Brian MacMillan

05 Asura and Devas / Angels and Devils

BM Asura and Devas / Angels and Devils

Asura and Devas / Angels and Devils

This essay examines the concepts of asuras and devas in Hindu, Zoroastrian, Manichaean and Christian theology. It looks specifically at the split that occurred in the religion of the Indian and Persian branches of the Aryan language group around the time of Zoroaster, with a particular focus on the development of the concepts of both God and Devil from the early Aryan magical beings, devas.

Disclaimer: When I wrote this paper as a graduate student I was far more impressed by Richard Dawkins concept of memes than I am now. Though I use Dawkin’s idea as a means of structuring my narrative, the real goal of this essay is to tell the remarkable story of how our concepts of both God (deus) and Devil had origin in the same magical beings (devas) worshiped by our Indo-European ancestors. A second disclaimer. Since the time this paper was first written some ground-breaking research in genetic history has been conducted which has created a firm evidentiary basis for the story of the origin and spread of the Indo-European language group. One quiet Saturday I will need to update this paper to reflect that research (as well as fix a bit of the formatting).



One of the most important religious memes in the culture of the Indo-European language groups, is the concept of the deva, which is found in some form in the majority of the myths, philosophies and/or religions of the Indo-European peoples. In one major branch of the meme, devas are magical beings with varying powers, that are often but not exclusively associated with good. In another branch they are demons and/or agents of the devil. In contemporary western European culture both memes occur in the form of the contradictory concepts of devils and divinity. The story of how the original deva meme split approximately 2,500 years ago into two major branches and then re-merged during the spread of Christianity, provides interesting material for the evaluation of the relevance of memetic theory to cultural analysis.

Table One
The Deva in Indo-European Mythology

  Irish Ger. Iran. Indo Aryan Greek Norse Baltic
  dagda tiwaz daeva devā deus/dyeus vanir dievas
Morally ambivalent  
Young gods overthrow old gods      

In Indo-Aryan, Norse, Greek, Irish, Germanic and Baltic mythology devas are beneficent magical beings that in certain instances resemble spirits, and in others, gods. The stories found in each of these mythologies roughly follow the prototype found in the earliest Maṇḍalas of the Ṛg Veda, which relate an epic tale about how the devās, led by their King Indra, killed the dragon Vṛtra and overthrew the ásurās. The following quotation from Maṇḍala I. 32 is the most often cited version of this story, though references to this story are found throughout the first Maṇḍala. Griffith’s translation is used because it captures the epic spirit of the story,

I will declare the manly deeds of Indra … the Thunder-wielder … He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft the channels of the mountain torrents. … Impetuous as a bull, [Indra] chose the Soma and in three sacred beakers drank the juices. … As trunks of trees, what time the axe hath felled them, low on the earth so lies the prostrate Dragon. He, like a mad weak warrior, challenged Indra, the great impetuous many-slaying Hero [the drinker of Soma to the dregs] … Footless and handless still he challenged Indra, who smote him with his bolt between the shoulders. Emasculate yet claiming manly vigour, thus Vrtra lay with scattered limbs dissevered… A horse’s tail wast thou when he, O Indra, smote on thy bolt; thou, God without a second, Thou hast won back the kine [cows], hast won the Soma; thou hast let loose to flow the Seven Rivers.1
In the Ṛg Veda, the confrontation between the devās and the ásurās is presented as an epic battle between old and new gods.

The same division appears in Norse (and Germanic) mythology, where the Vanir, the young gods, supplant the Aesir.2 Likewise, in Greek mythology Zeus, a younger god, overthrows ancient gods. Baltic and Irish mythology are similar to that of the Greeks and the Norse, though in these branches devas (diewas/dagda) appear as magical beings and are less god-like. 4

Despite the structural similarity of these myths, there are notable differences within them that reflect the transformations that occurred to Aryan society as it dispersed through Europe and Asia in the second and first millennium BCE (Figure One). Within the Vedic (Indo-Aryan) myths, for example, the role of devās is far less consistent than what we know of the other myths. For example, in Maṇḍala I.174. one finds Indra referred to as an ásurā.5 In Maṇḍala X. 124 the second most cited deva in the Ṛg Veda, Varuna, is asked by Indra to quite being king of the ásurās and to become a devā. It has been suggested that this inconsistency is a reflection of the transformations that Vedic religion underwent as the Indo-Aryans migrated from Afghanistan to the Indus and Ganges river valleys. 6

Update based on “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family, Science, 24 Aug 2012 Vol. 337, Issue 6097, pp 957-960

