The Avesta and Its Translation: by Prods Oktor Skjærvø
The term Avesta refers to a relatively small group of orally composed and transmitted texts written down only in the Islamic period, some of them perhaps around the year 600. We have no evidence that all the known texts were written down at the same time, however. The texts are in Avestan, an Iranian language related to Old Persian (the ancestor of modern Persian or Farsi), which was spoken in the northeast of the later Persian (Achaemenid) empire (550–330 BCE), in the areas of modern Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. The language is known in two linguistic forms: an older form, similar to the oldest Indic language of the Rigveda, and a younger form, slightly antedating that of Old Persian (known from about 520 BCE). The extant texts were therefore probably committed to memory sometime in the second half of the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BCE, respectively. We have considerable archeological evidence from these areas dating to these periods, but with lack of written evidence it is impossible to correlate this evidence with the Avestan texts. This means that we do not know their precise historical contexts.
The Old Avesta contains the "Gāthās of Zarathustra," five hymns ascribed to the (mythical) prophet of Zoroastrianism, and the Young(er) Avesta, miscellaneous ritual texts, among them the Yasna, the text that accompanies the morning ritual (yasna); the Yashts, hymns to individual deities; and the Videvdad, rules for keeping the daēwas, demons, away, a text inserted in the Yasna and recited at important purification ceremonies.
The texts are known from manuscripts dating from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, all of which apparently go back to individual prototypes written around the year 1000 (known from colophons), which means that there is a considerable gap in the written tradition between the time the texts were first committed to writing and the earliest known and extant manuscripts. It should be noted that the Avesta is not a single "book" like the Bible, but individual texts transmitted in separate manuscripts. These became a book only in Western editions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
That the translation of these texts presents problems should be apparent. The translations in this book have been smoothed by leaving out discussions of problematic translations and marking uncertain or conjectural ones by a bracketed query: [?]. Hopelessly corrupt or incomprehensible passages have been left out, sometimes marked by ellipses.
I was in Bengal staying at a small village doing research several years ago, when one evening I decided to walk along a shadowy road. Like most foreigners, I was unaware of the dangers lurking in the dark. The sky was already a rich dark blue against the almost black trees, and the few people who were hurrying home gawked at me as if I had three heads. Being quite used to this, I continued to make my way to a grove I had discovered earlier in the day. Luckily, one of my little English students was passing by with her mother. They looked quite worried, despite my happy greeting.
"Don't go there," the girl warned when I explained my quest. "It is a place where jinn live. They will offer you anything your heart desires, but then your soul will belong to them."
I was most interested in meeting a jinni (genie), so I asked her if she had ever seen one. She had not, but she warned me, "You can recognize them by their feet—that's one thing they can't hide. Their feet look like giant bird claws."
I hardly had time to thank them as they scurried off. As for me, I went to see if I could meet a jinni, but they had apparently taken the day off. Jinn are the sometimes-demonic spirits that inhabited the Arab wastelands and deserts, howling on dark nights and often possessing a hapless passerby. How they ended up in Bengal, we will never know, but I suspect that the Muslim imagination that brought the other delightful stories of the Arabs was responsible.
It was in this way that I became fascinated with the things people consider evil. Evil is not always something to do with morality, as we in the West often think. When I once foolishly attempted to catch a large crab-like insect awkwardly scuttling across a temple floor in India, I saw the looks of horror people gave me. They warned me not to touch it, but their expressions told me that it was not just the poison they feared. They regarded the creature with a kind of awe they reserve for evil. Indeed, later I was told that it was an "inauspicious" creature.
When I started to study Zoroastrianism, evil ultimately hooked me. Evil, I found, was simple yet complex, disgusting at times, yet attractive. The sources available for the study of this tradition are scarce, however. I envy scholars of the Indian traditions for their rich sources, yet there were reasons for the scholar in the study of religion to revel in the fact that so few of their brethren have tackled the early Iranian material. I found the study of the Zoroastrian tradition to be the realm of the philologists, who were, and are, making valiant attempts to translate and make available the difficult texts. The study of the Iranian texts by scholars of religion has been hampered for several reasons. The most vexing is the corruption of the texts by scribes. The Avesta, for example, was an oral text passed down since perhaps the first half of the second millennium BCE. It was finally put into writing toward the end of the Sasanian period (224–651 CE), but the extant manuscripts date only from the thirteenth through fourteenth centuries. The priests who transmitted the texts orally and in writing, but who did not understand the original language, had corrupted these texts.
