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6 posts categorized "Zoroastrianism"

23 January 2020

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

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The British Library is fortunate in having an unparalled collection of over 100 Zoroastrian works ranging from the oldest, the ninth century Ashem Vohu prayer written in Sogdian script discovered by Aurel Stein in Central Asia in 1907, to, most recently, manuscripts collected especially for the Royal Society in London during the late-nineteenth century. Although Zoroastrianism is Iranian in origin, most of our manuscripts in fact come from India. They are written in Avestan (Old Iranian), Middle Persian, New Persian, and also in the Indian languages Sanskrit and Gujarati.

In the past few years several of our manuscripts have become familiar through exhibitions such as Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination held at SOAS (2013) and New Delhi (2016) and also through the Zoroastrian articles and collection items included in our recent website Discovering Sacred Texts. Building on this and thanks to the philanthropic support of Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, we have now been able to complete digitisation of the whole collection. This introductory post outlines the history of the collection and is intended as the first in a series highlighting the collection as the manuscripts go live during the next few months.

1 Zoroastrian prayer in Sogdian-Or MS 8212 84
One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (BL Or.8212/84). Public domain

The collection is made up of three main collections described below, dating from the seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in addition to individual items acquired by British travellers to India and employees of the East India Company. I’ll be writing more about these individual collections in future posts.

Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)

Our oldest collection, and the earliest to reach the West, was acquired for the seventeenth century polymath Thomas Hyde. Hyde became Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford in 1691 and Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1697 and also served as Royal Secretary and Translator of Oriental Languages for three successive monarchs: Charles II, James II and William III. While he had never travelled in the East himself, he built up a network of travellers and East India Company officials whom he asked to purchase books and manuscripts on his behalf. Several of these were chaplains whom Hyde had personally recommended to the Levant and the East India trading companies. After his death in 1703 part of his collection was purchased by Queen Anne for the Royal Library. It was subsequently given to the British Museum by King George III in 1757. 

2 Hydes Khordah Avesta-royal_ms_16_b_vi_f001r
A copy of the Khordah Avesta (‘Little Avesta’) which contains prayers, hymns and invocations. This manuscript begins with the Ashem vohu (featured also in Sogdian script above) and is dated 30 Ardibihisht 1042 in the era of Yazdagird (1673). It was copied at the request of the English Agent Kunvarji Nanabhai Modi probably on commission for Hyde. Hyde could read though never wholly understood Avestan, but he used this particular manuscript as a model for the special Avestan type he created for his well-known History of the Persian Religion published in 1700 (BL Royal Ms, f. 1r). Public domain

Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

Samuel Guise began his career as a Surgeon on the Bombay Establishment of the East-India Company in 1775 and from 1788 until the end of 1795, he was Head Surgeon at the East-India Company’s Factory in Surat where his work brought him into close contact with the Parsi community. An avid collector, he acquired altogether more than 400 manuscripts while in India. At some point he was fortunate enough to be able to purchase from his widow, the collection of the famous Dastur Darab who had taught the first translator of the Avesta, Anquetil du Perron, between 1758 and 1760 (Guise, Catalogue, 1800, pp. 3-4):

This Collection was made at Surat, from the year 1788 till the End of 1795, with great Trouble and Expence. ... Of this Collection, however rich in Arabick and Persian works of Merit, the chief Value consists in the numerous Zend and Pehlavi MSS treating of the antient Religion and History of the Parsees, or Disciples of the celebrated Zoroaster, many of which were purchased, at a very considerable Expence, from the Widow of Darab, who had been, in the Study of those Languages, the Preceptor of M. Anquetil du Perron; and some of the Manuscripts are such as this inquisitive Frenchman found it impossible to procure

In 1796 he retired to Montrose, Angus, where he lived until his death in 1811. The story of his collection and what subsequently happened to it is told in my article “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” but eventually in 1812, 26 Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired at auction by the East India Company Library. They include one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts, the Pahlavi Videvdad (‘Law to drive away the demons’), a legal work concerned with ritual and purity which was copied in 1323 AD (Mss Avestan 4). Other important manuscripts are a copy of the liturgical text, the Videvdad sādah (Mss Avestan 1), attributed to the fifteenth century, and one of the oldest copies of the Yasna sādah – the simple text of the Yasna ritual without any commentary– (Mss Avestan 17).

