Indo-European religion, Scythian philosophy, and the date of Zoroaster: a linguistic quibble

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On September 23, 2020, Christopher Beckwith delivered the following lecture at  Indiana University:

Scythian Philosophy
So, Was There a Classical Age of Eurasia After All?

Christopher I. Beckwith
Sept. 23, 2020, 12:00 noon

In the middle of the first millennium BCE philosophy appeared in several ancient cultures. Its most prominent early practitioners were Anacharsis (‘the Scythian’, fl. 590 BC), Zoroaster (whose texts are in a Scythian dialect, fl. 620 BC), Gautama the Buddha (‘the Scythian Sage’, fl. 490 BC), and Laotzu (*Gautama, fl. 400 BC). They use logic to pose the metaphysical-political problem of polytheism versus monotheism, the ethical problem of achieving happiness or equanimity, and especially the epistemological problem of categorization. This talk examines their ideas and builds on the latest advances in Scythology to address the much-avoided question in the subtitle. 

C.I. Beckwith, Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian Studies, Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, is author of Greek Buddha (2015), Warriors of the Cloisters (2012), Empires of the Silk Road (2009), etc., and The Scythian Empire (ms. Nearing completion).

Vito Acosta, who attended the lecture, provided this summary:

In this talk, Professor Beckwith discussed the commonalities of four philosophers he believes are either Scythian themselves or of strong Scythian connections: Anacharsis, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, and the figure ‘Laodan’ who by some accounts inspired the Laozi. These four were all immigrants in strange lands and marked as such in their names. In this context, each of the four founded a major philosophical / religious school of thought: Skepticism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, and combined with Scythian ideas, customs, language, and political structures, helped found the shared Eurasian classical age. For Beckwith, Scythian philosophy can be summarized by the idea of "One Great Kingdom with One Great King and One Great God" and a focus on the logic and epistemologies of ethical antilogies, all highly unusual for the time.

Pita Kelekna, author of the The Horse in Human History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), was also present and wrote the following response:

I thoroughly enjoyed Beckwith’s lecture.  His work, so meticulously detailed, basically confirms much of what I have long suspected about IE religion.  At the end, though, I was intrigued by everyone’s surprise at philosophical change arriving from the exterior.  In anthropology, it has long been recognized that while routine incremental change occurs gradually in the polity interior, radical change arrives most often from outside and first takes root in the periphery.  There are tangible reasons for this phenomenon.  Border populations are more heterogeneous than the central core, more mobile, often engaging in trade thereby exposed to the exterior, intermarrying, bilingual, and generally more receptive to foreign contacts.  The seminal work of anthropologist Victor Turner initially linked the enactment of sacred ritual to the ‘liminality’ (betwixt and between) of life-crisis events:  the transition from womb to life, puberty to adulthood, single to married, health to sickness, and life to death.  Later, Turner applied these concepts of liminal transitional flux to the socio-political context:  in situations of mobility, e.g., the religious ferment of pilgrimages or periphery, e.g., revolutionary innovation in distant borderlands.  Both constructs I feel relate to the subject at hand.

 So, getting back to Beckwith’s Scythian Religion, prior to the Indo-European expansion west and east across Eurasia, the very earliest civilizations had first arisen in verdant river valleys circumscribed by perilous uninhabitable deserts (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Indus, Shang, Peru).  Fertile valley soil supported dense populations and increasing societal complexity of hierarchic inequitable structures that led to centralized rule and elite exploitation of lower ranks. Emigration impossible across the inhospitable hinterland left these individuals no alternative but to accept subjugated status.  On the Pontic Caspian 4000 BC, rather different circumstances prevailed. Because of advancing urbanism, Proto-Indo-Europeans were obliged to occupy lands sub-optimal for agriculture, where they supplemented cultivation with herding and hunting on the nearby steppe.  But in the face of unrelenting demographic pressure from the south, PIE peoples finally chose not to assimilate into the lower ranks of the encroaching state, but rather to migrate westward, daring the challenges of the forbidding Eurasian steppes—a migration greatly facilitated by the recently invented wheel and the locally domesticated horse.

