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Pahlavi or Middle Persian Literature

The term “Middle Persian” is used to indicate the language that stemmed from Old Persian and became the official language of Iran during the Sassanian period. The surviving literary works of this language are divided into the two categories of “religious” and “non-religious” texts.

Throughout the Sassanian period, the sacred books of the Zoroastrians and a number of second-grade religious works that contained material more or less connected with religion emerged in a written form while non-religious works, literary works, and occasionally works of amusement value (both, poetry and prose) failed to find their way in written texts owing to the importance given to oral traditions in pre-Islamic Iran and were instead only transmitted by word of mouth even in the post-Islamic times until they gradually went out of circulation. Even the written texts came to be lost owing to the replacement of the Pahlavi script with the Arabic one, the transformation of the Pahlavi language into Fārsi, or owing to certain other political or religious reasons. However, the Arabic and Persian translations of some of these works like the “Kalilah va Damna” (Kalilah and Dimnah) have managed to survive. Similarly, as a result of the transformation in language and the replacement of the syllabic meter with the prosodic one and with a drop in the popularity of music (since Pahlavi poetry was generally recited along with musical accompaniments), Pahlavi poetry, too, became extinct. Moreover, religious works which had also mainly been compiled in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AH at a time when Zoroastrianism was no more the official religion of Iran, gradually faced destruction owing to religious fanaticism, wars, conflicts, and especially the Mongol invasion of Iran.

Middle Persian literature shares its characteristics with oral literature in terms of the anonymity of the writers and the presence of various styles. Moreover, despite all the damage faced by the surviving works they are considered as invaluable sources for gaining information on ancient Iranian myths. The surviving works in the Pahlavi language comprise some inscriptions, written texts, the Pahlavi Zabur (psalms) as well as certain sporadic sentences and words found in the Arabic and Persian books.

i. Inscriptions: This category includes inscriptions on stone/rock, hides, ceramics, metals, papyrus, wood, coins, seals, precious stones, etc. Some of these inscriptions are bilingual (in Pahlavi and Parthian) while some others are trilingual (Pahlavi, Parthian, and Greek). The inscriptions were normally made as they were being composed and even though they do not hold much literary value, they are very important from the historical, social, religious, and linguistic points of view. The various inscribed works are split into the, two, “government” and “private” categories.

a. Government Works: These inscriptions in the inscriptional Pahlavi script or in the print form and were attributed to the Sassanian kings and courtiers, including the head priest (mobed-e mobedān) or the kardir.

b. Private Works: Most of the private inscriptions were in the joint script that was also the Pahlavi script used for books and belonged to the latter part of the Sassanian period and the early Islamic period. These works are divided into the two categories of commemorative inscriptions (used on waqf property or on visiting certain monuments) and tombstone inscriptions.

Other Pahlavi inscriptional works include writings on papyrus, hides, ceramics, metals, coins, seals, and other seal-like objects.

ii. Written Texts: This group of Pahlavi works can be categorized as follows:

a. Translations and Exegeses of the Avesta into the Pahlavi Language (The Zand and the Pāzand): The Avestan language was considered extinct during the Parthian and Sassanian periods and only the mobeds were acquainted with it and, therefore, the translation of the Avesta into Pahlavi – the current language of those times – became inevitable. The translation and the exegeses of the Avesta into the Pahlavi language is generally referred to as the “Zand” or the “Zend” (lit. exegesis). Today, from among the translations and exegeses of the Avesta, only the Zand Yasnas (including the Gāhān), the Visperād, the Khordeh Avestā (including the Niyāyesh and the short Yashts), the Vendidād, the Herbadestān and the Nirangistān, and the Avegmadicha are available.

Following the 4th Century AH, it became more and more difficult or rather impossible to read Pahlavi texts since by then the Pahlavi language had been forgotten. It was for this reason, that some of the migrant Zoroastrian priests of India, transcribed the supplications and some of the Pahlavi texts into the Avestan script, which came to be known as the “Pāzand”. The most important Pāzand works include: The Shekandgomānik Vezār (the original Pahlavi version of which has been lost); the Bundahishn; the Minuye Kherad (The Paradise of Wisdom); the Vahman Yasan Zand; the Avegmadicha; the Ardāvirāfnāmeh; the Yādegāre Jāmāspi (a major part of which in the Pahlavi language has been lost); the Pos-e Dānshan Kāmag; the Khishkāri Ridgān; the Āfarins and the supplications; the Tobehnāmehs (Patit); the Nirangs (the liturgies); certain rivāyāt (narrations); the Sitāyesh-e Si-Ruzeh; the Dah va Panj; “The Importance of the Asurnān (the priests)”; and the 101 Names of God.

