Old Iranian at Undergraduate level

General Information

Priest in Median Dress holding barsom twigs, from the Oxus treasure.

Old Iranian may be offered for the B. A. Hon. Oriental Studies degree as an 'additional language' with Sanskrit, Persian, Classics or Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. The course in Old Iranian lasts for six terms, and begins in the second year of the regular three-year Oriental Studies degree.

Students learn Old Persian and Avestan, and read the Achaemenian Kings' Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions, and a selection of Zoroastrian religious texts from the Avesta. The texts are studied both as linguistic documents, and as sources for the history, religion and culture of Ancient Iran.

Old Iranian

Avestan and Old Persian are the two languages which have been preserved from the oldest recorded period in the development of the Iranian language family. They are inflected languages, which are closely comparable to Vedic Sanskrit, and, more remotely, to other ancient Indo-European languages such as Greek, Latin or Hittite.

Old Persian is the distant but direct ancestor of present day Persian (Farsi). It was the native language of the Achaemenian Kings of Iran (6th- 4th centuries BC), who employed it in their monumental trilingual inscriptions, written in a simple cuneiform script.

The major Old Persian inscriptions are important historical documents which may be compared with accounts of the Persian Empire in Greek sources. The longest inscription, which is chiselled on the rock face at Bisitun, tells in Darius the Great's own words how he seized power and established his rule over vast territories. From the palaces at Susa and Persepolis, and the Achaemenian tombs at Naqsh-i-Rustam, come other inscriptions dealing with politics and religion, including Xerxes's "daiva inscription", which bans the worship of false gods and promises rewards to the worshipper of Ahura Mazda.

Avestan is the language of the earliest sacred texts belonging to the Zoroastrian religion. The Avesta was handed down orally among Zoroastrian priests for more than a thousand years, and when it was committed to writing, probably for the first time during the Sasanian period (3rd - 7th centuries AD), a special alphabet was devised to record the traditional pronunciation of its language. The oldest Avestan compositions are seventeen intricate poems (Gathas) attributed to the prophet Zoroaster (Avestan Zarathushtra), and some prayers which play an important part in Zoroastrian worship to this day. There is also an ancient liturgy (Yasna Haptanhaiti), and long traditional hymns of praise (Yashts) addressed to deities such as Mithra and Anahita, which contain the earliest known fragments of the Iranian epic. The Videvdat, or "Law which rejects the false gods", spells out in late Avestan prose the Zoroastrian regulations concerning pollution through contact with Evil.

The Avesta is authoritative for present day Zoroastrians, and there is considerable interest in the contribution modern scholarship can make to its correct interpretation. When the Avesta was first translated and introduced to the West in 1771 by Anquetil Duperron it was greeted with various shades of incredulity by Kant, Voltaire, William Jones and others. Since then considerable progress in understanding has been made via philological and historical linguistic methods, but much work remains to be done, and the early stages in the development of Zoroaster's religion are still the subject of lively academic debate.


Darius the Great stands over the body of Gaumata the false king and thanks Ahura Mazda for his triumph in saving his empire. Bisitun.


The Course

Most of the course is devoted to studying primary sources in the original languages. In addition to knowledge of Old Iranian grammar and vocabulary students receive training in the analytical and critical methods that may be used to understand ancient texts. As the texts themselves represent a range of differing stylistic and literary genres (building dedications, political propaganda, legalistic codes, traditional litanies, oral poetry of considerable sophistication and complexity, etc.), new challenges are encountered at every stage.

Extensive and detailed preparation of texts with the aid of editions, lexica, handbooks, etc. (that are available in Oxford libraries such as the Oriental Institute and the Sackler Library) is required throughout the course. In addition to twice-weekly text classes, teaching is through tutorials where essay work is discussed. The essay work on historical, religious and cultural topics involves reading and critically assessing some of the recent secondary literature. Students are encouraged to develop their own interests in the selection of essay topics, as the teaching is frequently one-to-one.

A contemporary Zoroastrian religious ceremony.

Sanskritists are able to start reading texts from the very beginning of the Old Iranian course, thanks to the close relationship between the Old Iranian languages and Old Indic. Persianists, Classicists and students in Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies have to devote some time to learning grammar, and elementary language instruction is provided for them during the first two terms. The Old Persian material is studied first, and students from all main subjects can normally expect to have read the most famous inscriptions by the end of their second term's work. In the third term students start work on the Avesta by reading a Younger Avestan Yasht; this is normally followed in the fourth term by at least one  fargard of the Videvdad, and then later in the final year by the Old Avestan Yasna Haptanhaiti, and finally the Gathas of the prophet himself (which are studied last because of their syntactic and stylistic difficulty).

