Zoroastrianism is a
"Religion of a Book" or rather a religion of Texts. From the
beginning, Zarathushtra's prophecies were embodied in words, though
they were not written down until more than a millennium later.
Zoroastrians have three thousand years of words in their heritage.
Many prayers in the
Avesta are in "Avestan Language". During Zarathushtra's time,
Avestan was only a spoken language because it did not have a script.
The Avesta, the
sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism, is like a great pearl, in which
layers and layers of material are added around a central core. The
central core of the Avesta, and the oldest truly Zoroastrian part,
is the "Gathas", the five hymns of Zarathushtra.
composed by Zarathushtra in Avestan language and memorized by his
followers, were passed down orally from generation to generation.
Over the centuries new prayers were composed by Zoroastrian priests
and "Pahalavi" became the language of Iran. The Avestan
prayers along with the prayers composed in Pahalavi language were
first written down in Pahalavi script. In the 6th century CE the
Avestan script was invented and all scriptures were rewritten in the
Avestan script. The rewriting of the Pahalavi scriptures from
Pahalavi to Avestan script is called Pazend (Pazand).
The Avesta is the
analogue of the Bible for Zoroastrians. It is a collection of many
texts from many eras, in different languages. The texts come from
times that may be as early as 1700 BC and as late as 400 A.D. Until
recently, the Avesta was known in the West as the "Zend-Avesta".
This is a misnomer
and was caused by the misinterpretation of the word "Zend." This
means "commentary" in middle Persian (Pazand). The word "Avesta" is
mysterious in origin. The German scholars of the late 19th century
say that it is from the ancient Iranian word "Upasta" meaning
"shelter" or "support" but Persian Avesta scholars
have a different idea. They say that, it is from the Indo-Iranian
word "a" (not) and the root "vid" (know). That is,
Avesta means "Unknown", which describes how the language of
the Avesta became unknown to the Zoroastrians of later centuries.
We must remember
that the Avesta as it has come down to the modern Zoroastrian world
is but a collection of fragments and texts preserved from a far
greater whole. Zoroastrianism has suffered greatly from the
destruction of its texts. First, in the conflagration set by
Alexander the invader in 330 B.C. which destroyed the library at
Persepolis, and later by invading Muslims/Arabs and then by Mongols.
In the Sassanian
era (250-650 AD) the high priests of the state religion re-gathered
the surviving texts of the Avesta into a collection of 21 “Nasks”
or "volumes". The number 21 comes from the number of words in
the “Yatha Ahu” prayer, an easy number for Zoroastrians to
The 21 Avesta
volumes contained writings not only on religious matters but on
mythology, law, science, medicine, and history. After the
Arab/Muslim and Mongol conquests, only the writings on religion
(containing much of the current Avesta) and one law-book survived,
though there is evidence that much of the other material was
translated into Persian and Arabic and became part of the Persian
The parts of
Avesta which still exists are organized as 5 groups of texts: