Priesthood in the Avesta

Priesthood in the Avesta

The Vendidad says:”Let him who wants knowledge, be taught the holy word/speech … until helearns all the sacred verses taught by the keepers of the flame/the firepriests (athrapaitis).”(Vd 4.44-45).

The evidence of the Zand ī Vahman Yashn (2.2-4) shows that, until the time of Sasanian Khosrow I Anöshiravān (r. 531-79 C.E), priesthood was open to laity. Priestly studies focused on the ancient commentaries, translationand exegesis of Avestan texts (Zand),which future scholar priests were required to study profoundly and in some cases to learn by heart. As a result of Mazdak’s revolt, KhosrowI found it necessary to bar the laity from studying the Zand.

The Avestan text dealing with all matters concerning priestly studies and scholarship is Hērbadestān .  Hērbadestān represents an ancient Zoroastrian learned tradition. The topicsdiscussed in the Hērbadestān arearranged in twenty chapters:

The first chapter addresses the two questions of who shall go to do advanced priestly studies, Chapter 4 deals with the issue of how often and for how long should a person pursue religious studies. Chapter 5 is about female studentsand the women in charge of sacred fires. Chapter 6 is devoted to the question of female students. Chapters 7-11 deal with the subject of accompanying a child to attend advanced priestly studies, and the responsibilities of the parents or legal guardians of the child. Chapter 12 is on the duration of the priestly studies and on those who are barred from them. It also discusses the situation of the wife and children of a man who converts to Zoroastrianism, of the estate of a deceased foreigner who has converted to the faith, and of a woman who dies shortly after embracing the faith. Relations between Zoroastrian men and non-Zoroastrian women as well as the case of non-Zoroastrians seeking refuge in Iran are also dealt with in this chapter. Chapter 13 is on learning how to recite the sacred texts, while the next four chapters focus on the teacher’s responsibilities (chaps. 14-15) and on valid and invalid reasons for failing to recite and study properly (chaps. 16-17). The remaining three chapters are about priestly teachers who are not good Zoroastrians (chap. 18), teaching those who are not good Zoroastrians (chap. 19), and feeding a non-Zoroastrian(chap. 20). The most important manuscripts are the 17th-century TD (see Kotwaland Boyd for a detailed survey of the MS tradition) and HJ, which had been

The evidence of the Hērbedestān(chaps. 12, 13, 14, 15) shows that a student was expected to study for a minimum of three years, ideally with three teachers (four if one of the first three proved unsatisfactory). The memory of the ancient fire priests or athrapaitis was clearly revered (Yt. 13.105;Vd. 4.45), and their role was essential for the transmission of the sacred knowledge. The teacher is said to be as responsible for faults in his pupil’s recitation as the student himself (Hērbedestān 14.5). A student’s nearest kinsman had a religious duty to act as his teacher if asked to do so,and committed a sin if he refused (Hērbedestān15.2).

While in Sasanian times society was evidently wealthy enough to support a considerable group of priests  for the sake of their learning and scholarship and teaching activities alone, the impoverished Zoroastrian community of later times found it increasingly difficult to do so. We learn from the 9th century Dādestān ī dēnīg that there was active rivalry between scholar-priests and ritual priests. Manushčihr, the traditionalist author of the Dādestān ī dēnīg, frowned on such practices and pointed out that the scholars’ status was higher; and, since they had knowledge of the Zand/secretknowledge, they were better qualified to direct ceremonies.

Elsewhere(Dādestān ī dēnīg 45), Manushčihris asked if “a scholar priest who cannot make a living from his activities as ascholar may leave his profession and do other work . . .” The answer is that,if the faithful fail to provide for him, the scholar priest may engage in such priestly activities as celebrating and arranging rituals. In other words, the community’s increasing poverty led to a blurring of the distinctions between scholar and ritual priests, forcing all priests to accept what work they could find.



SohrabJamshedjee Bulsara, tr., Aêrpatastanand Nirangestân: The Code ofthe Holy Doctorship and the Code of the Divine Service, Bombay, 1915.

HelmutHumbach (in cooperation with Josef Elfenbein), ed. and tr., Ērbedestān: An Avesta-Pahlavi Text,Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft, N.S. 15, Munich, 1990.

FirozeM. Kotwal and James W. Boyd, Ērbadistān ud Nirangestān,facs. ed. of theMS TD, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1980.

FirozeM. Kotwal and Philip G. Kreyenbroek (with contributions by James Russell), eds.and trs., The Hērbedestān andNērangestān I: Hērbedestān,Studia Iranica, Cahier 10, Paris, 1992; II: Nērangestān, Fragard 1,Studia Iranica, Cahier 16, Paris, 1995.

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