Something I have been absolutely perplexed by in the past few days, is a sudden upwelling of people who seek to claim that ‘religious war’ was a ‘monotheistic’ or more specifically ‘Christian’ invention; and that prior to this, the non-/pre-Christian world had neither these concepts, nor even the barest notion that there could be such a thing as ‘foreign gods’ or other religions to be opposed.
Perish the thought.
The oldest religious texts we have directly available to us from the Indo-European world are quite pointed in their remarks upon the subject; and we have an ongoing semi-literal litany of such examples from other IE cultures in the several millennia or so since.
Religious warfare is, in other words, quite endogenously Indo-European.
So why are people at such pains to pretend otherwise? Well, to put it bluntly – they are running on some sort of instinctual “anti-Christian” sentiment. They aren’t NEARLY as interested in the authentic religious and mythic beliefs of their ancestors, as they are in doing the implicit opposite of what they perceive as the negative elements of Christianity.
Therefore, due to the association of Christianity and Islam with religious warfare and bigotry against the practitioners of other religions (or even somewhat diverging theological interpretations of their own) – we get this incessant belief that the pre-‘Abrahamic’ religions MUST have been axiomatically more tolerant, and not even really had such things as doctrine and dogma nor consistent theological positions to be ‘out of line’ with in the first place.
Not because there’s much evidence for this in practice (indeed – usually the evidence goes directly the opposite direction – and my comrade Tristan has done an excellent job of detailing a suite of illustrative instances from the Nordic / Germanic canon to demonstrate this) … but rather because for this sort of person, it just ‘feels’ like it should be the case.
Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the historical and scriptural instances which help to show what the archaic Indo-European world view upon the subject was really like.
Now, those aforementioned most archaic Indo-European religious texts available to us are, of course, the Vedas; and a cursory perusal reveals quite the expansive conceptual syllabry for religious conflict, combat, and Divine Acts of Smiting. Customarily involving Flames.
There’s a fascinating piece to be written up upon the many and the various iterations of these terms for ‘Heretic’, ‘Non-Believer’, ‘Blasphemer’, and such … but this isn’t it. So we shall instead restrict ourselves to but three verses.
The first of these is RV IX 63 5 – which is also the source of the famed ‘Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam’ maxim [‘Make The World Aryan – Noble’]; and that’s interesting to us precisely because one half of the line portrays the proper and pious works of the devotee as actively supporting The Gods in Their Divine War Effort – in direct contrast, you see, to the ‘aravan’ : which means ‘non-giving’ / ‘hostile’ / ‘evil spirit’. Why ‘non-giving’? Because that which is ‘given’ is sacral offering, as part of religious participation. What is being communicated is that the people(s) who are actively opposed to the proper worship of the Vedic (i.e. Indo-European) Gods, who do not make effort to contribute to said War Effort (indeed, who do the opposite) … are not on the Side of the Gods, and must therefore be dealt with appropriately. This can be connected to, say, RV VIII 39 2’s use of “araati” to mean, again, “non-contributing”, as a way to characterise the men who are the enemies of the Gods and the pious.
RV X 38 3, meanwhile, goes for the rather simpler “ADeva” as the essential characteristic of the foe to be crushed. And that’s interesting, because it also pointedly specifies that it does not matter whether he who is ‘ADeva’ be “Arya” or “Dasa” – so this is clearly not merely an ethnic or ‘out group’ target. Even men who are ‘Arya’ and otherwise ostensibly part of the in-group, may find themselves the targets for righteous (religious) wrathfulness and Divine bellicosity.
RV VII 21 5 and RV X 99 3, instead take the approach of identifying specific worshipful characteristics of the foe – sketching out a luridly illustrative depiction of how you know the enemy upon the basis of his religious proclivities. Importantly, the terms utilized do appear to suggest that these are foreign gods being opposed.
These texts are from the 2nd millennium B.C. – and amply demonstrate that for much of the past four thousand years at least (and most definitely considerably before then), religious violence aimed against the heretic, the blasphemer, and the worshipper of other figures, has been known to the Indo-European.
