From geography to culture, from culture to master narratives
In a previous post we analysed how geography influenced the nomadic pastoralists -they did not take up residence, they did not form empires or kingdoms but merged, clashed, and separated, creating fluid tribal confederations. If the civilisations of the river valleys were isolated, the nomadic pastoral world was a single vast interconnected world, as a kind of lymphatic fluid between the settled cultures. We also commented on how Mesopotamia civilizations was influences by a geography opened from all sides to threatening tribes.
In the pastoral regions and Mesopotamia it was hard to generate a continuous culture along the valley; on the contrary, the result was many separate networks of villages associated with disparate temples and priesthoods. Geography did not protect these peoples. Much needed protection since some settlements appeared close to the river, and the context also supported pastoral nomadism. Therefore, the villagers had to be prepared to repel assailants coming from any direction; they had to build the walls that the geography did not provide, leading to the emergence of small city-states, each with its army of trained soldiers.
The Aryans expand westward (Iran) and southward (India).
At the height of the Harappan civilization ( located in the Indus River valley whose two largest cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, were located in present-day Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces, respectively), northern nomads tribes coming from the north of shepherds and small farmers settled in the pastures north of the Oxus River in Transoxiana. These tribes called themselves the Aryans, which meant «the noblemen» in their language.
Around 4,000 years ago, these people migrated out of Transoxiana (historical region of Turkistan in Central Asia east of the Amu Darya (Oxus River) and west of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes River), roughly corresponding to present-day Uzbekistan and parts of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Those who headed south entered the Indus River valley. They absorbed the remnants of the Harappan civilization and became the Vedic People- to the south and west.
Those who went eastward migrated to Iran – whose name originates from Aryan. When the Vedic people and the Iranians separated geographically, they also diverged culturally. The original language of these people was Sanskrit in the south and Avesta in the west. The hymns they sang became the Vedas in India and the Avesta in Iran. The Vedic people had rituals that required an unknown plant called soma. The Avestan had similar practices for which they used another strange plant called haoma.
The guarantors of religion and their gods appear
Among the Vedic People, Brahms’s body of religious specialists conducted the rituals. Among the Avestan, the religious specialists called Magi were responsible for the ceremonies. From magi comes the word magician. It seems reasonable to think that the supposed three magi spoken of in the Christian narrative which brought gifts to Jesus of Nazareth were Avestan priests.
The Veda gallery of gods included a group of beings called devas and another called asuras. The devas were angels, while the asuras were demons. Interestingly, in Avestan culture, the daevas were demonic and the ahuras angelic.
The Aryans who went south migrated to a lush environment marked by natural abundance. And their initial gods branched out into thousands of distinct personalities corresponding to the growing subtleties of Indian thought. The main characteristic of the Indian pantheon was its diversity.
In contrast, the original Aryan gods drifted into alliances associated with increasingly marked polarities in Iran until they finally constituted two sets of deities. Each god was either an ahura or a daeva; each god was demonic or angelic. When the Iranians looked at the world around them, they saw no diversity but polarity. Their world was a world of light and darkness, life and death, truth and falsehood, good or evil.
Some Aryan gods lost importance in India but gained weight in Iran, an immense status at times. Agni, for example, the Aryan god of fire, became Ahura Mazda, the creator god, the deity of light and darkness. There was also Mithra, and among the Vedic people, he was only a minor god. At the same time, in Iran, he became Mithra (his relationship to the god of the Christian narrative we discussed in a previous post), second only to Ahura Mazda in majesty and power.
But what kind of god was Mithra?
He was the god of contracts -something that at first sight seems strange-. But how could contracts be on the same level as the creation and destruction of the universe as principles of the universe? His explanation is what the god of fertility is to the agricultural world. The god of contracts is a world built on long-distance trade.
In the highlands of Iran, a landscape of urban centers stitched together by caravan traffic, society was a skein of grievances between strangers. Its inhabitants made agreements with people they would probably never see again. All was well if each party told the truth and kept their promises. Lies and broken promises threatened the order of the universe just as droughts and floods did in a world of farmers and agriculturists.
Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable that a god who presided over truth and promise-keeping appeared and was considered one of the greatest gods.
As the gods of present-day Persia separated in their binary alliances, a cosmic explanation emerged, a narrative to explain their world. In this narrative, the daevas were the paternal gods. They brought the ahuras into the world, but they tried to kill them when they felt threatened by their diabolical nature. The auras fought back, giving rise to an epic struggle.
The meaning of life was in that struggle. The world was fundamentally a drama. They were at the moment in history when an apocalyptic drama was unfolding. Time was neither cyclical (as in China), nor illusory (as in India) but linear. Like every story, it had a beginning, a development and an end. At that time, they were in the development of history, but the ending was coming.
Zoroaster, the magi that created a new narrative for Persia
One day he received a supernatural call to climb a certain mountain to meet the god of fire and creation. There, Ahura Mazda gave Zoroaster a message to convey to humankind. He was to propagate throughout the world that Ahura Mazda was a god far superior to the rest and that only he was to be worshipped. However, he was engaged in a struggle against the equally powerful Ahriman, the god of darkness. Humanity was on the front line in this cosmic battle between good and evil. Every action a person took helped one side or the other. Every decision had cosmic implications (beginning with posterior Christian dualism between good and evil, God and Satán).
How to convinced people to be good: the promise of a paradise for the good guys
More importantly, humans had free will, and they could make moral choices, and the meaning of life lay in those choices. At the end of time, when Ahura Mazda achieved final victory, all those who had been on his side would go on to live an eternal afterlife in a lush walled garden like those that dotted present-day Persia and were so prized in this arid land. The Avastin term for such a garden was «pairidaeza» (meaning enclosure or park). From this word is derived the word… paradise.
Again, as was the case in the post on the beginning of the Christian narrative, the key elements of the Christian narrative, good and evil, the decisions in favour of good or bad, the consequences of supporting the good (eternal life in paradise) were already defined centuries before.
Some authors affirm that Zoroastrianism is the mysterious religion that changed the West narrative and was the basic for european religious narratives.