Prehistory of the Aryans
We find the prehistory of the Aryans recorded in the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta (in particular the Zamyad Yasht 19), in Middle Persian texts, in the poet Ferdowsi's epic, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, and in the Hindu Scriptures, the Vedas.
The significance of the prehistory contained in these texts, is not necessarily a sense of recorded time, but rather a record of sequential human development that is unique amongst existing ancient literature. Unlike other ancient myths and legends, the individual reign of a legendary Aryan king, at times thousands of years in length, includes developments that correspond to archaeological / historical ages such as the Stone and Metal Ages. For instance, the developments during the reign of the first Aryan king, Gaya Maretan (see below) parallels what archaeologists and historians now call the Stone Ages. Therefore we can refer to the legendary reign of Gaya Maretan as the Stone Age of Aryan history.
It would be unreasonable to expect the prehistory to contain a detailed record of individual kings from the dawn of history. The names of the kings that were preserved by legend, were in all likelihood those whose reigns were noteworthy in some fashion, and the length of their reigns would have been expanded to include that of their less noteworthy predecessors and successors. As a consequence, the length of a legendary reign often spans the length of several human lifetimes.
In addition to a being a sequential record of human development, Zoroastrian texts also provide us with a sequential listing of early nations associated with the Aryans. Together with archaeological records, this information can be combined to construct a history of the Aryans.
Aryan Stone Age
Age of Gaya Maretan
[Gaya means life and maretan means mortal. In some sources, Gaya Maretan is the first mortal or human being. The name Gaya Maretan evolved to Gayomard (Pahlavi), and then Kayomars or Kaiumars (Persian).]
Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, complemented by the Farvardin Yasht 13.87, recounts that Aryan prehistory started with Gaya Maretan, founder of the Aryan nation. The Shahnameh states that he was the first Aryan King and that during his reign, people lived in the mountains (also see Aryan homeland location: Mountains - Hara Berezaiti) and wore animal skins and leaves. They gathered fruits and other plant foods. Animals were first domesticated, and the herding of cattle began.
During the age of Gaya Maretan, religion and religious rites were developed. According to the Avesta and the Shahnameh, Gaya Maretan was a Mazdayasni, a worshipper of Mazda or God. In the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, worship in a supreme God, Asura Varuna, preceded deva or polytheistic worship amongst the Aryans. (For further information on Pre-Zoroastrian Aryan religious practices, see our page on Aryan Religions.)
The Shahnameh tells us that Ahriman, the leader of the deva worshippers was envious of Gaya Maretan and wanted to seize Gaya Maretan's throne, the throne of the Aryans. As a result, the first religious wars between the Mazda and deva worshippers took place during this period. At first the deva worshippers were victorious in a battle in which Gaya Maretan's son Siyamak was killed. Gaya Maretan regrouped, assembled an army under the command of his grandson Haoshyangha (Hushang - see below), and defeated the deva worshippers. While this second battle established the Mazdayasni as the dominant religious group between the Mazda and deva worshippers, the two groups continued to live together in close proximity. (Later, at the end of the Jamshidi / Yima era, dominance would shift to the deva worshippers (see below), after which it would move back and forth between the two groups.)
Implicit in the references to ancient Aryans in the literature, is the development and establishment of national governance through the establishment of a hereditary kingship and a royal line. In this system of governance, Aryan kings had a sacred responsibility to protect the people, establish and uphold the law, encourage human development and lead the progress of society to a better life. When Aryan kings maintained this sacred trust and ethical compact (what in modern days we call a social contract), they were said to rule in grace in keeping with their khvarenah.
Aryan Metal Age
Age of Hushang
Civilization came to the Aryan world during the age of Haoshyangha (Hushang), Gaya Maretan's grandson.
Some texts state that Hushang was the first Aryan king. In any event, Hushang developed governance according to the rule of law and as a result he was called paradhata (first law giver). The title paradhata evolved to peshdat and then pishdad, a title that became the name given to the dynasty started by Hushang. Allied to the rule of law was the concept of common justice.
During the Age of Hushang, the Aryans developed agriculture and furthered the domestication of animals and - two elements essential for the development of settled, civilized societies.
The domestication of animals that had started with the herding of cattle during the Age of Gaya Maretan, now developed to include animal husbandry and the domestication of horses, ass and sheep. The domesticated animals were used for ploughing, as beasts of burden, for transportation, and for the making of dairy products. The animal and dairy products were used to pay taxes - and taxation was born.
