The Noble Ones
A millennium before the start of the Axial age, the Indo-Iranian peoples of the Central Asian steppes, then a mostly barren desert with harsh summers and bitter winters, lived a nomadic tribal life. They called themselves the Noble Ones – the Aryans.
We will look more closely at the Noble Ones as an example of pre-Axial life for two reasons. First, we know a lot about their life from an early written source: the Avesta. Second, their story shows clearly the type of conditions under which a transition from pre-Axial to Axial thought took place in all Axial communities. The Avesta was transmitted orally until the Axial Age when it became the foundational scripture of what, in many respects, may be called the very first Axial religion: Zoroastrianism.
The Aryans were semi-nomadic pastoral people who had domesticated animals, sheep and cows but not horses, and who hunted wild animals to supplement their diet. They had no formal governing structures as far as we know, arranging themselves in tribes that each had two groups: the priests, and everyone else, the producers.
They led peaceful, fairly static, simple lives. They had their gods, their beliefs about the nature of the world and their rituals to help them understand and influence these gods. At first the pantheon of gods they worshipped included an overall God of the Sky called Dyaus Pitr, creator of the world, but he became too remote and was forgotten in favor of more accessible gods. These were easily identified with natural and cosmic forces: the God of the Sun, the Gods of the Earth, the Moon and the Winds. Fire, water and the Soul of the Bull were Gods associated with ritual practices and as such were particularly venerated. They also venerated trees, especially by rivers or streams, probably because these often had healing properties.
In addition, they had a class of Gods called Ahuras – associated with oaths and promise-keeping. The Ahuras originally included a divine power to enforce oaths that later became the responsibility of three main Ahuras: Varuna the guardian of order, Mithra the god of storm, thunder and rain, and Mazda the Lord of justice and wisdom. These three Ahuras were assisted by Devas: speech was a Deva – so oaths, once uttered were absolutely binding, lies once told were absolutely evil, the sound of a chant was holy and the act of listening a sacred one bringing the listener nearer to the Gods. Other Devas were the gods of courage, friendship, glory, and justice. In the teachings of Zoroaster, as the beginning of the Axial Age approaches, Ahura Mazda would become a supreme being
Daily religious ritual and sacrifice to the gods helped them maintain productivity, harmony and Rta Asha – a kind of natural law that maintained a cosmic order against
According to the Avesta the earth was created in seven stages: First the sky came into being – this was an inverted bowl of beautiful stone. Second the water was created at the bottom of the sky shell, and then third, the earth that floated on water. To this the gods added one plant, one animal and a bull, and then in the sixth stage, man. Fire was added in the seventh stage, pervading the entire world and residing in seen and unseen places.
As a final act of creation the Gods assembled and performed the first sacrifice. The primordial plant, the bull, and the man were crushed and from them the vegetable, animal and human realms were created and populated the earth. New life and Death were created and the world was set in motion.
The Noble Ones performed rituals that reenacted this primordial sacrifice to maintain cosmic order and ensure the continuation of the life cycle. Libations were performed in the home, for example, of water or fire to return these vital elements to the gods to support them and a perpetual fire was kept burning.
The Indo-Iranians revered life and like all pre-Axial peoples, they felt a strong affinity between themselves and animals. They ate only consecrated animal flesh that had been offered to the gods, with prayers to ensure the animal’s safe return to the Soul of the Bull. They believed the Soul of the Bull was the life energy of the animal world, whose spirit was energized through their sacrifice of animal blood. This nourished the deity and helped the gods look after the animal world and ensured plenty. Animal sacrifice and other most sacred rituals required special sacred spaces and professional priests.
An important ritual included a sacred beverage called Soma or Haoma made from a plant that is unknown today. This “golden drink” had properties that allowed the drinker to be ecstatically transported to the realm of the Gods. Under its influence he achieved a sense of immortality and freedom from suffering and fear. He communed with the Gods, expanding his mind to consider the deepest possibilities of life. This, of course, was a temporary experience, one that the heirs of these techniques would later, in the Axial age, seek to achieve through the introspection and ascetic practices.
Indo-Iranians remained together until about the beginning of the third millennium BCE when they split, some venturing into present-day Iran and others to present-day Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, gradually spreading across northern India. As they scattered, their single language evolved into dozens of languages in the Indo-European family: German, Gaelic, Latin, Greek, Russian, Persian, Sanskrit and English among others; all show evidence that they are derived from this single language.
Indo-Iranians were conservative and resistant to change, but, as they moved south from Central Asia, they came into contact with Mesopotamians and Armenians from whom they learned how to domesticate horses, make bronze, fashion weapons and to build and use carts and then war chariots. This sudden mobility completely disrupted the once stable culture which erupted into areas of widespread lawlessness.
With this chaotic new way of life, with men stealing and looting sheep and cows rather than tending them, a third class of individuals arose. These were the warlords (thieves) and professional warriors, whose lives were spent in raiding, rough living and hard drinking, and whose ambitions were to gain personal wealth and glory. Respect for Rta asha, the natural order central to life up to this point, was disrupted as villages and towns were wiped out, and might ruled the day. New gods became acceptable to this warrior class, the god Indra, for example, who drank the sacred soma to fuel his warlike frenzy, passion and daring, was worshipped far more than Varuna. Traditional Aryans were now bewildered, frightened, many of them suffering and completely disoriented by the chaos that now threatened their erstwhile conservative lives.
It was as a reaction to this suffering, chaos and perceived evil-doing that the prophet Zoroaster arose in what is now Iran. The exact date of his birth is disputed, but it was approximately 1200 BCE. In spite of this early date he is considered the first of the Axial-age prophets and his influence is still evident in contemporary Judaism, Christianity and Islam more than 3,000 years later.