Old Iranian Online

Series Introduction

Scott L. Harvey and Jonathan Slocum

The term 'Old Iranian' is the designation for the sub-group of Indo-European languages which, between approximately 1350 and 350 B.C., spread across the Iranian plateau, an area bounded in the north by present-day Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus Mountains, in the East by the Indus River, in the south by the Persian Gulf, and in the west by Mesopotamia. Of these languages, Old and Young(er) Avestan and Old Persian are textually preserved. Median, Parthian, (Old) Sogdian, Carduchi, and Scythian are also known from their mention in Greek and Hellenistic sources, but are recorded only sporadically as glosses, toponyms, and lexical borrowings by speakers of the better-attested languages.

Indo-Iranian Origins

Too little historical or archaeological evidence is available to reconstruct definitively the earliest emergence of Iranian-speaking communities. There are, however, striking linguistic and ideological similarities between the extant texts of Old Iranian and those preserved in the closely related dialects of Old Indo-Aryan recorded in the regions to the east and west of the Iranian plateau. These include the Vedic liturgical texts of the Punjab region on the one hand, and a few words and passages from the legal and diplomatic documents of southeastern Anatolia's Mitanni kingdom, ruled by an Indo-Aryan minority, on the other. These Indo-Aryan and Iranian dialects have been collectively termed Indo-Iranian. A rough chronology can be established for the members of each dialect family by analyzing their linguistic evolution.

At some time between 2500 and 2000 B.C., a group or groups of nomadic Indo-European speaking peoples of Southeastern Russia and Central Asia migrated to the regions just north of the Iranian plateau. As they settled the region, the proto-language of Indo-Iranian gradually divided into Indo-Aryan and Iranian. By ca. 1500 B.C., various tribes from the Indo-Aryan group began to penetrate the Indian subcontinent; a small number also headed west. Though these developments do not shed any direct light on the emergence of the Iranian dialects, the historical information that they provide may at least be used to establish an initial chronological boundary.

The Indic group left behind a body of texts that contain the most complete picture of Indo-Iranian mythology and religion available. In the late 19th century, the great German philologist Max Müller gave a date to these texts by starting with the much later Indian Buddhist sutra literature and working his way back in time. Since these sutras contained the names of Indian and Hellenistic kings that are also mentioned in Greek works datable to ca. 200 B.C., Müller concluded that the two sets of texts were contemporary. Then, positing 200 years as a reasonable time for the development of each of several previous bodies of religious texts, he moved backwards from the sutras through each genre to arrive at a date of ca. 1400 B.C. for the earliest Indian literature, the Vedas. This date agrees with that of a treaty between the Indo-Aryan-ruled Mitanni of Anatolia and the Hittites, their neighbors to the west, ca. 1380 B.C. Though no similar record exists regarding the Iranians, it is reasonable to assume that whatever motivations the Indo-Aryans had for migrating into their future homelands at this time also led the Iranian groups to move into the Iranian plateau during the same period.

Indo-Iranian Religion

The Indo-Iranian religion, as it is preserved in the Indian Rigveda and its ancillary literature, consisted of plant and animal sacrifice conceived as a system of hospitable exchange between a pantheon of gods, or devas, and communities of human beings. Through priestly intermediaries, a human sacrificer invited to a sacrificial feast those gods whose favor he sought, offering into the fire gifts of meat, dairy products, and the invigorating beverage called soma to enhance the gods' power and strength. According to the system of reciprocal exchange inherited from the Indo-European tradition, this obliged the gods to act in turn on the sacrificer's behalf by assuring him continual acquisition of cattle, sustained good health, frequent military victory, and male progeny. As far as can be gleaned from existing literature, a similar ideology lay at the foundation of early Iranian ritual practice as well.

Avestan: Dialects and Dates

The term Avesta -- from the Pahlavi, or Middle Persian, avestak -- is used to denote the sacred literature of the early Iranian people, which preserves the earliest collections of an Iranian language. Though its meaning is uncertain, it is likely that the term refers to either the collected texts themselves or to the sacred knowledge contained in them. The language is preserved in two dialect forms denoted as 'Old' and 'Young(er)' Avestan. It is likely, however, that there is an overlap in time between the latest Old Avestan and the earliest Young Avestan since they share certain features. It may then be assumed that the two dialects were spoken in distinct regions by independent tribes or clans.

