all these logograms was, however, quite optional, as their usual Persian equivalents might, be substituted for any of them at any time, according to each particular writer’s taste and discretion. But whenever they are employed they form. what is called the Huzvâris portion of the Pahlavi; while the other words, intended to be pronounced as they are spelt, form the Pâzand portion.