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The Avesta or Awesta ( transliterated in Middle Persian : 'P (Y) ST'K, transcribed : abestāg ) is the holy book of the Zoroastrian religion , which was founded by the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra . It is a collection of different texts of different linguistic and stylistic types, which can accordingly be assigned to different time periods.


Title page of an edition of the Zend Avesta

Although the Avesta is considered to be one of the oldest and most important religious documents of mankind, it was only made accessible to European science by Abraham Anquetil-Duperrons . In 1755 he traveled to East India to obtain a copy of the Avestas from the Parse priests . After seven years in India , he brought not only the Avesta with him, but also a complete Persian translation dictated to him by a Parse priest. He published a French translation of this in 1771, which, however, made English scholars in particular doubt the authenticity and age of the original.

It was only through the writing of the Danish linguist Rasmus Christian Rask On the Age and Authenticity of the Zend Language (1826) that these doubts were eliminated through a closer examination of the language of the original itself. Since then, research on the Avesta has made rapid progress in terms of language and content.

As a result, it can be stated that the Avesta is the last remnant of a very extensive canon of holy scriptures that were written in eastern Iran , probably in Bactria , even before the establishment of the Persian Empire . These writings were also accepted very early by the Persians and through them made known to the Greeks . Their information about the content is identical to that of the original.

According to various Iranian sources and a legend of the Parsees, the Avesta was burned by "Alexander the Macedonian" in Ekbatana or in Persis . Some other authors consider it more likely that it was forgotten during the foreign rule of the Greeks and the Parthian era . At the time of the "restoration" of the Zoroastrian religion under the Sassanid dynasty (since 226 AD), only parts of the books ( nask ) of the old work containing the entire religious and secular doctrine of Zoroastrian and his disciples were found . These had been rewritten in the then customary font similar to the Pahlavi script, the so-called Zendschrift, and provided with a translation into Pahlavi or Middle Persian. The Avesta collected at that time also contained numerous Zurvanist myths. These were excluded in the period between Yazdegerd II and Chosrau I , but are partly contained in other Pahlavi writings ( Bundahischn , Denkard ).

Most of the errors and corruptions of the text that make it difficult to interpret the Avesta probably stem from this transcription. After the conquest of Iran by the Arabs and the associated oppression of the old religion in the country, many Parsees fled to India and took the remaining fragments of the Avestas with them.


The term Avesta (“Avista”, Pahlavi : Abestâg) does not meet us before the time of the Sassanids . There are various indications of the meaning of the word. Various authors have assumed the meaning of "basic text". The term is based on the terms Abastâ , found on the ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions, and Upastâk , found in the book Denkard . Sometimes the meaning “knowledge” or “customer” is postulated and the stem “vid” (“knowledge”, Indian “Vedas”) in Avestan and Sanskrit is pointed out.

The term Zend (or Zand ), on the other hand, refers to Middle Persian commentaries and translations that the priests had created because of the lost knowledge of the ancient language of Avesta (Avestian). Zendavesta thus denotes the interpretation of the Avesta.


Only copies of the Avesta are preserved today. None of these copies go back to the time of its creation. The oldest known copy is the "Ashem Vohu Manuscript ". It was acquired by Sir Aurel Stein in Dunhuang in 1907 and is currently in the British Library . It dates from the 9th century AD and contains a Central Iranian , Sogdian text.

Another copy is now in the Copenhagen Museum and is dated to AD 1323–1324 and AD 1288, respectively. It is said to have been completed in 692 of the Avestian calendar. In an appendix, a Mehrban Kai Khusrow of Navsari mentions that he wrote this in the year 552 of the Avestan calendar, which is understood as the year of origin. So there are already problems dating the oldest copies.


Central Zoroastrian fire temple of the city of Yazd. Iran, 2004.
The fire of the temple at Yazd. Iran, 2004.

There are various theses about the dating of the original Avesta itself, all of which are more or less hotly contested. Zarathustra is seen as the founder of a religion and a prophet who, according to tradition, wrote the oldest part of the Avestas, the Gathas , himself. The various information about when exactly the oldest sections of the Avestas originated, mostly extend to the epoch between the 8th century BC. BC and 1737 BC BC, which according to tradition is referred to as the "year of religion" in Pahlavi scriptures . The tradition has probably also included the Assyrian, Babylonian or possibly Hittite rule here.

The Gathas are formulated exclusively in an old Iranian (specifically: in one of the closest north-east Iranian ) language, Avestan . Zarathustra is now considered to be a person who lived around 800 BC. At the time of the Assyrian Empire on Lake Urmia. After the invasion of the Cimmerians and Scythians in 714 BC. BC originated here around 713 BC. The Medes Confederation, from which the Medes and later the Persian Achaemenids grew. Ahura Mazda was certainly worshiped under Darius I. The exact time when Zarathustra actually lived is a matter of dispute.

The Gathas are followed by the Yasnas, which were already written in an Old Persian from the Achaemenid period and, according to Ammianus Marcellinus, began under Vistaspa (Old Persian Wištāspa). This is generally identified with Hystaspes (570 BC; † 495 BC), the father of Darius I, who ruled the satrapy of the media under Cyrus II . According to legend, he received Zarathustra at his court and became his sponsor. This is also reported by the Vedic Puranas .

Under Darius I, the first king of this dynasty, Zoroastrianism became the religion of the Achaemenid dynasty. During this time there must have been a reversal of the pantheon of gods, since the Indo-European “good” gods are usually referred to by the Luwian Tiwaz , the Vedic Deva , the Latin Deus or the Greek Theos . Not so in Avesta, here the divs (Altavestian Daeva ) are represented as demons and enemies, while the good gods are referred to as Ahura (e.g. Ahura Mazda), which in Vedic is the demonic asura . The reason for this antagonistic interpretation is unknown, but could have something to do with the takeover of Darius I, who originally came from a sideline of the Persian royal family and was therefore not supposed to succeed Cambyses II on the throne. At about the same time, Buddhism developed in Bactria .

