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An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion

An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and the Achaemenid Inscriptions

Translated and Edited by WILLIAM W. MALANDRA
Copyright Date: 1983
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion
    Book Description:

    When Persia fell to Islam in the mid-seventh century, the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism all but disappeared (although it is still practiced by small groups in India and Iran). As one of the dominant religions of antiquity, it influenced the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as some forms of gnosticism. Despite its age and venerable place in the history of world religions, Zoroastrianism remains little known outside of a few philologists and historians of religion. Because of the difficulty of translation, there is little primary textual material available for nonspecialists; the few translations that do exist are quite old._x000B_In An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion, William Malandra provides not only modern English translations of the sacred texts but also a comprehensive introduction to the subject of Zoroastrianism itself. In an introductory essay Malandra outlines the main features of Zoroastrianism in its historical, cultural, and spiritual setting. His new translations of readings from the Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, and selections from the Achaemenid inscriptions of the great kings Darius and Xerxes are accompanied by interpretive notes that allow students to make their way through this difficult material. This book is, therefore, not just a collection of texts but a self-contained introduction to Zoroastrianism that can be used by the nonspecialist without recourse to additional interpretive works.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6356-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. Abbreviations and Symbols
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Key to Transliteration and Pronunciation
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-32)

    Before the Buddha, before Christ and Muhammad, in a remote area of Iran a unique individual emerged from the anonymity of his traditional tribal culture to preach a new gospel, one that was destined to become the foundation of Iranian spirituality for more than a millennium. Like the Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad, he had the vision of transforming his inherited religion into a new faith. His name was Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in the West), and the religious vision to which he gave expression is known as Zoroastrianism, a religion whose roots go back to the beginning of the second millennium b.c....

  7. Reading Selections

    • 1. Zarathushtra
      (pp. 35-44)

      Probably the best known and in many ways the most interesting of the Gāthās is the so-called “Cow’s Lament,” (Yasna 29). In the form of dramatic dialogue it expresses the suffering of the Cow at the hands of the forces of the Lie. She cries out to Ahura Mazdā and the other Ahuras (i.e., the Amǝsha Spǝntas) for an explanation of her wretched condition. In particular, she despairs over her abandonment, her lack of an adequate herdsman for her protection. After some discussion born of indecision, since the Ahuras seem unable to find her a proper protector, Zarathushtra is recognized...

    • 2. Ahura Mazdā
      (pp. 44-55)

      Ahura Mazdā is the supreme being of Zoroastrianism. In the Gāthās and in the Achaemenid inscriptions, especially those of Darius the Great, he is described to us in terms that show that he was experienced both as the supreme creator of the universe, the mighty lord who ultimately controls the destiny of all, and as a personal deity of those who worship him. This latter experience of intimacy, of a close and intensely personal relationship with God, is unique in Old Iranian religion and is nowhere encountered in Vedic religion save in the Vasiṣṭha hymns to Varuṇa. In surprising contrast...

    • 3. Mithra
      (pp. 55-75)

      Next to Ahura Mazdā, Mithra is the greatest god of the old Iranian pantheon. The opening stanza of his Yasht states that Ahura Mazdā created Mithra equal to himself in respect to his worship. It is a Zoroastrian device to legitimize the worship of a god who, to judge by the richness of his Yasht, must have been the equal of Ahura Mazdā in non-Zarathushtrian circles. The absence of Mithra from the Gāthās, contrasted with his prominence in the Younger Avesta, led some scholars, H. S. Nyberg¹⁸ and his students, to espouse the belief that Eastern Iran had been the...

    • 4. Rashnu
      (pp. 76-80)

      As with Mithra, so with Rashnu, the starting point for an understanding of his nature is understanding the meaning of his name. It means ‘judge’ and in its appellative sense is also applied once to Mithra (Yt. 10.79). The name is derived from a verbal baseraz-s ‘to direct, make straight, judge’, which also provides Rashnu’s standing epithetrazishta‘straightest, most just’. The same verb in Indo-European, *reĝ, was highly productive, yielding, for example, NHGRecht‘law’ andRichter‘judge’, and in Latin, Celtic, and Old Indian the common word for ‘king’ (see below). As divine Judge, he seems to...

