Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Lying Gods

Well, we made the mistake of telling Cameron that we were low on questions from the submission box here on the blog this week, and you all responded in a big way. We have a very respectable bank of questions, ranging from the scholarly serious to the whimsically entertaining, so we've got plenty to talk about! Today, we're going to tackle a big old question of high-level divine politics: Hello, I've been wondering if you can elaborate on relationship between the Yazata and Deva, as each has a whole other pantheon of demons which are named of the other. Can you elaborate on how would you think this would fit in Hero's Journey?

All right, this is a super neat topic to talk about, and one of my personal favorites, because it gets down into the nitty gritty of super ancient religious evolution and cultural sharing, and it does it with two religions that are beyond cool in their linked imagery, names and symbols. Let's put on some badass groovin' music and bust out our origins of myth textbooks.


So, for those just jumping in on these two groups of gods, deva (literally "deity") is the term used by Hindu religion, past and present, to refer to their gods, while yazata or yazad (literally "worthy of worship") is the term used by Zoroastrianism and ancient Persian myth to refer to their gods. The Persian gods are also referred to as ahura (meaning "deity"), and the Hindu gods are also referred to, especially in older texts, as sura (meaning "deity").

So far, so good. The interesting wrinkles begin when you factor in the traditional antagonists for both pantheons. Within their own mythology, the deva are opposed by a race of other gods called asura, who in older texts are occasionally benevolent or at least neutral and who were worshiped in their own right for a while, but who in later times become referred to as almost uniformly evil and unworthy of devotion from humans. And within their mythology, the yazata are opposed by a race of other gods called daeva or deev, who in their earliest forms appear to be gods who are not actually evil but who are misguided into doing things that are not always for the greater good, but who later become embodiments of evil who exist solely to ruin things and fight the righteous yazata.


It's pretty clear that there's a mirror situation here: two religions that both believe in a separate race of gods that were once perhaps positive forces but who have become dangerous and evil and now oppose the gods. What's interesting is what they each call their enemy race: asura and ahura, deva and daeva, yazata and yasna and yajna.

Etymologically, these words are exactly the same. Deva and daeva are the exact same word, just one of them slightly younger and commuted into Avestan and then into Middle Persian as deev; asura and ahura are the exact same word, just seen through the filter of a language that has grown away from its Sanskrit roots. As far as the specific words being used are concerned, the myths of the Hindu gods are specifically referring to the Persian gods as their enemies, and vice versa.

Even more interesting is the fact that it's not just the collective words for the gods that are shared in these two religions; on the contrary, specific gods are named and called out on both sides. In Hindu mythology, among the named asura are Mitra, Aryaman and Varuna, whose names are exact cognates with the yazata Mithra, Airyaman and the great Ahura Mazda himself, whose epithet is Varun ("rescuer from evil"), and likewise in Zoroastrian mythology, named daeva include Indar, Vata-Vayu and Sarva, Persianized versions of the Vedic names of the major deva Indra, Vayu and Shiva (as Rudra/Sarva).


Holy wow, right? It feels like a slightly more scholarly version of The Da Vinci Code, with secret linguistic codes and religious connections. The question for scholars, which has been under debate for more of a century, is whether or not the deva/daeve and asura/ahura are really the same, and what it means for both religions if they are.

On the one hand, many scholars argue that these are not the same groups of gods; even if they share linguistic roots in the words they use, the two religions are distinct from one another and have been for a very long time, and it would be just plain inaccurate to claim that Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were in any way the same or that one was only a "corruption" of the other. Avestan and later Farsi come from Sanskrit, but so do modern Indian languages and a ton of other Indo-European tongues, so it's not actually all that impossible that they should be sharing roots and words for some concepts between them. Heck, "deva" is also responsible for over half of Europe's words for gods, including "dievas" (Lithuanian), "deus" (Latin), "dia" (Irish), "deitie" (French), "deity" (English), and so on ad infinitum. Sometimes there are clear crossovers that don't fit neatly into the enemy/antagonist box, either, such as the deva Soma who is equivalent to the yazata Haoma, neither of whom are members of the enemy pantheon, which can be seen as proof that things aren't so cut and dried.


But then again, other scholars point to the mountain of evidence that the gods with connected names have similar iconography and functions, like Mitra/Mithra being a god of oaths, truth and justice in both pantheons where he appears, or like Haoma/Soma being the lord of a sacred plant used in fire rituals and for intoxication in both pantheons where he shows up, or Vayu/Vata-Vayu appearing as the lord of breath in both places, even though in one case it is as god of air and atmosphere and in the other as god of the last breath before death takes a living being. Even though both religions are unarguably distinct and self-contained, they have clearly come from similar roots or shared simialr ideas between them in the past, leading to their mutual religious emphasis on things like the importance of sacred sacrifice via fire. From an anthropological perspective (which is where scholars love to come from!), it's almost unquestionable that they were closely connected in ancient times. It's even possible, according to some theories, that they were once the same religion, which split into two different faiths as worshipers traveled to new lands and interpreted their gods according to new needs.

Of course, the really interesting idea is this: why, if these two pantheons are really referring to one another, do they dislike each other so much? What happened thousands of years ago that caused the worshipers of one group of gods to declare the gods of the other to be evil antagonists, listing them in scripture and legend forevermore as being the entrenched enemies of the gods they considered "good"? The answer is that we really have no idea. It happened so very long ago that all we can do is guess based on the evidence that has survived. The prevailing theory is that a schism between priests or worshipers caused an ancient single religion to split in two somewhere back in the mists of time, each side believing that the other was wrong so strongly that they cast their gods as antagonists, but it's not the only possibility. Just as passionate are the theories of the two religions being completely separate and unrelated, or of one plundering the other for ideas to add to their own native ones, and so on.


As far as Hero's Journey goes, the Persian gods don't have an official workup coming in the core rulebook, so we won't be seeing a lot about them yet; but the Hindu gods do, including some who make personal appearances as antagonists in Persian myth. The stories of their struggles against the asura are related in their writeups and are certainly ripe places for new young Heroes representing them to begin encountering similar problems, and we would not be surprised at all if young Hindu Heroes run into minions of the asura or hear horror stories about them from their patrons and priests.

When you're among the gods themselves... well, whether or not the Persian and Hindu gods are actually ancestral enemies is something each game will have to decide for itself. But however you decide they interact, there is definitely a lot of history and relationship there, for good, bad or worse, and plenty to play with when it comes to gods that wear multiple hats!