Persian Language and Literature
Jump to: ISBELibrarySubtopics

What Carey did for Literature and for Humanity
... regulation of 1829, which abolished Persian, made by the Mohammedan conquerors the
language of the ... Bengali had no printed and hardly any written literature. ...
/.../smith/the life of william carey/chapter xi what carey did.htm

... did not know the Syriac language or literature and therefore ... who had not yet been
translated into another language. ... of the nations, On the Persian kingdom, On ...
/.../various/jerome and gennadius lives of illustrious men /chapter i james.htm

Author's Preface.
... Two great empires of antiquity. Language and literature. Motive of their
civilization. ... Predictions of the return. Rise of the Persian Power. ...
// bible period by period/authors preface.htm

Professor of Sanskrit, Bengali, and Marathi
... eyes or diluted only through the Persian, he had ... a letter to Sutcliff, he used language
regarding the ... the bewildering forests of the sacred literature of the ...
/.../smith/the life of william carey/chapter ix professor of sanskrit.htm

Hillis -- God the Unwearied Guide
... The homeward march of the Persian army was a kind of triumphal ... tells us that Luther
was the architect of modern German language and literature, and stamped ...
/.../various/the worlds great sermons volume 10/hillis god the unwearied.htm

Second Part
... of Persia, by Persian Kings." [345] Of these the earlier at least were Christians,
and their policy led them to promote the Syriac language and literature, as ...
/.../ephraim/hymns and homilies of ephraim the syrian/second part.htm

From the Flood to Abraham
... with the cities of the Mediterranean and later with England and sailed around Africa
and traded on the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf ... Language and Literature. ...
/.../tidwell/the bible period by period/chapter iii from the flood.htm

Introductory Dissertation.
... Aphrahat the Persian Sage ... Syriac Literature is, on the whole, of derivative growth ...
The Syriac language, in the hands of those to whom the Syriac Church owes the ...
/.../ephraim/hymns and homilies of ephraim the syrian/introductory dissertation.htm

Carey's Immediate Influence in Great Britain and America
... most completely revealed through the English language and literature ... that country,
a name dear to literature, and a ... brethren in the Turkish and Persian empires. ...
/.../smith/the life of william carey/chapter xiii careys immediate influence.htm

The Feeblest Essay in the Volume is the First. ...
... and monuments conspire to prove; having had a peculiar language and literature,
Arts and ... Assyrian Empire, which was swallowed up by the Persian; and the ...
/.../burgon/inspiration and interpretation/i the feeblest essay in.htm

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Persian Language and Literature


pur'-shan, pur'-zhan,RATURE (ANCIENT):

I. LANGUAGE (Introductory)




1. Ordinary Ayestic

2. Gathic


1. His Date, etc.

2. Date of Avesta

3. Divisions of the present Avesta

(1) The Yasna

(2) The Vispered

(3) The Vendidad

(4) The Yashts

(5) The Khorda Avesta


1. Literature

2. Comparison


I. Language: (Introductory).

The Persian language, ancient and modern alike, is an Aryan tongue. In its ancient forms it is more closely connected with Vedic Sanskrit than with any other language except Armenian. Most of its roots are to be found also in Slavonic, Greek, Latin and other tongues of the same stock.


There were two main dialects in the ancient language of Iran (Airyanem),

(1) that of the Persians proper, and

(2) that of the Medes.

The former is known to us from the inscriptions of the Achemenian kings, the latter from the Avesta, and a few Median words preserved for us by Herodotus and other Greek writers.