To support agriculture, the Aryans during the age of Hushang dug irrigation canals and ducts. They learnt to bake bread as well.
Discovery of Fire-Making
Jashne Sadeh / Festival of the Hundredth Day
The Hushang Age also saw the discovery of how to make fire. This discovery is celebrated annually by people of Iranian (Persian) descent at the Jashne Sadeh, meaning the festival of the hundredth day. Yazdi Zoroastrians celebrate Sadeh 100 days before the New Year's day (Nowruz), while Kermani Zoroastrians celebrate the festival 100 days after the Ayathrem gahambar. (For further details, please see our page on Fire.)
The discovery of fire also led to the extraction metal from ore. According to legend, during this era, people acquired the skills of blacksmithing, crafting axes, saws and mattocks (a tool like a pickaxe with one end of its blade flattened at right angles to its handle and used for loosening soil and cutting through roots.)
The Age of Hushang was therefore the start of the Metal Age in Aryan history. However, unlike other metal ages which started with the processing of copper, Aryan and Saka legends place the use of gold before the use of copper in Central Asia - possibly even a few thousand years earlier. In Central Asia, gold was the more readily available and accessible metal. The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi states that gold was used in ancient times to make surgical knives used to perform Caesarean operations.
The Age of Hushang was also the start of the agricultural age and the age during which the Aryans began to establish an international trade network. In general, it was the start of the age of civilization.
Age of Tahmuras
Haoshyangha was succeeded by his son Tahmuras during whose reign, the art of shearing sheep, weaving and the making of clothes and draperies were developed. The reared animals were fed barley, grass, and hay, indicating that rather than leaving reared animals to graze in pasture, the animals were fed a diet that increased their strength and productivity. As a result, the horses became strong and swift. Fowl and other birds were added to the list of reared animal. Falconry and the taming of hawks were also developed during this age. The law of the land developed to include laws that required the animals be reared with kindness. These are probably the first records of animal humane laws in history.
Art too developed under the patronage of the king.
During the age of Tahmuras, the deva worshippers rose in rebellion, a rebellion that was put down. As part of the agreement to spare their lives, the deva-worshippers taught Tahmuras thirty different alphabets from different nations to east, west and south, thus teaching him the science of delineating sounds. From this account, it would appear that the deva-worshippers were the original travellers who had knowledge of the lands of China, Asia Minor, Arabia, Sogdiana and other neighbouring states. Aryan international trade would have been firmly established during the age of Tahmuras.
To the structure of Aryan governance, Tahmuras added a prime minister charged with the administration of justice.
Age of Jamshid
The Name Yima and Yama in the Avesta and Vedas
In the Avesta, Jamshid is called Yima-Srira or Yima Khshaeta, meaning Yima the radiant, son of Vivanghat. In an Old Persian tablet found at Persepolis, he is called Yama-kshedda, and eventually in Middle Persian Pahlavi, his name is transformed to Jam-sheed (to this day, the Parsees of India continue this penchant for converting the Y sound to a J sound). In the Vedas, he is called Yama, son of Vivasvant.
The Avestan references to Yima are found in Vendidad Fargard 2, Gatha 32.8, Yasna 9.4-5, Avan Yasht 5.25-6, Ram Yasht 15.15-6, Ashishvangh Yasht 17.28-31 and Jamyad Yasht 19.30-44.
While in the Avesta, Gaya Maretan is the first mortal, in the Rig Veda, Yama is the first mortal. This might indicate that for the Avestan people history started with Gaya Maretan, while for the people of the Rig Veda, their history as a people - as an identifiable or sovereign group - started with Yama. The Avesta and Vedas start to share prehistory with Yima / Yama.
Start of the Tragic Aryan Epic Cycles
In the legends, the legendary king who follows Tahmuras is Yima Khshaeta (later called Jamshid). As we have done previously, in an effort to extract historical developments from the myths and legends, we will say that the Jamshedi age followed the age of Tahmuras.
During the Jamshidi age (the age of Yima), the rule of law - a law grounded in grace and justice - developed and heralded a golden age during which time Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland, became a paradise on earth. In legend, Jamshid is considered one of the wisest and greatest kings ever, but one who would nevertheless fell from grace, thus heralding the start of tragic epic cycles in Aryan history, cycles that rotated between good and evil times. (For a further discussion on this golden era, please see our section on Airyana Vaeja as paradise in our page on the possible location of Airyana Vaeja.) Regrettably, subsequent monarchs did not learn from past errors and declines, dooming themselves and the Aryan nation to repeat the tragic epic cycle.
