The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Monday, March 20, 2017


Helmut Humbach in 2010 pointed out that the older Avesta assumes a day split into three parts for ritual purposes, like the Qur’anic times of prayer. The Young Avesta, famously, has five times of prayer, like Zoroastrianism and Islam today. Humbach, in parallel to what I’ve been musing here concerning other Avestan redactions, assigned the expansion to the Sasanians, if early Sasanians.

Alberto Cantera is now telling us that we're missing something: “Miϑra and the Sun”, Estudios Iranios y Turanios 3 (2017), 25-58. Cantera has been looking further at Mithra / Mitra / Mehr, and at the Zoroastrian calendar – the whole of it. Yes, the Zoroastrians have one. (Actually, several, as we’ll see below.) Cantera sees a more thoroughgoing metanoia in Avestan thought, between the Old Avestan base (already redacted: p. 26) and the Younger Avestan commentaries of that older base. And he has some reformers in mind.

For background: the Old Avesta texts associated certain of their gods, or angels as Zoroastrians prefer you call them, with the times of day and the seasons of the year. Mithra was the god / angel of “daybreak” (p. 26; and of oaths, as he was for the Mitanni diplomats in the Bronze Age); the Frauuašịs presided over sunset. The Old Avesta also assigned the Iranians into four social circles, presumably concentric. These weren’t directly involved with what passed for the Old Avesta calendar – at first. It was all very Vedic.

As Iranians go, we know the Achaemenids best, and the Achaemenids were the smartest of the Iranians. They do tell us their calendar up to 459 BC. It was Babylonian, the lunisolar one. Even in Egypt, which had its own calendar (a solar one, much like the Younger Avesta – as Cantera notes), the Persian administration clung to the Babylonian calendar for instance at Elephantine, up to 401 BC - on that, see, Encyclopaedia Iranica on 'Calendars'. And the Seleucids and Jews borrowed this too. [UPDATE 3/22: Elephantine might be using the Egyptian calendar reskinned as Babylonian]

This implies that the Iranians didn’t have a calendar of their own up through the fifth century BC; and whoever had the Old Avesta, they knew that it was of no help in planning the harvest. So nobody knew the Younger Avesta yet as of 400 BC. [UPDATE AGAIN]

Cantera notes that the two additional (Young) Avesta rituals are entirely about the ritual, not about the natural world. They also keep Mithra at work throughout the day and night, not just at dawn. Cantera argues for a priest-friendly calendric reform, from a daily auroral focus to a solar and seasonal one – the latter based on the Egyptian calendar. Mithra thus became the angel of the sun, the Iranian Ra – as the Roman soldiers remembered him.

The Mihr Yasht and Frawardîn Yasht further introduce a fifth social circle: dax ́iiunąm fratəmatātō; this is “at a higher level than the country”. That is, it is either “a federation of countries” or an empire. This fifth circle, the circle of the shah’s court, is associated with the Frauuašịs and therefore with the calendar.

All this means that a Divinely-ordained empire introduced this calendar to Iran from Egypt, and from pagan pre-Ptolemaic Egypt at that. After the shah fixed the calendar, Iran’s priests overhauled the Avesta to fit. Whatever they left of the documents of the pre-reform Avesta, these the new priests burned, or surrendered to invaders to burn. Most likely the former, which they subsequently blamed on the latter; but let’s leave that to the side.

Anyway there is no way the Sasanians could have known so much about the lost Egyptian calendar. And the Seleucids before them were on Babylonian time, so the new Egypto-Iranian calendar was no gift from the Greeks. Some earlier Iranian empire took the calendar and enforced it, except where and when they couldn’t.

As Cantera notes, we have little choice here. The Achaemenids were the only Iranian imperials to control Egypt in its pagan era. Cantera doesn’t bring it up, but Quintus Curtius Rufus reports (apud Encyclopaedia Iranica again) that the “magi” were assuming the 365-day year as of Darius III.

But even if we assume Darius III’s solar year and extend it to an Avesta-based calendar (which, again, Cantera does not touch), I cannot see us convincing the academy straightaway. I should like to see more reference to this solar calendar and to all five Avesta rituals in late Achaemenid and post-Seleucid Iranian documents.

Furthermore, Cantera proposes this order: Old Avesta, [Achaemenid] calendar overhaul, Younger Avesta. The Achaemenids were literate in Old Persian and left no monument in Avestan. If their priests were working with an Old Avesta base, and expected to preach among Persians, as Darius preached among Persians, these priests assuredly would have commented upon that text in Old Persian too. The Younger Avesta is, still, not in any Persian dialect. How did they get from A through Z to C?

I cannot hope for much trace of the Old Persian commentaries in the west, one way or another; our span is narrow, 400450-333 BC, and the Hellenistic Era did a lot of burning. I do expect traces of a translation from Old Persian to Younger Avestan like all those Hebraisms in the Septuagint and King James, or at least an adaptation like the Qur’an adapts Syriac lectionaries. Accordingly I should like to see Old(ish) Persian loans in the Younger Avesta. I will allow Parthian and even Greek and Aramaic loans where they be calques from Old Persian. We will beware Aramaeograms and Sasanian-era “spelling corrections”.

Failing that, I fall back on my previous position here, that the Achaemenids never read any Avestan text, just para-Avesta pan-Iranian material, mostly Old Persian and now lost.

In this case, some Egyptianised priest who spoke Persian fled Alexander up the Silk Road to some Podunkestan, waving his (papyrus) scroll and swearing by Mitra that here was the calendar of Darius. Did I say Darius, I meant the first Darius… no… it was really from Cyrus… that’s it… taught by Zoroaster, that’s the ticket! The local priest verified that the calendar was, indeed, very old and that it at least worked. His follow easterners, as it happens, already had a canon – the Old Avesta. The western priest and the eastern priests agreed to merge them. So they revamped it and produced the Young Avesta. And there it stayed, away from western notice, until the later Sasanians rediscovered it and made it their own. In this case we might still see western loans in the Younger Avesta but not quite as many.

POSTSCRIPT: As we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, or for that matter from Protestant and Orthodox resistance to Pope Gregory’s calendar, a calendar reform never gets accepted immediately, even (or maybe especially) when the new calendar is objectively superior. So I’m interested in narratives of resistance and of alternate calendars in Iran among Crone’s Nativist-Prophets.

UPDATE 3/22: Sacha Stern allows for an Achaemenid adaptation of the Egyptian calendar. And we found our alternate calendars... sort of.

posted by Zimri on 17:53 | link | 0 comments

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