THE HEROIC AGE
- In this section, you should learn to define and describe the following
terms: Indo-European family of languages, Aryan, Sanskrit, Iliad,
Bhagavad gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Mycenae, Troy, and
the Trojan War.
- You should be able to describe the traditional view of Aryan society and
- You should have considered and be able to explain how the traditional
image of Aryan society and its expansion may have been influenced by
ninteenth-century Europeans' image of themselves.
- You should be able to explain how written history may sometimes be used by
societies to justify themselves and to maintain an existing power
- Finally, you should know some of the characteristics of an "Heroic Age"
and what circumstances can give rise to such an era.
During the eighteenth century, when the British were establishing their
control over Indian, Many of the British administrators were also scholars
trained in Greek and Latin. One of these scholars was studying
Sanskrit, the language in which the Hindu sacred
books are written. He became aware that Sanskrit seemed to be closely allied
with both Latin and Greek. The Sanskrit word for "Great King," for instance, is
maharaja, and the Latin term for the same thing is magnus rex.
Some other words are even closer: "mother" in Sanskrit is mater, in Latin
mater, in German Mutter, and in English mother. One could
extend that list greatly, but the real tip-off that there was an actual
relationship was that the grammar of Sanskrit on the one hand and Latin and
Greek on the other hand were too similar to be accidental or the result of
borrowing. Scholars were excited by this discovery and began studying other
related languages, such as Iranian, Russian, all of the modern Western European
tongues, and a number of dead languages. They found them all related and gave
the name of Indo- European (from the fact that these languages
spread from India all the way to Europe). They began to ask how
this family of languages, of which their own was usually a member) had spread
over such a vast expanse of territory.
It didn't take them long to realize that most of the Indo-European tongues
for which some historical origin was known were spoken by, and often introduced
by, chariot-driving peoples. It was only a short jump from this to trying to
discover the place where these people had originated. There were various
theories, much study and even more argument, but most scholars accepted the idea
that the original home of the people speaking the original Indo-European
language from which all of the other languages had descended was probably
somewhere near to, and northwest of, the Caspian Sea. The scholars decided to
call these ancient people Aryans, the name that the
Indo-European-speaking invaders of India, and close to that of the conquerors of
modern Iran (in which name that of these people is preserved).
They pictured the Aryans as a people comprised of small tribes, ruled over by a
warrior chieftain who was also their lawgiver and believed to be descended from
one of the gods. One of the arguments used to support this view was the
similarity of some words: the Latin rex, or "king"; the English
word right (spelled in that funny way because it was originally
pronounced something like "wrecked") in the sense of "law," "justice," and so
forth; rita, the Sanskrit root with which English "rite," "ritual"
and similar words connected with the practice of religion are derived; and the
English rich, or "wealthy".
This society was thought of as being divided into relatively rigid classes:
the warrior/wealthy/law-giving/and god-like nobles, the shamans who assisted
them and who were, although not noble, distinguished by "magic" powers of
prophecy and the like and were servants of the god of the tribe, and the mass of
common people. Aryan society, being primarily nomadic, was dominated by the
males and this was reflected in their religion. They worshipped the personified
forces of nature, but, even before they began to expand, they must have
recognized one supreme god, since the name of the father-sky-god
are quite similar in all of the languages of the Indo-European family: Sanskrit
Dyaus pitar, Greek Zeus pater ("Zeus" originally
being pronounced something like "dzh-eh-oos"), and Latin Jupiter.
When the Aryans conquered an agricultural society, they often accepted the local
goddesses and paired them off with their own gods as husband and wife, such as
Zeus and Hera, Hephaestus (god of the forge) and Aphrodite (goddess of sexual
love), and so forth. In the Aryan society, and in the societies derived from it,
the role and status of women -- since they could not be warriors except in myths
like that of the Amazons -- was considerably diminished, and women
were treated as inferior to men.
One could go on a great deal longer with this sort of thing, but you should
recognize that all of this is really speculation and involves a great deal of
reading the present back into the past. Archaeological work in Rumania over the
past twenty years has uncovered settlements of peoples who were smelting bronze
and using chariots long before the invasions of the chariot peoples began.
