Who were the Aryans?
Aryans of the Avesta and Rig Veda
The Indo-Iranian group whose members composed the Zoroastrian scriptures, the
Avesta, and the Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, called themselves Aryans (Airya/Airyan in the Avesta and Arya/Aryan in the Vedas).
The Zoroastrian and Hindu scriptures are the only known ancient texts that contain references to Aryans. Of these two sources, the Avesta contains the preponderance of references to being Aryan, a concept central to the Avesta and Zoroastrian heritage.
The next contemporaneous references are in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian Persians (see Achaemenian History as well as our page on Naqsh-e Rustam), and classical Greek texts such as those of Herodotus and Strabo [Aria, Arioi, Ariane etc.], where the the references are exclusively regarding the Medes' and Persians' ancestry and their Central Asian connections.
Similarity in Avestan & Rig Vedic Languages
The languages of the two scriptures, the Zoroastrian Avesta and Hindu Rig Veda, are similar but not identical, indicating that at the time of their composition, the people of the Avesta and the Rig Veda were related and close neighbours - in a fashion similar to two provinces within one country - provinces where the people spoke two dialects of the same language.
The following is an example of the closeness of the Avestan Old Iranian and Rig-Vedic (Sanskrit) languages:
Old Iranian/Avestan: aevo pantao yo ashahe, vispe anyaesham apantam (Yasna 72.11)
Old Indian/Rig Vedic: abade pantha he ashae, visha anyaesham apantham
Translation: the one path is that of Asha, all others are not-paths.
[The Rig-Vedic translation of the Avestan was provided to this writer by Dr. Satyan Banerjee.]
For further information, please see the Avestan Languages page.
At the time the earliest sections of the Avesta and Rig Veda were composed, the Aryans were residents of the Aryan lands or Aryan nation, called Airyana Vaeja or Airyanam Dakhyunam in the Avesta and Arya Varta in the Hindu scriptures. In the Avestan and Hindu texts, Airyana Vaeja or Arya Varta was a beautiful but mysterious mountainous land (see Airyana Vaeja as Paradise). While the precise location of the original Aryan homeland is lost to us, we have been left with ample clues which allow us to draw reasonable conclusions about its likely location, the mountain regions of Central Asia.
We further discuss the possible location of Airyana Vaeja in our Aryan Homeland Location page. Airyana Vaeja and the other nations of the Avesta are further referenced and listed in the Aryan Homeland in Scripture page.
The name Airyana Vaeja was contracted over the years to Airan Vej, Iran Vej (in Middle Persian texts) and finally to Iran.
The two Indo-Iranian Aryan groups eventually ceased to be close neighbours. They separated and migrated to present day India and Iran, becoming Indians and Iranians in the process.
Therefore, as an added definition, the Aryans were those members of the Indo-Iranian family who originated in Airyana Vaeja or Arya Varta, the Aryan homeland.
Reasons for Aryan Migration
The reasons for the migration of the Aryans are discussed in the Aryan Homeland in Scripture page. The reasons for the separation of the two Aryan groups could have been a widening difference in their religious beliefs - beliefs that were antithetical to one another, but beliefs that nevertheless shared common roots. The separation is discussed further in the page on Aryan Religions. Climate change and a degradation of the food production capability of the original homeland could also have been a reason or an added reason.
The history of the Aryans is found in the scriptures of the original Aryans, the Avesta, the Vedas, supporting religious texts, and the legends as well - legends such as the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Historical evidence of Aryan trade and conquests provide supporting information.
The early history of Zoroastrianism is closely intertwined with the history of the Aryans - a history we examine in some detail starting with our page on the Prehistory of the Aryans.