The Avesta and Zoroastrianism: The Creation, Disappearance and Resurgence of an Ancient Text
Of all the religious texts, the Avesta is perhaps the least familiar. This is unsurprising, since the Avesta was written in a now-dead language, before being lost for almost one thousand years. However, thousands of people still follow the teachings of this ancient text that is thought to have its origins between 1500 and 1000 BC. The Avesta is key not only to understanding Zoroastrianism, but also the origins of younger and more widely followed religions.
The Farvahar, the most common symbol of Zoroastrianism. ( Alexeiy / Adobe Stock)
What is the Avesta?
The Avesta is the religious text of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet Zoroaster at some point between 1500 and 1000 BC. The religion developed from an oral tradition, and its original prayers and hymns were composed in a language which was called Avestan, now long dead.
Thankfully, the Sassanian Empire (224-651 AD) went to great lengths to write the Avesta down. The text is usually divided into 6 sections: Yasna-Gathas, Visperad, Yashts, Vendidad, Minor Texts, and Fragments.
According to Zoroastrian tradition, the original 21 books, called Nasts were revealed by the Zoroastrian god himself, Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is said to have revealed the texts to the prophet Zoroaster, who recited them to King Vishtaspa. The king then had the Nasts inscribed on golden sheets. This work was then memorized, recited at yasna (services), and passed down through word of mouth for generations, until the Sassanians took it upon themselves to record it all.
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A Sassanian Frieze in Iran showing Persian King Ardashir I crowned by Ahura Mazda (right). The figure standing behind the king is probably his son and successor Shapur I (Artaban V Vers 230 / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Zoroastrianism began as a polytheistic religion (a religion with more than one god). Ahura Mazda was seen as the king of the gods, and he was supported by lesser gods and spirits that represented the forces of good. Opposing Ahura Mazda and his retinue was the spirit Angra Mainyu and his forces of darkness. We know that in the early days of Zoroastrianism there was a priesthood that worshipped the gods, but very little other information exists about this early period.
Sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC, one of these priests rose up with new teachings. This priest, Zoroaster, claimed to have received a vision from Ahura Mazda. A being of pure light, Vohu Manah, had visited Zoroaster on the god’s behalf to inform him that Ahura Mazda was the one true god. It was Zoroaster’s responsibility to spread the word.
Unsurprisingly, things did not go well for Zoroaster when he first dropped this bombshell revelation. The priesthood turned against him, and his life was threatened, causing him to flee his home. Zoroaster soon arrived at the court of King Vishtaspa, who had him imprisoned for his heresy. Luckily, Zoroaster managed to win over the king by healing his favorite horse. Impressed by this miracle, King Vishtaspa promptly converted to Zoroaster’s version of Zoroastrianism and commanded his kingdom to follow suit. Zoroaster was no longer seen as a heretic, and his new religion began to spread rapidly.
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An image of Zoroaster from the 1849 Bombay Shahnama ( Public Domain )
The new religion revolved solely around Ahura Mazda, the all-good, all-forgiving, all-loving god. All Ahura Mazda wanted was for humans to acknowledge his love through good thoughts, deeds, and words.
According to Zoroaster, his followers had to lead a virtuous life. This was done by honoring Asha (truth) and resisting Druj (lies). It was said that by leading lives of honor, people helped to combat the forces of darkness which were still led by Angra Mainyu. It is during this time that Zoroaster is believed to have composed the Gathas, the earliest section of the Avesta which takes the form of hymns addressed directly to Ahura Mazda. As stated above, legend states that King Vishtaspa had these hymns recorded on golden sheets, but no evidence of these sheets remains.
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