Most translations in this book are from the Avesta. In some cases, to avoid lengthy translated passages, I have paraphrased and shortened some translations from various works I will use, and I have given the English translation sources for the benefit of the reader wishing to investigate them further. I concentrate on the period of the Avesta and the earlier Pahlavi texts, with the exception of a few passages from the later texts, especially the Persian Rivāyats. With apologies to all of the learned scholars of Iranian traditions before me, I have had to lighten the text for print and have not been able to acknowledge all of the opinions that have been offered in the past in the understanding of the Avesta. I wanted above all to share my love of these fascinating myths with my students and with the public so that they too can enjoy the world of evil.
A serious problem in the study of Zoroastrianism is the notion of Zarathustra as a prophet, a reformer of what is often referred to as the pagan Iranian tradition. The result is the “textbook” understanding of Zoroastrianism, which distinguishes between a corrupt period of lawlessness and polytheism punctuated by a golden age of Zarathustra’s teachings, followed again by a return to the old polytheistic state where superstitions reigned.
Most scholars of religion have long since abandoned the type of thought that pits “ethical” monotheists against “superstitious” polytheists. Traditions are just traditions, and one is no better than another. It is our task to observe, not to judge. It is with this thought that I approach the texts. Unfortunately, for scholars of early Iranian traditions, there is very little beyond the texts. Therefore, we have to let the texts “talk” to us. We have no idea of what opposing and marginalized groups and individuals practiced and believed. However, in an oblique way the Avesta reveals the identities and some of the practices of the outsiders to these traditions—at least those that bothered the authors the most.
I found it fruitful to examine and catalog ideas concerning evil in these texts because they reveal many things. In addition to the worldviews of the elite priests, the texts can also shed some light on the problems people in general faced when they dealt with the elite, who were often state-sponsored. For example, while scholars may know very little about the practices of women during the time of the creation of the Avesta, we can know the rules they were expected to follow, the attitudes of the priests toward women, and what the sanctions were against them. When the texts deal with the subject of women, I believe we can learn something very important about the concept of evil itself. It is precisely when addressing the subject of the female that the ambiguity of evil in Iran is revealed.
At first glance, one may assume that the concepts of good and evil are simple for dualists. This does not seem to be the case at all when we examine their views on humans. The Young Avesta sees a clear separation between the good god Ahura Mazd (called Ohrmazd in the Sasanian and later texts) and the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman in the Sasanian and later texts), and their respective creations. Humans throw a wrench into the picture. Humans, and women in particular, have a strange status. Although created by the good god Ahura Mazd , humans, like the great deities, have the power of choice: they can choose good or evil.
While women can choose good over evil, the problem becomes complex because, according to these texts, a woman’s body is naturally linked to evil by blood pollution. I will deal with this interesting notion in my discussion on female evil beings. Female beings also appear in the Avesta as important demons or classes of demons. The sanctions against things evil also give us some insights on their occupations, such as providing for women’s health, and at times abortions, which put these female health providers under the suspicion of witchcraft. What was the “magic” or witchcraft that these women used? Was it herbal medicine, or was it a combination of herbal medicine and spells?
Given such limited resources, we have to make some conjectures, but there is still quite a bit to learn by what is forbidden in a tradition. If the Avesta condemns abortion providers, then we must assume that they existed. When the texts forbid the eating of dogs, we can safely assume that some people may have eaten dogs. This is certainly not unheard of in other cultures. Similarly, when the texts complain about sorcerers and other evildoers, we will have to speculate on what they meant. Were they followers of other traditions? Were they actually practicing alternative magic?
At this point, it is important to say a few words about terms. The word “magic,” for one, is fraught with a long history of verbal wrangling. It is a word similar to the term “religion,” a definition of which will never satisfy every scholar, and will therefore remain elusive. Until recently, magic had a pejorative meaning. In the past, scholars made a distinction between magic and religion, and there were numerous attempts to differentiate the two. There is no consensus, even after many attempts, as to what, if anything, differentiates magic and religion. As I already mentioned, the study of early Iranian traditions has been mainly the field of philologists, rather than scholars in the study of religion or anthropology. Because of this, we see that some scholars in Iranian studies still use terms that today’s religion scholars consider antiquated when describing various rituals and beliefs.
Religions can employ magical formulas, attempt coercion, be public or private, and so on. Therefore, perhaps looking at the magical part of any religion, we can separate a few aspects that may be contrasted to purely theological thought. My idea is not to single out the Avestan religion as magical, as opposed to other religions. Indeed, all religions could be analyzed in the same manner. In the case of the religion of the authors of the Avesta, we have only the extant texts to guide us, and considering the incredible antiquity of the religion, they are scant indeed. The elements we can separate as magical were still to have a great influence on the later development of theology in Zoroastrianism as it began to coalesce during the interaction with Islam in the seventh century CE and onwards. Magic and magical beings were important for the Zoroastrian theologians in the elucidation of evil in their dualistic system as opposed to the omnipotent power of the god of Islam.