Each of the dialects is preserved in the Yasna, or 'sacrificial liturgy' in seventy-two chapters, of the Zoroastrian religion. The core of this collection, Chapters 28-53, contains the Gathas, or songs, of Zarathustra, poet-priest of the clan Spitama, and the Yasna Haptanhaiti, or the 'Sacrifice of the Seven Chapters', which together preserve the only Old Avestan literature extant. The Gathas are subdivided into five groups -- chapters 28-34, 43-46, 47-50, 51, and 53. The Haptanhaiti are inserted between the first and second of these collections as chapters 35-42; written in prose, these include prayers and praise to the various divine beings. Their language is still fairly archaic. The remaining Yasna chapters consist primarily of praise and offerings of thanksgiving written in the younger language in both poetry and prose. Young Avestan is also found in the prayer book called Khorda Avesta, the liturgical extensions collected as Visperad, the mythical literature and ethical code known as Venidad, and various fragments.

Since none of these texts make reference to anything historically verifiable, they cannot be dated precisely. The Old Avestan of the Gathas, however, is both linguistically and stylistically similar enough to the middle chronological layers of the Indian Vedas to be dated to the same period of time -- i.e., ca. 1250 - 1000 BC. The Haptanhaiti may be as much as a century or two younger. Because Young Avestan shows significant developments away from the older language, it may be dated between the 10th and 6th centuries B.C., though texts composed toward the end of this period contain enough grammatical errors to prove that the language was no longer fully understood by that time.


As the author of the Gathas, the poet-priest Zarathustra is commonly credited as inaugurating the radical innovation that sets Iranian religion -- called Zoroastrianism in the West, after the Greek version of the poet's name -- apart from the remainder of Indo-Iranian tradition. Such degree of originality, however, is not assured. Though the later Zoroastrian tradition recognizes Zarathustra as its founder, the religion's origin is so obscure and its development so long that it is possible that others preceded him but were forgotten because the institutional structure necessary to preserve their work was insufficient at such an early date, or because Zarathustra's poetic or theological genius eclipsed all who came before, or both, or because of some other accident of history. Moreover, the nature of the innovation ascribed may not be quite as radical as is generally believed since Zarathustra can only be seen to stand the Indo-Iranian tradition on its head -- as is typically assumed -- from the point of view of the more voluminous Vedic liturgy. But sheer bulk proves nothing, and continued study of the available data may yet render very different results.

In the Rigveda's most linguistically archaic layers, an epithet -- asura -- was attributed to several of the more important gods of the ritual pantheon. Though the term's precise meaning remains uncertain in these earliest passages, it is clearly honorific in usage. Yet even here a struggle between this special group of gods and the others can be detected; by the beginning of the middle compositional period -- still early in terms of both linguistic and ideological development -- the term asura had been stripped of its elevated meaning. The Indian kavis, or poet-priests, had begun to apply the term, not to the most honored of their gods, but exclusively to the losers in the ensuing battle of divinities. The devas, pure and simple, became the victors, the ones worthy of worship, while the asuras were demonized as a new class, the honorific sense of the word lost in the dust-bin of a mythology irrevocably changed.

Yet Zarathustra sang of a quite similar cosmic struggle, in which the asuras -- or rather the ahuras, as they were known to him -- appear to have retained their elevated status among other gods, who were otherwise like them. Taken in conjunction with the similar usage in the earliest Rigveda, this suggests the Indo-Iranian antiquity of the term's honorific meaning; the innovation in the ontology of gods seems then to have been an Indian rather than an Iranian one. What was new in the Iranian tradition, where it differed from the conservative elements of the Indian belief, was the elevated degree of demarcation between those gods who were 'ahuric' and those who were not and were therefore demoted to a sort of demonic status. If the Rigveda is any indication, Indo-Iranian cosmology never developed the sophisticated, systematic duality that divided the Iranian cosmos, from heaven to earth through and through, in half. Zarathustra's contribution, then, was not a wholly new world view but one carried to its logical conclusion, in which one member of a group of ahuras -- Ahura Mazda, the 'Wise Lord' -- was honored above the others of his group, who were then personified as aspects of the Wise One's personality or manifestation in the world.

To complete the picture, Ahura Mazda was given an opponent, the (non-ahuric) daeva Angra Mainyu, the 'Evil Spirit'. These two were conceived to be in eternal conflict, bringing respectively either good or evil, asha (Truth/Order) or druj (deception), to both the divine and human realms. In fact, it is the inability to distinguish between these moral and ontological dualities that distinguishes, according to Zarathustra, ahuric beings and their human followers from daevas and theirs. Only through the power of Vohu Manah, 'Good Thinking', can order and righteousness prevail.

Later Developments

In the Haptanhaiti and, more extensively, the Young Avestan texts, Ahura Mazda was thought to be aided by six moral qualities emanating from himself and personified as amesha spentas, 'Beneficent Immortals'. Zarathustra simply called these ahuras; it is interesting to note that, though in all lists the amesha spentas are six in number, the texts claim that there are seven. Most likely, the seventh is Ahura Mazda himself, chief among the other ahuras who, in time, ceased to be known as such and became only amesha spentas.

The amesha spentas include the following. Vohu Manah, 'Good Thinking' or 'Good Mind', was already mentioned above. Asha Vahishta was the 'Highest Truth' in the world, the ideal underlying the order of things; Zarathustra constantly exhorted Asha's earthly followers, the Ashavan, or 'Possessors of the Truth', that they not be seduced or confused by the Dregvan, or 'Possessors of the Lie'. Xshatha Vairya personified Ahura Mazda's desired rule over the earth as a realm emancipated from Druj, a condition that Zarathustra hoped to bring about by persuading all people everywhere to follow his teaching. The spenta Armaiti was thought to be the earth's 'beneficent accord,' and had the earth entrusted to her care. Haurvatat and Ameretat embodied the 'prosperity' (or 'well-being') and 'immortality' that humanity sought. Finally, Shraosha represented proper 'obedience' to the other spentas, to Ahura Mazda's prophet Zarathustra, and to Ahura Mazda Himself.

Old Persian

Old Persian is known exclusively from inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings of Persia, found in southeastern Iran at the ancient capital Persepolis, at the ancient sites of Naqs-i-Rastam, Murghab, Susa, Hamadan, Behistan, and Elvend, and in Armenia and Western Egypt. These are primarily the inscriptions of Darius the Great and his successor Xerxes, who ruled from 521-486 and 486-465 B.C., respectively. They are inscribed in the scripts of various languages. Usually cuneiform but also Aramaic versions are found.

The inscriptions offer first-hand accounts, often propagandistic, of their authors' accomplishments in battle, which are usually ascribed to the will of Ahura Mazda. Thus, commands to obey the will of the king are accompanied by the insistence that doing so is also to obey the will of Ahura Mazda (since the latter placed the king on the throne). Xerxes' Daeva Inscription at Persepolis (cf. Lesson 10) also includes a record of the persistence of some older form of Indo-Iranian deva-worship, long since supplanted in the Acheaminid royal house by the advent and spread of the Zoroastrian reforms. Unfortunately, the nature and extent of these older practices are impossible to gauge.

Old Persian is not descended from Avestan, but rather evolved from a distinct dialect. No earlier sample of it is attested, but significant phonetic differences from Avestan and a much simplified case and verbal system suggest that Old Persian had a long history of development. Some of the changes can also be accounted for through the influence of neighboring languages (e.g., Assyrian, Babylonian, and the Iranian dialect Median) and languages of trade (e.g., Aramaic and Elamite).

Related Language Courses at UT

Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; sometimes courses are offered in ancient languages, though more often at the graduate level. Iranian language courses are taught in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies (link opens in a new browser window). Other online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).

Iranian Resources Elsewhere

Our Web Links page includes pointers to Iranian resources elsewhere.