Each single song covers one chapter (Av. hāiti-, Phl. ) of the Yasna. The Gatha collection is introduced by two Old Avestan meditational formulas, the Yaθā Ahū vairiio (= Ahuna vairiia, Y. 27.13; see AHUNWAR) and the Aṧəm vohū (q.v., Y. 27.14), and by the Yeŋ́hē hātąm prayer (Y. 27.15), which has come down to us not in Old Avestan but in archaized (perhaps re-archaized) Young Avestan (YAv.) language. The collection is concluded by the OAv. Ā.airiiə̄mā.išiiō prayer (= Airiiaman išiia, Y. 54.1; see AIRIAMAN IŠIA). Between the first and the second Gatha the Yasna haptaŋhāiti or Yasna of seven chapters is inserted, an Old Avestan prose text that originally covered Yasnas 35-41 and to which Yasna 42 in archaized Young Avestan language has been added by a later redaction.

According to Šāyast-nē šāyast (13.50-52), the Gathas, without the introductory and concluding formulas and prayers but including the Yasnahaptaŋhāiti, consist of 278 stanzas (wacast), 1,016 lines (gāh), and 5567 words (wāzag), which is approximately correct. A similar computation is given in Zādsparam (28.4 ff.).

The five Gathas. (1) The Ahunauuaitī Gāθā (Y. 28-34), seven songs with 100 stanzas of three lines of regularly 7 + 8-9 syllables each. Whereas this first Gatha is named after the Yaθā ahū vairiiō, which is composed in the same meter, the names of the four other Gathas are derived from their respective opening words. In the same way the names of the single songs are coined. Thus Yasna 28 is called Aiiāsā hāiti after the opening words of the first line: ahiiā yāsā nəmaŋhā. (2) The UštauuaitīGāθā (Y. 43-46), after uštā ahmāi yahmāi uštā kahmāicīṱ (Y. 43.1), four songs with sixty-six stanzas of regularly five (46.15 four) lines of eleven (4 + 7) syllables each. (3) The Spə̄ṇtāmańiiu Gāθā (Y. 47-50), after spə̄ṇtā mańiiū vahištācā manaŋ́hā (47.1), four songs with forty-one stanzas of four lines of regularly eleven (4 + 7) syllables each. (4) The Vohuxšaθrā Gāθā (Y. 51) after vohū xšaθrəm vairīm (51.1), one song only with twenty-two stanzas of regularly three lines of fourteen (7 + 7) syllables each. (5) The Vahištōišti Gāθā (Y. 53), after 53,1 vahištā ištiš srāuuī zaraθuštrahē, one song only with nine stanzas of four (53. 6 five) lines of varying number of syllables.

A legendary history of the Avesta (particularly of the Gathas) is found in the Pahlavi literature. It begins with the king Wištāsp (see GOŠTĀSP) who, after his war with Arjāsp (q.v.), is said to have sent messengers and books to disseminate the Mazdayasnian religion. It culminates with the Sasanian redaction of the Avesta under Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān (for sources see Humbach, 1991, I, pp. 49-55).

In the so-called Pahlavi Yasna manuscripts, the Gathas are accompanied by a word-for-word Middle Persian translation, which seems to originate from the late Sasanian period. Its author (or authors) had a very poor knowledge of the Avestan language, rendering, e.g., by čāštan (to teach) grammatical forms of such different origin as cōišəm (Y. 46.18), cōiš (Y. 31.3, 45.10, 47.5, 50.3), cōišt (Y. 51.5), cəuuištā (Y. 34.13), cəuuišī (Y. 51.15), cinas (Y. 44.6) fracinas (Y. 32.5), cōiθaṱ (Y. 46.9), cixšnušō (Y. 32.8), cixšnušā (Y. 49.1), and caiiascā (Y. 45.5). This kind of heavy mistakes was not without negative influence on the scholarship of modern times. The imitation of the free word order of the Avestan original by the Middle Persian translation is a further obstacle to its use, but occasionally the information provided by the glosses that are added in order to extract some sense from the Middle Persian translation is somewhat more substantial, showing more or less faint traces of a reliable tradition.

