Early Aryan Daily Life
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The Greek epics reveal the early Greeks with no knowledge of iron, without writing, and before any Greek-founded cities existed in the land into which they had evidently come quite recently as conquerors. They were spreading south-ward from the Ayran region of origin. They seem to have been a fair people, newcomers in Greece, newcomers to a land that had been held hitherto by the "Mediterranean" or Iberian peoples.
Let us, at the risk of a slight repetition, be perfectly clear upon one point. The Iliad does not give us the primitive neolithic life of that Aryan region of origin; it gives us that life already well on the move towards a new state of affairs. The primitive neolithic way of living, with its tame and domesticated animals, ifs pottery and cooking, and its transitory patches of rude cultivation, we have already sketched. Between 15,000 and 6,000 B. c. the Neolithic way of living had spread with the forests and abundant vegetation of the Pluvial Period, over the greater part of the old world, from the Niger to the Hwang-ho and from Ireland to the south of India. Now, as the climate of great portions of the earth was swinging towards drier and more open conditions again, the earlier, simpler Neolithic life was developing along two divergent directions. One was leading to a more wandering life, towards at last a constantly migratory life between summer and winter pasture, which is called NOMADISM; the other, in certain sunlit river valleys, was to-wards a water-treasuring life of irrigation, in which men gathered into the first towns and made the first Civilization. We have already described the first civilizations and their liability to recurrent conquests by nomadic peoples. We have already noted that for many thousands of years there has been an almost rhythmic recurrence of conquest of the civilizations by the nomads. Here we have to note that the Greeks, as the Iliad presents them are neither simple Neolithic nomads, innocent of civilization, nor are they civilized men. They are nomads in an excited state, because they have just come upon civilization and regard it as an opportunity for war and loot.
These early Greeks of the Iliad are sturdy fighters, but without discipline their battles are a confusion of single combats. They have horses, but no cavalry ; they use the horse, which is a comparatively recent addition to Aryan re-sources, to drag a rude fighting chariot into battle. The horse is still novel enough to be something of a terror in itself. For ordinary draught purposes, as in the quotation from the Iliad we have just made, oxen were employed.
The only priests of these Ayrans are the keepers of shrines and sacred places. There are chiefs, who are heads of families and who also perform sacrifices, but there does not seem to be much mystery or sacramental feeling in their religion. When the Greeks go to war, these heads and elders meet in council and appoint a king, whose powers are very loosely defined. There are no laws, but only customs; and no exact standards of conduct.
The social life of the early Greeks centred about the households of these leading men. There were no doubt huts for herds and the like, and outlying farm buildings; but the hall of the chief was a comprehensive centre, to which everyone went to feasts, to hear the bards, to take part in games and exercises. The primitive craftsmen were gathered there. About it were cowsheds and stabling and such like offices. Unimportant people slept about anywhere as retainers did in the medieval castles and as people still do in Indian households. Except for quite personal possessions, there was still an air of patriarchal communism about the tribe. The tribe, or the chief as the head of the tribe, owned the grazing lands; forest and rivers were the wild.
The Ayran social organization seems, and indeed all early communities seem, to have been without the little separate households that make up the mass of the population in western Europe or America to-day. The tribe was a big family: the nation a group of tribal families; a household often contained hundreds of people. Human society began, just as herds and droves begin among animals, by the family delaying its breaking up. Nowadays the lions in East Africa are apparently becoming social animals in this way, by the young keeping with the mother after they are fully grown, and hunting in a group. Hitherto the lion has been much more of a solitary beast. If men and women do not cling to their families nowadays as much as they did, it is because the state and the community supply now safety and help and facilities that were once only possible in the family group.
In the Hindu community of today these great households of the earlier stages of human society are still to be found. Mr. Bhupendranath Basu has recently described a typical Hindu household.1 It is an Aryan household refined and made gentle by thousands of years of civilization, but its social structure is the same as that of the households of which the Aryan epics tell.
"The joint family system," he said, "has descended to us from time immemorial, the Aryan patriarchal system of old still holding sway in India. The structure, though ancient, remains full of life. The joint family is a cooperative corporation, in which men and women have a well defined place. At the head of the corporation is the senior member of the family, generally the eldest male member, but in his absence the senior female member often assumes control." Cp. Penelope in the Odyssey.
