Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian religion of fire, is not perhaps that familiar. Nevertheless this ornate religion of prayer and ceremony has endured for more than 3,500 years and still draws worshippers today.
At its heart are a series of texts known as the Avesta. These are apparently an attempt to collect all Zoroastrianism myth and lore in textual form, made in the 3rd or 4th century AD. And it was clear from the care they took that the ancients knew the importance of what they were doing, which was nothing short of codifying a dead language.
The text of the scrolls which make up the Avesta are written in a language known as Avestan. They are written entirely in this language, and not a single word of Avestan exists outside the Avesta texts (and the Zend, but we’ll get on to that). Avestan exists solely for these stories.
The words they were capturing were those recited by the Zoroastrian priesthood as they completed their ceremonies. Much of these recitals also involved ritual actions by the priest who was speaking, preventing them from holding a book to reference. So the priests learned these words by rote from each other without ever writing them down.
Instead, the language had been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth alone, each generation learning it as perfectly as possible from the last, for hundreds of years. Zoroastrianism also requires precise pronunciation in its prayer, and learning in this way would also ensure that the intonation, phrasing, and tone would be preserved with minimal error.
The Avestan alphabet itself is up to the challenge of capturing every nuance of the Zoroastrian language. It has 37 consonants and 16 vowels, for a total of 53 letters (and yet strangely nothing for the ‘l’ sound that appears at the start of ‘like’ or ‘look’, which apparently Zoroastrians did not care for) and its complexity ensured no detail was lost.
However, the Avesta captures more than just the holy words of Zoroastrianism. We can infer much from the changing use of language within the Avesta itself, and through this understand its composition.
For a start, Avestan is actually two languages, which are unrelated but which both combine to make up the texts of the Avesta. We can see how “Old” (or “Gathic”) Avestan was corrupted with inclusions when native speakers of “Young” Avestan took over the memorizing duties, and started putting their own words in.
We can see examples of simplification through standardization, and late additions which apparently come from legends heard from neighboring regions but which are considered holy in Zoroastrianism. And all this through the lens of the late Sasanian scribes who thought to try to take all the liturgical chanting tradition of Zoroastrianism, and capture it in the exacting detail in Avestan.
Sadly, today Zoroastrianism can also be seen as a religion of loss. Surviving texts in the Avesta suggest that Zoroastrian lore was once far larger, but as much as three quarters of the canon has apparently disappeared. Whether any of these missing texts survived long enough to be captured in Avestan but remain undiscovered is also unknown.
There is however a fascinating twist in the way the ancient hymns were captured and what it did to Zoroastrianism. The codifying of the Avesta in written form for apparently the first time led to an entirely new appreciation of the words of the rituals, and the emergence of a commentary.
Written in the centuries after the Avesta, and collectively known as the Zend, these later notes concentrate on the meaning of the words and phrasing of the Avesta, and how they interact with the ritual actions of Zoroastrianism.
In doing so, Zend ensured that the language of Avestan remained one we could understand. And the Zend even contains passages from the Avesta which are otherwise lost, commentaries on missing scripture which allow us to piece back together sacred passages from the original.
And as to the pronunciation, how well did Avestan do at capturing everything? Well, it has become a central guide to the Avesta and an essential part of understanding the history of this unique religion. But in any case we needn’t have worried: the monks, you see, have never stopped chanting.
Top Image: Avestan, sacred language of Zoroastrianism, is driven to complexity by the need to capture so much. Source: Delbars / Adobe Stock.
By Joseph Green