I’ve had this coin in my head for some days now – a golden coin of the Kushan king Huviska (who appears on the obverse), featuring what appears to be Yama on the deity side.
Why? Because of the iconography with which Yama – here hailed as ‘Iamso’ – is displayed. He’s holding a Spear in one hand, and a Bird is visible upon the other.
A Lord of the Realm of the Dead, armed with a Spear and with a prominent Bird is certainly a well-known Indo-European deific!
Yet what kind of bird is it? And why does this matter?
Well, for the latter, because it tells us quite a bit about how the Kushan thought about their own Indo-European religion – which drew from seemingly all the strands that had made their way to that crossroads of the world. You have Hindu deities on some Kushan coins, Greek ones on others, and Greek ones in relation to Buddhist concepts on yet still more. It really is an area of heavy diversity – yet also, out of that roiling sea of inputs, certain patterns emerge; and certain underlying truths nevertheless have a habit of reasserting themselves.
I’ve earlier written about this as a sort of parallel phenomenon to the more well-known ‘Interpretatio Romana’ in the West; a rubric of quite some practical necessity in ‘bringing peoples together’, yet which is also an archaic expression of theological insight – comparative mythological inquiry conducted in the realm wherein religion is no mere armchair academic pursuit for people considerably removed from its consequences. But an almost scientific exploration of the actually-existing world around them, and which could have gravely serious consequences if and when it might so happen to go awry. In short – it was treating Myths as being *real*, and then endeavouring to explicate how these real myths might really align. Rather like what we do here at Arya Akasha in the 21st century, as it happens.
So, to bring it back to the Kushan specifically – there’s quite a bit of scholarly debate about what they actually believed, especially amidst the elite. Some were without a doubt Hindus. Others seem more Zoroastrian styled. Many appear to fall somewhere in the middle, often with additional elements drawn from elsewhere again.
We tend to favour the position that while the Kushan often had phases where Zoroastrian elements *look* like they’re prominent – the actual understandings and belief practiced seems decidedly more Hindu. And that it is, in fact, a case of Indo-European Gods expressed via occasional pseudo-Zoroastrian garbing – with the resultant re-synchronization of beliefs from a number of Indo-European inputs [Hindu, Greek, Scythian, other Indo-European Central Asian groups, and Persian – even seemingly Roman, occasionally] quite understandably arriving at understandings reasonably resonant with the Hindu perception. A good example of which being the figure of ‘Oesho’ – represented with Shaivite iconography and what may be a derivation of ‘Ishvara’ [‘God-Emperor’] as the theonym, but also argued to incorporate the Zoroastrian version of Vayu as well. Which is no problem, because in the Hindu understanding, Shiva and Vayu are the same deity (You may also know Him as Odin).
So how does this coin and the Bird depicted thereon apply to this?
Well, because the big question as to just why Huviska had chosen to depict Yama upon one of his coins is bound up with this. Despite the well-attested pattern of the Lord of the Dead also being famously ‘wealthy’ [Classical Pluto, for instance], there’s usually supposed to be another reason for the selection.
One outside possibility is that Huviska was not, in fact, the son of the man who ruled before him – but rather, his brother. This is a somewhat contentious position, but if true and Huviska is the brother rather than the son of Kaviska, a rulership transition predicated upon the untimely death of the latter is quite likely. As Yama and Manu, much like Romulus & Remus, form a pair of Brothers with the elder one dying and the younger one then claiming the throne to rule, but *both* honoured for their respective and necessary roles … it would make a certain figurative sense for the younger brother to pay homage to his elder sibling by consciously and deliberately invoking the figure of Yama in silent tribute to him as he assumed the Manu role. But as I say, this is something of an outsider possibility, based upon a less commonly accepted theory of the Kushan royal succession.
Meanwhile, people who want to push the notion of the Kushan as Zoroastrian make the case that this is therefore ‘Yima’ rather than ‘Yama’ – that is to say, the Zoroastrian version of the same figure [see my Sons of the Sun series on the Progenitor Twins]; and that the bird upon Yima’s arm is the Varegna – a Hawk or Falcon that is a symbol or even form of Verethragna as well as the Kingly ‘Farr’ [‘Glory’, or, perhaps, metaphysical mantle of honour for a blessed man]. On the face of it, this would seem eminently logical for a putatively Zoroastrian king – and would fit also with Yima’s role in the Zoroastrian rendition of Indo-European mythology as an archaic king in some ways analogous to the more conventional Man(n)u(s)/Romulus [although again, see ‘The Indo-European Man – Sons of the Sun [Part III]: Zoroastrian Yima – The Death of Manu’ for how this actually works out in practice]. Huviska would therefore be invoking this prior ancestral ruler of mankind, particularly mankind during a crisis point, as a source of inspiration and as the sort of ruler which he, himself therefore aspired to be.
