Amesha Spenta (Aməša Spənta) is an Avestan language term for a class of divine entities in Zoroastrianism and literally means “Immortal (which is) holy”[n 1] The name Later Middle Persian variations of the term include the contraction ‘Ameshaspand’ as well as the specifically Zoroastrian ‘Mahraspand’ and ‘Amahraspand’.
Significantly more common than the non-specific meaning of Amesha Spenta (see below) is a restrictive use of the term to refer to the great six “divine sparks” of Ahura Mazda. In Zoroastrian tradition, these are the first six emanations of the noncreated Creator, through whom all subsequent creation was accomplished. This fundamental doctrine is only alluded to in the Avesta, but is systematically described in later middle Persian language texts, in particular in the Bundahishn (3.12), an 11th or 12th century work that recounts the Zoroastrian view of creation.
The expression “Amesha Spenta” does not occur in the Gathas, but “it was probably coined by Zoroaster himself. Spenta is a characteristic word of his revelation, meaning ‘furthering, strengthening, bounteous, holy’.”[n 1] The oldest attested use of the term is in Yasna 39.3, which is part of theYasna Haptanghaiti and in which the two elements of the name occur in reverse order, that is, as Spenta Amesha. Like all other verses of the Yasna Haptanghaiti, Yasna 39.3 is also in Gathic Avestan and is approximately as old as the hymns attributed to Zoroaster himself.
The “divine sparks” that appear in the Gathic Yasna 47.1 are:
- [Vohu] Manah, approximately meaning “[Good] Purpose”
- Aša [Vahišta], “[Best] Truth/Righteousness”
- Xšaθra [Vairya], “[Desirable] Dominion”
- [Spənta] Armaiti, “[Holy] Devotion”
- Haurvatāt, “Wholeness”
- Amərətāt, “Immortality”
The attributes vohu “good”, vahišta “best”, vairya “desirable” and spenta “holy” are not always present in the oldest texts. If they appear at all, they do not necessarily appear immediately adjacent to the noun.[n 2] But in later tradition, these adjectives are integral to the names themselves.
While Vohu Manah, Aša Vahišta, and Xšaθra Vairya are consistently of neuter gender in Avestan grammar; in tradition they are considered masculine. Armaiti, Haurvatāt, and Amərətāt are invariably feminine.
In the Gathas, each Amesha Spenta represents a good moral quality that mortals should strive to obtain. Thus, the doctrine of the great six is that through good thoughts, words, and deeds, each individual should endeavor to assimilate the qualities of an Amesha Spenta into oneself.
Each of the six has an antithetical counterpart, and four of the six are already assigned one in the Gathas: aša/arta- is opposed to the druj-, vohu-manah is opposed to aka-manah-, xšaθra- to dušae-xšaθra-, and armaiti- to taraemaiti-. Not evident in the Gathas and first appearing in the Younger Avesta (e.g. Yasht 19.96) are the oppositions of haurvatāt- “wholeness” to taršna- “thirst”, and amərətāt- “life” to šud- “hunger.” These latter assignments reflect Haurvatat’s identification with water and Ameretat’s identification with plants.
In the Gathas, aša/arta is the most evident of the six, and also the most commonly associated with wisdom (mazda-). In the 238 verses of these hymns, aša-/arta- appears 157 times. Of the other concepts, only vohumanah- appears nearly as often (136 occurrences). In comparison, the remaining four of the great sextet appear only 121 times altogether: xšaθra-: 56 times; armaiti-: 40; amərətāt-: 14; haurvatāt-: 11 times.
In the context of Zoroastrian view of creation, the group of the Amesha Spenta is extended to include Ahura Mazda, together with (or represented by) Spenta Mainyu. However, in most scholastic texts, an unqualified referral to the “Amesha Spenta” is usually understood to include only great six. In Yasna 44.7, 31.3, and 51.7, Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu is the instrument or “active principle” of the act of creation. It is also through this “Bounteous Force”, “Creative Emanation”, or “Holy Spirit” that Ahura Mazda is immanent in humankind (Yasna 33.6), and how the Creator interacts with the world (Yasna 43.6).
The doctrine also has a physical dimension, in that each of the heptad is linked to one of the seven creations, which in ancient philosophy were the foundation of the universe. These physical associations are only alluded to in the Gathas, and then so subtly that they are usually lost in translation.
A systematic association is only present in later middle Persian texts, where each of the seven is listed with its “special domain”:
- Ahura Mazda → Middle Persian Ohrmazd (NP Hōrmuzd) is the only God.
- Vohu Manah → MP: Wahman (NP Bahman) of cattle (and all animal creation)
- Aša Vahišta → MP: Ardwahišt (NP Urdībihišt) of fire (and all other luminaries)
- Xšaθra Vairya → MP: Šahrewar, of metals (and minerals)
- Spənta Ārmaiti → MP: Spandarmad, of earth
- Haurvatāt → MP: Hordād (NP Xurdād) of water
- Amərətāt → MP: Amurdād (NP Murdād) of plants
In the Gathas, Xšaθra [Vairya] does not have an association with a specific creation, and it is only in later texts that this Amesha Spenta is considered the guardian of metals. This anomaly is explained in modern scholarship by the fact that, in Stone Age cosmogony, the sky was considered to be the first of the creations (and thought to be of stone), but metal has no place among the creations (the bronze and Iron Ages were yet to come). This is also reflected in Zoroaster’s revelation, where the sky is “of the hardest stone” (Yasna 30.5). Later, with the event of bronze and then iron tools, this sky evolved to being of crystal, which was seen as both of stone and of metal (Yasht 13.2). In due course, Xšaθra’s association with a stony firmament was eclipsed by the association with a metallic sky, and thence to metals in general.