an ethnonym, like Old Persian ariya- and Avestan airya-, meaning “Aryan” or “Iranian.”


ĒR, ĒR MAZDĒSN (Inscr. Mid. Pers. ēr [ʾyly], plur. ērān [ʾylʾn, ʾyrʾn]), an ethnonym, like Old Persian ariya- and Avestan airya-, meaning “Aryan” or “Iranian.” There are no sufficient reasons to distinguish sing. ēr semantically from plur. ērān, the ethnic reference of which is indisputable. The translation of Middle Persian inscription ēr as “noble” is therefore untenable (Gignoux, 1972, p. 18; Gnoli, 1986; Gignoux, 1990, p. 46). Middle Persian ēr may derive from an Old Iranian epenthetic form, such as Av. airya-; in the lexicon of the religious and political propaganda of the Sasanians other cases occur, possibly due to the influence of the Avestan tradition (Gnoli, 1989, pp. 148 ff.).

Ēr appears in Šāpūr’s inscription at the Kaʿba-ye Zardošt (ŠKZ, Mid. Pers. l. 24; Back, p. 334). In the Parthian text ʾry and ʾryʾn are the forms corresponding to the Middle Persian ones. In the Greek text, besides the gen. plur. Arianôn, there is the sing. form Arian, which seems to represent, without translating it, an Iranian term (ŠKZ, Gk. l. 42; Back, p. 334), as it is the case with ethnonyms and titles: likewise, in Sasanian inscriptions, Greek Arianôn éthnos corresponds to Middle Persian ʾyrʾnštr and to Parthian ʾryʾnḥštr “land of Eran.”

In this inscription and on some coins of Bahrām II (Lukonin, 1969, pp. 104, 177; 1979, pp. 39, 92 n. 4, 116), Middle Persian ēr precedes mazdēsn (mzdysn) or māzdēsn “Mazdean” (cf. Man. Mid. Pers. mʾzdys, Pahl. mʾzdysn, and Av. māzdayasna-/ni- [adj.] “belonging to the Mazda-worshipers,” and Av. mazdayasna- “Mazda-worshipers”; AirWb. 1160 and 1169), according to a formulaic use of Sasanian propaganda, which connected “Iranian” and “Mazdean” almost as if they were royal titles (the prince Narseh in Šāpūr’s inscription and the sovereign Bahrām II on his coins). On Sasanian coins, however, ēr rarely occurs; the most common formula, in fact, omits ʾyly in front of mzdysn, because its normal reference to the Erān (and Anērān) sovereigns made it unnecessary (Gnoli, 1989, p. 144).

The similarity of Pahlavi ēr (ʾyl) to Pahlavi ēr (ʾdl) “down, below; low; under” (MacKenzie, 1971, p. 30), made possible by the lexical collisions caused by Pahlavi writing, suggested a false etymology giving the ethnic name a moral signification, “humble,” well suited to those who were subjects of the legitimate sovereigns, as we read in the Letter of Tansar (Boyce, 1968, p. 52; Gnoli, 1985, p. 331).



M. Back, Die sassanidischen Staatsinschriften, Acta Iranica 18, Tehran and Liège, 1978.

E. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indoeuropéennes, 2 vols., Paris, 1969.

M. Boyce, The Letter of Tansar, Rome, 1968.

Ph. Gignoux, Glossaire des inscriptions pehlevies et parthes, London, 1972.

Idem, review of Gnoli, 1989, Abstracta Iranica 13, 1990, p. 46 no. 184.

G. Gnoli, “Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, Ibn Isfandiyār e il nome dell’ Iran nella ‘Lettera di Tansar,’” Studi arabo-islamici in onore di Roberto Rubinacci, Napoli, 1985 [1988], pp. 327-34.

Idem, “Mittelpersisch ēr ‘Iranier,’” in R. Schmitt and P. O. Skjærvø, eds., Studia Grammatica Iranica: Festschrift für Helmut Humbach, München, 1986, pp. 115-24.

Idem, “Ēr mazdēsn: Zum Begriff Iran und seiner Entstehung im 3. Jahrhundert,” in Transition Periods in Iranian History, Studia Iranica, Cahier 5, Paris, 1987, pp. 83-100.

Idem, The Idea of Iran: An Essay on its Origin, Rome, 1989.

V. G. Lukonin, Kul’tura sasanidskogo Irana, Moscow, 1969.

Idem, Iran v III veke, Moscow, 1979.

D. N. MacKenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary, Oxford, 1971.

(Gherardo Gnoli)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: December 15, 2011

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Vol. VIII, Fasc. 5, p. 533