Witches, Whores, and Sorcerers: The Concept of Evil in Early lran.

AuthorVevaina, Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw
PositionBook review

Witches, Whores, and Sorcerers: The Concept of Evil in Early Iran. By S. K. MENDOZA FORREST. Austin: UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS, 2011. Pp. x + 231.

This first book by the author is also the first sustained treatment of "evil" in early Iran. The cited textual passages from the Avesta and Pahlavi literature are based on new translations provided by Prods Oktor Skjwrvo, the author's (and present reviewer's) doctoral advisor. Many of these passages receive the first contemporary English translations in decades ensuring that the book will remain a scholarly resource for years to come.

The book contains a foreword by Skjwrvo, an introduction, eleven chapters, and a conclusion. In her introduction, Mendoza Forrest states her desire to be descriptive rather than prescriptive: "It is our task to observe, not judge," and she claims that "It is precisely when addressing the subject of the female that the ambiguity of evil in Iran is revealed" (p. 1). In her introductory discussions of "religion" and "magic," Forrest Mendoza provides a four-part definition: 1) "Magic consists of words and rites meant to produce a desired result by the coercion or supplication of forces beyond the realm of humans."2) The realm of magic is predominantly practical, because the use of magic usually has a goal, especially for the aim of suppressing disease, misfortunes, and evil beings. This can be opposed to simple praise and prayer, which are also features of the Avesta. 3) Magical rituals are usually private or secret and carried out by specialists in nonpublic settings. The manthras (mantras in Sanskrit), or spells, to use a broad, although loaded term, are passed down through a line of priests thought to be akin somehow to Zarathustra. 4) "Magic revolves around a mantra or spell that uses special language and quite often contains mythological allusions. It is often simply the use of words from the Gallas, which, by their antiquity, have acquired sacred status" (p. 3). She also provides a tripartite typology of evildoers in the Avesta, namely, unseen demons, those practicing black magic, and those in opposing sects and religions (p. 4).

In chapter one, "The Study of an Ancient Tradition," she discusses the much-debated question of the relationship of the Gatha's to the rest of the Avesta and the fact that magic and myth were often dismissed in older scholarship as not being a part of the prophet Zarathustra's ethical, rational, and anti-ritualistic reform (p. 11).


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