The irony about the Aryan Nations, Neo-Nazis and other White Supremacist groups who trade on the term “Aryan” is that the original Aryans weren’t white, in the rather misleading sense that we use the word today. (I’m sandy-pink…how about you?) They were somewhat dark-skinned people who lived between 1500 and 500 years ago north of the Persian Gulf, in, roughly, what are today Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The first references to Aryans had no racial or tribal associations at all—an Aryan was one who spoke what linguists call Indo-Iranian and who embraced the ancient Sanskrit religious texts, the Vedas. In the Vedas, many folks referred to as “Aryans” have non-Indo-European names, i.e. there was no racial connotation. Rather, Aryan was a cultural term. Back then (and still today in India) the word means “noble” or “honorable.” By the way, Aryan and Iran, the country, are cognate, via Avestan (an old Iranian language) airyanam.

The whole “Aryan = white” meme was popularized in the 1850s with the toxic beliefs of French writer Arthur de Gobineau. His racist ideas were enthusiastically taken up in Britain by ultra-nationalists who espoused the notion that the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel are the ancestors of the British people, hence “British Israelism.” After peaking in popularity in the 1870s, British Israelism waned and probably would have died out. However, like many weird fads, after nearly fizzling out across the Atlantic, it was reignited over here as the “Christian Identity” movement, with the distasteful difference that, whereas the UK version was philo-Semitic, Christian Identity was militantly antisemitic.

Back in Europe, one of the tenets of the National Socialist Party—Nazis—was that they were the descendants of a mythical master race of white Aryans. In this version of history, Aryans invaded Europe and interbred with the native people…except in Germany, where they maintained their pure blood line. Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful men in Germany and the main architect of the Holocaust, was obsessed with the idea of Aryan (and overlapping Nordic) racial superiority.

Under the auspices of the Ahnenerbe, expeditions were sent: to Western Asia, to show that the success of the Romans could be credited to their Aryan/Nordic blood; to the Himalaya, in an attempt to prove that ancient Aryans conquered much of Asia (and that the Buddha was Aryan); and to southwestern Sweden, to demonstrate that old petroglyphs used the script adopted by Aryan settlers when they first entered the region thousands of years ago. (Just to be clear: it’s all bullshit.)

Both to justify mass killing of Jews and other “inferior” people, and to prove his wacky and pernicious Aryan race ideas, Himmler formed the Ahnenerbe in 1935. This “research” group—the name means “ancestral heritage”—comprised scholars and scientists whose mission was to prove that “pure-blooded” Germans (excluding Jews, Slavs, Roma, and gays, of course) were descended from a superior ancient Aryan race.

Ahnenerbe member Dr. Bruno Berger, here in Sikkim in 1938, with one of nearly 400 Tibetans whose skull and facial features he measured while on an Ahnenerbe-sponsored expedition to Sikkim and Tibet, trying to establish an anthropological link between Tibetans and German “Aryans.” (Ernest Krause, Bundesarchiv, Creative Commons license)

In the course of researching this article, I hoped to find some true-life basis for Indiana Jones’ race against the Nazis in their quest to find the Ark of the Covenant, “a radio for speaking to God,” according to Indy’s rival archeologist. It was not to be. That particular MacGuffin was the brainchild of George Lucas’ pal Philip Kaufman, with whom Lucas discussed his proto-script for The Adventures of Indiana Smith in 1975. It took a few years, but when Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered in 1981, it did so to rave reviews (including mine, to anyone who would listen), and became the top-grossing film of the year, winning five Oscars. 

Bottom line: There was no Aryan “race,” and the people who called themselves Aryans three thousand years ago were decidedly non-white.