In his brand new post for Smorgasbord, Paul Andruss explores some of the assumptions made about the development of our individual languages from a common root many thousands of years ago. He also addresses the question of whether languages were spread by conquerors sweeping across continents or farmers gently moving across fertile plains and establishing communities that fed and watered the nomadic tribes who came after them. I am sure that Paul would love to hear your views and answer your questions.
Proto-Indo-Europeans by Paul Andruss
Indo-European migration route?
In Victorian times, philologists noted similarities in the words of many languages stretching across Eurasia deep into India. Languages separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, such as ancient Irish, Spanish, and Russian; ancient Greek and Latin; ancient Sanskrit from the Indian Vedas and modern Hindi and Punjabi. They proposed an original language called Proto-Indo-European from which all others derived.
No doubt thinking of the huge number of invasion myths found in different cultures, they believed the language originated with a prehistoric race of nomadic horsemen who swept out of the Ukrainian Steppes above the Caucasus Mountains. Called Indo-Europeans they gave rise to the word Caucasian to describe white Europeans. And Aryan, which despite its connotations of Nazi blond supermen, is merely a rendering of the ancient word that gives Iran its names.
In those days science believed the high cold plateaus of Asia accelerated human evolution. In the muddled racial theories existing at the time, Aryans were seen as an advanced race conquering the primitive aboriginals of Eurasia. Although science was beginning to understand how civilisation arose, theories were hampered by prejudice and the lack of an accurate dating system.
To Victorians, educated in the traditions of Classical Greece and Rome, Aryan superiority was given credence when common root words appeared to show a warrior dominated society with kings, heroes and priests; knowledge of the wheel, fire, farming and domestic animals (with special reverence given to cattle and horses).
Horses were sacred to the Celts and cows are sacred to Hindus. The Israelites worshipped a golden calf and the Sumerians the bull of heaven (in Egypt called Apis). The Persian god Mithras sacrificed a white bull. Jason killed the Minotaur in Crete. Cow was the ancient Persian word for wealth. The Celts associated white cattle with the fairy folk and the Irish saga, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, concerns two magicians transformed into bulls.
Aryan mythology shared other features they were familiar with. Instead of an earth goddess there were sky gods, such as the sun or thunder. And pantheons of gods with specific responsibilities: rain gods, smith gods, wine gods, war gods, gods of writing, farming and medicine; reflecting an increasingly specialist and complex culture.
While Aryan goddesses had women’s skills, they do not represent those skills in the way gods represented men’s skills. For example Hephaestus is the god of blacksmiths. But while Athena is a consummate weaver, she was not a goddess of weaving. This led to the conclusion women were not equal to men; a prevalent view in their own society.
In such cultures the old mother goddesses were demoted to muses, graces, sea nymphs, water nymphs and tree nymphs. Or to monsters: the child snatching Empousae, the Gorgons, Harpies, Lamia and Strix. The only goddesses to survive intact were ancient and venerable, such as mother earth, the moon and the goddesses of the hearth (domestic fire) and harvest; too important to be ignored.
Serpents or dragons also feature widely in Aryan mythology. Marduk, a Babylonian god, is accompanied by a dragon. The sun god Apollo kills the python. In Norse myth, the Midgard Serpent encircles the whole earth. Hindus believe demon serpents swallow the sun and moon causing eclipses. In Eden, Eve is tempted by a serpent.
They also found divine twins in conflict: Cain kills Abel; Romulus kills Remus, Hodr Baldr and Spring Winter. There is the sacrificial king representing the dying corn or barley god trapped in the cycle of life, death and rebirth; and the first mention of the golden apples of immortality.
But the search for the all-conquering Aryan horseman proved frustrating. Archaeology could not find hard evidence. Instead they discovered it was more likely tribes did not travel thousands of miles to new lands. And while conquest happened much less frequently than previously supposed, a raid and trade mentality was far more encompassing.
Dismissing the Victorian view of Aryan conquerors, Professor Colin Renfrew was the first to examine evidence from the historical horsemen of the steppes, such as the Scythians. He pointed out nomads are dependent on farmers for basic foodstuffs and so could have only arisen after farming was established.