3 Yasna sadah-mss_avestan_17_f128r copy
Verses 6-7
 of Yasna 43 on the creation of the universe. The red floral decorations are verse dividers and are a feature of this manuscript. This copy was completed in India in 1556 (BL Mss Avestan 17, f. 128r). Public domain

Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

Burjorji Ashburner was a successful Bombay merchant, a Freemason, and a member of the Bombay Asiatic Society. He was also a member of the Committee of Management for one of the most important Zoroastrian libraries in Bombay, the Mulla Firuz Library and made a special point of having copies made of some of the rarer items. In April 1864 Burjurji wrote offering some 70 to 80 volumes as a gift to the Royal Society, London, promising to add additional ones:

In the course of antiquarian researches...with special reference to the Parsee religion, I have had the good fortune to obtain some valuable ancient manuscripts in Zend, Pehlui, and Persian. I do not wish to keep to myself what may be useful in the literary world. [1]

His collection consisted of standard Arabic and Persian works in addition to nineteen specifically Zoroastrian manuscripts in Persian, Avestan and Pahlavi. A number of Bujorji’s manuscripts came originally from Iran. The oldest is an illustrated copy of the Videvdad sādah (RSPA 230) which was copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured drawings of trees, used as chapter headings not unlike Islamic manuscripts of the same period.

4 An illustrated Videvdad Sadah-RSPA230_64R
The beginning of chapter 19 of the Videvdad sadah in which Zoroaster repels an attempt on his life by the demon Buiti, sent by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Note the elongated calligraphic script which is typical of the older manuscripts from Iran (BL RSPA 230, f. 227r). Public domain

Several of Bujorji’s manuscripts were copied or written by Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar an Iranian poet and writer living in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century. His poetical name was Azari, but he was otherwise known as Sarfahkar Kirmani or Irani. These include works in Persian on the calendar (the subject of a major controversy at the time), a dictionary, treatises on divination and the interaction between Zoroastrians and Muslims, in addition to copies of Avestan texts.

Other sources

The remaining manuscripts were acquired in India, mostly by East India Company servants Jonathan Duncan Governor of Bombay (1756–1811), Sir John Malcolm (1769–1833), and the Scottish linguist and poet John Leyden (1775-1811). They range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

5 Qissah Sanjan-io_islamic_2572_f001v copy
The beginning of the Qissah-i Sanjan, the traditional story in Persian verse of the settlement of the Parsis in India composed by Bahman ibn Kayqubād at Nausari in AD 1600. This copy is undated but was written, most probably for John Leyden, on paper watermarked 1799 (BL IO Islamic 2572, f. 1v). Public domain

Further reading

Samuel Guise, A Catalogue and Detailed Account of a Very Valuable and Curious Collection of Manuscripts, Collected in Hindostan. London, 1800.
Almut Hintze, An introduction to Zoroastrianism, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism from the early modern period, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Ursula Sims-Williams, Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
----------------, “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.
----------------, “Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London,” in The Transmission of the Avesta, ed. A. Cantera. Wiesbaden, 2012, pp. 173-94.

We are grateful to Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, Mr Neville Shroff and Mr Zarir Cama for their generous support towards this project.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library

[1] Royal Society Archives MC.7.53: Ashburner to the Foreign Secretary, 13 April 1864

27 January 2014

15,000 images of Persian manuscripts online

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Asian and African Studies have just uploaded more than 15,000 images of Persian manuscripts online. This is the result of two years' work in an ongoing project sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation together with the Bahari Foundation, the Barakat Trust, the Friends of the British Library, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute.

The jackal Dimnah tricks the ox Shanzabah into believing that his former friend the lion had turned against him, and was intending to eat him. From Husayn Va'iz Kashifi’s Anvar-i Suhayli. Mughal, 1610-11 (BL Add.18579, f87v)

The manuscripts were selected for their historical, literary and artistic importance and form part of a three year project to provide digital records of our Persian manuscript collection and images of 50 manuscripts.  We have created a dedicated project page which gives details of all the digitised manuscripts together with links to their images and supporting documentation. This is located at Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts but can also be easily found by clicking on the ‘Persian’ tab at the top of this page.

We’ve already written posts about several of these manuscripts, for example the Jalayirid Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani (Add18113); Shah Tahmasp’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.2265) and the late Timurid Mantiq al-Tayr by Farid al-Din ʻAttar (Add.7735), posts 1, 2 and 3 . We’ll be publishing more during the next few months so please subscribe to our blog (add your email in the box at the top of this page) to keep up with further developments.

