In 1993, in the ancient Kafir-Kala monument in Rabatak area (Afghanistan) a stone slab was found; it bore a Bactrian inscription containing the first accurate genealogy of early Kushan kings, as well as a pantheon of gods, whose names were known previously only from Kanishka’s coins (1, pp. 351-356). Among the mentioned deities is Orlagno, ancient oriental deity of war and victory, officially recognized during the king’s reign.
The author of this article offers her own version of the transformation of this image depending on the location and time period.
At the end of the 3rd millennium and early centuries of the 2nd millennium B.C. Indo-Iranian tribes settled on the territory of Iran, Central Asia and India; they divided into independent groups – Indo-Aryans and Iranians – and this division influenced the emergence of ancient civilizations (Iranian, Indian, Central Asian), which subsequently influenced the development of other centers of world culture.
Southern parts of Central Asia and northern Afghanistan were known as Bactria. Situated on the path of transiting nomads, and later – on active trade routes, from the very beginning the culture of Bactrians evolved as a kind of “sandwich” made of a series of successive historical strata that emerged under the influence of both internal transformations, and external effects. Still, throughout the entire history, these external “injections” had never been strong enough to completely replace or supplant Bactrian traditions proper, despite the considerable degree of implementation of foreign cultures.
One of the powerful migration infiltrations to Bactria at that time was the settlement of Andronic tribes belonging to the eastern group of Indo-Iranian races; these people contributed much to a change in local worldview, which was reflected in religious beliefs and culture of local residents. Among the most remarkable and distinctive monuments created under the influence of these settlers is poly-ritual burial ground known as Buston VI, which is characterized by different ways of treating the dead and associated religious beliefs – something quite unusual for this ancient farming oecumene and unknown to exist in the practice of livestock-keeping tribes. Into the necropolis structure they introduced symbolic burials with clay artefacts, which belong to the funeral domain and therefore can not be considered outside the ritual context. The discovered terracotta items represent nude males; on either or both sides of their torso parallel lines were drawn; they had bronze batons in the shape of forked branches with two or three dents. N. Avanesova identifies them as heavenly mythological Indo-Aryan characters such as Varuna, Indra, or Sarasvati, who have something to do with water and the lower realm, arguing that “Vedic gods, just as men, are personified forces representing natural phenomena experienced by human beings. The figurines, in turn, were associated with particular symbols of natural elements.” (2, pp. 16-24)
Early religious notions of Indo-Iranian peoples after their settlement included two opposing divine forces: the Iranians had Ahura and Devas, and the Indo-Aryans had Deva and Asuras. The first group of deities was considered good, and the second malicious. The leader of Devas was the same Indra (probably personifying power and fertility). Indo-Aryans made him great and revered God, the chief of the Rig Veda pantheon – the god of thunder and war. Indra, the embodiment of valour and recognized “lord of gods”, was eventually to become one of the main keepers of the world (Lokapala) responsible for the East (3, p. 760). According to another version, the kingdom of Indra is in heaven – in the paradise of gods and heroes. His main cosmogonical heroic deed is the slaying of dragon – the demon Vritra (vrtra – obstacle) who stopped the flow of rivers; for this reason Indra is called Vrtrahan, the killer of Vritra (3, p. 438).
In Iranian mythology the functions of Indra were performed by Mitra, and Indra’s title, Vritrahan, was turned into a separate deity Vertragna – Mitra’s companion and aide. Meanwhile, Indra became an insidious demon.
In Iranian mythology Vertragna (Avesta), or Varhran (Pehlevi), or Bahran (Farsi) personifies the god of war and victory. Avesta (Yasht 14) describes Vertragna’s reincarnations as a wind, a bull, a horse, a camel, a boar, a hawk (or falcon), a ram, a goat, and, finally, as a fine-looking warrior. The images of varegna bird (Vargan the Falcon) and a ram -Vertragna’s incarnations – featured a farn, the symbol of king’s power (4, pp. 94-109).
In the 6th century B.C. Central Asia became part of the Achaemenid Empire that proclaimed Zoroastrianism its official religion, which, however, had not crowded out element worshiping or magic from people’s beliefs. Later on, the Zoroastrian pantheon of deities included proto-Indo-Iranian deities, such as Anahita, Mitra, and Vertragna, who earned popular recognition and were worshiped not only by Persians, but also by many other Iranian races (5, p. 170).
