Ushas is a Goddess whose name is reconstructed to
Proto-Indo-European as *Haéusos or
*Haeus(os), and she is believed to have been the Goddess of
dawn (p. 409, 410, 432, Oxford Introduction). This Goddess is so
important that her name has several applications. Certain specific Goddesses and
Gods, usually the sun, the stars (especially the planet Venus), and hearth
fires; a class of Gods (‘those that shine with a golden light’); and a general
word for ‘a god, any god,’ all share this name. These Goddesses are general to the Indo-Europeans, but
because of the Pandemonium, as it is called, the Ashers were demonized
in some language groups (more on that below). Even with that effect, this
Goddess has forms in all the Indo-European Languages.
It is sometimes argued that these Goddesses were not important because they
did not often have temples dedicated to them, however the Indo-Europeans knew
that these names meant ‘sun’ and ‘hearth fire’ and they worshipped them
directly, as the sun at dawn, and as the hearth fire at home. The Indo-Europeans
thought of fire as a little bit of the sun come down to earth, and they
sometimes use the same name for both sun and fire. In countries that are very
warm, the name is more often associated with the planet Venus, which is
beautiful but doesn’t heat things up.
In many countries this Goddess is celebrated with a festival in March, usually at the spring equinox, and
usually accompanied by bonfires (Golden Bough, Volume 10). This is
still celebrated today everywhere in northern countries; in English it is called
Easter after her. These Goddesses are often mentioned in literature and hymns
and they have specific myths which relate to their obvious power to warm and
comfort. It should also be noted that the Indo-Europeans deified the Sun under
several other names, for example Surya and Sol and their related forms.
Anatolian Dialects including Hittite
As with the other
Indo-Europeans deities, gender is not a fixed characteristic, and so this deity
can be either male or female. In Hittite, it’s usually male. The form in
Hittite, aššu means ‘lord, God’ and assara, a
feminine form. Other forms of this deity in Hittite have an intrusive
t between the s and the r
(-s-t-r-), and so the forms Estan, Istanus,
Istara are known from various Anatolian dialects (based on a
reconstructed form *Haeust(e)ro (p. 294, 301, Mallory and
Adams in Oxford Introduction, and also see the form *as-t-r,
given on p. 702 and 780, Gamkrelidze and Ivanov). It was once assumed that some
of these forms had to have been borrowed into Indo-European languages from
various languages of Mesopotamia and the Middle East, but linguists can now
reconstruct cognate forms going back to a Proto-Indo-European origin.
Ushas is the beautiful Goddess
of dawn in the Rig Veda, and there are a number of hymns especially for her. It
seems that later when the conflict developed between the priests who spoke
Sanskrit and those who spoke Avestan, the Ashuras (a later form of the name)
were demonized in the later Sanskrit literature (see the Pandemonium, below).
There is evidence of an alternative form with an intrusive -t- between -s-
and -r-, in the name Atri (RV 2.85), which was the name of a
fire demon. The Sanskrit speakers continued to worship fire and use fire in
worship, as all Indo-Europeans did, but the old name was replaced with Agni, the
God of fire in the Rig Vedas. Later still, Agni is effectively replaced by
Ganesha, but each of these deities remains the first to receive offerings
because fire was the medium through which food offerings were made to the Gods.
Avestan and the Zoroastrians
In the Zoroastrian religion
the word ahura is used for a good spirit and Ahura Mazda is the
highest God of the Zoroastrians. This word is a perfect cognate with the
Sanskrit word ashura, and it is a general word for ‘a god, any god.’ The Avestan
speakers also have a form of the word with the intrusive -t- which is
Atar, the word for the sacred fire of the Zoroastrians. [fuggle26]
At the Spring Equinox, on the festival of Nov Ruz, which means ‘New
Year’ the Zoroastrians keep a fire burning all night to help
the Sun come up. This is one of the seven major festivals known as Gahambars among the Zoroastrians. In many areas this
spring fire festival is called Ashur and among the Zoroastrians, it is sacred to
the Persian God Ahura Mazda. New Year’s Day or Ashur was a holiday in, for
example, Morocco, according to the Golden Bough, which gives a
description of the celebration (Vol. 10, p. 216-217). In Moslem countries
generally, Ashur is now celebrated on the 10th day of Moharram, the 1st month of
the Islamic calendar. As Frazer puts it: “All strictly Mohammadean feasts being
pinned to the moon, slide gradually with that luminary through the whole period
of the earth’s revolution about the sun,” so Ashur falls in a different month
every year. In some Moslem countries it is celebrated twice, once at the spring
equinox and again at the moveable Islamic New Year. In addition, the name for
the annual celebration of Ashura has broadened to refer to any gathering,
including a council of elders (which however excludes women in Moslem countries)
in a number of languages.
The Goddess Éos is very well
known in Greek, where she is often mentioned in the Iliad as the
‘rosy-fingered dawn.’ An alternative form of this name with the intrusive -t- is
found in the Greek Goddess Hestia, who is a Goddess of the
In Latin, Aurora is a dawn
Goddess, although the Romans retain relatively little of the ancient mythology.
An alternative form of this word with an intrusive -t- is found in the Latin
Goddess Vesta, a Goddess of the hearth whose temple in Rome was
considered necessary for the continuation of the city. The entire month of June
is devoted to her festival, the Vestalia. Gamkrelidze and Ivanov also argue that
the name of Mount Vesuvius is from the same basic root form.
