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Airyanem Vaejah

The Airyanem Vaejah (Aryan Expanse) was the legendary home of the Indo-Iranian people. It is believed that between ca. 5000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., Indian and Iranian tribes lived together in one place and spoke mutually intelligible languages. Sometime in the third millennium B.C., the two groups separated, reaching Iran and India via much-debated routes. Not surprisingly, the Avesta and the Rig Veda, the literary monuments of the Iranians and Indians respectively (second millennium B.C.) have similarities which extend beyond linguistics, to the very gods themselves, and the themes of parts of the narratives. Regrettably, the Iranian epic material in the Avesta was purged, sanitized or recast by the zeal of Zoroaster and his followers in the 7th century B.C. and later. Complicating matters is the fact that only a tiny percentage of the historically known Avesta has survived. It is only in oblique, presumably pre-Zoroastrian passages or in much later epic material (supposedly deriving from the earliest Iranian myths) that one encounters anything comparable to the passions and jealousies of the Greek or Indian deities.

Airyanem Vaejah, whose location is disputed, contained the first mountain created on earth, Hara Berezaiti or High Hara. The Vedas, which do not mention Airyanem Vaejah directly, nonetheless are familiar with this premier mountain. Close to the mountain was a sea, called Vourukasha in the Avesta, where the "Tree of All Seeds" grew. Coursing down the mountain, or near it, was a mighty river. The early Indo-Iranians believed that all mountains were connected by their roots to High Hara; and that all bodies of water were connected to the magical sea.

Ahura Mazda, the god who created High Hara, also built palaces on it for the greatest gods: Mithra, Sraosha, Rashnu, Ardvi-sura Anahita, and Haoma, all of whom ride in special chariots. While humans could not live on the holy mountain, the greatest mythical heroes made sacrifices there. The way to the other world, a special abode of the blessed (where the largest and most choice specimens of plants and animals were found) lay through the foothills of Hara/Meru. The Chinvat bridge of Zoroastrian mythology, over which the souls of the dead had to pass was on or near High Hara. The motif of birds dwelling near the summit is shared by Iranian and Indian accounts, as is the theme of the theft of the intoxicating plant haoma/soma from the mountain's summit by a magical bird (Syena/Garuda/Simurgh); and the slaying of a multi-headed, multi-eyed dragon nearby. In the Indian tradition, Agni, the rock-born god of fire with tawny hair and iron teeth is connected with the sacred mountain. In the Iranian tradition, High Hara is also associated with metallurgy. Fire and metals were introduced to humanity after the hero Hoshang(Haoshyangha) sacrificed on the mountain. High Hara was also the locale of many of the most memorable contests in Iranian mythology.

The Avesta and the Vedas do not contain sufficiently precise geographical information to locate Airyanem Vaejah. Despite this, for more than a century scholars have attempted to locate this legendary "original homeland" based on various interpretations of details. Thus, unbelievably, references to the severity of the winter storms in the mountains and certain poetic statements led to a "polar hypothesis". The fact that the Avesta has survived only in an eastern Iranian language, the statement that the prophet Zoroaster's initial visions and early teaching occurred here, and the belief that cattle raising developed exclusively on the steppes of eastern Iran, led to the selection of eastern Iran as the most likely site, by some. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of scholars suggested that Airyanem Vaejah should be sought in the Caucasus or adjacent areas. This view, which was developed most thoroughly by A.V.W. Jackson, was shared by James Darmesteter, an early translator of the Avesta and A.J. Carnoy, author of the article on Iranian mythology in Mythology of all Races (vol. 6), among others. According to these hypotheses, the sacred mountain (High Hara) and the magical sea (Vourukasha) would correspond to either Mt. Rewanduz and Lake Urmiah; Mt. Ararat or Mt. Aragats and Lake Sevan; Mt. Suphan or Mt. Nemrut and Lake Van; or Mt. Savalan or Mt. Demavend and the Caspian Sea. This last is the favorite of later Iranian tradition. Jackson suggested that Azerbaijan was the most likely site for Airyanem Vaejah, and that the later Zoroaster also hailed from this land of mountains, rivers, and prized pasturage.

The Arax River

Two place names mentioned in the Avesta and the Vedas have been associated with the Arax river: the great semi-mythical river Raha which had its source in the High Hara; and a place repeatedly styled "the goodly Daitya", located somewhere in Airyanem Vaejah. It was there that Ahura Mazda convened his assembly of spiritual Yazatas and where the first kings addressed their people. It was at the goodly Daitya that Ahura Mazda told of the coming destruction of humanity and the need to build a refuge. Some have associated Daitya with the valley of the Arax river, though numerous other sites have been suggested for Daitya and Raha, stretching across Iran and northern India.

