History of Iran, Chapter 2: Iranians before Iran
Indo-Europeans and Indo-Iranians
A long standing, and still unchallenged, belief of historians is that the people of Europe, Iran, and India, with the exception of Hungarians and the Finns, have their ancestry in common. Based on historical evidence and supports from archaeology, historians propose the existence of a pre-historic tribal confederation, called theoretically "Indo-Europeans", who eventually spread out from their original homeland to cover the mass of land in western Eurasia. Their language, costumes, and cultural characteristics survived in one way or another to the historical time, and it is based on comparative studies of various Indo-European languages and cultures that the idea of a common ancestry first came to existence (see J.P. Mallory for a detailed discussion of Indo-European theory).
A considerable amount of criticism has been bestowed upon the idea of Indo-European ancestry. It has been called a racist idea, it has been challenged by those who felt "left-out" of it, and it has been linked to colonialism and the idea of European superiority. Probably the worst use of this theory has been the Nazi ideology of a pure "Aryan" race. Nevertheless, our purpose here is purely historical, and for the sake of the narrative, we assume that the idea of a common Indo-European ancestry, first and foremost in linguistic and mythological terms rather than biological, is valid and at least supportable.
One of the most serious problems for all adherents to the common ancestry theory is the location of the original homeland of Indo-Europeans. Nineteenth century historians proposed an Eastern European homeland (lately revitalised by new archaeology), others saw Northern Europe more plausible, and in the Twentieth century, steppes of Southern Russia have won the most favour. Archaeology in the steppes shows the coexistence of many tribes during the proposed time of the start of Indo-European migrations (ca. 3000 BCE). These cultures show varied anatomies, and strengthen the idea that a common biological ancestry might not have been the case. Since no written evidence is available from this era, our only points of reference are their pottery, tool use, and burial habits, based on which they have been called the "Kurgan" people (from Russian word for grave). Their graves were built in a mount shape, and the body was buried in chambers, along with personal belongings and animals such as horses (in case of more prosperous members of the society). It is generally accepted now that Indo-Europeans as a historical reality were most likely a collection of tribes spread from Central Asia to Eastern Europe, and they all migrated in different time periods due to climactic and demographic reasons.
An eastern branch of these tribes, theoretically called proto-Indo-Iranians, lived probably in Central Asia and belonged to a branch of Kurgan people called the "Andronovo Culture" by archaeologists. These people, who called themselves Aryans (Indo-Iranian for noble, wellborn), migrated towards south into present day Afghanistan and Eastern Iran sometimes around 2000 BCE. There, they seem to have been split into two branches, the eastern one called Indo-Aryans by historians, and the other one proto-Iranians. Based on their later literature, we might assume an inter tribal war or ideological disagreement might have initiated the split. In any case, their languages, or what has been preserved of their oldest forms (Vedic Sanskrit and "Avestan" respectively), show remarkable similarities in linguistic and mythical tradition terms. These people were supposedly nomadic, they had domesticated horses, probably as early as their time in Central Asia, and had a complex pantheon of gods and natural forces. It has been suggested that prior to the first phase of their migration, Indo-Iranians have had a communal social system, but by the time of their split, they had formed into a patriarchal class system society. These changes, along with their complex belief system, leads some to believe that the proto-Indo-Iranian society was not as simplistic and nomadic based as currently assumed. Furthermore, archaeological evidence such as excavations in the Bactro-Margian Archaelogical Complex (BMAC), point out to a very early formation of settlements and commercial centres in Central Asia. Artifacts from BMAC show pottery very similar to the ones found in Mohenjudaro/Harrapan culture of Indus Valley, and Uruk culture of Sumer. Although the BMAC excavations show more influence from Dravidians of Indus Valley than Indo-Iranians, they also show an early contact of proto-Indo-Iranians with civilisation, and thus a much earlier formation of class society and complexity believed up to now. Also, the discovery of some pottery with what seems to be an early form of writing might challenge the accepted theories of the development of civilisations and cultural formation.
