Corpus Avesticum Berolinense

German Research Foundation Grants Initial Funding for Three Years

No 004/2018 from Jan 16, 2018

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has initially approved three-year funding for a research project at Freie Universitšt to study texts in Avestan, an ancient Iranian language. The project entitled "Corpus Avesticum Berolinense"†is planned for twelve years and will be conducted at the Institute of Iranian Studies. The involved researchers aim to create a new edition of all Zoroastrian rituals in Avestan, one of two ancient Iranian languages. Zoroastrianism is a religion believed to have originated in the eastern Iranian highlands. The approved funding amounts to a total of 1.03 million euros. The project is headed by Alberto Cantera Glera and will officially begin on April 1, 2018.

"Over the past thirty years our understanding of the texts written in Avestan has changed dramatically," explains Alberto Cantera Glera. Until recently they were considered to be fragments of one very long book, while today scholars believe that these texts were written for the same purpose they are still being used for, namely recitation in various rituals common in the Zoroastrian community. In fact, most of these texts contain complete descriptions of rituals, and in addition to the Avestan text, instructions about the rituals in different languages, depending on where the manuscript was produced.

Glera explains that each version was intended to reflect the function of the texts, but for various reasons, this was not the case for the older editions. Some reasons for this are, for example, the way the texts were passed on during late antiquity or the changed perspective of modern scholasticism on Avestan. As a result, the liturgical character of the Avestan texts was not taken into account in any of the modern editions. The scholars edited the texts without any connection to their ritual and performative context. Most of them were even put together in a different order than in the rituals. In addition, some variants and combinations were not taken up at all, probably because they were considered to be second-rate new arrangements.

In the planned new edition, the scholars will take into account the insights and tendencies that have emerged in studies of Avestan since the 1950s. It would be the first edition to collect all of the texts in Avestan and present them together in their concrete form: as ritual texts and in accordance with the original manuscripts. This textual correctness sets new standards in editorial practice: The diversity of the rituals must be presented, and the performative character must be taken into account. In addition, the reproduction of the texts needs to be historically correct. Thus, this edition would be the first historical account of Zoroastrian ritual life: a complex system of rituals that originated in the Achaemenid period and has remained alive to this day.

The planned edition builds on the previous work of the Avestan Digital Archive, which was compiled under the direction of Alberto Cantera at the University of Salamanca in Spain between 2008 and 2016. Since May 2016 it has been based at Freie Universitšt. In addition to finding almost 300 manuscripts, the scholars involved in this project also discovered a new branch in the tradition that was passed down, namely the Iranian one. Up to then, all the editions of Avestan texts had been based on Indian manuscripts. "The Iranian writings make it clear that the Avestan tradition is dynamic, quasi fluid, and strongly influenced by ritual performance," Glera explains. Under these circumstances the reconstruction of an ahistorical archetype no longer seems reasonable. The scholars intend to reproduce the rituals as they were enacted historically. As a temporal and spatial framework they chose the Safavid period (1501-1722) in the region of Yazd-Kerman, since the greatest variety and oldest spelling can be found in the manuscripts written there during this period. Using different methods of textual criticism, Glera and his team will work out the textual and ritual variations diachronically and diatopically.