Being constantly on the move following herds, nomad horsemen cannot grow grain. Farming requires staying near your fields to tend the crop. Neither can they access or transport the bulky raw materials needed for pottery or metalwork. Instead they travel light; trading skins, milk products, meat and even draft animals for food and goods with neighbours settled along their traditional migration routes.
Historical tribes such as the Magyars, who invaded Hungary in the Dark Ages, were too few to successfully conquer an empire. The entire tribe of men, women and children was under 200,000. Nomadic tribes were often reluctant to leave their pastures, and when they did, it was often because they were being invaded by other tribes suffering hardship.
Rather than horseman conquering Europe and spreading language, Renfrew concluded the common words arose from a slow migration out of the Fertile Crescent where farming originated and the first cities are found. In his view successive generations of farmers slowly crossed from one fertile valley to the next over thousands of years when their original homes became overpopulated or the natural resources were exhausted. As they moved further afield the original language evolved.
Think of Britain and America, who are, as the old saying goes, 2 cultures divided by a common tongue. Brits say autumn. Yanks say fall. At the time of the Pilgrim Fathers the original British word was ‘fall’. You kept it. We changed. Thus languages diverge.
Through carbon dating, Renfrew’s wife, a paleo-botanist, located the original source of 5,000 year old grains found in the Orkney Islands off Northern Scotland. Just as Renfrew predicted, the wheat originated not in the Steppes but in the Fertile Crescent some 5,500 years earlier. Its journey ever northward across Europe could be traced from archaeological sites in Southern Europe dating back 7,500 years.
When spreading out from the Fertile Crescent, migrant farmers moved into unpopulated areas. For humanity, farming was a game-changer. Before farming it is estimated 1 square mile supported 1 person hunting and gathering food. After farming, 1 square mile of arable farmland could support 100 people.
The very young are a liability to nomadic hunter gatherers, who constantly travel to find sufficient food. Even today tribes-women of the Kalahari have to make the hard decision to kill a new-born, rather than jeopardise existing children. In contrast, even the very young are an asset to farmers as a form of free labour, helping with sowing and harvest, feeding and watching animals.
Before finishing, let’s nip back to Hitler and his Aryans.
Germanic mythology states the Gods of Asgard, such as Odin and Thor, came from the East (Aryan – Iran). They often travel through Byzantium, a city which did not exist until thousands of years later; confusing memories in the glorious way myths do. When the Asgardians arrived, they found other gods called the Vanir.
The Vanir appear to belong to wild nature rather than agriculture, gods of hunting and fishing. So perhaps the Vanir were the gods of the aboriginal people living there since the end of the Ice Age. Although the Asgardians and Vanir initially go to war, they soon stop fighting and settle into amiable co-existence.
This suggests the Asgardians were the gods of farmers, rather than conquerors. Farmers would not be in competition with the indigenous tribes of hunters, foragers and fishermen. In fact, trade and inter-group marriage would suit both parties.
About Paul Andruss
If I were a musician I would be Kate Bush or the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson; but without the mental issues or dependency on prescription drugs. For Brian not Kate! I can talk about anything except myself, so let’s talk about my work.
I’ve written 4 novels, Finn Mac Cool, and the (Harry-Potteresque) Jack Hughes Trilogy. ‘Finn Mac Cool’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ are available for free download. Hint! Hint!
11 year old British schoolboy, Jack Hughes, sees a fairy queen kidnap his brother. With friends Catherine & Ken, Jack embarks on a whirlwind adventure to return Thomas the Rhymer to fairyland & rescue his brother
What’s been said about … Thomas the Rhymer
‘Fans of Harry Potter & Narnia will love Thomas the Rhymer’
‘Thomas the Rhymer leaves you feeling like a child curled up in a comfy armchair on a wet & windy afternoon, lost in a good book’
‘Spellbinding! An ideal Christmas read for young & old alike!’
Download Free from Paul’s website: http://www.jackhughesbooks.com/
Connect to Paul
Please address your questions to Paul in the comments section and also share your views on the subject of the spread of language. Thanks Sally