 Thus, Indo-Europeans, with western domesticated animals and cultigens, rapidly traversed the northern steppes, covering thousands of miles, to arrive in the Minusinsk basin c 3500 BC. Their spectacular mobile adaptation, starkly contrasting to the restricted sedentism of prior civilizations, achieved great innovations in areas of equestrianism and metallurgy, permitting widespread exploitation of diverse environments across the vast steppes.  The nomads’ new religion reflected the heroism of their epic migrations and vitalized the dynamics of daily interaction. In the second millennium BC, steppe invasions penetrated territories of Shang China, Indus valley, Iranian plateau, and, on Europe’s southeastern flanks, Greece and Anatolia.  During the first millennium BC, on the borders of these ancient lands, outsiders Laodan, Gautama, Zoroaster, and Anacharsis planted the seeds of steppe philosophy which, in times of political tension, would spread south, later to engulf the august centers of antiquity.  Interestingly, the Scythian Religion attendee was right to comment on the liminal, outsider character of Muhammad.  Married to the wealthy widow Khadija, the prophet engaged afar in caravan trade, this mobility affording him exposure to Judaism and Christianity, elements of which he subsequently integrated into the new religion of Islam. Residing in the outlying province of Israel, Christ too was marginal / liminal to the imperial might of Rome.

 A more recent example of liminality is that of Marxism.  True, Karl Marx wrote his magnum opus in the libraries of London and every expectation was that the revolution would occur in the industrial heartlands of Britain or Germany.  But the obverse happened.  Instead, the Bolshevik revolution took place in quasi-feudal Russia, on the far eastern fringes of Europe. During a visit to the US in 1917, Leon Tolstoy commented that the “Russians were the Negroes of Europe” and predicted that African Americans in time would rise in protest against racist injustice.  Fifty years later Negroes did, but not immediately on the streets of NYC, nor in any other political center of the industrialized northeast. Black protest initially exploded in the Deep South in distant Alabama: the (pariah) garbage collectors’ march in Selma and Rosa Park’s Montgomery refusal to surrender her bus seat to a White person. Their defiance sparked wider insurrection which led to Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and national civil rights legislation—and today resounds in the Black Lives Matter movement challenging Republican White supremacy

Radical change at the periphery is almost the norm, certainly not the unusual!

I stand in awe of Beckwith’s work, but I have one quibble.  Linguistic evidence from Vedas and the Avesta indicates that Zoroaster lived 1500-1200 BC. This would suggest that in the second millennium BC there existed on the steppe an original IE religion, which at the folk level had already diffused east to the Yenisei and west to the Rhine. It was only in the first millennium BC, that steppe philosophers as outsiders first implanted this new religion along their southern borders, an alien religion that later would overwhelm the earlier ancient sedentary civilizations further south.


Selected readings


  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 7:11 am

    I'm probably missing part of the argument, but it seems that treating Russia as "liminal" to Europe is blatantly misleading and assumes that Europe was far more homogeneous that it really was. Besides, as Kelekna herself points out, Marxism didn't emanate in Russia to begin with. Looks to me that the relevant aspect to the parallel is that it came into Russia as a foreign philosophy.

  2. Carl said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    I read Prof. Beckwith's Greek Buddha a few years ago. It certainly changed my perspective on the history of the Axial Age. But I'm not sure I agreed with all of his conclusions. In particular, I find the suggestion that Gautama and Laodan were derived from the same name a bit of a stretch. What's the scholarly consensus? Do historians of central Asia accept his theories or think they go too far?