Combination with the Main Subjects

The Farvahar is one of the best known symbols of Zoroastrianism

In combination with Sanskrit the Old Iranian option introduces students to the earliest evidence for the Iranian branch of the Indo-Iranian language family, and to a literature which stems from the same prehistoric Indo-Iranian tradition as the early parts of the Veda. It permits those with an interest in Indo-European historical linguistics to gain a thorough knowledge of the earliest evidence for a branch of Indo-European that plays an important role in comparative reconstruction; or those with an interest in the prehistory of Vedic religion and comparative mythology to become familiar with the problems involved in evaluating the Iranian material.

In addition to the regular Old Iranian papers, it is possible to offer a special subject in the Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit and Old Iranian as part of the BA Hons. in Sanskrit.

In combination with Persian the Old Iranian course provides an opportunity to study the first documents of Iranian civilization written in the Iranian tongue, and to trace the historical development of the Persian language back to its earliest records. Students who select the option on the history of the Persian language (Paper 2, part 2) receive instruction in the rudiments of Middle Persian. For those who opt to answer questions on the Old Persian inscriptions as historical sources, it is possible (when teaching is available) also to offer a special subject on the history of Achaemenian Iran.

The interior of the Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Yazd, Iran.

The combination with Classics has been made available because the study of pre-Islamic Iran depends on both Greek and Near Eastern sources. It permits Classicists who are interested in relations between Greece and Persia to read some of the primary Iranian sources in their original language and learn about recent philological advances in their interpretation. The Old Iranian option could also be offered in conjunction with a special subject in the Comparative Philology of Greek or Latin (forming part of the Classics main subject) in order to study the linguistic evidence for another early attested branch of the Indo-European language family.

Old Iranian may also be selected as an additional language within Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Via this option students who have a particular interest in the history and culture of Pre-Islamic Iran, or in the role of the Persian Empire within the Ancient Near East, may study some of the most relevant Near Eastern languages and original written sources. In addition, the EANES degree permits a field of concentration, a dissertation and an optional special subject, any of which may be on an Old Iranian topic (providing teaching can be arranged).


Final Examination

In the Final Honour School candidates in Sanskrit sit 2 written examinations on Old Iranian, those in Persian, Classics and EANES sit 3 written examinations.

For Sanskrit: (i) Avestan Texts. Candidates are asked both to translate and comment on passages Avestan. (ii) part 1 Old Persian Texts (translation); part 2 Essays on Old Iranian language and literature, and the religious and historical background to the texts.

For Persian, Classics and (optionally) EANES (i) Avestan Texts (translation and comment) (ii) part 1: Old Persian Texts (translation); part 2: Either questions on the content and historical background to the Old Persian texts or questions on the history of the Persian language. (iii) Essays on Old Iranian language, literature, and pre-Islamic Iranian religion and history. EANES candidates may alternatively elect to take papers 2, 5, 6, as specified for the EANES BA degree, on Old Iranian.


Introductory Reading

  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, ed. R.D. Woodard. Cambridge University Press, 2004. Articles on Old Persian by Rüdiger Schmitt (pp. 717-741) and Avestan by Mark Hale (pp. 741-763).
  • The Literature of Pre-Islamic Iran, eds. R.E. Emmerick and M. Macuch. I.B.Tauris, London, 2009.
  • Amélie Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East c. 3000-330 BC, vol. II, Chapter 13 (pp. 647-701) 'The Achaemenid Empire'. Routledge, London, 1995.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History, ed. T. Daryaee, OUP, 2012. Esp. Chapters 1-7 on Pre-Islamic Iran.
  • Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. I.B.Tauris, London, 2011.
  • Michael Stausberg, Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. Equinox Publishing Ltd, London, 2008.
  • Encyclopedia Iranica, ed. E.Yarshater, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London-New York, 1985-. Available at http://www.iranicaonline.org Articles on Achaemenid Dynasty, Achaemenid Religion, Bisotun (iii Darius’s Inscriptions), Cuneiform, Avesta, Avestan Geography, Avestan Language, Avestan Peoples, Indo-Iranian Religion, Iran VI (Iranian Languages and Scripts), Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism i (Historical Review), etc.
  • Press, 1985.
  • Michael Stausberg, Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, Equinox Publishing Ltd, London, 2008