George Thompson thompson at JLC.NET
Mon Jun 14 18:02:05 UTC 1999

While it is true that *zarathuStra* is generally understood as 'possessing
old camels' [e.g., by Kellens & Pirart in their edition of the Old Avestan
texts], others [notably Humbach in his edition and Mayrhofer in his volume
on Old Iranian names] have continued to express reservations against this

The problem is that the theta in the name Zarathustra is assumed to have
replaced the t with tilde underneath:

zarath - uStra  < zarat~ -uStra

As Humbach argues, the transformation from -th- to -t~- is expected in Late
Avestan but *not* in early Avestan. Humbach speculates that the name of the
prophet may indicate dialect mixture in Old Avestan texts, and the presence
of another Iranian dialect distinct from Old Avestan which may well have
been Z's 'mother tongue.'

So, it seems that the interpretation of Zarathustra's name remains open.
Humbach suggests three possibilities, which briefly are:

1. possessing old camels

2. possessing yellow camels [cf. Avest. *zairi* = Skt. *hari*]

3. possessing furious camels [Avest. zar- = Skt. hR- [hRNIte], to be angry]

As for Ahura MazdA, *mazdA* of course corresponds to Skt. *medhA'*, both
meaning 'wisdom'. However, the folk etymology, Ahura MAyA, for Ahura MazdA,
caught my eye, because in fact the word *mAiiA* is attested in Avestan,
with the same meaning as Skt *mAyA'*. It occurs only once [in Z's Gathas],
and it is directly associated with Vohu Manah, 'Good Mind', while MazdA
occurs in the previous line [though not Ahura].

So I take the folk etymology, Ahura MazdA = Ahura MAyA, as a response to
Vedic associations between the words *a'sura* and *mAyA'* [fairly common].
And there is the possibility that the same or similar association was made
in Avestan [this cannot be claimed for sure because the term unfortunately
occurs only once].

In any case, one point may be worth the list's attention: the concept of
mAyA seems by no means to be a unique development of the South Asian
culture area. The Vedic Aryans appear to have brought this idea with them
as an inheritance from the common Indo-Iranian period. That at least
appears to be suggested by the evidence, as I see it. Likewise for the
culture concept mantra, for example, which is as deeply rooted in Avestan
as it is in Vedic.

Also, I do not think that Avestan words should be viewed as 'mleccha'
words, as was recently I think implied. From the point of view of the
Rgveda at least, this is not true at all. The associations between Old
Avestan and RV are pervasive and deep.

George Thompson

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list