  3. cameron said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 10:01 am

    The figure of Anacharsis, as depicted by Diogenes Laërtius, was later to influence the literary use of Persian outsiders as observers of European culture. See for example Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes and Barthelemy's Travels of Anacharsis the Younger. Nietzsche had studied Diogenes Laërtius, and we have to see the figure of Zarathustra in his work as another exotic Iranian outsider.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    From Joe Farrell:

    This approach to "liminality" is very interesting. I find myself turning more often to abstract forces to understand cultural processes. One is the "ecology of empires," which I encountered in studies of Hellenistic Judaism and primitive Christianity. It helps to explain certain obsessions of classical Latin literature, and I expect that it has been applied in comparative studies of Rome and Han. For liminality, a simple and well-known fact is that the Latin canon grows over time mainly by adding authors whose birthplaces are farther and farther away from Rome. It's not clear why, although I suppose it's true that these areas become more and more "Romanized" over time, but in any case it seems to compart with these ideas about liminality.

  5. john v burke said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 11:52 am

    I think the proposition that the Bolshevik revolution represented a fulfillment of Marx's vision is at least questionable, and the comments on African-American uprising in the US are carefully cherry-picked: Montgomery wasn't the beginning of Black resistance, and the "foreign/internal" dynamic needs an awful lot of stretching if it's to fit the civil rights movement.

  6. Judith A. Lerner said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 12:23 pm

    If he is asked, "When do you [italics] think Zoroaster lived?" one of the outstanding scholars of the Avesta and other texts often replies, "Did he?"
    Certainly, not as recently as Prof. Beckwith believes.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 12:30 pm

    The date of 620 BC for Zoroaster may or may not be 600 years off, but in any case it's oddly precise. What is Beckwith's evidence for this?

    On the Pontic Caspian 4000 BC, rather different circumstances prevailed. Because of advancing urbanism, Proto-Indo-Europeans were obliged to occupy lands sub-optimal for agriculture, where they supplemented cultivation with herding and hunting on the nearby steppe. But in the face of unrelenting demographic pressure from the south, PIE peoples finally chose not to assimilate into the lower ranks of the encroaching state, but rather to migrate westward, daring the challenges of the forbidding Eurasian steppes—a migration greatly facilitated by the recently invented wheel and the locally domesticated horse.

    Because of advancing urbanism… in Mesopotamia, or at most in Bulgaria & Romania… people around Samara were obliged to occupy the lands they already occupied… and then they chose to migrate westward?

    There's evidence they fled from the plague (and spread it in the process). Not all archeogenetics papers are about humans, some are about Yersinia pestis.

  8. DBMG said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 12:39 pm

    I was very surprised by the Laodan/Gautama connection too and would be eager to hear more about it.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 9:06 pm

    To put Cameron's point differently, the few surviving texts we have that are supposedly authored by Anacharsis are generally thought to be pseudepigraphica probably composed by entirely un-Scythian Greek authors several centuries after Anachasis lived (if, indeed, he did). Before reading Cameron's comment I had separately thought of the non-Persianness of Montesquieu's Persian letters as a plausible parallel. That one school of Greek philosophers chose to use a legendary Scythian visitor from several centuries previously as part of a fabricated genealogy I guess tells you something interesting about Greek perceptions of Scythians, but it doesn't tell you anything very reliable about actual Scythian philosophy.

    As for the Scythian antecedents of Taoism, there's perhaps a certain echo of this discussion from the 1850's (translation of Evariste Régis Huc's "A Journey Through the Chinese Empire"):

    This thought confirms all that has been already indi-
    cated in the tradition of the journey of Lao-tze toward
    the West, and leaves little doubt concerning the origin
    of his doctrine. Probably he received it from the Jews
    of the Ten Tribes whom the conquests of Salmanasar
    had just dispersed over Asia ; or from the apostles of
    some Phoenician sect, to which belonged also the philoso-
    phers who were the precursors and masters of Pythago-
    ras and Plato. In a word, we find in the writings of
    this Chinese philosopher the dogmas and opinions which
    formed, to all appearance, the basis of the Orphic faith
    and of that antique Oriental wisdom which the Greeks
    sought for in the school of the Egyptians, the Thracians,
    and the Phoenicians.