I have gleaned the following definition from older anthropological works, from Malinowski to Van Gennep’s “magico-religious,” which ends up positing a definition of magic as a part of a religious process, not as opposed to it. I have adapted it for this book, although in no way do I claim that it can be used as a universal definition. It seems preferable to tediously using quotation marks around words like "magic," "spell," "curse," "sorcerer," etc.
1.Magic consists of words and rites meant to produce a desired result by the coercion or supplication of forces beyond the realm of humans. This is basically the same as prayer except that the aims are as below, in point.
2.The realm of magic is predominantly practical, because the use of magic usually has a goal, especially for the aim of suppressing disease, misfortunes, and evil beings. This can be opposed to simple praise and prayer, which are also features of the Avesta.
3.Magical rituals are usually private or secret and carried out by specialists in nonpublic settings. The manthras (mantras in Sanskrit), or spells, to use a broad, although loaded term, are passed down through a line of priests thought to be kin somehow to Zarathustra.
4.Magic revolves around a mantra or spell that uses special language and quite often contains mythological allusions. It is often simply the use of words from the G th s, which, by their antiquity, have acquired sacred status.
There are always many exceptions to every rule, as scholars in the history of religion and anthropology will surely point out. To complicate matters, certain terms that have acquired a pejorative meaning will always be problematic. Can we totally avoid these terms? I agree with H. S. Versnel that this may prove impossible and that the “only realistic alternative is to devise at least a working definition of the concept you are going to employ.” While being careful not to allow old meanings to color our words, it is awkward to have to somehow avoid them. When we look at Avestan curses, I could use Versnel’s term “judicial prayers” because, as he notes, the author is the injured party and so feels justified when appealing to the gods, as opposed to the demons. This is indeed the case with the Avestan counterparts. However, Versnel is opposing his judicial prayers to defixiones, curses, from Graeco-Roman curse-texts. It would be problematic to make that sort of distinction concerning the composers of the Avesta as opposed to the so-called sorcerers and other demonic things they oppose, for the reason that we do not know who these sorcerers were, and we certainly do not have any examples of their texts. If we are to posit some continuity between the approaches of the composer or composerss of the G th s and the later Avesta, at least in the way they chose their enemies (and this, I realize is dubious, and poses many challenges), there are a few ways to look at demons. They would include the so-called evil beings that plagued the authors of the Avesta and were of three kinds: unseen demons, persons who actually practiced black magic (or abhic ra as it is called in Sanskrit), and also ordinary people of opposing sects or religions. Another inevitable reason to think in these terms is that the authors of the Avesta themselves thought in terms of good and bad magic. They called performers of bad magic sorcerers, witches, and various other names. They also accused these people of usurping their own rituals and using them for bad purposes. This points to a conclusion that the actual methods of good and bad magic were not always different.
In analyzing the Avestan treatment of evil and how to combat it, my definition of "magic" works reasonably well. As far as the words “spell” and “curse” are concerned, these are mantras that, in an effort to bring about the desired result of what I have termed “magic,” will be discussed later.
Another problem in identifying evil in the Avesta is the obscurity of references in the early Avestan texts. Sometimes they are explained in post-Avestan texts, and sometimes the myths are fleshed out. We have no way of knowing if these elaborations are later additions invented to explain the bits and pieces offered by the early compositions, or explanations passed down orally and incorporated into the later compositions. Following the example of Wendy Doniger in her work on evil in the Hindu tradition, I will use a thematic scheme, referring to the earliest compositions and then following them with any appropriate related later compositions. While it is important to keep in mind that concepts change and develop over time, this approach may help in several ways. For instance, one can examine what may be a foundational idea in the Avesta, or even as early as the G th s, and then observe the ways in which the concepts are interpreted by later authors. This is especially interesting considering that the authors of the Pahlavi compositions were working at a time when they were grappling with polemic arguments during the period of Muslim domination.
Using this method, we might ask for example, “What did the Avesta have to say about women?” How does this persist or change as the tradition responds to outside forces? While it may not be prudent to use later sources to fully explain earlier ones, looking at references in the earlier compositions to particular themes such as the disposal of dead bodies, and relating them to later texts that appear influenced by them, is a valid form of inquiry. Presenting the material in a thematic manner will also help to give us a more complete picture of the tradition as it developed.
This book deals with the question of how evil is understood and categorized, and then finally combated in early Iranian traditions. Very important in this study is the investigation into the lives of the witches, whores, sorcerers, and other people thought to embody evil. The priestly incantations are directed at these people. These “evil” beings are even more interesting than the priests, but they cannot speak. One can only discover something about them through the very people who hated them.