Today, the word ‘Aryan’ is loaded with all sorts of negative connotation, largely due to Nazi ideology, Aryans have become associated with racial hierarchies that consider white, blonde, blue-eyed peoples superior. This served as a very useful propaganda tool for couching racist sentiments in seeming historic realities. However, it is not factual.
Only in the late 19th early 20th centuries did Aryan become equated with Germanic or Nordic peoples. Prior to this corruption, Aryan referred to an archaic language whose speakers are thought to have spread and influenced languages throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Rigveda in Sanskrit, India early 19th century. Sanskrit is a standardized dialect of Old Indo-Aryan.
The Real Aryans
To quickly put any Nazi suppositions to rest, the earliest known Aryans lived in prehistoric Iran. These people migrated to northern India sometime around 1,500 BC. Previous inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent called these newcomers ārya. The English ‘Aryan’ comes from this Sanskrit word. Interestingly, the term has a cognate in the Persian language, ērān. This word is the source of the modern country name, Iran.
The Indus Valley Civilization was highly developed before the Aryans arrived. Some evidence “suggests that the Indus Valley Civilization had social conditions comparable to Sumeria and even superior to the contemporary Babylonians and Egyptians” (Violatti, 2013). Religions had arisen around 5500 BC, farming communities around 4000 BC, and urban living around 2500 BC. The area reached its peak in 2000 BC.
Diorama of everyday life in Indus Valley Civilization. (National Science Centre, Delhi, India)
Starting in approximately 1500 BC, nomadic cattle herders from Central Asia began to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains and to settle in the verdant Indus Valley. These nomads were, of course, the Aryans. Popular myth has it that the Aryans were unstoppable invaders, proto-Mongols, who took over the Indian subcontinent and led the Indus Valley Civilization to collapse. There is not much evidence to support this theory. Rather, it seems that over time the Aryans filled the void left by the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization.
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An Aryan general
Archaeological evidence shows that the societies were decaying in 1800 BC, most likely due to changes in river patterns. Some researchers argue that the Saraswati River dried up; others say it became prone to catastrophic flooding. Students of environmental science will know that these scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Whether by floods, droughts, or invasion, the agricultural practices that originally enabled the Indus people to flourish were disrupted. Thereafter, the economies and societal orders built on that agriculture also crumbled. “The evidence supporting the decline of the Indus River Civilization is compelling: writing started to disappear, standardized weights and measures used for trade and taxation purposes fell out of use, the connections with the Near East were interrupted, and some cities were gradually abandoned.” (Violetti, 2013) Shortly thereafter, the Aryans entered the scene. Soon, their language, agricultural, and animal husbandry practices became ascendant.
Illustration said to depict an Indo-Aryan person
The Kingdom of Aryan
There is little evidence to speak of what the Kingdom of Aryan was like. Ancient sources only reference Aryans in passing and there is no way of knowing how accurate any of the statements are. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus, describing the people of Media, writes, “The Medes were called anciently by all people Aryans; but when Medea, the Colchian, came to them from Athens, they changed their name. Such is the account which they themselves give.” (Herodotus, 2013)
Head of Herodotus; Greek inscription. Roman copy of the Imperial era (2nd century AD) after a Greek bronze original of the first half of the 4th century BC. From Benha (ancient Athribis), Lower Egypt. ( Public Domain ) Herodotus mentions Aryan people, but doesn’t go into much detail.
This is not very helpful in understanding the character of Aryan people. An equally sketchy account of ancient Aryan legitimacy is the Zoroastrian religion. The term Airyana Vaejah , which translates as ‘Aryan expanse,’ refers to the mythical homeland of the Iranian people and is supposed to be the center of the world. This engenders the term with a certain amount of respectability, but still does not really give any racial or hierarchical meaning to it.
Zoroastrian devotional art
Elsewhere, Persian kings like Darius the Great and Xerxes are described as ‘Aryans of Aryan stock.’ This most likely refers to the original Aryans coming from Central Asia. Possibly due to Zoroastrian influences on Vedic religions, the terms arya and anarya are used in a moral sense, as to distinguish proper behavior from improper behavior. An Aryan thus was one who lived according to his or her dharma. It is not clear if this word derives from a tribal name. But it is clear as to how this designation could begin to take on connotations of nobility and superiority.
Illustration of Darius with his Parasol Bearers 1904
‘Aryan’ Becomes Distorted
In the Indian epic the Ramayana, Ravana refers to himself as arya. This could be because he is part of the highest caste or because he acts honorably.
Whatever the confused linguistic legacy of Aryan may be, it is certain that by the dawn of the 20th century, Aryan had become equated with nobility and superiority. Somewhere in the mists of time, this Indo-Iranian term came to be used for Indo-European peoples. The thinking went that ancient European peoples spread out from the frigid north to conqueror all of Eurasia. These ancient peoples were the Aryans.
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West Aryan types of eastern and northern Europe. On the picture: Georgians, Ossette, Albanian, Woman of Iceland, Russian woman of Rjasan, Roumanian woman, Poles of Radom
Moreover, the more ancient something was, the more legitimate and more superior it was thought to be. Thus, the Germans declared themselves the descendants of the ancient, noble Aryan race, the most superior race in the racial hierarchy, who once ruled all of Eurasia. This pseudo-science served as a propaganda for the Nazis to achieve their political ends.
Please note that today, the appropriate term is Proto-Indo-European (PIE) languages, and it implies not that one language conquered and influenced all the others, but rather that many ancient languages in Eurasia seem to share common origins. PIE subcategories include Proto-Celtic, Proto-Baltic-Slavic, Proto-Greek, and Proto-Indo-Iranian (the Indo-Aryan language can be found under this last category). Certain neo-Nazi groups still posit that the Aryan race is Germanic or Nordic - but this is not supported by any historical or archaeological evidence.
By Kerry Sullivan
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Aryan.” Encyclopædia Britannica , Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 26 Jan. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Aryan.
Herodotus. Histories of Herodotus . The Classics Us, 2013.
Violatti, Cristian. “Aryan.” Ancient History Encyclopedia , 19 Jan. 2013, www.ancient.eu/Aryan/.