Meanwhile, here is a selection from what we’ve digitised so far! Click on the links to go directly to the digitised folio.

The well known story of the hare who tricks the lion into drowning by attacking his own reflection in the well. From Naṣr Allāh Munshī's Kalīlah va Dimnah dated 707/1307-8 (BL Or.13506, f 52v)

The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket encyclopedia containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r)

The fire-ordeal of Siyavush. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, Shiraz Safavid style, dating from the 16th century (BL IO Islamic 3540, f 98r)

The dragon outside its mountain cave explaining to Darab that it had been sent by God as His servant on earth. Artist: Narayan, c.1580-85. From the Darabnamah, a prose romance written in the 12th century by Abu Tahir Tarsusi (BL Or.4615, f112v)

A leaf from the Saddar (‘100 doors’), a popular compilation of 100 rules for Zoroastrians which range from justifying instant death for sodomy to the treatment of good and evil animals, and the avoidance of different forms of pollution. This copy, dated Samvat 1631 (AD 1575), is in Persian language, but transcribed in Avestan (Old Iranian) script, together with a Gujarati translation (BL IO Islamic 3043, f 137r)

Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar with two princes in attendance, receiving Mirza Riza Quli Munshi al-Mamalik. From the Shahanshah namah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Qajar, dated 1225/1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f 64v)

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies



05 December 2013

Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

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Three of the most fascinating exhibits in ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’, on view at the Brunei Gallery SOAS until December 15th, concern the Zoroastrian vision of heaven and hell.

The revelations of Arda Viraz (‘righteous Viraz’), or Viraf, as his name has been transcribed in Persian, were written in Pahlavi (pre-Islamic Persian) during the early Islamic period, and reflect a time of religious instability. The story is set in the reign of the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardashir I (r. 224-241). It describes how the Zoroastrian community selected the righteous Viraz to visit the world of the dead returning with an account of the rewards and punishments in store. Although the story did not assume its definitive form until the 9th to 10 centuries AD, it can be regarded as part of a tradition of visionary accounts, the earliest of which is found in present-day Iran in the third-century inscriptions of the Zoroastrian high priest Kirder.

Many copies of this popular story survive in both prose and verse, with versions in Persian, Gujarati, Sanskrit and even Arabic (Kargar, p.29). Several include vivid illustrations, re-enforcing the story’s underlying importance as a Zoroastrian pedagogic text.

Arda Viraz with the divinities Srosh, Mihr and Rashn, the judge, at the Chinvat bridge, which the souls of the dead must cross. Traditionally, if a soul’s good deeds outweigh the bad it is met by a beautiful woman (actually an embodiment of the deceased's life on earth), the bridge is broad and it can easily cross on its way to paradise; if not, the bridge becomes narrow, the soul encounters an ugly hag and falls into hell.
Rylands Persian MS 41, f.12r.  Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

The two manuscripts in ‘The Everlasting Flame’ are copies of a popular Persian version composed in verse in Iran at the end of the 13th century by Zartosht Bahram Pazhdu. The British Library’s manuscript (Reg.16.B.1) was copied in India and dates from the late 17th century. Although the text is in the Persian language, it was copied line by line in both Persian and Avestan (old Iranian) scripts, reflecting a tradition of transcribing Zoroastrian texts in a ‘Zoroastrian’ (i.e. Avestan) script. The manuscript was acquired for the orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636-1703) who used it as a means of deciphering the previously undeciphered Avestan script.
The beginning of Thomas Hyde’s copy of the Arda Viraf namah
British Library Reg.16.B.1, ff 1v-2r.   noc

The second copy on display (John Rylands Persian MS 41) contains 60 illustrations which vividly depict the rewards and punishments awarded after death. The scene below describes happy souls in a sweet smelling garden in paradise where birds sing, golden fishes swim and musicians perform. On enquiring how they earned such a reward, Arda Viraf is told that, while living, they killed frogs, scorpions, snakes, ants and other evil creatures (khrastar and hasharat)– one of the most meritorious actions a good Zoroastrian could perform.
A scene in paradise. Rylands Persian MS 41, f.26r
Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

