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The Avesta's texts fall into several different categories, arranged either by dialect, or by usage. The principal text in the liturgical group is the Yasna, which takes its name from the Yasna ceremony, Zoroastrianism's primary act of worship, and at which the Yasna text is recited. The most important portion of the Yasna texts are the five Gathas, consisting of seventeen hymns attributed to Zoroaster himself. These hymns, together with five other short Old Avestan texts that are also part of the Yasna, are in the Old (or 'Gathic') Avestan language. The remainder of the Yasna's texts are in Younger Avestan, which is not only from a later stage of the language, but also from a different geographic region.
Extensions to the Yasna ceremony include the texts of the Vendidad and the Visperad. The Visperad extensions consists mainly of additional invocations of the divinities (yazatas), while the Vendidad is a mixed collection of prose texts mostly dealing with purity laws. Even today, the Vendidad is the only liturgical text that is not recited entirely from memory. Some of the materials of the extended Yasna are from the Yashts,  which are hymns to the individual yazatas. Unlike the Yasna, Visperad and Vendidad, the Yashts and the other lesser texts of the Avesta are no longer used liturgically in high rituals. Aside from the Yashts, these other lesser texts include the Nyayesh texts, the Gah texts, the Siroza, and various other fragments. Together, these lesser texts are conventionally called Khordeh Avesta or "Little Avesta" texts. When the first Khordeh Avesta editions were printed in the 19th century, these texts (together with some non-Avestan language prayers) became a book of common prayer for lay people.
The surviving texts of the Avesta, as they exist today, derive from a single master copy produced by Sassanian-era (224-651 CE) collation and recension. That master copy, now lost, is known as the 'Sassanian archetype'. The oldest surviving manuscript is dated to 1323 CE. Summaries of the various Avesta texts found in the 9th/10th century texts of Zoroastrian tradition suggest that about three-quarters of the corpus has since been lost.
A pre-Sassanian history of the Avesta, if it had one, is in the realm of legend and myth. The oldest surviving versions of these tales are found in the 9th-11th century texts of Zoroastrian tradition (i.e. in the so-called Pahlavi books). The legends run as follows: The twenty-one nasks "books" of the Avesta were created by Ahura Mazda and brought by Zoroaster to his patron Vishtaspa (Denkard 4A, 3A). Supposedly, Vishtaspa (Dk 3A) or another Kayanian, Daray (Dk 4B), then had two copies made, one of which was stored in the treasury, and the other in the royal archives (Dk 4B, 5). Following Alexander's conquest, the Avesta was then supposedly destroyed or dispersed by the Greeks after they translated the scientific passages that they could make use of (AVN 7-9, Dk 3B, 8). Several centuries later, one of the Arsacid kings named Valaksh (one of the Vologases) supposedly then had the fragments collected, not only of those that had previously been written down, but also of those that had only been orally transmitted (Dk 4C).
The Denkard also transmits another legend related to the transmission of the Avesta. In that story, credit for collation and recension is given to the early Sassanid-era priest Tansar (high priest under Ardeshir I, r. 224–242, and Shapur I, r 240/242-272), who had the scattered works collected, and of which he approved only a part as authoritative (Dk 3C, 4D, 4E). Tansar's work was then supposedly completed by Adurbad Mahraspandan (high priest of Shapur II, r. 309-379) who made a general revision of the canon and continued to ensure its orthodoxy (Dk 4F, AVN 1.12-1.16). A final revision was supposedly undertaken in the 6th-century under Khusrow Anoshiravan (Dk 4G).
In the early 20th century, the legend of the Arsacid collation engendered a search for an 'Arsacid archetype' of the Avesta. In the theory of Friedrich Carl Andreas (1902), the archaic nature of the Avestan texts was assumed to be due to preservation via written transmission, and unusual or unexpected spellings in the surviving texts were assumed to be reflections of errors introduced by Sasanian-era transcription from the Arsacid-era Aramaic-derived consonantal alphabet (Arsacid Pahlavi script).[n 1] The search for the 'Arsacid archetype' was increasingly criticisized in the 1940s and was eventually abandoned in the 1950s after Karl Hoffmann demonstrated that the inconsistencies noted by Andreas were actually due to unconscious alterations introduced by oral transmission. Hoffmann identifies these changes to be due in part to modifications introduced through recitation;[n 2] in part to influences from other Iranian languages picked up on the route of transmission from somewhere in eastern Iran (i.e. Central Asia) via Arachosia and Sistan through to Persia;[n 3] and in part due to the influence of phonetic developments in the Avestan language itself.[n 4]
The legends of an Arsacid-era collation and recension are no longer taken seriously. It is now certain that for most of their long history the Avesta's various texts were handed down orally, and independently of one another, and that it was not until around the fifth or sixth century that they were committed to written form. However, during their long history, only the Gathic texts seem to have been memorized (more or less) exactly. The other less sacred works appear to have been handed down in a more fluid oral tradition, and were partly composed afresh with each generation of poet-priests, sometimes with the addition of new material. The Younger Avestan texts are therefore composite works, with contributions from several different authors over the course of several hundred years.
