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An Introduction to Old Avestan

by Prods Oktor Skjærvø
(3rd version)

Date of the Gathas ( 0ld Avesta)

Linguistic analysis of Avestan long ago established the probability that it was an East-Iranian language. Geographical references in the Young Avesta, moreover, render likely the conclusion that the oldest texts originally came from central Asia, specifically the area between Choresmia and Bactria, whence the later tribes migrated further south into Sistan. By algebra—that is, by adding up the time periods that must be allowed for the language to develop from proto-Indo-Iranian to Young Avestan—and comparing Old Persian, which can be dated to the first half of the first millennium B.C.E., we can set the time of Old Avestan, hence also of the texts in this language, to around the middle of the second millennium B.C.E.
Such a dating furthermore allows us to attempt placing the texts, and so also the humans who composed, used, and preserved them, in an archeological context. Attempts to do so have been made throughout the history of Avestan studies, producing results of varying degrees of certainty. As for the Young Avesta, it can be established with a fair amount of probability that at least parts of it reached their present form in eastern Iran, more precisely in the area of modern Sistan, ancient Arachosia, since the principal river of Sistan, the Helmand, with its tributaries is described in great detail in the Zamyad-yaπt (Yt.19). On the other hand, the apparent total absence of place names referring to western Iran allows us to conclude that our text was fixed before Zoroastrianism and the Avesta spread westward, persumably during the reign of the Medes.
For the Old Avesta the situation is more difficult, since these texts contain no geographical names. Since, however, the Indo-Iranian “homeland” must have been somewhere in central Asia—the areas of Choresmia, Margiane, Sogdiana, and Bactria, a correlation with archeological finds from that area is tempting.
Archeological exploration of central Asia throughout this century has revealed a great deal about settlements and cultures in the area and has shown that changes in population density in southern central Asia occurred several times throughout the 2nd millennium. The results of the investigation of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), which has been dated to ca. 2100 to 1750 B.C.E., may very well reflect the appearance and expansion of the Iranians, and there is evidence that the Central Asian population started spilling onto the Iranian Plateau already around 1900. There is no evidence of sudden or forceful immigration onto the Plateau in the later periods, so we must conclude that after this time commerce between central Asia and the Plateau was integrated, pointing to a somewhat homogeneous population throughout the area, which can only be the Iranians. Thus we see that Old Avestan could have been the language spoken by the Iranians from about the time of the end of the BMAC ( 2100 to 1750 B.C).
The extant texts, however, represent a later, edited, version of faithfully preserved specimens of Old Avestan texts.

2200-1700: Proto-Avestan (dialect of Proto-Iranian after the break-up of Indo-Iranian unity; end of Indus civilization ca. 1900 and coming of the Indo-Aryans to the Subcontinent? Altyn Tepe and the Bactrian-Margiane Archeological Complex in southern Central Asia)
1700-1200: Old Avestan (time of composition of the Yasna Haptaºh˝iti and the G˝ƒ˝s, as well as other literature, part of which must survive in Young Avestan form in the Avesta; composition of the Rigveda and incipient canonization of the texts; kingdom of the Indo-Aryan Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia; reign of the Hittite king Hattusilis ca. 1300; Mycenean Greek culture 1600-1100).
1200-900: Transition period (canonization of the Old Avesta; development of a “Zoroastrianized” religious literature in eastern Iran, some of it preserved in the Young Avesta; canonization of the Rigveda).
900-400: Young Avestan (composition and canonization of the Young Avestan corpus in eastern Iran and gradual spread westward; composition and partial canonization of the Iliad and Odyssey and the earliest Hesiodic poems by 8th cent.).

All in all it is not impossible that the extant Avesta contains original texts composed over a period of up to 1000 years. If we assume that the latest texts, especially parts of the Videvdad and some of the liturgical texts, were composed in the Achaemenid period, we may have texts dating from the mid-2nd to the mid-1st millennium B.C.E.
The Avestan texts were not written down, however, till about 500 C.E., in the “Sasanian archetype,” and before this time, the transmission of the texts must have been oral. Our earliest manuscripts of the Avesta, on the other hand, are from the 13th and 14th centuries and all go back to single manuscripts for each part of the Avesta that were in existence around 1000 C.E. We know nothing about the transmission before 1000 C.E., and, although it is possible that the common ancestor of our manuscripts was a more or less faithful copy of copies of the “Sasanian archetype,” it is more probable that the text of the single surviving manuscript of ca. 1000 C.E. had already suffered scribal corruption over the preceding 500 years.

The history of the text, as envisaged by Hoffmann (1970), Kellens (1998, p. 513), and myself, is approximately as follows:

• Composition of texts that were to lead to the Old Avestan texts, ( the Gathas), constantly linguistically updated (recomposed) in performance (mid-2nd mill. B.C.E.).
• Composition of the Young Avestan texts, constantly linguistically updated, etc. (end of 2nd /early 1st mill.).
• Crystallization of the Old Avestan text as unchangeable with introduction of editorial changes (early YAv. period?).
• Crystallization of the Young Avestan text as unchangeable (1st half of 1st mill.?).
• Canonization of select texts (under the Achaemenids?).
• Transmission of the entire immutable text with introduction of linguistic novelties and changes made by the (oral) transmitters (up to ca. 500 C.E.), with several attempts at “reassembling the scattered scriptures” (?).
• Creation of an unambiguous alphabet in which the entire known corpus was written down to the extent it was deemed worthy.
• Written transmission of the text influenced(?) by the oral tradition; copying of manuscripts contributes to deterioration of the text.
• The Arab conquest causes deterioration of the religion and its texts; ca. 1000 C.E. there is only one single manuscript in existence of each part of the extant Avesta, from which all our extant manuscripts are descended.

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