"All able bodied members must contribute their labour and earnings, whether of personal skill or agricultural trade, to the common stock; weaker members, widows, orphans, and destitute relations, all must be maintained and supported; sons, nephews, brothers, cousins, all must be treated equally, for any undue preference is apt to break up the family. We have no word for cousins they are either brothers or sisters, and we do not know what are cousins two degrees removed. The children of a first cousin are your nephews and nieces, just the same as the children of your brothers and sisters. A man can no more marry a cousin, however removed, than he can marry his own sister, except in certain parts of Madras, where a man may marry his maternal uncle's daughter. The family affections, the family ties, are always very strong, and therefore the maintenance of an equal standard among so many members is not so difficult as it may appear at first sight. Moreover, life is very simple. Until recently shoes were not in general use at home, but sandals without any leather fastenings. I have known of a well-to-do middle-class family of several brothers and cousins who had two or three pairs of leather shoes between them, these shoes being only used when they had occasion to go out, and the same practice is still followed in the case of the more expensive garments, like shawls, which last for generations, and with their age are treated with loving care, as having been used by ancestors of revered memory.
"The joint family remains together sometimes for several generations, until it becomes too unwieldy, when it breaks up into smaller families, and you thus see whole villages peopled by members of the same clan. I have said that the family is a co-operative society, and it may be likened to a small state, and is kept in its place by a strong discipline based on love and obedience. You see nearly every day the younger members coming to the head of the family and taking the dust of his feet as a token of benediction; when-ever they go on an enterprise, they take his leave and carry his blessing. There are many bonds which bind the family together the bonds of sympathy, of common pleasures, of common sorrows ; when a death occurs, all the members go into mourning; when there is a birth or a wedding, the whole family rejoices. Then above all is the family deity, some image of Vishnu, the preserver; his place is in a separate room, generally known as the room of God, or in well-to-do families in a temple attached to the house, where the family performs its daily worship. There is a sense of personal attachment between this image of the deity and the family, for the image generally comes down from past generations, often miraculously acquired by a pious ancestor at some remote time. With the household gods is intimately associated the family priest. The Hindu. priest is a part of the family life of his flock, between whom and himself the tie has existed for many generations. The priest is not generally a man of much learning, he knows,however, the traditions of his faith. He is not a very heavy burden, for he is satisfied with little a few handfuls of rice, a few home grown bananas or vegetables, a little unrefined sugar made in the village, and sometimes a few pieces of copper axe all that is needed. A picture of our family life would be incomplete without the household servants. A female servant is known as the `jhi,' or daughter, in Bengal she is like the daughter of the house ; she calls the master and the mistress father and mother, and the young men and women of the family brothers and sisters. She participates in the life of the family; she goes to the holy places along with her mistress, for she could not go alone, and generally she spends her life with the family of her adoption; her children are looked after by the family. The treatment of men servants is very similar. These servants, men and women, are generally people of the humbler castes, but a sense of personal attachment grows up between them and the members of the family, and as they get on in years they are affectionately called by the younger members elder brothers, uncles, aunts, etc .. In a well-to-do house there is always a resident teacher, who instructs the children of the family as well as other boys of the village; there is no expensive school building, but room is found in some veranda or shed in the courtyard for the children and their teacher, and into this school low-caste boys are freely admitted. These indigenous schools were not of a very high order, but they supplied an agency of instruction for the masses which was probably not available in many other countries.
"With Hindu life is bound up its traditional duty of hospitality. It is the duty of a householder to offer a meal to any stranger who may come before midday and ask for one, the mistress of the house does not sit down to her meal until every member is fed, and, as sometimes her food is all that is left, she does not take her meal until well after midday lest a hungry stranger should come and claim one."
We have been tempted to quote Mr. Basu at some length, because here we do get to something like a living under standing of the type of household which has prevailed in human communities since Neolithic days, which still prevails to-day in India, China, and the Far East, but which in the west is rapidly giving ground before a state and municipal organization of education and a large scale industrialism within which an amount of individual detachment and freedom is possible, such as these great households never knew.
But let us return now to the history preserved for us in the Aryan epics.
The Sanscrit epics tell a very similar story to that under-lying the Iliad, the story of a fair, beef-eating people only later did they become vegetarians coming down from Persia into the plain of North India and conquering their way slowly towards the Indus. From the Indus they spread over India, but as they spread they acquired much from the dark Dravidians they conquered, and they seem to have lost their bardic tradition. The vedas, says Mr. Basil, were transmitted chiefly in the households by the women.
The oral literature of the Keltic peoples who pressed westward has not been preserved so completely as that of the Greeks or Indians; it was written down many centuries later, and so, like the barbaric, primitive English Beowulf, has lost any clear evidence of a period of migration into the lands of an antecedent people. If the pre-Aryans figure in it at all, it is as the fairy folk of the Irish stories. Ireland, most cut off of all the Keltic-speaking communities, retained to the latest date its primitive life; and the Train, the Irish Iliad, describes a cattle-keeping life in which war chariots are still used, and war doge also, and the heads of the slain are carried off slung round the horses' necks. The Tain is the story of a cattle raid. Here too the same social order appears as in the Iliad; the chiefs sit and feast in great halls, they build halls for themselves, there is singing and story-telling by the bards and drinking and intoxication. Priests are not very much in evidence, but there is a sort of medicine man who deals in spells and prophecy.