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Yazata (Avestan: 𐬰𐬀𐬭𐬀𐬚𐬎𐬱𐬙𐬭𐬀) is the Avestan language word for a Zoroastrian concept with a wide range of meanings but generally signifying (or used as an epithet of) a divinity. The term literally means "worthy of worship or veneration", and is thus, in this more general sense, also applied to certain healing plants, primordial creatures, the fravashis of the dead, and to certain prayers that are themselves considered holy. The yazatas collectively are "the good powers under Ahura Mazda", who is "the greatest of the yazatas".
Yazata is an Avestan language passive adjectival participle derived from yaz-; "to worship, to honor, to venerate", from Proto-Indo-European *yeh₂ǵ- (“to worship, revere, sacrifice”). The word yasna – "worship, sacrifice, oblation, prayer" – comes from the same root. A yaza+ ta is accordingly "a being worthy of worship", "an object of worship" or "a holy being".
As the stem form, yazata- has the inflected nominative forms yazatō, pl. yazatåŋhō. These forms reflect Proto-Iranian *yazatah and pl. *yazatāhah. In Middle Persian the term became yazad or yazd, pl. yazdān, continuing in New Persian as izad.
Related terms in other languages are Sanskrit yájati "he worships, he sacrifices", yajatá- "worthy of worship, holy", yajñá "sacrifice", and perhaps[a] also Greek ἅγιος hagios "devoted to the gods, sacred, holy".
The term yazata is already used in the Gathas, the oldest texts of Zoroastrianism and believed to have been composed by Zoroaster. In these hymns, yazata is used as a generic, applied to Ahura Mazda as well as to the Amesha Spentas. In the Gathas, the yazatas are effectively what the daevas are not; that is, the yazatas are to be worshipped while the daevas are to be rejected.
The Gathas also collectively invoke the yazatas without providing a clue as to which entities are being invoked, and—given the structure and language of the hymns—it is generally not possible to determine whether these yazatas are abstract concepts or are manifest entities. Among the Yazatas being invoked by name by the poet of the Gathas are Sraosha, Ashi, Atar, Geush Tashan, Geush Urvan, Tushnamaiti, and Iza, and all of which "win mention in his hymns, it seems, because of their close association with rituals of sacrifice and worship".
In the Younger Avesta, the yazatas are unambiguously divine, with divine powers alongside performing mundane tasks such as serving as charioteers for other yazatas. Several yazatas are given anthropomorphic attributes, such as cradling a mace or bearing a crown upon their heads, or not letting sleep interrupt their vigil against the demons.
At some point during the late 5th or early 4th century BCE, the Achaemenids instituted a religious calendar in which each day of the month was named after, and placed under the protection of, a particular yazata. These day-name dedications were not only of religious significance because they ensured that those divinities remained in the public consciousness, they also established a hierarchy among the yazatas, with specific exalted entities having key positions in the day-name dedications (see Zoroastrian calendar for details).
Although these day-name dedications are mirrored in scripture, it cannot be determined whether these day-name assignments were provoked by an antecedent list in scripture (e.g. Yasna 16), or whether the day-name dedications provoked the compilation of such lists. Relatively certain however is that the day-name dedications predate the Avesta's Siroza ("30 days"), which contain explicit references to the yazatas as protectors/guardians of their respective days of the month.
The 9th–12th century texts of Zoroastrian tradition observe the yazatas (by then as Middle Persian yazads) in much the same way as the hymns of the Younger Avesta. In addition, in roles that are only alluded to in scripture, they assume characteristics of cosmological or eschatological consequence.
For instance, Aredvi Sura Anahita (Ardvisur Nahid) is both a divinity of the waters as well as a rushing world river that encircles the earth, which is blocked up by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) thus causing drought. The blockage is removed by Verethragna (Vahram), and Tishtrya (Tir) gathers up the waters and spreads them over the earth (Zam) as rain. In stories with eschatological significance, Sraosha (Sarosh), Mithra (Mihr), and Rashnu (Rashn) are guardians of the Chinvat bridge, the bridge of the separator, across which all souls must pass.
Further, what the calendrical dedications had begun, the tradition completed: at the top of the hierarchy was Ahura Mazda, who was supported by the great heptad of Amesha Spentas (Ameshaspands/Mahraspands), through which the Creator realized ("created with his thought") the manifest universe. The Amesha Spentas in turn had hamkars, "assistants" or "cooperators", each a caretaker of one facet of creation.
In both tradition and scripture, the terms 'Amesha Spenta' and 'yazata' are sometimes used interchangeably. In general, however, 'Amesha Spenta' signifies the seven divine emanations of Ahura Mazda. In tradition, yazata is the first of the 101 epithets of Ahura Mazda. The word also came to be applied to Zoroaster and still is used as such by modern Zoroastrians. In a hierarchy that does not include either Ahura Mazda or the Amesha Spentas amongst the yazatas, the most prominent among those "worthy of worship" is Mithra, who "is second only in dignity to Ohrmazd (i.e. Ahura Mazda) himself."
Outside of the traditional yazatas, local and foreign deities were incorporated into the Zoroastrian pantheon, particularly in Armenia, the Kushan Empire, Sogdia, China, and other regions were Zoroastrianism was historically practiced.
In the present day
In the 1860s and 1870s, the linguist Martin Haug interpreted Zoroastrian scripture in Christian terms, and compared the yazatas to the angels of Christianity. In this scheme, the Amesha Spentas are the arch-angel retinue of Ahura Mazda, with the hamkars as the supporting host of lesser angels.
At the time Haug wrote his translations, the Parsi (i.e. Indian Zoroastrian) community was under intense pressure from English and American missionaries, who severely criticized the Zoroastrians for—as John Wilson portrayed it in 1843—"polytheism", which the missionaries argued was much less worth than their own "monotheism". At the time, Zoroastrianism lacked theologians of its own, and so the Zoroastrians were poorly equipped to make their own case. In this situation, Haug's counter-interpretation came as a welcome relief, and was (by-and-large) gratefully accepted as legitimate.
Haug's interpretations were subsequently disseminated as Zoroastrian ones, which then eventually reached the west where they were seen to corroborate Haug. Like most of Haug's interpretations, this comparison is today so well entrenched that a gloss of 'yazata' as 'angel' is almost universally accepted; both in publications intended for a general audience as well as in (non-philological) academic literature, though it has been contested by both academics and theologians.
Amongst the Muslims of Islamic Iran, Sraosha came to be "arguably the most popular of all the subordinate Yazatas", for as the angel Surush, only he (of the entire Zoroastrian pantheon) is still venerated by name.
- Pokorny, in his comparative dictionary on Indo-European languages, considers Yazata-, yaz-, yasna, Sanskrit yájati and yajñá, and Greek ἅγιος (hagios) all to be derivatives of a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root i̪agʲ- (i̪ag´-) "religiös verehren" ("religiously venerate"), though some, partially derivative, authorities, such as Calvert Watkins' PIE Roots appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, give no indication that Greek term is still considered a reflex of this PIE root.
- Boyce 2001, p. xxi.
- Geiger 1885, p. xlix.
- Büchner 1993, p. 1161.
- Pokorny 1930, p. I.195
- Boyce 1972, p. 195.
- "AMƎŠA SPƎNTA – Encyclopaedia Iranica". www.iranicaonline.org. Retrieved 2019-07-14.
- Boyce 1969, p. 24.
- Vazquez III, Pablo (2019). ""O Wise One and You Other Ahuras": The Flawed Application of Monotheism Towards Zoroastrianism". Academia.edu.
- The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism. London: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2015. pp. 83–191. ISBN 978-1-444-33135-6.
- cf. Gray 1927, p. 562.
- cf. Edwards 1927, p. 21.
- cf. Luhrmann 2002, p. 871.
- cf. Dhalla 1914, p. 135.
- Boyce 1993, p. 214.
- Boyce, Mary (1969), "On Mithra's Part in Zoroastrianism", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 32 (1): 10–34, doi:10.1017/S0041977X00093678.
- Boyce, Mary (1972), History of Zoroastrianism, I, Leiden: Brill
- Boyce, Mary (1983), "Aməša Spənta", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Boyce, Mary (1993), "Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies", Dahma Āfriti and Some Related Problems, 56 (2), pp. 209–218
- Boyce, Mary (2001), Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: Routledge
- Büchner, V. F. (1913–1936), "Yazdān", in Houtsma, Martijn Theodor (ed.), Encyclopedia of Islam, IV (1st ed.).
- Dhalla, Maneckji Nusserwanji (1914), Zoroastrian Theology, New York: OUP
- Edwards, E. (1927), "Sacrifice (Iranian)", in Hastings, James (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, XI, Edinburgh: T & T Clark
- Geiger, Wilhelm (1885), Civilization of the Eastern Iranians in Ancient Times, Oxford: OUP/H. Frowde
- Gray, Louis H. (1927), "Jews in Zoroastrianism", in Hastings, James (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, VII, Edinburgh: T & T Clark
- Luhrmann, T. M. (2002), "Evil in the Sands of Time: Theology and Identity Politics among the Zoroastrian Parsis", The Journal of Asian Studies, 61 (3): 861–889, doi:10.2307/3096349
- Maneck, Susan Stiles (1997), The Death of Ahriman: Culture, Identity and Theological Change Among the Parsis of India, Bombay: K. R. Cama Oriental Institute
- Pokorny, J. (1930), Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der Indogermanischen Sprachen (Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-European Languages), I, Berlin/Leipzig: Walter De Gruyter.
- Watkins, Calvert (2000), "Appendix: PIE Roots", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Peterson, Joseph H. (June 4, 2003), Angels in Zoroastrianism, Herndon: avesta.org