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Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity And Constant Vigor
Emeritus Professor Mary Boyce

Book Review

Mehrborzin Soroushian


General Information:
Mazda Publishers, 1992
P.O. Box 2603, 
Costa Mesa, Ca 92626 

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Mary Boyce



The Author: Mary Boyce, Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies, now in retirement from her professional life of research and teaching at the University of London, School of Oriental Studies is a recognized name when it comes to Zarathushtrian Studies in recent times.   She was born in the second decade of the 20th century, and spent part of her early life in Colonial India, where her father was stationed as a British civil administrator for India.  Her sojourn in India and her contacts there seem to have aroused her interest in pursuing ancient Iranian studies.   Mary Boyce received her Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Cambridge University in 1945. A university association enabled her to research Manichaeism, an offshoot of Zarathushtrianism.   With her appointment at the University of London School of Oriental studies, first as a lecturer in 1947 and subsequently as a Professor in 1963, Mary Boyce concentrated her subsequent work on the study of Zarathushtrianism and its influence on other religions. 

Establishing a network of contacts with Zartoshties in Iran, India and elsewhere, and spending considerable time with them, Mary Boyce adapted a unique approach to her research into Zarathushtrianism.   Rather than concentrating on the studies of the Gathas, the poetic compositions of prophet Zarathushtra, she chose to focus on the analysis of the rituals and the traditions of the living Zartoshties as a key to deciphering the secret of the ancient religion.   In the course of her professional life Professor Boyce has produced an commendable amount of literature that has helped further our understanding of the evolution of the Zarathushtrian religion since its inception.   Although her approach to the study of the religion of Zarathushtra emphasizing rituals rather than the philosophical dimension of the faith has raised some eyebrows, her long life of professional dedication to the study of the religion of Zarathushtra has been of great significance, and her painstaking attention to uncovering the fine details of the Zarathushtrian traditions over the ages has done much to  produce a comprehensive picture of the world’s longest surviving religion. 

The Book: Dr. Ehsan Yarshater, professor Emeritus of Iranian studies at Columbia university, serving as the general editor for the book, had the following to say.  “Zoroastrianism was the official faith of ancient Iranians and is still professed by Zoroastrian communities in Persia, India, Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere around the world.  For centuries it symbolized the Iranian ethos, embodying its social, political, and spiritual values, and thus affording coherence and stability for Iranian society.  Despite the glories of art and literature produced by the Iranian people, the Zoroastrian religion must be acknowledged as their greatest cultural and spiritual achievement.”  Professor Yarshater goes on to describe the purpose of the book as follows.  “The present work originated in a set of lectures in the Columbia lecture Series in Iranian studies, which Professor Mary Boyce, a leading authority on the Zoroastrian faith and its traditions, delivered in 1988.” 

In the preface to the book, Professor Boyce makes the following observation.  “The book’s title is in part an adaptation of Cardinal Newman’s dictum that one indication of the validity of a religion is its “chronic vigor”.  He was speaking of Christianity, for which it is often claimed that it and Judaism are the only survivors from among the many religions of the Near East in Roman Imperial times.  But Zoroastrianism,  which was old before Christianity was born, also still exists today, and the present work is in part an attempt to account for its remarkable longevity and strength.”  

The nine chapters of the book cover topics such as the time of Zarathushtra, the ancient roots of Zoroastrianism, the teachings of Zarathushtra, the founding of Zoroastrian community, the spread and development of Zoroastrianism, the religion of empires to its fall under Islamic rule, and ends in a chapter entitled “Fidelity and Endurance”.  Professor Boyce covers a lot of material that makes for a crash course in the history and evolution of the Zarathushtrian community from times ancient to present under changing circumstances.   

The book seeks to establish that Zoroaster, the great Iranian prophet founded his religion about 1200 B.C., and that 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 in the book, that the followers of Zoroastrianism remained faithful to their prophet’s teachings, whose strength and vigor have enabled the ancient faith to survive into the 3rd millennium A.C.    

Professor Boyce dedicates the book to the memory of Delphine Menant who in the words of Mary Boyce “--- studied the Zoroastrians with learning, respect and affection as bearers of an ancient and still living faith”. 

In summary, the book “Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigor” can serve as a concise reference book on history and evolution of the Zarathushtrian religion to the present day.