WOMEN ii. In the Avesta




The egalitarian ideals of Zoroastrianism—in particular, the recognition of women as “men’s partners in the common struggle against evil” (Boyce, 1972, p.  308, fn. 83) have long served to protect the dignified status of women within the Mazdayasnian community. Such notions of gender parity are firmly rooted in the teachings of the Avesta and reflect the character of early Iranian society (Schwartz, p.  4) as well as bestow “a modern appearance on this ancient religion” (Hintze, 2003, p.  403).

Gender and the language of the Avesta. On a stylistic level, this message of equality is articulated through the use of explicitly inclusive formulae. Four times in the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti the words nar-  “man” and nāirī- “woman” are collocated: twice as part of the fixed expression nā vā nāirī vā “a man or a woman” (Y. 35.6, 41.2), and twice as narąmcā nāirinąmcā “of men and women” (Y. 37.3, 39.2). In the Gāθās, an alternative word for “woman,” jaini-, is juxtaposed with the usual word for “man” (nar-) in the phrase iθā … narō aθā jə̄naiiō “thus … men, so also women” (Y. 53.6). Additionally, both the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti and the Gāθās attest the use of the word gənā-. In its sole Gāθic occurrence, the term gənā- “noblewoman” occurs beside nar- “man” in the expression vā … nā gənā vā (Y. 46.10). Most interpreters translate this as “a man or a noblewoman” and take the word gənā- to refer to human females (see Humbach, p. 183; Kellens and Pirart, p. 239; Narten, p. 193). By contrast, the two instances of gənā- in Y. 38.1 do not stand in combination with a word for “man” and appear to refer instead to abstract principles or entities anthropomorphized as divine females (cf. Hintze, 2007, pp. 196-209, who, however, argues that gənā- refers to female divine entities also in the Gāθic passage).

Women and the Zoroastrian community. The Avesta testifies to the concept that women were accorded moral and religious agency equal to that of men. In the Gāθās, both males and females are addressed in Y. 53.6 (quoted above), and Mazdayasnians pray the ā.airiiə̄mā išiiō prayer (Y. 54.1), which implores Airyaman to come to the assistance “of the men and women of Zaraθuštra” (nərəbiiascā nāiribiiascā zaraθuštrahe). So too in the Younger Avestan fragment FrD.3, both sexes are explicitly cautioned: “He has not won anything who has not won (anything) for his soul. She has not won anything who has not won (anything) for her soul” (nōi  cahmi zazuua yō nōi urune zazuua. nōi cahmi zazuši yā nōi urune zazuši) (see Hoffmann, p. 288).

The belief in the essential parity between the religious status of women and that of men in Zoroastrianism is further reflected in the Avestan texts’ frequent praise and veneration of its righteous adherents, irrespective of their gender. In Y. 39.2 it is said: “And we worship now the souls (urunō) of truthful men and women, wherever they may have been born” (aṣ̌āunąm āa urunō yazamaidē kudō.zātanąmcī narąmcā nāirinąmcā). In Y. 37.3 it is males’ and females’ frauuaṣ̌is “(moral) choices” which are lauded: “Him (= Ahura Mazdā) we worship in the choices of the truthful ones—of men and of women” (tə̄m aṣ̌āunąm frauuaṣ̌īš narąmcā nāirinąmcā). In the Younger Avesta, this sentiment is most clearly echoed in Yt. 13, which devotes verses 139-42 to the worship of the frauuaṣ̌is of various venerable women, and verses 143-44 to the worship of the frauuaṣ̌is “of truthful women” (aṣ̌aoninąm) and “of truthful men” (aṣ̌aonąm) in the various lands. Beside these two gender-specific, genitive plural forms of the adjective aṣ̌auuan- “truthful [one]’, the Avesta also attests a third genitive plural form, OAv. and YAv. aṣ̌āunąm (usually in coordination with frauuaṣ̌i-, e.g., Y. 4.2, 4.6, 24.11, 65.12, etc.), which E. Tichy has argued should be interpreted as a genus commune meaning “of [the male and female] righteous ones” (see Tichy, p. 102).

As a practical corollary to this outlook, both girls and boys were initiated into the Zoroastrian religion through the investiture of the sacred shirt and girdle. Vīdēvdād 18.54 thus declares it a sin “when a man () or evil woman (jahika) beyond fifteen years of age goes about without wearing the sacred thread or shirt” (ya nā jahika pasca paṇcadasīm sarəδəm frapataiti anaiβiiāsta vā anabdātō vā) (however, cf. H.-P. Schmidt, p. 26, fn. 17, who believes that the word jahika is an interpolation and therefore initiation was originally only for Zoroastrian males).

