Detail from avestan ms 19, folio 132r. A Zoroastrian discourse: The Menoy i khrad (‘Spirit of Wisdom’).

Zoroastrianism in late antiquity

Ursula Sims-Williams describes the history of the Zoroastrian religion during the Sasanian Empire, its interaction with the Judeo-Christian world and the development of its sacred texts into a written corpus from an oral tradition.

The Sasanian Empire (c. 224–651CE), founded by Ardashir I, at its peak stretched from Anatolia in the West to the Indus in the East, encompassing also modern-day Armenia, Georgia and parts of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in Central Asia. For more than four centuries it remained one of the most influential empires of late antiquity, lasting until the Arab invasion and death of Yazdegird III. During this period Zoroastrianism enjoyed state sponsorship, but it was also a period of interaction with other major religions, with Zoroastrian orthodoxy potentially under threat during campaigns against the Roman Empire. Interaction with other religious ideologies also gave rise to perceived heresies, such as the world-religion Manichaeism in the 3rd century and the short-lived Mazdakism in the 6th century. Throughout this period Zoroastrianism remained an oral religion. However, probably during the 6th century, a new phonetic alphabet was created for the Avestan language in order to reflect its correct pronunciation, thus allowing for a written codification of the religious texts in a time of increasing turbulence.

Zoroastrianism and the Judaeo-Christian world

Jews and Zoroastrians had co-existed in the Persian Empire from the 6th century BCE onwards. One area where this is especially noticeable is in the field of Jewish law (civil, criminal, private), particularly in the Babylonian Talmud.
The Talmudic period in Babylonia largely overlaps with the Sasanian Empire and lasted until the Arab conquest. It is thus named because it was during this period that the most important source of Jewish law, the Babylonian Talmud, was produced by the Babylonian rabbis. It shared numerous intellectual and cultural concerns with the Zoroastrian priests, which affected matters of civil and criminal law, private law, theology and even ritual. Both the Zoroastrian priests and the rabbis aimed at constructing a system of laws to create a coherent penitential system. In both traditions, discussions were based on the sacred texts, the Avesta and the Bible, which were developed in a non-literate, oral context, were written down fairly late, and were influenced by contemporary political and social contexts.

A surviving copy of the Zoroastrian law book, the Videvdad (‘Law to drive away Demons’), dating from the early 14th century, is one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts. It consists of short passages of the Avestan text, followed by a Pahlavi translation, often accompanied by brief comments and/or lengthy commentaries and discussions based on legal decisions made by the priests ‘of old’. Couched in similar terms as used in the Talmud, its Hebrew counterpart, we read in the Videvdad illustrated here, and in the following pages, of a discussion about the erasing of sin and the importance of repentance, featuring well-known commentators from the Sasanian period: Soshans, Weh-shapur, Mahgushasp and Gogushasp.

A Zoroastrian lawbook: Videvdad

Manuscript page from the Pahlavi Videvdad.

The PahlaviVīdēvdād copied by Mihraban Kai Khusraw. Nawsari, 1323.

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By the mid-3rd century CE there were also communities of Syriac-speaking Christians co-existing alongside their Zoroastrian neighbours. Relations, however, became very strained at the time of the Sasanian campaigns against the Roman Empire, resulting in periods of persecution under Shapur II (r. 309–379) and Yazdegird I and his successors Bahram V and Yazdegird II in the 5th century. An example of the largely polemical Christian literature dating from these periods is the 5th-or 6th-century Syriac martyrdom of the Lady Tarbo. While one may question the historical significance of hagiographical accounts such as these, they nevertheless represent a literary tradition of the early Christian communities based on the realities of persecution under the Sasanians. The story of Tarbo was evidently very popular, with translations existing in Greek and also in the Central Asian language Sogdian, as far afield as the monastery of Bulayiq in north-eastern Xinjiang (north-western China).

A Syriac martyrdom text

A Syriac martyrdom text

The martyrdom of the Lady Tarbo, her sister and her servant, recounted in gory detail in a very early Syriac manuscript dating from the 5th or 6th century.

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Towards the end of the 4th century the Armenian Christians faced increasing pressures from different ‘heretical’ factions. Yazdegerd II’s accession to the throne in 438 also heralded a period of enforced reimposition of Zoroastrianism on his Armenian subjects. It was in this climate that Bishop Eznik Kołbac‘i wrote his polemical treatise Refutation of the Sects around 440.

Early Christian polemics: Bishop Eznik’s Refutation of the Sects

Early Christian polemics

The frontispiece of Bishop Eznik’s Girk‘ end dimut‘eanc‘ (‘Refutation of the Sects’) showing Eznik instructing his pupils. Izmir, 1762.

