PAHLAVI – Language & Texts

The term Pahlavi is derived from the Old Persian word parthava, and it originally signifies the language of the ancient province of Parthia in north-eastern Iran. The Pahlavi language, in varied forms and dialects, flourished with ups and downs for about 12 centuries – from the 3rd century B.C. up to the 9th century A.C. It was the state language of the Parthians and Sasanians and also the religious language of the Zoroastrians of those times. Inspite of restrictions, it was used as the religious language by the Zoroastrians even after the Sasanian  times up to the end of the 9th century.

Pahlavi is written in a script of Aramaic origin, and in the ideogrammatical system of writing. This means that there are certain non-Iranian words used only in written language, but replaced by their fixed Iranian equivalents in spoken language.

The Pahlavi script contains only 12 primary letters. Most of these have more than one phonetic value. Based on this Pahlavi script, a new and improved script was invented in about the 6th century, which is the present Avesta script.

Zoroastrian priests composed or compiled books and treatises in Pahlavi on religious, historical, legal, and other secular subjects in the 8th and 9th century. These books and treatises are generally known as the Book-Pahlavi literature which can be divided into three categories:


Pahlavi translations (with commentaries) of the following Avesta texts are extant:

  1. a) Yasna,
  2. b) Visparat,
  3. c) Vidēvdāt,
  4. d) Nirangistan,
  5. e) Aogemadaecha,
  6. f) Khordeh Avestaincluding Niyayishns and shorter Yashts. Pahlavitranslations of the longer Yashts are not extant; but the passages quoted in the Denkart, Bundahishn, and other Pahlavi books show that the longer Yashts, particularly Fravardin and Zamyad Yashts, were also translated into Pahlavi, but these translations have been lost. Zand i Vahuman Yasht is Pahlavi translation of the Vahuman Yasht, the Avesta text of which is no longer extant. Zand i Vahuman Yasht quotes the Pahlavi translation of the Khordad and the Ashtad Yashts, but these translations are now lost.


The noted Pahlavi scholar E.W.West has listed 82 Pahlavi texts on Zoroastrian religious subjects. Important among them are:

(a) Denkart ‘Knowledge of the Religion’:  It is a ninth century voluminous encyclopaedic work on religious, philosophical, historical, and other subjects including life-story of prophet Zarathushtra and a list of the contents of 19 Avesta Nasks (Book VIII). Denkart originally was compiled in nine books, but the first two books and the initial portion of the third have now been lost. The work of compiling the Denkard was started by Aturfarnbag son of Farrokhzat and was completed by Aturpat i Emit.

It has extensive quotes from materials thousands of years older, including (otherwise) lost Avestan texts. It is the single most valuable source of information on the Zoroastrian religion other than the Avesta.

Denkard was edited and translated into 18 volumes, first by Dastur Peshotan Behramjee Sanjana, in 1876 and then the work was continued by his son Darab.

(b) Bundahishn ‘Origin of the Creations, the Genesis’ : It is the Zoroastrian account of the origin of the creations of the spiritual and material worlds, their nature, characteristics, and functions. The book also deals with ancient Iranian history, geography, traditions, astronomy, astrology, natural science and a number of other subjects. There are two versions of the text: shorter (generally known as ‘Indian Bundahishn’) and longer (generally known as ‘Iranian Bundahishn’).


(c) Dātistān i  Dēnīk “the Religious Decision” : It is a book containing 92 questions asked by Mihr-Khurshed son of Atur-Mah and replied by Manushchihr son of Yavānyam, on varied Zoroastrian subjects like religion, philosophy, ceremony, tradition, social laws, customs, manners and practices.


(d) Nāmākihā i Manushchihr “The Epistles of Manushchihr”: These are three epistles (letters) written by Manushchihr on the subject of the Barashnum ceremony, in a controversy with his younger brother Zātspram, a priest of Sirkan. The epistles are addressed to: (1) the Zoroastrians of Sirkan; (2) Zātspram; and (3) to the Zoroastrians of Iran. The last epistle is dated 881 A.C.


(e) The Pahlavi Rivayats: Rivayat is a Persian word meaning “religious traditions.” The Pahlavi Rivayats are compiled by various authors : (a) the Rivayat accompanying (in the manuscripts) the Dātistān i  Dēnīk is an anonymous work of early 10th century. It comprises information on rituals, ethics, customs, wisdom literature, eschatology, cosmology, epic and folklore; (b) the Rivāyat of Emēt son of Ashavahisht; (c) the Rivayats of Aturfarnbag and Farnbag-Srosh; (d) the Rivāyat based on Pahlavi Vidēvdāt –generally known as the commentary on the Pahlavi Vidēvdāt.


(f) Vichitakihā i Zātspram “the Selections of Zātspram” : This text contains selections from the Pahlavi works, mainly dealing with the subjects of cosmogony, life-story of prophet Zarathushtra , scriptures, astrology, anatomy and life after death.


