‘Nomads’, ‘Murmurers’, & ‘Death-Seekers At the Border’ – Three Further Perspectives On Barbarians Drawn Into The Broader Indo-European Sphere

Following on from our earlier piece looking at ‘Barbarian’ in Vedic understanding – here are several further examples .. along with broader Indo-European comparanda contextualizing each.

Two of these were furnished by the same associate [A.P.] whom I had been discussing with in the excerpt posted earlier. I have not independently tracked them down in the textual corpus with the ‘Barbarian’ meaning – but I trust his recollection upon these matters. 

The first of these is a very cool term – Sarasara (सरसर or सरासर). What does it mean? Well, it’s comprised of a reduplication of a shorter Sanskrit particle – Sara ( सर ). Sara refers to ‘motion’, ‘wandering’. It’s also utilized in more concrete reference to the ‘flow’ – for example, of a liquid [I hesitate in light of Sanskrit ‘Saras’ ( सरस् ) to suggest somewhat jokingly – ‘Sea People’], but also potentially of thought or speech. In terms of the former, it can particularly signify quite a forceful gushing – as with a waterfall.

Now this is perhaps interesting to us, given the speculated etymology for an array of European terms for the Nordic peoples. Goths, Geats, Gautae, Gutes, etc. These terms link back to one of the two possible Proto-Germanic and thence Proto-Indo-European roots for “God”, as it happens – Proto-Germanic *Geutana and PIE *Ghewd, respectively. What do these mean? ‘To Pour’ – as in ‘To Pour Libations’, thus explaining its potential linkage to ‘God’ – “One To Whom Libations Are Poured”. 

There are several not-necessarily-exclusive theories on just what these ethnonyms were intended to mean. The one which is immediately relevant for us here is the rather figurative one – perhaps prominent in the minds of those they came into contact with on their migrations ( Völkerwanderung ) southward from Scandinavia. That of these incredible waves of ‘Barbarian’ peoples ‘flowing forth’, ‘pouring out’ from their Heimat in nigh unstoppable waves. 

It is not hard to see how, in the Hindu imagination, the continual stream of invaders turning up from the Steppes of Central Asia via the northwest passage out of the SubContinent through Afghanistan, might have seemed a similar succession of torrents. 

As applies Sarasara, the duplicated ‘Sara’ effectively gives an idiomatic definition of, to quote one Sanskrit dictionary – “Moving hither and thither”. 

That is to say .. “Nomadic”. Which, of course, the Central Asian #GangSteppe tribes often were

There are several other understandings for ‘Sara’ which might also have some bearing, of course –  सर for ‘Arrow’, would be one prominent example. Usually it is another Sara ( शर – ‘Shara’, perhaps more properly) which would mean ‘Arrow’ more pointedly, but perhaps the notion of the arrow’s flight being swift motion underpins this understanding for the same ‘Sara’ as ‘motion’ here. I mention this because it has long been felt that the etymology for an array of Scythian ethnonyms are, in effect, terms for ‘Shooters’, ‘Skewerers’. Indeed, the speculated Proto-Indo-European root is *Skewd – which may also, aptly enough, underpin Lord Skanda’s theonym, as it can also refer to just such a forceful advance, a ‘charge’ even. Via K => H sound-shift, it is not hard to see how this eventually turns into our modern English ‘Shoot’. And given the wide-renown for the famed Scythian Archer – or, for that matter, the figure upon horseback (or even riding some more exotic creature) whilst wielding a long spear-like weapon – it is not hard to see, either, why an ethnonym would so closely mirror such an endemic activity to same. 