Moreover, these early bronze-users were sedentary agriculturalists, and they
appear to have expanded relatively peacefully into the peninsula of Europe. The
scholars of the nineteenth century saw the Aryans as the original Europeans, and
it suited that century of European imperialism to picture their ancestors as
strong and dynamic, a conquering people, sweeping down in their war machines to
establish their overlordship over the various "lesser" peoples of Europe, Asia,
and even Africa. It was also an era in which the monarchs and aristocracy of
Europe were trying to hold on to their power in the face of popular uprisings
and revolutions, and it suited them that people should view the original
European, or White, "Race" as having been subject to a powerful elite. Finally,
of course, it was an era in which women in the more advanced Western countries
were demanding basic rights and a fair share of political and economic power in
a society to which they were contributing a great deal. The picture of early
Aryan society, the historic foundation of European society and culture, as male-
dominated was an argument against such demands. For all of these reasons,
historians and archaeologists are now reacting against the traditional view of
Aryan society and the conquests of the chariot peoples, and many are discarding
the entire idea of an "Aryan people" as pure imagination and wishful thinking.
This may be carrying things a bit too far. There are some facts that cannot
be simply dismissed. The chariot peoples did invade some
countries, and, in those countries that they invaded, they did
introduce a language that falls into the Indo-European linguistic family. Just
as important, in some cases, they left behind a tradition that is reflected in
ancient epic poems. These epics, such as Homer's Iliad and the
massive Indian epics known as the Ramayanaand the
Mahabharata, in the latter of which one finds the passage known as
the Bhagavad gita, as well as some of the Hindu sacred texts,
particularly the Vedic Hymns, reflect a society dominated by a
warrior-elite, fighting from their chariots, and possessing personal values and
attitudes that we normally associate with those of an Heroic Age.
Unfortunately, too few such epics have endured to draw any firm conclusions from
them as to the nature of the chariot-driving/Aryan/Indo-European-speaking
peoples. The Kassites, Hyksos, Tocharians and others may each have had their own
epic songs, comparable to the Iliad and Bhagavad
Gita, but, if they did, their songs have not survived.
One would like to believe in the traditional view of the Aryan peoples and
their conquests, if only because makes for a more coherent view of the history
of that period: the early invaders of Mesopotamia learned elements of
civilization, such as the pantheon of gods personifying natural forces, some
elements of writing, and so forth, from the Babylonians and Sumerians, and that
they shared it with other peoples of their sort. They then took this, together
with their own culture and technology, and spread it among the peoples whom they
subjugated. We can imagine that people had grown more and more differentiated
during the long expansion, first of the species and then of agriculture, and
that the Aryan conquests, as bloody and as oppressive as they may have been,
restored to the peoples of the Eurasian continent a common cultural basis that
would allow the exchange of ideas and values in the future.
But saying that it would be nice if a certain aspect of the past were true,
doesn't make it so, does it?
REQUIREDThere are several Perseus Project sites that
will provide you with some idea of one of the leading cities of the era. Mycenae was the city of King Agammemnon, leader of the expedition, and
the city around which the war raged. The legend of this event was extremely
important to the ancient Greeks and, as The Trojan War Myth in
Ancient Art demonstrates, it was a favorite theme in their art.
RECOMMENDEDReed College has produced a beautiful site
containing the full text of Homer's Iliad, along with a useful
background for understanding the work. The Iliad may be a bit long for
you to skim through, but you might want at least to look at one of the great
literary works of the Western Tradition if you are not already acquainted with
it. Another excellent Perseus site offers an excellent overview of Knossos,
the capital of the Minoan civilization that developed on the island of Crete and
lay, both figuratively and literally, halfway between the Egyptian Empire and
the Bronze Age cultures of the Greek mainland. The Bhagavad
Ghandi and is well worth your time if you care to read it. This might also be a
good time to visit a very nice site set up by our neighbors in Singapore. Alamkara: 5000 Years of Indian Art is
a good place to visit for an overview of the many arts in which the peoples of
ancient India excelled.
This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of
History, University of Kansas.
30 January 1998