The Indus and Ganges river valleys were not uninhabited when the pastoral Aryans migrated through the Khyber and Bolan passes in the Kashmir and the Indus River valley in the middle of the second millennium. 7 The region, which had been dominated by the Harappan civilization, was still densely populated even after the large Harappan cities disappeared circa 1700 BCE. 8 Over time, assisted by such factors as spoked-wheel chariots 9 domesticated horses 10, and a mutation that made them lactose tolerant as adults11 , the Aryans asserted themselves as rulers of Punjab, the Indus and Ganges rivers. Historical and archeological records confirm the view that the movement of the Aryan people into India involved an assimilating process which involved a merger of Aryan, Dravidian and tribal cultures.12 The results are a religion quite different from that of the original Aryans. By 500 BCE the worship of devās had become tied intimately to geography – specific gods were worshiped in temples of holy places. Control over the ritual sacrifices had been taken by the Aryan priestly class, the Brahmans. Through their control over sacrifices the Brahmans exercised, along with the warrior class, control over the Indian caste system.13

The Greek version of the deva meme begins from the same spot as the Vedic story: the champion of the younger gods, Zeus (like Indra, a sky god), overthrows the older gods. Unlike in the Vedic version, however, the meme does not become an ideological justification for the primacy of a sacerdotal caste, though the Greek priests, because of their control over sacrifices, did have considerable power. There is, however, a significant similarity between the Greek and Indian assimilation processes. The Greeks religion, like that of the Indo-Aryans, was changed by contact with the indigenous peoples of the Mediterranean into one that featured temple worship.14 Paul Thieme, in an article investigating evidence for a proto-Aryan religion, summarizes the distinction between the Aryan (Vedic) and other Near Eastern polytheistic religions as follows,

We have to bear in mind that Mesopotamian and Anatolian polytheism, on the one hand, and Vedic polytheism on the other, represent two distinctly different types. The first one is a temple religion. In such as religion generally each god has his temple where his image is worshiped. If the same god has different temples, he is likely to be regarded as a different god in each place… the greatness of the god depends on the greatness of the temple… Vedic religion does not know temples or images. The power of a god has no geographical limits and has no relation to the importance of a place of worship. His omnipotence is limited only functionally…15

The Nordic, Baltic, Germanic and Celtic deva myths are similar to the Vedic and Greek model but have a significantly different view of the role of priests. In India, and to a lesser extent Greece and Rome, priests play an important role as enforcers of a social order. In the other European traditions priests are more like powerful shamans who have personal powers over devas that they can use for particular purposes, like encouraging favorable winds on a raid.16 It is tempting to argue that the Northern European branch of the meme is the one that is truest to the pre-historical prototype, because it developed without any of the assimilating processes that occurred in the Mediterranean, the Near East and India: the northern forests of Europe were sparsely inhabited when the Aryans arrived.

The second major development of the deva meme, the one that leads ultimately to the concept of the devil Satan, occurs at almost exactly the same time that the ancient Iranians branch from the Indo-Aryans, in the second millennium BCE.17 The first references to devas as explicitly bad magical being, are recorded in the principal religious texts of the Mazdean religion, which are collectively referred to as the Avesta. The exact dates of the works are unknown but they are typically placed in the period between 1200 BCE and 600 BCE18 The Avesta is comprised of a number of chapters (Table Two). The oldest, and most theologically significant, is the Yasna, which is divided into a number of parts – the Gāthās (hymns), which tradition holds were written by the prophet Zoroaster himself; the Haptañhāiti Gāthā, which were probably written at the same time as the Gāthās, though are less rigidly monotheistic than the Gāthās; and Yasna proper, which is a collection of liturgical writings.

Table Two: The Zoroastrian Canon

Main Text ChaptersComments
Gathas 28–34 &
43–53 of
the Avesta
Zoroaster’s revelation
Haptañhāiti Gatha six 35–42 of
the Avesta
Old as One Ṛg Veda
YasnasRest of AvestaPriest rituals
Khoda Avesta Priest rituals
Vendidad (“against the daevas”)  Priest rituals

In the Avesta, particularly in the sections attributed to Zoroaster, daevas (devas) are presented as enemies of God (Ahura Mazda). The theology is complicated, in so far as the religion is ostensibly monotheistic, so the daevas oppose but are not equal in force to Ahura Mazda. The following prayer, which admonishes the believer to reject the daevas and worship Ahura Mazda, summarizes the basic Zoroastrian creed:

