Middle Persian literature

Middle Persian literature is the corpus of written works composed in Middle Persian, that is, the Middle Iranian dialect of Persia proper, the region in the south-western corner of the Iranian plateau. Middle Persian was the presrige dialect during the era of Sassanid dybnasty.

The rulers of the Sassanid Empire (224–654 CE) were natives of that south-western region, and through their political and cultural influence, Middle Persian became a prestige dialect and thus also came to be used by non-Persian Iranians. Following the Arab conquest of the Sassanian Empire in the 7th century, shortly after which Middle Persian began to evolve into New Persian, Middle Persian continued to be used by the Zoroastrian priesthood for religious and secular compositions. These compositions, in the Aramaic-derived Book Pahlavi script, are traditionally known as "Pahlavi literature". The earliest texts in Zoroastrian Middle Persian were probably written down in late Sassanid times (6th–7th centuries), although they represent the codification of earlier oral tradition.[1] However, most texts, including the zand commentaries and translations of the Zoroastrian canon, date from the 9th to the 11th century, when Middle Persian had long ceased to be a spoken language, so they reflect the state of affairs in living Middle Persian only indirectly. The surviving manuscripts are usually 14th-century copies.[2]

Other, less abundantly attested varieties of Middle Persian literature include the 'Manichaean Middle Persian' corpus, used for a sizable amount of Manichaean religious writings, including many theological texts, homilies and hymns (3rd–9th, possibly 13th century). Even less-well attested are the Middle Persian compositions of Nestorian Christians, evidenced in the Pahlavi Psalter (7th century); these were used until the beginning of the second millennium in many places in Central Asia, including Turfan (in present-day China) and even localities in Southern India.[3]


"Pahlavi" literature

"Pahlavi literature traditionally defines the writings of the Zoroastrians in the Middle Persian language and Book Pahlavi script which were compiled in the 9th and the 10th centuries CE."[4]

The literary corpus in Middle Persian in Book Pahlavi consists of:

These divisions are not mutually exclusive. Several different literary genres are represented in Pahlavi literature.

Zand texts

The zand corpus include exegetical glosses, paraphrases, commentaries and translations of the Avesta's texts. Although such exegetical commentaries also exist in other languages (including Avestan itself), the Middle Persian zand is the only to survive fully, and is for this reason regarded as 'the' zand.[5]

With the notable exception of the Yashts, almost all surviving Avestan texts have their Middle Persian zand, which in some manuscripts appear alongside (or interleaved with) the text being glossed. These glosses and commentaries were not intended for use as theological texts by themselves but for religious instruction of the (by then) non-Avestan-speaking public. In contrast, the Avestan language texts remained sacrosanct and continued to be recited in the Avestan language, which was considered a sacred language.

Other exegetical works

The corpus of medieval texts of Zoroastrian tradition include around 75 works, of which only a few are well known:

Secular compositions

A manuscript known as the "miscellaneous codex" or MK (after Mihraban Kaykhusrow, the Indian Zoroastrian copyist who created it), dated to 1322 but containing older material, is the only surviving source of several secular Middle Persian works from the Sassanian period. Among the texts included in the unique MK are:

Especially important to cultural and law historians is the Madayan i Hazar Dadestan, "Book of a Thousand Judgements", a 7th-century compilation of actual and hypothetical case histories collected from Sassanian court records and transcripts. Only a single manuscript of this unique text survives.

Scribes also created several glossaries for translating foreign languages. Of these, two have survived:

Several other works, now lost, are known of from references to them in other languages. Works of this group include:


  1. Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 141. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  2. "Linguist List - Description of Pehlevi". Detroit: Eastern Michigan University. 2007.
  3. Sundermann, Werner. 1989. Mittelpersisch. P. 138. In Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (ed. Rüdiger Schmidt).
  4. Cereti, C. G. (2009), "Middle Persian literature I: Pahlavi Literature", Encyclopedia Iranica, New York: iranicaonline.org, accessed August 2010
  5. 1 2 3 Boyce, Mary (1984), Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, Manchester UP.

Full texts

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