On the whole, the Middle Persian translation seldom offers an appropriate point of departure for a detailed scholarly approach to the Gathas, but an intensive comparison of its single lines and their respective glosses with their Gathic originals usually reveals the train of thought of the translator. This obviously reflects the Gatha interpretation by the priests of the Sasanian period, the general view of which is closer to the original than what is sometimes taught about the Gathas in our time. The Sanskrit version, produced by the medieval Parsi scholar Neriosangh and transmitted in part of the Pahlavi Yasna manuscripts, is not based on the original Avesta but on the Middle Persian translation. Several problems of the Middle Persian translation are elucidated by it. Notable examples are Neriosangh’s Sanskrit rendering of Mid. Pers. ahlāyīh “truthfulness” (Av. aṧa- “truth”) not only by dharma- but also by puṇya- “religious merit,” that of Mid. Pers. ahlaw “truthful” (Av. aṧauuan-) by Skt. puṇyātman- “of meritorious soul” or muktātman- “of emancipated soul,” and that of Mid. Pers. druwand “deceitful” (Av. drəguuaṇt-) by Skt. durgatimant- “unfortunate, distressful.”

The text of the Gathas did not come down to us in a form as close to the original as the Indian Rig Veda did. The hypermetrical repetition before the verb of a number of verbal prefixes standing in tmesis (e.g., Y. 46.2 ā īṱ [a]uuaēnā ahurā = 7 syllables) unambiguously is a result of redactional work. Unconscious changes are involved by the practice of slow chanting such as the development of the internal vowel in OAv. š´iiaoθəna-/š´iiaoθana- “action,” which, no less than YAv. š´iiaoθna-,counts two syllables,or by the intrusion of typically Young Avestan characteristics such as the internal vowel i of yima- (< Proto-Ir. yama-; Mid. Pers. jam, jamšēd), the name of the king of the Iranian paradise, as contrasted with the correct Old Avesstan internal ə̄, which is preserved in the common noun yə̄ma- “twin” (Y. 30.3). In the course of time, the Gatha transmission also incurred several corruptions in the stricter sense of the word. Among these is the loss of the line Yasna 46.15e. Some more is lost in Yasna 53.6 if the irregular number of its five lines resulted from a contraction of the remains of two regular stanzas.

A part of the well-devised phonetical differentiations made by the inventors of the Avestan script is blurred in our manuscripts. Thus, for instance, mańiiə̄uš , correctly written with the palatal nasal ń,has in most instances been replaced by the “vulgata” readings maniiə̄uš or mainiiə̄uš with the indifferent nasal n (Hoffmann and Narten, p. 61). In many cases, the phonetically mixed outward appearance of the text could partly be due to a redactional attempt to balance the diverging pronunciations of different oral traditions by accepting them alternately in order to comply with the wishes of their respective upholders as far as possible. Leaving such secondary problems out of consideration, the Gatha text established by Friedrich Karl Geldner (q.v.) in his edition of the Avesta is materially reliable as a whole. Just a few substantial improvements brought forward by Christian Bartholomae (q.v.) and others must be taken into account. Thus, Bartholomae was right when he corrected Geldner’s reading mūθrəm ahiiā magahiiā (Y. 48.10) into mūθrəm ahiiā madahiiā “the urine of that (demon of) intoxication” (= that urine-like intoxicant). The wrong reading had crept into the text under the influence of the similarly sounding mīždəm … ahiiā magahiiā “a prize for this offering” (Y. 53.7).

The avalanche of emendations of the transmitted text, released by Fredrich Carl Andreas (q.v.) and which was absolutely unsuited to cope with the difficulties of the Gathas, dominated Gatha scholarship untill the middle of the 20th century. The first attempt to introduce philological methods in Gatha scholarship was undertaken by Helmut Humbach in 1959, who intensified the utilization of Rig Vedic data of grammatical and lexicographical nature; he also was the first to apply internal comparison systematically and to adduce Young Avestan parallels. Nevertheless, even works of scholars of our time show strong tendencies towards disregarding these principles and making arbitrary emendations of the text, be it to substantiate their own hypotheses by producing desired translations or to develop certain linguistic ideas, or be it to fill up hypometrical and to reduce hypermetrical lines of the transmitted text.