In contrast, more than half of the illustrations in this manuscript depict the gruesome punishments in store for those judged deficient at the Chinvat Bridge. These were to some extent tailored to the crimes committed on earth; for example the man who had butchered believers was punished by being flayed alive, another who had overindulged and not given food to the poor was starved until forced to eat his own arms out of hunger. Punishments were meted out by demonic creatures, mostly consisting of those same evil scorpions, snakes and reptiles which good Zoroastrians were encouraged to destroy.
On the right: sinners who neglected to wear the sacred girdle (kusti) and were slack in matters of religious ritual are being eaten by demonic animals. On the left: a woman is hung upside down and tormented. Her crime was to disobey her husband and argue with him.
Rylands Persian MS 41. ff 47v-48r.  Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

This manuscript was copied in July 1789 in Navsari, Gujarat, by a Zoroastrian, Peshotan Jiv Hirji Homji. It was brought to England at the end of the 18th century by a collector Samuel Guise, a surgeon working for the East India Company at its factory in Surat. Guise’s collection caused quite a stir in the literary world, being mentioned in journals such as The Edinburgh Magazine and the British Critic (Sims-Williams, p.200). The orientalist William Ouseley reproduced the illustration of the disobedient wife in his Oriental Collections published in 1798. After Guise’s death in 1811, his collection was sold. Most of his Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired by the East India Company Library (now at the British Library) but this manuscript was purchased by the Persian scholar, John Haddon Hindley. Eventually it was bought by Alexander Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford, from the estate of another Persian scholar, Nathaniel Bland and is now in the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. It has recently been digitised and images of the entire work can be seen at
An 18th century facsimile of Samuel Guise’s copy  of the Arda Viraf namah, included with some of the earliest engravings of Zoroastrian manuscripts in William Ouseley’s Oriental Collections.
British Library SV 400, vol. 2 part 3, facing p. 318.  noc

Further reading:

S. Stewart (ed), The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Special discounted paperback edition available only from the SOAS bookshop
Articles: “Ardā Wīrāz”  by Ph. Gignoux,  “Činwad puhl” by A. Tafazzoli and “Kartir”  by P. O. Skjærvø in Encyclopædia Iranica (
D. Kargar, Arday-Viraf Nama: Iranian conceptions of the other world. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2009.
H. Jamaspji Asa, M. Haug, and E.W. West, The Book of Arda Viraf: The Pahlavi Text Prepared by Destur Hoshangji Jamaspji Asa. Bombay: Govt. Central Book Depot, 1872.
J.A. Pope (tr.), The Ardai Viraf Nameh; or, the Revelations of Ardai Viraf. London: Black, Parbury & Allen, 1816.
W. Ouseley, The Oriental Collections. London: Printed by Cooper and Graham, 1797-1800.
U. Sims-Williams,  “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

14 October 2013

New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism

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Anyone who has been in the vicinity of the Brunei Gallery SOAS during the last few weeks could hardly have failed to notice the frenzied activity in preparation for ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ which opened last Friday (see also my earlier post on this subject). Put together by Sarah Stewart, Lecturer in Zoroastrianism in the Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS, together with Pheroza Godrej, Almut Hintze, Firoza Mistree and myself, it is a first in almost every sense. Not only has the theme, Zoroastrianism from the 2nd millenium until the present date, never been presented in this way before, but the majority of the over 200 exhibits have never been on public view.

Bishop Eznik Kolbac‘i wrote this Refutation of the Sects around 440 AD. His criticism of Zoroastrianism was directed principally against the various forms of dualism. His work is valuable as a contemporary account of the religion at a time when the scriptures were still transmitted orally, a fact which Eznik mentions himself as a reason for the existence of so many conflicting views. The frontispiece of this first edition, published in Smyrna in 1762, shows Eznik instructing his pupils (British Library 17026.b.14)

I first met Sarah almost 30 years ago when we were students together in an elementary Pahlavi (a Middle-Iranian language) class at SOAS! Since then we have often discussed her dream of mounting an exhibition. The more familiar I became with the Zoroastrian material in the British Library, the more impressed I was with the incredibly wide range of materials we had. The Library's unique collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts, collected from the 17th century onwards, had been left untouched since the 19th century and I worked closely with our conservation department to restore them, hoping to get the opportunity to be able to exhibit them! The final choice of what to include was difficult, but I’m glad to say the British Library has made a significant contribution with over 30 major loans.

A 12th or 13th century copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmudic period in Babylonia largely overlapped with the Sasanian empire (224-651 AD) and during this period the Babylonian rabbis shared numerous intellectual and cultural concerns with their neighbours, the Zoroastrian priests at Ctesiphon, capital of the Sasanian empire. These affected matters of civil and criminal law, private law, theology, and even ritual (British Library, Harley 5508, ff.69v-70r)

Several people have asked me what my ‘favourite’ exhibits are! The 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Nineveh, thought to contain the name of the principal Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda (‘Wise Lord’), and a 4th century Achaemenid document from northern Afghanistan attesting the earliest use of the Zoroastrian day names and offerings for the Farvardin (spirits of the dead) must be amongst the most significant items. Equally impressive are the stunning ossuaries from 7th century Sogdiana and the beautiful Parsi portraits and textiles dating from the 19th century, the result of flourishing trade with China. A gallery on the top floor also includes works by the modern artists Fereydoun Ave, Mehran Zirak and Bijan Saffari. I mentioned a few British Library favourites in a previous post (The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination). Here are a few more:

Yates Thompson 28_f51r
The concept of Zoroaster as a magician or philosopher from the East is widespread in European literature, particularly after the Renaissance with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. This Italian translation by Bono Giamboni of Li Livres dou Trésor by Brunetto Latini (1230–94) dates from 1425. Of Zoroaster he writes: ‘And at that time a master called Canoaster [i.e. Zoroaster] discovered the magic art of spells and other wicked words and wicked things. These and many other things happened during the first two ages of the era that finished in the time of Abraham.’ (British Library, Yates Thompson 28, f. 51r)

‘The woman who didn’t obey her husband’. This engraving, dating from 1798, from the Persian Arda Viraf Nameh (the visionary journey of Viraf the Just to heaven and hell), is displayed in the exhibition alongside the original which is now part of the John Rylands Collection, Manchester (British Library, SV 400, vol. 2 part 3, facing p. 318)

The exhibition is free and open until 15 December, Tuesday- Saturday 10.30 - 17.00 (late night Thursday until 20.00, special Sunday opening on 15 December). For more details, follow these links to the exhibition website and facebook page.

The exhibition catalogue, edited by Sarah Stewart, includes 8 essays and photographs of every item in the exhibition. It is available from the publishers I.B. Tauris and from the SOAS bookshop (at a special discount price of £17).

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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29 August 2013

Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’

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This may seem a rather esoteric title for an Asian Studies blog, but it is hardly surprising in the context of the post-renaissance scholar Athanasius Kircher (1601/2–1680). Kircher, based in Rome from 1635, where he officially taught mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano, was famous as an inventor of the most complex mechanical devices and wrote altogether more than 40 books on mechanics, optics, acoustics, geology, engineering and languages, in particular Coptic and the languages of ancient Egypt.
Vol 1 frontispiece_720
Oedipus/Kircher solves the sphynx’s riddle. The frontispiece of the first volume of Oedipus Ægyptiacus, Rome, 1652-54 [1655]  (British Library 581.l.21)

Encouraged by the Society of Jesus to search for a universal language which could be used for teaching the Gospel, Kircher turned to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs as a possible solution, and devoted the third volume of his three-volume encyclopedia Oedipus Ægyptiacus exclusively to the subject. Kircher believed that Egyptian hieroglyphic obelisks preserved the ancient wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus, and using an immense number of different sources, he thought he had cracked the code. In fact it was it was not until the early 19th century that it was fully deciphered by Jean-François Champollion through his study of the Rosetta stone.
The obelisk of Veranus, Rome. Engraving from Joannes Blaeu, Civitatum Et Admirandorvm Italiæ Pars Altera in qua Vrbis Romæ Admiranda Æevi veteris & hujus seculi continentur, Amsterdam, 1663, facing p. 201 (British Library 176.h.3)

Kircher had a high regard for Zoroaster, whom he equated with Noah’s son Ham. Zoroaster’s oracles ‘effata’ (a collection of Greek verses probably composed by Julian the Theurgist in the 2nd century AD) were, he wrote, very ancient and full of hieroglyphic explanations.