Later Hinduism was also intimately familiar with the concepts of warfare and bloodshed for theological dispute-resolution purposes – indeed, we have coined the term ‘Roudran Theological Argument’ to refer as a kenning to an Axe … precisely because this keeps coming up within the realms of the mythology as an effective mechanism to bring just such a dispute to a terminus.
The best-known emblematic occasion from the mythology is presumably Lord Brahma’s attempt to insist that He was Greater than Shiva (whilst also making rather .. affronting remarks about the latter’s Wife), thus leading to Shiva’s sending of KaalBhairavJI [the Terrifying Black/Death/Time One] armed with an axe to rather literally cut Brahma and His Arrogance back down to size; and in the process restore balance to the cosmos.
However, probably my favourite occurrence is that found within the Vayu & Vishnu Puranas, narrating Daksha’s ill-starred attempted horse-sacrifice. I’ll let the Sage Dadhichi take over:
“Beholding them thus assembled, the sage Dadhícha was filled with indignation, and observed, ‘The man who worships what ought not to be worshipped, or pays not reverence where veneration is due, is guilty, most assuredly, of heinous sin.’
“Then addressing Daksha, he said to him, ‘Why do you not offer homage to the god who is the lord of life (Paśubhartri)?’ Daksha spake; ‘I have already many Rudras present, armed with tridents, wearing braided hair, and existing in eleven forms: I recognise no other Mahádeva.’
“Dadhícha spake; ‘The invocation that is not addressed to Íśa, is, for all, but a solitary (and imperfect) summons. Inasmuch as I behold no other divinity who is superior to Śankara, this sacrifice of Daksha will not be completed.’
“Daksha spake; I offer, in a golden cup, this entire oblation, which has been consecrated by many prayers, as an offering ever due to the unequalled Vishńu, the sovereign lord of all”
Now, this account is interesting to us for a few reasons – including the observation that Daksha’s apparent sin is not merely the exclusion of Rudra from the rites in question … but actually appears, in part, to be his hailing of Vishnu as supreme. A ‘debate’ which has never satisfactorily been resolved within Hinduism (despite the suite of evidence to be drawn from), and which is semi-instinctively re-litigated upon many an occasion that a Shaivite and a Vaishnava find themselves in extended conversation.
Occasionally, it even spills over into active violence – with a particular Kumbh Mela observance in 1790 leading to thousands of holy men dying due to just such a conflict turning into an active combat. And I should stress at this point, that the men in question were killed by other holy men in an inter-sect-ional bloodbath .. utilizing the not-just-ceremonial weaponry carried as staffs (or, perhaps, ‘spears’, ‘clubs’) of office by the denominations of monks in question.
So, in short, if we have conflicts – and quite active ones at that – over the role and significance of particular Gods within a Pantheon, no Christianity nor Islam required … it would stand to reason that conflicts with the worshippers of other pantheons would also be plausible.
Except the usual counter-argument to this is some sort of willful claim that in the archaic world-view there was ‘no such thing’ as ‘other Gods’, only ‘our own Gods, differently understood’. Which is, again, false (although with some degree of truth in some areas, for some peoples, some of the time).
Now, a grand example of this is provided to us by the Zoroastrians, and their much-storied near-neighbours, the Turanians. For those unaware of the conflict – the Zoroastrians instigated a religious rebellion, quite literally an inversion of the previous Indo-Iranian religious orthodoxy, that had as one of its defining features the demonization of a number of the most prominent (and warlike) Indo-European Gods. The Striker/Thunderer (Indra), the Spear-Wielding/Archer Sky Father (Rudra), and the Horse Twins (The Nasatyas / Asvins) most prominent among Them.
This was rather controversial even at the time, and invited fairly active push-back from the Indo-Iranians of the surrounding sphere – with ‘Turanian’, in its original incarnation as a designation, effectively meaning just exactly that. The lead groups most vigorously opposed to Zoroaster’s putative religious “reforms”, and with characteristics which appear to place them amidst the Scythians and other such Indo-Iranian post-Andronovo peoples who were quite actively preserving the religious and cultural traditions of their forebears.
Why this matters for our purposes, is because prima facie we have a prominent instance of a people, a religion, deciding that the gods of another people were not gods at all – but rather demons to be vigorously opposed; and all of this occurring perhaps a millennium or more prior to the advent of Christianity.
