Something that has truly given me cause for wonder as we’ve been delving further into the mysteries of Indo-European Central Asia … is just how immediately recognizable certain myths, certain figures, certain truths remain even ‘midst seemingly unfamiliar overlay.
This fine rendering from Penjikent in modern-day Tajikistan is just such an instance. A Sogdian depiction, to the discerning viewer it immediately betrays itself as something far more archaic than the mid-1st millennium – and seemingly almost near Medieval to our Western aesthetic sensibilities – accouterments this myth has donned.
What is depicted? Why, it is an essentialized rendering of that most familiar confrontation – the Divine war-effort against the Demon-Dragon of the waters. And, more intriguingly – it is the specifically Vedic perception of this combat.
How can we tell? Look at the figures arrayed in opposition to the demon. There is one lordly warrior that is depicted leading the charge and having skewered the creature; whilst behind, there are three others – assumedly retainers, echoing the lord’s action.
Now, before going further it is necessary to note that there are, in fact, several archaic Vedic tellings of this event – and, indeed, several events within the Vedic mythology which follow the same broad formula. This is not a unique development to the Vedic sphere – through our research, we have demonstrated that various of these multiple accounts, featuring multiple protagonists, antagonists, and mechanisms of victory are likely of Proto-Indo-European antiquity. This is the case because particular identifying features of each occur in multiple other Indo-European traditions.
So, for instance, Indra against Vritra finds its echo in Herakles against the Hydra, or Thor against Jormungandr; however with multiple versions in the Classical corpus of the former which correspond to several of the multiple Vedic iterations of Indra’s combat. Hence, in some there is mention of Athena and Vak being essential to the victory; in others, the fight is won by Indra and Herakles alone; and in others still, we find greater prominency for Iolaus and Trita (often in combination with the Goddess). The reasons for these multiple presentations with important points of distinction between them, is because each is keyed to a ritual understanding. The specific course and conditioning details of a given mythic account that had been preserved, corresponding to the essential elements of the rite being undertaken and which had been ‘mythologized’ to facilitate its preservation in memory. Men remember narratives better than step-by-step instructions, after all – and so the latter is rendered as the former. Except whereas in the Vedic sphere, we still have the quite overt ‘ritual understanding’ of these things – precisely because the Brahmana texts are just exactly that … ritual manuals/commentaries … in the Greek sphere, much of what was preserved was only the narrative frameworks. And often ‘enhanced’, embellished, or even euhemerized by successive generations of writers operating either adjacent to or outside the theological/sacral sphere proper.
Indeed, other versions of the Combat do not feature this same Serpent – and instead have a Tricephal opponent that is vanquished (although this ‘blurs’ over with the demon-dragon encounter, especially in the Greek mythology). Or, and this is something that annoys me no end when it is not acknowledged – we find that it is a case of ‘Like Son, Like Father’, with the Sky Father deific carrying out the relevant actions in question. Consider Zeus against Typhon, Vedic Brihaspati’s orbital bombardment of the underground bunker of Vala accomplished via prayer, or that intriguingly cryptic deed of Odin in the Ynglinga Saga that utilized a magic verse to sunder the ‘obscuration’ [‘Vala’ – in Sanskrit, at least] and release the cows hidden under the earth. [see my earlier ‘On Odin Brihaspati As Song-Smith – The Sung Seizing Of The Wealth Of Cows’ for how that last one is relevant]
So whilst it would be tempting to identify the finely wrought scene playing out before us upon this Tajikistani-located wall as being that combat between Indra and Vritra … there is at least one other possibility which we shall consider to this as well.
But let us begin with the basics – and the most immediate identification for this rendering. That of Indra, and three associates, against the Adversary.
Why are the three associates relevant? Shatapatha Brahmana I 2 3 2 gives us the answer. It speaks of “the Âptya deities, Trita, Dvita, and Ekata.” And of these Aptyas [‘of the Waters’], it says –
“They roamed about with Indra, even as nowadays a [Brahmin] follows in the train of a king. When he slew Visvarûpa, the three-headed son of Tvashtri, they also knew of his going to be killed.; and straightway Trita slew him. Indra, assuredly, was free from that (sin), for He is a God.”
