Who were the Aryans?

Dear Cecil: Who exactly were the Aryans? Being Indian, I’ve heard all about the mythic accomplishments of my forefathers, who were reputedly Aryan. But how much of it is true and how is it that Aryan blood is prized from Calcutta to Berlin? Where exactly did they come from and where did they go? When people make mention of Indo-European languages, cultures, etc., are they referring to Aryans? What did the Aryans look like? I’m pretty sure they weren’t the blond-haired blue-eyed stock of Hitler’s wet dreams, but what racial characteristics did they possess? Also, how did the myths of Aryan supremacy come up? RS


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Never mind nukes and germ warfare — if you really want to wreak havoc in the world, you can’t beat a dubious idea. Aryanism is the classic example. But it started innocently enough.

Since ancient times people had noticed that there were a lot of similarities among European languages. But it wasn’t until the 16th century, when Europeans began studying the Indian language Sanskrit, that scholars realized this similarity extended to several Asian languages as well. The classic example was the word “father,” which was echoed by vater in German, pater in Latin, and pitar- in Sanskrit.

In 1786 the British orientalist William Jones suggested what today is an accepted fact, namely that all the languages were descended from a common source, of which only traces now remain. In the 1800s the philologist Max Mueller gave this protolanguage a name: Aryan, a name believed to have been used by various peoples living in the vicinity of Persia, modern Iran.

It seemed reasonable that the Aryan language had originated with a single Aryan tribe, or in the parlance of the day, an Aryan race. Language scholars occupied themselves for the next hundred years trying to determine where this tribe had lived and what they had looked like. At first it was assumed that the Aryans were Asians, but nationalistic European scholars found this hard to swallow and began scrounging for evidence that the Aryans had originated in Europe.

German scholars were particularly energetic in this regard and persuaded themselves that the Aryans were a tall, blond, “dolichocephalic” (long-headed) people whom today we would call Nordic. The Germans and their supporters believed the blond Aryans had originally lived by the shore of the Baltic Sea and had spread their language and culture throughout the rest of Europe and parts of Asia. The fact that most speakers of Aryan languages didn’t look at all Nordic they explained away by saying the original blonds had long since been submerged in the gene pool, and they dug out all sorts of references to fair-haired or fair-complected heroes, heroines, or deities in the Homeric ballads and other ancient texts. These were the now-lost Aryans, they argued, bringing the gift of civilization to the shlubs.

The idea that the blond Aryans were a superior race was first raised explicitly in 1853 by one Joseph Arthur, comte de Gobineau. De Gobineau was a respected ethnologist but also an unabashed racist, who argued in all seriousness that the Aryan races would prosper as long as they didn’t allow themselves to be tainted by mixing with black and yellow peoples. De Gobineau’s ideas were popular and are said to have influenced Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. Stripped of the scholarly trappings, Aryanism soon filtered down to the beer halls and eventually became one of the central tenets of Nazism. By then it had shed any linguistic significance; Hitler justified his persecution of the Slavs on the grounds that they were racially inferior, although they spoke Aryan languages.

After World War II nobody wanted to have anything to do with Aryans and the term was dropped in favor of “Indo-European.” But the search for the original Aryans/Indo-Europeans wasn’t completely abandoned. The leading candidate at the moment, I gather, is the “kurgan” people of what is now south Russia, so named because they built mounds called kurgans. From 4000 to 3000 BC, some researchers believe, they migrated in all directions, bringing their language with them. Not much is known about them, although there is archeological evidence that they were tall. But blond hair, blue eyes? Only their hairdressers knew for sure, and they didn’t tell.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.