Truly in my lifetime I have been condemned as the greatest defiler, I who seek to satisfy with truth those who are poorly protected, O Mazda! With good apportioning of gifts come to me, support me! … (4) Those who with ill purpose increased with their tongues fury and cruelty, they the non-pastors among pastors, for whom evil deeds have prevailed, they having no good deeds, they serve the Daevas, which is the religion of the wicked man. (5) But he, O Mazda, is himself the sacrifice and oblation who has allied his Inner Self with Good Purpose. Whoever belongs to Devotion is of the (same) good lineage as Truth, and as all those in Thy dominion (khshathra), Lord… (10) This Thou dost guard in Thy house, O Mazda – good purpose, and the souls of the just, and reverence with which there is devotion and sacrifice – this Thou dost guard, O Thou of mighty power, with abiding strength. (11) But the wicked, of bad power, bad act, bad word, bad Inner Self, bad purpose – (departed) souls will encounter (them) with ill nourishment, they shall be rightful guests in the House of the Lie. (12) What help hast Thou, through Truth, for him who invokes Thee? What help, through Good Purpose, for Zarathushtra, who will celebrate You all, Lord Mazda, with praises, while longing for the best in your possession?19

The Iranian version of the deva meme migrated from eastern Iran into Parthia and Media during the first millennium BCE, along with the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) religion. According to Farsee tradition, Zoroastrianism initially is the state religion of Khorosan, although the details surrounding the conversion of the possibly mythical Khorosan (Chorasmian) King Vishtāspa are disputed by historians.20
Whitley, C.F. “The Date and Teaching of Zarathustra” Numen, Vol. 4, Fasc. 3. (Sep., 1957) pp 215-227
In the sixth century the Anshans (from Pars), led by the Achaemenian king Cyrus, conquered Khorosan and immediately began to incorporate elements of Mazdaism into their official ideology (Figure 2). By time the reign of Xerxes I, approximately 100 years after Cyrus, Zoroastrianism has become the official religion of the Persian Empire.

Figure 2 – The Regions of Ancient Persia. Khorasan is the historical homeland of Zoroastrianism. Pars is the homeland of the Achaemenian rulers who contributed greatly to its diffusion through the Near Ea

A famous inscription commissioned by Xerxes I in the fifth century BCE, outlines the political nature of the theology surrounding the concept of daevas, once it had become the state religion of the Persian empire,

A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created man, who created peace for man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many … Says Xerxes the king: When I became king there was within these lands which are written above one which was restless. Aftward, Ahuramazda brought me help. By the favor of Ahuramazda I smote that land and put it in its place … within these lands was a land where formerly the dae18vas were worshipped. Afterward by the favor of Ahuramazda brought me help. By the favor of AhuramazdaI destroyed that community of daevas and proclaimed: The daevas you shall notA famous inscription commissioned by Xerxes I in the fifth century BCE, outlines the political nature of the theology surrounding the concept of daevas, once worship. Where formerly the daevas were worshipped, there I worshipped Ahuramazda and the holy Arta21

The daevas had become associated with the political enemies of the Achaemenian king and the priestly caste, the Magi.

The functioning of the meme in ancient Iranian and Vedic civilizations is remarkably similar even though the concepts of the daevas (devās) and the ahuras (ásurās) are nearly exactly inverted in Zoroastrianism relative to the Vedic tradition. In Iran, the Magi, like their Vedic counterparts the Brahmans, used their control over religious rituals like the Haoma (Soma) and Fire ceremonies, to exercise enormous political power.22

Although the deva meme thrived as an official ideology for Persia’s ruler, its spread was not limited in scope and impact to the Persian Empire. In Babylon, Persian ideas about daevas joined with the Babylonian notion of Satan to produce the Judeo-Christian-Islamic notion of devils, for example. 22 Several hundred years later, at the time of the birth of Jesus, a branch of Mazdaism, Mithraism, became the de facto religion of the Roman military at a time when Persians, under the Seleucids, were actually active enemies of Romans in the middle east.24 Another branch of Mazdaism, Manichaeanism, also spread widely throughout the Roman Empire. 25

One of the more interesting developments of the deva meme, as it migrated westward, was that the Indo-Aryan and Iranian branches of the meme, which has split approximately one millennium before Christianity, merged when Paul of Tarsus introduced the Jewish notion of devils into Greece and Rome during the first century of the Christian era.

