Scholar of ancient and medieval Iran and author of a multi-volume ‘History of Zoroastrianism’
Nora Elizabeth Mary Boyce, Iranian scholar: born Darjeeling, India 2 August 1920; Assistant Lecturer in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Archaeology, Royal Holloway College, London University 1944-46; Lecturer in Iranian Studies, Soas 1947-58, Reader 1958-62, Professor 1963-82 (Emerita); died London 4 April 2006.
Mary Boyce was one of the world’s greatest scholars of ancient and medieval Iran. Her house in Highgate, north London, where she received colleagues and students, was filled not only with books and articles by scholars of Zoroastrianism, but also with memories of them. Since her physical condition prevented her from travelling, they all came to her, to be treated to long and passionate discussions and to black tea with dates from Kerman, brought by a friend from Iran, and Parsee shortbread offered by visiting Zoroastrians from India.
Boyce was born in Darjeeling in 1920, but had only faint memories of India, since she left the country as a young child and was never able to go back. As is almost customary, she came to Iranian studies more or less by accident. As a young assistant lecturer in Anglo-Saxon literature at Royal Holloway College, London, she took up the study of Persian at Soas and so became acquainted also with the brilliant Iranist Walter Bruno Henning. Like many of her later colleagues, she came under his spell.
She joined the staff of Soas as a Lecturer in Iranian Studies in 1947. Her first research was on Manichaean texts, leading to a Cambridge doctorate in 1952 (her thesis was published as Manichaean Hymn-Cycles in Parthian, 1954). This was one of Henning’s special areas of expertise and she contributed an important text edition and valuable reference works on that late antique and medieval religion.
Then she turned to the one subject Henning had rarely worked on: Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran and one of the few religions of the ancient world to have survived to the present. At that time, the study of Zoroastrianism, though once a valued and thriving academic discipline, was in disarray. The perspectives offered on the religion, gained chiefly by reading difficult ancient and medieval texts, diverged widely and the fact that there was a living religion to be studied, in Iran and India, was seen, if considered at all, as a mere curiosity that would not last much longer.
Boyce’s fieldwork among such a living community, the Zoroastrians of Sharifabad near the city of Yazd in Central Iran, in 1963 and 1964, departed from the approaches that were current thus far in a number of important ways. The most obvious change was her awareness that the Western academic study of Zoroastrianism had made a critical mistake in believing that Zoroastrianism could be understood only on the basis of its literature and that this literature should be studied with the well-established instruments of philology only.
What Boyce witnessed among these Iranian Zoroastrians was a whole world of priestly and lay rituals and observances, beloved festivals and rites of devotion, that were of much greater significance to them than anyone had realised previously. What is more, the enormous upheavals in the religious history of Iran, especially the advent of Islam, were only dimly reflected in the religious lives of these Zoroastrians, although they often made themselves cruelly known in their daily affairs.
This led her to suspect a much greater continuity in the religion, especially in its central ideas and in its ritual and devotional life, than previous scholars had been willing to consider possible. The results of her work with the Iranian Zoroastrians were presented when she gave the Ratanbai Katrak Lectures in Oxford in 1975. The publication of these lectures in 1977 (under the title A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism) earned her worldwide praise.
Also in 1975, she published the first volume of A History of Zoroastrianism, in which she traced the early history of the religion, not only by focusing on the earliest texts, but also by reconstructing the ways in which these early texts could have led to later varieties of the religion and how the later tradition could, by reasoned speculation, cast light on obscure points in the early literature. She was one of the main scholars to advocate with the full force of her authority an early date for Zarathustra, the founder of the religion (which has by now been commonly adopted), and she was a pioneer in pressing the importance of the fact that Zoroastrianism had been, for the first half of its 3,000-year existence, an oral tradition.
Such an innovative approach should be expected to spark controversy, but this, while certainly not lacking, mainly concerned points of detail. The central features of her views on Zoroastrian history, in fact, remain largely uncontested to the present day.
In the early Sixties, a spinal operation had resulted in severe physical problems that prevented her from leading a normal academic life and from travelling to the centres of Zoroastrianism. She compensated for this by her close collaboration with Parsee priests, especially Dastur F.M. Kotwal of Bombay, who was her student, one of her closest friends and an inexhaustible source of learning and information on priestly matters. She was a demanding and inspiring teacher, an incisive critic, and very generous in helping other, younger, scholars refine their arguments.
Mary Boyce took early retirement from the chair of Iranian Studies at Soas in 1982, but continued working and producing books and many articles. Since it was impossible for her to sit behind a desk, she wrote most of her many works by hand, lying on a couch. Until a very advanced age, she kept working in London during the academic term, while spending the rest of the year with her brother in Somerset. As long as her health permitted, she immensely enjoyed gardening.
She wrote thousands of letters to colleagues and friends. The last years of her life were devoted to the fourth volume of A History of Zoroastrianism, which will cover the Parthians, who ruled Iran for five centuries around the beginning of the common era. Only the sketchiest of overviews of the subject exists and one can only regret that she could not finish the book herself, but she has largely written it and, once published, it is destined to open yet another entirely new perspective on the history of Iran, and of Zoroastrianism.
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