Avestan "bawra" = beaver or otter?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Treaty, Mar 11, 2013.

  1. Treaty Senior Member


    In Avestan (Aban yasht 30:129) for describing Anahiti, it says she wore a garment made of bawra fur. This word appears in Menog-i-khrad (also as Pahl. water baprak) as a sacred animal killing of whom is a great sin. Originally meaning brown, Bawra is a root-cognate of beaver, as it is translated as beaver in English and Persian Avestas.Two problems are here:

    First, it seems beaver had never lived in (greater Iran). Its habitat is more in Northern steps. Therefore, such a command "not to kill it" is out f place.
    Second, Iranians were familiar with beaver's castoreum, calling it in NPers gond-e-bidester. This indicates that they have probably seen the animal.

    Considering the Zoroasterian zoology was not a big deal, can the original bawra in Avesta mean "otter" (considering its "brown" skin is more valuable)? And later Iranian have confused it when seeing beavers (with its so-called medical castoreum)?
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2013
  2. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    baβra- (old transliteration bawra-) is assumed to mean “beaver” mainly on the basis of the IE (specifically: Germanic) etymology. The textual attestations do not really make it clear what animal it is.

    We do not actually know when and where the Avestan texts where composed, but most scholars assume that it was very much to the north of “greater Iran”.
  3. Treaty Senior Member

    I wondered about this, because I'd read a web article that used this debate (beaver's habitat, originally by Ghirshmann) for understanding Avestan geography.
  4. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    How can beavers live in the steppes when it needs plenty of flowing water, mostly in small rivers and streams? Aren't the steppes rather poorly equipped with running water?
  5. Dhira Simha Senior Member

    I have so far drafted it in my dictionary as follows:
    71 бо́бр bóbr babhru बभ्रु
    bobr beaver deep-brown, reddish-brown, tawny; a reddish-brown animal
    A generally accepted common I.E. word. Compare AV bawri, bawra, O.H.G bibar, GER biber, SW bäver, LAT fiver (Vasmer, 1,180-181). It is unclear whether this name derives from its red-brown colour, or the red-brown colour came to be called so after this animal (see бур bur). In SA the primarily meaning is ‘deep-brown, reddish-brown, tawny’ while the meaning ‘a reddish-brown animal’ appears secondary. Traditionally, it is also reconstructed as *bhe-bhru- ‘brown’. Derksen (2008, 34) reluctantly supports this view but Trubačev (1974, 146), while admitting the antiquity of this word, prefers not to derive it directly from the brown colour. Instead he cautiously mentioned an attempt to explain its semantics through SA bharv भर्व् ‘to chew, devour, eat; to injure’ which is rather plausible. However, native grammarians tended to connect bharv भर्व् to the root bhṛ भृ ‘to bear, carry’. Its reduplicated derivative babhri बभ्रि ‘bearing, carrying’ is indeed stinkingly similar and appears particularly suitable to explain the Avestan bawri, bawra. It should also be kept in mind that beavers are best known for their natural habit to construct huge nests and river dams. They spend most of their active life carrying large quantities of wood. Therefore, the meaning ‘brown‘ could be a secondary derivative. Despite the semantic difficulties his word is a good example of the variation of vowels from /o/ in RU and some other Slavonic languages to /a/ in SA and SRB, /e/ in LT and LV, /i/ in UA. O.RU бебръ, бобръ; UA бiбр; бе́бер, BG бъ́бър, бо́бър, бе́бер; SRB да̏бар; SLO bóbǝr, bébǝr, brébǝr; CZ bobr, PL bóbr, U.LU bobr, bě́br; L.LU bober, bobεr; O.PR bebrus; LT bebras, bebrùs; LV bebrs. GILF, 47, VAS; ILE; CHO 5
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2013
  6. Treaty Senior Member

    Yes they need water and wood (and cool weather). But, in past much of current steppes in Kazakh-Russian border were more vegetated and taiga-like. So their habitat was much vaster than what we have now.
  7. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    She could have bought the garment -- why do you think the animal was endemic to the region (I mean traded it). It will be a beaver, not an otter -- both animals need a lot of water, and a colder climate. She could have just gotten it from somewhere else. Otter comes from wodr* in PIE. Was it a sacred animal in the Zoroastrian religion?