According to tradition, the five Gathas are composed by Zoroaster himself, thus being the only authentic religious heritage left by him to posterity. The prophet’s authorship has recently been questioned by Jean Kellens and Éric Pirart, (I, p. 17 ff.), who emphasize that the name of the prophet is given in the third person in ten Gathic occurrences, for instance in kə̄ uruuaθō spitamāi zaraθuštrāi nā mazdā “who is the man to be an ally of Spitama Zaraθuštra” (Y. 51.11), and that he is even addressed in the vocative as in its parallel zaraθuštrā kastē aṧauuā uruuaθō “O Zoroaster, who is your trutful ally” (Y. 46.14). Yet these are rather figures of speech not unknown in oriental poetry, which are applied here by the prophet in order to imprint his name in the memory of Ahura Mazdā. The tradition is corroborated by Yasna 43.8, where Zoroaster, being asked for his name, introduces himself as zaraθuštrō “(I am) Zoroaster”; cf. also zaraθuštrāi … yə̄ və̄ frīnāi “for (me), Zoroaster, who devote myself to you” (Y. 49.12) and mōi … zaraθuštrāi “for me… (who am) Zoroaster” (Y. 46.19), which can hardly mean “for me … in favor of Zoroaster.” The discussion culminates in zaraθuštrāi … ahmaibiiācā “to Zoroaster and to us” (Y. 28.6), which, according to Kellens and Pirart (loc. cit.), would definitely exclude the prophet’s authorship but which can easily mean as much as “to (me) Zoroaster and to (all of) us.”

All transmitted dates for Zoroaster’s life are speculative, obviously ranging the prophet in a religious history of salvation. The traditional date of 300 years before Alexander’s invasion is transmitted in several variants, all of which are of the same type as Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī’s 258 years before Alexander’s invasion, which was taken by Walter B. Henning (p. 41) as a precise and reliable date but which is just derived by deducing the traditional 42 years of Zoroaster’s age at Vištāspa’s conversion from the round number of 300 years. In the view of the present author the only date of some historical plausibility is that of Xanthos the Lydian, a contemporary of Herodotus, according to whom Zoroaster lived 600 years (lectio facilior 6000 years) before Xerxes’s expedition against Greece (error in Humbach 1991, I, p. 26, corrected in Humbach and Ichaporia, p. 11, n.).

The sixteen songs arranged in the first four Gathas (Y. 28-51) are an obviously preconceived unified whole. Each of the concluding stanzas of the first three Gathas refers to the frašō.kərəiti (q.v.), the brilliant-making of the world/life (i.e., its perfection, renovation, and transfiguration), that of the fourth Gatha only (Y. 51.22) has a different subject, and its complicated structure rather recalls that of the opening stanza of the first Gatha (Y. 28.1). In this connection, it is noteworthy that the subjects of the concluding stanzas of the songs Yasna 30 and Yasna 49 are taken up again in the subsequent opening stanzas of Yasna 31.1 and Yasna 50.1, respectively. All of these sixteen songs are composed to accompany official ceremonies of worship ordered and financed by Kauui Vištāspa, the princely protector and promoter of Zoroaster, who was assisted by the members of his circle, Fərašaoštra and Də̄jāmāspa Huuōguua, two noble brothers, and by Zoroaster’s clan, the Haēcaṱ.aspa Spitamas to whom Maidiiōimåŋha Spitama belonged, according to tradition a cousin of the prophet and the first person converted by him. In Yasna 46.12 the whole group seems to be qualified as descendants of a forefather named Tura son of Friia. His name recalls that of Tūr, the forefather of the Turanians, the opponents of the Iranians in their legendary tradition. Strangely enough, the name of the Aryans, which is well attested in the Younger Avesta, does not occur in the Gathas.

The prophet was a member of the priest class as he is called āθrauua . . . zaraθuštrō in Young Avestan Yašt 13.94. He must even have been the descendent of a family of practising priests, which was the compulsory precondition for his becoming the heir of the religious and poetical tradition that we can reconstruct by comparison with numerous Vedic data, but of which he is our only immediate witness. He must also have been well-trained in ritual procedures, speaking of himself as a zaotar- (Y. 33.6), thus using a term which scholars usually take as being synonymous with āθrauuan- (see ĀSRŌN) but actually meaning “officiating priest.” As seen from Young Avestan tūm nō āθraom zaota stē “you, O Āθrauuan, are to be our Zaotar” (Visprad 3.7), zaotar- denotes an āθrauuan who is entrusted with directing a given sacrificial ceremony, an unmistakable evidence of the sacrificial function of the Gathas.