II. Old Persian Inscriptions.

These fall between 550 and 330 B.C., and contain about 1,000 lines and 400 words. They are carved upon the rocks in a cuneiform character, simplified from that of the neo-Susian, which again comes from the neo-Babylonian syllabary. In Old Persian inscriptions only 44 characters are employed, of which 7 are ideographs or contractions. The remaining 37 phonetic signs are syllabic, each consisting of an open syllable and not merely of a single letter, except in case of separate vowels. The syllabary, though much simpler than any other cuneiform system, does not quite attain therefore to being an alphabet. It was written from left to right, like the other cuneiform syllabaries. Of Cyrus the Great only one Persian sentence has been found: Adam Kurush Khshayathiya Hakhamanishiya, "I am Cyrus the King, the Achemenian." Darius I has left us long inscriptions, at Behistan (Besitun), Mt. Alvand, Persepolis, Naqsh i Rustam, etc., and one at Suez, the latter mentioning his conquest of Egypt and the construction of the first (?) Suez canal:

Adam niyashtayam imam yuviyam kantanaiy haca Pirava nama rauta tya Mudrayaiy danauvatiy abiy daraya tya haca Parsa aiti.

("I commanded to dig this canal from the river named the Nile, which flows through Egypt, to the sea which comes from Persia.")

We have also inscriptions of Xerxes at Persepolis and many short ones of Artaxerxes I, Artaxerxes Mnemon, and Artaxerxes Ochus. From them all taken together we learn much concerning the history and the religion of the Achemenian period. It is from Achemenian or Old Persian, and not from the Medic or Avestic, that modern Persian has sprung through Pahlavi and Dari as intermediate stages. This is probably due to the political supremacy which the Persians under the Achaemenides gained over the Medes. The few words in the inscriptions which might otherwise be doubtful can be understood through comparison with Armenian and even with the modern Pets, e.g. yuviya in the above inscription is the modern vulgar Pets jub.

III. Medic Dialect.

1. Ordinary Avestic:

The Medic dialect is represented in literature by the Avesta or sacred books of the Zoroastrians (Parsis). The word Avesta does not occur in the book itself and is of uncertain meaning and signification. It is probably the Abashta of Beh. Inscr., IV, 64, and means either

(1) an interview, meeting (Sanskrit avashta, "appearance before a judge"; At. ava-sta, "to stand near"), or (2) a petition (Pahl. apastan, "petition"; Arm. apastan, "refuge," "asylum"),

in either case deriving its name from Zoroaster's drawing near to Ahura Mazda in worship.

This dialect represents a much greater decadence in grammar and vocabulary than does the Old Persian. Many of its consonants and most of its vowels are weakened. Its verbs have almost entirely lost the augment; its declensional system shows extreme confusion. It stands to Old Persian grammatically somewhat as English does to German Its alphabet, consisting of 43 letters, is derived from the Syriac (probably the Estrangela), and is written from right to left. As a specimen of the language of most of the Avesta we give the following extract (Yasna LXIV, 15(61)):

Daidi moi, ye gam tasho apasca urvarwsca

Ameretata, haurvata, Spenista Mainyu Mazda,

Tevishi, utayuiti, Mananha Vohu, senhe.

"Give me, O thou who didst make the bull (earth),

and the waters and the plants, immortality, health-

O most Bountiful Spirit, Mazda

-strength, might, through Vohu Mano, I say.")

2. Gathic:

There is a sub-dialect of Medic (Avestic) known as the Gatha-dialect, from the fact that the Gathas or "Hymns" (Yasna XXVIII-XXXIV, XLII-L, LII), and also the prayers (Yatha Ahu Vairyo, Ashem Vohu, Airyama Ishyo, and originally Yenhe Halam, and a few scattered passages elsewhere) are composed in it. This represents, speaking generally, an older form of the Avestic. It is probably the old language of Bactria or of Margiana Gatha I, 2, runs thus:

Ye vw, Mazda Ahura, pairijasai Vohu Mananha,

Maibyo davoi ahvw (astivatasca hyaTca mananho)

Ayapta AshaT haca, yais rapento daidiT hvathre.

"To me, O Ahura Mazda, who approach you two through Vohu Mano,

grant the benefits from Asha, (those) of both worlds,

both of the material (world)

and of that which is of the spirit, through which (benefits)

may (Asha) place in glory those who please him.")