Women and education. The Avesta also makes clear that women, like men, were recipients of religious education. This fact is evidenced in Y. 26.7, wherein are worshipped the “choices” (frauuaṣ̌is) “of teachers, of students—male [and] female” (aēθrapaitinąm aēθriianąm narąm nāirinąm). Further, in Vr. 3.4 (and Gāh 4.9) the express desire to appoint a “woman” (nāirikā-) who is huš.hąm.sāsta- “well educated” (see Hintze, 2007, p. 199, with fn. 10, against Bartholomae, col. 1842, s.v. huš.hąm.sāsta- “gut zurechtzuweisen, lenksam”) is paralleled in the same verse by the wish to appoint a “man” (nar-) who is vistō.fraorəiti- “knowing of the Confession.”

Elsewhere, in the Hērbedestān, the topic of who is eligible to receive education for the activity of aθauruna- “priestly service” is taken up. The text assures that either the lady (nāirikā-) or the lord of the house (nmānō.paiti-) may go forth for this—the chosen party being the one who has the “highest esteem for truth” (aṣ̌āi bərəjiiąstəmō, H. 1.2) and is less needed for managing the household (H. 5.1-5; see Hintze, 2009, p. 188). This implies women’s education in the period of the Avesta extended beyond mere preparations for the “housewifely role” as assumed by some commentators (see Gould, p. 150, after Sanjana, pp. 17-19). Besides being educated, women (as well as men) were also expected to take part in disseminating the teachings of Zoroastrianism: Y. 35.6 encourages “a man or a woman” (nā vā nāirī vā) who “knows what is real” (vaēdā haiθīm) and “what is really good” (ha vohū) to “make this known to those who will thus practice it” (fracā vātōiiōtū īt̰ aēbiiō yōi īt̰ aθā vərəziiąn). This imperative for proselytizing fits also with M. Boyce’s view that those women and men engaged in aθauruna- were acting as Zoroastrian missionaries (Boyce, 1989, pp. 16-17; Hintze, 2009, p. 179).

Women and ritual. Although the Zoroastrian priestly class is today comprised exclusively of males, evidence from the Avesta suggests women too once played an active role in conducting rituals. The assertion on the part of the Hērbedestān (H. 5, see above) that women could qualify as an aθauruuan-, being the general office of ‘priest’ is complemented by a passage in the Nērangestān (N. 22.2 [= N. 40]) which permits “any male … or female or minor” (kahiiāci nā … nāirikaiiā̊sci apərənāiiūkaheci) who knows the sacred texts to act as a zaotar-, that is, a specialized priest in charge of pouring the libations.

In their legendary narrations, the Yašts also provide ample evidence of women commissioning sacrifices. For example, Hutaosa is recorded sacrificing to Vāiiu (Yt. 15.35), as are a group of virginal girls (kainīnō, Yt. 15.39). Huuōuuī is said to have sacrificed to the goddess Cistā (Yt. 16.15), and Ahura Mazdā commands Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā to descend from the stars in order that virginal girls may “beg [of her] a strong husband” (jaiδiiā̊te taxməmca nmānō.paitīm, Yt. 5.87).

Moreover, the ritual injunctions specific to the worship of each deity make clear that women, as a class, were not excluded from participating in sacrificial rites. Thus does Aṣ̌i (Yt. 17.54) prohibit from making sacrifices to her only “menopausal [women]” (para.daxšta) and “virginal girls who have not had intercourse with men” (kainina anupaēta mamaṣ̌iiānąm). As a mark of equality however, the verse also bars “andropausal men” (narō pairišta.xšuδrō) and “juvenile boys” (apərənāiiu tauruna). Similarly, Tištriia (Yt. 8,59) bans both the “evil man” (mairiiō) and the “evil woman” (jahika) from partaking of his sacrifice. Arǝduuī Sūrā Anāhitā (Yt. 5.93) meanwhile, forbids such disabled women as are “blind, deaf, dwarfed, stupid” (aṇdā̊sca karənā̊sca druuā̊sca mūrā̊sca), etc. from drinking of her libation.