When referring to the cattle-breeding herdsman (vāstriia- fšuiiaṇt-), Zoroaster evidently includes himself. In the Younger Avesta this expression denotes the lowest of the three social classes, but in the Gathas it does not at all qualify the prophet as being of low origin; it just shows that priests, no less than other people, could occupy themselves with cattle-breeding.

From Yasna 43 and Yasna 44, in both of which Zoroaster describes himelf as meditating in front of the holy fire, elements of his legendary biography have been derived by the Middle Persian tradition, interpreting each of the two songs as reflecting one step in Zoroaster’s religious experience. The passage spəṇtəm aṱ θβā mə̄ŋ́hī ahurā hiiaṱ mā vohū pairī.jasaṱ manaŋha “I realize that you are holy, O Mazdā Ahura, when one approaches me with good thought” (Y. 43.7) was erroneously translated as “I realized that you are holy, O Mazdā Ahura, when Vohu Manah (Good Thought; see BAHMAN) approached me,” developing there from the legend of Zoroaster’s meeting with Vohu Manah, who came to guide him to the first audience granted him by Ahura Mazdā which, again in the view of the tradition, is described in taṱ θβā pərəsā “this I ask you” (Y. 44.1). These theological speculations are untenable from the scholarly point of view, but they must be very old as they are reflected in the Mazdayasnian calendar and other Young Avestan passages in which Aša has yielded his inherited precedence to Vohu Manah, who was the first divinity considered as to have entered into contact with the prophet.

Several modern translators (e.g., Nyberg, pp. 233 ff.) take also the beginning of Yasna 46 as a specific autobiographical reminiscence of the prophet, interpreting it as a recount of a flight from his homestead and native place, taken by him in his early years, thus attributing to him a fate similar to that of Moḥammad. This interpretation is derived from the prophet’s complaint: pairī mā xᵛatə̄uš airiiamnascā dadaitī nōiṱ mā xšnāuš yā vərəzə̄nā hə̄cā “they keep me away from family and tribe; the community that I wish to join does not gratify me” (Y. 46.1), in which, however, the prophet does not complain about his being expelled from his native place but about his not being admitted to the people whom he wants to convert, which is no individual experience of Zoroaster but a typical experience of a priest who sets out to disseminate new religious ideas.

Almost all scholars, not to speak of lay translators, are inclined to interpret each single Gathic phrase as representing an integral element of an underlying religious system conceived by the prophet, thus considering the Gatha as a didactic poem, a sort of religious handbook with carefully coordinated and harmonized paragraphs. Yet this opinion is contradicted by the enigmatic style of the majority of Gatha stanzas (Y. 28-51), which evidence a sacrificial mysticism and spiritual esoterism of which Yasna 29, the so-called “Complaint of the Cow,” is particularly characteristic. This song must have been completely unintelligible to the public and, therefore, absolutely unsuited for any didactic approaches. Mystics cannot be rationalized. It is the fifth Gatha only (Y. 53) that, though being unsystematic as well, is of a distinct didactic nature.

The overwhelming majority of stanzas of the first four Gathas is explicitly addressed to Ahura Mazdā. All the evidence indicates that Zoroaster composed this group of texts to enter in contact with him for the purpose of invoking and glorifying him, and to commune with him about both spiritual and worldly subjects, about the elimination of evil in the world and the freedom from evil in the after-world, and, furthermore, about the material problems of his own and of his adherents, particularly about providing for himself the funds required for getting people to accept his religion by increasing his reputation and public esteem.

Beings other than Ahura Mazdā are addressed only in a few passages: The addresses to the “approaching ones” found in Yasna 30.1 (išəṇtō) and Yasna 45.1 (yaēcā… išaθā), both of which are customarily interpreted as opening sermons for a crowd of people, are directed to Ahura Mazdā and the divine entities accompanying him rather than to humans (cf. the addresses to the entities aṧa- “truth” and ārmaiti- “right-mindedness” in Y. 28.7 etc.). They are negatively mirrored by the apotropaeic scorning of the demons (daēuuā) in Yasna 32.1, 3, 5, for which, cf. the apostrophe of the noxious animals (xrafstrā) in Yasna 28.5, that of men in general in Yasna 30.11 (maṧiiåŋhō), and that of the deceitful in Yasna 31.20 (drəguuaṇtō).