I am also very intrigued by सार (‘Saara’) as in ‘Wind’. There are several reasons for this. One of which is the immediately obvious – and is buttressed further by the array of ‘Wind’ related expressions we find for #GangSteppe in its native environs. “Ride Like The Wind”, and “May As Well Attempt To Catch The Wind” (the latter in relation to Darius’ foolhardy ‘Scythian Campaign’ and his inability to actually bring his foes to decisive battle except at the time and place of their choosing), for example. However also due to the perhaps coincidental resonancy between the utilization for this ‘Saara’ in relation to the Vyomakesha – the ‘Heaven-Hair’ – of Lord Shiva. I have discussed this iconographic and cosmological element elsewhere at greater length (as well as its Ancient Greek cognate understanding for Dionysus, Hades, Poseidon – the Kyanokhaitis characteristic shared by all ‘Three’) and shall not reduplicate that work here. Suffice to say, my mind recalled a rather later Jat folk-belief that they and their ethnonym are similarly descended from Lord Shiva’s Hair. The idea being that as His Hair is “Jatta” [ जट – ‘the matted hair of the ascetic’ – a figurative rendering quite commensurate with the above-mentioned Vyomakesha and that Greek perception], so too do the Jats arise [ जात – ‘Jaata’ ]. More specifically, their legend appears to build from the storied accounts in far more archaic Sanskrit scripture wherein Rudra, or an emissary of same, not only arrives Himself in a state of furor, but congeals an army of Rudras, Maruts, Ganas, etc. (the precise complement is contingent upon the specific text) from His Form to aid in the violence about to ensue. 

The Jats therefore position themselves as a ‘resonancy’ of sorts with this Divine Warhost and Favoured Sons or Huscarls, we might almost suggest, of the mighty Sky Father Himself. A situation which is ever more intriguing when considered in light of two further factors: 

First, the array of conceptry I considered in ‘On Scythian Tabiti Invoked As Protector Goddess For The King ? A Further Illumination Of The Might Of The Radiant Queen Of The Indo-Europeans Via The Light Of Vedic Aditi ; The Scythians As Storm-Borne Host Of Her Children’ – wherein yes, it does appear possible that the Scythians occupied a situation analogous to those famed Sons of Rudra and Aditi, the Maruts … right down to the appropriate iconographic elements and pointed self-reference as the Sons of the Sky Father (Papaios) and Radiant Queen of the Heavens (Tabiti). (Also, alongside this, my ongoing series of observations about the ‘Turanian’ etc. Scythian groupings acting in exactly a ‘Divine Avenger’ manner when confronted by certain … invidious opponents to the Great God and other orthodox Indo-European deifics in question; a situation perhaps somewhat less successfully recalled via, say, the Jat conflicts with Mahmud of Ghazni following the latter’s abominable raid upon Shiva’s sanctum as Somnath in Gujarat; all of which may be worth mentioning due to the additional sense of सर as a ‘purgative’ … ) At the very least, we have quite prominent attestations amidst both ancient Hindu texts and the archaeological record for Shaivite devotion out there amidst #GangSteppe. 

And second, the fact that archaeogenetic analysis shows that the Jats – despite their occasionally … over-enthusiastic claiming of seemingly every vaguely relevant people across Eurasia as some form of forebear … do actually appear to have frequent genetic contribution from archaic Scythian-sphere [i.e. Steppe Indo-Iranic that remained out upon the Steppe] populations. This does not, however, mean that ‘Jat’ is etymologically related to or even ancestral of those array of Nordic / Germanic ethnonyms I had aforementioned – but it is still rather remarkable all the same. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, there is some ‘mythic truth’ to the stories they have told about themselves or others have told with them as focus. I digress.

The point is – ‘Sarasara’ fits rather well for what a somewhat later Hindu perception of ‘Barbarian’ would entail. A ‘Nomad’ moving with great speed and force; and interestingly, a term which would seemingly connote almost the opposite of what we more usually seem to expect for an array of ‘Barbarian’ / ‘Other’ terminology, as discussed in my previous piece upon this subject. What I mean by this is that given the utility of ‘Sara’ in Sanskrit to refer to a flow of speech – a ‘full flight’ of elocution, indeed (c.f. ‘Sara’ of ‘Saraswati’ : सर of सरस्वती) – ‘Sarasara’ as a doubled formulation would seem to suggest a diametric antithesis to the idea of ‘halting’, ‘jabbering’, and ponderously incomprehensible ‘baah-‘ing speech of the ‘Barbarian. Or maybe these Sarasaras simply happened to talk really fast. And produce voluminous torrents of words at a time. 

