Arian charioteers

The Aryans or “Noble Ones” are thought to have remained together on the Caucasian steppes from about 4500 BCE until about 2500 BCE when groups began to migrate. Their single language, known by linguists as Proto-Indo-European, evolved into many of the Asiatic and European languages, such as: Sanskrit, Persian, German, Gaelic, Latin, Greek, Russian, and English. The Indo-European language family has the largest number of speakers of all language families as well as the widest dispersion around the world.

A millennium before the start of the Axial age, the Indo-European peoples of the Central Asian steppes, then a mostly barren desert with harsh summers and bitter winters, lived a nomadic tribal life. They were not a distinct ethnic group, but a number of semi-nomadic, loosely connected, pastoral tribes who had inhabited the Caucasian steppes from about 4500 BCE. They called themselves Aryans – which in Classical Sanskrit means “honorable”, “respectable”, or “noble”.

Ancient text

Yasna 28.1, Ahunavaiti Gatha. Yasna is the name of the primary liturgical collection of texts of the Avesta as well as the name of the principal Zoroastrian act of worship at which those verses are recited.

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 had no formal governing structures as far as we know, though each tribe had two groups: the priests, and everyone else, the producers. They led peaceful, fairly static, simple lives. Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation tells us: “Like other ancient peoples, the Aryans experienced an invisible force within themselves and in everything that they saw, heard, and touched. Storms, winds, trees, and rivers were not impersonal, mindless phenomena. The Aryans felt an affinity with them, and revered them as divine. Humans, deities, animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the same divine “spirit,” which the Avestans called ‘mainyu’ and the Sanskrit-speakers ‘manya’. It animated, sustained, and bound them all together.”

As time went on their beliefs became formalized into a pantheon of gods, with an overall God of the Sky called Dyaus Pitr, creator of the world, until he became too remote and was forgotten in favor of more accessible deities. 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.

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 the Aryans maintain productivity, harmony and Rta Asha – a kind of natural law that maintained a cosmic order against Druj – disorder.

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. Self-sacrifice would become a central idea in the Axial Age, without it progress, whether materially or spiritually, would be impossible.

The Aryans performed rituals that reenacted this primordial sacrifice to maintain cosmic order and ensure the continuation of the life cycle. Ritual libations and sacrifices were performed at fire altars both in the home and in public spaces where sacred fires were kept burning. They would ensure that vital elements were returned to the gods who in turn would sustain their way of life on earth.

Golden bull head

Golden bull’s head from Altyn-Depe in Turkmenistan, inhabited in the 3rd to 2nd millennia BCE, abandoned around 1600 BCE.

The Aryans 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.

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.

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.

map of Indo-European Migrations c. 4000 BCE to 1000BCE
The idea that there was an Aryan “race” was proposed first in the 19th century, and was taken up by Hitler and other proponents of racist ideology, it has been rejected by scholars.

Data from linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and genetics indicate that Indo-European migrations began as early as 4300–3000 BCE. Tribes who emigrated to the west became the ancestors of Greeks, and later Germans and Scandinavians; those that went east split into Indo-Iranian tribes, such as the Persians, Medes, Parthians, and Scythians; others would venture into Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, and gradually spread across northern India. As they scattered, their language evolved into the many languages of the Indo-European family: Sanskrit, Persian, German, Gaelic, Latin, Greek, Russian, and English among others; all show evidence that they are derived from this single language.

In approximately 1500 BCE Aryans came into contact with Mesopotamians and Armenians, and learned how to domesticate horses, make bronze, fashion weapons and to build and use carts and then war chariots — then things began to change. Their sudden mobility completely disrupted the stable, conservative culture, which erupted into areas of widespread lawlessness.

[The Aryans] sudden mobility completely disrupted the stable, conservative 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.


Map of Indo-Aryan Migration c. 1750 BCE


It was as a reaction to this suffering, chaos and perceived evil-doing that the prophet Zoroaster arose in what is now Iran.

Around 1500 BCE, the Aryans crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and came in contact with the Indus Valley Civilization. This was a large migration that scholars used to think caused the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, but, since there is no evidence of an invasion or mass movement, more recent speculation is that different Aryan bands gradually infiltrated the Indian continent.

That the Aryans came from outside India is the traditional understanding, but this interpretation has recently been contested. A recent revisionist position is that Aryan culture and religion originated within India and developed from the Indus Valley civilization.

Since the Noble Ones left no archaeological record, the evidence for their migration rests on linguistics. As Karen Armstrong says: “The language of the ritual Sanskrit text known as the Vedas (Knowledge) is so similar to Avestan and its cultural assumptions so close to the Gathas that it is almost certainly an Aryan scripture.”

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Indus-Sarasvati Civilization
Aegean Civilizations
Archaic Greece
Ancient China

Further Reading

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