A connection is not directly demonstrable, but evident due to the striking similarities between Vedic and Avestan scriptures. The break between the Avestan and the more recent Vedic tradition must have arisen immediately after the Avestan original.

More recent parts come from the Sassanid period, which was strongly based on the Achaemenid dynasty. They already show stylistic uncertainties and irregularities that suggest that the authors were no longer native speakers of the Avestan and Old Persian languages ​​or that their language was already too distant. This leads to the conclusion that the younger writers were already using a dead sacred language.

Since Avestan must have been largely incomprehensible in the Sassanid Empire and thus before the Islamic conquest of Persia, the Zend literature was formed to comment on and translate the Avestan texts into the Middle Persian language . This once rich literature is largely no longer preserved today. While the Middle Persian script was very ambiguous for a sound reproduction, the Avestian script , which is still used today , was probably developed in this epoch, i.e. between the third and seventh centuries AD, to clearly reproduce the already dead language of Avestas .

In the early 3rd century AD, on behalf of the first Sassanid Ardaschir I, under the direction of the high priest Tansar, a new compilation and editing and another under Shapur I and the Mobedan-Mobed Kartir took place . A part of today's text, especially the Khordeh Avesta , is ascribed to the Mobedan-Mobed Azarpad Mehrespandan (a priest). Preserved by oral tradition , the sacred plant was already in prehistoric times.

The book Ardaviraf-Namak , a Middle Persian work from the 3rd / 4th centuries. Century AD, reports on a writing by Avestas, which was kept in Achaemenid archives and burned by "Alexander the Roman" . According to the Denkard , a later Middle Persian work from the 8th / 9th centuries. In the 17th century, the Iranian great king Valakhs, who is mostly identified with the Parthian ruler Vologaeses I , then arranged for the texts of the Avestas to be collected and compiled again.

Parts of the Avesta

The Yasna

Yasna 28.1, part of the Ahunavaiti Gatha in

The Yasna (“adoration”) is divided into 72 chapters, each called “Hâ” (section), and is the most important part of the Holy Book of Avesta, which in our time consists of five books. Part of the Yasna are also the “Gathas” (chants), which are the words of the Prophet (Yasna 28–34, 43–51 and 53).

The earliest chapters of Yasna and the later ones were only written after Zarathustra by clergymen who first put the believer in the mood for prayer and finally lead them to the true chants of the prophet. The gathas or chants that come from Zoroaster himself provide the foundation for the later dogmatics and morals in the remaining, later created parts of the Avesta.

The Vendidâd

The Vendidâd or Vidêvdâd (Avestian: vî-daêvô-dâta, "given against the Dēvs" or "law against the Dēvs", Dēv: " demon ") contains very different content in its 22 "Fargards" fragments that only relate to the all-round clothing in dialogues between Ormuzd - z. Also written Ormudz - or Ahura Mazda and his prophet Zoroaster agree with each other. The first Fargard contains the Zoroastrian creation saga, the second the saga of Yima and the golden age , the following largely regulations on penance and atonement, through which one can ward off the consequences of the various sins or defilements one has brought upon oneself.

The term Dēv (Pahlavi language, Avestian: Daêva , Neupersisch : Div ) originally referred to ancient Iranian deities, which also found an equivalent in the Indian world of gods, albeit in very different ways. Even in the oldest sections of the Gathas, “Dêvs” are mentioned as “false gods”. In the course of further Iranian history a further shift in meaning towards personifications of evil endowed with superhuman powers can be observed, which are mostly represented as " demons ".

The Visparad

The Visparad (from vîspe ratavo, "all above") contains 22 to 27 kardas (sections), depending on the number, of prayers of a similar nature to those in the younger part of the Yasna, but much smaller. The three books mentioned together, arranged in a peculiar arrangement, form the Vendidâd Sâde collection, which is much used for worship purposes .

The Yashts

The Yashts (worship by praise) form the fourth book of the Avestas. They are worship, depending on divine creations, such as archangels, elements and the good, which are also namesake of the Zoroastrian days. The Zoroastrian calendar has 30 days, and each of these days has the name of a divine creature (e.g. Mah : the moon, Mehr : the light, the Fravashi : partly compared to the archangels), whose properties are listed and described in detail. They are therefore an important source for Zoroastrian and Iranian mythology .

The Khordeh Avesta

Under Khordeh Avesta ("Little Avesta") the five Niyâyishs, the Afringâns, the Gâhs and some other, mostly smaller pieces and fragments are summarized.

See also


  • Ulrich Hannemann (Ed.): The Zend-Avesta . Weißensee-Verlag, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-89998-199-5 .
  • Encyclopaedia of Ancient Iran . Hashem-e Razi, Tehran, Sokhan 2002.
  • Günter Lanczkowski : Iranian Religions. In: Theological Real Encyclopedia . Volume 16, pp. 247-258.
  • Fritz Wolff: Avesta. The sacred books of the Parsees. Translated from Christian Bartholomae's Old Iranian Dictionary. KJ Trübner, Strasbourg 1910.
  • Paul Horn: History of Persian Literature. (= The literatures of the East in individual representations. VI.1). CF Amelang, Leipzig 1901, pp. 1-33.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Sacred Texts: Ashem Vohu. Retrieved May 6, 2011 .
  2. Michael Stausberg : The religion of Zarathushtra. Volume I, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2002, p. 76 line 2.