Additional roles of women. It has been suggested that the early Zoroastrian texts accorded women limited positive roles beyond procreation and domesticity (see, e.g., Gould, p. 149). However, in addition to the range of opportunities already discussed, the Avesta also envisages females filling a number of important social positions. In Y. 41.2, for example, it is prayed ”May a good ruler, a man or a woman (nā vā nāirī vā), rule us, in both existences” (huxšaθrastū nə̄ nā vā nāirī vā xšaētā ubōiiō aŋhuuō). Evidently, women, as much as men, were considered capable of being leaders in both the corporeal and spiritual planes of being. Several scholars have also identified Y. 46.10 (referred to above) as promoting gender equality: in this stanza, Zaraθuštra states he will cross the “Account-keeper’s bridge” (cinnuatō pərətūm) with “the man or noblewoman” (vā ... nā gənā vā) who would give to him “the reward for truth and rule by good thought” (aṣ̌īm aṣ̌āi vohū xšaθrəm manaŋhā). M. Schwartz (p. 2) interprets this as a plea for patronage and has concluded that in Zaraθuštra’s society, women were eligible to be patrons, thus implying that they possessed considerable wealth and status. A number of modern interpreters (e.g.,  Gould, p. 145) have pointed to the verse as evidence that Zaraθuštra preached the reward of heaven for his female as well as male adherents (cf. Hintze, 2007, pp. 197-209).

Women and purity. As well as following the purity laws common to both sexes (e.g.,  the correct disposal of hair- and nail-clippings, see Vd. 17), Zoroastrian females were subject to supplementary regulations concerned mainly with their procreative functions. Thus, during her period of menstruation, a lady was to be sequestered in a special building which, according to Vd. 16.4, had to be located “fifteen paces from the fire, fifteen paces from the water, fifteen paces from the barəsman which is to be strewn, three paces from the truthful men” (paṇca.dasa.gāim haca āθra, paṇca.dasa.gāim haca apa, paṇca.dasa.gāim haca barəsmən frastairiiāt, θrigāim haca nərəbiiō aṣ̌auuabiiō). Further, she was permitted to drink only from a vessel “made of iron or lead—the two lowest-value metals” (aiiaŋhaēnəm vā srum vā nitəma xšaθra.vairiia, Vd. 16.6), and had to eat a restricted diet (see Vd. 16.7).

Since all externalized bodily fluids, and especially dead matter, were considered polluting, a women who had experienced a stillbirth was viewed as being in a state of especial impurity. In such instances, Vīdēvdād 5.48-56 prescribes that the Mazdayasnian community “must build an enclosure” (xpairi.daēzą pairi.daēzaiiąn) for her at a remove of “thirty paces” (θrisata.gāim). Here the woman was to remain for three nights, after which “she should wash her body and clothes with cow urine and water by the nine holes” (us tanūm snaiiaēta us vastrā gə̄uš maēsmana apāca nauua upa maγəm). Following this, a further nine nights’ seclusion was required before her re-entry into society was permitted. Boyce considered such restrictions as “humiliating” (Boyce, 1972, p. 308), whilst J. Choksy cites these “arduous rites” and the attendant “psychological distress” as reasons why some Mazdayasnian women converted in later times to Islam (Choksy, pp. 97-98). It is worth noting, though, that men too were bound by gender-specific purity laws, and in the case, for example, of nocturnal emission, were also required to undergo ritual purification (see Vd. 18.46).

Excepting of such codes, the only Avestan passage that potentially advocates the differential treatment of men and women is found in Vīdēvdād 7.41-22, which stipulates a physician’s fees. Accordingly, a doctor was to heal: a “lord of the house” (nmānahe nmāno.paitīm) for the cost of a “lowest value ox” (nitəməm staorəm), but his “wife” (nmānahe nmāno.paitīm nāirikąm) for the cost of a “female ass” (kaθβa daēnu); a “lord of the town” (vīsō vīspaitīm) for the cost of a “middling value ox” (maδəməm staorem), but his wife for the cost of a “female cow” (gauua daēnu); a “lord of the tribe” (zaṇtə̄uš zaṇtupaitīm) for the cost of a “highest value ox” (aγrīm staorəm) but his wife for the cost of a “female horse” (aspa daēnu); a “lord of the province” (daŋ́hə̄uš daŋ́hupaitīm) for the cost of a “cart with four draught animals’” (ṣ̌əm caθru.yuxtəm), but his wife for the cost of a “female camel” (uštra daēnu). Whilst these listings are clearly hierarchical—ascending from the lowest value to the highest value—it is, however, not possible to say whether a given item in Vd.  7.42 was considered to be of greater, lesser, or equal worth than its correspondent in Vd.  7.41.



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E. Tichy, “Vedisch ṛtā́́van- und avestisch aṣ̌auuan-,” Die Sprache 32, 1986, pp.  91-105.

(Leon Goldman)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: December 14, 2012