Now this is a fascinating verse in its own rite [that rite being bound up with the liturgy of the Yajurveda, which we shall quote in due course]; and in the course of my work, I have managed to connect this to the occurrence of Herakles contra the Hydra [c.f my work on Iolaos – particularly the ‘On The Indo-European Typology Of Iolaus – Third Dragonslayer’]. Specifically, the fashion in which the tricephal adversary is slain by the assistant / associate of the Striker/Thunderer, and how this is bound up with a necessary act of penitence for a burden of sin (for such, Herakles’ 12 Labours were held to be – and also why the Hydraslaying was held ‘not to count’ … as it had been done by a figure other than Hercules).
However, there is an obvious point of curiousness for us here – as the combat referred to in the Shatapatha Brahmana occurrence outlined above is that against Trisiras [‘Three-Headed’], rather than Vritra. Trisiras is, in a sense, Vritra’s elder brother (indeed, Vritra is brought into being as a ‘revenge gambit’ for Trisiras’ slaying, that ‘gets out of hand’) – although is not usually thought of nor depicted in overtly draconic terms (although it can definitely be said that the figure becoming Trisiras had certain .. overtones – c.f the definitely draconic Hydra and Azi Dahaka, that are implicitly running on at least parts of the same mythic encounter). Nevertheless, there are definite occurrences within the Vedas for Trita having engaged in a spot of Vritra-slaying (or, for that matter, Vala-slaying) Himself, so assumedly the association of Trita with this combat had some saliency likewise. And, as we shall see when dealing with the other major possibility for what is depicted here – well, it is a ‘combined arms’ and ‘collective’ war effort, at any rate. But more upon that in due course.
Those YajurVeda verses I had mentioned, I shall now quote. Largely because I think they sound pretty cool.
From the White Yajurveda I :
“23 Fear not. Shrink not. Let not the sacrifice be languid, not
languid he the Sacrificer’s offspring.
For Trita thee. For Dvita thee. For Ekata thee.
24 By impulse of God Savitar I take thee, with arms of Asvins,
with the hands of Pûshan, thee who for Gods performest
Indra’s right arm art thou: sharp with a thousand spikes,
a hundred edges. The keen-edged Wind art thou, the
And, from the Taittiriya Samhita (the other major recension of the Yajurveda which has come down to us – at least in translation):
I 1 8 :
“I The Raksas is obstructed, the evil spirits are obstructed.
m Let the god Savitr make thee ready on the highest firmament.
n May Agni burn not too much thy body.
o O Agni, guard the offering.
p Be united with our prayer.
q Hail to Ekata, hail to Dvita, hail to Trita.”
And, from the next section:
“a I grasp (thee).
b Thou art Indra’s right arm with a thousand spikes, a hundred edges.
c Thou art the wind of sharp edge.”
It is not hard to see how both of these renderings – the WYV and YV TS renditions – are broadly coterminous to each other. But a discursion upon such matters is beyond the scope of this piece.
Now, as applies the fact that we have three figures – Ekata, Dvita, and Trita (literally: First, Second, Third) – mentioned here … this is a relatively rare occurrence within the Vedic scripture. We occasionally find mention of Trita in various hymnals, and if memory serves there is a very rare occurrence for Dvita. Yet Ekata, generally goes unmentioned in the major Vedic canon. The Puranic expansions upon these matters do, however, elucidate some mythology involving the Three.
There has therefore been a persistent supposition within the skeins of academia that Trita (‘Third’) is, in fact, the ‘original’ figure – and that the rather unimaginatively named ‘First’ and ‘Second’ were retrospectively ‘added in’ to account for the fact that the major figure is named Third. Certainly, the lack of an obvious other two for the myths that directly comport with those of Trita elsewhere in the Indo-European sphere may suggest such an innovation – although it could feasibly be read the other way, with the other two simply having fallen from citation due to Their elsewise lack of prominency.
However, to speak to those other Indo-European spheres – it is necessary to point out that there is also a trend in some corners of academia which has quite insistently grasped the proverbial ‘wrong end of the stick’ (or, in this case, Thunderbolt), and presumed that the occurrence of a figure that is clearly Trita in both Vedic and Zoroastrian Iranic mythology means that Trita is the original dragon-slayer, with Indra being some sort of later Vedic ‘innovation’ (perhaps picked up from the BMAC – Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex). Perish the thought!
