This Is #GangSteppe – a trio of Scythians, circa the 4th century B.C.
Now, what is going on here is the warrior to the right (the bare-chested chap equipped with the arrows and bow) is presenting the head of a slain foe (likely a Macedonian, going by the Vergina Sun emblem on the pauldron of the armour) to his Lord, while another Scythian nobleman looks on.
In return, the Lord is presenting his man with a golden vessel. And that is why I am posting this image, because it represents a very ancient and veer-y vitally integral Indo-European concept: that of, as we would say in Sanskrit – Bhaga [ भग ]
But what is ‘Bhaga’ ? And why is it so important to understanding the actual nature of the society of our ancestors?
Well, in one sense, it is “Lordship” – and in its cognates in other (Satem) Indo-European languages such as the Old Persian 𐎲𐎥 (Baga) and the array of “Bog” sounding terms in Slavic languages, we see a considerable ‘refinement’ of that particular dimension to produce terms for a God. Something not entirely dissimilar takes place within Sanskrit – wherein ‘Bhaga’ goes from being a term applied to an array of Lordly RigVedic Deities, and with a handful of potential mentions *as* a [Solar] Deity Himself, through to being prominently attested and well regarded Aditya [Solar Deity] in the later Puranic texts.
And it is this “Solar” association, which really beautifully illustrates what is *actually* going on with the underlying meaning of both term and concept of “Bhaga”.
For what is the Sun? It is a singularly impressive yet singularly remote object within the sky; and in terms of how it regulates the flow of days and seasons, does indeed impose a broad and pervasive form of Order upon the (localized) cosmos and the realms and affairs of men. Much like our modern conception of a Lord, a King.
But more importantly for what I am getting at here, the Sun *also* bestows upon us the vitally important energy of its rays – without which, life upon this earth (let alone social organization) would be rather difficult indeed. The gleaming radiance of the Sun, then, is not simply the far-removed pomp and pageantry of a Louis XIV [the so-called “Sun King”] – it is an active distribution of the necessities of existence, good weather, and good fortune out to the world and its mortal inhabitants.
So, it should come as absolutely no surprise to us to find that the Proto-Indo-European from whence this term derives – Bhehg/Bhag – means “to distribute”, “to divide [up]”, “to apportion”, “to hand out”.
Because *that* in this ancient sense, is what a Lord does. Not simply sit idly by on a throne somewhere collecting the tithing and the spoils of the fruits of his subjects’ labour as some kind of pseudo-symbolic quasi-para-parasite. That is our seriously modern conception of what Royalty is, because that is functionally most of what we actually allow our monarchs to do in many of those countries which yet retain them.
And, to be sure, it is not a concept without some certain level of historical precedent. Part of why the French Revolution happened, is *precisely because* the Lords of that country had fundamentally ‘forgotten’ just what it was they were there for – The centralization of the aristocratic court and all its (now concentrated and considerably exacerbated) pretensions at Versailles under that aforementioned “Sun King” lead inexorably to a considerable ‘imbalance’ in the relationship between nobility and much of the rest of their society. Noblesse Oblige being replaced by “To the Nobles, thou art Obliged … to pay hand over fist, and be thankful for the privilege”.
There was rather more to that particular historical occurrence’s causation, of course – but I maintain that the fundamental *breaking down* of a reciprocal relationship between actually (locally) involved, interested, engaged, and compassionate aristocracy and those under their aegis of bestowment and protection, in favour of massively increased taking *from* the latter to fund the lavish excesses of the former … lies at much of the heart of it.
And you could find without too much effort, probably half a hundred other examples from the past of pretty much exactly the same phenomenon in action, and with similarly dramatic results. The Russian Revolution, and particular phases of the rulership of Israel in the Old Testament spring *instantly* to mind.
So to return to what’s happening in this image, then, what we see is decidedly *not* this Modern bete-noir of a basically pointless except in symbolic terms and/or for the purposes of suspending Parliament Monarchs/Nobles Who Don’t Really Do Anything … but rather, its exact opposite.
The warrior on the right, kneeling before his King and presenting the severed head of a slain foeman upon the field of war, has risked his life for his sovereign and people. He is demonstrating , in a sense, *another* Sanskrit concept – भक्ति – Bhakti, “Devotion” (interestingly enough, from the same PIE root as ‘Bhaga’, and derived via the notion of the division of one’s efforts to declare and prioritize that which one is devoted to).
