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108 | 2008
Annuaire du Collège de France 2007-2008
Résumé des cours et travaux 108e année
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The poetry of the Gathas: Mysteries of composition, and the composition of mysteries

Résumé des conférences du Collège de France (2007-2008)
Martin Schwartz
p. 925-927

Texte intégral

1The poetry of the Gathas: Mysteries of composition, and the composition of mysteries:

  1. Compositional techniques of the individual poems, and of the serial generation of the corpus

  2. The esoteric dimensions of gathic style.

2Like other early Indo-European poetries, the Gathas, in addition to and alongside their direct communicative aspect, are characterrized by a cryptic aspect of style, at once mystagogic and ludic. I shall illustrate the various devices which constitute this latter aspect — intentionally ambiguous syntax, morphology, and lexicon (word-play), and various cryptic uses of coded initial sounds — a kind of phonic cabbalism — as well as oral acrostics.

3I shall focus particularly on Yasna 32, bringing together my various insights about this amazing text, as it figures in the early histor yof Zoroastrianism, and and its general interest for cognitive issues.

4In my talk I shall summarize my discoveries about the composition of the Gathas — ring composition of first-stage (protopoems) and second-stage final poems, and serial generation of the corpus, from poem to poem (as indicated below).

5In addition I shall a new, and I hope somewhat astonishing demonstration of the teleological nature of the Gathic corpus. This will provide material for discussion of the question of the authorship of the Gathas. Subject to minor adjustments in translation, the following describes this new view of the gathas which I shall present.

6Yasna 53 is a wedding poem in the poet (stanzas 3-5) addresses the bride as “Pouruchista Haechataspana, the youngest of Zarathushtra’s daughters”, says that “he will give her (a benefactor) as

mate’ and states further, “I will entrust *her with the zeal whereby she

will attend to father, husband, pasturers, and family”.

7The formulation of the foregoing would ordinarily be thought dictated merely by the realia of the occasion at hand. However, I shall show that everything here (and most else in the poem) derives its wording from earlier poems in accordance with a very precise set of gamelike rules of composition. Beginning with the first poem in the corpus (demonstrably Yasna 29), every completed poem (in an order different from that of the present Gathic canon) contributes a set of two strings of words, whereby each poem gives, stanza by stanza in each direction , a series of words whose formal equivalents (i.e. identical forms or cognates or homonyms) enter the next poem, stanza by stanza, both backwards and forwards, with each new poem cumulatively bearing the word-strings of all the preceding poems. In addition, each poem had to be composed according to patterns of concentric ring composition. I have presented these principles and illustrated them with charts in The Bulletin of the Asia Institute, Volumes 16 and 17.

8Yasna 53, the last poem composed, thus contains the lexical strings of all the poems composed earlier (hence the irregular length of lines in Y53), which would obligatorily serve as the basic « vertical » word pool for the poem’s phraseology. Thus the contents summarized in my first paragraph above, including words quoted (and even the elements of the proper names), which refer to practicalities of a real wedding, recapitulate words used earlier in other poems in contexts which are theological/mythological and eschatological.

9The many odd, virtually labyrinthine, formal constraints which the Gathic poet imposed upon his compositions present us with new tools for the study of the relative chronology of his poems, for the lexicographical problems they pose, and for assessing the connection of his poetic with his religious thought. For a broader perspective on of what this all amounts to (and I confess feeling still too close to the data to have a desirable perspective), I look forward to the reactions and insights to be provided by the discussion.

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Cours et travaux du Collège de France. Annuaire 108e année, Collège de France, Paris, décembre 2008, p. 925-927. ISBN 978-2-7226-0082-9

Référence électronique

Martin Schwartz, « The poetry of the Gathas: Mysteries of composition, and the composition of mysteries », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 108 | 2008, mis en ligne le , consulté le 25 mai 2018. URL :

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Martin Schwartz

Professeur à l’université de Californie, Berkeley (Etats-Unis)

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Collège de France

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