It also shows us that religious warfare is, again, alive and well in the ancient Indo-European sphere of the early Iron Age or late Bronze Age (this variance depending upon just how archaic you want to place Zoroaster’s religious ‘reconstruction’).
The Scythians and their famed religious conservatism are not just known to us via inferency from Indo-Iranian sources, either – but are spoken of in just such terms by commentaries from the Classical world as well, perhaps a thousand years later.
There we find amidst the works of Herodotus some exceptionally interesting details about the Scythians of the area presumably proximate to the Ukraine of the modern day. I have detailed these at quite some length for comparative Indo-European analysis elsewhere and shan’t repeat much of that here; but suffice to say, we find a people who are profoundly suspicious of ‘foreign’ influences, including Gods – and who are ready, willing, and even overtly eager to take up arms in defence of their ancient and customary same.
Indeed, the way the Scythian king Idanthyrsus phrases things – he makes quite clear that this is intimately bound up with another cornerstone of the Indo-European World View: that of being directly descended from The Gods; which therefore, it must be suggested, shows the problematic nature of treating ‘all Gods as the same Gods’ no matter which peoples we are speaking nor thinking of. Because, in a sense, it would imply that there is no such thing as a ‘foreigner’ and that all there is is different shades of one’s own people. Something which does indeed work for the Indo-European sphere (and is somewhat directly attested in terms of how varying Indo-European groups occasionally wrote about others as just such an implicit recognition of shared heritage and ultimate origins); yet which starts bending and buckling at the seams the further and the broader one extends this.
But I digress – back to the emblematic instances of religious intolerance for the ‘foreign’ customs of worship and Gods amidst the Scythians.
The most prominent examples which spring to mind concern two famous Scythians – Scyles and Anacharsis – both of whom were killed for, per Herodotus, religious subversion by becoming devotees of foreign gods.
In the case of the former, Scyles had taken up the mantle of a bacchant devotee of Dionysus, but kept this secret from his people due to his awareness of their feelings upon these matters. This fear proved to be well-founded, as a Greek of the area allowed some Scythian observers up to a high tower, whereupon the latter caught sight of their king engaged in Bacchic rites, while seriously drunk (as was part of the custom for these) .. and thence demanded his ouster as their ruler, culminating in his eventual execution.
A similar fate befell Anacharsis, who upon his return to Scythia from Athens, was observed to be a devotee of Cybele and attempted to carry out sacral conduct to Her. For which he, too, was put to death.
Now, in both cases – I do not think that things were quite as Herodotus had put them; and I have my own suspicions as to why these executions were reported by him in the manner that they were. But those are thoughts for another time. The important point is that the general attitudes that they reflect were held appropriate and plausible for the ancient audience for whom Herodotus was writing.
The latter example of Anacharsis for Cybele is particularly poignant; as there appears to have been a bit of a historic pattern of such things across the ancient world. In each of Athens and Rome, we find attempts to introduce the Goddess, the cult of Cybele to these bustling metropolises, rebuffed in quite strong terms (in the case of Athens, the priest in question is put to death) … only for the sudden onset of disease in retaliation leading to a semi-literal silencing of the critics.
The Roman case is quite different, as I have previously detailed at some length in my relevant works on Her – and features a grouping of the Roman upper ‘establishment’ actively deciding to reach out and import the physical stone associated with Cybele and other such necessary elements for the Goddess to be brought to Rome, in response to a Sibylline Oracle statemet that such measures would be necessary in order to secure victory in the Second Punic War against hated Carthage; with the opposition to this maneuver being lead by a Tribune of the Plebs rather than general establishment opinion as with Athens some three hundred years before.
But in either instance, it quite clearly shows that this notion of “all Gods are the same Gods, religious toleration is therefore implicit, with religious division and conflict on the basis of ‘what we do’ versus ‘alien’ being unknown” – is quite a foreign one to the ancient world.
Although having said that, I am also at pains to point out that, as the Romans themselves realized (albeit in the wrong way), Cybele is one of ‘their Gods’ and is not really ‘foreign’ at all. That is because She is an Indo-European Goddess, brought to Anatolia by the Phrygians from their previous domiciling directly proximate to the Indo-European Urheimat; and hence the synchronization with Rhea which the Romans promulgated is rather apt.