The Lord, in recognition of this and justly pleased by his valiant efforts, is (re-)distributing unto him a valuable piece of booty [and, on a side-note, somewhat to our general amused observation here at #NAS, the more modern connotations of “booty” are rather directly mirrored in both some certain meanings of “Bhaga” in Sanskrit, as well as the understanding of भग in modern Hindi].
The engagement, the “entanglement”, the actively breathing, ‘operationalized’ relationship we see before us is भक्त [Bhakta] – one of those wonderful Sanskrit terms with several facings of a concept all bound up in a mere few syllables. In this case, meaning not only the “distribution” and “apportionment” side of things, but also the bonds of loyalty and faith, and even the sense of an active, participation in and with.
Now, interestingly and perhaps importantly, the treasure in question is a dish – something which could be utilized for a number of purposes, to be sure, but which directly conjures within the mind its role in the provision of sustenance. Something we eat off, I mean. Or, as it happens, something we might utilize when making offerings *of* sustenance to The Gods. Which matters also, as the concept of Divinity (and, more particularly, our relationship *with* many of said Divinities) in an array of Indo-European religions is *also* closely bound up with this notion, and its performative aspects going all ways, of Bhaga. Hence, in part, its theonymic and theological utilizations even prior to the rendition of it, simply, as “God” in those Slavic & Iranic languages aforementioned.
But why is this interesting to me? That it is a *dish* being handed down in (dis)tribute here, I mean. Well, consider the modern English word of “Lord”. It comes down to us from Old English – Hlaford, Hlafweard. These terms, literally rendered, would mean something like “Loaf-Ward(en)”. [The female equivalent, meanwhile, Hlafdige, means something like the Kneader/Maker of Bread – the “dige” part referring to that preparatory, formulative action; and finding additional expression in Old Norse Deigja, meaning a ‘maid’ in the sense of a ‘milk-maid’ or a servant]
So why is our modern term for a powerful man, a respected man, a noble-man (of a certain sort and clade these days, to be sure) apparently derived from an archaic Germanic term for what could, if you were not paying attention, be accidentally confused for a humble baker? [And oddly enough, “Baker” is derived from *another* Proto-Indo-European “Bhehg”, of slightly different pronunciation, which means ‘to roast’, ‘to bake’, ‘to fry’]
Well, isn’t it obvious? “Give us this day our daily bread”, as the Christian prayer and verse of New Testament scripture goes;
The bread is, in one sense, material sustenance [a rendering prominently preserved, of all places, in rap, wherein it may also refer to money – or, er, potentially other baked goods which may or may not involve flour and perhaps baking soda].
After all, it is the sacred responsibility of a Lord to provide meat and drink to his loyal retainers and other warriors [indeed, in the later decades following the Viking Age, the ambit of the duty in question had become extended from applying chiefly to the “Hird” of a Germanic/Nordic Lord, comprised of the immediate military retinue his Huscarla [‘House-Karls’], through to an entire elaborate network of patronage which brought in upon particular feast-days even low-born men in their Lord’s employ for symbolic ‘breaking of bread’ with]; not least because, one might observe, a lord *unable* to do so would likely suffer a steady erosion of his forces via the desertion of his men to other figures who may be better able to look after their needs. In extreme cases, as with our French Revolution example above, this may not entail “desertion” so much as an “involuntary abdication” carried out at sword-point.
Yet even though we can see a somewhat vaguely similar concept at play in the Roman ploy of “Bread and Circuses” – wherein a would-be man-on-the-make or an establish(ment/ed) figure looking to maintain favour with the ordinary people of the locality, would put on exactly that …
… to attempt to explain this concept of the Lord as “Bread-Giver”, in fundamentally if not purely [puerile-ly, one might suggest] materialistic terms, is to almost miss the point entirely.
There are an array of terms in the various Germanic languages which might, perhaps, serve to help illustrate my point. Phrases like “Gift-Throne”, “Treasure-Friend”, “Gold-Friend”, “Ring-Giver”, and many others besides. Consider the connotations of these constructions, even rendered as they are into English.
They do NOT simply mean “employer” or “paymaster”.
