“HERE BE INDO-ARYANS?” On the Vedic Gods of the Mitanni

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I’ve had this document on my mind for quite awhile now. Not just because of what it is (which we’ll get on to in just a moment), but also because of what it *represents*.

See, this is one of the world’s oldest surviving international peace-treaties. Dating from the mid-14th century B.C., it seeks to solemnize an end to the conflict between two then-prominent Near Eastern regional powers – the waxing Hittite Empire under Suppiluliuma, and the seriously waning Mitanni by this stage under Shattiwaza. But its status within the annals of the history of international diplomacy is not why I find it seriously interesting to think about.

Instead, it’s for linguistic and religious reasons. Surprising, I know.

To cut straight to the chase before I get carried away building up the ‘broad strokes’ underpinning this piece – the treaty in question is written in an *Indo-Aryan* language, rather than an Anatolian I.E. one; and makes direct reference to several strongly important Vedic Gods and concepts. It’s therefore pretty fascinating, precisely because these things are rather unexpected – and cause us to re-examine what we thought we knew about the development and the spread of Indo-European, and more especially, Indo-Iranian – again, pointedly *Indo-Aryan* – mytho-religion and language.

Now, in order to ‘set the scene’, we should probably briefly introduce the respective agonists of the agreement. And by this, I do not mean the rulers whose names are baked into the terms of the tablet; but rather, the polities, the peoples for whom they stood. Because that’s where things start to get interesting.

The Hittites should already be relatively familiar. They turn up just about everywhere dealing with the period – rampaging down to Babylon, fighting Ramses II at Kadesh (in what is probably one of history’s first recorded instances of deliberately promulgated “Fake News”, as applies Ramses’ presentation of the outcome of the battle as a crushing Egyptian victory), likely making war on the Greeks quite to the west, and potentially even turning up in the Bible – which is probably where most of us know the name from. In the mid-1300s, they’re a real regional Great Power, pretty much at the apex of their suzerainty.

For our purposes, they’re the principal Anatolian Indo-European group; and that’s also the linguistic sub-family they belong to. Their mytho-religion, while it retains its Indo-European elements, has also hybridized to a certain extent with that of the Hattians and then Hurrians whom they overran and assimilated in the course of their conquest of their future imperial heartland, as well as with Mesopotamian mythoreligion through ongoing external contact. It’s a matter of significant debate just which bits from what we know of their overarching beliefs come from where. Which matters, as due to the relative antiquity of the Hittites, as well as their early ‘branching off’ from Proto-Indo-European linguistic and mythological corpus, they form a quite an important source when it comes to PIE mythoreligious (re)constructionism.

But I digress. Despite the fact that they’re *unquestionably* the *severely* dominant party to this peace-treaty (it’s really more of an imposition than an equal-footing act of diplomacy, in realpolitik terms; the Mitanni’s position after this is effectively that of a client-state of the Hittites, sealed with the marriage of Suppiluliuma’s daughter to the Mitanni’s new ruler Shattiwaza … who’d effectively been placed upon the throne *by* Suppiluliuma following a period of considerable instability amidst the Mitanni characterized by a string of assassinations and overthrows), the Hittites are not supposed to be the stars of *this* show.

Instead, that honour goes to the Mitanni – or, more specifically, to their courtly language and religious customs. Which, as I noted somewhere towards the intro, aren’t exactly what you’d expect in Northern Mesopotamia/South-Eastern Anatolia.

Now, the Mitanni themselves, are thought to have basically been a Hurrian people, who at some point in their history had wound up with an Indo-European (or, at the very least, considerably Indo-European-ized) ruling class. Except rather than being something like the Hittites – wherein a group of *Anatolian* Indo-Europeans rolls in and occupies/assimilates/subjugates/incorporates the non-Indo-European previous inhabitants (Hurrians, broadly speaking, in both cases; although also the Hattians for the Hittites earlier on) – the Mitanni are coming at a similar starting situation from the opposite angle. Literally. As in, from the *East*, as far as we can tell.

