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Thus Spoke Zarathustra: 

The Zoroastrian Tradition from 

Ancient Iran to Contemporary India

Fall 2012

Instructor: Daniel J. Sheffield    Meeting Time: TTh 3:00-4:20

Course Description:

Zoroastrianism was once considered one of the great world religions. In this class we will survey the history of the Zoroastrian religion from its origins in ancient Iran to the present. Though today Zoroastrianism constitutes a very small community located in Western India (the Parsis), Central Iran, and increasingly, the global diaspora, it was the state religion of the Achaemenid and Sasanian Persian empires, Zoroastrian thought had impact on the Classical, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. In later centuries, Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians interacted with the Islamicate and Sanskritic forms of learning around them to re-articulate new forms of religious identity. We will discuss such themes as the transmission of sacred knowledge, the nature of good and evil, the practice of ritual, the impact of colonial modernity, and the effects of diaspora.


The course will incorporate lecture with discussion. Students will be required to give one or two short presentations and pose discussion questions (in groups, depending on enrollment) on assigned readings over the course of the semester. A midterm (October 23), consisting of identifications of technical terms and a short essay, will be mandatory for all students. At the end of the term, students will write a 15 to 20-page final research paper on a topic discussed during the semester. Attentive reading and active class participation are essential to ensure lively discussions. Attendance is mandatory.

Prerequisites and Enrollment:

This course assumes no prior knowledge of Iranian or Indian history. Some familiarity with the study of religion may be helpful, but is not necessary. The course is open to all Princeton affiliates. Persons wishing to audit should consult the Instructor.

Special Needs:

Students must register with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) (ods@princeton.edu; 258-8840) for disability verification and determination of eligibility for reasonable academic accommodations.  Requests for academic accommodations for this course need to be made at the beginning of the semester, or as soon as possible for newly approved students, and again at least two weeks in advance of any needed accommodations in order to make arrangements to implement the accommodations.  Please make an appointment to meet with me in order to maintain confidentiality in addressing your needs.  No accommodations will be given without authorization from ODS, or without advance notice.

Academic Integrity:

Students must at all times adhere to the standards of academic integrity and honesty, as expressed in the Princeton Honor Code (http://www.princeton.edu/honor/) and elaborated in the booklet Academic Integrity (http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pub/integrity).

Required Books:

(Available at Labyrinth Books on Nassau St. and on reserve at Firestone Library)

Prods Oktor Skjærvø. 2012. The Spirit of Zoroastrianism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN: 9780300170351. [SPIRIT in Syllabus]

Jenny Rose. 2012. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. London: I. B. Tauris. ISBN: 9781848850880. [INTRODUCTION in Syllabus]

Ashok Mathur. 2009. A Little Distillery in Nowgong. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press. ISBN: 9781551522586.

All other readings will be made available through the course website.

Web Resources:

http://www.dansheffield.com/ – See especially the Guide to Zoroastrian Sources and the Links page for bibliographical resources. 

http://www.iranica.com/ – Encyclopædia Iranica Online.

http://www.avesta.org/ – Avesta.org – public domain translations of Avestan and Pahalvi texts.

http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~iranian/ Reference works by Prods Oktor Skjærvø.

Grading Policies:

Class Participation: 30%

Presentations: 10%

Midterm: 20%

Final Paper: 40%

All work must be submitted in a timely fashion. Late assignments will be penalized by one degree of a letter grade per day (i.e., a B+ paper turned in two days late will receive a B-) late.

Schedule of Classes:

Week 1: Introducing the Zoroastrian Religion

Thursday, 9/13: Why Study Zoroastrianism?

1. “From the Book of Advice of Zarathustra,” SPIRIT pp. 192-196.

Week 2: Sources and Concepts

Tuesday, 9/18: Introducing a World of Thought

1. “Introduction to Zoroastrianism,” SPIRIT pp. 1-38.

Thursday, 9/20: The Study of the Zoroastrian Tradition

1. “Zoroastrianism: An Introduction" and "Chapter 1: Zoroastrians Past and Present," INTRODUCTION, pp. xvii-xxiv, 1-29.

2. Herrenschmidt, Clarisse. 1987. “Once upon a Time, Zoroaster.” History and Anthropology 3, pp. 209-237.

Week 3: Thus Spoke Zarathustra? The Gāthās and the Historicity of the Prophet

Tuesday, 9/25: The Ancient Iranians and the Old Avesta

1. "Texts on Creation from the Old Avesta," SPIRIT pp. 44-49.

2. Skjærvø, Prods Oktor. 1996. “The Literature of the Most Ancient Iranians.” Proceedings of the Second North American Gatha Conference. pp. 221-235.

Thursday, 9/27: Zarathustra and the Gathas

1. "Zarathustra and the Gathic Characters in the Gāthās" SPIRIT pp. 122-130.