    Added: I think dogs were sacred in Zoroastrianism, and any "gentle animal", so in this sense all animals of a more gentle nature were sacred. Killing with joy was also considered something forbidden. The animals did not even have to live in the region to be considered sacred -- maybe all fury animals were considered sacred, or even all animals. Animal sacrifice was forbidden.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2013
  8. Treaty Senior Member

    I cannot imagine the goddess of water buying the fur of an animal of her own territory.
    In Avesta all carnivorous mammals not belonging to cat and bear families were considered dogs (still in Persian we say "water-dog" for beaver). Therefore both otter and beaver were sacred.
    In Vendidad 14:1, it seems the word udra (as you said PIE wodra) is translated as otter.
    Maybe because Anahita was a symbol of water (coldness) it was associated with beaver that is an aquatic animal from a cold habitat.
  9. Treaty Senior Member

    Just another idea, can bawra be related to babr (and Pahlavi bopar = tiger)? Its skin is also beautiful. Besides tigers were endemic to Iran (near Caspian sea).
  10. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Hi. I did not realize she was a goddess -- I thought she was a queen. They are both water animals -- and otter is definitely considered a dog in many languages, as well, or at least the male is called a dog, even in English. Yes, udra is the word (Lithunaian udra, Polish Wydra) Why were you concerned that a beaver should really be an otter to fit the myhtology -- they are both gentle water animals, and thus most likely considered sacred. If an otter can live in Iran, or could in the past, beaver could live there as well -- they require similar conditions, except beavers like trees -- to chew on. There are also sea otters, but their name would be also more similar to udra (just modified). The word water apparently comes wrom otter.

    Going back to your tiger theory -- bars is a tiger in Tatar -- Aq bars is a snow leopard. I am not sure from which word these two are derived.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2013
  11. Treaty Senior Member

    Apologies: beaver is not carnivorous though it's considered a dog.
  12. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    Hi, Liliana, Tatar bars seems to derive from or at least be related to Old Turkic jolbars < Proto-Turkic *jolbars "panther, leopard, tiger".
    Regarding Avestan bawra: Since Iranian and Indo-Aryan are closely related, why don't we assume that the meaning of Iranian bawra would be closer to Sanskrit बभ्रु bábru "mongoose; ichneumon"?
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2013
  13. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    I think Avestan baβra- is cognate to Sanskrit babhru- and the English brown and beaver. So, it would be unrelated to babr in my opinion. The latter might be a possible cognate to the Sanskrit vyaaghra- "tiger". But this could be an outdated etymology.
  14. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    No, they're actually cognates. They're both derived from a PIE root that meant water.
  15. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    Hi, yes -- that must have been what I meant. I think they come from *wodr.
  16. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    You are right. Vendidad mentions both baβra- and udra- as two different animals, so presumably “beaver” and “otter”. And the latter does indeed belong to the same root as “water” etc.
  17. LilianaB Banned

    US New York
    The animals themselves don't belong to the same families although they both love water -- beavers are rodents (the biggest rodents, or some of the biggest) -- otters are not. And, I think you meant the former, fdb, not the latter.
  18. ancalimon Senior Member

    Is there a remote possibility that this bawra could be related with buğra which means "camel" and also "spirit horse" in Turkic?
  19. Treaty Senior Member

    I don't even remotely think so. Apart from linguistic difference, Avestan bawra is related to water while camel and horse are not.

    About tiger (babr), there are two interesting points: the only place where it lived in Iran was around Caspian sea. However, a word for it in Mazeruni dialect (south of Caspian) is "red lion" (sorxe shir). This suggests babr was probably first used to indicate the colour of its skin (it is more reddish and brown than any other big cats of Iran. Bawr and boor are still used in Persian for blonde and brown).

    Another (third) point is that tiger is the only big cat (shir) that demonstrates its skill in water (although this point is not proven for the extinct Caspian tigers). However, this is unlikely to make confusion between beaver and tiger even for someone who has never seen a beaver.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2013
  20. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    Turkish word for beaver is Kunduz. Kunduz River is a tributary of the Amu Darya. Amu Darya (Oxus) Valley was a main hub of ancient Aryans. The Eurasian beaver has been hunted to near-extinction. Are we sure that there was no beaver along the Oxus in ancient times?
  21. Treaty Senior Member

    The name of Kunduz river comes from the city/state of Kunduz in north Afghanistan which is of a Perisan origin (kuhan-dez = old city). The Turkish name of the city was qatakant which has the same meaning.
    Beavers need wood to build their dams. Of course, there had been forests around Oxus once, but they had probably all gone before becoming populated.
  22. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    There is an informative article in Encyclopedia Iranica about the beaver in Iranian sources. It also discusses the otter. See here.
  23. Treaty Senior Member

    Thanks Wolverine!

    It was really helpful. Well, sorry for taking your time! It seems beavers were living next to my hometown in late 1800s (we should hope Schlimmer knew exactly what animal he was seeing, because there are still large-tail otters in that region).

    Anyway, I'm still curious if babr (tiger) was originally something like bawre sher (red/brown lion).
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2013
  24. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    I was right about the etymology of babr. See the Encyclopedia Iranica article on Armenia here. The relevant excerpt is below.

    vagr “tiger” (OInd. vyāghra-, Pahl. b(w)pl, i.e. baβr, NPers. babr),
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2013
  25. Treaty Senior Member

    Thanks again.