    It is now certain that Lao-tze drew from the same
    sources as the masters of ancient philosophy ; but one
    would like to know who were his immediate preceptors,
    and what countries of the West he visited. We know
    by a credible witness that he went to Bactria, and it is
    not impossible that he penetrated as far as Judea, or
    even Greece. A Chinese at Athens presents indeed an
    idea that runs counter to our opinions, or rather our
    prejudices, concerning the relations of ancient nations ;
    but I believe, nevertheless, that we should accustom
    ourselves to it ; and that though it can not be positively
    proved that our Chinese philosopher did really reach
    Greece, it is not improbable that there were Chinese
    there about that period, and that the Greeks may have
    alluded to them in those Scythians and Hyperboreans
    whom they mention as remarkable for the mildness and
    elegance of their manners. Besides this, if Lao-tze
    stopped in Syria, after having traversed Persia, he must
    already have gone three parts of the way, and overcome
    me greatest difficulties in the passage across the plateau
    of high Asia.

  10. Chris Button said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 10:04 pm

    It seems Beckwith is suggesting that 老聃 was originally 考聃, which he thinks is phonologically close to Gautama.

    Why 考 is being treated as the progenitor of 老 is not at all clear to me (regardless of any possible etymological relationship between the two).

    老 is well attested in the oracle-bone inscriptions; 考 isn't. There is a single occurrence of an oracle-bone character with a partial resemblance to the bronze form of 考 (composed of 老 plus phonetic 丂). But the identification is far from conclusive and is hardly the grounds for any solid argument.

  11. Roger Lustig said,

    October 9, 2020 @ 10:31 pm

    I want to know more about Tolstoy's 1917 visit to the US.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    October 10, 2020 @ 8:52 am

    As for the Scythian antecedents of Taoism, there's perhaps a certain echo of this discussion from the 1850's (translation of Evariste Régis Huc's "A Journey Through the Chinese Empire"):

    That is, of course, pretty much all wishful thinking – but I've come across the idea before that Hyperborea is a third-or-more-hand account of China (that which is beyond Siberia) and can't see anything wrong with it.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 10, 2020 @ 9:38 am


    Glyph origin

    Ideogrammic compound (會意): 人 (“man”) + 毛 (“hair”) + 匕 (“cane”) – a man with long hair (an old man), leaning on a cane. Compare top component to 孝 (OC *qʰruːs).

    Cognate to 考 (OC *kʰluːʔ); the most commonly cited example of 轉注 (“reciprocal meaning”).


    Unknown. Compare Proto-Sino-Tibetan *s-raw (“withered, residue, corpse”), *rwat (“stiff, tough”), whence Burmese ရော် (rau, “wither, become overripe; age”), ရွတ် (rwat, “old, stiff, tough”). See also 古 (gǔ), 故 (gù).

    An old Sino-Vietnamese borrowing is rệu (“overripe, pulpy”).

    Old Sinitic reconstructions

    (Baxter–Sagart): /*C.rˤuʔ/
    (Zhengzhang): /*ruːʔ/


    Glyph origin

    Variant of 老 (OC *ruːʔ) – Ideogrammic compound (會意): 耂 (“an old man with long hair, bent over”) + 匕 (“a cane”) – an old man, leaning on a cane. Compare top component to 孝 (OC *qʰruːs).

    Structurally related to 老 (OC *ruːʔ); the most commonly cited example of 轉注 (“reciprocal meaning”).