As noted above, in ancient Greek mythology, demons (daimon) appear as magical beings that lie roughly between man and God, with a theological role very similar to the devas of northern European and Vedic mythology. Beginning in the sixth century BC, the pre-Socratics, led by Heraclitus, transform A famous inscription commissioned by Xerxes I in the fifth century BCE, outlines the political nature of the theology surrounding the concept of daevas, oncethe notion of daimon from something magical into something related to the moral choices/moral sensibilities of men (ethos) 26 This notion of daimon persists in the Greek world until the Christian era. 26

In the first century ACE Christian missionaries introduce the Jewish version of the deva meme into the Graeco-Roman world. By the time of Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century ACE, the notion of daimon as something related to the moral consciousness of individuals has become been replaced by the purely pejorative notion of demons as a type of devil.

The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes this development,

The word [daimon], which is apparently derived from daio “to divide” or “apportion”, originally meant a divine being; it was occasionally applied to the higher gods and goddesses, but was more generally used to denote spiritual beings of a lower order coming between gods and men. For the most part these were beneficent beings, and their office was somewhat analogous to that of the angels in Christian theology. Thus the adjective eydaimon “happy”, properly meant one who was guided and guarded by a good demon. Some of these Greek demons, however, were evil and malignant. Hence we have the counterpart to eudamoniahappiness“, in kakodaimonia which denoted misfortune, or in its more original meaning, being under the possession of an evil demon. In the Greek of the New Testament and in the language of the early Fathers, the word was already restricted to the sinister sense, which was natural enough, now that even the higher gods of the Greeks had come to be regarded as devils.27 entry on demons, at

The triumph of the Judeo-Christian version of the deva meme, with its emphasis on Satan as king of the devils, leads to the near destruction of all other European religions. Nevertheless, the replacement of the old Indo-European religions by Christianity does not result in the destruction of all of those religions’ ideas. The Greek concept of divinity for example, persists, even as the notion of devils is propagated by Christianity. Likewise, much of the symbolism of the initial Indo-European religions persists in pagan, and Celtic revivalist practices to this day.


The branching of the deva meme into Indian, Iranian, Greek and northern European variants, and the subsequent triumph of but two of these variants, the Vedic and Christian, provide considerable material for the evaluation of the usefulness of memetic theory to the study of cultural history.

Richard Dawkins identifies replication as one of the most important memetic concepts. In the God Delusion, he argues that,

[t]he most important objection is the allegation that memes are copied with insufficiently high fidelity to function as Darwinian replicators. The suspicion is that if the ‘mutation rate’ in every generation is high the meme itself will mutate itself out of existence before Darwinian selection can have an impact on its frequency in the meme pool.28

The core concepts of the deva meme did mutate as it developed and spread through Indo-European culture. The most compelling mutation, of course, is the inversion of the meaning of deva during the branching of the Iranians from the Indo-Aryans in the second millennium BC. It has been credibly argued that this inversion is quite possibly the result of a political feud, perhaps between two sacerdotal tribes vying for primacy.29 Berkley: University of California Press, 2002 Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that the split between the Iranians and the Indo-Aryans may well have been the result of Zoroaster’s reforms themselves.

There are other examples of drift in the deva meme as its spreads over Europe and the near east and India. In the cases of the Indo-Aryans, the Iranians and the Greeks, mutations follow cultural fault lines. The Iranian version of the meme is influenced by Babylonian culture, and the Greeks and Indo-Aryans are influenced by the temple religions of the Mediterranean and Dravidian people, respectively.

Despite these transformations in the core concepts of the meme, there are also examples of remarkable consistency. In the case of the northern European mythologies, which develop in the relative absence of other cultural influences, the basic stories remain consistent up until the Christian era. There are also examples of remarkable consistency in the Iranian and Indian stories over time. Though research has suggested that the works of oral traditions tend to drift considerably over time30 the overall content of the Vedic and ancient Iranian oral traditions reflect an incredible degree of consistency. The books of Avesta, for example, were probably first written down between 1,500 and 2,000 years after they were first composed. Likewise, the Vedas were first written down approximately 1,000 years after they were composed, and are still pat of a vibrant oral tradition.31 Despite this, the Vedas and the Avesta have been so well preserved that comparisons between one ancient language and the other can happen simply by making minor adjustments, for example replacing the Avestan H with a Sanskrit S. It is clear that these texts were considered extremely important by their respective cultures and were painstakingly preserved by them.