    • 5. Wǝrǝthraghna
      (pp. 80-88)

      It is immediately clear from the most cursory reading of Yasht 14 that Wǝrǝthraghna is a god of combat, of physical force. The name itself, which means ‘victory’, stands in need of further elucidation in order that one may achieve an understanding of the god’s basic nature. ‘Victory’, which is the translation given in the traditional Zoroastrian commentaries, is an accurate yet colorless approximation. The name is a compound consisting of a prior memberwǝrǝthraand a final memberghna. The element wǝrǝthra means ‘defense, resistance, obstruction’; ghna means ‘the smashing, breaking, smiting’. Together they form a neuter noun meaning...

    • 6. Xwarǝnah
      (pp. 88-97)

      I have discussed facets of the exercise of temporal power in several contexts, for example, the political role of Ahuramazdā in respect to the Achaemenid kings and the importance of Wǝrǝthraghna as an Aryan ideal. But no one religious concept is more central to Iranian notions of the legitimate wielding of political authority than the concept of xwarǝnah ‘glory’. The word is better known in its Median form *farnah. Although the Achaemenid kings did not use it in their inscriptions, it gained currency throughout the Iranian world under their empires, as can be seen by the popularity of the word...

    • 7. Wāyu
      (pp. 97-102)

      Indo-Iranian religion recognized two wind gods, Vāta (Av Wāta) and Vāyu (Av Wayu), who, because they are based on the same natural phenomenon, are difficult to distinguish, even though significant differences do exist between them. The figure of the bold Wāta is often seen in the Avesta in the company of a number of other deities, notably Mithra, Wǝrǝraghna, Tishtrya, and Satawaēsa. Outside Yasht 15, Wayu is scarcely ever found.

      In Avestan and in Iranian generally,wāta(and its cognates) is the common word for ‘wind’. In the Avesta it is found both as an appellative and as a proper...

    • 8. The Frawashis
      (pp. 102-117)

      One of the most complex and unusual phenomena of Zoroastrianism is that of the Frawashis. The Frawashis, for reasons to be given, are guardian spirits, which play three quite distinct roles. In one aspect, they are a band of ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine powerful deities whose functions and modes of operation are various. In their second aspect, which in actual practice, as opposed to literary reference, may have been as or more important than the first, they are ancestor spirits. Finally, the frawashi is one of the spiritual elements of the human personality. The meaning of the word frawashi...

    • 9. Arǝdwī Sūrā Anāhitā
      (pp. 117-130)

      Deeply rooted in Indo-Iranian religion was the belief in the extreme sanctity of water in general and specifically of bodies of water, especially rivers. Like other divinized elements of the material world, the waters must be understood from the religious perspective to be at once a physical entity and a divine reality. For the ancient Iranians water was never a neutral, objective substance, but rather substance and divinity in one. Herodotus tells the—from the Greek perspective—ridiculous story of how Xerxes, furious at the Hellespont for having wrecked the Persian bridge across it, had it flogged with three hundred...

    • 10. Ashi
      (pp. 130-135)

      Ashi is a goddess who personifies the concept of ‘reward, recompense’, which is the meaning of her name. As an appellative, ashi is employed in both Gāthic and Young Avestan to indicate both favorable and unfavorable recompense for one’s actions, depending, of course, on the moral quality of such actions. As a goddess Ashi is, for the most part, considered to be only ‘Good Reward’ (ashi wanghwī), and, as her Yasht makes clear, her area of concern is the good things of life, especially domestic felicities. Because of this her Yasht contains a treasure of information on the ancient Iranian...

