Avestan Textile Terms

Andrés-Toledo, Miguel Ángel. 2017. Sasanian exegesis of Avestan textile terms. In Gaspa, Salvatore, Cécile Michel & Marie-Louise Nosch (eds.), Textile terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD, 397–403. Lincoln, NE: Zea Books.


The Zoroastrian religion, taking its name from the prophet Zoroaster, Greek version of the Avestan name Zaraϑuštra, developed in South and Central Asia out of the Indo-Iranian religious practices going back to the 2nd millennium BC, and is one of the few ancient Indo-European religions that still survive, concretely in some communities in Iran, India and the diaspora. The most ancient Zoroastrian sacred texts, commonly designated as the Avesta, were orally composed and transmitted during the 2nd and 1st millennia BC in the most archaic Iranian language preserved, known as Avestan, until they were eventually put down to writing in manuscripts going back to the beginning of the 2nd millennium AD. The difficulties of understanding this language, no longer spoken but still needed for the ritual recitations, motivated that several priests rendered the Avestan texts into Pahlavi, the Middle Iranian language of the Sasanian dynasty (AD 224 – 651), from which they were eventually translated into New Persian in Iran, and into Sanskrit and Gujarati in India.

Although Avestan was and still is used by Zoroastrians for ritual purposes, it was no longer a living language since the 1st millennium AD, when Middle Iranian languages had already emerged from the linguistic pool of the ancient period. Of these Middle Iranian languages, Pahlavi acquired special relevance, insofar as it was the language spoken by the Sasanian kings, under the rule of which Zoroastrianism was the main state religion. Pahlavi was spoken in the Southwestern Iranian province of Fārs after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire in BC 330, during which Old Persian was the language of the ruling class, and before the first written documents in New Persian or Fārsi, dating back to the 8th century AD.1 Since the Sasanian kings, whose creed was Zoroastrian, established the center of their political power in Fārs, this province became a stronghold for Zoroastrianism, and Pahlavi, the language spoken there and used by the Sasanian administration, also became the language of culture for most of the Zoroastrian communities. Indeed, some centuries after Iran was conquered by the Muslims, Pahlavi was still in use as one of the sacred languages of these religious communities but also for literary compositions, being brief texts composed in Pahlavi by Zoroastrian priests as late as the 19th century AD.

The exegetical schools of Pahlavi-speaking priests during the Sasanian period rendered into their vernacular language most of the Avestan texts that had reached to them, and provided their Pahlavi translations with several commentaries, which reflected the different interpretations of the Avestan texts by the leading priests of each school. When rendering the Avestan texts into Pahlavi, these priests applied diverse techniques, but they mostly tried to accurately reproduce the Avestan originals by means of wordfor- word literal translations that mirrored the Avestan syntax.2 Nevertheless, they sometimes deviated from their models when challenged by terms no longer understood, or customs and regulations that had changed in their contemporary society. How the Pahlavi translators and commentators tried to bridge the exegetical gap between the Avestan and Pahlavi languages and contexts highly determined their (and subsequently our) understanding of the Avestan and Pahlavi texts. In this paper I will show by some examples how this problem affects our interpretation of Avestan textile terms and their Pahlavi translations.