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Welcome and presentation to the first ever MOOC on Zoroastrianism and the course educators.
My name is Sarah Stewart and I hold the SOAS Shapoorji Pallonji Senior Lectureship in the Department of History, Religions and Philosophies. My principal area of research is the Zoroastrian living tradition, both in Iran and India, and the related subject area of oral traditions. My most recent project has been an interview-based survey of the Zoroastrian community in Iran since the revolution of 1979. Now I’d like to introduce my colleague, Dr. Céline Redard, who’s going to teach the fourth and final week of this course on the Avestan language. - Like Sarah I am attached to the Department of History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS, where I work as a researcher for the Multimedia Yasna project.
My area of specialty is Zoroastrianism, with a focus on the text and especially the one written in Avestan. I have recently published an introduction to Young Avestan, co-written with Alberto Cantera. - I’ve based the course on an exhibition, The Everlasting Flame, Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. It was held in the Brunei gallery in SOAS in 2013, and then again in the National Museum in Delhi in 2016. The exhibition took visitors on a visual journey through 10 sections or stories dedicated to different aspects of the history and culture of Zoroastrianism.
So in designing this course I decided to draw on the rich repository of artefacts, paintings, texts, and audio materials from the exhibition to help you to learn about Zoroastrianism via the method of storytelling that’s favoured by FutureLearn as a means by which to learn to absorb the information. - To complete this short journey the fourth week will be dedicated to the Avestan language in which most of the current ritual Zoroastrian texts are written. Thus, a short introduction to Avestan completes perfectly this course. You will learn the Avestan alphabet and some basic principles of the language. It will enable you to understand, for example, srīrō ahi, zaraϑuštra. You are beautiful, O Zarathushtra. I’m looking forward to meeting you in three weeks.
So you might wonder why we think it’s important that this subject continues to be taught when its followers number less than 130,000 in the world today. And if I had to give one reason it would be the extraordinary influence that Zoroastrianism has had on religious thought, whether it be Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, its reach across vast swathes of the ancient world, and its impact on the shaping of modern communities in the diaspora today.

We’re delighted that you’re joining us on this course Zoroastrianism: History, Religion and Belief. Perhaps you are new to Zoroastrianism and know nothing about it, or maybe you are familiar with it but want to know more – anyway, we’ll soon find out.

My name is Sarah Stewart and you will be with me for the first three weeks as we explore the history and key elements of the Zoroastrian religion. You will learn via a variety of different media including visual content from the exhibition: The Everlasting Flame, Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. [1] Watch the video to get a glimpse of some of the remarkable exhibits on display:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

By the time we reach Step 1.4, we’ll start putting in place the building blocks needed to explore the various topics we want to cover. I will introduce you to some of the Zoroastrian religious texts and the concept of oral transmission. We will discuss the idea of Zarathushtra as the founder of the faith, his teachings about truth, good and evil, creation and life after death.

Wherever possible, I will take you to a primary source, i.e. a source that provides first hand evidence or derives from the time period under discussion. For example, the miracles surrounding Zarathushtra’s birth that first appear in the Pahlavi texts of the ninth century CE. You may find these difficult at first but don’t worry, it will all begin to make sense. It will also give you an insight into the ancient Avestan language and help you to prepare for the final week with Céline Redard.

For those of you who are already familiar with Zoroastrian texts, stay with me during this revision, it is the foundation on which we will build our further learning.

NB We have included a short reading list (for those who may be interested) as a pdf at the end of Step 4.17.

In future weeks we will cover:

Week 2: we will begin week 2 with a short video that outlines the central act of priestly worship, the Yasna. We will go on to look at some of the major historical events in Zoroastrian history, from its early beginnings in Central Asia through to becoming the foremost religion of three great Persian empires. We will also look at the central theme of fire in Zoroastrianism.

Week 3: we will look at the migration of Zoroastrians from Iran to India and the rise of Parsi entrepreneurs and philanthropists. We will also consider the living faith and how it is practised as well as some of the challenges faced by Zoroastrians today.

In weeks 2 and 3 we will draw on the myths and legends from epic Persian literature as well as the religious texts. We will use material from the exhibition to help you visualise some historical episodes. We will share a short video that looks at the lives of Zoroastrians in contemporary Iran.

Week 4: In week 4, Céline will introduce you to the ancient Avestan language of Zoroastrianism, you will learn the alphabet and some simple sentence structures in this beautiful script.

I will start each week with an overview, or summary, of the period to be covered. We can then examine certain themes and topics in more detail in the steps that follow.

[1] I am grateful to the co-curators of the exhibition for helping to determine its content and the co-editors of the Everlasting Flame Catalogue for their contributions (see Acknowledgements at the end of step 4.18).

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