The early Indo-European people lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500 BC but in the middle of the 3rd millenium, with the domestication of the horse, some tribes began to move further afield until they reached what is now present-day Greece, the Balkans, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany. These people became the Europeans but the ones who were left behind on the steppes came to be known as the “Aryans”.
The word “Aryan” (like “Caucasian” and “swastika”) is highly politically charged, but it does have a legitimate scientific usage which refers to the ancestors of the people who became the Persians and the Indians among other people. The Aryans themselves bagan to drift slowly apart, and by 1500 BC they spoke two dialects of the same language, Sanskrit (which is an ancestor or the modern Indian languages including Hindi) and Avestan (which the Iranian langauges come from, including Persian). The Aryans were an unusually peaceful people, with few enemies and they also shared common cultural and religious traditions.
They believed in a unifying spirit, which the Avestan-speakers called “mainyu” and the Sanskrit-speakers “manya”. They had formerly worshiped “Dyaus Pitar” whom the Europeans continued to worship in the form of Greek “Zeus”, Roman “Jupiter”, Latin “deus”, Viking “Tyr”, Anglo-Saxon “Tiw” and Celtic “Dispater”, Hittite “Tiwat” etc… However, they slowly began to abandon the worship of the “sky father”, as he was too inaccesible and they began to elevate the gods of their pantheon to more important positions.
Here are some of their important gods…
Sanskrit / Avestan
- Mithra / Mitra was the god of storm, thunder and rain (possibly related to Thor)
- Indra / Indara was divine warrior who had fought with the dragon Vritra / Vitara to bring order from chaos
- Agni / Atar was the personification of fire and purification.
- unknown / Mazda was the god of justice and peace.
- Soma / Haoma was the personification of a sacred hallucinogenic plant said to protect people and cattle from famine.
The Sanskrit people called their gods the devas, and the Avestan speakers called them the daevas. The highest gods were later given the title “asura” or “ahura“.
The peaceful community of the Aryans was torn apart in the 1500s BC when bands of raiders, followers of the war god Indra began attacking the community and subjecting it to great suffering. By 1200, Zoroasater a member of the Avestan speaking community rose up to lead his people in a battle with the followers of Indra. This caused a split which was to have long lasting consequences. The Avestan community began to migrate further south toward present day Iran, and the Sanskrit community.
Zoroaster elevated one of the ahuras, Ahura Mazda to the position of supreme god among his community and demonised the followers of Indra and by extension all of the daevas who had not been granted the title “ahura”.
The Sanskrit speakers, were practically exiled from the land and began to lead a nomadic life eventually travelling through the Hindu Kush into northern India. In their community, the Avestan ahuras became demonised as the lazy asuras, cursed with the vice of sloth, but they elevated the devas, especially Indra to a position of greater authority.
In Avestan, ahuras = good gods, daevas = bad gods
In Sanskrit, devas = good gods, asuras = bad gods
The new ideas of Zoroaster were not immediately accepted and it took a couple hundred years for it to stablise as a sustainable religion. Ironically, the Sanskrit speakers, originally warlike Indra worshippers whom Zoroaster condemned, went on to create Hinduism, based on the principle of “ahimsa”, meaning non-violence. Hinduism is widely acknowledged as the world’s first sustained religion. The Vedas, the first holy scripture of Hinduism bear such a close resemblance to the Gathas, the first holy scripture of Zoroastrianism that we cannot dismiss it as coincidence.
Zoroastrianism soon became the state religion of the Persian empire founded by Cyrus the Great. It was at one point the largest religion in the world and the most influential, and was strong and powerful for more than 1000 years from 550 BC until Iran was conquered by Islam in AD 651. Zoroastrianism was the first religion in the world to develop true monotheism (ancient Egypt toyed with the idea during Akhenaten’s revolution in 1364 BC, but it was not true monotheism because the other gods were acknowledged as existing and having been created by Ra, and in any case it was practically only Akhenaten himself who believed it and the belief did not outlast his death).
In 550 BC, the Persian Empire was founded and was the largest empire the world had ever seen before that point. Zoroastrianism began to influence other religions and philosophies in the areas that it conquered. The worldview of tiny, insignificant, bronze-age, polytheistic nation called Judah was changed beyond recognition during this period.
In the next note I’m going to talk about Zoroastrianism and its relationship with Judaism and how many of the beliefs of the great Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam) spring from this early encounter with Persia.