Rather, the notion of the “Gift” shows that it is a bestowment considerably different in kind from mere “wages”; the frequent utilization of “Friend” connotes the depth and degree of *affection* imparted and implied within the context of the relationship [something which also turns up in the meaning-field of Sanskrit Bhaga – and, in its slightly more developed direction of “Love”, may perhaps explain the more .. amorous interpolations in later Indian linguistics for the term and its descendants]; and the “Ring” also bears with it the notions of fealty, reciprocal loyalty, indeed, *oaths* of binding and unending portent.
The Lord *may indeed* be, in one rather narrow sense, the general arbiter of who gets access to what resources within his domain, as its controller [which may partially help to explain “Bhaga” as in ‘fortune’ – in both senses of the term, luck and wealth, derived from Proto-Indo-Iranian ‘Bhagas’, which also means “fate”, “destiny”, ‘outcome’ – your Lord has a rather large hand in many angles of your ‘fate’, after all, as well]; and the apportioner, the divider up of the spoils of warfare and raiding to those of his subjects without whom he could not likely have prevailed [and note the subtle yet important shade of distinction between ‘giving’ versus ‘dividing up’, even where the latter *also* entails the former within its ambit immediately following.] .
Yet he is also something much more – not simply the “heart” in the crude biological sense, even as he sets the rhythm for the rest of the body via his tempo and tenor of beats [bryttu, a Germanic term of some functional coterminity with the bestowment, dividing up elements of Bhaga,etc, also sharing an etymological root with terms for ‘beating’, as it happens] and redistributes the vital life-blood of, well, blood throughout the constituent components of the physical body and body of society. But rather, the “heart” in the much more poetic sense that has developed therefrom – a place, a site of feeling, of emotion, of dearness, of ambition, of striving, of steering, of steeling, and of both compassion and of rage.
The Scythian King handing his loyal soldier a golden dish, therefore, is not to be thought of in such narrowly (ultra-)modern terms as an effectively ‘mercenary’ activity – the materialist purchase of materialist pseudo-“loyalty” on a paid-by-the-hour style and source of basis.
That did happen, of course, and there are many and varied tales of such things blowing up upon the rulers who sought to try them – hence “mercenary loyalty” as a phrase having acquired the rather tongue-in-cheek connotations that it has today. (Although rather often, issues arising in such matters were less about this or that perfidious mercenary figure or force turning upon a steadfast employer in pursuit of greater gains, perhaps motivated by the proverbial and literal “higher bidder” to change sides mid-battle … but instead, unscrupulous leaders thinking they could avoid actually paying in whole or in part for the services which they had sought to benefit from, and Consequences Ensuing.]
But here, it is something different. Something else. It is Righteous Conduct on the part of all involved. A Sacred Bond.
Idealized, this is true – but it is important to understand just what that Ideal actually is.
Talking about this concept of Bhaga would draw disbelieving ire from many modern-minded people. And for the simple reason that, as I have earlier said and stated, because they have a fundamental opposition to elements drawn from pre-Modern, pre-Capitalist systems of societal organization, direction, and responsiveness, control.
And you know what? I absolutely do not disagree that looking around what passes for “nobility” , either in literal or figurative terms these days, I can *well* understand why the notion of many if not most of those sorts having *any* power let alone actual direct responsibility for a citizenry … is likely abominable, if not downright farcical. It is, in a certain sense, not only “how we got here” over the previous few hundred years – but, in terms of those “figurative” nobles, these *actually existing” elites of the modern age [and there’s some Thorstein Veblen in here somewhere] , a very large part of *why we’re still in* this situation all up. “Status Quo”, as Ronald Reagan pithily observed, is Latin for “the mess we’re [currently] in”.
But if I may be permitted to continue my steppe-flight of idealist thought-raven for just a few moments more … consider what we have conceptually replaced such a wonderful, noble idea as “Bhaga” with, in practice. A relationship with an employer that is likely *at best* to be a fundamentally lop-sided economic exchange in which at least one party is often (but not always) attempting to do its darndest to outright *exploit* the other; and whose only real underpinning is the dubiously appreciated provisios of materialistic economic necessity.
Weighed up against *that*? Against the effective hijacking of even the concept of service, let alone however much of the apportioned hours of the day our almost sole, exclusive simulacrum of human connectivity is to be found in satiating somebody else’s profit motive [as opposed, you know, to a Prophet Motive], desperation to simply get by, or petty desire for control …
… give me Bhaga, every day !