In any case, the branching of proto-Indo-Iranians to Indo-Aryans and proto-Iranians happened at the dawn of history, ca. 2000-1800 BC. Indo-Aryans apparently moved to the Indus Valley region, with which they might have been familiar by their contacts with BMAC traders. There they faced the challenge of an established civilisation. The traditional story would tell us that the superior military power of Indo-Aryans, especially their use of horses, left no chance for the local Dravidians, who were conquered, massacred, absorbed into the Aryans society as "untouchables" or driven to the south of the Indian peninsula. However, new studies whose scope is out of the capacity of the present paper, suggest that the conquest of the Harrapan culture and the establishment of an Indo-Aryan lead society did not happen as easily and took more time and included a higher degree of influence from the Dravidians on conquering Aryans.
We have less evidence of such sudden conflict in the Iranian case. Proto-Iranians seem to have been split into branches early in their history, forming the nomadic Saka/Scythian tribes, and the settled populations that inhabited the Iranian plateau and eventually came to be known under the massive and inaccurate names of Parthains, Persians, and Medians. How early this split happened, and how the Iranians came to overpower the established civilisations of the Mitanni, the Kassites, and civilisations of eastern Iran, is not known. Only their final pressure in replacing the prosperous civilisation of Elam has survived into history. For earlier events, we only have scattered reports from the Assyrian and Babylonian chronicles, and rarely in Elamite reports.
The idea of a simple split of proto-Iranians from Indo-Aryans and especially their origin in Central Asia poses some problems. In dates supposedly prior to their migration, we have evidence of their existence in Western Iran. Terms relating to horse breeding that are from an obvious Indo-Iranian source exist in Mitanni, Kassite, and even Babylonian documents. We know that horses were taken by Kassites to Babylon, and they most likely learned of horse taming from proto-Iranians who lived to their east and north. Also, the names of Indo-Aryan deities like Indra and the Nassaties exist among the names of Mitanni deities in a treaty with the Hittites, while these deities don't exist among the Iranian pantheon. Also, some Mitanni names have obvious Indo-Iranian and even purely Iranian overtones, while an Egyptian pharaoh married a girl from "east of Sumer" ca. 2200 BCE who has an Iranian name. As we can see, the route and time of Indo-Iranian migrations is not certain and provable, and some even deny any migration in a sensible term, and instead propose the gradual push of Indo-Iranians from the northern Caspian regions, via both Caucasus and Central Asia, in a much earlier (e.g. 3000 BCE) date.
Nevertheless, by 1200 BCE, we have a remarkable and undeniable Iranian presence in the plateau, and their overwhelming military force seems to have gradually overpowered the local people and formed early kingdoms which posed threats to the established civilisations of Assyria, Babylonia, and Elam. These petty kingdoms seem to have established confederacies of all the tribes, Aryan and non Aryan, and spread their early influence in the areas east of Elam. The earliest of these confederacies to form a coherent kingdom of which we have historical evidence was the kingdom of the Medes. We shall see the development of this kingdom in further chapters.
Iranian Mythology and Social System
Traditionally, Iranian tribes, prior to their settlement in the Iranian plateau, are considered pastural nomads. Their formation of agricultural system is usually dated to their contacts with the established civilisation of the Iranian plateau. However, their mythology and social system, and their parallels in the Indian tradition, might point us to another direction. Fertility goddesses, deities concerned with climactic changes, and their class based social system could be indication of an early agricultural culture, abandoned in face of climactic changes in Central Asia, and only retaken after their second settlement in the Iranian plateau. Some further archaeological excavations east of BMAC, shows early evidence of farming and seed growing. These tribes might have well been early agriculturalists who only resorted to occasional movements in face sheer demographic pressure.
The early mythology of Iranians includes a complex set of deities, divided into two groups, one with celestial and the other with terrestrial concerns. In time, these two groups, Ahuras and Daevas, seem to have developed good and evil characteristic respectively, and thus form a distinctly "Iranian" ideology (Indo-Aryans had Asuras as evil and Daevas as the good set of gods). Some of the gods seem to have transcended the secondary characteristics and either changed their positions or have become incorporated into new roles; among these is Indra the Dragon Slayer, a Daeva, who enters the Ahura group in Iran under the his nickname of Vrathraghna/Vahran.
Iranians also seem to have adopted local deities of the pre-Iranian population of the plateau, including Araduui Sura Anahita, the goddess of fertility and water, who is unmatched in the Indian pantheon and shows similar characteristics with the Mesopotamian Inana/Ishtar. Also, some deified mortals such as Yima/Yama seem to have existed in the time before the Indo-Iranian split, and have survived into the historical times for both people, as well as a minor Aryan group called the Kafirs (living in eastern Afghanistan, they are Aryan, but neither Indian nor Iranian). In many cases also deities or superhuman beings such as Azhidhahaka or Thria are anthropomorphized into historical and mortal characters, very evident especially in the Iranian case.
