The idea of the “Aryan race” has been discredited for decades and is now synonymous with racism, notions of racial superiority, and hyper-nationalism. While many may reject it as a bygone designation for a supposed “type” of people, there are still plenty of misunderstandings associated with the term's origins and where it came from.
The “real” Aryans
A few thousand years before modern ideologies co-opted the term for their nationalist uses, around 1700 BCE, a group of nomadic peoples migrated into the Indian subcontinent from prehistoric Iran. The civilizations living in the area at the time, the Indus Valley civilizations, called these travelers ārya, the word from which we get “Aryan” today.
The Indus Valley civilizations (also known as Harappa or Sarasvati) were extremely advanced for their time. They had a written language, as well as farming capabilities, and lived in urban settlements. However, so the myth goes, when the Aryans arrived, they destroyed this ancient civilization and wiped out their culture. These invaders then went on to write the classic Indian literature and religious texts, such as the Vedas.
In reality, the Aryans were not an invading horde bent on destruction. There is no archaeological evidence to support this, and it seems that their migration was more gradual. The likely cause of the decline of the Indus Valley civilizations was due to environmental factors. In particular, floods and droughts probably disrupted their agricultural practices, which eventually collapsed their economy and social order. This allowed the Aryans to settle and pick up in their place.
This is much of what we know. Most of the evidence about the Aryans has been lost to history and what we do have comes from external observers. For instance, Herodotus, the Greek historian, described a people called Aryans who came from Media. Although the accuracy of this reference is a matter of debate, as some believe Herodotus merely recorded contemporary hearsay, there are also fragmented mentions of Aryans within Zoroastrian religious texts. The term Airyanem Vaejah, for instance, which means “expanse of the Aryans”, refers to a mythical homeland of the early Iranians and appears in the Zoroastrian Avesta. Importantly, none of these references suggest a racial group, and especially not one with any superior traits.
It is likely that the Zoroastrian religion had an important impact on the Vedic religions that belonged to the Indo-European peoples who took them into India around 1500 BCE. In these sacred texts, the words arya and anarya are used to describe honorable, respectable, and religiously-minded people. It is not a designation that identifies a biological “race”, though it may describe a particular tribal group.
Ultimately, it seems the term "Aryan" can at best be seen as a loose description of ancient people of Iran and India who spoke particular languages and demonstrated particular qualities. So how did this become twisted into ideas associated with racism and nationalism?
The origins of a myth
To be sure, there never was an “Aryan race” before the 19th and early 20th century – that is, before it became a staple of German national identity. But the story of how this came about is related to multiple overlapping trends that occurred in the Enlightenment.
The first related to a late 18th-century search for the cradle of humanity. At a time when many European nation-states were starting to emerge, people were keen to write origin myths that cast their nation in a positive light. They often did this by trying to fuse the story of Genesis with ancient history and classical myth – not an easy task – to form a coherent narrative stretching from Adam and Eve to their present day. This approach, however, was too Christian for the anti-religious and anti-clerical acolytes of the Enlightenment. They wanted a story based on history, geography, and linguistics and not something overshadowed by biblical revelation, especially one based in Palestine. Plus, as antisemitism was a prevailing attitude at the time, the story of Adam and Eve was a little too Jewish for their tastes.
So what was the answer? Well, enthusiasm turned to ancient Persia and, more importantly, India as the potential site for humanity’s birth – mostly because British exploration and conquest was making it a vogue topic. The Indian subcontinent was described as wondrous by contemporary travel writers and unlike anywhere else. Surely this had to be Paradise, an idea that even pleased the Christian faithful.
Then there were the seashells and marine fossils being found across the world and at remarkably high altitudes. Such discoveries baffled natural philosophers – essentially proto-scientists – some of which assumed this to be evidence of a great flood similar to the one that Noah had survived. So if there was a cataclysmic flood in the ancient past, which presumably wiped out most of humanity, those who survived it would have fled to high ground, and where on earth was higher than the Himalayas?
The Out of India myth was given greater weight by contemporary comparative linguistics which had started taking notice of ancient Persian texts as well as Indian Sanskrit, one of the oldest known languages in the world. This is where the threads for the Aryan myth start to merge.
The study of languages, their origins, and relationships – a field called philology – was extremely popular at this time. Some scholars such as William Jones, a British judge in Bengal, had identified what were believed to be similarities between Sanskrit and subsequent European languages. Through his analysis, Jones concluded that Sanskrit must have been the original language from which all modern European ones stemmed. If this was the case, then this mother language must have been spread by a superior group of people who invaded Europe from the east, bringing their ancient tongue with them. These invaders were probably the same ones who survived the ancient floods and became known as Indo-Europeans. They were thought to be a homogenous group who were effectively the creators of all culture and were, most importantly for these scholars and later racialist thinkers, white.
Aryans become a peculiarly German thing
Indo-European studies became a “science” of ancestry, and no country took it more seriously than Germany. In the early 19th century, Germany was undergoing a serious identity crisis and wanted to secure an origin myth that it them distinct from the rest of Europe.
Famous German writers like Fredrich Schlegel had not only latched onto the Indo-European story but started to add a particular Germanic spin to it. In particular, Schlegel made the crucial leap of regarding the ancient Persian “Aryans” as German ancestors. “All of a sudden,” Schlegel declared, “the old saga and opinion of the kinship of the Germans, or the Germanic and Gothic people with the Persians appear in a completely new light.” It helped that the word itself was quite close to the German word “Ehre", meaning honor. Soon after, other Enlightenment thinkers added terms like “Indo-Germanic” to describe the Aryans and their European descendants.
Then, as the 19th century drew on, the origins of the Aryan race gradually traveled from India to the West. More specifically, the cradle of human civilization actually supposedly rested in – you guessed it – Germany and Scandinavia. In an act of transmutation that only alchemists could be proud of, the Indo-European myth had become a national Germanic one where Germany and its people, descended from racially powerful Vikings, had actually been the true creators of civilization and Western culture.
This was the type of propaganda a young Austrian called Adolf Hitler digested in his formative years, and it became the bedrock of his nationalist and racialist politics. Although the idea of a racially superior Germanic people had been a common feature of German nationalism prior to this, Hitler’s ideology posed it as a crisis whereby the purity of this racial pre-eminence was at threat from so-called “lesser races”, such as Jewish people.
The result, as we know, was a legacy of hated and persecution that has lasted to the present day. In fact, there are still neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who draw on these ideas and it remains an important point of debate within Iran, India, and Pakistan. However, despite its political significance, there is little historical, archaeological, or scientific basis to support it.