University of Amsterdam
Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, Zend-Avesta, ouvrage de Zoroastre, vol. I (1771), title page (source)
In 1771, a French scholarly adventurer by the name of Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron shocked the Republic of Letters with his translation of Zend-Avesta, Ouvrage de Zoroastre. Published in three volumes with a long series of appendices and a book-length introduction about Anquetil’s travels in India, it offered the first known example of a monotheistic text with no direct relation to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
The shock was not that there was a Persian prophet called Zoroaster; his name had been known in Europe since antiquity. (Modern-day readers may know him as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Mozart’s Sarastro.) He had been portrayed as an ‘Eastern sage’ from Pico della Mirandola and Marsiliano Ficino to Jacob Brucker’s mid-18th century history of philosophy, and Hyde in Oxford already possessed an Avestan manuscript which had inspired Anquetil’s journey to India in the first place. The shock was that the Zend-Avesta was not a work of prisca theologia or philosophia perennis but a liturgy, at once strangely familiar and uncannily remote, written in a dead language that no one in Europe except Anquetil could read.
[Jean Calmette], [Guillaume de Sainte-Croix, ed.], Ezour-Védam ou Ancien commentaire du Védam (1778), title page (source)
Anquetil was duly attacked as a fraud. There was reason for scepticism, for the learned world was grappling with other hoaxes. It had been a mere decade since the Scottish crook MacPherson had won literary fame with his volumes of the songs of Ossian, the ‘Nordic Homer’ – and though MacPherson had been discredited and never showed the ‘old manuscripts’ that he had purportedly found in Scotland, he could still count Goethe and Napoleon among his admirers even after his death. Anquetil himself had been led astray, together with Voltaire, by manuscripts of a supposedly ‘Vedic’ text with Christian undertones, fabricated by a Jesuit missionary, which was published in 1778 as L’Ezour-Vedam: ou, Ancien commentaire du Vedam, contenant l’exposition des opinions religieuses & philosophiques des Indiens. The spectacular story of Anquetil’s oriental manuscript hunt, which included a duel, a flight through the jungle, and wheeling and dealing with the English and French in the middle of the Seven Years’ War, also raised eyebrows among more sedentary scholars.
The most malicious attack came from William Jones, then a budding young orientalist who had just finished a Persian grammar. In an anonymous Lettre à M. A*** du P***, he argued a) that Anquetil hardly knew enough modern Persian to communicate with his informants in Surat, and these Farsi priest themselves hardly understood the dead languages of their holy books (this was true); b) that Anquetil was an impolite and unreliable rascal (this was half-true); and c) that what he presented as the Zend-Avesta was too ‘absurd’, ‘tedious’, and ‘repetitive’ to be a genuine holy text. Read more ›