Zoroastrianism. Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour

Availability: Out of Print
Published: 1992
Page #: xiv + 204
Size: 6 x 9
ISBN: 0-939214-90-3, ISBN 13:978-0939214907
bibliography, index, notes

Quick Overview

This book seeks to establish that Zoroaster, the great Iranian prophet, founded his religion about 1200 B.C. It flourished thereafter as the faith of empires, and sank to that of a bitterly persecuted minority. But through all changes of fortunes, it is argued here, his followers remained faithful to their prophet’s teachings, whose strength and vigour have enabled this ancient faith to be still living in the twentieth century.


Mary Boyce


Chapter I. Zoroaster’s Supposed Time and Homeland: A Confusion of Fabrications

Chapter II. Zoroaster’s Actual Time and Homeland

Chapter III. The Ancient Roots of Zoroastrianism

Chapter IV. Zoroaster’s Teachings: Inherited Beliefs and New Doctrines

Chapter V. The Founding of the Zoroastrian Community

Chapter VI. The Spread and Development of Zoroastrianism in the Young Avestan Period

Chapter VII. The Religion of Empires

Chapter VIII. The Faith Under Islamic Rule

Chapter IX. Fidelity and Endurance

Select Bibliography

General Index

A PIONEER teacher and researcher of the ancient civilisations of Iran and Central Asia, Mary Boyce concentrated especially on the manuscript fragments of Manichaean scriptures from Turfan in north-west China, and later on the history of the Zoroastrian religion, surveyed in her monumental History of Zoroastrianism.

Boyce was a disciple of the inspirational scholar Walter B. Henning, who had moved to England from Germany in 1936 for the sake of his Jewish wife Maria Polotsky (later to become a close friend) and returned to Cambridge in 1946 to extend his work on her PhD thesis on the Manichaean hymn-cycles in Parthian. Henning had been allowed to bring with him photographs of the manuscript fragments in Berlin, which shed light on the little-known Manichaean religion, and showed Middle Iranian languages, such as Parthian and Sassanian Middle Persian, in a clear phonetic script, rather than the complicated writing-system of Zoroastrian Pahlavi.

Mary Boyce was born in 1920 in Darjeeling, India. Her father was a judge in the Indian Civil Service, and her mother was the granddaughter of the historian, Samuel Rawson Gardiner. She was educated at Wimbledon High School and at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. In 1940, after Land Army work, she went up to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read English for Part I of the Tripos, Archaeology and Anthropology for Part II, obtaining a double first.

In 1944 she was appointed assistant lecturer in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Archaeology at Royal Holloway College (University of London), but continued to study Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and also took up ancient Iranian languages. After returning to Cambridge for her PhD, she was appointed in 1947 to the newly established lectureship in Iranian Studies at SOAS, and then prepared, at Henning’s suggestion, a catalogue of the Iranian manuscripts in Manichaean script in the German Turfan Collection (1960). To complete this, she went to Hamburg and Berlin to check the originals, and helped to rearrange the fragments. In 1958 she was appointed Reader in Iranian Studies at SOAS.

In 1951 the International Congress of Orientalists had called for a foundation to record the historical inscriptions of Iran, and in 1952 Henning visited Iran to investigate the task. The Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum was registered as a charity and Boyce became its first secretary and treasurer, a position she held for ten years. She also served for many years on the Council of the Royal Asiatic Society, and on the editorial board of Asia Major. After Henning’s move to Berkeley in 1962, Boyce was appointed Professor of Iranian Studies. Despite a recent painful back injury, she travelled overland to Iran to spend almost a year among the Zoroastrian villagers. Studies of living Zoroastrianism had previously been based on the Parsi communties of Bombay and Gujarat, but it was likely that the humbler “Irani” communities of Kerman and Yazd could have adhered more closely to the ancestral traditions. To study and help to preserve this heritage was the object of Mary Boyce’s residence at the village of Sharifabad, near Yazd.

Her main presentation of this fieldwork was in her Ratanbai Katrak Lectures at Oxford in 1975 which she expanded into A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism (1977). Her work was judged worthy by the Royal Asiatic Society of their Burton Memorial Medal (1972). This was followed in 1985 by the award of the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.

The visit also inspired her continuing interest in the Zoroastrian faith. No doubt the most important of her many writings were the three volumes of her monumental History of Zoroastrianism (Leiden 1975, 1982 and 1994), which examines the history of ancient Iran from a religious viewpoint. Despite persistent back trouble she spent five months in 1976-77 as Visiting Paton Professor at the University of Indiana. In 1975 she was elected an honorary member of the American Oriental Society, and then in 1978 to the Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.

To succeed a genius such as Henning had been a signal honour and a demanding responsibility. A devoted pupil of that formidable scholar — she was joint editor of his Memorial Volume (London 1970) — she could balance his dazzling incisiveness with breadth of interest and vision, and a warm humanity that gave support to even the most diffident student, and indeed colleague and friend. The crisp literary style of her results enabled readers in many fields to understand, and enjoy her arguments.

She was a devoted gardener when other responsibilities permitted and also a lover of birds.
Professor Mary Boyce, scholar in Iranian studies, was born on August 2, 1920. She died on April 4, 2006, aged 85.
Source: “The Sunday Times,” April 13, 2006.

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