The Nobleman with the Funny Name

14 01 2011

The chief of guards in Daniel is a fellow named Ariokh (אריוך), who appears in Daniel 2:14-25 as the individual responsible for following out the decree of the king. In recompense for having failed to interpret the king’s dream, the king wishes to have all of Babylon’s wise men murdered and, were it not for the intervention of Daniel, we are led to assume that this might have taken place. Ariokh is a funny name, and although it turns up in Genesis 14:1 and 9 as the name of the king of Ellasar, it would appear (at least in Daniel) to have a Persian etymology. While the Old Persian ariya refers to anybody of Indo-Iranian descent, it is related to the Sanskrit आरय (ārya, “noble”), and probably derives from an even older proto-IE root which means “lord” or “master”.

I once uploaded a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to a German publishing company, in response to their queries regarding his Abstammung. His response is quite brilliant, and I encourage people to have a read. The line that most appeals to me is when he wonders about what they might mean by the word “Aryan”. Speaking with his tongue so firmly in his cheek that he must have been able to taste his jawbone, Tolkien noted that “as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects”. The Nazi fascination with the Aryan people was one thing, but their curious belief that they represented it was quite another.

Indeed, the symbol that they used to represent their party, the so-called “hook cross”, or hakenkreuz, was borrowed unapologetically from the Hindu स्वास्तिक (svastika). This is a compound noun: su- = “good, well”; asti = “to be”; and ka, acc. to Wikipedia, denotes an intensification of the meaning. Hence, “that which is good”: a sort of good luck charm for many people in the West, and an auspicious representation of the Brahma in Hinduism. Did the Nazis think that their ancestors had been responsible for the development of this symbol and (some of) its associated meanings? Likewise, when they used the Sanskrit आरय (ārya, “noble”) to refer to themselves, were they meaning to imply – as Tolkien so humorously points out – that they are descended of Indo-Iranians? Or were they meaning to suggest that the Brahmans of India were descendants of theirs, and that Sanskrit was their own ancestral tongue?

Truthfully, I don’t think that they were meaning to imply anything, for the general standard of German scholarship took a nose-dive after they started rounding up their own academics. It is therefore one of those curious quirks of history, that a 20th century king, of sorts, should have adopted the name of “Aryan” and set about completing the task of the biblical Ariokh: to round up all of the wise men and put them to death.

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