Except that, as the academics Daryaee & Malekzadeh have pointed out …. symbolically, this makes little sense. It presupposes that the populace of Kushan and its related client-countries would be familiar with Zoroastrian mythology and iconography – but also that they would somehow not make the more obvious connection wherein the main occurrence of a Falcon in relation to Yima is when the latter is *losing* his right of rulership and mantle of ‘glory’ due to heading into the darkness of falsehood beyond the Zoroastrian orthodoxy. It would make for a questionable point of reference, indeed, for a king to implicitly frame himself thus.
The same authors also make mention of ‘Iamso’ [the inscription upon the coin] as potentially referencing an archaic and definitely pre-Zoroastrian Bactrian form of the deity, perhaps in common with the Nuristani ‘Imra’ version of the figure. This, I suspect, is more – pardon the pun – on the money.
Where things get interesting, for our purposes, is another point of potential connexion within the Zoroastrian canon – and which, to my mind, recalls the broader typology much more easily in evidence elsewhere in the Indo-European-Varta for the relevant deific. You see, Daryaee & Malekzadeh point out – Yima is also somewhat prominently identified as receiving an important revelatory message from a certain bird, ‘Karsiptar’. There is some debate as to just which species of bird local to the Indo-Iranisphere this should most properly represent, with recent theorizing focusing upon either a species of Iranian Lark, or an Indian bird known as the Cakravaka. This latter is due to the alternate Avestan term for the Karsiptar – the Caxrwak.
However, I should like to propose a different alternative, which *should* fit both potential terms; as well as what we know fairly conclusively about the relevant Indo-European deific under discussion.
You see, ‘Karsiptar’ is in fact ‘Karsi-Ptar’ – that is to say, the ‘Black-Winged’. And what is a bird we so frequently find as a messenger or emissary of the Lord of the Dead, who is also black winged. In Sanskrit, we would also call them Yamadutas, or occasionally as Pitrs [‘Forefathers’] – Corvids: Crows or Ravens. As applies the Caxrwak linkage, the speculation would be that the latter particle would be commensurate with ‘Vak’ [‘Voice’], whilst the former should represent something akin to the more usual ‘Garh’ , ‘Gerh’ – which means a ‘harsh noise’. It is where we get terms such as ‘Crack’ from, as well as various other words for the Roar of Thunder; and most directly for our purposes – it is also where we get ‘Crow’. (I should note here that there is another possible etymology for some Corvid-related terms such as ‘Corvus’ – going back to Proto-Indo-European ‘Ker’, in this sense being, again, a ‘Harsh Noise’)
‘Caxrwak’, therefore, would be the ‘Harsh-Voiced’, or perhaps, as we shall see, the ‘Indistinct Voice’/’Hidden Voice’. (Although it should be briefly noted that other identifications are possible – the Medieval Persian term similar to this, which means a sort of Lark; and the Sanskrit ‘Cakravaka’, which refers to an admittedly rather orange/saffron feathered duck, which nevertheless does have some connection to the Pitrs … most usually as a sacrifice to Them; there is also some suggestion for ‘Caxrwak’ as meaning ‘Duck’ in Avestan]
The PIE ‘Gerh’ derivation has important implications also – as I frequently cite in the form ‘Vacam Garjit Lakshanam’: Thunder Having The Characteristics Of Divine Speech. This is a familiar concept to Indo-European religions, and also implies in its Hindu usage the notion of communication which only a specially perceptive ear is actually able to comprehend. In a not dissimilar manner to the ‘Language of the Birds’ we find referenced in the Germanic mythology as well as elsewhere – and I am not simply meaning those who spoke to Sigurd to warn him of impending threat. Kon, the Young King of the Rigsthula, too, hears the voice of a Crow (perhaps sent by Kon’s Father, the God Odin – although some identify Rig with Heimdall, in which case Odin would be Kon’s Grandfather) advising and guiding him to become a powerful ruler. A voice which only the sort of man who was not merely a man – but rather, of the appropriately divine bloodline and/or education and empowerment should be able to comprehend. Just the sort of thing one would wish to present to one’s people if you were a newly minted king. The great diviner, the one who can see things as they actually are, and discern the proper pathway and godly guidance where others only hear the harsh caw-ing of carrion birds.