Since the Jamshedi age in legend lasted for over one thousand two hundred years, it would be unrealistic to expect this to be an accurate time period. Rather, it could indicate a long period of history that may have spanned several dynasties. Within this age, an early king, perhaps an eponymous Yima, would have ushered in a golden era - one that was sustained by subsequent Jamshedi age kings who may have continued presiding over significant societal change for the better. However, later kings might have become arrogant and complacent.
We have examples of this scenario is later times where is have more historical information. For instance, in the last of the tragic epic cycles - the age of the Persian kings - we have historical records of an age that lasted about a thousand years from the Achaemenians to the Sassanians (about the same span of time as the Jamshidi age). During the Persian age, there was a golden era brought on by the rule of Cyrus the Great. Later, there came a time when the kings became arrogant. The dissention from within weakened the Persian Empire making it vulnerable to foreign aggression. Ultimately, what followed was the destruction of a historic civilization.
Zoroastrians need to pay heed to the lessons of history, least those who have sacrificed so much to preserve these legends have done so in vain. History has been kind to Zoroastrians when they gained grace, but cruel and unforgiving when Zoroastrian leaders lost their grace. Arrogance, internal bickering, dissension and a loss of fundamental ethical principles are some of the symptoms of a fall from grace.
Metal Age Developments
During the Jamshidi age, iron was used to manufacture helmets, chain-mail tunics, breastplates, and coats of armour both for man and horse. Weaving was developed to a high art and included silk, cotton, and animal hair to produced finely woven and brocaded fabrics.
Calendar, Nowruz and Weather
The age saw the establishment of a calendar with the spring equinox being set as New Year's day - Nowruz. Holidays were promulgated and music began to be composed.
At the outset of the Jamshedi era, the weather in the Aryan homeland, Airyana Vaeja was fair and equitable, with the spring equinox heralding the start of spring and a renewal after the winter.
However, a thousand two hundred years after the start of the Jamshedi era, there was a sudden climate chill (Vendidad 2.22-25) and a drastic cooling (also see Aryans, page 3) - a mini Ice Age of sorts.
Knowledge of Central Asia's climate and climate changes during the past 12,000 years can assist in an understanding of the historical periods in Central Asia. For instance, in an event called the Younger Dryas, the earth is known to have experienced a sudden cooling starting 12,800 years from the present, with the cooling lasting about 1,200 years. In addition, there is evidence of more recent and shorter cooling spells of, say, 100 years. Different regions could have experienced different degrees of change and a severe cooling event could also have been regional rather than global. If the location of Airyana Vaeja was an area like the Pamirs, a 50 to 100C drop in average temperatures would have been sufficient to make winter life very harsh (Vendidad, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, chapter 1.2 and 2.22). We are informed by the Avesta, that after the change in climate, the warm months (the rapithwan months) in Airyana Vaeja were shortened from the normal seven months to two months in duration (Vendidad 1.3, notes in Vendidad Sada and Bundahishn 25 - the warm months being those when the ground waters are cooler than the surface).
The Vara Settlement
The sudden cooling and the onset of severe winters required the construction of a new kind of settlement and dwellings called a vara (Avestan Vendidad, a book of the Zoroastrian scriptures, chapter 2.25 - part of Zoroastrian scriptures). Vara is both the name of a settlement and the dwellings that made up the settlement (from vara, enclosure).
The concept of the vara enabled sustainable living for a people and their live-stock in a mountainous region beset with harsh winters. Surviving severe winters without migrating to warmer regions must have been an incredible challenge and a profound development for the people of those days.
If we put the mythological aspects of the legend aside, the description of the vara in the Vendidad indicates the start of settlement / urban planning in Aryan history. The Jamshidi concept was for the vara to be a self-contained, self-sustaining communal dwelling area built according to a set of uniform principles. There were to be separate areas for humans and animals, as well as for seed and hay storage. Fruit trees and crops were to be planted within the vara area. Water for the inhabitants and crops was to be brought to the vara via a channel and stored in a reservoir. Designated festivals also included a sharing of food resources. In addition, during the Jamshidi era, clay began to be used as a building and construction material for the first time. The houses of the vara were to be constructed using clay and wooden pillars.