The meter of the Gathas, like that of the other Avestic poems, is based on the number of syllables in a line, with due regard to the caesura. But the condition of the text is such that there is great difficulty in recovering the original reading with sufficient accuracy to enable us to lay down rules on the subject with any certainty. The first Gatha is composed of strophes of 3 lines each (as above). Each line contains 16 syllables, with a caesura after the 7th foot.

IV. Zoroaster.

1. His Date, etc.:

Many of the Gathas are generally ascribed to Zoroaster himself, the rest to his earliest disciples. They compose the most ancient part of the Avesta. It is now becoming a matter of very great probability that Zoroaster lived at earliest in the middle of the 7th century B.C., more probably a century later. The Arta Viraf Namak says that his religion remained pure for 300 years, and connects its corruption with the alleged destruction of much of the Avesta in the palace burned by Alexander at Persepolis, 324.B.C. This traditional indication of date is confirmed by other evidence. Zoroaster's prince Vishtaspa (in Greek Hustaspes) bears the same name as the father of Darius I, and was probably the same person. Vishtaspa's queen Hutaosa, who also protected and favored Zoroaster, bears the same name (in Greek Atossa) as Cambyses' sister who afterward married Darius, and probably belonged to the same family. Zoroastrianism comes to the fore under Darius, whereas Cyrus in his inscriptions speaks as a decided polytheist. Hence, we conclude that the earliest part of the Avesta belongs to circa 550 B.C. Of Zoroaster himself we learn much from the Avesta, which traces his genealogy back for 10 generations. It mentions his wife's name (Hvovi), and tells of his 3 sons and 3 daughters. His first disciple was Frashaostra, his wife's natural uncle. His own name means "Owner of the yellow camel," and has none of the higher meanings sometimes assigned to it by those who would deny his existence. Tradition says he was born at Ragha (Raga, Rai) about 5 1/2 miles South of the present Tehran, though some think his native place was Western Atropatene (Azarbaijan). Rejected by his own tribe, the Magi, he went to Vishtispa's court in Bactria. The faith which he taught spread to the Persian court (very naturally, if Vishtispa was identical with Darius' father) and thence throughout the country. Tradition (Yasht XIX, 2, etc.) says that the Avesta was revealed to Zoroaster on Mt. Ushi-darena ("intellect-holding") in Sistan. But it is not the composition of one man or of one age.

2. Date of Avesta:

Herodotus makes no mention of Zoroaster, but speaks of the Magi (whom he calls a Median tribe (i.101)) as already performing priestly functions. His description of their repetition of charms and theological compositions (i.132) would agree very well with recitation of the Gathas and Yasna. Mention of controversies with Gautama, Buddha's disciples (Yasht XIII, 16) who probably reached Persia in the 2nd century B.C., is another indication of date. The fact that in both the Yasna and the Vendidad heretics (zanda) are mentioned who preferred the commentary (zand) on the Avesta to the Avesta itself, is a sign of late date. Names of certain persons found in the Avesta (e.g. Atare-pata, a Dastur who lived under Hormuzd I, 273 A.D., and Rastare-Yaghenti, whom the Dinkarl identifies with the chief Mobed of Sapor II, 309-379 A.D., Aderpad Marespand, and who, according to the Patet, section 28, "purified" the revelation made to Zoroaster, i.e. revised the text of the earlier parts of the Avesta) enable us to prove that certain portions of the work as we now have it were composed as late as near the end of the 4th century of our era. It is said that the text was in confusion in the time of Vologases I (51-78 (?) A.D.). A reccnsion was then begun, and continued with much zeal by Ardashir Papakan, 226-240 A.D. According to Geldner (Prolegomena, xlvi) the final recension took place some considerable time after Yezdigird III (overthrown 642 A.D.). In the times of the Sasanides there were, it is said, 21 Naskas or volumes of the Avesta, and the names of these are given in the Dinkart (Book IX). Of these we now possess only one entire Naska, the Vendidad, and portions of three others.