The texts became available to European scholarship comparatively late. Abraham Anquetil-Duperron travelled to India in 1755, and discovered the texts among Indian Zoroastrian (Parsi) communities. He published a French translation in 1771, based on a translation provided by a Parsi priest. Duperron's translation was at first dismissed as a forgery in poor Sanskrit, but was vindicated in the 1820s following Rasmus Rask's examination of the Avestan language (A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language, Bombay, 1821). Rask also established that the Duperron's manuscript was indeed a fragment of a much larger literature of sacred texts. Rask's collection of manuscripts now lies in the Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen. Other manuscripts are preserved in the East India House, the British Museum in London, at various university libraries in Europe, and at the K. R. Cama Oriental Library in Bombay.
The origin of the term Avesta is uncertain. Many etymologies have been suggested, but none has been universally accepted.
Structure and content
In its present form, the Avesta is a compilation from various sources, and its different parts date from different periods and vary widely in character. Only texts in the Avestan language are considered part of the Avesta.
There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the texts of the Avesta and those of the Vedas; the similarities are assumed to reflect the common beliefs of Proto-Indo-Iranian times, with the differences then assumed to reflect independent evolution that occurred after the pre-historical split of the two cultures.
According to Denkard, the 21 nasks (books) mirror the structure of the 21-word-long Ahuna Vairya prayer: each of the three lines of the prayer consists of seven words. Correspondingly, the nasks are divided into three groups, of seven volumes per group. Originally, each volume had a word of the prayer as its name, which so marked a volume’s position relative to the other volumes. Only about a quarter of the text from the nasks has survived until today.
The contents of the Avesta are divided topically (even though the organization of the nasks is not), but these are not fixed or canonical. Some scholars prefer to place the categories in two groups, the one liturgical, and the other general. The following categorization is as described by Jean Kellens (see bibliography, below).
- The Yasna (from yazišn "worship, oblations", cognate with Sanskrit yajña), is the primary liturgical collection, named after the ceremony at which it is recited. It consists of 72 sections called the Ha-iti or Ha. The 72 threads of lamb's wool in the Kushti, the sacred thread worn by Zoroastrians, represent these sections. The central portion of the Yasna is the Gathas, the oldest and most sacred portion of the Avesta, believed to have been composed by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself. The Gathas are structurally interrupted by the Yasna Haptanghaiti ("seven-chapter Yasna"), which makes up chapters 35-42 of the Yasna and is almost as old as the Gathas, consists of prayers and hymns in honour of the Supreme Deity, Ahura Mazda, the Angels, Fire, Water, and Earth. The younger Yasna, though handed down in prose, may once have been metrical, as the Gathas still are.
- The Visperad (from vîspe ratavo, "(prayer to) all patrons") is a collection of supplements to the Yasna. The Visparad is subdivided into 23 or 24 kardo (sections) that are interleaved into the Yasna during a Visperad service (which is an extended Yasna service).
- The Visperad collection has no unity of its own, and is never recited separately from the Yasna.
- The Vendidad (or Vidēvdāt, a corruption of Avestan Vî-Daêvô-Dāta, "Given Against the Demons") is an enumeration of various manifestations of evil spirits, and ways to confound them. The Vendidad includes all of the 19th nask, which is the only nask that has survived in its entirety. The text consists of 22 Fargards, fragments arranged as discussions between Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster. The first fargard is a dualistic creation myth, followed by the description of a destructive winter on the lines of the deluge mythology. The second fargard recounts the legend of Yima. The remaining fargards deal primarily with hygiene (care of the dead in particular) [fargard 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19] as well as disease and spells to fight it [7, 10, 11, 13, 20, 21, 22]. Fargards 4 and 15 discuss the dignity of wealth and charity, of marriage and of physical effort, and the indignity of unacceptable social behaviour such as assault and breach of contract, and specify the penances required to atone for violations thereof. The Vendidad is an ecclesiastical code, not a liturgical manual, and there is a degree of moral relativism apparent in the codes of conduct. The Vendidad's different parts vary widely in character and in age. Some parts may be comparatively recent in origin although the greater part is very old.
- The Vendidad, unlike the Yasna and the Visparad, is a book of moral laws rather than the record of a liturgical ceremony. However, there is a ceremony called the Vendidad, in which the Yasna is recited with all the chapters of both the Visparad and the Vendidad inserted at appropriate points. This ceremony is only performed at night.
- The Yashts (from yešti, "worship by praise") are a collection of 21 hymns, each dedicated to a particular divinity or divine concept. Three hymns of the Yasna liturgy that "worship by praise" are—in tradition—also nominally called yashts, but are not counted among the Yasht collection since the three are a part of the primary liturgy. The Yashts vary greatly in style, quality and extent. In their present form, they are all in prose but analysis suggests that they may at one time have been in verse.