The vara settlement was to be of three sizes: a settlement of a thousand inhabitants with nine streets, six hundred inhabitants with six streets, and three hundred inhabitants with three streets.
Also see the page on the Pamirs.
The Avesta tells us that during in the first thousand two hundred years of the Yima / Jamshedi era, the territory of Airyana Vaeja expanded up to four and a half times "southwards, on the way of the sun" (prior to the climate change), presumably into Afghanistan and possibly even the upper Indus valley. The people who remained in the original mountainous Aryan homeland appear to have dealt with the severe winters by staying in the varas for the entire winter, snowed in and cut off from the rest of the world, in the same manner as the Yagnobi in Tajikistan (close to the Pamir region) live through the winter to this day (also see Weather Change in Airyana Vaeja During Jamshid's Reign in our pages on the Aryans).
Professional Guilds & Initiation
King Jamshid developed the concept of specialized professions. He instituted the four main professional guilds of priests and learned (athravan), nobles and warriors (rathestaran), farmers (vasteryosan), and artisans (hutokhshan), with members of each profession working in freedom and dignity. Farmers had their own land free from dispute. King Jamshid also instituted the tradition of the wearing the sacred thread or belt as an mark that the wearer had been initiated into the guilds (see (Sad-dar - 'Hundred Doors' chapter 10, and chapter 39.18-19, Dadestan-i Denig - 'Religious Decisions').
The Hindu Vedas list four similar professions called varnas (from var, to enclose, cf. Av. vara meaning enclosure): the priests and learned (brahman), nobles and warriors (khshtriya), merchants and farmers (vaishyas), labourers and artisans (sudra). Each varna has its own dharma or system and rules (also called laws) which included an initiation ceremony called the upanayana (meaning bringing within).
The Vedic name for the systems of professions, varnas, and the Avestan name for the Jamshedi settlements, varas - both from the root vara meaning enclosure is significant and bears further examination.
The Hindu initiation ceremony like the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony is also called a thread ceremony. Hinduism calls the initiate a dvijas meaning twice born signifying that the initiate is "born again" into spiritual life. Zoroastrianism uses the term navjote meaning new life. The Hindu initiation is conducted during a person's teen or early adult years. The Zoroastrian age for initiation was the age or reason, deemed by tradition to be fifteen years of age.
Hinduism developed the professional guilds into a caste system, a development that violated principles that Zarathushtra would promote. The initiation ceremony in Hinduism is now limited to men of the first three castes, while the initiation ceremony in Zoroastrianism is available to all women and men. In Zoroastrianism, the initiation ceremony is an initiation into the faith and a coming-of-age ceremony for all Zoroastrians - rather than an initiation into a guild or caste.
Start of Human History in the Hindu Vedas
In the Vedas, human history starts with Yama and Hindu reverence for Yama, King Jamshid, grew while he lost favour with the Mazdayasni Aryan predecessors of the Zoroastrians. The Avesta tells us that the once wise, noble and honoured King Yima grew too proud, thought himself a god, and lost his place and grace - his khvarenah. In his hymns (Gatha 32.8), Zarathushtra laments that King Jamshid lost his way and became a sinner.
It is within the realm of possibilities that the Jamshidi king at that time abandoned the Mazdayasni faith in favour of becoming a deva worshipper, thereby becoming the first deva-worshipping Aryan king. (For an explanation of the different Aryans religions and the schism between them, please see our page on Aryan religions.)
End of the First Tragic Aryan Epic Cycle
Following Jamshid's loss of grace, the vassal kings and lords of Airyana Vaeja withdrew from the court of Jamshid and Airyana Vaeja. A hundred years later, weakened by internal dissention, Airyana Vaeja was invaded by an evil foreign king, Zahak (also spelt Zahhak and called Azi Dahaka in the Avesta). That event marked the end of the first tragic epic cycle in Aryan history and also the end of the first part of Pishdadian royal rule. The foreign domination supported by the deva worshippers lasted for a thousand years.
The Jamshidi loss of grace and arrogance had resulted in a nation that became weak from within and one that fell prey to conquest and domination by a foreign king for a thousand years until their liberation by Feridoon.
Regrettably, the Aryans would not learn from this painful lesson in history. In eras yet to come, the Aryan nation would rise and fall with epochs of golden ages followed by despair brought about by an abdication of the ruler's sacred trust and ethical compact to rule for the benefit of the people.
Our examination of the Aryan's prehistory continues on the page Legendary History.
Other pages on Aryans: