Zend-Avesta, the scriptures of the Zoroastrian faith, the ancient national religion of Persia, now professed only by scanty communities of Parsees. The proper name is simply Avesta, while Zend means the translation of it into the Huzvaresh (now usually called the Zend), which is the literary form of the Pehlevi language, probably made some centuries after the Christian era. This language, the oldest form of Iranic speech known, has received from Spiegel the name of Old Bactrian. (See Iran-io Races and Languages.) Zend-Avesta, however, if understood to mean the Zend and the Avesta, or the Avesta and its Zend, is a suitable name for the whole Parsee sacred literature, ancient and modern, and will be here accepted as such. The Avesta is one of the most ancient and interesting documents remaining to us for the early history and religion of the Indo-European family. It is made up of several distinct parts. First in importance among these are the Vendidad and the Yacna. The former is, as it were, the Pentateuch of the Zoroastrian canon, the book of origins and of the law. It is in great part prescriptive, a moral and ceremonial code, teaching the means of avoiding or of expiating sin and impurity.
It is cast chiefly in the form of colloquies between the supreme divinity, Ahura-Mazda (Ormuzd), and his servant and prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster), in which the former makes known to the latter his will respecting his creation. The same form prevails more or less through the whole Avesta; it is professedly a revelation to Zoroaster, and through him to mankind. The Vendidad is evidently not preserved complete, nor is it certain that its few first and last chapters originally belonged to it. The Yacna is of a very different character, being made up of prayers and praises addressed to the divinity and to the beings inferior to him, yet recognized as worthy of reverence and worship. It is divided into two distinct portions, of which the latter is in a slightly different and apparently older dialect, and is in great part metrical, resembling in form and contents the hymns of the Hindoo Veda; these songs are plainly the most ancient and original part of the Avesta, and some of them may go back even to the time of Zoroaster himself; that they do so is the opinion of Dr. Haug, who published an annotated translation of them in the German oriental society's collections (Die fünf Gâthâs, etc, Leipsic, 1858-'60); they have also been edited, with version and notes, by Kossowicz (1867-71). The Vispered is kindred in character with the more recent part of the Yacna; these two, along with the Vendidad, are mingled together in the liturgical use of the Parsees. The other constituents of the Avesta are sometimes spoken of as the Khordeh Avesta, or shorter Avesta; they are the 24 Yeshts, laudations of sacred persons or objects, the five Nyâyish, and a few other less important pieces.
The Parsees hold that Zoroaster's writings originally filled 21 volumes, which were in great part lost in the ruin of the Persian empire and religion after Alexander, only fragments of them being recovered and preserved by the Sassanian monarch Ardeshir, excepting the Vendidad, which had been saved entire. The Avesta is clearly an assemblage of fragments of a more extended literature, and many circumstances favor the theory of its collection into its present form during the early part of the Sassanian period. Its material is of different ages, and some of it must be many centuries older than our era. Its place of origin, as that of the Zoroastrian religion, is believed to be the northeastern part of Iran, in or not far from Bactria, which is also the principal scene of action of the Persian legendary history. - The Zend, or literature auxiliary to and explanatory of the Avesta, consists chiefly of its translated text with accompanying glosses, and also a few independent works in the same language, the Huzvaresh or literary Pehlevi, as the Bundehesh and the Din-hart, of much later date.
It is an important aid to the understanding of the Avesta; yet its interpretation is not to be implicitly accepted. (See Spiegel, Einleitung in die traditionellen Schriften der Parsen, 2 vols. 8vo, Leipsic, 1856-'60, and Haug, "Essay on Pahlavi," London, 1870.) That part of the Zoroastrian literature which is composed in the so-called Parsee dialect is of still more modern date and limited extent. Glosses or interpretations of the Avestan texts, called Pa-Zend, versions of certain portions of them and of Pehlevi texts, sundry invocations and ascriptions of praise, and expositions of Parsee doctrine, constitute nearly its whole substance. Spiegel has published (Leipsic, 1851) a Parsee grammar, with considerable passages of texts appended. After the settlement of the Parsees in India, a Sanskrit version was made by Neriosengh of the Yacna and some other parts of the Avestan text; it has been published in a Latin transliteration by Spiegel (Leipsic, 1861). In recent times also learned and enlightened Parsees have been active in editing and commenting their scriptures, and rendering them accessible in the present vernacular of their communitv, the Guzeratee Ianguage. Spiegel has published a translation of the whole Avesta into German (English ed. by A. H. Bleek, London, 1864), and a commentary on both text and translation (2 vols., 1865-'8). The difficulties which attend the understanding of the Avesta are greater even than those which beset the Veda; the methods to be pursued, and the part to be assigned to the different sources of auxiliary knowledge, are still unsettled, the foremost scholars holding very different views.
Spiegel's Erdnische Alterthumskunde (2 vols., Leipsic, 1872-'3) is an elaborate discussion of the ancient Persian history and religion.