2. Boyce, Mary. 1997. “Origins of Zoroastrian Philosophy,” in Companion Encyclopedia to Asian Philosophy, eds. Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam, pp. 5-23. London: Routeldege.

3. Skjærvø, Prods Oktor. 2003. “Zarathustra: First Poet Sacrificer,” in Paitimāna. Essays in Iranian, Indo-European, and Indian Studies in Honor of Hanns-Peter Schmidt, ed. Siamak Adhami, pp.  157-194. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.

Week 4: Rituals and Myths

Tuesday, 10/2: The Daily Sacrifice

 1. “Ritual Texts from the Old Avesta and the Young Avesta,” SPIRIT, pp. 214-220.

2. Kotwal, Firoze & James Boyd. 1991. Part 1 from A Persian Offering: The Yasna. Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes.

3. Skjærvø, Prods Oktor. “The Avestan Yasna: Ritual and Myth,” 2007. in Religious Texts in Iranian Languages, ed. Claus V. Pedersen and Fereydun Vahman, pp. 57-84. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab.

Thursday, 10/4: The Yashts and Zoroastrian Mythology

1. "Hero-sacrificers of the First Ages in the Young Avesta," and "Zarathustra and the Gathic Characters in the Young Avesta" SPIRIT pp. 113-122, 130-138.

2. Hinnells, John. 1973. “Ancient Persian Mythology” from Persian Mythology, pp. 22-41. London: Hamlyn.

3. Vevaina, Yuhan S.-D. 2010. "Hubris and Himmelfahrt: The Narrative Logic of Kay Us' Ascent to Heaven in Pahlavi Literature," pp. 231-243. In Ancient and Middle Iranian Studies: Proceedings of the 6th European Conference of Iranian Studies. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Film Screening: The Yasna Ritual & Conversations with a Parsi Priest.

Week 5: Of Priests and Purity

Tuesday, 10/9: Purity and Danger in Zoroastrianism

1. Choksy, Jamsheed. 1989. Chapters 1, 4, and 5 from Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin: University of Texas Press.

2. Williams, Alan. 1997. "Zoroastrianism and the Body." In Religion and the Body, ed. Sarah Coakley, pp. 155-166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. de Jong, Albert. 1999. "Purification in Absentia: On the Development of Zoroastrian Ritual Practice." In Transformations of the Inner Self in Religious Traditions, eds. Jan Assmann and Guy Stroumsa,  pp. 301-329. Leiden: Brill.

Thursday 10/11: The Zoroastrian Priesthood

1. "Texts on the History of the Sacred Tradition." SPIRIT, pp. 39-43.

2. Kreyenbroek, Philip. 1987. “The Zoroastrian Priesthood After the Fall of the Sasanian Empire,” in Transition Periods in Iranian History: Actes du Symposium de Fribourg-en-Brisgau (22-24 mai 1985), ed. Philippe Gignoux, pp. 151-166. Leuven: Peeters.

3. Vevaina, Yuhan. 2010. “’Enumerating the Dēn:’ Textual Taxonomies, Cosmological Deixis, and Numerological Speculations in Zoroastrianism.” History of Religions 50: 111-143.

Week 6: May Ahura Mazda Protect This Land

Tuesday, 10/16: The Rise of the Achaemenid Empire

1. "Chapter 2: The Ancient Persians: Truth-Tellers and Paradise-Builders" INTRODUCTION, pp. 31-64.

2. Skjærvø, Prods Oktor. 2005. “The Achaemenids and the Avesta,” in Birth of the Persian Empire, eds. Vesta Curtis and Sarah Stewart, pp. 52-84. London: I. B. Tauris.

Thursday, 10/18: The Religion of Ancient Iran: A Review

No readings. Good luck next week!

Week 7: After the Fall

Tuesday, 10/23 

Midterm Examination

Thursday, 10/25: After Alexander the Accursed: Seleucids, Parthians, and Sogdians

1. "Chapter 3: A Zoroastrian Presence from Seleucia to Sistan: The Parthian Period" and "Chapter 5: The Zoroastrians of Central Asia," INTRODUCTION, pp. 65-98, 135-158.

Week 8: NO CLASS – FALL RECESS (10/27-11/4)

Week 9: The Religion of the Great Kings: Zoroastrianism and the Sasanians

 Tuesday, 11/6: Ērānshahr, the center of the world

1. "Chapter 4: Eranshahr. The Sasanian Center of the World," INTRODUCTION, pp. 99-134.

2. Williams, Alan. 1996. "Zoroastrians and Christians in Sasanian Iran." Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 78: 37-53.

3. Secunda, Shai. 2009. “Talmudic Text and Iranian Context: On the Development of Two Talmudic Narratives.” AJS Review 33: 45-69.

Thursday, 11/8: Towards a Zoroastrian Orthodoxy?

1. Shaked, Shaul. 1994. Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran. London: School for African and Oriental Studies.

