We frequently encounter perceptions that the Zoroastrian figure of Verethragna is ‘their’ Indra. This is … not exactly the case.
For a start, the Zoroastrian Indra is, conveniently enough, also called Indra. And, just as Indra (our Indra) is a Deva (God), we find that the Zoroastrian Indra is a Daeva – in their heretical perspective, a demon most foul.
It is not at all hard to see just how and why this situation has occurred, although the most interesting insight to be gleaned from this is that therefore there must have been an Indra cult out on the Steppes of Central Asia amidst the ‘Scythian’-esque Steppe Iranics whom the Zoroastrians found themselves almost immediately embroiled in conflict against. And therefore that, contrary to occasional supposition upon the matter, Indra is not an exclusively SubContinental / Indo-Aryan “innovation”.
But let us return to the figure of Zoroastrian Verethragna.
Why does this figure exist? And why does Verethragna bear a term directly cognate with a reasonably prominent Vedic hailing as a theonym.
In essence, (Zoroastrian) Verethragna’s inception was basically as a ‘knock-off’ of Indra. One intended to help cement a displacement of the old religious orthodoxy.
Now we can tell this based around two interlinked factors:
First and foremost, the array of characteristics for Verethragna that do or do not ‘align’ with both Indra and the broader Indo-European ‘Striker/Thunderer’ deific complex (as represented by Herakles / Hercules, Thor, etc.);
And second, Verethragna’s position within the overarching chronology of the Zoroastrian scriptural corpus.
To address this latter point first, it is necessary to observe that there are multiple ‘layers’ of hymnals etc. found therein. The oldest, which appears to date to Zoroaster’s own time (or, at least, very closely proximate thereto), is characterized for the most part by a significant dearth of actual deities.
Instead, what we tend to see are abstract concepts invoked – in a manner that might almost seem to presage the modern semi-‘atheistic’ quasi-‘neopaganisms’ of today which incessantly seek to reduce everything down to psychological archetypes and abstract and non-personified ‘natural forces’.
Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, you could effectively render ‘Ahura Mazda’ as ‘Great Wisdom’ (i.e. a quality rather than a deific proper – at least, at that archaic stage of the Zoroastrians religion’s development) – and the whole thing would make about as much sense.
Now, at some point following Zoroaster’s death, this situation begins to change somewhat. We start seeing the (re-)incorporation of the Iranic forms of certain Indo-Iranic deifics. Although it is most definitely not on a wholesale basis – being highly selective, and often subtly (or not-so-subtly) ‘changing’ various elements in order to ‘fit’ the new (and heavily redacted) ‘official ideology’ and newly re-congealed mythos.
It is worth observing the potential irony here. Zoroaster, having started (and then lost) a rather major war in his bid to cast down the cults of the Devas and purge his immediate sphere of Them and Their worship, would look on from wherever he wound up at his inheritors having to slowly but steadily reintroduce Their visages. Even if somewhat ‘cosmetic’ alterations were made in some regards – like declaring that it was only the ‘Good’ side of Vayu-Vata that was going to be worshipped, or that while a ‘Daevic’ cult of Anahita did exist, only the ‘Ahuric’ one was going to be officially tolerated.
The likely reasoning for this process is that, as with many other ‘totalitarianizing’ political or religious movements throughout history, the Zoroastrians rather swiftly discovered some soft (and thence ‘hardened’) limits to their ability to actually get their subject population(s) to go along with their desire to completely eradicate what had gone before.
And so, instead of persisting with outright suppression of everything connected to the pre-Zoroastrian Iranic religion, ‘sanitized’ and ‘controlled’ ‘re-workings’ were grudgingly reintroduced. On the grounds that if they were ‘officially sanctioned’, then at least they should present no overt ‘threat’ to the burgeoning Zoroastrian orthodoxy.
Indeed, as we shall see with some of the Verethragna liturgy, these ‘re-incorporations’ or ‘(re-)inventions’ could themselves be ‘mobilized’ in the embedding of opposition against the archaic Indo-Iranic religious orthodoxy.
Now these ‘incorporated’ elements did not only entail deifics – but also entire mythic complexes. Things which were so foundational that they could not be seriously suppressed, even if the original Zoroastrians’ immediate inheritors had been of much a mind to do so.
One of these concerns that most prominent of Indo-European mythemes, the combat against the demon-dragon of the water.
In the Vedic sphere this is prominently (albeit not exclusively) associated with Indra. Wielding the famed Vajra.
Yet in the Zoroastrian sphere – this appears to have become ‘parceled out’; the Vajra for some reason going to their Mithra (where it is now a Vazra, and with likely points of metaphysical distinction that we may choose to address at some other point in time), and acts of demon-dragon slaying instead becoming the more exclusive preserve of Thraetaona / Fereydun , Keresaspa / Kirsasp, etc.
Now, for whatever reason, this was ‘not enough’ – and so as part of a subsequent layer of ‘incorporation’ we find the Zoroastrians adding the figure of Verethragna to their officially sanctioned pantheon.
Except precisely because this is already a rather later layer – these aforementioned prominently iconic associations of Indra have already been (re-)allocated elsewhere. There is little space for Verethragna to pick up the weapon and the mythic deed of his Vedic Inspiration.