Even if the attempt to say that Cybele must have ‘always’ been a Roman Goddess, due to the Romans’ self-referential headcanon about originally being from Troy and therefore Anatolia … is not. [This is because, even if it WERE true – which it isn’t – the Trojans were not Phrygians, but Luwians, and from a much earlier wave of Indo-European expansion out of the Urheimat than the later arriving Phrygians]
Now, to be fair, true, and sure – there IS a counterveiling view that this aforementioned conceptry around Cybele, semi-assists to elucidate. That of the ‘synchronization’ of foreign Gods (and, indeed, actually-foreign gods) with those of the pre-existing ‘native’ faith. Both Greek and Roman populations became more enthusiastic about this as time wore on, in part necessitating and certainly assisting in conceptualizing the Interpretatio Graeca and Interpretatio Romana frameworks.
When these were applied to fellow Indo-European religions, these tended to produce decent, and even downright insightful results. We have earlier detailed a number of these in relevant works around Dionysus and Mercury, for instance.
However, when applied to non-Indo-European religions, they tended to over-emphasize at-best surface-level similarities in some areas … and could result in an obscuration via popularity of (re-)interpretation, actual features of the ‘native’ mythologies serving as the basis for the comparison. This is partially what appears to have driven the “Mess-O-Potamia” phenomenon in the Classical world, following Greek cultural contact with the various non-IE peoples of the Middle East, and resulting religious synchronicity – which appears to have driven reinterpretations of Greek mythology and religion in some areas so as to align it more closely with that of the foreigners.
There is much more that can and should be said upon the Classical conceptry in this area, as it’s definitely fair to suggest that these peoples tended to be more ‘cosmopolitan’ in their view of the faiths and powers of others as they became more ‘open’ to the rest of the world all up; however this must be considered in light of the much more reserved, or even actively hostile positions which tended to be encountered amidst either Greek or Roman cultures earlier on in their history.
Amidst the Indo-Iranians (that is to say, the Vedic Aryans, Steppe peoples such as the Scythians, and of course, the Iranic populations including Zoroastrians), the lines of delineation are quite clear. There is a strong conceptual awareness of the separation between the Gods of the community and those of foreigners; escalating to active ‘demonization’ in some cases, and outright opposition to the enactment of the religious rites of the foreigner amongst them.
It is therefore no surprise that we find such incredible vehemency in the Indo-Iranian sphere (and in the most archaic swathes of the Indo-European scriptural corpus, as well as amidst its most conservative bearers), toward the notion of taking these prejudices and ‘actionizing’ them. Making active religious warfare upon the heretics, the religious opposer, and the practitioner of different rites (even those from within the same broad religious canon, or from within the same ethnic group). All occurring some near-two millennia (and presumably more) afore the birth of Christ.
In other words – the ongoing attempts to ‘prove’ that the onset of religious warfare, and active discrimination against Gods and religious practices not one’s own, are somehow an exclusively ‘Abrahamic’ phenomenon, correlate with the arrival of Christianity or Islam in an area … are fundamentally false in their intent or at least their perception. And represent cases of people dearly wishing to present the non-/pre-Christian world as being an idealized sphere without many of the problems of the modern world. In an age where we so frequently hear about religiously influenced genocides, terrorism, and domestic political contests … it is perhaps understandable to wish to ‘escape’ to what one might dearly wish to believe was the more ‘wholesome’ pre-Christian past. And to attempt to set up whatever it is that one believes we should be ‘returning to’ in the present, as being almost a direct opposite to that which one wishes to ‘transcend’.
Yet this does NOT mean that what I have presented in the above article ought be construed as an exhortation nor an enjoinment to return to the more authentic past in these matters – an era of violent sanction meted out upon those who believe differently, worship differently, or even merely look differently than we might. I simply present the facts as they are; aware that the decision of how we move forward, if it is to be informed by the past, should be informed by the actual past rather than some fantasy headcanon patently twisted for proselytization purposes.
After all – if you don’t know where you’ve been, where you’ve come from … then how can you really know which way, where you are going.