The increased sophistication of socio-political organization of ancient Asian states and the development of the Achaemenid royal power institution led to the emergence of a special “king’s” fire that burned during the entire period of king’s reign and was quenched after king’s death (or deposition) and when the fire of his successor was lit. This tradition existed during the reign of Parthians and Sassanids, and the Vahram (Vehran) fire was declared as such, named to honour Vertragna and instituted to mark a military victory or an accession to the throne (6, p. 461). It is possible that in Bactria similar fires were also lit, and Orlagno was associated with Iranian Vertragna.
During the Hellenistic period (4th c. B.C.), Greeks and Macedonians who settled in Iran started to build temples to honour their gods, and Hellenic and Iranian priests and mages were command to perform a joint service and bring sacrifices. Persians in Iran continued to worship Ahura Mazda, Anahita, Mitra and Vertragna, while Macedonians prayed to Athena and Heracles. This distinction that is more symbolic than real, offers extremely valuable evidence in an entirely new picture of a relationship between the two religious groups compelled to live side by side but worship different deities (7, pp. 70-71). Heracles was very much revered by Greeks and Macedonians living in the east, and many temples were built to his honour. For instance, in one of the temples located in Masjid-i Solaiman ancient settlement site archaeologists found statues showing his heroic deeds, as well as bronze statues of musicians, dancers and satyrs, which allowed reconstructing entire thiasi (8, p. 170).
By the 2nd century B. C. a kind of commonality starts manifesting itself in the diversity of religious cults, teachings and schools in the Near East and Central Asia: gods of different religions make “dynasty marriages”, some unification takes place, and a kind of common religious language is created. In honour of Anahita, Mitra and Vertragna people build temples with images borrowed from Greeks and Macedonians (7, p. 71).
These transformations resulted in the iconographic transfiguration of Heracles into Vertragna. Perhaps this continuity could be explained by a certain similarity in the description of their appearance and in the mythical tales, where both characters were the embodiment of strength, courage and bravery, and were the saviours and rescuers from troubles (9, p. 129).
The fusion of the Hellenistic hero and the ancient Iranian god in Iran is evidenced by a small roadside shrine in Kallinica dedicated to Heracles; the shrine is carved in the rock of Mount Behistun, next to a large inscription of Darius (147 B.C.). Heracles the Victorious is pictured reclining, with a chalice in his hand. The fact that he was worshiped by both Greeks and Iranians is evidenced by the very location of the shrine. Whereas Iranians passing by along a trade route that ran under the Behistun rock made donations and prayed for Vertragna’s protection, Greeks appealed to the beneficent power of their own god (10, pp. 109-110).
In the Parthian art Heracles was pictured in costumes not typical for a Hellenic hero, as evidenced by the statue from the sepulchre temple in Nimrud-Dag in the south of Anatolia, created on behest of King Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 B.C.). On his head Hercules is wearing high, pointed tiara, which, according to researchers, is a feature of a local deity, possibly, Vertragna. Despite the presence of statues of “Greek” deities and Greek inscriptions beneath them in the Nimrud-Dag composition, it bears features of Iranian style that has its origin in the Achaemenid times. This is reflected not only in the depiction of the characters’ dress the and their colossal size that is many times larger than life, but also in the scenes of encounter and handshake between the god and the king, and the transfer of crown by Antiochus to his son and successor, which heralds the emergence of a new motif in the Iranian art of investiture.
In the 3rd century B.C. Greco-Bactrian kingdom evolved on the Bactrian territory, in keeping with Hellenic cultural traditions. Approximately in the first half of the 1st c. A.D. a new kingdom emerges here – the Kushan. Its rulers, just as the Greco-Bactrian ones, introduce Hellenistic deities into their pantheon, changing some of their functions and raising them to the rank of patron deities of the ruling dynasty. This is confirmed by images and inscriptions on coins: the image of Heracles is among them.
Starting with the reign of Kanishka I, Orlagno is one of the major pantheon deities much revered in Kushan; on the coins of Kanishka and Huvishka he is pictured in a dress that is different from Parthian, and his attire is similar to that of a Kushan king. His headdress is crowned with bird’s head; in his right hand he holds a spear, and his left hand rests on a sword’s hilt in the shape of an eagle (11, pp. 18, 29).