b. The Texts Written on the Basis of the Zands: Many books and treatises were written in the Pahlavi language on the basis of the Avesta and its Pahlavi translation on different subjects, the latest of which date back to the 3rd and 4th Centuries AH. The most important of these texts are as follows:

i. The Dinkard: This encyclopedic book comprises a collection of matters that were written on the basis of the earlier Zoroastrian texts. The names of two of its compilers have been identified as “Āzar Faranbagh Farrokhzādan” and “Āzarbād Omidān” both of whom lived in the 3rd Century AH. The term “dinkard” means “religious writings” or “religious deeds and works”. The Dinkard actually comprised nine books, the first and the second as well as parts of the third book of which have been lost.

ii. The Bundahishn: This book is also famous as the “Zand-e Āgāhi” or the knowledge that is based on the Zand teachings and it comprises thirty-six chapters. It was first compiled towards the end of the Sassanian period. However, the last compiler of this book in the 3rd Century AH was a person named “Farnbagh”. “Bundahishn” means the first or the basic creation. The subjects covered in this book include legends regarding creation, the actual and mythological history of the Iranians from the onset until the advent of the Arabs, cosmology and astronomy, as well as the names of rivers, mountains, and plants. Two versions of the Bundahishn are available today. One is a comprehensive version named the “Bundahishn-e Irāni” (The Iranian Bundahishn) or the “Bundahishn-e Bozorg” (The Great Bundahishn) while the other is a short or concise version known as the “Bundahishn-e Hendi” (The Indian Bundahishn). 

iii. Selections from the Zadsparam: This book is a collection of thirty-five chapters on subjects such as creation, religion, man and his relation with the various faculties within his body as well as the duties of each of the parts of the body, resurrection, and the end of the world. This book was written by Zadsparam, the son of Goshn Jam (Jovān Jam) in the 3rd Century AH.

iv. Manuchehr’s Works: Manuchehr’s Works comprise a compilation of three letters in rejection of his (Manuchehr’s) brother Zadsparam’s religious heresies as well as a book entitled, the “Dādestān-e Dini” (A Collection of Religious Verdicts) comprising his answers to ninety-two questions put forward by Mehr Khorshid, the son of Āzarmāh, and some other behdinān (Zoroastrians).

v. Pahlavi Rivāyāt (Narrations): This text appears in the manuscripts alongside the text of the “Dādestān-e Dini” but its compiler is unknown.

vi. The Porseshnihā (Inquiries): This text is a compilation of religious queries.

vii. The Vijākard Dini: This book comprises numerous Pahlavi texts and its name means “Religious Verdicts”.

c. Philosophical and Theological (Kalām) Texts: The philosophical and theological texts surviving from the Sassanian period are the third, the fourth, and the fifth books of the Dinkard; the Shekandgomānig Vezār (lit. “the report that clears ambiguity”) which was compiled by Mardān Farrokh, the son of Urmazd Dād, the first part of which endorses Zoroastrian beliefs while the second part is in connection with the rejection of the beliefs of other faiths; the Pos-e Dānshan Kāmag (Cham Kostig) which is a short text related to the tying of the “kusti” (the sacred rope tied by the Zoroastrians around their waists); and the Gojastak Abālish which is a treatise describing the debate that took place between Abālish, a Zoroastrian who had adopted Islam, and Āzar Farnbagh Farrokhzādān in the presence of Ma’mun the Abbasid caliph.

d. Spiritual Wayfaring and Prophesizing: From among these types of literature the following few works have survived: i) The Ardāvirāf Nāmeh (also known as the Ardāvirāz Nāmeh) which is a description of Virāf’s journey to the other world; ii) Zand Vahman Yasn (The exegesis of the Bahman Yasn), which is a prophecy of the future events of the world based on spiritual inspiration (mukāshefah); iii) The Prophecies of Jāmāsp - Gashtāsp’s minister and advisor - a section of which appears in the Jāmāsp Nāmeh and another part of which can be found in the Yādegār-e Jāmāspi; iv) Shāh Bahrām Varjāvand which was composed in the form of a short rhymed poem in fourteen verses after the advent of Islam, prophesizing the appearance of Shāh Bahrām.