The further addresses of humans by the prophet found in his first four Gathas are clothed in the form of rhetorical digressions, i.e., a sort of apostrophes. After having started with the nominative, Zoroaster passes over to the vocative in the three passages in which he proclaims two or more names of his respective sponsors: Vīštāspō…Haēcaṱ.āspā… Fərašaoštrā … Də̄jāmāspā (Y. 46.14-17), Vīštāspō … Fərašaoštrō … Də̄jāmāspō … Maidiiōi.maŋhā (Y. 51.16-19), and Fərašaoštrāi … Də̄jāmāspā (Y. 49.8-9)

Of his adherents the prophet speaks in a lofty tone. They are styled aṧauuan- (truthful) by him, he himself being the truthful one par excellence. Of the rulers and the other persons hostile to him, qualified by him as drəguuaṇt- (deceitful) and summed up as kauuis and karapans, Zoroaster draws a very negative picture. In Yasna 49.1 he calls down divine help for immediate extermination of Bə̄ṇduua, a chieftain, who hosts a deceitful teacher; in Yasna 51.12-14 a person called vaēpiia- is blamed by the prophet for not having hosted him in his home,and a hellish fate is predicted for his soul. Due to the sharp contrast the eulogy of Vištāspa’s merits found in the two following paragraphs (15-16), and the promise of his paradisiacal future, is rendered even more impressive by the prophet.

In the numerous stanzas that must have been entirely unintelligible to his human audience, the prophet demonstrates the secret knowledge shared by him with Ahura Mazdā. Other stanzas, in which statements, requests, and questions are addressed by Zoroaster to Ahura Mazdā in a language which was intelligible at least partially, were meant to reach his audience indirectly. Typical of this method is the question “will I deserve that prize: ten mares with a stallion, and a camel” (Y. 44.18), which is formally addressed to Ahura Mazdā but actually to the prophet’s patron. Both this passage and Yasna 46.19, where Zoroaster requests two cows, belong to the traditional elements of Indo-Iranian sacrificial poetry coming to light in the Gathas. Occasionally even short allusions may have been perspicuous to the audience, such as the prophet’s very short reference to the legend of Yima (Y. 32.8), with which people undoubtedly were well-acquainted.

Only occasionally do the Gathas give an exact and clear picture of Zoroaster’s actual teachings, but in general they reflect them in a modified and elaborated form, many times marked by complexity and ornateness of style, the prophet demonstrating his poetical skill in order to stimulate Ahura Mazdā to fulfil his requests or to answer his questions. There is, e.g., a notable disagreement between the descriptions found in Yasna 45.11 and Yasna 51.13 of the destiny of the soul (uruuan-) of a deceased deceitful person upon its arrival at the account-keeper’s bridge (cinuuatō pərətu-; see ČINWAD PUHL) and the part which is played there by his religious view (daēnā-; see DĒN), a disagreement which cannot be explained but by poetical license.

Poetical elaboration on the syntactical level is found in the series xᵛaētu-, vərəzə̄na-, airiiaman- (family, community, tribe), which is attested in its basic form at best in xᵛaētə̄uš … vərəzə̄nax́iiācā … airiiamnascā (gen./abl., gen., gen./abl.; Y. 33.4), whereas its three other occurrences clearly show syntactical or/and lexical variation: xᵛaētuš yāsaṱ … vərəzə̄nəm maṱ airiiamnā “the family entreats, the community along with the tribe” (nom., nom., instr.; Y. 32.1); xᵛaētū vā aṱ vā vərəzə̄niiō airiiamnā vā “by family, or being a member of the same community, or by tribe” (instr., adj., instr.; Y. 33.3); xᵛaētə̄uš airiiamnascā … yā vərəzə̄nā “from family and tribe … the community with which” (abl., abl., instr.; Y. 46.1); kə̄ airiiamā kə̄ xᵛaētuš …yə̄ vərəzə̄nāi … vaŋᵛhīm dāṱ frasastīm “which tribe, which family will it be who will give the community a good renown” (nom., nom., dat.; Y. 49.7).