So, how to interpret this coin and the religious culture from whence it came, then? Well, for a start it would seem rather curious for this to be – as is often argued – a direct representation of Zoroastrian Yima. The patterns of coins issued by Huviska have tended to have deities on the reverse facing and the king upon the obverse. This presents an immediate problem for this being *Zoroastrian* Yima – as the Zoroastrians did not really regard Yima as a deity. Great mortal man, sure – but not a God, in the manner of the Hindus or the Nuristanis with Yama and Imra respectively. Now, that is not to say that some might have suggested at the time a conceptual linkage with the Yima of the Persians – but that is, as we have noted above, a case of Indo-European Gods merely occasionally depicted in Zoroastrian garbing.
The coin could most certainly be Yama – albeit in a slightly different sense, perhaps, than the most familiar Vedic figure; and with elements we also find co-expressed in the Imra deific of the Nuristanis and the Kalash. And I say ‘co-expressed’, because these, too, are to be found in the Hindu figure of Yama. It is just that while we would ourselves recall Yama as DharmaRaja, this term is often taken to mean ‘Lord of Justice’ rather than its more expansive sense of, effectively, the Just Ruler, the Righteous Ruler. That is to say, the essential ingredient in a prosperous and prudent Kingship – Dharma, Righteousness; and its active expression as the administering of the Rule of Law and Justice. We are merely more used to the more ‘limited’ conceptual sphere for Yama as focused exclusively upon ‘Justice’ in an eschato-legal sense rather than the expansive regal-legal-sovereignty sense more common for a mortal King rather than a magistrate. And in terms of ‘domain’, we are likewise more accustomed to thinking of Yama focused pointedly in the realm of Death and what comes after. Rather than, perhaps, rulership of what the Pitrloka may also be thought of as – the Idealized Realm of the Glorious/Ancestral Dead. A ‘Heavenly Kingdom’, if you will. It is not hard to see how a ruler here on this Earth might wish to make oblique comparison to the regimen prevailing in such a blessed realm; and there is also a perhaps surprisingly under-spoken about connexion in mytholinguistic terms between the words we associate with ‘dark’ and ‘ending’ in the manner of ‘death’ and those for ‘rulership’, as I previously explored in “Ragnarok And The Night Lord”.
Such a more ‘expansive’ perception for Yama would also fit with the role in which Imra takes in the related Indo-Iranian religions of the Kalasha and the Nuristanis – wherein the ‘Heavenly Ruler’ denotation appears to become something almost more akin to the Sky Father deific we have broadly known elsewhere. There is a certain logic to this – the Sky Father has a well-known Death linkage [c.f Dyaus Pitar as Shiva – Kala, Odin, and of course, Hades identified as Zeus of the Underworld], although it presents some obstacles in light of the fact that, technically speaking, Yama should be a *Son* of Dyaus Pitar. Which either means that the suggested linkage of Imra to Yama is somewhat overstated, or that it is accurate – and the Nuristani and Kalasha have suffered a ‘shift’ in their respective perspectives over the intervening four thousand years, perhaps as the result of flawed oral transmission of the myths in question [a phenomenon observed by some in light of the differences between Kalasha accounts given to one anthropologist versus those transcribed by another visiting them some decades later after some upheaval in the region]. More upon much of that, perhaps, some other time.
I mentioned toward the beginning of this piece that I found the operation of this Central Asian ‘convection zone’ rather remarkable. Not simply because it managed to bring together the Indo-European mythoreligious perspectives of half a dozen or more cultures in occasionally quite bewilderingly panoply of diversity. But rather, because it could often (if not *quite* always) seem to do so in a manner which *resonated* – which brought together out of and from this diversity, the essential elements of the underlying Indo-European mythic truth.
This coin stands as testament to that – an ethos so potent it has seemingly been capable even of acting as a ‘corrective’ to the Zoroastrian deliberate vandalism of their own prior Indo-Iranian mythology.
Huviska’s successor, Vasudeva is often regarded as being the formalized ‘convert’ to Hinduism amidst the latter lines of the Kushan – but I think, in truth, that even well prior to him, the ‘innovations’ of certain Buddhists and more proper Zoroastrians were already fading against the light represented by the revanchism of the more traditional Indo-Iranic mythic milieu.