And instead of conquering and assimilating the Hurrians into an Indo-European dominant culture, the Mitanni’s Indo-European ruling elite find themselves increasingly Hurrian-ized, to the point that by the time this treaty is signed, it seems that they themselves are likely speaking Hurrian on a day-to-day basis, with their own original language having become increasingly reserved only for ‘special occasions’ – the incredibly serious and indelibly closely related fields of formalized politics/matters of state and religion.

To phrase it in linguistics terms – whereas in many what we might term “Indo-European cultural encounter” situations, after the Wolf-Warriors and the #GangSteppe on horseback or chariot have done setting fire to your town and rebuilt it at least once, what remainsis a non-Indo-European “substrate” (residual traces of the previous language and culture that have been ridden over the top of, potentially rather literally) – in Mitanni, what we have is an Indo-European *superstrate* on a largely non-Indo-European language, culture, and people (the riding-over-the-top-of having left hoof-prints … rather literally, considering all the horse-related terms in Mitanni that have this origin (although that is both another story, and another stele, for another time) – upon what was there before and yet still remains).

Looking from the Hittites to the Mitanni and back again then, one could almost conclude that their essentialized civilizational experiences have just about been ‘mirror images’ of each other. Which does not mean that they were ‘identical’; but rather, that things are facing pretty much the opposite way around.

Unfortunately, we do not know enough about the Mitanni themselves to make accurate nor adequate inductions about just how much of their culture and mythoreligion was “Indo-European-ized”; but I do not consider it to be coincidental that it is in the religious realms, the courtly realms, and the horse-training realms that the Indo-Aryan language features, indeed names and nouns, are seemingly most strongly preserved. All are, after their own way, effectively sacred, sacral actions; and the reign-names of their rulers – which often directly included elements around divinity and/or horses and chariots – are effectively at the apex of all three. I suspect that the relegation of the original Indo-Aryan language brought forward to the Mitanni by their Indo-European (horse-)elite, to that of a largely liturgical and technical tongue rather than its maintenance as an ongoing day-to-day vernacular, may have erected an effective ‘fire-wall’ between the traditional elements bound up and expressed within it, and those that it would otherwise have ‘rubbed shoulders with’ in the cultural canons and corpus of the ‘host’ Mitanni-Hurrian culture. There is therefore, in the treaty in question, little surprise that we have *exactly* the right – indeed, the *rite* – Indo-Iranian/(Pre-)Vedic deities invoked, with highly recognizable names to scholars or speakers of Sanskrit (admittedly, in at least one case with the addition of a Hurrian grammatical suffix), rather than the situation prevailing in many other texts from, say, the Hittites, wherein theonyms (or even entire deities) from the cultures they were in contact with are straight-imported and placed alongside or otherwise overlain over the top of the Hittites’ own Indo-European theology.

Of course, it should be noted that there IS a criticism of this perspective – insofar as the treaty text under discussion is a Hittite one, promulgated by a Hittite ruler to a now-subject people, and *including* these Indo-Iranian deifics amidst a rather more broad and general list of deities from the Hittite end of things. However, the *lack* of similar attestation for these Indo-Iranian theonyms in other Hittite texts, in concert with those aforementioned other Mitanni textual sources such as lists of reign-names and a rather famous horse-training manual, nevertheless seem to support the view that actually, yeah, the Mitanni *were* in possession of significant mythoreligious and (culturo-)linguistic influence from the ‘main’ Indo-Iranians to the East.

So other than the immediately obvious point around an Indo-Iranian diffusion heading West (whether the people themselves, or possibly simply imparting cultural elements to tribes driven out before them and migrating ahead of the front of the storm) in a sort of a Bronze Age Pincer maneuver that would meet in the southern shadow of the Caucasus and west of the Zagros, why is this interesting?