The second of these ‘Barbarian’ terms pointed out to me by my associate is ‘Marmara’ ( मर्मर   ) – which A.P. correctly addeuced to be a cognate to modern English ‘Murmur’. In Sanskrit, it can also refer not only to a ‘murmuring’ but also to a ‘rustling’ noise. 

Now this is, again, an intriguing term which correlates with what we should expect for a ‘Barbarian’ labelling. From Proto-Indo-European *Mormur, which appears to be an onomatopoeic formulation to describe exactly what it sounds like – the act of indistinct vocal expression. In Ancient Greek, this PIE turns into μορμύρω ( mormuro ), which means “to roar” or “boil” and particularly applies to water in either sense. There is a particular Sanskrit theological expression I often quote which posits Thunder (utilizing a ‘Garj’ term that also means ‘To Roar’) as ‘Indistinct Speech’ likewise, although there it is more of the ‘subtle’ and divinely resonant variety. In Old Armenian, meanwhile, we have մռմռամ ( mrmram ), which does not simply incorporate the ‘murmur’ we might be expecting – but actively goes for the ‘growling’ and animalistic, aggressive and angry connotations as well. It is not hard to see how this, too, would be both relevant to the Proto-Indo-European conception’s meaning (the ‘low gutteral’ of a threatening predator as a tangible exemplar for such an indistinct and lower-pitched noise even if it is perhaps not overtly what we think of when we say ‘murmur’ today) and also, as applies the aggression, and yes animalistic connotations .. ‘savagery’, we might suggest .. for a figurative development into ‘Barbaric’ epithetery. This is particularly the case given the well-known proclivity for ‘Barbaric’ Indo-European warbands to adopt totemic creatures that may themselves have exactly such a habitual noise to them – the growling of the kind of canine which starts off in the back of their throat and promises to soon be in the back of somebody else’s, for instance. 

Again, I must emphasize that I have not as yet managed to track down either Sarasara or Marmara in the Sanskrit textual corpus being utilized in such a manner – but I am trusting the recollection of A.P.; and Pali derivative usage would probably vindicate him in any case. 

One which is on somewhat surer footing (by which I mean, I had overseen and been able to check this one myself) – is मर्यादा (Maryada). 

Now this is, again, fascinating on a comparative basis. The actual term itself is supposed to mean ‘Boundary, Border’. It is hypothesized to derive from Proto-Indo-European *Mori to refer to a ‘sea’ – an obvious ‘hard limit’ on territory. Except I’m not quite sure how correct that may be. PIE *Mori is, itself, from PIE *Mer – a term that simultaneously encompasses in its meaning-field both bodies of water (compare ‘Mere’, ‘Mare’, or ‘Mer’ in more recent European languages) and Death. The coterminity on it is best explicated mytholinguistically – both in terms of both Death and a body of water being somewhere one can ‘Disappear’ (also part of PIE *Mer’s meaning field) … and more especially the notion of water as ‘liminal space’ between the Worlds. Whether we are speaking of the Sea of Sky which must be sailed to reach the Afterworld (‘Underworld’ is not quite the right term of reference for reasons which ought be obvious – see my previous works for additional explication), or we are looking at the River of the Dead which turns up with such regularity across an array of Indo-European descended cosmologies and metempsychotic jaunts. 

The reason I have really dived into this etymological matter here, is because that *Mer, as in ‘Death’ … also has some conceptual resonancy for *yet another* PIE *Mer – in this case, to mean a young person (frequently – although not always – a ‘young man’). It turns into an array of subsequent terms of potential bearing upon these matters. One which I ought flag for later investigation is my spur-of-the-moment supposition that ‘Mars’ and ‘Martial’ may be thusly derived – something which I have not seen suggested by orthodox linguistics which instead sees the origins for these terms in Etruscan (a situation which need not countermand a PIE root – given well-founded academic re-evaluation of Etruscan as a potentially Indo-European language) or simply leaves it unexplained. [Slight update: it would appear that there have indeed been some previous scholars who have sought to link Mars to Latin ‘Mas’ – with ‘Mas’ having upon occasion been supposed to link to PIE *Mer, although this proposal having been moved away from in more recent years. I am evidently in good, if archaic, company then. Just where I prefer to be – at least some of the time.] 