2. Boyce, Mary. 1996. “On the Orthodoxy of Sasanian Zoroastrianism.” Bulletin for the School of Oriental and African Studies 59: 11-28.

3. Crone, Patricia. 1994. "Zoroastrian Communism." Comparative Studies in Society and History 36: 447-462.

Week 10:  The Beginning and the End: Cosmogony and Eschatology

Tuesday, 11/13: In the Beginning…

1. "Creation and the Divine World from the Pahlavi Texts." SPIRIT, pp. 75-112.

2. Kreyenbroek, Philip G. “Cosmogony and Cosmology i. in Zoroastrianism/Mazdaism,” – Encyclopedia Iranica.

3. Sheffield, Daniel J. 2009. "The Wizirgerd ī Dēnīg and the Evil Spirit: Questions of Authenticity in Post-Classical Zoroastrianism." Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 181-189.

Thursday 11/15: It's the End of the World as We Know It

1. "Eschatology and the End of the World." SPIRIT, pp. 157-174

2. Lincoln, Bruce. 1983. “The Earth Becomes Flat: A Study of Apocalyptic Imagery,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 25/1: 136-153.

3. Shaked, Shaul. “Eschatology, i. in Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian Influence,” – Encyclopedia Iranica.

Week 11: Sex and Gender in Zoroastrianism

Tuesday 11/20: Sex and Gender

1. Choksy, Jamsheed. 2002. Chapters 3 and 4 from Evil Good and Gender. New York: Peter Lang.

2. de Jong, Albert. 2003. “Women and Ritual in Medieval Zoroastrianism,” in The Fire Within: Jamshid Soroush Soroushian Memorial Volume II, eds. Carlo G. Cereti and Farrokh Vajifdar, pp. 147-162. New York: 1stbooks.

3. Gould, Ketayun. 1994. “Outside the Discipline, Inside the Experience: Women in Zoroastrianism.” In Religion and Women, ed. Arvind Sharma, pp. 139-182. Albany: SUNY Press.

Thursday, 11/22: No Class (Thanksgiving Recess)

Week 12: Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians after the Fall of the Sasanian Empire

Tuesday, 11/27: From Empire to Minority: Zoroastrianism in Iran

1. "Chapter 6: Gabr-Mahalle: Zoroastrians in Islamic Iran." INTRODUCTION, pp. 159-188.

2. Choksy, Jamsheed. 1997. Chapter 3 from Conflict and Cooperation: Zoroastrian Subalterns and Muslim Elites in Medieval Iranian Society. New York: Columbia University Press.

3. Sheffield, Daniel. 2012. "Miracles in the Age of Mixed Iron: Sacred Narratives of Zarathustra in Islamic Iran and the Notion of Syncretism in Zoroastrianism." Unpublished manuscript.

Thursday, 11/29: A Brave New World: the Rise of Indian Zoroastrianism

1. "Chapter 7: Parsipanu: Zoroastrianism in India." INTRODUCTION, pp. 189-216.

2. Williams, Alan. 2009. Chapters 1 and 5 from The Zoroastrian Myth of Migration from Iran and Settlement in the Indian Diaspora. Leiden: Brill.

Week 13: Colonialism and Diaspora

Tuesday, 12/4: "A Second Zarathustra:" The Parsis in British India 

1. Hinnells, John. 2008. "Changing Perceptions of Authority among Parsis in British India." In Parsis in India and the Diaspora (John Hinnells & Alan Williams, eds.), pp. 100-118. London: Routledge.

2. Sharafi, Mitra. 2008. "Judging Conversion to Zoroastrianism: Behind the Scenes of the Parsi Panchayat Case (1908)." In Parsis in India and the Diaspora (John Hinnells & Alan Williams, eds.), pp. 159-180. London: Routledge.

3. Luhrman, Tanya. 1996. Chapters 1-3 from The Good Parsi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thursday, 12/6: Zoroastrians in the World

1. Hinnells, John. 2005. Chapter, 1, 3, & 11 from The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2. Choksy, Jamsheed. 2006. "Despite Shāhs and Mollās: Minority Sociopolitics in Premodern and Modern Iran." Journal of Asian History 40: 129-184.

3. Patel, Dinyar. 2010. “Jaago/Bidaari: Rescuing Our Community from a Demographic Crisis.” Unpublished Manuscript presented at the 15th North American Zoroastrian Congress, 30 December, 2010.

Film Screening: Five Parsi Films, dir. Kaevan Umrigar.

Week 14: Zoroastrian Identity Today

Tuesday, 12/11: Life, the Zoroastrian Way

1. Mathur, Ashok. 2009.  A Little Distillery in Nowgong. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Thursday, 12/13: Bollywood Bawaji: A Film Screening

Film Screening: Little Zizou (2009), dir. Sooni Taraporewala.