Well, consider the dates. The treaty is tentatively ascribed an authorship of about 1380 B.C.. The language-clade which gave rise to the terms under discussion, is Indo-Aryan. The Gods are immediately recognizable as the (Proto-)Vedic ones. Why does this matter? Because somewhere smack in the middle between where the Mitanni were, and where the core of Vedic society had set up amidst the Seven Rivers, there are the early Iranians – the Persians, and other such peoples. Who speak a different branch of Indo-Iranian languages, and who at some point come under the thumb of the religious inverter Zoroaster – one of whose ‘reforms’ specifically demonizes Lord Indra.

It’s *possible*, to be sure, that some of this *could* be explained by impressively long-distance trade and cultural contacts with the Vedic Aryans far to the east, which somehow bypass the (Old) Iranians somewhere in the middle; however while this *may* account for the technical terminology around horse-training etc, I suspect that this would be a pretty unsatisfying explanation for the presence of (Proto-)Hindu conceptry in reign-names and the apparent pantheon of the Mitanni’s ruling elite.

The *better* explanation – at least, to my mind; as well as being the more immediately ‘useful’ one – is that this all suggests that the Zoroastrian heresy was considerably *later* and more marginal in its earlier phases than some have otherwise sought to suggest. It may also indicate that Indo-Aryan itself was more broadly distributed as a development of Proto-Indo-Iranian, and/or that the divergence between Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages may have happened somewhat later than is often presumed. But this is getting *well* above my pay-grade within the realms of theoretical linguistics, so we shall leave that for others to ruminate upon for the moment.

But the thing that was most playing upon my mind when considering this treaty-tablet most recently, was none of these things. At least, for part of the evening/morning when I was thinking about all of this.

Rather, it was that there’s this incredible duality between the Deities mentioned in this text – assumedly, the deities the Mifanni held dear – and the Mitanni themselves. Hell, even the Hittites in whose imperial mouth(piece) They (the Gods) are Invoked.

See, of the Mitanni, we know if not “next to nothing”, then hardly too much more than that. We have a few fragments of Imperial correspondence, a horse-training manual (that is surprisingly – and I mean *surprisingly* – almost ultra-modern in its techniques), some scattered inscriptions here and there, and pretty much what can be untangled from the accounts of the people by those who lived in their immediate vicinity and warred against and/or intermarried with them (usually in that direct order). Even when it comes to the actual, physically baked hard-text in front of us, so much of what we present as fact about them is, ultimately, simply well-informed (albeit quite likely via inference) conjecture.

We can, in short, barely even tell you who or what they were as a people. It’s gotten to the point wherein we’re not even entirely sure if they’re *a* people, or just what precise role these Indo-Aryans among their midst *actually* played within the kingdom itself – warrior elite binding together a confederacy? royal family and upper aristocracy at the heart of an empire by then in decline? expatriate professionals within the relevant fields of war and equestrianism (and perhaps *especially* both at once) from further East who may have seen an opportunity for some “vertical integration” and taken it? We just simply don’t know.

But then, you look at the Gods enumerated and called upon by the Mitanni, and then echoed by the Hittites in the course of the drafting of this Treaty. Names we *instantly* know and recognize – Indra (In-Da-Ra), Mitra (Mi-It-Ra), Varuna (U-Ru-Wa-Na / A-Ru-Na), Agni (A-Ak-Ni-Is), the Nasatya Horse-Twins (Na-Sa-Ti-Ya-An-Na), along with the familiar concept of Rta.