In the context of his interpretation of the Veranus or Barberinus obelisk (now in the Piazzale del Pincio, Rome) Kircher refers to the world as ‘ovum Zoroastræum,’ i.e., Zoroaster's egg. This idea, as Kircher acknowledged, was based on Plutarch’s account of the Zoroastrian creation myth given in chapters 46 and 47 of De Iside et Osiride, in which Orimazes (Ohrmazd/Ahura Mazda), born from the purest light, created 6 gods, and Arimanius (Ahriman/Angra Mainyu), born from darkness, an equal number of rivals. Ohrmazd then created 24 other gods and put them into an egg. Ahriman similarly created 24 opposing gods who pierced the egg, and so it came about that good and evil became mixed together.
Ovum zoroastraeum
Ovum Zoroastræum, i.e., Zoroaster's egg, from Oedipus Ægyptiacus, vol. 3, p 275 (British Library 581.l.21)

Plutarch's account of the Zoroastrian creation myth is unique in classical literature, listing Ohrmazd's six gods as good will, truth, good order, wisdom, wealth, and the creator of pleasures in recompense for virtues. They partly correspond to the six ‘Beneficent Immortals’ (Amesha Spentas) who play such an important role in the Avesta (the corpus of sacred Zoroastrian texts). The Avesta also includes a reference to the earth as an egg, in a passage in which the sky covers and surrounds it as a bird its egg.

‘Zoroaster’s egg’ and other similar items will be on display in the forthcoming exhibition ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies London. For more information see my recent post or follow these links to the exhibition website  and facebook page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


04 August 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination

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An exciting project I’ve been working on during the last few months is ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ a new exhibition opening this autumn at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies London.

One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism originated amongst the Iranian peoples in Central Asia during the second millennium BC spreading east along the Silk Road as far as China and south-west to Iran where it was the religion of the Achaemenid kings (550-330 BC) and their successors until the Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century AD. The Zoroastrian sacred texts were composed in the Avestan (Old Iranian) language, but were transmitted orally and were not written down until the late Sasanian period (c. 224-651 AD). Even after that Zoroastrianism remained essentially oral in character with the earliest surviving manuscripts dating from the late 13th century. Central to the religion is the belief in Ahura Mazda (‘wise lord’), his spokesman Zarathustra (Zoroaster) and the dichotomy between good and evil.

One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem Vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1917. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (British Library Or.8212/84)

This exhibition will be the first to provide a visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism and its rich cultural heritage. It will include sections on the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Road, the Judaeo-Christian heritage, and Zoroastrianism in Iran from the Achaemenid empire up to and including the Islamic period. Further sections are devoted to Zoroastrianism in India, the Parsis and the Parsi diaspora. In addition to texts, paintings and textiles the exhibition will include a walk-in fire temple and a 10-metre glass etching based on the cast of the western staircase from the palace of Darius at Persepolis from the British Museum.

The exhibition is being curated by Sarah Stewart (lead curator) together with Pheroza Godrej, Almut Hintze, Firoza Mistree  and myself. As you can imagine, we have been having a wonderful time sourcing material to include. Not surprisingly — since I have been involved  — the exhibition will include a large number of loans from the British Library, which is fortunate in posessing one of the most important collections of Zoroastrian manuscripts. It will run from 11 October to 15 December 2013. A catalogue will be published by IB Tauris and there will be a two-day conference associated with the exhibition, ‘Looking Back: The Formation of Zoroastrian Identity Through Rediscovery of the Past’, on 11 and 12 October 2013.

During the next few months I’ll be writing about several of the exhibits, but meanwhile here are a few select items:

An illustrated copy of the Avestan Videvdad Sadeh, the longest of all the Zoroastrian liturgies. Copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647 (British Library RSPA 230, ff. 151v–152r)

The martyrdom of the lady Tarbo, her sister and her servant who died during the reign of the Sasanian ruler Shapur II (r. 309-379). While the historicity of martyrologies such as this is questionable, they nevertheless represent a literary tradition of the early Christian community which is based on the realities of intermittent persecution under Sasanian rule. This very early Syriac manuscript dates from the fifth or sixth century AD (British Library Add.14654, ff. 13v-14r)


Cotton Augustus_5
Zoroaster, founder of the seven liberal arts, as portrayed in the French world chronicle, Le Trésor des histoires. Medieval Christian interpretations of Zoroastrianism, based on classical literature, often focussed on the figure Zoroaster who came to be regarded as a master of magic, a philosopher, and an astrologer, especially after the Renaissance, with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. Depicted here at his desk, Zoroaster is described as the founder of necromancy and the seven liberal arts. This copy dates from c.1475–80 (British Library Cotton Augustus V, f. 25v)

Parsis at prayer, the shoreline of Bombay in the distance. Early 19th-century oil painting by Horace Van Ruith (1839–1923) who visited Bombay between 1879 and 1884 and is known to have established a studio there (British Library Foster 953, detail) Images online

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Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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