We can demonstrate that this is false quite easily – for a start, via the Zoroastrians’ own enumeration of demons, the Daevas. There, we find an Indra – along with a Sarva (directly concordant with Rudra, Sarva .. ‘Archer’ .. a well-known Vedic Theonym of He), and the Nanghaithya (i.e. Nasatyas – the Asvins). Ergo, Indra was also known to the pre-Zoroastrian Iranics, and then excised by them to the ranks of the Demons as part of their general culture-jamming efforts against the old Indo-Iranic religious orthodoxy. As part of this, the ‘parcelling out’ of particular of Indra’s deeds and associations to other figures occurs. Most prominent of these is Thraetona / Fereydun, likewise described as Abtin / Athwya (i.e. ‘of the Waters’ – Aptya), and who is stated to have vanquished the tricephal and draconic Azi Dahaka (which may, in part, be a carrying-forward of Trita’s slaying of Trisiras – albeit with certain features of the Persian monster appearing to have come identifiably from the dragon that is slain elsewhere in the IE sphere). Although not necessarily to have killed the figure – some later Zoroastrian accounts have a figure by the name of Garshasp / Kirsasp / Keresaspa to accomplish this deed, a descendant of the earlier Feredun potentially interpolated when the slaying of the dragon was re-set in the later texts as something to take place in the far-distant future for eschatological import.
And we can demonstrate that such a ‘transferrence’ from Indra had indeed occurred in the Zoroastrian reworking of things by looking at the figure of Verethragna. A figure that does not slay a dragon – yet bears a name that is quite directly the Iranic form for ‘Vritrahan’ (‘Slayer of Vritra’), a commonly encountered way to refer to Indra (and, in related forms, for Saraswati and Agni) for precisely this deed [I consider this theonym and its etymology at some length in my recent ‘The Way Of The Gun – The Surprising Re-Development Of A Proto-Indo-European Term Into Modern English … And its Comparative Cognates Considered In Both Ritual And Conventional Phraseology Across The Indo-European Sphere’].
How to explain this? Well, you see – Verethragna is, relatively, speaking, a more recent development. We find the figure unattested in the older Zoroastrian texts, but rather occurrent in the younger ‘reform’ ones. He is, in other words, an internal Zoroastrian development that appears to have developed in response to a significant need to ‘fill the void’ left by the lack of an Indra. There is some supposition that a potential rebellion by the warrior class (who may not have ceased having some affection for the now-downcast and quite literally demonized Indra – i.e. the Striker/Thunderer proper of Indo-European religion) mandated the incorporation. Hence, the Zoroastrians took the name and some other attributes from Indra, but had already apportioned the combat which informs the name to another figure … thus resulting in this curious mismatch which we see here. The fact that Armenian Vahagn, occurrent on the other side of the Iranic sphere (by which I mean – under Iranian suzerainty and influence for various of its history, although technically speaking a separate IE linguistic descent that notwithstanding), has rather stronger concordancy with Vedic Indra in various points – including the dragon-slaying, and particular liturgical details [see my brief overview of some of these in ‘The Triumph Of The Thunder-God – Restored : An Analysis Of A Husdrapa Hailing Of Thor’s Victory Over Jormungandr Via The Vedic Verses’], helps to demonstrate that it is the Zoroastrian figure that is the ‘odd man out’.
Oh, and as applies the BMAC allegation – apart from noting that the evidence is quite clear that the Iranians had far more to do with the BMAC than the Indo-Aryans (as a cursory examination of the BMAC contribution to Iranian genetics can demonstrate – versus the seeming bypassing of the BMAC by the archaic Indo-Aryans), there is literally no evidence to support Indra coming from such a background. There is just ill-informed conjecture suggesting that such a thing should somehow be the case, and which pointedly ignores the incredibly strong coherence of Indra with the rest of the Indo-European sphere’s understandings for the Striker/Thunderer deific, as well as for that matter the perfectly plausible Indo-European etymologies for ‘Indra’ as a theonym. But more upon all of that, some other time.
My point with providing such a walk-through of the relevant Zoroastrian schema is because there is a frequent belief that the Sogdians were Zoroastrian. And while I do not dispute that Zoroastrian elements were occurrent within their religious practice and iconography – I do dispute that this actually makes their belief Zoroastrian. Why? Because we also find Hindu elements and understandings within the Sogdian milieu – indeed, elements that are fairly diametrically opposed to proper Zoroastrianism, as I have considered in a number of recent works. So whilst it may be tempting to suggest, for instance, that the mounted warrior slaying dragons in this fine panel is therefore the Zoroastrian figure of Fereydun, upon the basis that there is some currency for Zoroastrian elements within Sogdian belief and art – the fact that what we see here does NOT actually concorde closely with the Zoroastrian presentations for this figure, but rather more closely with the Hindu … is revealing.