And so we wind up with a ‘Verethragna’ that does not wield the iconic Weapon of Indra and does not carry out Indra’s iconic Deed.
We may also observe that the ‘characterization’ and ‘persona’ of Verethragna comes across quite differently as compared to the true Indo-European Striker/Thunderer deific expressions – there is little of the ‘wild’ and ‘uncontrollable’ (and potentially ‘trouble-making’) personality which we find so frequently in the tales of Indra or Herakles, etc. This wouldn’t ‘fit’, after all, with the promulgation of a deific-figure specifically for the purposes of social control.
Indeed, there is an intriguing line of academic speculation that the congealment of Verethragna was a fairly direct response by the clergy to try and defuse an impending rebellion by the Zoroastrian society’s warrior class et co, who were perhaps chafing at the lack of their Iranic forebears’ traditional patron. Hence, a ‘controllable’ substitute is introduced instead, to prevent backsliding or uprising.
We also find that the major Yasht dedicated to Verethragna is effectively a ‘grab-bag’ hymnal manufactured from an array of elements of varying ages stitched together – which, yes, does contain some archaic (and pre-Zoroastrian) ideas.
Although given that the Yasht in question also prominently declares Verethragna to be fighting against Kavis & Karapans, with the former being directly cognate with Vedic priestly poet-seers, and the latter a term for the priests of the pre-Zoroastrian Iranic religion (and, of course, fighting ‘Daevas’ etc.) … it is not hard to see how this, too, is very much ‘weaponized propaganda’ not only in terms of ‘culture-jamming’ suppression via endeavoured ‘substitution’ but also in quite directly overt terms.
So, in sum: Verethragna does indeed have traits and characteristics that are quite deliberately imitative of Vedic (and pre-Zoroastrian Iranic) Indra.
However, it is a ‘caricature’ rather than a true ‘correlation’ in many respects. One specifically congealed, it should seem, to endeavour to ensure that those living under the Zoroastrian fold should have little reason to seek out the true Indra of their own immediate forebears.
And which appears to have been constructed in order to satisfy internal political demands rather than as the result of genuine divine saliency.
Now at this point we ought take a brief look at the Armenian figure of Vahagn – as this is often put forward as, in effect, a Zoroastrian figure that has imprinted quite strongly upon the Armenians during the Persian dominancy of that area.
However, a proper analysis of the comparative mythology suggests that this is not the case.
The reason we can tell this , is because there are elements for Vahagn which do accord with the Indra mythology (& Thor, Herakles, etc.) … yet which are absent from the (Zoroastrian) Verethragna mythology.
For instance, Movses Khorenatsi’s work makes pointed reference to an incident of the God emerging from a reed stalk, in terms that are immediately reminiscent of an important situation involving Indra from the Vedic canon (and which, in one of my earlier works, I’d observed some coterminity with Skaldic descriptions of Thor in a similar scenario likewise). One which, funnily enough, would be entirely out of place in the Zoroastrian sphere due to the nature of what’s going on therein.
Further, we find Vahagn hailed as Vishapakagh – ‘Dragon-Slayer’. A deed which, as noted above, Verethragna simply does not do.
So, evidently the Armenians had themselves ‘carried forward’ an archaic and authentic set of beliefs about their form of the Indo-European Striker/Thunderer Deific – and the essential core of this figure in their pantheonic understanding is not simply some Persian imperial immigrant.
Good for them.
Now, the final thing we should perhaps say is that the situation of Verethragna becomes a lot more complicated outside of the Zoroastrian sphere proper.
So, for example, amidst the prominent Empires of the Steppe and the polities which had resulted from significant Hellenic / Greek cultural interaction, we find ‘Verethragna’ labelled deifics that have been synchronized with Herakles or with Ares; in amidst other (and including Hindu) influences.
However, as with the Armenian case discussed briefly earlier, the similarities of ‘labelling’ have lead to an over-enthusiasm in some corners of academia to insist on an entirely substantive Zoroastrian saliency in those spheres as the fairly direct result of same.
Even though, as we have repeatedly demonstrated in our pieces looking at ‘Hindu Gods In Zoroastrian Garb’, what instead appears to have happened is significantly the opposite way around – ‘Persianate’ aesthetic elements (occasionally looted from the prosperous people to the south-west by the Steppe Iranics in question) adorning deifics that really do not fit comfortably (back) in(to) the Zoroastrian orthodoxy.
Yet those are stories for other times.
For now, I must simply express my distaste that a figure so pointedly and deliberately congealed to endeavour to suppress mortal engagement with Indra is so frequently presented as being some sort of ‘equivalent’ and equally valid approach pathway to Him.
Instead, we should say, the theo-culturo-political complex which produced such a thing is deliberately positing itself as an ‘Obstruction’, a ‘Barrier’ and an ‘Obscuration’ upon just such a path.
And, in Vedic Sanskrit terms, I think we know what that means.
Indeed, it’s right there in the name …
Hail, indeed, to Vritrahan.
And when it comes to Indra – accept no (attempted) substitutes.