As to the prophet’s actual instructions, we may safely assume that he affected a cultivated but perspicuous way of speech, perhaps in the manner of the Buddha’s utterances, hammering the triplet manah-, vacah-, š´iiaoθana- (thought, speech, action) into the minds of his followers again and again. Yet, whereas this triplet is well attested in its basic form in the Younger Avesta, it is usually presented by the prophet in his Gathas in numerous variations and transformations of lexical and syntactic nature. The only paratactic occurrence of the series is incoroporated in the tetrad or pentad mańiiū … xᵛafənā … manahicā vacahicā š´iiaoθanōi hī vahiiō akəmcā “both spirits … both dreams, both thoughts and words, both actions, the better and the evil one” (Y. 33.3). As contrasted with this, see the elaborations of the series in, e.g., ārmatōiš uxδāiš š´iiaoθanā “the actions (inspired) by the utterances of right-mindedness” (Y. 44.11), and in cistī uxδāiš š´iiaoθanā “by the action (ordered) by words (inspired) by the insight” (Y. 51.21). In these the member manah- is replaced by ārmaiti- or cisti- and the member vacah- by uxδa-. The syntax is most complicated in akā manaŋhā akascā mańiiuš akā š´iiaoθanəm vacaŋhā “with evil thought both the evil spirit and the action (inspired) by evil speech (cheated you)” (Y. 32.5), in which the triad is enlarged into a tetrad by addition of mańiiu- (spirit).

According to the picture drawn by Zoroaster in the Gathas, Ahura Mazdā is accompanied by a number of divine entities which are partly understood as divine or human qualities, but which can also present themselves in personified form as divinities. In the latter case they are similar to the Aməṧa Spəṇtas (q.v.) and Yazatas of the Younger Avesta, but in the Gathas their name is Ahuras as attested in the phrase mazdåscā ahuråŋhō “the/you Ahuras and (Ahura) Mazdā” (Y. 30.9, 31,4). Among these Ahuras certainly are ātṛ “fire” (see ĀDUR; ĀTAŠ), a manifestation of Ahura Mazdā’s fiery spirit, furthermore θβōrəštar- “the shaper” and gə̄uš tašan- “the fashioner of the cow” (q.v.), two names of one mythical person which is different from Ahura Mazdā: tašā gə̄uš pərəsaṱ aṧəm “the fashioner of the cow asked the truth” (Y. 29.2), θβā … θβōrəštā tatašā “the shaper has fashioned you” (Y. 29.6), but whose activity is ascribed to Ahura Mazdā himself in yə̄ gąm tašō “you who fashioned the cow” (Y. 51.9).

Another group is formed by ethical principles and heavenly boons: spəṇta- mańiiu “holy or prosperous spirit” (cf. spaniiah-, superlative spə̄ništa- mańiiu-; Y. 45.2, 30.5, etc.), aṧa- “truth,” vohu- manah- “good thought” (superl. vahišta- manah-; Y. 30.2, etc.), ārmaiti “right-mindedness,” sraoša- “obedience/answer,” aṧi- “reward,” ādā- “apportionment,” xšaθra “power,” hauruuatāt “integrity,” and amərə(ta)tāt “immortality.” In the Gathas, which have some trait of pantheism, their number is open. In the poetic style of the Gathas they are exchangeable to a certain extent: Thus aṧahiiā gaēθå “the herds of truth” (Y. 31.1; cf. YAv. aṧahe gaēθå) is replaced by (aṧā) … ārmatōiš gaēθå “through truth … the herds of right-mindedness” (Y. 46.12), just to avoid the repetition of aṧa- in one and the same stanza. In a similar way, the element aṧa-, as found in gaēθå aṧā frādəṇtē “the herds are furthered through truth” (Y. 43.6) and gaēθå aṧā frādōiṱ hacə̄mnā “may further the herds in agreement with truth” (Y. 44.10; cf. aṧəmcā frādaṱ.gaēθəm, Y. 33.11), is replaced by vohu- manah- “good thought” and θβaxšah- “zeal” in gaēθå vohū frādaṱ manaŋhā “furthers the herds with good thought” (Y. 46.13) and in gaēθå frādō θβaxšaŋhā “furthering the herds with zeal” (Y. 46.12), whereby θβaxšah- is advanced to the rank of a divine entity.