Zarathushtra's Religion and the New Social Order
Unlike the Indian case, the Iranian mythology seem to have undergone a very early, pre-historic change during which the polytheism was abandoned for duality or maybe an earlier version of monotheism. This revolution, credited to Zarathushtra, the greatest spiritual thinker of the Iranian tradition, set the path of both the Iranian social system and political thought apart from its Indian cousin. Gods and forces were abandoned, and some of the most prominent ones were reduced to levels of mortal, and often sinful, humans, or even labeled as evil. Zarathushtra's spiritual upturn and the opposition and resistance presented to it by the adherents to the old spiritual and social system, set the pace for many socio-political changes up to the advent of Islam.
We have no evidence of the time and origin of Zarathushtra. He has been dated as far back as 2000 BCE, living among the nomadic proto-Iranians, and as late as 500 BCE, living in the court of the Achaemenid kings. We can only trace him based on the influence of his ideas on early Iranian tribes and their ideology, and also based on the age of his compositions, the Gathas. These compositions, in the form of 16 poems, are universally accepted to be the oldest parts of the Zoroastrian cannon of laws, the Avsta, and almost all scholars attribute them to Zarathushtra himself. The language is a very rustic version of a northeastern old Iranian language, pointing us to a date of roughly 1300 BCE. The ideas of the poems are clearly against the worship of several gods and the belief in natural forces, and they include a very deep philosophical thought, emphasizing the originality of mind, the role of the individual decision and thought, and common movement towards righteousness.
Zarathushtra's social reform was met with resistance even during his life time, by the adherents to the traditional pantheon and social structure. They are refered to in later parts of the Avesta as Daeva-Yasna, "Adherents to the Daevs", a clear indication of Zarathushtra's declaration of war against the forces of evil. Apparently, one of these opposition members is even responsible for the death of Zarathushtra. However, it seems that after embracement of the Zoroastrian ideas by political forces who found Zarathushtra's uniting theories better suited to power than dispersed social structure of polytheism, the former opposition parties, among them the Mogh/Magus tribe of Medians, were entrusted with the safe keeping of the new religion. This religious classes, a presence in all Indo-Iranian social structures, became the defenders of the new faith, albeit making major changes to it, including a re-introduction of deities, this time in the form of lower deities and assistants to the supreme deity, Ahura Mazdah, "The Lord Reason". The hybrid Zoroastrian religion was eventually adopted by many Iranian dynasties, including the later Achaemenids, probably Arsacid, and certainly by the Sasanians who themselves came from a Persian religious class. This, however, did not mean a total abandonment of the old ideological and social system, especially those insisting on a revitalisation of the class-less, communal society that existed prior to Zarathushtra. These social movements raised throughout the Iranian history, well into the Islamic times, and are characterized best by Manichean, Mazdaki, and Khoram-din movements.
In short, the Zoroastrian reform in the social terms seems to have been an accompaniment o the social changes that were happening as a result of the Aryan settlement in Iran and the pressure of their neighbours to the west, powerful civilisations of Mesopotamia. In face of scarce agricultural land, constant military threat, and the need to organise and form coherent political systems, another need for a uniting idea was evident. So, Zoroastrianism, a belief system that is certainly uniting and also emphesises the duty of classes to obey their superiors, could be an indispensable tool in the hands of the new political rulers. The same process can be traced in India, where while not abandoning the polytheistic system, a caste system was formed that held each member of the society responsible for assigned duties. In Iran, since the integration of local inhabitants to the Aryan society seems to have happened in a longer period of time, and since this social system was well formed prior to the Aryan contact with the locals, the formation of a caste system did not become an issue. Instead, the situation, especially the existence of laws in the civilised societies of the plateau and different climactic and land endowments, pressured the Iranians to form a new and coherent socio-political system that would enable them to become a political power and replace their predecessors. So, the foundations of the Median and Achaemenid power were laid in the pre-historical formation of Aryan, and indeed "Iranian" (i.e. Aryan and non Aryan), social system.