- The Siroza ("thirty days") is an enumeration and invocation of the 30 divinities presiding over the days of the month. (cf. Zoroastrian calendar). The Siroza exists in two forms, the shorter ("little Siroza") is a brief enumeration of the divinities with their epithets in the genitive. The longer ("great Siroza") has complete sentences and sections, with the yazatas being addressed in the accusative.
- The Siroza is never recited as a whole, but is a source for individual sentences devoted to particular divinities, to be inserted at appropriate points in the liturgy depending on the day and the month.
The Nyayesh and Gah
- The five Nyayesh, abbreviated Ny., are prayers for regular recitation by both priests and laity. They are addressed to the Sun and Mithra (recited together thrice a day), to the Moon (recited thrice a month), and to the Waters and to Fire. The Nyayeshes are composite texts containing selections from the Gathas and the Yashts, as well as later material.
- The five Gah are similar to the five Nyayesh texts. The five Gah contain invocations to the five divinities that watch over the five divisions (gah) of the twenty-four hour day.
- The Afrinagans are four "blessing" texts recited on a particular occasion: the first in honor of the dead, the second on the five epagomenal days that end the year, the third is recited at the six seasonal feasts, and the fourth at the beginning and end of summer.
- All material in the Avesta that is not already present in one of the other categories falls into a "fragments" category, which - as the name suggests - includes incomplete texts. There are altogether more than 20 fragment collections, many of which have no name (and are then named after their owner/collator) or only a Middle Persian name. The more important of the fragment collections are the Nirangistan fragments (18 of which constitute the Ehrbadistan); the Pursishniha "questions," also known as "Fragments Tahmuras"; and the Hadokht Nask "volume of the scriptures" with two fragments of eschatological significance.
Other Zoroastrian religious texts
Only texts preserved in the Avestan language count as scripture and are part of the Avesta. Several other secondary works are nonetheless crucial to Zoroastrian theology and scholarship.
The most notable among the Middle Persian texts are the Dēnkard ("Acts of Religion"), dating from the 9th century; the Bundahishn ("Primordial Creation"), finished in the 11th or 12th century, but containing older material; the Mainog-i-Khirad ("Spirit of Wisdom"), a religious conference on questions of faith; and the Arda Viraf Namak ("Book of Arda Viraf"), which is especially important for its views on death, salvation and life in the hereafter. Of the post-14th century works (all in New Persian), only the Sad-dar ("Hundred Doors, or Chapters"), and Rivayats (traditional treatises) are of doctrinal importance. Other texts such as Zartushtnamah ("Book of Zoroaster") are only notable for their preservation of legend and folklore. The Aogemadaeca "we accept," a treatise on death is based on quotations from the Avesta.
- For a summary of Andreas' theory, see Schlerath (1987), pp. 29-30.
- For example, prefix repetition as in e.g. paitī ... paitiientī vs. paiti ... aiienī (Y. 49.11 vs. 50.9), or sandhi processes on word and syllable boundaries, e.g. adāiš for *at̰.āiš (48.1), ahiiāsā for ahiiā yāsā, gat̰.tōi for *gatōi (43.1), ratūš š́iiaoϑanā for *ratū š́iiaoϑanā (33.1).
- e.g. irregular internal hw > xv as found in e.g. haraxvati- 'Arachosia' and sāxvan- 'instruction', rather than regular internal hw > ŋvh as found in e.g. aojōŋvhant- 'strong'.
- e.g. YAv. -ō instead of expected OAv. -ə̄ for Ir. -ah in almost all polysyllables.
- Boyce 1984, p. 1.
- Boyce 1984, p. 3.
- Boyce 1984, p. 2.
- Humbach 1991, pp. 50-51.
- Humbach 1991, pp. 51-52.
- Humbach 1991, pp. 52-53.
- Humbach 1991, pp. 53-54.
- Humbach 1991, p. 54.
- Humbach 1991, p. 55.
- Humbach 1991, p. 57.
- Hoffmann 1958, pp. 7ff.
- Humbach 1991, p. 56-63.
- Humbach 1991, p. 59-61.
- Humbach 1991, p. 58.
- Humbach 1991, p. 61.
- Humbach 1991, p. 56.
- Works cited
- Boyce, Mary (1984), Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, Manchester UP.
- Hoffmann, Karl (1958), "Altiranisch", Handbuch der Orientalistik, I 4,1, Leiden: Brill.
- Humbach, Helmut (1991), The Gathas of Zarathushtra and the Other Old Avestan Texts, Part I, Heidelberg: Winter.
- Kellens, Jean (1983), "Avesta", Encyclopædia Iranica, vol. 3, New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 35–44.
- Schlerath, Bernfried (1987), "Andreas, Friedrich Carl: The Andreas Theory", Encyclopædia Iranica, vol. 2, New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 29–30.
- avesta.org: translation by James Darmesteter and L. H. Mills forms part of the Sacred Books of the East series, but is now regarded as obsolete.
- Online Original Avesta Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences