Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Avesta (ca. 530)

A collection of scripture, hymns, and Zoroastrian doctrines, the Avesta (“Praise of God”) preserves libertarian wisdom from the last years of the Achaemenid-Persian Empire (550-330 B.C.) and the beginnings of the Sassanian dynasty (A.D. 224-651). A member of a pastoral tribe at Rhages, outside Tehran, near the juncture of the current borders of Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan, the monotheist Zarathustra (628-551 B.C.) served as a priest-diviner of the creator-god Ahura Mazda. Around 600-590 B.C., a vision of light, omniscience, power, virtue, charity, and immortality led Zarathustra to spread a felicitous Middle Eastern faith. Like the Chinese Buddhist DAODEJING (Tao-te Ching [Classic of the way of power, 300 B.C.]) and the Meditations (ca. A.D. 180) of the Roman emperor MARCUS AURELIUS, Zarathustra's works advocated a well-ordered life dedicated to justice, thrift, neighborliness, and compassion. His writings comprised the first ancient scripture based on the universality of all races and cultures, male and female, slave and free. By compiling oral traditions from the previous millennium, he assimilated Iranian poetry and theology in 2 million verses that anticipated the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Central to the prophet's thinking were images of the character of God and of Satan, the resurrection of the dead, and an eternal struggle between asha and druj (truth and lies), a yin-yang duality underlying the human condition. Against centuries of tribalism and vengeance, his sermons looked ahead to a messiah and an era of peace.

Zoroastrianism emerged from central Asia during the advance of rootless people from nomadism to agrarianism. When Cyrus II the Great of Persia (r. ca. 550-529 B.c.) seized Media in 549 B.c., the disciple Vishtaspa secured the first texts of the Avesta in a settlement that became Persepolis, Iran. He stored a second copy in the safe at a fire temple in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. After Zarathustra introduced the emperor Cyrus and his family and court to Zoroastrianism in 588 B.c., the priest promoted ethical ideals as a goal higher than tribal feuds, hatred, banditry, ruin, and waste. Ironically, tribalism ended the prophet's life. During a ritual service at the Temple of the Sacred Fire, nomadic Hyaona (Bactrian) insurgents stabbed the 77-year- old Zarathustra, slew his priests, and burned the Avesta. To survivors, the rainbow became a symbol of the founder's guardianship in the afterlife, but life on earth reduced worshippers to decades of war and conquest as the Persian Empire became the mightiest in human history.

Imperiled Scripture

While the boundaries of Persia expanded from the Mediterranean Sea south to Egypt and East to India, Zoroastrians clung to the spirit of peace and brotherhood. They venerated their martyred priest and kept alive the 21-word Ahuna Vairya, the sect's simplest and most sacred prayer, or hymn, the first that children memorized and recited. Under the Persian king Darius I (r. 522-486 B.c.), Zoroastrianism briefly syncretized with polytheism, then restored Ahura Mazda to primacy at Naqsh- i-Rustam, a cube-shaped tower near Persepolis in south-central Iran. Under emperors Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358 B.c.) and Artaxerxes III (r. 358-338 B.c.), the monotheism of Ahura Mazda developed into a trinity with Anahita and Mithra. To foster Hellenism, Alexander the Great (356-323 B.c.; r. 336-323 B.c.) threatened the survival of the Avesta by murdering temple keepers and torching Persepolis in 330 B.c., reducing 12,000 inscribed cowhides to 3,000 manuscripts covering creation, law, ritual, prayers, and wisdom.

The Sassanian dynasty, led by Ardashir I (ruled ca. A.D. 206-241) the great unifier of Persia, coaxed a flicker of Zoroastrianism back to life by restoring ceremonial fire altars, the heart of reverence for Ahura Mazda. During the Roman emperor Alexander Severus's invasion of Persia in A.D. 232, the theologian Tansar rescued holy writings by compiling Zarathustra's remaining holy texts, which his son, the high priest Kirder, expanded with new writings anthologized as the Khurda Avesta (younger Avesta), a compendium of prayers, chants, and rituals composed for specific occasions. In the Khurda Avesta, Kirder stressed the danger of conquest to Zoroastrianism and wrote, “Strip ye the wicked of all power. Absolute in power may the holy be” (Avesta, 2004, 10). In place of imperial control, Kirder pled for Ahura to empower the poor to alleviate their misery. To a nation long suppressed, the text called for liberty, healing, and an end to imperial materialism. Devotees reverenced the text until the mid- seventh century, when Islam supplanted Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran and the Koran superseded the Avesta.

A Canon of Old and New

The completed Avesta, written in Zend and Aramaic, represents a shift from barbarity to civilized urbanism. The text opens with the 72-part Yasna (worship), a life-affirming liturgy devoid of the wine drinking of Greek worship of Dionysus and the animal sacrifice of the Hebrews to Yahweh. Symbolizing regeneration, fire ritual incorporated recitations of holy vows, prayers, litanies, a creed, propitiation of the day, hymns to Ahura Mazda, and blessings. The core of the Avesta venerates good thoughts, good words, and good deeds as antidotes to evil. The text includes the Zoroastrian creed, a first-person declaration of allegiance to goodness and of defiance of wrongdoing. Lyric poems give thanks for the liberty to build a home and raise livestock, a statement that disavows nomadism and semicivilized lifestyles based on hit- and-run thievery, “whom wide-hoofed horses carry against havocking hosts, against enemies coming in battle array, in the strife of conflicting nations” (Avesta 2004, 65).

A more sacred section, the Gathas, consists of ancient songs akin to the Indian Vedas and the biblical PSALMS of David. They preserve in Gatha- Avestan dialect the allusive chants, PROPHECY, revelations, and meditations of Zarathustra himself. Theological sections portray God as a parent reassuring a child: “My name is the protector, my name is the well-wisher; my name is the creator, my name is the keeper, my name is the maintainer” (24). Graced with metaphysical and transcendent elements, the lines exhort the devout to embrace the universe in its tangible and mystical forms, including marriage and family, righteousness, and an afterlife in the “House of Song.” Verses demand an end to religious persecution of pacifists.

Imagery of light anchors Zoroastrian holy writ. For guidance, the worshipper cries out like the Hebrew poet David to Yahweh, “Give me, O Fire, … the best world of the righteous, the shining, the all-happy, so that it may fulfill my wish, now and for ever, so as to attain to good reward, and to good renown, and to long happiness of my soul!” (21). On earth, a holy idyll foresees wide pastures for the peasant stockman and offers “homage to the sun, the swift-horsed,” a metaphor that suggests the Greek myth of Helios and his chariot of the sun (12). In anticipation of eternal bliss, one gatha pictures the soul crossing the bridge into immortality and wishes that the spirit “may be released from hell and may … pass over to the best existence of the holy, the bright” (16). Sonorous praise pictures God as “radiant, glorious, omniscient, maker, lord of lords, king over all kings, watchful, creator of the universe, giver of daily bread, powerful, strong, eternal, forgiver, merciful, loving, mighty, wise, holy, and nourisher” (12).

The humanity of the Avesta addresses the needs and questions of Middle Easterners of all castes. In the Vendidad (protection), composed in Parthian between 141 B.c. and A.D. 224, ancient mantras against terror calm frightened chanters during the night. Imagery parallels Hebrew mythology of Noah and the flood, Levitican laws and purification rites, and formulaic healing. The Yashts (anthems), written in Aryan, the ancient Persian language, muse on adversity and destruction and on the joys of peace in limitless nature.

The concepts of Zoroastrianism survived in the naming of the hero Sorastro in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Magic Flute (1791) and in German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche's Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1883-85), an anti-Judaeo-Christian treatise on willpower and self-mastery from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that influenced Adolf Hitler's manifesto MEIN KAMPF (1925-26), the wellspring of Nazism.


Avesta Khorda Avesta: Book of Common Prayer. Translated by James Darmesteter. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessenger, 2004.

Moulton, James Hope. Early Religious Poetry of Persia. Boston: Adamant Media, 2005.