Legend identifies the banks of the Arax river with the birthplace of the god Mithra, god of contracts. The Iranist G. Widengren writes:

According to the "legend" of the mysteries Mithras was born from a rock, petra genetrix giving life to him. He is therefore de petra natus... We also know that Mithra was born on the shore of the river Araxes, Ps. Plutarch, De fluviis 23 par. 4 (where, however, a confusion is found in so far as this story is attributed to a son of Mithras), that his father hated women and therefore threw his sperm on a rock which afterwards was pregnant. These details are not as the great pioneer in Mithraic studies [Franz Cumont]assumed "de pure fantaisie", on the contrary they are part of a birth myth attested among the Ossetians in Caucasus and have already in the Hurrian "Epic of Kumarbi" an unmistakable association. The localization of this scene of Mithra's birth to the shore of the Araxes in Armenia confirms our presumption that north-western Iran and Armenia was the homeland of Mithraic mysteries. Also the shepherds who are seen on Mithraic reliefs in connection with the birth-scene possess their correspondence in Ossetic tales and Iranian salvation legends, and indicate likewise a north-western origin of the stories about Mithra's birth.

It was by the banks of the Arax, too, apparently, that Mithra killed the primeval Ox, seizing it by the nostrils with one hand and plunging his hunting knife into its flank with the other. From the limbs and blood of the Ox, all useful species of animals and plants sprang forth. The "Soul of the Ox" flew into the firmament, reminiscent of the ram sacrificed by Phrixus in Aia. Even though there is insufficient evidence to locate the legendary Airyanem Vaejah, it is clear that certain symbols are associated with it. Among these are mountains, metallurgy, the entrance to the other world, and the deities Anahit and Mithra, dwelling on the sacred mountain. Scholars who place Airyanem Vaejah and the locale of the early Indo-Iranian myths in eastern Iran suggest that the myths received a Middle Eastern coloration at a later period in western Iran, Azerbaijan, and Media where they were written down and commented on.


Eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus were familiar in varying degrees to the Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Indo-Iranians. The Greeks were familiar with the southeastern corner of the Black Sea and the area to the west of Lake Van; the Mesopotamians with the Diarbekir-Van-Urmia region and perhaps with the Ararat area to the north; the Indo-Iranians with the valley of the Arax river, and the areas around Urmia and south of the Caspian. Not only is there familiarity with these areas, but the images defined by them have striking similarities. All three traditions associate the area with metals and metallurgy, the entrance to the underworld or other world, and hybrid monsters. It was a place of origin and/or salvation of humanity; a place where the Mother Goddess had special sway; where certain non-patriarchal forms of social organization and inheritance obtained; and a place associated with magic potions, medicines, and people knowledgeable in their preparation. Concomitant with the association with metallurgy is an association with its finished products: mechanical marvels and magically forged weapons. An association with horse and chariot appears in the details of all three traditions. Areas south of the Armenian highlands also associate the area with timber, precious stones, and craftsmen, all of which, historically, were obtained from there.

In addition to the similarity of images, there is a deeper similarity which is thematic. Prometheus (son of Iapetus), Noah (father of Japheth), and Hoshang are all civilizing culture-heroes who bring the blessings (or secrets) of the gods down to humanity in this special area. The theme of the almost successful destruction of humanity by the gods and its rebirth here is shared by Greek, Mesopotamian, and Iranian mythology. Odysseus, Heracles, and Gilgamesh, adventurers turned seekers-after-immortality, all visit here. Such similarities have led some to suggest that we are not dealing with independent traditions but with certain great or memorable events in the early history of humanity--interpreted differently-- some of which entered sacred tradition while others remained part of classical mythology.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that in addition to reflecting foreign images of eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, some of the myths reviewed above actually derive from the area. The one-eyed cyclops of Greek mythology, and the demon Humbaba of Mesopotamian mythology may descend from the one-eyed T'ork, whose worship was known from areas to the west and southwest of Lake Van. Another deity and his gestes, the culture-hero Prometheus may derive from the Vahakn-Ardavazd-Amiram figures known from Armenian and Georgian mythology. Tales of dragons and rock-born gods are also known from eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. It is reasonable to suppose that along with the natural resources and finished products that were exported from this area, the stories themselves travelled. This is even more likely if the merchants, traders, and warriors were migrants from the area. If so, then these myths, which currently are the earliest literary monuments of humanity, simultaneously become reflections of the earliest native traditions, valuable for the study of eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus, and extending references to this area back to the dawn of writing.

See also