    • 11. Sraosha
      (pp. 135-140)

      Sraosha is a deity who, at least from the time of Zarathushtra, has played an important role in Iranian religion. His worship was so deep-rooted in Iranian religious custom that he survived Islam to continue in an altered state as the angel Surōsh. He is also the only deity to have two Yashts dedicated to him, namely Yasna 57 and Yasht 11 (Srōsh Yasht Hadhōxt). He name itself, derived from the verb ‘to hear’ (sru-), means something like ‘obedience, discipline’. Unlike many abstract deities who, like the Amǝsha Spǝntas, have quite empty personalities, god Obedience is a flesh-and-blood figure of...

    • 12. Tishtrya
      (pp. 140-149)

      Despite the relative wealth of information furnished by Yasht 8, the deity to whom it pertains remains, in many respects, something of a mystery. He has no immediately apparent counterpart in the Rgveda, nor is any trace of him to be found in Old Iranian religion outside of the Avesta. In the Pahlavi books he is frequently confused with another astral deity, Tīr, but sometimes, in astrological texts, he is pitted against Tīr as his archenemy. He is normally identified as the star Sirius, yet the myth of his conflict with Apaosha, involving his ability to provide the earth with...

    • 13. Haoma
      (pp. 150-158)

      Two elements stand at the very center of Indo-Iranian ritual. They are haoma/somaand fire. From the times of the Avesta and the Vedas down to the present day, the major Zoroastrian and Vedic rituals have been inseparable from these elements. Avestan haoma (OPershauma, MPershōm, OInd soma, IIr *sauma) is a word whose meaning is as clear as anyone could wish. It is a noun derived with a suffix -ma- from a verbhu-/hau- (*su-/sau-), which means ‘to press or extract (juice from something)’. Therefore, haoma is simply ‘the thing which has been pressed, pressing, i.e., juice’. In...

    • 14. Ātar
      (pp. 159-161)

      In the popular conception of Zoroastrianism, fire worship is one of the most prominent features of the religion. The characterization of Zoroastrians as fire worshippers is quite old, as fire played an important role in Zoroastrianism, especially as it evolved in Sasanid times. As important as fire is to the religion, its importance can be overstated. To judge by the evidence provided by our Old Iranian sources, fire was not an especially important component of the religion in terms, at least, of its intellectual expression. Although there is a hazard in making an all too sharp division between a religion’s...

    • 15. Purity and Pollution
      (pp. 162-175)

      For religious man generally, and for the Zoroastrian in particular, the paired concepts of purity and pollution play an exceptionally important role in daily life. Most activities are carefully circumscribed by rules whose purpose is to protect the individual, the religious community, and even nature at large from pollution. It should be kept in mind from the outset, however, that when one speaks of purity and pollution one is not necessarily speaking with reference to hygiene as we understand it today. Although it is true that many rules concerning purity and pollution do in fact correspond to modern scientific notions...

    • 16. Yima
      (pp. 175-182)

      Yima has already appeared in numerous places (e.g., Y. 9.5 [p. 152] and Yt. 19.31-38 [pp. 90–91]). It is now time to examine closely this complex and important figure. At the outset, one must be reminded that, as in so many cases, the Avesta does not provide one with a simple, primitive myth, but develops a complicated mythic complex whose component parts betray a multiplicity of origins and also of interrelated though variant themes.

      It is a firmly established fact that the myth of Yama (Av Yima) is proto-Indo-European in origin. Not only does he appear in the Indian...

    • 17. Miscellanea: Sacred Prayers
      (pp. 182-183)

      In the reading selections, three sacred prayers, occurring frequently, have been identified with their opening words, namely: the Yenghē hātãm, the Yathā ahū wairyō (Ahuna wairya), and the Ashǝm wohū. In addition to these, another formula of worship has been identified as Ny. 1.16. The sacred prayers are in the Gāthic dialect, but there is doubt that they are Zarathushtra’s compositions. Although they are extremely obscure in meaning and seem to have functioned basically as “mantras,” I have thought it necessary to give an approximate rendering in English. The formula identified as Ny. 1.16, ending with the Yenghē hātãm, is...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 184-185)
  9. Glossary
    (pp. 186-188)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-191)
  11. Index
    (pp. 192-195)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 196-196)