Persian Language and Literature

Persian cuneiform. Copyright ''O.I.U.C.''

PERSIAN LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE. The Pers. language in all periods is the common speech of the Aryan inhabitants of the Iranian plateau and its environs known in the OT by the name of its chief province, פָּרַס, H10594, from the native name, Fars or Faristan, and the indigenous language, Fārsī. It is a member of the branch of Indo-European languages denoted Indo-Iranian. It has features similar to Sanskrit, Balto-Slavic, Greek, Latin, and even English. It possesses a full declension of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives as well as a system of verbal prefixes and personal suffixes. Unlike most other more familiar Indo-European languages, however, there is a set of infixes and syncretisms of the elaborate Indo-Iranian cases. The verbal system has all the major voices, moods, and tenses of the Indo-European tongues, not unlike Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. The phonology is variable depending on the period and location, whereas the vocabulary contains many loan words from Elamite, Hurrian, Akkadian, and Sumerian as well as Greek and the Indic languages.

Language (development and dialects).

Although it is known that the Iranian peoples came from further E, when and from what place this migration took place is unknown. Thus the origins of the Pers. language are hidden from present discovery, but the Indian source of the Pers. language is well established. A number of dialects can be distinguished from the fragmentary remains of Pers. that are found in Indian and Old Pers. cuneiform texts. The oldest layer of the language contains two dialects—Old Persian and Avestan—along with a number of very fragmentary indications of a Median, Carduchian, and Parthian series of dialects. In the middle era of the language (300 b.c.-a.d. 900), two major dialects predominated—Pehlevi and Sassanian. The similarity of vocabulary between the various languages is presented in the following chart:

Many of the primary nouns and verbs in the language do not yield such obvious cognates with the more familiar Indo-European tongues, e.g. ciça, “seed”; taxma, “brave”; xšanav, “hear”; or baqa, “gods.” The tendency of most of the dialectal change was to simplify the complex morphology and syntax of the classical era. After the conquest of the Near E by Islam, the Pers. language absorbed large numbers of Qur’anic words and was transcribed into the Arab. orthography.

Old Persian inscriptions.

The most important segment of the Pers. lit. for understanding Biblical history is the Old Pers. cuneiform inscriptional material. The earliest mentions of the Medes and Persians occur in the annals of Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian military campaigns. The initial conflict between Assyria and Persia was fought near Lake Urmiah by Shalmaneser II (858-824 b.c.). Apparently these contacts must have included more than battle because the Pers. annals that appear in the 6th cent. b.c. are written in a modified system of Babylonian cuneiform. At this time Kūrush (Gr. Cyrus), a son of the royal house of Hakhāmanish (Gr. Achaemenes), consolidated his rule over the Māda (Gr. Medes) and the Pārsa (Gr. Persians). The oldest inscrs. of this type are from the reign of Ariyāramna (Gr. Ariaramnes) c. 600 b.c. As with all the later inscrs. they are written in cuneiform, but they are of such a diverse style from Mesopotamian cuneiform that it must have been innovated on the model of the Babylonian and not merely modified. The next ruler, Arshāma (Gr. Arsames), wrote some inscrs., but none have survived; the one known from his era is a later copy. Some small texts from the time of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II; cf. Ezra 1:1ff.; Dan 1:21; Isa 44:28) have been found in the excavations at Murghāb; they are, interestingly enough, trilinguals—in Elamite, Akkadian, and Old Persian (cf. Ezra 1:1). The impact of the Sumero-Akkadian inscrs. can be seen in that the word order and ideas expressed often are direct trs. from the Mesopotamian styles of royal proclamation. An example of one of these texts from Murghāb (Gr. Pasargadae) states as follows:

adam Kūrush xshāya/ thiya Hakhāmanishya I (am) Cyrus King,/ an Achaemenian. (Weissbach: Die Keilinschriften der Achämeniden [1911], 126 and 127.)

The most complete texts, as well as the longest, are from the reign of Dārayavahu (Gr. Darius I; cf. Hag 1:1ff.) of which the most famous is the great trilingual inscribed on the sheer rock face of a cliff at Bahistan (Behistan; Old Persian, Bagastāna, “the place of God”). This inscr., as transcribed by Sir Henry C. Rawlinson (1836 and subsequent years), provided the material through which Akkad. was deciphered. The inscr. details the fortunes of the royal line of the Achaemenids from c. 700-500 b.c. The annals give not only the line of kings but also their policies, campaigns, conquests, speeches, and even prayers. There are a great many lesser texts inscribed on buildings and palaces of the period and on large gold and silver blocks.

The Avesta.

The Avesta is the collection of books sacred to the Mazdai religion and used by the Parsees. The earliest part of the work, the ’Gāthās, is said to be the work of the prophet of Mazdai, Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), which would mean that they date originally from the 7th cent. b.c. The extant literary remains of these are much later than the Old Pers. period, although the ancient morphological and syntactical forms still appear. The language of the Avesta is similar to that of the Indic Veda, and it is divided into five traditional sections: ’Gāthās, metrical strophes to be chanted; Yasna, liturgical phrases; Yashts, Hymns of Praise, Vidēvdāt, law for vanquishing evil spirits; and a group of minor tracts grouped together as the Khvartak Apastāk, the lesser, or small, Avesta. It teaches the elemental dualistic conceptions, with angelic and demonic hierarchies common to Indo-Iranian religions. This lit. greatly influenced the late Jewish writings such as Apoc. and Pseudep. as well as Hebraic apocalyptic notions in general. Both Gnosticism and Mithraism borrowed extensively from the Avesta.

The Middle Persian period.

The Middle Pers. period is one of extensive lit. usually known by its dialect as Pahlavi lit. This new departure, which necessitated commentaries and translations of the Avesta, began during the Sassanian era c. a.d. 224. Within four centuries, the Iranian civilization had fallen to Islam, and much of the old culture and lit. had been rooted out and destroyed as idolatrous.


F. H. Weissbach, Die Keilinschriften der Achämeniden (1911); W. Brandenstein and F. W. König, Der Burgbau zu Susa (1930); G. G. Cameron, Persepolis Treasury Tablets (1948), O.I.P. 65; R. G. Kent, Old Persian (1950); H. W. Bailey, “The Persian Language” and A. J. Arberry, “Persian Literature” in The Legacy of Persia (1963); O. Klíma, “Avesta. Ancient Persian Inscriptions. Middle Persian Literature,” History of Iranian Literature (1968); original ed. Dějiny Perské A Tadžické Literatury (1956), 3-66.