e. Ethics (Good Counsel and Wisdom): Ethical teachings comprise a major part of the Pahlavi literature, the most important feature of which is the collection of advises that are categorized into the two sections of “religious advises” and “practical wisdom”. The counsels fall under the category of oral literature and it is very difficult and at times even impossible to ascertain the identity of their authors and the dates of their origin; and they have generally been attributed to sages and great men and often to kings and priests. The most important books of counsel in the Pahlavi language are the “Andarzhāye Āzarbād Mahraspandān” (Māraspandān) that can be found in the Pahlavi texts, the Pahlavi narrations, and in the 3rd book of the Dinkard and in the book, the “Vāzheh-i Chand Az Mahraspandān” (A Few Words from Mahraspandān); the “Yādegār-e Bozorgmehr”; the “Andarz-e Ushnardānā”; the “Andarz-e Dānāyān be Mazdeyasnān” (The Good Counsel of the Learned Ones to the Mazdeyasnān); the “Andarz-e Khosrow Qobādān”, the “Andarz-e Puriyotakishān”, the “Dadestān-e Minuye Kherad”, and various other books of good counsel.

f. Treatises on Administrative Affairs: These treatises that deal with the political practices of the government and the methods of administrating a country have been categorized under such titles as “Uhud” (treaties), “Vasāya” (wills), “Kārnāmaj” (records), “Nāmehā” (letters), “Khotbehā” (sermons), and “Toqi’āt” (commands) in the Arabic texts of the early Islamic period. The Pahlavi originals of none of these texts have survived but their Arabic and sometimes Persian translations are available. Some examples of such works are: “The Treaties and Wills of Ardashir and Anushirvān”; “The Records of Anushirvān”; “Political Letters” like the letter of Tansar (Tusar, to be more precise) pertaining to the reign of Ardashir; “The Letters of Anushirvān”; “The Sermons Delivered during the Coronations of the Sassanian Kings”; “The Commands of the Sassanian Kings” (in the form of socio-political advises); “Rules and Regulations”; and the “ “Tājnāmeh” that deal with the laws of administration and the traditions of the royal courts.

g. Chistān (Riddles): Instances of this style of writing can be found in the Pahlavi work under the title, “The Treatise of Yosht Faryān and Okht”, reference to which has also been made in the Avesta.

h. Debates and Self-Glorification: The literary work, the “Derakht-e Āsurig”, is an example of this kind of literature.

i. History and Geography: The only historical work in the Pahlavi language is what is known as the “Kārnāmeye Ardashir Bābakān” (The Records of Ardashir Bābakāb). This work which is a combination of history and legend is about Ardashir and his ascension to power. On the subject of the historical geography of cities, there is only one short treatise containing a few pages that has managed to survive, which is known as the “Shahrestānhāye Irān” (Iranian Towns).

j. Epics: The only surviving epical work in the Pahlavi language is known as the “Yādegāre Zarirān” (In Memory of Golden Iran). Most of the Pahlavi epical works that are connected with oral literature have either been lost or have been translated into Arabic and Persian. Like the “Khodāynāmeh”, the “Yādegāre Zarirān” deals with the wars between the Iranians and the Khiyunān.

k. Jurisprudence and Rights: Besides the translation of the Vendidād which contains numerous jurisprudential matters, the following independent books on jurisprudence and rights are available in the Pahlavi language:

i. Shāyest Ne-Shāyest (Proper and Improper): This book deals with subjects like sins and the atonement of sins, good deeds, and religious ceremonies and purification.

ii. The Rivāyat-i Hemit-i-Asawahistan: This treatise is a collection of forty-four answers to the problems of the Zoroastrians living in the Islamic society in the early Islamic centuries.

iii. The Rivāyat-i Aerpat Adur-Farnbagh, son of Farokhvzat: This work is a collection of one hundred and forty answers given by Adur-Farnbagh to the queries of the Zoroastrians as well as numerous other short rivāyāt like the “Rivāyāt-i Farnbagh Sorush” and the “Porsish-hāye Hirbad Esfandiyār Farrokh Barzin” (The Queries of Hirbad).

iv. Mādiyān Hezār Dādestān (A Collection of One Thousand Median Verdicts): This book comprises one thousand legal issues, especially those related with Median civil laws.

v. Short Educational Treatises: The following short treatises in the Pahlavi language on various matters are available: “The Wonders and Marvels of Sistān”; “A Treatise on the Queries of Khosrow” (most probably referring to Khosrow Parviz) in connection with the questions put forward to a young lad named “Khosh Ārezu” concerning the best foods, perfumes, etc.; “A Report on the Games of Chess and Backgammon”; “The Farvardin Day of the Median Month of Khordād”; “Sur-e Sokhan”; and “The Formulation of Rules and Regulations”.


* source: Zarshenas , Zohreh " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.560 - 562

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