Mary Boyce, a great scholar of Zoroastrian studies once asked, who were likely to have a deeper understanding of the ancient Zoroastrian religion and terms, western academics or the devout priests who have upheld the ancient beliefs and practices for thousands of years?
She developed her theory of the continuity of Zoroastrian belief and practice from the time of the seer/prophet of the ancient Aryans Zarathustra, right down to modern times. Boyce summed this up in a little-known article “The Continuity of the Zoroastrian Quest.”
Boyce rejected the biblical/evangelical approach and understanding of Zoroastrian concepts, and saw Zarathustra as a visionary, seer/prophet, and an inspired, Indo-Iranian poet-priest. For Mary Boyce, the background and training of Zarathustra as a poet-priest of the ancient Indo European tradition was fundamental in understanding his Gāthās or Sacred Songs/Poetry.
She took issue with translations of Humbach, Insler and Kellens for approaching the Gāthās /Sacred Songs of Zarathustra only from a textual perspective, and not taking account of the beliefs, and ancient commentaries of the Zoroastrian tradition.
I personally believe that the ancient commentaries, and traditions of Zoroastrianism shed great light on the correct meaning of the gathas/songs of the ancient seer/prophet. While the ancient commentaries might contain some elements of folk etymology, nevertheless, they always give right clues as to the correct meanings of the sacred passages. Furthermore, an accurate and objective study of Zoroastrianism and the Gāthās /Sacred Songs of Zarathustra is IMPOSSIBLE without comparative Indo European Poetics.
The following example from the poetry of the gathas demonstrates the validity of Mary Boyce’s position. In the gathas, Yasna 32.16, first rhymed verse line, we encounter the word ušuruyæ. The word appears a second time in the gathas, in the form of ušǝurü (See Yasna 34.7, 2nd rhymed verse line.)
The ancient Avestan commentaries translate the term as faráḵ hûshi “dawning, wide intelligence, understanding without limitation.”
Humbach derives the term from the root uš to “shine, radiate” but translates it as “pleasant, pleasant way.” The great scholar Martin L. West, following Humbach, translates the term as “safe haven” in Yasna 32.16 and as “innocuous, soft” in Yasna 34.7.
The Avestan original of the passages are as follows:
hamém tat vahištá.čît//ýé ušuruyæ syas.čît dahma.ahyá
Same as the very best// are the intelligent sayings of the wise.
hamém tat vahištá.čît “Same as the very best,” at the Old Avestan passage here is comparable to the Vedic term samó deváih “equal to the gods.”
In other words, if we follow the “tradition inspired” understanding of the above passage the meaning is “the intelligent or bright teachings of the wise are the best/divine.”
Martin L. West’s translates the passage as: “There is nothing finer than if one just draws back to the safe haven of the enlightened one.” Humbach translates the above passage: Equal to what is very best, is the pleasant way of the very promoter of the wise.
It is important to remember that both the aforementioned scholars derive the terms ušuruyæ, ušǝurü from the root uš to “shine, dawn, to shed light, radiate.”
In the second Old Avestan passage where the term ušǝurü appears we read:
séñg.hüš raæḵa.náv aspen.čît sádrá.čît//caḵrayö ušǝurü
Teachings and traditions will turn around misfortune and hardship// by their light and brightness
In other words, “teachings and traditions by their luminous quality/intelligence will turn around what is inauspicious and hard, hateful into advantage.”
The Avestan word séñg.hüš translated as “teaching” is in fact a cognate of Latin censeo, and means to “announce, declare, recommend, estimate or evaluate.”
The word for “tradition” raæḵna comes from the root *rik. Vedic reknas is a cognate. The reconstructed Proto Indo European root is *leik.
Avestan raæḵna recalls the Germanic noun lehan in the sense of “loan,” that is “sacred legacy,” customs and beliefs that go back to the beginning, and are LEFT to us by our ancestors.
The word a-spen translated as misfortune, literally means “inauspicious,” and the word for “hardship, what is hateful” sádrá is a cognate of the Old Norse hatr.
I liked Mary Boyce’s books, have read almost all of them. She wrote with dignity and love for the Zoroastrain traditions and history. She had an amazing style too and an excellent understanding of the history and architecture. She spoke the Persian language as well so she could talk to the people.She had many Zoroastrain life long friends.
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