In short – it would appear, once more, to be a case wherein we are not looking at “Zoroastrian Gods In Hindu Garb”, as the academic literature so recurrently puts it ad nauseum – but rather, quite likely it is exactly the other way around. Hindu Gods in later Iranic armour, in this case. Or, to speak more properly, perhaps, the ‘recombination’ of Hindusphere contribution with an Iranic grouping (in this case, the Sogdians) to produce the tangible resurrection out there upon the Steppe of the Indo-Iranic religious orthodoxy. An orthodoxy which never went away in Vedic Hindu India and Nepal – but which was directly and deliberately vandalized by the Zoroastrians, and thus weakened in much of the Iranic sphere proper. Although ‘weakened’ is not quite the same thing as ‘vanquished’ – and it has long been my observation that amidst the Scythians, in that more northerly Iranic sphere, similar Indo-Iranic orthodoxy elements were likewise preserved. Only, they are less talkable about precisely because these were, for the most part, not a literary culture – leaving us cobbling together remarks of Herodotus and other such sources, along with interpretations of the archaeological remnants that have come down to us from their barrows etc. A heritage which can only be attested via the mouths of remote onlookers and barrows is one that is, quite literally, remote and likely in serious danger of joining the occupants of its tombs. Fortunate, as ever, that the Hindusphere could once more re-invigorate it with elements of its own inheritance, as we have previously seen.
Now to turn to that heritage once more – there are two points I have yet to meaningfully address.
The first of these, concerns the fact that the three figures behind the lord are evidently armoured and armed and riding upon horseback. They are, at a glance, warriors. Yet the three Vedic figures I had mentioned – Eka, Dvita, and Trita – these are Priests. Is this not a fundamental disunity and dysjunction between the wall-presentation and the textual meaning I have sought to ascribe to it thus?
Again – perish the thought!
Trita, in particular, is something of an archetypal ‘Combat Theologian’. He is hailed in those various Vedic verses that I so often allude to, as wielding a most mighty weapon indeed, and directly going into combat against opponents both monstrous and malign; even personally hewing the head of an otherwise indomitable figure from its shoulders with an axe.
The idea of a priest as being somebody far removed from violence, and in opposition to a more martially oriented aristocratic/warrior caste is something that has come about due to post-Dumezilian readings of Indo-European mythology and culture – and bears precious little resemblance to the actual ‘facts on the ground’ (or, as applies the mythology, ‘in the firmament’, perhaps). Why, the foremost Vedic commentator – Sayana – himself was both a Brahmin (and, for that matter, Prime Minister of the Vijayanagara Empire) and actively, successfully commanded troops in battle. And there are certainly ample recountings of Brahmin weapons-masters, soldiers, and ‘monks’ (to succinctly mistranslate) wielding those Trishulas of theirs to deadly effect.
So, in short, the idea that a trio of Priests have been represented as armoured, mailed warriors on horseback in a much later Sogdian presentation – should in no way seem a contradiction. Indeed, it is merely exactly as we have said above: a case of Hindu figures represented in the Iranic garb of the day for prominent and powerful figures at war. Essence, and expression.
And speaking of Priests Who Fight – that is the other major point I have as-yet left unaddressed. The potential ‘other reading’ of this mural.
What is this? Well, as I had noted above, there are an array of Vedic presentations of the myth of the combat ‘gainst the demon-dragon of the water. In many of these, Indra has a starring role. That is as it should be. However, in many others of these – it is other figures. Brihaspati, for instance, carrying out His Smiting of the Foe via Orbital Bombardment ; Vak Saraswati, in RV VI 61 7, likewise is amidst the ranks of the Vritra-slayers – and even more so, perhaps, when Her contribution mentioned in RV VIII 100 is thought of. These are also as they should be – and we can tell this, in no small part, via the cognate expressions of the relevant myths occurrent elsewhere in the (non-Vedic) Indo-European mythic sphere. They must, in short, go right the way back to PIE times to be so consistently re-presented across time and across physical space.