    Old Sinitic reconstructions

    (Baxter–Sagart): /*k-r̥ˤuʔ/
    (Zhengzhang): /*kʰluːʔ/

  14. martin schwartz said,

    October 10, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

    The innaccurate and uninformed quasi-scholarship here is painful, and I'm not going to waste much time on it. Re the date of the Gathas,
    the poems attributed to Zoroaster, linguistic criteria (esp. relative chronology vis-à-vis the rest of the Avesta on one hand, and the RigVeda on the other), and other, albeit less clear criteria, point to the Gathas
    being no more recent than 1000 BCE and very possibly a few centuries earlier. On this matter J. Kellens, for example, and I agree, although we very strongly disagree as to the historicity of Zoroaster, I vehemently affirming, on the basis of various evidence, his reality and sole authorship of the Gathas, and Kellens (like P.O. Skjærvø, to him Judith Lerner may be referring), raising doubts, contra the Iranistic consensus, about Z.'s
    historicity. That the author of the Gathas was Scythian is an idea no
    Iranist I know would share. As for the Buddha, his epithet Sakyamuni
    (I omit the diacriticals) may or not indicate that he was of Saka backgound, his has ancestry was some Saka people, that doesn't make them "Scythian", and certainly doesn't have the Buddha as
    (re)presenting a "Scythian" philosophy. In any event, there is nothing significantlt similar between the Gathic and the Buddhist teachings.
    As for the rest, I am not competent to comment, which reminds me of
    the dictum of a Coaxial Age sage, "Just because God gave us mouths, doesn't mean we have to run them all the time". And speaking of time,
    if I'm to make more headway on my Zoroaster/Gathas project, I better stop here, ony adding that the categorical "monotheism" vs. "polytheims"
    doesn't apply to Gathic religion; see what I say in the Wiley Blackwell
    Companion to Zoroastrianism, or have a look at the YouTubes my wif posted of my lectures to Zoroastrians, under Martin Schwartz Gathas
    theology YouTube. I'm outa here.
    Martin Schwartz

  15. David Marjanović said,

    October 11, 2020 @ 5:00 am

    That the author of the Gathas was Scythian is an idea no
    Iranist I know would share.

    I was wondering if Beckwith was using "Scythian" to mean "Central Iranian" or something (which I've never seen before, but that doesn't mean much).

  16. Rodger C said,

    October 11, 2020 @ 11:55 am

    As someone who used to share many a pitcher at Nick's with Beckwith when we were grad students in the 70s, I can say that he's absolutely brilliant, and his synthesizing talents have been something I've tried to emulate, but also that he's always shown a tendency to go out on various limbs, some of which bear more fruit than others.

  17. Chris Button said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 6:58 am

    考 … Glyph origin … Variant of 老

    As noted above, this is not a solid argument on the basis of oracle-bone evidence. The only solid evidence from the bronzes has 丂 as phonetic in 考, no matter how similar some forms of it might look to 老.

    Separately, while there is semantic overlap between 老 "old" and 考 "to (communicate with the spirit of one's) dead father" (as Michael Carr 1991 has it), an actual etymological relationship is harder to prove. The ultimate etymological relationship of 考 seems to be with 求, 究, etc. and not with 老.

    Also, positing a velar-rhotic cluster in 考 causes problems for Middle Chinese vocalism. An alternative dialectal velarization of *r- in 老 to give *kʰ- in 考 is theoretically possible but somewhat unprecedented, and the aspiration is still untoward.

    To reiterate, it seems highly unlikely that 老聃 could ever have been 考聃.

  18. Carl said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 11:01 am

    For those who haven't read Greek Buddha, the relevance of Zoroastrianism to Buddhism is that early Buddhism is often described as being a response to various "Hindu" ideas of an eternally reincarnating soul, etc., but Beckwith thinks this anachronistic (Indian doctrines of the soul mostly come as a response to Buddhism!), and Gautama was actually responding to Zoroastrian ideas.

    FWIW, I am not convinced Beckwith is correct, but I am convinced that he is worth engaging with and not dismissing as "innaccurate and uninformed quasi-scholarship".

  19. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2020 @ 7:04 am

    All of Beckwith's ideas are worth engaging with.

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