In ancient Rome, fire was rekindled on March 1st,
according to the Golden Bough, Vol. 10, p. 138. Roman Catholic churches
continue the ritual of rekindling of fire, still set to Easter, which is a
moveable holiday among Christians. All lights are extinguished, and a new fire
is made in church with flint and steel or a burning glass. See also Golden
Bough, Vol. 10, p. 120 for more about this tradition.
The very early Gaulish God Esus
is probably a God of hearths, though little is known about him, and much of that
is contradictory. He is described as a God of hearths in one early Roman text
which was a pep talk by a Roman commander intended to scare the troops right
before a battle. Lucius also refers to him, but seems to have confused him with
another God. There are also two sculptures in Paris with the name Esus carved on
them; they show a man cutting down trees with an axe.
In Old Norse, the word
ass (singular) and Aesir (plural), and in Old
English, Ôs (singular), are general words for ‘a god, any god.’
This word is used for the dominant group of deities in the Scandinavian pantheon
though this may be because of influence from Zoroastrian sources, one of the
effects of the Pandemonium (see below). The close correspondence between the
Zoroastrian Gods and the Germanic Gods has long been recognized, and is referred
to as the Aesir-Asura correspondence. There are other correspondences too, such
as the eschatological nature of time (belief that the world will come to an end)
which is seen in Zoroastrianism and in the “Gotterdammerung” in Norse mythology.
These concepts are not general to the Indo-European Pagans who thought of time
as being cyclical.
An alternative form of the name of this deity with intrusive -t- appears in
Old English as Eostra, a Goddess mentioned by Bede, with Old
Saxon Ostara and the modern English form
Easter. She is associated with the warmth of spring, and the
festival at the spring equinox.
Among the Germanic-speaking people, the Goddess Eostra,
or Ostara was worshiped in early times with offerings and she continues to be
remembered in the name of the holiday Easter (in German Ostern), and in the
customs of fires on hill tops at the Spring Equinox and with giving presents of
Easter eggs, which are said to have been laid by the Easter bunny. Another form of this word gives us the common English word ‘star.’
The name Jarilo or Iaro looks
very different but it is just another cognate word for a deity associated with
warmth, in this case, a God of summer, Iaro being a word for summer in the
Slavic languages. Iarovit is another old reference to this deity on what is
described as an image with four faces: the four faces have names which represent
the four seasons of the year.
In Lithuanian Aušra
means ‘dawn’ and this Goddess appears in folk tales. The Goddesses of the
morning star, i.e. the planet Venus, also have related names; in Latvian
Auseklis, and in Lithuanian Aušrine. These
Goddesses appear in folk tales and in the dainas, sacred songs of the
Lithuanians and Latvians.
In an Albanian folk tale, a name of the moon is
Arap Ushas. Here Ushas, a name of the sun, is substituted for
the name of the moon as often happens, possibly because of a taboo on names of
the moon. However the fact that it appears at all in this form seems to show the
very conservative nature of Albanian folklore, since it is difficult to see who
they could have borrowed this word from, in a form corresponding to ancient
Astghik is a native Armenian
name of a star Goddess, who has characteristics of the Goddesses associated with
the planet Venus. This word shows the form with the intrusive -t-.
It’s not clear exactly what the
relationship is, but a number of Goddesses in Tibetan Buddhism have the name
Tara, based on a form having the intrusive -t- (between s and
r) according to Gamkrelidze and Ivanov, see p. 702 and 780. Green
Tara is the most famous and beloved of these Goddesses; others are
White Tara and Red Tara. Green Tara is identified with the planet Venus, while
the others are connected to other stars or planets.
Pandemonium, meaning ‘all demons,’ was an expression
which Jaan Puhvel used to describe the effect when the Sanskrit speakers and
Avestan speakers demonized each other’s Gods. This mutual demonization occurred
when Zarathustra demonized the Gods of the Sanskrit speakers, especially Indra
and the Devas, while the Sanskrit-speaking priests of the Rig
Veda demonized the Gods of the Zoroastrians, especially the Ashuras. The effect
was wider than just Sanskrit and Avestan: it is also noticeable in the Germanic
languages where the Scandinavian pantheon comes out on the same side as the
Zoroastrians. The reason and the exact timing for these effects are uncertain.
Asher Gods in Semitic Countries
It has long been noticed
that there are many correspondences between the Indo-European Gods and the Gods
in the Afro-Asiatic language family (usually called Semitic languages: Egyptian,
Akkadian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Hebrew and Arabic, to name a few). Especially
noticeable are Goddesses like Asherah, and
Isis and the Assyrian God Assur, “the supreme
national God” of Assyria. Other names appear to have the intrusive -t-, such as
Ishtar, Esther (who appears as a “Queen” in the Bible, i.e. the
Book of Esther), Astarte and
Ashtoreth. It was once thought that the Indo-European Gods must
have been borrowed from the Semitic deities, but this doesn’t seem to be
possible based on the evidence of historical linguistics (p. 772, Gamkrelidze
and Ivanov). At present the exact relationship is unclear.
• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V. and Ivanov, Vjaceslav
V., Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical
Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics:
Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna
Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i
indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
James, Golden Bough, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12
• Mallory, J. P., and Adams, Douglas Q., Oxford
Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta
Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), published by Innsbrucker Beitrage
zur Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
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