Some iconographic correlations between Parthian and Bactrian art suggest convergence and the evolution of the images of Heracles/Vertragna and Orlagno in Bactrian art from the time when Greco-Bactrian kingdom began to evolve and until the fall of the Kushan. In our opinion, one can identify the following stages of transformation.
The first stage is reflected in a find from Ay-Khanum (3-2 cc. B.C., Afghanistan); it is a bronze figurine of a “young Heracles” with a club, putting a crown on himself (12, p. 69). This is one of the most renowned compositions that was reproduced with variations by many a generation of Greco-Roman sculptors; it was used both in art and in coins of different Greco-Bactrian rulers, which proves that the hero was pictured as patron deity.
The second stage is typified by a terracotta tile from Kara-Pichok: the image it bears is interpreted as that of Heracles-Vertragna (3-4 cc. A.D., Tajikistan). From the iconographic perspective it is akin to a terracotta piece from Barattepa (Podyomnaya, Uzbekistan): the figure on it is identified with the image of a hero and serpent-slayer Indra Vertragna triumphing over the serpent. The pose of the Barattepa character repeats the pose of the Kara-Pichok figure with his right arm raised and his left lowered; the manner of picturing the body with distinct sexual organs is also similar. But if the Barattepa hero wears a headband, the head of the Kara-Pichok character is adorned with a tall dented crown. Neck decorations are similar: over his shoulders the Kara-Pichok figure wears some kind of animal skin tied in a knot over his chest.
The feet of both characters are shod in knee-high “boots”, which could be shin-guards, marked by slanting notches. In their raised right arm the heroes are holding a mace; a girdle on their hips is decorated with oblique notches; a quiver hanging down their right thigh is attached to the girdle. The Barattepa character holds a bow in his left hand. This set that comprises a headdress, a shoulder cover, arms (a mace, a bow and a quiver, and sometimes a sword) and shin-guards is typical of the ancient images of nude mythical heroes of Greece and Rome and also of how the Heracles iconography was developed. These terracotta characters of Kara-Pichok and Barattepa have synthesized features of Greek and Iranian sculpture (13, pp. 26-34).
The third stage of the transformation manifested itself in a terracotta plaque from Termez. Of the Heracles’ attributes the terracotta character retained only a mace and akinak sword. What differentiates the character from the aforementioned images is that he wears a shirt girdled with a shoulder belt, an open caftan thrown over his shoulders, narrow pleated pants and soft low boots. His appearance suggests a departure from the Greek specimens picturing Heracles and the development of proper Iran-Bactrian style of showing Vertragna-Orlagno. Judging by the image style and the analysis of the character’s clothing, this terracotta plaque could be dated to the 2nd century A.D. The image of a deity with military attributes could be associated with the defenders of the throne. The club and the sword symbolized welfare and security of the entire kin and the unlimited power of their holder – something which acquired great political significance in the environment where the imperial cult of a king was evolving.
The fourth stage in the development of this image is characterized by medallion and sculpture characters originating from Khalchayan (1st c. B.C. – 1st c. A.D., Uzbekistan) (14, pp. 42-43). The sculptured character earlier interpreted as Heracles survived only in fragments, making it difficult to get an idea of his clothing. The character pictured on the medallion and referred to as “Heir to the Throne” wears a long caftan thrown over his shoulders, the pants, and a conic hat. The images of “Heracles” in the palace composition and the “Heir” – Bactrian Orlagno, symbolizing royal power and might, the keeper of the ancestor cult – are pictured next to the images of the rulers. The widespread construction of dynastic temples in the Kushan kingdom during the reign of Kanishka and Huvishka, from Matkhura to Northern Bactria, and the glorification of the royal house and the king’s ancestors facilitated the promotion of a deity such as Orlagno. Worshiping ancestors and picturing them as kings of the ruling dynasty was officially endorsed by the state and was an important aspect of domestic politics and ideology of the Kushan, and under the circumstances Orlagno played the role of the nation’s protector.
Thus, an example of one deity’s image could be yet another evidence of a close kinship of nations living today in India, Iran and Central Asia. The image of Indra-Varuna-Vertragna-Orlagno, the heroic god of war, power and might, became widespread and followed Indo-Aryan tribes wherever they went, and remained popular until the propagation of Islam on this territory.
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