There is also a notable relationship between mańiiu-(spirit) and manah- “thought,” which is seen in mańiiə̄uš … spəṇtahiiā … š´iiaoθanā “actions of holy spirit” (Y. 28.1) as compared with vaŋhə̄uš manaŋhō š´iiaoθanā “actions of good thought” (Y. 34.10; cf. 34,14 vaŋhə̄uš š´iiaoθanā manaŋ́hō, Y. 34.10, and vaŋhə̄uš š´iiaoθanāiš manaŋ́hō, 50.9). In such cases there is no notable difference between the two. A compromise form between spəṇta- mańiiu- “holy spirit” and vohu manah- “good thought” is vohu- mańiiu- “good spirit,” coined for metrical reasons in vaŋ́hə̄uš mańiiə̄uš š´iiaoθanāiš (Y. 45.5), vaŋ́hə̄uš mańiiə̄uš š´iiaoθanahiiā (45.8), and vaŋ́hə̄uš mańiiə̄uš š´iiaoθananąm (49.8). The attribute vaŋhu- is artistically shifted from manah- to mańiiu-, and at the same time the attribute spəṇta- is shifted from mańiiu- to nar- “man” in aṱcā ī tōi manaŋhā mańiiə̄ušcā vaŋhə̄uš vīspā spə̄ṇtaxiiāˊcā nərəš š´iiaoθanā “all of the good spirit is offered to you thoughtfully, as well as the actions of the holy man” (Y. 34.2). For reasons of symmetry of the attributes, aka- mańiiu- “evil spirit” (see AKŌMAN), the opposite of vohu- mańiiu-, replaces aṇgra- mańiiu- “destructive spirit” (attested in Y. 45.2; see AHRIMAN) in akā manaŋhā … akascā mańiiuš akā š´iiaoθanəm vacaŋhā “along with evil thought … the evil spirit and the action (inspired) by evil word” (Y. 32.5). Yet note that neither spəṇta- mańiiiu- can be replaced by *spəṇta- manah- nor aṇgra- mańiiu- by *aṇgra- manah-.

In the same way as gə̄uš tašan- and θβōrəštar-, divine entities such as spəṇta- mańiiu- and aṧa- can also be considered at one and the same time as qualities or abilities of Ahura Mazdā and as divine individuals who represent these qualities and abilities by being united with him in a mystical many-in-one-relationship. This complicated picture of the Gathic Ahura concept is corroborated by some traits of the Young Avestan concept of Spəṇta Mańiiu and the Aməṧa Spəṇtas. Ahura Mazdā is identified with Spəṇta/Spə̄ništa Mańiiu in the frequent Young Avestan address ahura mazda mańiiō spə̄ništa dātarə gaēθanąm astuuaitinąm aṧāum "Ahura Mazdā, Mańiiu Spə̄ništa, truthful creator of the corporeal world”; similarly his creative activity, which is described in yaθa dāmąn daθaṱ ahurō mazdå (Yt. 19.10),has been transferred to the whole group of the Aməṧa Spəṇtas, thus depicting them as acting on behalf of Ahura Mazdā, in åŋhąm dāmanąm yaṱ ahurahe mazdå dātarasca marəxštarasca θβarəxštarasca “the creators, formers and shapers of the creatures of Ahura Mazdā” (Yt. 19.18). Vice versa, Ahura Mazdā is also described as taking on the shape of each of them in kəhrpasca …. raθβaiieiti … aməṧanąm spəṇtanąm (Yt. 13.81; see Humbach and Ichaporia, 1998, pp. 18-20).

In the Gathas,the ethical quality aṧa- is not only a manifestation of human piety and divine mercy, but it is also an immaterial or material aspect of the offerings made to Ahura Mazdā by the pious and the boons received by them from him in recompense. On the one hand see yā š´iiaoθanā yā vacaŋhā yā yasnā aṧəm amərətātəmcā taibiiō dåŋhā … xšaθrəmcā hauruuatātō “the (ritual) action, the (ritual) word, (and) the worship through which you take hold of truth, immortality, and the power of integrity” (Y. 34.1) said to Ahura Mazdā, and on the other hand see tāiš yūš š´iiaoθanāiš aṧəm xšmaibiiā daduii “through those actions you will acquire truth,” where the pious are apostrophized to by the prophet (Y. 46.15).

As a counterpole to the mystical nature of the Gathas the formal poetry plays an essential part in them. A highlight of such formal poetry is Yasna 47.1, where the tetrad mańiiu-, manah-, vacah-, and š´iiaoθana- “spirit, thought, word, action” is artistically intercrossed with the heptad spəṇta- mańiiu-, aṧa-, vohu- manah-, ārmaiti-, xšaθra-, hauruuatāt-, and amərətatāt- “holy or prosperous spirit, truth, good thought, right-mindedness, power, integrity, immortality”:

spəṇtā mańiiū vahištācā manaŋhā

“with holy spirit and best thought,”

hacā aṧāṱ š´iiaoθanācā vacaŋhācā

“with action and word in accordance with truth,”

ahmāi dąn hauruuātā amərətātā

“they shall offer Him integrity (= liquid offering) and immortality (solid offering),”

mazdå xšaθrā ārmaitī ahurō.