The second important aspect of the memetic approach to cultural history, is the notion of linkages. In the citation below, Dawkins explains the connection between the notion of linkages and memetic theory,

The other respect in which genes are not independent is very different from genetic linkage, and here there is a good memetic analogy. It concerns embryology which – the fact is often misunderstood – is completely distinct from genetics. Bodies are not jigsawed together as mosaics of phenotype pieces, each one contributed by a different gene. There is no one-to-one mapping between genes and units of anatomy or behavior. Genes ‘collaborate’ with hundreds of other genes in programming the developmental processes that culminate in a body, in the same kind of way as the words of a recipe collaborate in a cookery process that culminates in a dish. It is not the case that each word of the recipe corresponds to a different morsel of the dish.32

The concept of a meme is by its nature not reductionistic, but rather is integrative, in the sense that memes exist always within a broader cultural milieu, or what Susan Blackmore refers to as a “memeplex”.33 The concept of the deva, for example, can be easily placed with a number of Indo European memes originally initiated by the Aryans (see Table Three). These clusters of memes, when considered together, provide an extremely useful way of in-filling stories where the historical and/or archeological record is incomplete.

Table Three: Rituals Common to Major Indo-European Religions

Iranian Indo-Aryan Greek/Roman Norse/Baltic
Soma ceremony
Tree of life/world tree
Young gods overthrow old gods
Horse sacrifice associated with the coronation of kings
Bull/cow cults
Fire worship

Perhaps the most compelling of all of the arguments made by Dawkins and Blackmore is that memetic theory can help to explain the persistence of ideas, like martyrdom, that harm, or at least confer little benefit (defined as survival and replication) to their hosts. The idea is compelling, but is problematic in that it posits memes not merely as a way of explaining data, but as entities that act independently of, and often at odds with, the interests of their human hosts – agents without a discernible identity.

Rather than positing memes as an external force, perhaps it is simpler to consider who benefited from, and spread the memes. The primary human beneficiaries of the deva meme were the sacerdotal classes, and rulers of India, Iran and Christian Europe. In India the Brahmans leverage their control over the horse sacrifice ceremony, an Aryan practice which legitimated the rule of a tribal leader (and later king) to establish their primacy within the Varna (caste) system.34 In Iran, the Zoroastrian reformers from the east increasingly come into conflict with the efforts of the Magi, a sacerdotal tribe from Medea who ultimately seize control of the religion, and who then successfully leveraged their religious role to capture political power.35 In Christian Europe the Catholic Church extended its interests in a similar fashion. In these instances, the successful spread of the religion can be attributed to royal patronage, which is given in part because the ideologies of Christianity, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are used by the sacerdotal classes to affirm the legitimacy of the ruler. When considered in this light it is possible to argue that the approach of the deconstructionists such as Barthes, who analyze the irrationality of mythologies with the intention of unmasking the underlying class interests that ultimately inform them, is far more useful than the tools of the memeticists, who are studying similar problems. Alternatively, one can extend Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracies to make a similar point.36

The developments of the concept of the devil in Babylonia, and the concept of daimon in pre-Socratic Greece, and the spread of the Mithraic cult to Rome, however, all indicate that it is facile to consider the development of religious memes as strictly reflecting the class interests of priests and kings, or the institutional demands of bureaucracies. The development of the concept of Satan, the king of the devils, that occurs during the Jewish exile to Babylon for example, is viral in nature, reflecting inputs from Assyrian, Babylonian, Mediterranean and Iranian cultures and which results in an religious ideology quite distinct from –and ultimately at odds with – that of the ruling Achaemenians. The spread of the Mithra cult from areas controlled by Imperial Rome’s enemies, the Seleucids Empire (located roughly in modern Syria, Iraq and western Iran) into the heart of the Roman army likewise underscores the viral manner in which religious memes can mutate and then transfer across cultures, completely independently of the interests of the classes for which they provide ideological justification.

The case of the pre-Socratic transformation of the word daimon into something with moral philosophical underpinnings underscores another factor often overlooked by commentators in this field, which is simply that cultural changes are typically the result of human action (though not necessarily human agency), even if there is no historical record revealing the exact role of the actors. Again, the memetic approach, which underscores the viral nature of the spread of ideas, in this case from person to person, provides a very useful way of conceptualizing how it is that religions are created, persist and spread.

Memetic theory – despite its scientific provenance and pretensions – is ultimately not a method for creating repeatable, scientific cultural experiments; and the claim that memes can be considered as cultural units that are distinct from human agency, has by no means been conclusively proven. That does not make the concept useless. As we have seen, memetic theory provides extremely useful tools for studying the genesis and propagation of our culture’s often-times irrational and malignant myths.


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