But the figure of interest to us here today is Lord Agni.
Now, we shall begin with the Sakamedha rite’s presentation, from the Shatapatha Brahmana [ II 5 3 ]:
“1 Verily, by means of the Varunapraghâsâh Pragâpati delivered the creatures from Varuna’s noose; and those creatures of his were born without disease and blemish. Now with these Sâkamedha offerings,–therewith indeed the gods slew Vritra, therewith they gained that supreme authority which they now wield; and so does he now therewith slay his wicked, spiteful enemy and gain the victory: this is why he performs these offerings in the fourth month (after the Varunapraghâsâh). He performs them on two successive days.
2 On the first day he offers a cake on eight potsherds to Agni Anîkavat . For it was after shaping Agni into a sharp point, that the gods rushed forward, intent on slaying Vritra; and that sharp point, Agni, swerved not. And so does he (the Sacrificer) now rush forward, after shaping Agni into a sharp point, intent on slaying his wicked, spiteful enemy; and that sharp point, Agni, swerves not: this is why he sacrifices to Agni Anîkavat.
3 Thereupon, at midday, he offers a potful of boiled grain (karu) to the Maruts, the Scorchers (Sântapanâh), for at midday indeed the scorching winds scorched Vritra; and thus scorched he lay panting and gasping, being rent all over. And so do the scorching winds scorch his (the Sacrificer’s) wicked, spiteful enemy: hence (he sacrifices) to the Maruts, the Scorchers.”
As we can see, we have Agni – elsewhere in the Vedas hailed with the relevant ‘Vritrahan’ style epithets [e.g. RV I 74 3; RV I 78 4; RV VI 16 lines 14, 19, 34, 48; etc.] – engaged in the slaying of Vritra. And doing so as the ‘point’ of the formation – Anikavat, which we might figuratively render as ‘Spear-tip’ (or, if you prefer, the ‘War-Head’) of the Divine Warhost, its leader and Their Van[guard] – indeed, at the head of a ‘flying wedge’ formation of exactly the manner so frequently encountered in archaic cavalry-charges across the ancient world. With the associated warriors riding in this formation being either the Gods at large – or the Maruts. And curiously enough, there are some rather pointed iconographic resonancies with the descriptions of the Maruts found in various Vedic texts and what we have recently uncovered for Scythian warriors – as attested via the archaeology of Pazyryk, for instance. But more upon that some other time.
Of additional saliency here is another Shatapatha Brahmana recorded rite to Agni Anikavat – performed, verily, for the commander of a kingdom’s army. We shall let the original text in Eggeling translation take over [ 5 3 1 ]:
“1 Having taken up both (the Gârhapatya and Âhavanîya) fires on the two kindling-sticks, he goes to the house of the Commander of the army, and prepares a cake on eight potsherds for Agni Anîkavat; for Agni is the head (anîka) of the gods, and the commander is the head of the army: hence for Agni Anîkavat. And he, the commander, assuredly is one of his (the king’s) jewels: it is for him that he is thereby consecrated (or quickened), and him he makes his own faithful (follower). The sacrificial fee for this (jewel-offering) consists in gold; for Agni’s is that sacrifice, and gold is Agni’s seed: therefore the sacrificial fee consists in gold.”
It would therefore be not improbable that the depiction of the Serpent-Slaying that we find at Penjikent was intended in much the similar manner – something hailing the original, archetypal mythic occurrence, and intending to ‘draw from’, ‘draw down into our realm’ the power of such an instance via this rendering. Mythic Recurrence, Mythic Resonance, or as Eliade put it – the Eternal Return – are indeed heavily valid understandings for the ‘practical’ Indo-European mytho-theology.
Now, there are a few other elements which can and should be picked up pertaining to this excellently aesthetic mural – the winged horse depiction in the far right of the image is an obvious one, which resonates quite handily with something I have long meant to set out in greater focus and detail pertaining to both Pegasus and the Asvamedha … but more upon that some other time.
For now, it is enough to admire this incredible Indo-Iranic depiction of a dragon-slaying.
And, whether it is Lord Indra, Lord Agni, Lady Vak Saraswati, or Trita Aptya (potentially along with the other Aptyas) or the Maruts –
Give praise and thanks indeed to the conquerors of the foe !
Jai Vritraghna !