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In it, Eznik attacks the beliefs of four ‘sects’: the ‘heathens’, the Persians (i.e. the Zoroastrians), the Greeks and the Marcionites, focussing on the importance of rationality, free will and evil as a consequence of human action. His criticism of the Persians was directed principally against the various forms of dualism. His work is valuable as a contemporary account of Zoroastrianism at a time when its scriptures were still transmitted orally, a fact which Eznik himself mentions as a reason for the existence of so many conflicting views.

Sasanian Zoroastrian literature

Whereas the Zoroastrian sacred texts were composed orally in the old Iranian language Avestan, the commentaries and explanations on them, referred to as the Zand, were written in Pahlavi, a middle Iranian language spoken in south-western Iran. Zoroastrian Pahlavi literature dates from the Sasanian period and extended beyond the advent of Islam, as late as the 9th and 10th centuries.

Unfortunately, only a comparatively small amount of what was originally an extensive literature survives today. Most of the extant works are concerned with religious themes and were written by scholars and priests, but they nevertheless represent several genres including histories, encyclopaedias, political treatises, wisdom literature and texts and commentaries.

One of the most important works is the encyclopaedic Bundahishn, or ‘Primal Creation’. Written in Pahlavi it describes a cosmogony and cosmography based on the Avesta. It includes a detailed account of the perfect creation of Ahura Mazda, or rather Ohrmazd as he is called in Pahlavi, which was attacked by the evil Ahriman and afflicted with disease and death, but which will finally be restored to perfection at the end of time. The cosmographical parts of the text include descriptions of the world’s lands, rivers, lakes, mountains, plants, animals and peoples. The Bundahishn is preserved in two distinct recensions, an Indian (shorter) and an Iranian (longer) one.

The Bundahishn, or Zoroastrian ‘Primal Creation’

The Bundahishn, or Zoroastrian ‘Primal Creation’

The manuscript shown here is from a copy of the Indian Bundahishn (‘Primal Creation’) written in Pazand, that is, Avestan script used to write Pahlavi. The opening shows the beginning of chapter 27: ‘On the nature of the plants’. India, 17th or 18th century.

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A less comprehensive work of a similar nature is a Pahlavi treatise without title or author, which also deals with the ritual, cosmology, eschatology and epic history of Iran. Probably composed in the first half of the 10th century, it is commonly referred to as the Pahlavi Rivāyat, and, in the manuscript tradition, precedes another work, the Dādistān i Dēnīg (‘Judgements of the Religion’). The pages illustrated here describe a recurring Zoroastrian theme, the dialogue between the soul of a deceased sinner and its daena, the embodiment of its thoughts, words and deeds (often, but misleadingly, rendered as ‘religion’), pictured as a hideous woman.

Pahlavi Rivayat

Pahlavi Rivayat, RSPA 228

A passage entitled ‘On the fate of the souls of the wicked and the righteous’, from the Pahlavi Rivāyat. Iran, 16th century.

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An example of a different genre is the Menoy i Khrad (‘The Heavenly Wisdom’), probably composed during the 6th century. Here a sage questions and receives answers from the ‘the heavenly wisdom’ on philosophical matters, such as the nature of truth, wisdom and the creation of the world.

A Zoroastrian discourse: The Menoy i khrad (‘Spirit of Wisdom’)

A Zoroastrian discourse

Copied at Nawsari in 1520 this manuscript of the Mēnōy i khrad (‘The Spirit of Wisdom’) reflects a version in Pazand and Sanskrit created by the 12th-century Zoroastrian priest Neryosang Dhaval of Sanjana, Gujarat. The floral and geometric decorations are a typical feature of this manuscript.

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What remains of Zoroastrian Pahlavi has been the result of a deliberate policy of preservation and safeguarding within a priestly context, and thus reflects the focus of that group. Fortunately a wider range of literature survives in the early modern period especially in the more recent languages of Persian and Gujarati, an Indian language used by Zoroastrians in western India who were descended from Persians who fled Iran to escape Arab oppression.

  • Ursula Sims-Williams
  • Ursula Sims-Williams is Lead Curator of Persian collections at the British Library. She has worked extensively on the pre-Islamic Iranian collections from Central Asia in addition to Persian and especially Zoroastrian manuscripts. She has published widely and has co-curated and co-authored catalogues for a number of exhibitions, including The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith (British Library, 2004), Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, (British Library, 2012–2013), and most recently The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination, Brunei Gallery SOAS, 2013 and at the National Museum, New Delhi, 2016. She is also one of the main contributors to the British Library's Asian and African Studies Blog.

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