    My concern is that vyāghra had to undergo a tremendous change to turn into b(w)pl. We do not have any intermediate word except vagr (on which the hypothesis is based). In contrast, in the other examples of Indian influence, the original words (kapi and sakar) are not dramatically changed, that suggests there was short gap between their borrowings in the respective languages.

    So, vyaghra should have entered Iranian languages earlier than the formation of Pahlavi. But exactly when, in early Greco-Buddhic Bacteria or when Cyrus annexed Gandhara?

    That's why I'm suspicious towards different roots for Armenian vagr and Pahlavi bwpl? Armenia also had tigers until 1800s, so vagr can be an original Armenian word. Besides, vayri in Armenian means wild. Can it be related (I'm not sure of its etymology)?
  26. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    The Niya Prakrit form is śakara rather than sakar.

    Elsewhere in the article it lists the Niya Prakrit vyagra as the exact source, a language that was spoken during Buddhist times in Gandhara. The Pahlavi form is supposed to be pronounced baβr, with v>b a natural transition in Indo-Iranian languages. The Armenian form is considered to be a borrowing from an Iranian language, which points to an Iranian form similar to vagr as the predecessor to the Pahlavi baβr. The existence of tigers in Armenia doesn't mean they couldn't borrow words pertaining to that animal. A borrowed word can replace a native word. There are also words for horse, buffalo, camel, elephant, leopard, panther, etc. that were borrowed from Iranian; some of these animals did exist in Armenia.
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2013
  27. aruniyan Senior Member



    In south India these are called as Verugu, is there any link to the animal in discussion? veru meaning similar to brew, Fer, Fury etc...
  28. Treaty Senior Member

    Niya Prakrit is a Mid. Indian language. In you previous example from Iranica, it mentions OInd. (Old Indian). This means it is normally dated along with Parthian and Sassanid empires (2BC-7AD).
    I assume mentioning Niya suggests the geographic connection not the chronological one, as vyaghra was probably used in earlier Indian. (Otherwise, why should we accept it as a genuine Prakrit word if it has no earlier cognates?)
    Of course, v-b interchange is very common (even now). But, what about g,gh>b,β? Actually the reverse (v>g) is more common.
  29. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    OInd. refers to Vedic and Classical Sanskrit. Niya Prakit would've been roughly contemporary to Parthian and Middle Persian. Niya Prakrit was apparently the source of the loan in Iranian, but the earliest form of the word is the Vedic vyaaghra-. I didn't post the excerpt of the Niya Prakrit origin before. Here it is:

    That Parthian played the part of such an intermediary must be assumed also in other instances. Most obvious is the case of Indian or Aramaic/Syriac words. Of Indian provenance are e.g. Arm. kapik “ape” (as Zor. Mid. Pers. kabīg, NPers. kabī from OInd. kapi-, šakʿar “sugar” (as Mid. Pers., NPers. šakar) from Niya Prakrit śakara, or vagr “tiger” from Niya Prakrit vyagra.
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2013
  30. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    It is interesting, though, that the Avestan baβra- "beaver" and the Pahlavi baβr "tiger" are near homonyms.
  31. CyrusSH Senior Member

    Persian - Iran
    Moderator note: Merged threads.

    This is an interesting word, we know beavers are native to North Europe and America, the Latin/Greek word for beaver is castor/kastor that is a loanword from Sanskrit Kasturi which means "musk", but from the same origin of the word beaver, there is Sanskrit bábhru but with the meaning of "mongoose", this animal is native to southern Eurasia and Africa.

    The more interesting thing is that in Persian bawra/babra means "tiger" and it is probably a loanword from Semitic languages, like Akkadian barbaru, but what we read in Zoroastrian texts show that this word means "beaver":

    Yt. 5.129: She is clothed with garments of Bawra, Ardvi Sura Anahita; with the skin of thirty Bawras of those that bear four young ones, that are the finest kind of Bawras; for the skin of the Bawra that lives in water is the finest-colored of all skins, and when worked at the right time it shines to the eye with full sheen of silver and gold.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 21, 2015
  32. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member

    Actually Beekes mentions the opposite, that the Sanskrit word is borrowed from the Gr. «καστόρ(ε)ιον» (Etymological Dictionary of Greek pg. 656). The word «κάστωρ» («κάστορας» in MoGr) is probably an Anatolian loan because the animal is already extinct in Greece by the late archaic period (in fact Herodotus claims that the name «κάστωρ» is first mentioned in the northern Anatolian area by the Black Sea, known as Pontic Anatolia).
  33. rusita preciosa

    rusita preciosa Modus forendi

    USA (Φιλαδέλφεια)
    Russian (Moscow)
    Vasmer indicates that the Russian/Slavic word for бобр / бобёр [bobr / bobior] is related an ancient Indian root *bhe-bhru- (brown) and may be a cognate with "bear", "brown" and the Greek "φρύ̄νη" (toad).

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