"The Ahura is Mazdā (= wise, remindful) through power and right-mindedness.”


Besides its highly developed poetical form which serves the purpose of pleasing Ahura Mazdā, this stanza offers an example of sacrificial mysticism that was inherited from the Indo-European period and which, therefore, is of particular interest. A careful grammatical analysis of the context of the couple hauruuatāt- and amərətatāt- in this stanza (and in Y. 33.8, 34.1, 34.11, 45.10) proves that it does not necessarily denote boons granted the pious by Ahura Mazdā (as in Y. 44,18, 45.5, 51.7); it can also refer to the liquid and solid parts of the ritual offering (miiazda-), a metaphorical use which is well attested in the Younger Avesta and which is based on the idea of mutuality between God and man. The couple recalls Vedic amṛˊta-, the nectar conferring immortality, but it is even closer to the Greek couple nektar and ambrosia, the drink and the food of the gods.

The first period of the world was that of Yima’s paradisiacal rule which was ended by the sin committed by his revolt against Ahura Mazdā, thereby opening the world to the invasion of evil accompanied by poverty, sickness, and death, and to its continuous fight against Ahura Mazdā about the surpeme rule. Zoroaster calls up the pious to make an end with these conditions, to restore the unlimited power of Ahura Mazdā by eliminating any kind of evil on the world, thus propagating the frašō.kərəiti in order to open the third period which at the prophet’s time was expected for the near future.

The sacrificial mysticism which dominates the first four Gathas is not easily accessible to readers of our time. Most typical of this mysticism is the idea of the miraculous multiformity of Ahura Mazdā’s manifestations at the sacrifice in which the principles of Zoroaster’s morals are applied and realized at the highest possible level, the sacrifice being in itself a representation, at the microcosmic level, of the frašō.kərəiti.

The interpretation of the Gathas as didactical poetry, versified sermons or even lessons in dogmatics is justified in the case of the fifth Gatha (Y. 53) only. This song, which unfortunately is poorly transmitted, is without the complicated figures of speech which make the interpretation of the first four Gathas so difficult. Obviously being composed in connection with the marriage of Pourucistā Haēcaṱ.aspānā, Zoroaster’s youngest daughter (Y. 53.3), it is the only song of a less sacrificial and more private nature. Apart from the bride and her father, the text mentions Kauui Vištāspa, the Zoroastrian Spitāma, a son of the prophet, and Frašaoštra (Y. 53.2), all of whom seem to serve as witnesses to the marriage. Frašaoštra’s brother Jāmāspa is not mentioned. If the legendary tradition is right in considering him as the bridegroom, the song must have been recited at the bride’s departure from her father’s home, the bridegroom not yet being present, perhaps expecting her in his own house. A larger public is included in the following lines. Vividly and in the non-puritanic manner of an archaic unadulterated society, these describe the worldly bliss that is bestowed on the faithful couple, but they also depict the disaster and death which is to be brought upon the deceitful evil-doers who have to expect eternal damnation.

Prophesies such as the last mentioned contradict the sweet picture of the Gathas drawn by numerous authors of our time. As a matter of fact, Zoroaster presents himself in many further passages of the Gathas as a severe religious leader who does not only foretell the future of mankind and their after-life but who also propagates harsh measures against any living enemy and adversary.

In the second last line of Yasna 53, Zoroaster asks the rhetorical question kū aṧauuā ahurō yə̄ īš jiiātə̄uš hə̄miθiiāṱ vasə̄.itōišcā “where is the truthful Ahura who may deprive these (deceitful) of their livelihood and liberty?” and in its last line he concludes the Gatha collection by giving the answer taṱ mazdā tauuā xšaθrəm yā ərəzəjiiōi dāhī drigauuē vahiiō “it is your power, O Mazdā, through which you will grant what is better to the poor person living decently.”



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(Helmut Humbach)

Originally Published: December 15, 2000

Last Updated: February 2, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 3, pp. 321-327