However, the main suite of meaning of interest for us here is an impressively broad one. By which I mean geographically in its evident breadth of dispersion. How broad? Well, it turns up rather prominently in the ancient Near East – not ordinarily thought of as Indo-European territory (Hittites and Mittani overlords excepted) – where we find the ‘Maryannu’ … chariot-mounted warriors, who appear to have imported both term, technology and tactics from the Indo-Aryan expansion then ongoing much further to the East. How do we know? Because we find just such an Indo-Aryan superstrate for Mitanni brought in along with the swift-moving warriors who were the effective core and likely ruling elite for that Confederation. Indeed, via the linguistics of the horse-training manual of Kikkuli it should seem quite plausible that there were ongoing interrelations between the Mitanni sphere and that of the more ‘core’ Indo-Aryans who had then entered into the SubContinent. 

In any case, Maryannu is, in essence, Indo-Aryan ‘Marya’ with the addition of a localized suffix (ostensibly Hurrian) – eminently appropriate for a polity which was substantively Hurrian with an Indo-Aryan warrior elite. 

Why is this of interest to us? Simply put – because those ‘Marya’ acting as warriors, horse-borne and hungry for glory, don’t just show up in the Levant or in worried Egyptian letters detailing the happenings there in same. They also show up in both the archaic major subdivisions of Indo-Iranian – as Marya, as we have met, in Indo-Aryan and thence Sanskrit, and as Mairya in Avestan. And the contrast could not be more apparent. 

In Sanskrit, ‘Marya’ ( मर्य ) means – an array of things, including simply a young man, a suitor, or a stallion (perhaps akin to both ‘horseman’, and the other more figurative connotation of calling a man a ‘stallion’ today, Italian or otherwise). In Avestan? Mariya turns up in post-Zoroaster [i.e. post-Zoroastrian Heresy and accompanying social and religious “reformation”] usage to refer to not simply ‘warriors’ – but raiders, marauders, ‘scoundrels’ (as M. Boyce renders the figurative connotation). To be clear about this … these are the exact same figures, broadly speaking, as their Vedic Sanskrit counterparts – only the ‘valuation’ has significantly shifted in Avestan usage due to the Zoroastrian ethos.

Partially, this was due to the perception that such activities were incompatible with the ‘social order’ Zoroaster wished to promulgate – and so therefore could not be part of the society. That would be the ‘official reason’.
The somewhat less officially stated – yet more comprehensively correct account expands upon this, and notes that the ‘revaluation’ largely due to the fact that these warrior-bands were bastions of religious conservatism and the orthodoxy we should find quite recognizable to the religious spheres of the Vedic and Scythian / Turanic #GangSteppe peoples. That is to say, they were therefore living, breathing manifestations of what Zoroaster and his reformers hated and feared upon a metaphysical basis – as well as what defeated them in the civil war they sparked up in Bactria and which resulted in the Zoroastrian exodus to Media far to the west. Not for nothing do we find ‘Mairya’ utilized to refer to Angra Mainyu, and – as Wikander observes – an effective synonym for ‘Daevic’ [i.e. ‘Divine’ in the proper understanding – ‘Demonic’ in the insistent calumny of the Zoroastrians]. Holy Warriors, we might almost venture. Certainly fighting against a most unholy cause indeed ! 

As a point of further interest – Marut , the fearsome Storm-Sons of Rudra Dyaus Pitar and Aditi , is plausibly somewhat coterminous with these terms – however, not necessarily in the direct sense occasionally proffered of descending directly from Death (notwithstanding, of course, that yes, yes the Maruts do directly descend from not one but two deities that may be fairly addressed as ‘Death’ in relevant circumstances and contexts … I mean PIE *Mer – with the ‘Sea’ understanding perhaps being additionally relevant given the Sky of Sea concept known to exist in archaic Indo-European cosmology … the Maruts, after all, having a rather prominent association with the Rain which is Water From On High – ‘Sea People’ again, perhaps .. again, somewhat jokingly). 