(g) Shāyast nē Shāyast ‘Proper and Improper’ : This  book deals with various religious subjects like defilements due to contact with corpse, precautions against such defilements, and instructions  about giving purification to defiled persons. The book also deals with sins and meritorious deeds, ceremonies and customs, and efficacy of chanting the Gathas.


(h) The Andarz Nāmak “the Books of Admonitions”: This is a whole body of literature containing about 20 books giving counsel and advise. They are generally addressed by a father to his son, by a priest to the faithful, or by a king to his subjects. They are compiled by various personages like (a) Aturpāt son of Māhraspand; (b) Husrav (Sasanian Emperor Khusro I) son of Kavāt (c) Oshnar i Dānāk  “Wise Oshnar”, and (d) Vehzāt Farrokh Piroj.


(i) Dānāk u Mēnōk i Khrat “The Wise man and the Spirit of Wisdom”: A book of questions and answers on the Zoroastrian religion, philosophy and tradition.


(j) Gajastak Abālish “The Accursed Abālish”: An account of the religious disputation in the court of Caliph Ma’mun (813-833 A.C.) between the Zoroastrian high-priest Aturfarnbag son of Farrokhzad and ZandIk (a Manichaean heretic).


(k) Ardā Virāz Nāmak “The Book of righteous Virāz”: It is an account of a journey to heaven and hell undertaken by righteous Virāz (popularly Ardāvirāf) during the reign of Ardeshir Papakan (226 CE). It is the most elaborate description of Heaven and Hell in the Zoroastrian texts. The journey was undertaken to dispense doubt in the religion and rituals. Dante’s Divine comedy is often compared to Arda Viraz Namag.

60% (83 of the total 101 chapters) of it is a graphically descriptive account of punishments of sins undergone in Hell. 20% is an account of Heaven. 10% of the text (first 4 chapters) is situational narrative of the times of doubt and turmoil preceding the journey. 10% of the text are admonitions from Ahura Mazda. Sraosha and the souls to ArdA VirAz.


(l) Jāmāsp Nāmak / Jāmāspi “The Book of Jamasp”: This book is attributed to Jāmāsp, the wise minister of Kayanian king Kay Vishtasp and one of the immediate disciples of prophet Zarathushtra, on whom was bestowed the divine gift of prognostication, that is, the power of fore-telling future events.


(m) Mātikān i Yavisht Fryān “The Story of Yavisht Fryān”: This text gives the story of Yavisht Fryān and Akht, a sorceror. Akht puts 33 riddles to Yavisht on the condition that if he failed to solve them satisfactorily, Akht would kill him. Yavisht was not only able to solve the riddles, but he also asked three counter questions to Akht which the latter was unable to answer. Hence, in accordance with the pre-condition, Yavisht rendered Akht powerless and inactive.



(a) Mātikān i Hazār Dātistān “A code of a Thousand Laws” : This book is generally known by its descriptive title “Social Code of the Parsis in Sasanian Times.” It is a digest of the social, civil, and criminal laws, which were in force in the Sasanian times. Internal evidence shows that this  book was compiled during the reign of Khusro II (590-628 A.C.).

(b) Kārnāmak i Artakhsir i Pāpakān  “A History of Artakhshir of the family of Pāpak” : A historical account of the foundation of the Sasanian Empire by Artakhshir I (226-242 A.C.).

(c) Ayātkār i Zarērān “A Memoir of Zarir”: An account of the battles which Zarir, brother of Kay Vishtasp, fought against the Turanian King Arjasp in defense of the Zoroastrian religion.

(d) Shahrihā i Irān “The Cities of Iran”: A historical and geographical account of cities of Iran.

(e)Frahang i Oim : An Avesta-Pahlavi Glossary.

(f) Frahang i Pahlavīk : A Glossary of Pahlavi ideograms with Iranian equivalents.

(g)Nāmak Nipēshishnīh: A manual of letter-writing containing forms of letters addressed to various personages like  kings, noble-men, parents and members of the family.

(h) Drakht i Asūrīk “The Assyrian Tree” : It is an amusing story of an altercation between the Assyrian tree (the palm tree) and a goat, describing their respective merit, worth, and utility, and each claiming superiority over the other.

(i) Husrav Kavātān u Rētak-ē  “Husrav son of Kavat and a Page”: This is a very interesting narrative of a highly accomplished boy, who relates his riches-to-rags life story to King Husrav (Khusro II). As his family was ruined, he approached the king to seek some job, and requested him to test his knowledge and skill. The king asks questions on daily life. The intelligent and ingenious answers given by the boy throw important light on many aspects of Sasanian times.

(j) Vichārishn i Chatrang “The Explanation of Chess”: The text seeks to explain how the Indian game of chess and the Iranian game of Nev-Artakshir  (Nard) were played in ancient times.