3. Divisions of the Present Avesta:

The present Avesta is divided into 5 parts:

(1) The Yasna

The Yasna root yaz, Sanskrit yaj, "to invoke," "to praise") contains 72 chapters of hymns for use at sacrifices, etc., including the "Older Yasna" or Gathas.

(2) The Vispered

The Vispered (vispa, "every," "all," and radha, "a lord") is divided into 24 chapters in Geldner's edition; it is supplementary to the Yasna.

(3) The Vendidad

The Vendidad (van plus daea plus data, "law for vanquishing the demons") contains 22 chapters. The first chapter contains the Iranian myth about the order in which the provinces of the Iranian world were created by Ahura Mazda. It tells how the Evil Spirit, Anro Mainyus, created plagues, sins and death, to destroy the good creatures of the Good Spirit. The greater part of the book contains ceremonial laws and formulas, some of them loathsome and all rather petty and superstitious in character.

(4) The Yashts

The Yashts, 21 in all, are hymns, telling many mythological tales about Mithra, Tishtriya, etc.

(5) The Khorda Avesta

The Khorda Avesta ("Little Avesta") consists of a number of short compositions, hymns, etc., compiled by the Aderpad Marespand (Adharpadh Mahraspand, Atarobat Mansarspendan) already mentioned, in Sapor II's reign.

Much of the Avesta is said to have been destroyed by the Khalffah `Umar's orders when Persia was conquered by the Arabs after the battle of Nahavand (642 A.D.). Certainly `Umar ordered the destruction of Persian libraries, as we learn from the Kashfu'z Zunun (p.341).

V. Pahlavi.

1. Literature:

Under ancient Persian literature may be classed the Pahlavi

(a) inscriptions of Sapor at Hajiabad and elsewhere,

(b) legends on Sasanian coins,

(c) translations of certain parts of the Avesta, made under the Sasanides for the most part,

(d) such books as the Arta Viraf Namak, the Zad Sparam, Dinkart, Ormazd Yasht, Patet, Bundishnih, etc.

These are mostly of religious import. The Arta Viraf Namak gives a description of the visit of the young dastur Arta Viraf, to the Zoroastrian heaven. The Bundihishnih ("creation") tells how Ormazd and Ahriman came into being, and treats of the 9,000 years' struggle between them. Pahlavi, as written (the so-called Huzvaresh), contains an immense number of Aramaic words, but the Persian terminations attached to these show that they were read as Persian: thus yehabunt-ano is written, and dat-ano ("to give") is read. Pahlavi works that are no longer extant are the sources of the Vis o Ramin, Zaratusht Namah, Shahnamah, etc.

2. Comparison:

In order to understand the relation in which the Persian dialects and stages in the history of the language stand to one another, it may be well to subjoin a list of words in Old Persian, Avestic, Pahlavi and modern Persian. It will be seen that Ayestic is not the source of the Aryan part of the present tongue.


Friend.... zusta daushta dost dust

Hand...... zasta dasta dast dast

Bactreia.. Bakhdhi Bakhtri Bahr Balkh

Straight.. drva(sta) duruva(sta) drust durust

Greatest.. mazista mathishta mahist mahin Most right razista rasta rast rast

Abode..... nmana maniya man man-dan ("to remain")





Achaemenian inscriptions, Korsowitz, Spiegel, Rawlinson: Geiger and Kuhn (editors), Grundriss der iranischen Philologie; Darmesteter, Etudes iraniennes; Spiegel, Eranische Altertumskunde; Noldeke, Aufsatze zur persischen Geschichte; W. Geiger, Ostiranische Kultur im Alterium; Geldner's edition of Avesta; Professor Browne, Literary History of Persia; De Harlez, Manuel de la langue de l' Avesta, Manuel de la langue Pehlevie, and Introduction to the Avesta; Haug, Book of Artd Viraf; Cook, Origins of Religion and Language.

W. St. Clair Tisdall



Persian Language and Literature

Persian Religion

Bible ConcordanceBible DictionaryBible EncyclopediaTopical BibleBible Thesuarus
Top of Page
Top of Page