There are also substantial sections on word order, stylistics, and figures of speech. Translations are provided for almost all passages quoted. The work will be welcomed by Iranianists as well as by historical linguists with wider Indo-European interests.
Avestan and Old Persian are the two languages which have been preserved from the oldest recorded period in the development of the Iranian language family. They are inflected languages, which are closely comparable to Vedic Sanskrit, and, more remotely, to other ancient Indo-European languages such as Greek, Latin or Hittite.
Old Persian is the distant but direct ancestor of present day Persian. It was the native language of the Achaemenian Kings of Iran (6th- 4th centuries BC), who employed it in their monumental trilingual inscriptions, written in a simple cuneiform script.
The major Old Persian inscriptions are important historical documents which may be compared with accounts of the Persian Empire in Greek sources. The longest inscription, which is chiselled on the rock face at Bisitun, tells in Darius the Great’s own words how he seized power and established his rule over vast territories. From the palaces at Susa and Persepolis, and the Achaemenian tombs at Naqsh-i-Rustam, come other inscriptions dealing with politics and religion, including Xerxes’s “daiva inscription”, which bans the worship of false gods and promises rewards to the worshipper of Ahura Mazda.
Avestan is the language of the earliest sacred texts belonging to the Zoroastrian religion. The Avesta was handed down orally among Zoroastrian priests for more than a thousand years, and when it was committed to writing, probably for the first time during the Sasanian period (3rd-7th centuries AD), a special alphabet was devised to record the traditional pronunciation of its language. The oldest Avestan compositions are seventeen intricate poems (Gathas) attributed to the prophet Zoroaster (Avestan Zarathushtra), and some prayers which play an important part in Zoroastrian worship to this day. There is also an ancient liturgy (Yasna Haptanhaiti), and long traditional hymns of praise (Yashts) addressed to deities such as Mithra and Anahita, which contain the earliest known fragments of the Iranian epic. The Videvdat, or “Law which rejects the false gods”, spells out in late Avestan prose the Zoroastrian regulations concerning pollution through contact with Evil.
The Avesta is authoritative for present day Zoroastrians, and there is considerable interest in the contribution modern scholarship can make to its correct interpretation. When the Avesta was first translated and introduced to the West in 1771 by Anquetil Duperron it was greeted with various shades of incredulity by Kant, Voltaire, William Jones and others. Since then considerable progress in understanding has been made via philological and historical linguistic methods, but much work remains to be done, and the early stages in the development of Zoroaster’s religion are still the subject of lively academic debate.
About the author
Martin Litchfield West (born 23 September 1937, London, England) is an internationally recognised scholar in classics, classical antiquity and philology. In 2002, upon his receipt of the Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies from the British Academy, he was called “the most brilliant and productive Greek scholar of his generation.” He is an Emeritus Fellow and Lord Mallard of All Souls College, University of Oxford.
He has written extensively on ancient Greek music, Greek tragedy, Greek lyric poetry, the relations between Greece and the ancient Near East, and the connexion between shamanism and early ancient Greek religion, including the Orphic tradition. This work stems from material in Akkadian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Hittite, and Ugaritic, as well as Greek and Latin.
In 2001, West produced an edition of Homer’s Iliad for Teubner, accompanied by a study of its critical tradition and overall philology, entitled Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad; a further volume on The Making of the Iliad appeared ten years later for Oxford University Press.
In addition to the Near-Eastern connection, in 2007 he wrote on the reconstitution of Indo-European culture and poetry, and its influence on Greece, in the book Indo-European Poetry and Myth.
Martin L. West
Old Avestan Syntax and Stylistics: With an Edition of the Texts (Abhandlungen Der Akademie Der Wissenschaften Zu Gottingen)
Walter De Gruyter Inc (July 31, 2011)