Now, even though it is also true to state that these RigVedic era Hindu Deities are in some respects less prominent than some of Them once were, They are still worshipped, still prayed to, still veer-y much a part of active Hindu religion in the here and now, today, some three, nearly three and a half millennia hence. Indeed, we very much could not *have* Hindu religion without Agni, nor a cosmos, a cosmology without Rta. And it is not like either the specific and specifically recognizable theonymic forms of these Gods nor the more general Divine Identities referred to by them were restricted to the Vedic Aryans, either. We see Mitra turn up eventually right across the Indo-European World, borne by Roman legions. We see immediately the resonance of Eddic Thor with Vedic Indra. I maintain that Varuna finds form in the more westerly Indo-European religions in a number of ways – including Njord of the Sea, and Ouranos of the Sky, but this is … another article I keep meaning to get on with writing. [Along with a much more in-depth analysis of the precise reasoning why these *specific* Indo-European deities are strongly resonant with the concept of (inter)National treaty-making and diplomacy, alliances, in the first place … and, for that matter, whether Suppiluliuma *really* meant to suggest that necromancy was one of the Cassus Belli for this *particular* war-effort against his neighbouring rivals; but I digress]

What I am trying to say here, is that while the Mitanni may nowadays be a mere historical-linguistic footnote,… and while even the once-mighty Hittites themselves, are something that is now ever-increasingly distant in the rear-view mirror of time – the Gods, the Gods Themselves, are still around. Not merely “alive”, nor “echoes”, but immanent, resurgent – downright *making a comeback*. Although perhaps that’s precisely the wrong term to use. You don’t call it a “comeback” if They’ve been here for years. Except insofar as it’s *us* that are doing the “coming back” – *to* Indo-European mythoreligion, in any number of diverse-yet-unified (and fundamentally, foundationally strong because of it) locally salient, immanent branches thereof.

“Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”, definitely.
“Memento Mori”, by all means.
Yet “Sanatana Rta”, “Orlog”, means Divine Order Above All; Ancient, Eternal, True.

Reality is defined, in a certain sense, as that which remains/persists even when you stop believing in or perceiving it. It is true to state that part of the point of piety – as well as recent experiments in quantum physics around the degree to which focusing upon something, believing in it might actually alter the thing itself and its outcome – is to strengthen and augment those particular ‘parts’ of reality, those Divine Personages, to Whom we owe our fealty and our loyal adherence. But that does not “make” reality – it “enhances” certain elements within it. Although this is rather rapidly arcening towards me making a potentially somewhat controversial ‘democracy of the Divine’ metaphor [wherein it is pointed out that politicians, except in rather specific circumstances, don’t tend to stop existing simply because you haven’t voted for them, or they’re not in office at this particular moment in time), so we’ll save further unpacking of this perhaps somewhat tangential battle-line of thought for a future article.

The point is – when looking at this Treaty text, I got a sense both alike to and unalike that which I experience when hearing a verse of RigVedic hymnal sung aloud in a devotional context. For, in both cases we have The Past being ever with us. In both cases, the Past has come down to us here in the present. And in both cases, from evidently remarkably similar starting-origin points. It’s just that whereas the Vedic verse is part of a liturgy of devotion whose lineage has remained *alive* and *active* for this previous span of perhaps almost some four thousand years (a frankly unfathomable scale and span of time for pretty much any mortal … it’s a timescale that is downright *archaeological* in scope, and even then some), the mythoreligious experience of the Mitanni has been something of a cul-de-sac branching off therefrom. It went some ways, and thence was subsumed, snuffed out, functionally ended and relegated to the status of archaeological discovery rather than, say, “cultural encounter” or “living tradition”. It died with its people, in other words.

Or, at least, a portion of it, a *facet* did. And the twig that hath been broken off from the Tree of Mighty Indo-European Mythoreligion, has become so desiccated with the passage of the ages that even planting it anew in fresh soil or seeking to graft it on to a yet-still-healthy bough is singularly unlikely to be able to resurrect it in a truly meaningful sense.

But as for the *rest* of it, this broad-spanning macro-mythology, Rta-religion, *that* is another matter entirely.

Even though the mouths of the Mitanni and the hands of the Hittites may now be nought but dust in tombs and blowing hence across the desert wind, their cultures a matter for speculation both academic or upon the black-market in antiquities pilfered … as Terry Pratchett once memorably put it:

“No one remembers the singer. The song remains.”

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