Rather, it would be via the useful intermediary of that which is implied by this third *Mer sense – pertaining to the young person. The same one which gives us ‘Marya’, ‘Mairyu’, and ‘Maryannu’, etc. Why? Because the warband in question – in this case, the true and direct Sons of the Sky Father and the Radiant Queen of the Heavens, iconographically described in terms that seem *suspiciously* resonant with how the Scythians appear to have endeavoured to come across, if the archaeological finds at Pazyryk for ‘horse-antlers’ etc. are anything to go by … 

This warband – or, if you prefer, ‘mannerbund’ – is not simply comprised of ‘Young Heroes’. Rather, the essential characteristic for these young men is to be found in that other sense to PIE *Mer – ‘Death’. What am I saying? That these young warriors are, in a sense, ‘death-seekers’, ‘daredevils’, engaged in the sorts of things which younger men are so renowned for: derring-do and attempts to impress through ‘do-first, think-later’ conduct so typical of humans whose prefrontal cortexes aren’t *quite* in full commission yet. And who therefore do not, perhaps paradoxically, fully comprehend their own mortality in earnest. 

All of which brings us nicely back to Sanskrit ‘Maryada’ ( मर्यादा ). Which is, per folk-etymology upon the subject, derived from our friend ‘Marya’ ( मर्य ) in conjunction with ‘Ada’ ( अद – cognate with ‘Eat’ and meaning ‘Devourer’, ‘Carnivorous’); effectively giving a meaning of ‘The Young Men Devoured / Consumed [By Warfare] In Securing The Border’. The more standard suggestion would instead trace it via ‘Maryaa’ ( मर्या – ‘Limit’, ‘Measure’, cognate with English ‘March’, ‘Mark’ – interestingly also related to Sanskrit मार्ग (‘Marga’), which, as ‘Track’, turns also into a term for wild animal and informs certain ‘Hunter’ conceptry likewise .. including pointed Shaivite conceptry in scripture), and I shall perhaps leave the various permutations of ‘Ada’ and ‘Da’ conceptry to inform the second half for another piece. 

In any case, where I was ultimately going with all of this was the notion of the Barbarian as the ‘Man Upon The Periphery’. Something which, to be sure, usually posits the Barbarian in question as being on the other side from the viewer (and it is always a useful question to ponder just which side of the glass one is really on, to reference me some Trent Reznor at this odd hour of the morning), a ‘Wolf At Your Door’ looking to rampage on in to the realm of civilization and civility. 

Yet with this figurative understanding and folk-etymology for ‘Maryada’, I suggest that we have something quite different. The Marya may indeed be something of a ‘Barbaric’ figure (to the terror of the Zoroastrian and the delight of the Vedic Arya in seeming not-quite equal measure), yet here we see the ‘barbaric’ warrior standing watch on the border against the invader, the interloper, the invidious infidel. A most ‘Martial’ situation and standing indeed ! 

And interestingly, something which has seemingly resonated down the ages – A.P. was intrigued to note the saliency in the Punjab for a certain ‘Babbar’ … which appears to have maintained the ‘strength’ and ‘honour’ connotations to ‘Barbarian’ yet without various of the also-thought-of negatives for Sanskrit ‘Barbara’. Given the position of the Punjab as exactly that ‘Gateway to India’ and inhabited by the Frontiersman defenders of same from various threats most immediately to the west and north thereof … it should seem quite apt for this to have evidently occurred. 

Looking at this piece, which has .. grown quite considerably from what was initially supposed to be merely a few relatively succinct, short paragraphs in train … it is abundantly clear (if it weren’t already) – that when it comes to “Barbarians” … they’re so much more than just a speech-impediment ! 

One thought on “‘Nomads’, ‘Murmurers’, & ‘Death-Seekers At the Border’ – Three Further Perspectives On Barbarians Drawn Into The Broader Indo-European Sphere

  1. Pingback: ‘Nomads’, ‘Murmurers’, & ‘Death-Seekers At the Border’ – Three Further Perspectives On Barbarians Drawn Into The Broader Indo-European Sphere – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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